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Panel of Journalists Discusses Bush's Economic Speeches

Aired January 5, 2002 - 18:45   ET


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

President Bush, as you heard just a few minutes ago, is in Oregon touting his economic plan. And joining us now here is Ceci Connolly, national reporter for "The Washington Post," Jonah Goldberg, the editor of "National Review On-line," and Joshua Marshall, editor of the Web site "Talking Points Memo" and former Washington editor for "The American Prospect."

Jonah Goldberg, by my count, that was the third Bush event today. Clearly, it wasn't a terribly newsworthy speech, a rehash of his old themes. Now, conservatives used to call CNN the Clinton News Network. So, is it now the Bush News Network?

JONAH GOLDBERG, "THE NATIONAL REVIEW ON-LINE": With all due respect to my new television home, CNN, the reason why we called it the Clinton News Network had less to do with the number of times we saw his mug on TV and more to do with the kind of reporting and coverage that we perceived to be overly-friendly to the former president.

KURTZ: Ceci Connolly, yesterday Senator Tom Daschle made a big speech on the economy. CNN did carry it live. I noticed that MSNBC and FOX NEWS CHANNEL did not. Is it just a reality that a president, almost no matter what event he gets, is going to get a lot more live coverage than even the Senate Democratic leader?

CECI CONNOLLY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Absolutely, although I think we may quibble a little bit with whether or not that Oregon speech that we just saw a few minutes ago really presented any new information. At this juncture, I don't know that that one had to be live. But that's the strength of that bully pulpit. And, frankly, I think that there probably was a lot of anticipation to hear what President Bush was going to say on this subject of the economy since we've mainly been war focused for so long.

KURTZ: Right. And, Josh Marshall, the amount of spin and pre- spin that went on about both of these appearances, Bush speaking today on the economy, Daschle speaking yesterday on the economy and accusing the White House basically of blowing away the surplus through its tax cut and other policies.

It's really interesting, because the Daschle people leaked in advance the content of his speech. On Friday morning it was on the front page of "The New York Times." Then he gives the speech yesterday, and this morning it's on the front page of "The New York Times." So...

JOSHUA MARSHALL, "TALKING POINTS MEMO": I think there's a certain amount of, I mean, you know, as much as cable news networks like, you know, the ratings that this kind of crisis has created, no one likes the crisis itself, that reporters, you know, this is like we're going back to what we usually do, which is the, you know, the Democrats on the Hill, the Republican president.

So, I think among a lot of reporters there's a sense of like going back to something we actually know something about, as opposed to, you know, force strength and stuff like that, that, you know, no one does.

CONNOLLY: And I also think for reporters, especially in Washington, who are thinking about '02 being a congressional campaign year now, we know that that campaign probably won't be fought over the war. It's more likely to be on some of these domestic issues.

KURTZ: Because the Democrats are supporting Bush so strongly on the war.

CONNOLLY: Absolutely. I mean, there's no space right now between Bush and the Democrats when it comes to Afghanistan. So, the Democrats are looking for their opening, and journalists are naturally trying to figure out if that opening is going to succeed.

KURTZ: Now, the White House also played kind of the pre-spin game. "USA Today" yesterday had a story about what Bush was going to talk about today. The fact that Treasury Secretary O'Neill would be on the Sunday shows, that Bush would give a radio address, and that he was renaming the economic stimulus package the economic security package. Is that news?

GOLDBERG: It's political coverage. I mean, I don't know if it's news. I find almost all of the talk about the stimulus package and economic packages to be filled with so much hot air, whichever party they come from. But we are going back to normal. It is stunning that we've done it, what, we're four days into the new year, and all of the sudden the tone of press coverage has turned so unbelievably political so quickly.

KURTZ: I would quibble with the idea that we're going back to normal, because watching the network newscasts this week, almost every night the lead is still the war in Afghanistan. Now, clearly the war is winding down, although tragically a U.S. serviceman was killed yesterday in some of the fighting.

And I would argue that although reporters love to cover politics and we'll see more of it, that the press is allowing the White House to kind of prolong the war crisis atmosphere. Good for the president, he's at 85 percent approval in the ratings, and good for TV ratings. Anybody want to take that on? MARSHALL: I think there's no question about that. But, I think until really maybe the last week or so, I think that the war was, if not the only story, that it really was for the first two months or so, still the dominant story. There was just no question about that with all the stuff that was happening.

So, it's really only now, I think, when you can sort of say this is not the only thing going on. There is the budget. There is the election. So, now I think we're going to see whether the White House is able to kind of, you know, keep the war media coverage going and kind of shut the Democrats out.


CONNOLLY: You know, I think it's natural that the White House wants to sort of keep that discussion and theme. As we saw coming out of President Bush in Oregon a little while ago, those are some of his strong applause lines. I mean, as I was watching that speech...

KURTZ: Smoke 'em out of the holes, yeah.

CONNOLLY: ... I thought to myself, the swagger is back. So, that's natural for the White House. What disappoints me in some of the coverage is that I don't think that the war coverage has been as critical as perhaps we need it to be at this juncture.

I'm thinking about some of the incidents that went on this past week with the Marines leaving from the base, and in fact an AP photographer, John Moore (ph), who first witnessed this departure of Marines, has been thrown off of that base and there are real problems with access over there. And I wish we heard more about that.

KURTZ: There are also problems with the Pentagon explanation. First they denied the Marines were involved in the search for Taliban leaders, or ex-Taliban leaders, and then obviously that was not the case.

But, what you agree with my notion that the media are a little reluctant to let go of this war? Because, after all, it's helped our reputation, which was basically in the toilet. It's good for television ratings. People tend to watch when they think that there's some kind of ongoing crisis. And maybe we don't want this crisis to be over.

GOLDBERG: I think everybody has a problem with their timetables. This war went much faster. All the networks reorganized to cover this war. It turned out that the ratings were great. And then all of the sudden the war went much better, much faster than people expected, and so...

KURTZ: Or that the pundits expected.

GOLDBERG: ... than the pundits expected, too. But, so, there's a certain inertia, and it's a political inertia too. As the Bush White House, we all know, has been working very hard trying to figure out how not to have the same problem that Bush I had after the Gulf War of not having anything to translate that popularity into on the domestic agenda.

And I think, you know, it's a problem that the networks face, too. And there was a moment there, sort of like that great scene in "Gladiator," where Russell Crowe turns to the audience and screams, "Are you not entertained." Where you watch those Don Rumsfeld press conferences and you really realize how popular this war was as simple media entertainment.

KURTZ: Right. Coming back to Tom Daschle for a second, Josh Marshall, are Jonah and his conservative friends succeeding in getting the press to be more skeptical of Senator Daschle or perhaps trying to demonize him? I mean, he's opposing much of what the Bush White House wants. So what? Didn't Trent Lott do the same thing to Bill Clinton?

MARSHALL: I think -- I've actually been a little disappointed in the Democrats reaction to this campaign to demonize Tom Daschle. Which, I think, there is a campaign, but that's how politics is played. I think the proper response is, it's pitiful. It's just not going to work, and the Democrats, you know, kind of whining about it, I don't think is the right way to proceed. So, I think it's a...

KURTZ: Just briefly, Ceci.

CONNOLLY: Silly standard Washington fare.

KURTZ: How's that?

CONNOLLY: Of course you expect the opposition leader, Tom Daschle, to play a role of critic. And of course you expect the other side to try to demonize him. That's natural. That's what politics are all about. We're in a campaign year. Doesn't mean that much to the average person, though, Howie.

KURTZ: The question that I would raise, and I've got to cut you off because we need to get a break, is how much the media should go along with it. I'll let you give your answer right after this. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. And, Jonah Goldberg, before the break we were talking about coverage of Senator Tom Daschle. Do you think the mainstream media is too soft on the Senate -- the guy who is basically the Senate Democratic leader in Washington?

GOLDBERG: No, I don't know if they're too soft on him, and the media needs, just like politics needs, to boil things down to personalities.

KURTZ: Right.

GOLDBERG: And so I think, in many ways, Daschle is delighted to be anointed the chief enemy of the Republican party, because it raises his stature against everybody else and it gives the media a story line to play. KURTZ: I'm sure he's having fun getting shot at. Before we go, Ceci Connolly, we learned on Thursday that federal prosecutors will not seek an indictment of Senator Robert Torricelli. There were a torrent of stories in the press about this Democratic senator allegedly accepting illegal gifts from a rich contributor. Does it now appear that the press was somehow unfair to Torricelli?

CONNOLLY: I think there's got to be some embarrassment factor for some of the news organizations that went -- were so heavy-handed in that coverage. It's always difficult in that kind of a case, when you don't have all of the information and investigators are leaking bits and pieces to you.

KURTZ: Leaking being the key word.

CONNOLLY: Leaking being the key word. And unnamed sources. So, I think there's probably a little embarrassment.

KURTZ: And the fact that he wasn't indicted doesn't make him a boy scout, of course, but "The New York Post," to pick up your point, reported last spring the prosecutors, quote, "believe they have enough evidence to indict Senator Torricelli and could charge him soon."

So, a little media embarrassment here, do you agree, Josh Marshall?

MARSHALL: I think so. You know what they say, where there's smoke there's fire, but where there's a torch there's not necessarily a fire. So, there you go.

KURTZ: Well, all of these stories are always fueled by law enforcement leaks, and I don't think that is ever going to change.

Thank you very much -- Josh Marshall, Ceci Connolly, Jonah Goldberg, for joining us.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern when we'll talk with a panel of Pentagon reporters about whether there's a new credibility gap between the military and the media.

CAPITAL GANG is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.




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