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Is Coverage of the President Fair, Balanced?

Aired April 27, 2002 - 18:30   ET


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

Ahead, we'll look at the "Harvard Business Review" sex scandal, the former L.A. mayor who's denouncing his home town paper, and the best kept secret at the White House.

But first, he enjoyed stratospheric poll numbers in the six months after 9-11, but now the media are bringing George Bush back to earth, even reviving the old bumbler image that dogged him before the war on terrorism.

The administration's shaky performance in the Middle East (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and other setbacks have brought out some of the journalistic guns, some of them loaded with conservative ammunition that had been stilled during the fighting in Afghanistan.

But is the coverage fair, or is the press exaggerating the notion of a president in trouble?

Well, joining us now, Laura Ingraham, host of the "Laura Ingraham Show" on Westwood One Radio. Dana Milbank, White House reporter for the "Washington Post." And Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News and World Report." Welcome.

Roger Simon, the administration's stumbling on the Middle East, winking at the coup in Venezuela, losing the Senate vote on Alaskan oil drilling, watching the budget deficit double -- all the sudden the press seems to be pummeling the president now. Journalists just been itching for a chance to do this since September 11?

ROGER SIMON, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: Well, it's not a matter of whether they've been itching to do it. It's a matter of whether the president has given them all the ammunition they need.

KURTZ: You think this is all reality based?

SIMON: I'm saying it is reality based. We don't -- the media didn't create a bumbling policy in the Middle East, they didn't create a lost vote by the administration, and they didn't create a revolving door coup in Venezuela.

It's unfortunate for the president that it all happens to be coming one on the heels of another, but that is really reality. KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, no less a Bush supporter than the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page, as I'm sure you saw, took a few whacks at the president, saying will the George W. Bush we once new, please stand up? "Suddenly the president who soared by standing on principle seems to have been replaced by an impostor who's lost his foreign policy bearings. This isn't yet the gang that couldn't shoot straight, but without a course correction it may get there."

Now why is the conservative press, we're not talking about the liberal weenie (UNINTELLIGIBLE) types, taking a meat cleaver to the president?

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: Well, first of all, we have to put right on the table. Conservatives are perpetually going to be displeased with a Republican president. For the most part, conservatives know they're never going to get a president who's as conservative as they are.

The country is evenly divided. It's split right down the middle. Congress is split right down the middle. The Bush administration understands it has to govern for everyone. It can't govern just to make Bill Bennett and Bill Kristol happy.

Now, do I think the Bush administration is conservative enough? No, it's not conservative enough for me. But ...

KURTZ: So they're not making Laura Ingraham or Bill Bennett or Bill Kristol happy?

INGRAHAM: Yeah, so there are about five of us, as far as I can tell. But the rest of the country, the middle of the country, those fly-over states that a lot people like to not pay attention to, they understand that the problems in the Middle East are very untraceable.

These other issues of campaign finance reform, I would have done it differently, but that doesn't make people think George Bush is a bad leader. And yes, Roger, the media has been looking for a chance to criticize the president and, you know, we're farther away from the war from Afghanistan than we were a few months ago. So this was bound to happen.

KURTZ: Speaking of criticizing the president, Dana Milbank, stories reporting that his poll ratings down to 78 percent, 75 percent, 69 percent in one poll.

I love the stories that say, boy, he's really going down, because most presidents, you know, would run over their grandmother to get ratings of 69 percent. Let's take a look at what Ari Fleischer said when this subject came up at a White House briefing.


QUESTION: Has the president expressed any reaction to the polls who show his ratings on the slip?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You're kidding, aren't you? Frankly, I kind of get a kick out of some of these things I've seen about critics of Bush this and critics of Bush that. I'm often struck by the fact that while the country believes so strongly the president is doing a good job, there are just a couple of isolated individuals who like breathing oxygen have to get on cable television and say something critical.


INGRAHAM: Exactly.

KURTZ: So it's all about pundits getting on cable television?

MILBANK: It's all right here. Well, you know, if you actually -- to put it all in perspective. I bet that even though the president and the administration have been getting rough treatment the last few weeks, Clinton would have taken this kind of coverage basically at any time in his administration.

It's still very much a kid gloves sort of thing.

KURTZ: Kid gloves?

MILBANK: Yeah, I really think so. Because ...

KURTZ: Gloves on the Middle East where he ...

MILBANK: Oh come on.

KURTZ: Be consistent holding weak policy?

MILBANK: The administration was treated as almost some sort a deity for the six months or so following September 11. It's only compared to that. There's no talk about scandal and really no widespread talk of ineptitude. So I think it's not anything near that.

KURTZ: Even Colin Powell is getting bad press, Roger Simon. And although Dana seems to think that Clinton would love this, I mean, when you have a president who says I don't really need to be that engaged in the Middle East -- oh yes, I was engaged all the time. Well, the Israeli tanks should pull out -- well, I guess Ariel Sharon is a man of peace. I think he's been getting pretty bad press at least on that subject.

SIMON: Well, by the way, have you ever noticed that as soon as Ari says "frankly" the next statement is never frank?

INGRAHAM: That's with everyone, Roger. That's not just Ari.

SIMON: Well, actually, Colin Powell has been getting good press. The press he's been getting is that the bad people in the administration are frustrating the good deeds of Colin Powell. You would say it's because he is on the left most side of the cabinet.

KURTZ: You agree with Dana that this is still relatively kid gloves treatment? SIMON: Yes. Dana's essential point that we're not dealing with his personal life, we're not dealing in scandals, probably because there isn't any scandal, and that the press is evaluating public policy, foreign and domestic.

INGRAHAM: He's been getting hammered on the environment. He's been getting hammered on the Middle East. But I'm not complaining about it. I mean, these are difficult ...

KURTZ: You don't think that journalist are trying to ...

INGRAHAM: The journalist are more liberal than their conservative. We know that. Every poll shows that.

KURTZ: Forget liberal, conservative. Are they trying to bring back the old Bush? The one who would stumble and ...

INGRAHAM: No. No. I don't think that's true, because I think now people know sometimes he will mess up his syntax. Sometimes he will say infutata (ph) instead of intifadah, which sounds like some sort of tortilla.

KURTZ: It's a tongue twister.

INGRAHAM: New offering on Taco Bell.

But, no one really made fun of that. I mean, I kind of made fun of that on my radio show because I thought it was humorous. But mainstream press is going, oh, that's kind of Bush. That's fine. That I think is off limits, to the extent of making a whole judgment on his entire presidency because he might not be the most articulate president we've ever had.

I still think the poll numbers are high. They're 72 percent, 73 percent, 78 percent of America thinks he's leading the country well. How can you do better than that ...

KURTZ: Obviously it has to come down sometime.

INGRAHAM: Six months after the terrorist.

KURTZ: But does the public care if journalists say that he's not doing the best job on the Middle East? I mean, after all the Middle East has been a problem for many presidents for decades.

MILBANK: Well, it would indicate that no. I mean, he's -- the poll ratings suggest that he hasn't, they're not particularly pleased with his performance in the Middle East. But, you know, how displeased are they if he's getting 70, 80 percent approval ratings?

So, I don't see it.

SIMON: We don't elect presidents to not solve things. We elect presidents to solve problems, and one of them happens to be the Mideast. And George Bush knew that going into the election, and every now and then both candidates were forced to talk about foreign policy. They didn't want to, but they did.

I think the American people, just because it seems to be a problem, aren't going to give him a pass on continued bloodshed every day out of Israel and the West Bank.

INGRAHAM: I also think that, I mean, I hate saying the American people. I don't know what the American people think. I don't know if these polls are accurate, but I do believe that most people when they get up in the morning think, you know something, I'm pretty glad that this team is in charge. There are some difficult problems out there. It might take a long time to get through this war against terror. It might take years to solve this Middle East issue, but this team is a solid team.

KURTZ: You both keep bringing up polls as if somebody is at 70 percent, they must be doing a great job. Now let's say that next week, Bush was at 50 percent.

What I want to focus here is on the media coverage, and it seems to me that the media gave Bush a lot of credit, deservingly so, for the way he handled the events after September 11. And now, on the environment, on Alaskan oil drilling, on the budget, on Venezuelan, all these accumulated issues that presidents have to deal with ...

INGRAHAM: Have to write about something. Have to talk about something.

KURTZ: They're giving him a hard time.

MILBANK: I think the media coverage actually follows the polls to an extent. Not deliberately ...

KURTZ: Slavishly?

MILBANK: We see -- frankly. We see the poll numbers dropping. We say, oh, there must be something wrong here. Let's look for the cause. Oh, well, it must be a policy in the Mideast, there must be something wrong with the war on terrorism, there must be something wrong with environmental policy.

So, we're looking at what's happening at the polls, and that generates bad stories because we're sort of looking for some causation.

SIMON: If the administration felt that September 11 and Bush's job performance afterward had put to rest the competency question, which was the question on the campaign. It's not put to rest. The Mideast has raised competency once again, and that's what you're seeing in the press. Does this man have the stuff to do the job?

INGRAHAM: He's handling worse than whom? Which recent president?

SIMON: As I said, we elect presidents to solve problems and deal with the problems that exist.

INGRAHAM: What's the last election that we ...

SIMON: You keep summing up the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, to compare George Bush to.

INGRAHAM: What I'm saying, what -- do we think the next election is going to be a referendum on the Middle East? I highly doubt it. I'd put a lot of money on the fact right now that that would not be the main issue that Americans think is most important to them in their daily lives right now.

SIMON: I guarantee you it will be a referendum on George Bush's competency. Reelections always are.

KURTZ: OK. I'm going to jump back in here and guide you to the press question. And one of the things I want to do is take a look at other big news out of the White House this week involving a certain senior White House aide, a certain female senior White House aide.

Let's take a look at how the Karen Hughes story was covered this week.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Karen Hughes decision to leave the White House today draws attention to how difficult it is to be a successful professional and a mother.

JOHN ROBERTS, CBS NEWS: It was a classic clash of career and parenthood. Her 15-year-old son, Robert, who followed Hughes in the campaign trail, is said to be profoundly unhappy in Washington -- homesick for friends in Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now does the departure for home of one of America's most powerful women mean anything larger for women everywhere who want to have it all?


KURTZ: Let me ask one of the most powerful women in the media.

INGRAHAM: Yeah, thank you.

KURTZ: Did the press treat Karen Hughes differently because no one would believe any man who said, oh, I'm going to quit and spend more time with my family?

INGRAHAM: I think the whole, the entire coverage of Karen Hughes' departure was so ludicrous on so many levels. We in the press are not happy unless we're fueling racial tensions, gender tensions or class tensions. And this ...

KURTZ: Fueling gender tensions?

INGRAHAM: Yes. The idea that this had, this is any great referendum to use that word again, referendum on the state of women today. She is one of the most powerful people in Washington. She also happens to be a mother, and she wants to take her son's life into account in her decision-making. Shocker. Headlines in America. That's what most women do.

KURTZ: But that was the story. That's the way it was reported.

INGRAHAM: Yeah, but it was played as if it was some sort of national trend. The point is, she is a mother and she also happens to be a professional. She made a call that was right for her. End of story.

KURTZ: Reporters on the panel. Raise your hand if Karen Hughes has been a great source for you.


Generally, tremendously helpful to reporters. Yes, she got some pretty good press here. How do you explain this apparent contradiction?

SIMON: People are so happy she's going. I mean, reporters.

KURTZ: You're serious?

SIMON: Yeah.

KURTZ: Really? They're thrilled? They're happy she's out of there?

SIMON: Yeah, they'll have someone else not to return their calls. She, in doing a good job for the president, which is what she's suppose to do, she has really made a great number of enemies in the press.

KURTZ: Really?

SIMON: Yeah. A lot of the Bush people have.

KURTZ: Enemies ...

INGRAHAM: Please leak. Please.

SIMON: Exactly. This is an administration that doesn't leak, that doesn't backbite, for the most part. And that reduced people like Karen Hughes. I can imagine that most people watching those clips we just saw, probably said who's Karen Hughes?

I mean, she's important to our lives. I don't really think she was important to the life of America.

MILBANK: Well, we don't like what Karen Hughes does to us, but we have to all acknowledge, perhaps grudgingly, that she does a good job for the President. In fact ...

KURTZ: The two are not always the same thing. Journalist love their backbiting ...

MILBANK: They're generally diametrically opposed, but ...

KURTZ: Frank moment here.

INGRAHAM: Exactly.

MILBANK: But it was a measure of how much respect we had for Karen. Can you imagine if Karl Rogue got up there and said I'm going to leave and spend some more time with my family? Oh sure, we would have believed that. But it was because we knew just how tight she was that we all sort of bought that at face value.

KURTZ: All of the media speculation about it, will Ari Fleischer now have more influence or Dan Bartlett, the communications director, or Mary Matalin. Is it on some level a little bit silly there has to be a second day story?

MILBANK: Well, it's also a bit of wishful thinking here. It's like, oh, please somebody that's friendly to us. Somebody that returns our calls. All of the people getting named now are people who actually call us back.

INGRAHAM: Jay Lefkowitz, new domestic policy adviser for the president was at the White House on Thursday. He's firmly entrenched in there. Smart guy. Lawyer. Was responsible for the stem cell research speech and that entire initiative back last summer before September 11. He's going to be a player.

KURTZ: I'm detecting some serious frustration among the testosterone crowd here.

INGRAHAM: I'm very happy.

SIMON: I'm guessing he returns your calls?

INGRAHAM: I'm ecstatic...

KURTZ: I'm going to give you guys a chance to calm down while we take a break.

And when we come back, back to the future for the political press who covered the 2000 campaign.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. In echo of the 2000 campaign reporters are again gathering to listen to the rhetorical stylings of Al Gore. And not all the reviews are glowing.


JON STEWART, HOST: Meanwhile, alternate universe President Al Gore made an appearance at Vanderbilt University, where he spoke to students about the grave dangers of the Bush environmental agenda.

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: He ought to be a little bit more careful about claiming that a majority of the voters endorsed his policy pay-offs to polluters ...

STEWART: He's right, but he's still incredibly unlikable.


KURTZ: Jon Stewart, saying what Laura Ingraham probably actually thinks.

Does the press pay any attention right now to the substance of what Gore says, or are we all to busy sort of casting him for the 2000 rematch?

INGRAHAM: I think it was the theatrics of that Florida debut of Gore among all the other Democrats who must be just so frustrated because Gore comes out, and we haven't seen much of him for months, and then poor old John Kerry and Lieberman afterward get 3 and 4 percent ratings in the polls of the people who followed that Florida event.

So Al Gore took up the whole stage and I think that ...

KURTZ: You're saying he took up the whole state. I mean, this doesn't happen by accident. The press decided that Gore was the story.

INGRAHAM: Well, he came out and did his very best to, you know, get that sort of gravely thing back in his voice, and to be so energetic that he -- his perspiration was, I mean, I don't know if you saw the clips, but it was quite unpleasant.

KURTZ: Is the press missing an opportunity for real, for example, environmental debate on the substance of some of Gore's criticism on Earth Day, for example, because we are just caught up in the possible Bush-Gore rematch?

MILBANK: Well, I think Gore doing his Earth Day speech the same as Bush did. He got a front-page story in our paper, and it was a substantive story, a debate on policy. So I think that was maybe accidental, but it worked out. If it was intentional, it was one of the few clever things that Gore has done lately. But he got a big splash because this was his coming out.

Now, he's not going to get a much bigger splash with his future speeches.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, you have the cover story on "U.S. News" this week. "Who can beat Bush?" Senator John Edwards on the cover. You were at the Florida cattle call, as I would describe it.

I was surprised that the press coverage didn't do more to sort of evaluate the early showings of Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, all you got them on the cover here. It was pretty much all Gore. Gore was the story.

Why did journalists decide that? SIMON: Because for reporters, especially daily reporters, going down there for a Saturday late morning speech, the only chance to get on page one in the Sunday paper was going to be Gore.

KURTZ: Purely self-interest?

SIMON: Well, the interest that the press pushes most is not ideological. It's their self-interest. Their career is going left or right on the spectrum.

There were only two story lines that were going to get you on page one. Gore strikes out and is through. Gore hits home run and is back. And Gore hit ...

KURTZ: What about a stand up double? There is no in-between?

SIMON: No. I mean, those were the two simple stories and Gore knew it.

INGRAHAM: And also, the polls again do push the stories, because name recognition. Dana and I were talking about this the other day ...

KURTZ: But these organizations push the polls, the polls don't descend from air.

INGRAHAM: Right, but Gore is still -- Gore and Hillary are number one and number two. Hillary is number two, and John Edwards is 2 percent. I mean, nobody knows who he is still. Can I just say ...

KURTZ: There was a time when John McCain was at 3 percent. Sometimes candidates emerge if they get some media outlets.

INGRAHAM: Right. But I would like to make another point, which is: It's hard for most people to tell the difference what like a John Kerry and a John Edwards thinks on the environment. It all kind of comes together as one view, and the Republicans at least I think have this debate going on about what should the policy be in the Middle East, is campaign finance reform against what we believe in the First Amendment. And there are interesting policy debates that you can cover in the Republican Party. Where are they in the Democratic Party?

KURTZ: We have (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Is it harder for press -- Democrats to get press coverage of their differences because they're the out of power party? Gephardt and Daschle complaining about not getting enough live air time on cable.

MILBANK: Sure. And if John Kerry gives a big speech, nobody knows who he is, really, so why would they particularly care?

KURTZ: They have an uphill climb.

MILBANK: They have a very big uphill climb, and the only other guys are Gephardt and Daschle who can command this kind of an audience, and they didn't show up for that. KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We'll have you back to -- here for another half-hour. Laura Ingraham, Roger Simon, David Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, former first lady Barbara Bush has a little fun with a media misprint. And a secret in the White House press room exposed. That's next on "Media Watch."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now for the week's ups and downs in the media world.


(voice-over): It was a bad week for Suzy Wetlaufer, the "Harvard Business Review" editor who got romantically involved with former General Electric Chief Jack Welch while interviewing him for the magazine. Wetlaufer has now quit her $277,000 job at the "Harvard Review," because, says a spokeswoman: "The controversy has become too distracting." She's still going on with Welch, whose wife has filed for divorce, and "Vanity Fair" reports that Wetlaufer upset her colleagues once before by starting a relationship with a 24-year-old editorial assistant at the "Review."

Not a great week for Charlie Rose, the talk show host and "60 Minutes II" correspondent. He drew criticisms for serving as emcee at Coca-Cola's annual stockholders meetings. Rose told "The Washington Post" he didn't need CBS' permission for the corporate gig, because he's not a full-time staffer, and that Coke paid him only a minimal sum. Coke has also agreed to become a major underwriter of Rose's PBS show. Apparently, some things do go better with Coke.

Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan has gone nuclear on the "L.A. Times," telling the paper: "The Times has a death wish for Los Angeles. It would like to see the city destroyed, and 99 percent of the local news it prints is negative, and that hurts the city." Maybe he thought the coverage of his failed gubernatorial campaign was too negative as well. Riordan is trying to launch a new paper to compete with "The Times."

"The Wichita Eagle" misquoted Barbara Bush the other day, saying she had joked about having three "breast sizes" during her life, rather than "dress sizes." But the former first lady didn't get her knickers in a twist. According to the AP, she wrote the Kansas paper that, "I've just become abreast of your article. I am indeed a buxom buddy to two presidents." At the bottom was a handwritten note: "I just wanted to get this off my chest."

Finally, the best kept secret at the White House this week wasn't Karen Hughes' resignation. It involved tight-lipped White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

QUESTION: When is the wedding date?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I can fall back into presidential spokesman speak and say that we're working on the modalities, working on the timing. When we have something to announce, we'll announce it.

KURTZ: The news? The bachelor press secretary is engaged to Bush budget aide Rebecca Davis.


KURTZ: Finally, we all know that Saudi Arabia's concept of press freedom is just a tad different from that of the U.S. of A. But what happened to MSNBC correspondent Bob Arnot is still an eye opener. Despite the government's invitation to report there, Arnot was ordered off a plane in Riyadh and asked for his videotapes. He refused. The tapes were confiscated anyway from his luggage, along with his laptop, containing all of his scripts. Finally he was allowed to leave.

It sounds like an old-style Soviet tactic. So much for allowing journalists to do their jobs.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern with another critical look at the media. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next.




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