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Playing the Beltway Blame Game With the Budget Crunch; Was `the Washington Post' Snooping on Maryland's Governor, or Really Reporting?

Aired September 8, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The beltway blame game. The economy is struggling. The stock market sinking. The Social Security surplus, threatened. Are the media buying the White House spin, that the surplus doesn't really matter, or the Democrats charge that Bush is betraying seniors?

And, "The Washington Post" does a sexual stakeout on Maryland governor Parris Glendening and a top aide. Is it news, or just plain snooping?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

The president and Congress are at it again, fighting over the sinking economy, the Bush tax cut and the impact on Social Security. And the press is trying to sift through the spin.


PETER JENNINGS, ABC: The politicians were hardly back in their offices when the debate about what happened to the budget surplus went into a higher gear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has launched a campaign to demonstrate that he knows there's a problem and to convince voters that his tax cut is the solution.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We took action. This economy started slowing down 12 months ago.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D), MAJORITY LEADER: I think the real danger is that we repeat what many of us had forecast last January, a return to deficits like we saw in the 1980's.

KURTZ (voice-over): Are journalists doing a decent job of cutting through the political fog? Are or they just confusing people by echoing the charges and countercharges?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Susan Feeney, senior editor of "Morning Edition" at National Public Radio, Rich Lowry, editor of "National Review," and Clarence Page, syndicated columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."

Rich Lowry, George Bush said in the campaign he wouldn't touch the Social Security surplus, what Al Gore called the lock box. Now the rest of the surplus has vanished and the White House spin is, oh, you know, this is a technical accounting matter. Should the press buy this rhetorical slight of hand?

RICH LOWRY, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, I think it's legitimate for Bush to be hoist on his own promise and his pledge during the campaign. The problem the White House has is the media tends to report policy stories in a he said/she said format, rather than sort of getting the truth out of it.

The problem is that the he and the she in this case are both saying something that is wrong, that the Social Security trust fund actually means something. It doesn't. It's a total rhetorical and accounting fiction.

KURTZ: But isn't, at the same time, Clarence Page, the press laying the Democrats get away with saying, oh, the Bush tax cut blew up the surplus when, let's face it, 12 Democratic senators voted for it and no Democrat is seriously talking about repealing it. So, is the press giving the Democrats a free pass in this debate?

CLARENCE PAGE, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Rich and I are going to have more consensus on this than the Republicans and Democrats do. Yeah, this is politics. The problem here is we're talking about an economic issue being covered by political journalists in political stories. And, economics is largely a matter of perception, so is politics.

Bush did indeed hoist himself on his own promise by buying into this notion that you've got to promise not to touch the lock box or you lose your election. So, he made that promise and now the practical thing would be to go at this so-called lock box. Spending the surplus makes sense if the spending is for popular programs and item. But that debate is something else.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Clarence, a quick follow-up with you, are you suggesting that the recession is just a matter of perception?

PAGE: Of course it is.

KALB: That's enough of an answer. I want to go Susan on this particular one.

PAGE: Of course it is.

KALB: In reading the economic stories, I feel as though I'm watching a tennis match, he said, they said, etcetera. It goes back and forth.


KALB: Where, where are the cut-through-the-foggers, so to speak? The phrase that was used earlier. Who is providing us beyond the gibberish, in a way, because it's self-serving gibberish, each side making it's case. Who is giving us that -- who is rescuing us from the euphemisms?

FEENEY: Well, two things need to happen. One is, I guess, hats off, I guess, to Clarence and to Rich in the way that columnist are able to say not 50/50, as Rich had mentioned. They're able to say these people are lying, this isn't true, this is true.

But I actually see a more fundamental problem, that when we report these things they are important and we should report them, but we don't explain why they're important. We never tell my mom, watching in Pittsburgh, why it should matter to her, what the consequences of this are.

KALB: If you talk about columnists rescuing us, you know, cutting through the competing claims, etcetera, and giving us a fairly clean story, should a columnist, truth in advertising, identify himself by political outlook?

FEENEY: Well, columnist generally you know where they are coming from. Their features, their regularly once a week, twice a week. I think people who read columnist regularly, they know where they're coming from.

KALB: Or should.

FEENEY: Or should.

KURTZ: We certainly know where Rich Lowry is coming from, and by the way...


KURTZ: The recession isn't all a matter of perception, unemployment up to 4.9 percent on Friday. But is there a kind of a knee-jerk reaction in the media where journalists blame the bad economy on a president who has been in office for, you know, eight months?

LOWRY: Yeah, well, that's the rules of the game. What's a little...


LOWRY: If you're in office, it's your fault. But the media was a little slow to pick up on this downturn or slowdown which has been going on for at least a year.

KURTZ: Out of touch, maybe? Out of touch?

LOWRY: And the herd mentality, that it was impressed on everyone's brain that we had peace and prosperity. So, when the prosperity started going away, it took about a year for reporters to wake-up and say, wait a minute, there's a problem with the economy.

KALB: Who is this? Rich, who impressed it, the public's... LOWRY: Everyone, collectively. You know, everyone on talk shows like this said there was peace and prosperity, so we all began to believe there was peace and prosperity, even when it started to go away.


PAGE: I still think there is peace and prosperity. I mean, the fact is, this is perception. You know, you said earlier, about, you know, how about a recession. You know, if you've got -- you know, some people say, so, we've got a recession right now. But technically we do not, because you've got to have negative growth for two quarters to have a recession under the economists definition. So, again it's a matter of perception here.


KURTZ: Let's leave the economy and come back to the press. Should journalists, Clarence Page, be more aggressive in saying, I'm talking about working stiff reporters. Bush couldn't keep his promise. His budget numbers don't add up. Where are the headlines that says, you know, read my lips, no more surplus?

PAGE: I think Democrats are going to make that headline. And that's the way politics work.

KURTZ: Should journalists wait for the opposition party to make the charge?

PAGE: Well, we've had this debate, of course, before, and we always will. You know, should journalists advance the debate or is that the politicians job? And, of course, that's their job. It's Gephardt's job and Daschle's job to make that issue, and they're trying to do that.


FEENEY: I think the real truth is buried way at the bottom of a newspaper story where the reporter puts in White House officials say privately that it will be almost impossible for Bush to do all these things if the economy doesn't improve.

So, you know, don't start at the top, but make sure you get all the way to the bottom and get the whole story.


LOWRY: I have to disagree, because I think the main story line on the budget story has been that Bush has broken his promise or is coming close to breaking his promise and the tax cut is responsible for it. I think that has been the dominant spin, and the thing that's been down at the bottom of the story, if at all, is the fact the Social Security surplus is a fiction, and that, for me, that should be up near the top of the inverted pyramid on all these stories.

KURTZ: Wasn't that fiction basically ignored during the Clinton years? I mean, Clinton -- when there were deficits in the Clinton years, they spent the Social Security surplus and it wasn't a big media interest.

PAGE: Quite the opposite, Howard. The passed a bill saying you've got to have a so-called lock box and...

KURTZ: That was in his second term.

PAGE: Right. Right. And so, you know, this is a political reality and thus cannot be ignored. The public out there doesn't have the time necessarily to get into the nuances of economic debates, so they want reassurance. And so...

KALB: Clarence, let me jump in. I've got to do this. You're talking about the media does not have the responsibility to advance a story. Is the media simply a stenographer? It makes no interpretations, no analysis about the future, what indeed might happen? Of course, of course that's a media responsibility.

PAGE: No, Susan, had it right, of course that's in the story, but Howard was saying, should we be ballyhooing the fact that Bush went back on his promise. Now, that's where the debate is. You know, of course, that's a one day story to me, that is, going back on his promise. I think it's up to the Democrats to keep that story going.

KURTZ: It wasn't a one day story to George Bush, Sr.

PAGE: Because the Democrats didn't let it be a one day story, just like the Republicans didn't let Mondale get away with I'm going to raise your taxes. That is the way it works.

KURTZ: Susan Feeney, Rich Lowry says the press was slow to wake- up to the fact that if not technically a recession, the economy was going through a tailspin. Certainly, the stock market has not been looking good. But now that that's the story line, are the media undermining consumer confidence with all these headlines about, you know, unemployment, corporate layoffs, bad stock market. I mean, now it seems to be a lot of gloom and doom.

FEENEY: Yeah, I don't think it's undermining the economy. I think it's really playing a bit of catchup. And I always think about, you know, we are in some ways in the worst place of all to cover it, in Washington, because Washington is still humming along. We're not nearly as effected by manufacturing, by tech, by all of the things that are really hit hard.

So, that's when we at NPR and other places, you have to rely on reporters to go get the stories about the real people and how they're effected and how they view what all the yip-yap is here.

KURTZ: Real people, what a concept. I've got to blow the whistle.

Susan Feeney, thanks very much for joining us. Clarence Page, Rich Lowry, stay put. And, up next, sex and a stakeout of Maryland's governor; should journalists sneak up on public figures to learn secrets about their private lives?



A new chapter in the long running journalism debate over privacy and politicians. "The Washington Post" ran a story last week about Maryland governor Parris Glendening having an intimate relationship with his Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Crawford.

Reporters staked-out the aides home and reported that the Democratic governor spent the night there several times. Glendening is separated from his wife.

"The Washington Post," my newspaper, declined to make anyone available to discuss this story.

Well, joining us is "Baltimore Sun" columnist Michael Olesker, who is also a commentator for Baltimore's WJZ-TV and still with us, "National Review" editor Rich Lowry and "The Chicago Tribunes" Clarence Page.

Clarence Page, what do you make of the prospect of "Post" reporters staking-out this woman's Annapolis townhouse, ala Gary Hart? Columnist Andrew Sullivan called it a juicy story that once would have been left to "The National Enquirer."

PAGE: I think my friend Andy Sullivan is right, that it once would have been. But, you know, this whole question of covering the private lives of public figures is like the Indianapolis 500 track, it only gets faster, it doesn't slow down, and we've ratcheted it up these days.

I'm waiting to see the public reaction. I happen to live in Maryland these days and I haven't heard people talking about it, really, one way or the other. I mean, really, who cares? The man is separated from his wife, when he does have a private relationship with someone else, should we be staking it out?

KALB: You're talking about the public reaction. Rich, what about the media catering to the salacious appetites of the masses? You see the paper being scooped up. "The Washington Post" of Watergate fame, descending into midnight snooping.

LOWRY: Yeah, well, I think there's a place for tabloid journalism, and it's with tabloids. And if "The Washington Post" wants to play that game, it should do it, but it should then give up the high-minded pretension that this story had some real public significance.

You know, I think "The New York Times"...

KALB: Does it have a scrap of significance?

LOWRY: A scrap, you know...

KALB: Which would be...

LOWRY: In this day and age, a high public official, a governor, having an affair with a member of his staff, is going to probably get out. And it was a little reckless of him. But there are no charges of sexual harassment, no charges of, you know, giving her government contracts, no charges of changing his policy.

I mean, it's basically a non-story and I'm going to say something positive about "The New York Times" here, so get read. I mean, "The New York Times," I think has it right. If you're going to be a gray lady and be up on the Olympian mountain of journalism, act like a gray lady. Be gray. And "The Washington Post" should other be gray or be a tabloid. But I think they're playing a galling sort of in between game here.

KURTZ: All right, well, we'll leave the color scheme aside for a minute. Michael Olesker, this story, I know, was buzzing around Annapolis for months. I'm sure some of your colleagues at "The Baltimore Sun" knew about it. Did "The Sun" give any consideration to running such a story:

MICHAEL OLESKER, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": Well, I agree with what's been said, that it's snooping, but I think it's also in the public interest. This is a man who is governor, who for seven years in office made his wife his biggest political ally, had her at his side constantly. At his inauguration seven years ago, brought a singer out at the inauguration to sing to his wife, "You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings." Was very much a public figure, very much part of his political ammunition.

Suddenly, he separates from her and wants to answer nothing about his life outside of office. That's trying to have it both ways. Was there snooping? Yeah, but I think in this case what happened after the marriage broke up is this woman became his deputy chief of staff in very short order...

KURTZ: And got a $30,000 raise. Let me...

OLESKER: And this is also a governor who, remember when Bill Clinton was going through all of his stuff, this is a guy who said, you know, this is a terrible thing. I have an 18-year-old son, we need positive role models, and really laced into Clinton until he discovered that Clinton's popularity was going up, at which point he re-embraced Clinton. So, there's a lot of hypocrisy going on here as well.

KURTZ: Michael, a quick follow-up. "The Post" clearly was sitting on this story for a couple of months and based it on kind of a flimsy news peg involving some comments about Jennifer Crawford by the former governor, William Donald Schaefer, now the state controller. Was "The Post" used at all by Schaefer? Can you kind of explain the politics of it?

OLESKER: "The Baltimore Sun" ran the original story, when Schaefer -- these guys hate each other, Schaefer and Glendening, and as a way of getting at Schaefer, Glendening turned off a fountain outside the State House that Schaefer's lady friend, the late Hilda Mae Snoops, had designed. This was his way of getting to him.

So, Schaefer, to get back, outed Glendening's lady friend.

KALB: Look, why don't we fess up; tabloidization is encroaching in the domains of the respectable journalism. "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," they all have stories that creep in there. "The Times" has shown some great restraint on some stories. But it's a fact of life. Is it case by case an explanation? That's not good enough. There has to be an editorial decision. Michael sort of took the double position: yes it's important to know, but I'm against snooping. Rich?

LOWRY: Well, you know, it all comes -- journalism, in the final analysis, all comes down to judgment, and there is no getting around that fact. And in this case, I think "The Post's" judgment was bad. And they, in effect, empowered one of the governor's political enemies to make their editorial policy for them, because they waited to run the story until Schaefer attacked Glendening's girlfriend and sort of outed her. And I think that's the sort of problematic area you get into when you start reporting about private lives.

KURTZ: Clarence Page, is this the Condit-izing of American journalism? Or, to take Michael Olesker's point, I mean, this is a woman who is on the state payroll, got a big raise, became a person in a prominent position in Maryland state government? Why shouldn't people want to...

PAGE: That part certainly makes this very public now. We're talking about a public job, public money being involved. The question is, how much should you stakeout, which was the original question. Yeah, we are a business of judgment and also a business of daily judgment. Let's remember, the context of the day's news makes a difference. This is, you know, late summer, this story was developing at a time when there wasn't that much else going on except budgets, vacations, and sharks. So, you know, this kind of story does emerge at a time like that.

KALB: Michael, would we have been worked if this information was obtained in broad daylight rather than snooping at midnight?

OLESKER: I think that there were ways to get this story other than snooping, but I will say that a lot of newspapers are doing this. This story has been out there for a year. There was tremendous debate in the offices of "The Baltimore Sun" about whether to report it. We were looking for a way to say, look, here is this woman who has moved up very rapidly. She is involved in making state policy. This is important. Who is she and what is her involvement with the governor of Maryland? I think it's an important story.

KURTZ: We have about 15 seconds. If there was this great debate, why was there the decision, at least up until now, not to publish that story, which you yourself say is important?

OLESKER: Because we are uncomfortable talking about the private lives of public people. KURTZ: OK. Can't put it more succinctly than that. Michael Olesker from "The Baltimore Sun," Rich Lowry, Clarence Page, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, Fox and CNN battle it out over a well-known anchor.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

And checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media items: a big name shuffle in cable news. Fox News Channel abruptly and loudly fired one of its primetime anchors, Paula Zahn because she was negotiating with archrival CNN before her Fox contract was up. Zahn denied any improper dealings, and immediately signed a new contract for a reported $2 million to anchor CNN's planned morning newscast from New York.


PAULA ZAHN: All of my concentration is to be on the future, which I expect to be a very positive, productive and provocative one.


KURTZ: Fox called her disloyal, and her agent unscrupulous; has sued the agent and is threatening more lawsuits.

And new fallout in the latest clash between journalists and the Bush administration. Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley has asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to turn over documents relating to the subpoena of the home telephone records of John Solomon, an Associated Press reporter covering the investigation of Senator Robert Torricelli's fund-raising.

Grassley, a Senate Judiciary Committee member, told Ashcroft in the letter that: "Protection of freedom of the press is a central pillar of our democracy. Efforts by the Justice Department to subpoena the records of a reporter should be done with caution and only when the needs of justice are great."

The Justice Department said reporter's phone records have been subpoenaed 13 times in the past 10 years.

Well, the Chandra Levy story continues to rile our viewers. Writes Dee of Johnson City, Texas, quote: "You just don't get it. Get your blank back to reporting the news and not prosecuting people in the press and their loved one."

And from Robert, quote: "The media should be brought to justice on this matter, not Gary Condit. The voters in his district will make the judgment."

E-mail us with your name and hometown at

Up next: Bernie's "Backpage" and how advertising cracks another barrier.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage" -- Bernie.

KALB: Here is a verbatim from a front page story in "The New York Times" the other day about an ad masquerading as a novel.


(voice-over): "The arrangement is believed to be a first for the book industry, traditionally one of the few corners of the media free of sponsor's pitches and plugs."

What was that again, a book turned into a commercial? Yes, dear reader, that's what we've come to. The mighty novel, one of the underpinnings of Western civilization, has now become just another launching pad for a sales pitch.

Are you listening, Shakespeare? Is that you rolling over in your grave Tolstoy? Dostoevsky, are you there? But that's what's happening here in these 200 pages by best-selling British author Fay Weldon.

"I think it was a brilliant idea and so nice of them to ask me," she told fashion magazine "W." How the upscale jewelry house asked her to write a book that plugged their doodads. She came up with a plot that glittered with diamonds, Bulgari's, of course, and titled her book, what else, "The Bulgari Connection."

Bulgari published it privately, 750 copies for jewelry and fashion people. The book will be published commercially next month. Just how much Bulgari shelled out to buy Weldon's literary talents has not been disclosed.

Now, just image how much Bill might have gotten if a certain drug company asked him to dash off some dialogue about a guy who was having to be or not to be problems. "Hamlet" renamed "The Prozac Connection." Or how much Hemingway might have raked in if another drug company asked him to do a quickie about the old man and the sea, and call it "The Viagra Connection."


KALB: Is nothing sacred? In fact, some people in the publishing industry think it's a great idea, sponsors buying authors to hype their products, but why stop there? Why not skip the plots altogether and just slap ads between hardcovers and see if they become best- sellers? You never can tell.

KURTZ: What a development. Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz, join us again next time for another critical look at the media.



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