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Panelists Discuss Fading Political Coverage on War on Terrorism

Aired December 30, 2001 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, RELIABLE SOURCES: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Just ahead we'll talk about the fading of political coverage in this war environment and the next mayor New York who's already starting to butt heads with the City hall press corps.

But we begin with the president, who's taking a break at his Texas ranch even though there's really no such thing as a break these days for him or for the reporters who track his every move. In fact, President Bush expressed annoyance the other day at the leaking of a Pentagon proposal.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In terms of whether or not the tribunals will be able to render the justice necessary - that - I spoke to the secretary of defense today about the story in the newspaper. Evidently somebody in our government wanted to show off to his family - or her family - in between Christmas and New Years by leaking information in the press that he or she thought would be helpful to the government.


KURTZ: And joining us now from Crawford, Texas, "Washington Post" White House Correspondent, Mike Allen. One thing the president did not say, Mike Allen, is that that story about the military tribunals, which appeared in "The Washington Post," "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," among others, was wrong. He just said it was premature or was just a draft and so forth.

Is it typical for Bush to be so upset over the leaking of some policy or proposal?

MIKE ALLEN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, Howie, that clip is so instructive. And one of the reasons is that, first of all, he makes it clear that this administration's resistance to information (UNINTELLIGIBLE) comes from the very top. His remarks were - there's no two ways about how the president felt about that.

But the second thing about this clip, which you implied with your question was this was a positive story for the administration. This story, which appeared in three major newspapers almost identical in each version, which talked about the procedural safeguards that the Pentagon is proposing for these military commissions was in response to many of the criticisms of it.

These stories made it clear that there would be a presumption of innocence and that there would be other protections for people who were charged. So even a positive story because the administration was not ready or for whatever reason the president didn't want it out he was very unhappy about it.

KURTZ: Exactly. I just add that sometimes people in government leak stories not just to impress their families - they're, after all, anonymous in these stories - but to influence debate or advance a particular agenda.

Now you write this morning that with reporters in Crawford that the president has talked about fishing, that the president has talked about tree planting and that journalists there at one point ran out of questions for Mr. Bush.

What's going on there? Are reporters seriously under employed?

ALLEN: No - not at all. Actually there's been quite a lot of news while reporters have been here. Yesterday the president personally - as John King just talked about a few minutes ago - intervened and called the leaders of Pakistan and India. We've had some China news.

But the great thing about covering the president here, as you suggested with that list of activities, is that the president so enjoys it here. He's so relaxed here. And so when we do have the opportunity to talk to him he enjoys it - is very expansive. In the White House - frequently a couple questions - he moves on.

The president came out the other day to answer what we were told would be a couple questions and 25 minutes later he was still chatting. One of the best, most fruitful exchanges we've ever had with the president since the inauguration was outside a Habitat for Humanity event here in Waco. He's with the First lady who's on the ranch, he enjoys life - so he talks.

KURTZ: And so the White House is not trying to generate the appearance of news - obviously the president is doing some telephone diplomacy on the world stage. But, in other words, if he's going fishing or planting trees they're not trying to make it look like he's - this is really a working vacation?

ALLEN: Well, what's interesting about this, Howie, is that with the war on they don't really have that problem. You'll recall in the summer when they announced that he was going to take a month long vacation and then realized that wasn't really the story that they wanted and so renamed it a Home to the Heartland tour. And they gave the president all these events that he had to do.

And so we got the stories about the vacation and then they never really (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

With a war going on they don't really have that problem. The president can feel free to talk about the fun things he's doing.

KURTZ: Just briefly though - one of the reasons it is important for journalists to be there. I understand there are no five star hotels is that there are things going on in the Middle East - in India and Pakistan. And if the president reacts you want to be able to cover that. Is that right?

ALLEN: Exactly. And even though there's little staff around - little news to be made - we here at the Crawford Elementary School - Home of the Pirates. Everyday that gym is full of reporters who are ready to cover news if there is news.

KURTZ: We're glad you're on the case. Mike Allen thanks very much for joining us from Crawford.

ALLEN: Happy New Year, Howie.

KURTZ: And joining us now - thank you - and joining us now in New York, Ron Brownstein, Senior Political Correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and here in Washington Karen Tumulty, National Political Correspondent for Time Magazine and Jonathan Karl, CNN's Congressional Correspondent.

Ron Brownstein, let's start with you. You just heard Mike Allen's assessment. Do you think that if the war fades and war coverage begins to fade and Bush's numbers come down to earth that the president will again be receiving tougher media scrutiny or maybe reporters will be continuing to salute the commander in chief?

RON BROWNSTEIN, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, I think - first of all, I love Mike Allen's definition of being a reporter - being there ready for news in case there is news. I think that's a good way to spend your day.

I do think that the entire political debate has been overshadowed by the war both in practice and to some degree even beyond in practice in the media. Usually we think of the media as leading public opinion and shaping it. In fact, in this case we're probably a little bit behind the public. When you look at the polls and people are asked what is the most important problem facing the country we've reached the point where it's about an even split between terrorism and the war on the one hand and the economy on the other. You don't really see that in our coverage.

I don't think that the press is going to be necessarily skeptical of Bush but by covering issues on which we are not all in unanimous agreement behind him, which is essentially the domestic agenda, by definition you introduce more controversy and contentions into the political system by - into the political debate. And in that way it would have the effect of raising more questions and making more difficult questions for the White House.

KURTZ: Karen Tumulty, there was a huge difference with the way George W. Bush was covered before September 11th and after. I'm just wondering whether we're going to get back to some bit of normalcy where there is the normal partisan plan, where the media are playing the more - for lack of a better term - adversarial role?

KAREN TUMULTY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, inevitably to some degree. But Ron's right - media is often a wagging indicator not only of public opinion but of how other powerful players in Washington react. And right now the democrats have made a decision that they are not going to attack Bush personally. They're going to occasionally they're going to attack his policies, they're going to take the occasional bank shot off of John Ashcroft but unless you have public figures speaking out and directly taking it to the president the media is not going to go there quickly.

KURTZ: With so much focus -- media focus -- on terrorism and the war, Jonathan Carl, a lot of these domestic issues have been overshadowed. Doesn't that make it harder for the democrats to get any coverage at all for their agenda other than being in opposition to something the president wants as we saw on the Stimulus Package debate?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And domestic politics returns with a vengeance after the first of the year. But Congress during this wartime period has been essentially - as far as the media's concerned - somewhat irrelevant. It's been hard to get news from the Congress into the newspapers, onto the news on television . . .

KURTZ: Do you find that yourself (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

KARL: I - we've been frustrated up on the Hill and it's understandable. A wartime Congress by definition is not as important because during the time of war the attention is on the commander in chief and rightfully so. So while Congress has got a busy agenda, Congress has certainly spent a lot of money over - since September 11th. Some of the spending bills that went through in the last few days before they left town were unbelievable. This deal for Boeing - a $20 billion lease deal that will really cost the taxpayers didn't get much scrutiny because, again, we're focused on the war.

So by definition it will change.

ALLEN: Howie?

KURTZ: Go ahead, Mike.

ALLEN: Can I just jump in for a second? I agree with Karen's point that - and I totally agree that the press to some degree has to wait for the political system to produce the debate for us to cover. But there is a feedback cycle here.

If we were - if we were not in a war situation and we were spending more time in the media looking at the impact of the recession on ordinary Americans - the increase in the number of people who got health insurance again as in the early 90s, some of the other economic impacts - that would be creating more of a demand for politicians to speak out, which we would then be responding to.

The entire debate would be different not only in the sense of what the democrats and maybe moderate republicans might be talking about on the Hill but what there will be pressure for them to talk about because of what they're seeing covered in the media.

So the whole cycle is interrupted and shifted onto a terrain where, in fact, the country is unified and there really isn't another side of the debate. And, thus, watching the press and reading the newspapers every day it looks as though the entire country is unified behind Bush, which is on the war. It might not be on the domestic side but that really isn't in front of people at this point.

KURTZ: Well, in fact, the media and the public spent a huge amount of time last year debating Patients' Bill of Rights, prescription drug help for senior citizens.

ALLEN: Yeah.

KURTZ: Those have been totally blown off the radar screen. And, you're right - if we were talking more about that politicians might feel some need to react. When we've got all of the pages filled up in the paper about Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, et cetera you really diminish these other issues.

Speaking of things - people, personalities that have been squeezed out by the war time media - John Edwards, John Carey, Joe Leiberman (ph). Without a war wouldn't we be spending a lot more time talking about the people who might want to run for president in 2004? And is that going to change?

TUMULTY: Well, absolutely. And they - all of them have lowered their own profiles in the midst of this as well. But I think that what we - what's going to take over now in the coming year is really the dynamics of a Congressional election. And with both houses of Congress at stake I think that that's where the spotlight - the media attention is going to turn and that's where the distinctions are going to be drawn.

So essentially after all these years of seeing the coverage of the election cycles being speeded up maybe this has put it back down into normal time.

KARL: If John Carey, John Edwards and the other presidential want-to-be's on the democratic side had been making their trips to Iowa and to New Hampshire and to California. And normally we would be all over that. We would be covering some of that already. We'd already be gearing up for 2004 when there's been hardly any coverage of any of that.

And, again, both houses of Congress up for grabs next year - domestic politics back in a very big way. And that's going to obviously effect the media coverage.

KURTZ: Well, let me quibble with that because clearly journalists would like to get the focus back on domestic politics because we enjoy that - that's what we know how to do. And CNN I guess is even bringing back INSIDE POLITICS, which had been on hiatus during the wartime period. But, Ron Brownstein, what happens if we all go out and cover the 2002 mid term elections and lots of people don't care? Lots of people are tuned out. After all, interest in politics has been fading. And with this other --these other matters going on - people worried about their personal safety - maybe they won't have the same degree of absorption as media folks have.

BROWNSTEIN: Howie, this is a debate I think that is going to be settled by what the military call spats on the ground. If, in fact, we are in a situation next summer and spring and fall where the threat of terrorism is still looming very large and U.S. forces are actively engaged in combat the election inevitably is going to be overshadowed.

You can look at the 1942 precedent and they had a very defused, unfocused Congressional mid term election in the shadow of Pearl Harbor.

On the other hand, if the threat recedes, you could see the country's focus, which, as I said before, polls already are showing is turning back to some of the more conventional concerns about the economy and maybe healthcare and other things. And I suspect the press and the election will follow that.

But, again, as long as the war is front and center in the media and as long as there is reason for it to be - and which maybe starting to - the balance may be a little out of whack at this point. But as long as it's front and center I think that the coverage is going to be tilted in that direction and the focus of the country will be tilted in that direction.

KURTZ: In fact, when Dick Army (ph) stepped down as House Majority Leader ordinarily that would be a pretty big - a pretty seismic Washington earthquake and it was kind of a one-day story I think because of all of the wartime focus.

TUMULTY: That's really true. But the other fact on the ground is the economy. And I think that if the economy continues to be a concern that is going to drive people's attention and the media's focus back home again.

KURTZ: I've been surprised that the sinking economy has not been a bigger story even in the face of all that we're trying to cover in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Something about tens of thousands of layoffs and I'm surprised it hasn't resonated as much.

Do you think, Jonathan Karl, maybe one reason that a lot of folks beyond the beltway - to use that clinch - are less focused on Washington politics is because of the food fight nature of it? A lot of it is trading bombshells, lobbing rhetoric. The economic stimulus bill would have had a significant effect on the economy, we covered it a fair amount. I got - I didn't get the impression - I got the impression everyone was yawning about it. Maybe they didn't think anything was going to pass as indeed it die not.

KARL: Well, so much of the food fight nature of politics seemed so trivial on September 12th. So much of what we cover day in and day out and the bickering back and forth just seemed - people grew numb to it. That's not as important anymore in the war environment. But yet the economic stimulus package would have meant $300 checks going out to people that hadn't gotten checks during the - for the Bush tax cut rebate checks.

It would have meant significant real changes for people in their pocketbook and there was a big yawn.

KURTZ: And ...

KARL: And nobody totally expected it to pass.

KURTZ: Yeah. Some journalists told me it was like watching paint dry because it was just endless back and forth in which neither side really seemed to want to deal in the end.

Ron, do you want to jump in here?

BROWNSTEIN: I was going to say - in fact, though in the midst of all of this even this fall there are important choices that we are in the midst of making. We are going back from a period where we're looking at enormous surpluses in the federal government seemed to offer almost unending opportunities to do what both sides want. It's going back into deficit.

We've had a big change in our strategic doctrine when Bush decided to withdraw from the ABM treaty. We have the question of what to do with the rising number of people without health insurance. There are a lot of questions that this society does care about in the end. And it does seem - and I don't know about media stories and others - maybe we should ask the host - but over time the tendency of the press - electronic and print - to focus in on whatever story happens to be the biggest story of the day.

And so the concentration of our efforts on whatever it is - what before the war, Gary Condit, other things - seems to be increasing over time. We have trouble juggling many balls and accepting the reality that life in America involves many concerns that are pressing on people at any given time.

KURTZ: A lot of that is driven by cable. And so if we're doing Afghanistan we don't really do Enron. And if we're doing terrorism we do less of people without health insurance.

KARL: And the White House got a sense for how difficult it was to get anything else in the newspapers. The education bill.

KURTZ: Right.

KARL: This was a major significant domestic victory for the president although some would argue that his proposal got significantly changed by the democrats. But the White House - the president did not sign the education bill into law yet. He's sitting on it right now. The signing ceremony will not happen until after the 1st of the year.

The White House knew that if the president would come out . . .

KURTZ: It would be total lies.

KARL: Nobody would have paid any attention.

KURTZ: All right. We have to get in a break. And when we come back - how will the press corps handle the new man in charge in New York?



RUDY GIULIANI, MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY: There's no question that the only reason that I was selected The Person of the Year is that the people of New York are the People of the Year. There's no question about it.


KURTZ: Rudy Giuliani, whose last day as mayor is tomorrow, giving his farewell talk to the city hall press corps.

Jonathan Karl, you once covered Mayor Giuliani as a reporter for "The New York Post." Did the media in the last four months build him up into this mythic Time Man of the Year figure or did he do it on his own?

KARL: Well, it's amazing where Giuliani was on September 10th. He had really hit probably the low point of his term as mayor and certainly the low point of his relationship with the press - the adversarial nature.

KURTZ: He called reporters jerks.

KARL: Oh, it was unbelievable. And - but Giuliani started out that way. I was in city hall when he got sworn in. I was with him when he first became mayor. And he - from the start he had this adversarial nature with the press. He cut off the public affairs people, the press secretaries for the various government agencies and said everything had to come through his communications director.

Reporters resented it. Reporters had a very adversarial relationship with Giuliani. But you had this respect to build up. While you were working covering Giuliani New York improved. And no question that this was not simply the press building up Giuliani - he performs incredibly.

KURTZ: Well, Ron Brownstein, will the rest of Giuliani's record whether it's been lowering crime or being a tremendously confrontation from everyone from squeegee men to the people that produced art that he didn't like to the public declaration of war pretty much on his wife - will all of that be forgotten in the public consciousness by the focus on Rudy as the - one of the heroes of September 11?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think several things. First of all, as Jonathan said, it was not only the press it was the performance. This crisis brought out the best in Giuliani. And some of the characteristics - personal characteristics and approaches that made him so confrontational and in ways polarizing before the attack served him very well after - the compulsure (ph) for control, the desire to really be the ultimate responsible voice on almost every issue facing the city.

No - I don't think the other areas do fade out entirely. And I was struck that in his farewell speech he spent a lot of time not only on September 11th but on crime and on welfare and on some of the other things that they have done in terms of trying to articulate really a very effective center right governing strategy for how a republican runs a big city.

He was an effective successful mayor even though he was a polarizing figure before September 11th. What he became after September 11th was a wartime leader - something very different. But even before then he leaves behind a record that should be studied and I think will be studied by other mayors especially republicans.

KURTZ: OK - so "Time Magazine" doesn't get all of the credit?

TUMULTY: I think that we - again, we're lagging indicators. But this is the nature of this press corps, too, in New York. You and I have both been in New York working for out of town newspapers and it is the most brutal press corps I have - there were times when I feared for my physical safety at news conferences for all of the elbows that were being thrown.

And it does have a tendency to burrow in and find your vulnerabilities and turn people into a nick name and a tabloid headline in a way that you just don't see in other parts of the country, which is why I wonder whether Michael Bloomberg, who's been - he comes from a corporate environment - not a political one - really understands yet what he's getting into.

KURTZ: And that's exactly the point I wanted to make, Jonathan Karl, because Bloomberg - a media mogul who spent $69 million of his own money and yet - and takes office on Tuesday and yet a lot of people don't know a lot about him.

He's been saying, "I'm not going to have press conferences every day. And when I go on vacation it's none of the media's business." And I wonder how that's going to play with your former colleagues in the city hall press corps?

KARL: He's in for quite a surprise. He also has this idea he wants to have his desk - no longer have the mayor's corner office but be surrounded by his top aids, changing things at city hall. He is going to be in for quite a surprise.

Giuliani had that incredibly adversarial nature because the press was after him. A lot of the reporters just - it's the nature just to be tough in New York but they were also involved and didn't like Rudy Giuliani in the beginning. KURTZ: How - Ron Brownstein - how could Michael Bloomberg become mayor of New York - an office previously held by John Lindsay (ph), Ed Koch and so forth - and yet the city and the country know relatively little about him? Does it go back to what we were talking about about . . .


KURTZ: ... the war overshadowing politics as usual?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah - absolutely, Howard. A unique situation. And election that occurred literally in the shadow of this unprecedented tragedy.

I was enjoying listening to Karen there because covering both - coming up here for both mayoral races and the democratic primaries and growing up here. The only word that could be applied to the New York City press corps is feral. It's like watching hyenas tear apart raw meat or something.

And I do think that when you have as much money as Bloomberg you're not used to people telling you you're full of it. And that's what they're going to be doing an awful lot. That's what they do to everybody here whether it's a presidential candidate or mayoral candidate or city council candidate.

So I think it is often a rude adjustment for the business people who come into politics because they're not used to people questioning them in the way that the press does. And here you just max that out to a much greater degree. And it should be quite a ride.

KURTZ: Well, I know some of the New York reporters and some of them know how to use the right fork. You're all being very harsh on them. But New York is a tough town to govern. Bloomberg is a republican who bought his way into the office.

You're right - the primary was postponed because of the September 11th attacks. That was the day the primary was to take place. So we'll be watching Mayor Bloomberg very carefully in the weeks and months ahead. I think it will be an interesting media story.

Ron Brownstein, Karen Tumulty, Jonathan Karl - thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up - taking stock of 2001 in Bernard Kalb's Back Page. What will the media do when the big story fades?


KURTZ: Time now for the Back Page. Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's that time of the year when people are reflecting on what 2001 was all about, what will be remembered, what discarded? And I must confess I too have joined in this exercise on that old theory that an unexamined year isn't worth living.

No surprise then that my focus has been on the media and on September 11th - a date that will go down in journalistic history as the Great Divide. The first eight and a half months of '01 giving us a media on a holiday from reality. By contrast - the end of the year since this has seen the media snap out of their journalistic isolation rescued by you know whom.

In other words, a nation challenged with what we suddenly became. And there it is - very day since 9/11 the headline in "The New York Times" bringing us up to date on the doings of Osama and terrorism. In fact, the media rose to the challenge in great reporting on what's been happening in Afghanistan and other threatening trouble spots.

So far so good. But there's this question that lingers - what will the media do when the headline becomes a nation unchallenged, when the public's anxiety eases, it's fear diminish?

Will the media once again still their head in the sand, which is what much of the media did when the Cold War ended saying, "No one's interested - no more Soviet threat so why bother with the world?"

Or this time will the media refuse to abandon the world and keep its correspondents out in the field to keep us better informed so that we're not again devastated suddenly?

To disengage is easy. To remain committed isn't. And the reality is that we're stuck on this planet at least for the moment. The whole world is our neighborhood. The more we cover it the less chance of another 9/11 happening taking us by surprise.

I really am trying to resist becoming too preachy as the year winds down but the fact is all of this is a test not only of the media - it's a test of ourselves and our need to know. My best wishes for a happy and well informed New Year.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with the Back Page. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. Have a happy New Year and thanks for watching us in 2001. CNN's live coverage of America's New War continues.




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