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Media Sighs at Bush's Thursday Address; Did the Press Pay Enough Attention to 2001 Elections?

Aired November 10, 2001 - 18:36   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

It was a big moment for President Bush, but much of the media were unconvinced.


BUSH: My fellow Americans, let's roll.

KURTZ (voice-over): The White House told the networks is was a major speech. President Bush telling a crowd of police officers, firefighters and postal workers Thursday night that Americans should go about their normal lives, while staying on alert and volunteering for civil defense.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: He's trying to seize on the patriotic spirit of the moment and almost launch a kind of national mobilization of the citizenry into the homeland defense that the administration has got going.

TIM RUSSERT, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: This war is enormously significant psychologically to the American people. He has to keep them focused. He has to keep them motivated. He has to keep telling them things are going to be all right, but it's going to be a new reality.

KURTZ: But much of the country didn't see the president's address. Three of the four broadcast networks ignoring the commander in chief for their regular programming. You could catch the speech on cable, of course, and ABC carried Bush live. But NBC opted for Jennifer Aniston and "Friends," while CBS went with an episode of "Survivor."


KURTZ: And joining us now, E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist and fellow at the Brookings Institution; Ceci Connolly, national reporter for "The Washington Post"; and Jonah Goldberg, the editor of "National Review Online."

E.J. Dionne, the president's speech, we heard a lot of high- minded talk after September 11 from the networks about this is a new world, we're going to be more serious and we're going to cover this in a serious way, and then it gets blown off for Jennifer Aniston. Should CBS, NBC, and FOX have carried that speech?

E.J. DIONNE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, you know, the message -- one of the president's messages is that we should all return to normal and lead normal lives, and three of the four networks decided they were going to lead normal lives.

I was surprised. I actually sat down in front of my TV to watch it and discovered I had to tune to CNN, which I might have done anyway, of course. And you know, I guess -- I guess my gut is, most of the time these speeches should be carried.

On the other hand, this is a trend that goes back a long way in terms of staying out -- presidents having less control over the media.

KURTZ: Sure, but we're in a different environment now.

DIONNE: Under President Clinton...

KURTZ: President Clinton hadn't been on prime-time since '95.

DIONNE: Right.

KURTZ: We're in a different environment now.

DIONNE: And I -- but I think that, you know, we talked about what changed on September 11 and what didn't, and I think some of the habits formed before September 11 were hard to break. I mean, it's true on Capitol Hill we notice on bipartisanship. And I think in this case we've seen the media stick with some of their old habits as well.

KURTZ: The networks argued, Ceci Connolly, that the speech wasn't all that newsworthy. And it did -- it repeated a lot of themes that Bush had been sounded in televised speeches in recent weeks.

CECI CONNOLLY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right. I tend to agree. I mean, as a news junkie, I'm disappointed whenever we don't have more of these sorts of major addresses carried live, carried on all of the networks, of course.

On the other hand, there wasn't a lot of news in that address. It was primarily texture. It was primarily sort of trying to rally the public one more time.

KURTZ: Reassurance.

CONNOLLY: You know, good versus evil. Everybody go back to normal. Pitch in. Not much new in that.

KURTZ: OK. But turning now to the war coverage, Jonah Goldberg, now that the Northern Alliance has -- appears to have captured the key, pivotal city of Mazar-e Sharif, and it was weird, watching for a day. There were no pictures and the Pentagon couldn't confirm it, and it's sort of like, you know, where's the live reports so we can find out if this city has, indeed, been taken? Is this going to change this media drum beat of the war isn't going well, it's too slow, it sounds like Vietnam, it's a quagmire, it could go on for years. Is this going to change the very negative tone of some of this media coverage?

JONAH GOLDBERG, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": I think it will. I mean, I think there are a lot of armchair generals in the media just as there are everywhere else, and it seems to be -- Orwell actually wrote about this during World War II, that intellectuals and journalists thought that every time the Germans had a success, it was obvious the Germans were going to win the war. And every time the Allies had a success, they said it was obvious the Allies were going to win the war, and they kept switching sides back and forth.

And I think you see the same thing here, where you see people looking for a trend, any kind of trend, to fill time, to talk about, to say this is what's going to happen. And we tend to extend the media trends off into the future.

So, now, I bet you are going to hear a lot of stuff about how we're going to win the war Christmas. Mazar-e Sharif means the war is over and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and I don't think any of that is credible either. We don't know.

KURTZ: Is the president getting his message out by doing things like giving a speech to the U.N. this morning, answering reporters questions with the president of Pakistan, meeting the press tonight. Is that helping the White House, to have a president who didn't care much for television so much before September 11, be so much out front.

DIONNE: Jonah will forgive me -- it's the Clintonization of George Bush. I mean, he really has gone out there in a way he never did before. I mean, today, just if you look at today and how many major addresses he gave, how many of his words are out there for networks to use, newspapers to report.

On balance, I think it works for him. I think that they -- in the early, pre-September 11 days, they didn't put him out as much as was useful to them. And so I think it is useful -- just to go back to Jonah's point, I don't think the Mazar-e Sharif victory will lead to a radical change. I don't think the media were nearly as critical as some of the president's conservative critics were, and I think if you looked at the reporting of Mazar-e Sharif, it was pretty balanced. It was, this is an important victory, but there's a long way to go in this war, and that's about right.

KURTZ: And some of those conservative critics, of course, run magazines and are columnist and are part of the media as well.

Ceci Connolly, you have been drafted into the anthrax war. You've been covering that very aggressively. I don't think there's any question the media have given a major-league thumbs down to Tom Ridge and his crew in the way they've dealt with this publicly. Others are saying the press are fueling the hysteria.

Now, one esteemed social critic, Jon Stewart, had something to say on the subject. Let's take a look.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think reporters are wrestling with how to cover what the Taliban does and says. I think clearly, if reporters had a domestic source who lied as often as the Taliban does, reporters would start to really question whether they should be quoting that source anymore, but these are judgments reporters are paid to make.


KURTZ: That obviously was not the Jon Stewart quote I was looking for. It was Ari Fleischer talking about the propaganda effort by the Taliban. And, of course, the United States and the British now trying to count -- push back against that with the new PR officers.

If we can possibly get Jon Stewart, let's listen to that right now.


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": I think the 24-hour channels geared up and handled themselves remarkably well during that first week. They exercised that thing that we hadn't seen in a long time, what was it? Restraint. And, but unfortunately, when they geared up, I think they forgot to gear down.


KURTZ: So is the press on full alert now, even as the anthrax story is fading a little bit?

CONNOLLY: Sure, absolutely. I mean, the fact is, we haven't had a new case of anthrax disease reported since Kathy Nguyen, the New York City hospital worker died on October 31. So, that does mean that everything has slowed down in terms of developments and that sort of thing. You're going to have...

KURTZ: But there are stories every day! Stories today. New spores found in the Hart Senate Office Building, which has been closed for a couple of weeks...

CONNOLLY: Sure, and...

KURTZ: Are the media just trying to pump this up?

CONNOLLY: Well, actually, you know, I will step in and say that all of the hyper-reporting every time there are a couple of anthrax spores found in a building somewhere in this Washington area is a mistake and is misleading. You know, I'm here to say here and now, there will be spores found all over this town. It does not necessarily represent a health threat. And I think everybody needs to get that word out.

KURTZ: Take a deep breath. Jonah Goldberg, the editor of "Slate," Michael Kinsley, says that conservatives have long complained about the media's lack of objectivity. Just give us the facts. We report, you decide. The whole nine yards. Now, says Kinsley, that we're at war, suddenly just the balance, the facts, telling both sides is not good enough for some conservatives. They say that any effort at balance, which includes, of course, the folks in Afghanistan, that's unpatriotic. Little bit of hypocrisy there?

GOLDBERG: Whether or not Kinsley is hypocrisy -- a hypocrite, I do think the press has bumped into something which they were unprepared for, which is there's a lot of flannel-mouthing going on in academia about the neutrality of the press and all these things, and you hear these seminars. And when you bump up into the reality of reporting on a war where it's obvious the Americans are the good guys and the Taliban are the bad guys, it becomes a real conflict, a la David Westin's sort of silly remarks last week.

KURTZ: Saying that he wouldn't say the Pentagon was an illegitimate target, and later apologizing.

GOLDBERG: Right. You know, to me the real hypocrisy is in places like, you know, where Tom Brokaw, who I think is actually a great anchor, but, you know, he says he has a big problem with journalists wearing flags. Now, this is a guy who made a lot of money selling books about "The Greatest Generation," doing segments on the news about "The Greatest Generation," talking about wrapping himself up in the glory that was America's moral effort in a war against bad guys, and now he says that it's bad to have flags.

During World War II, journalists wore uniforms, you know?

KURTZ: But, E.J., do you detect a change in the tone of conservative criticism of the media? They wanted objectivity when it came to politics, and now, well, objectivity, that's out the window, because we have to be one side. Do you see a little shift?

DIONNE: No, I agreed, partly agreed with that Kinsley comment. I thought it was perceptive to say that, you know, objectivity is not good enough here.

And just on the flags on the lapels issue, I think the issue there is not that it's a bad thing to wear flags on your lapel. It's, as one journalist said, what if you wear one and your colleague doesn't? What if there is not a policy...

KURTZ: You're less patriotic! Why aren't you wearing one?

DIONNE: You're less patriotic. And it raises questions -- right, exactly. And Jonah took his off to be on here. You know, but I do think that's a fair question. And so, therefore, to have a consistent policy, I suppose you could have everybody wearing flags on the show, but I think that raises other issues.

KURTZ: I've got to take a time out. You two can argue during the break. And when we come back, Election Day 2001: Did the press pay enough attention before and after the votes were cast?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. As most of the media continued to focus this past week on anthrax and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, a few journalists also managed to notice the big day in politics.


PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: There are some interesting results today from yesterday's elections.

Here in New York, the Republican candidate for mayor, Michael Bloomberg, beat the Democrat, Mark Green. It was pretty close. Mayor Giuliani's endorsement of Bloomberg and Bloomberg's $50 million made the difference.



JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: In the two gubernatorial races on Tuesday, Mark Warner, another wealthy businessman, won in Virginia, and Jim McGreevey was elected New Jersey's governor.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: White House officials today played down Republican losses of two state governorships in yesterday's elections, calling them, and I quote, "local issues decided locally."


KURTZ: Ceci Connolly, the elections were almost totally overshadowed by Afghanistan and anthrax. Was that a bad thing? It frustrate you at all?

CONNOLLY: It's the reality. I have to confess, when I read some of the coverage Wednesday morning of the outcome and the recap of the races, I thought, gee, I didn't realize some of those twists and turns that had gone on in the election. On the other hand, it was probably just the fact that I was distracted, as most readers, and didn't follow things as carefully.

I think the stories got covered, but they didn't get the play that we're accustomed to.

KURTZ: On the other hand, I often say in these off-year elections, E.J. Dionne, that the media take, you know, a governors race in New Jersey and Virginia and a New York mayors race and try to sort of milk some national significance out of them when maybe it's not quite there. You, of course, always read the tea leaves. Is that effort still going on?

DIONNE: When these elections happened, I guess it was eight years ago, I wrote my column ahead of time and said everybody spins these, knows what the spin is going to be, and I predicted what the spin would be depending on the results. What's bothersome here, I think, is not what attention was paid after, it's that in Virginia and in New Jersey and in New York, not enough attention was paid to the campaign while the campaign was going on. And I think that, of course, these other stories are huge for the country, but I think voters would have benefited from more coverage.

And the races really seemed to get frozen in Virginia and New Jersey. The two Democrats were ahead on September 11 and they stayed...

KURTZ: Right. It was hard to break through the static.

DIONNE: And then, in Bloomberg's case, there was very little coverage of the campaign, but it was all Bloomberg all the time in terms of advertising.

KURTZ: In terms of advertising. But even in that very interesting New York mayors race, it didn't really make the front pages of the New York papers until the final days. And so, Michael Bloomberg was a great story. Even the 31-year-old new mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick, invisible on the national radar screen.

So, did the press, you know, can't walk and chew gum here?

GOLDBERG: Well, I mean, part of the issue I think is that New York City is also ground zero and it's also where all the media is, and they're dodging anthrax. And it's somewhat forgivable as human institutions that they would be covering the big story that they're actually in some parts part of.

But I do think one of the things the media missed was that, you know, this was, all this death about how it's the death of irony and this new patriotism and all this kind of thing. The New York race was a nasty, awful, ugly race on both sides. And I'm one of these conservatives who thinks calling someone a Stalinist is pretty much like calling them Hitler, and the whole "kill it" that Green ran was awful, it was disgusting.

KURTZ: Right.

GOLDBERG: And going on that close to ground zero, that idea that those politics has changed may be out of...

KURTZ: I need a brief answer; tomorrow night, this eight news organizations consortium, including CNN, finally going to come out with its findings on the Florida recount battle, tell us something about that election. Do people still care?

GOLDBERG: I think people like E.J. care passionately, and I think a lot of political junkies care. I don't think it's going to have huge play out there in America, unless there's something incredibly earth-shattering, which I doubt.

KURTZ: This was a huge story a year ago. But will it continue to be overshadowed by the war? DIONNE: Oh, I think it will be overshadowed by the war, but I think there is about a quarter of the country -- if you look at a lot of polls, a quarter of the country was really angry about what happened in Florida. I think a lot of those folks have put their anger away for the time being, out of patriotism, but their feelings are still there, and they are going to watch this story.

KURTZ: The story may indeed come back, and perhaps we'll talk about it next week.

E.J. Dionne, Ceci Connolly, Jonah Goldberg, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the spin cycle on election day.


KURTZ: Now for a look at the spin cycle. Some hot and heavy media spinning on this week's elections which, depending on who you believe, is supremely important or utterly meaningless.


KURTZ (voice-over): Take the governor's races. It's been clear for some time that Mark Warner, a Democrat, would beat Mark Early in Virginia. And that Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, would trounce Brett Schundler in New Jersey.

The Republicans say that these are just little old local races. And, besides, President Bush was too busy with the war to be campaigning. The Democrats say, our issues are working despite the president's popularity and we're looking good for 2002.

With bragging rights at stake, both sides were playing the spin game before the voting began.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST, "NOVAK, HUNT & SHIELDS": The friends of President Bush want to make sure the finger is not pointed at him for not deciding to campaign for either of them.

KURTZ: But the Democratic spin express derailed in New York, where most of the pundits expected Democrat Mark Green to clobber media mogul Michael Bloomberg.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: The combination of the fact that Bloomberg's a first-time candidate who has made his share of verbal gaffs, which is not uncommon for first-time candidates. And the fact that Mark Green has put the Democratic coalition pretty much together, he's got the endorsement even of the police and fire- fighters, who often endorse Republicans, makes it very, very difficult.

KURTZ: But that was before the founder of Bloomberg News, who was giving money to the likes of Al Gore before switching parties this year, finished spending $50 million of his own money.

Now look at the way each side sliced the big apple results; Republican Congressman Tom Davis.

REP. TOM DAVIS (R), VIRGINIA: I thought it was a pretty good night, actually. We -- for the first time in history we elected a Republican mayor.

KURTZ: Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe.

TERRY MCAULIFFE, DEMOCRATIC CHAIRMAN: And we even elected a Democrat in New York City. Michael Bloomberg was a Democrat when this year began, and he ran on a Democratic message.


KURTZ: For all he partisan claims and counter-claims, most Americans don't much care about Warner, McGreevey and Bloomberg. The news, after all, is still dominated by Bush, Rumsfeld, and bin Laden, not to mention Tom Ridge talking about anthrax.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for a live Sunday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES at 9:30 Eastern.




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