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Did Media Push Trent Lott Out?; Did Hostile Media Coverage Factor Into Gore's Decision Not to Run?

Aired December 21, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: A lot of headlines topple a senator. Did the media help push Trent Lott out of his job? Were journalists a conduit for unnamed presidential aides trying to oust the majority leader or did they exaggerate the White House role? And why did the press suddenly start savaging Lott's civil rights record after ignoring it for years?
Also, the press finally gives Al Gore a standing ovation as he bows out of the presidential race. Was hostile coverage a factor in Gore's decision?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Trent Lott's decision to step down as majority leader comes on the heels of a full-fledged, no holds barred, old- fashioned media feeding frenzy. His remarks about Strom Thurmond's segregationist run for president got little attention, at first. Then, the coverage took off like a booster rocket.

"TIME" magazine whitewashing the past. "Newsweek, Race and the Rise of Trent Lott." Front page headlines and televised apologies, as the scrutiny got more intense.

And the only question anyone in the press was asking was would Trent Lott survive. After an orgy of speculation, the answer came Friday.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Republican Senator Trent Lott losing his battle to keep his job, he will step aside as Majority Leader.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Mississippi Senator, of course, has been under some intense pressure to step down since making some racially charged remarks a couple weeks ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lott's friends told me, this afternoon, that Lott thought he could survive until last night, when Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, the White House favorite, said publicly that he would challenge Lott. It was then that Lott told his friends he finally saw the handwriting on the wall.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, John Harwood, chief political reporter for "The Wall Street Journal." Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS's "Washington Week." And Tucker Carlson, co-host of CNN's "CROSSFIRE," and a contributing editor at "The Weekly Standard."

Gwen Ifill, did the media play a positive role here in forcing the country to confront these pro-segregation comments?

GWEN IFILL, HOST PBS'S WASHINGTON WEEK: I don't think even the most prescient reporter in Washington or anywhere out in the country thought it was going to -- that this statement, when we first heard about it, was going to force the Majority Leader from office.

I do think, however, that it's always a good thing when you hold politicians and elected officials to account for what they say and what they believe. And if that means that it gives you an opportunity to go back and find out what the history of their statements were, that's what you do. And that's what I think happened in this case. Whether he stayed in the job or left the job, I think it was essential that that debate happened.

KURTZ: Well, the other view, Tucker Carlson, would be that the media unfairly took a couple of comments at a birthday party and pumped it up into some kind of national scandal.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST CNN'S CROSSFIRE: No, I think it's fair to ask Trent Lott what did you mean. And he, of course, had a very difficult time coming up with an answer.

I think the sins, here though, were of over-reaching. I mean, so you saw a lot of analysis making the point that, you know, this is -- the southern strategy is still alive in the Republican Party and very little evidence that that's true. For instance, the...

KURTZ: Trying to tar the Republican Party with a brighter brush?

CARLSON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that there's a huge group of racists out there. That they represent a voting bloc and that the Republican Party panders to them, knowingly. But there was no evidence that this actual bloc exists. Where are the poll numbers on that? I'd like to see them.

KURTZ: Was it media outrage or conservative outrage that helped fuel this story and keep it alive, after the first days, John Harwood?

JOHN HARWOOD, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: I think conservative outrage was critical for the exact reason that Tucker mentioned. Many conservatives thought that this controversy that was making headlines every single day in the press was tarring the things that they stood for, which many conservatives hold without regard to race, and they thought that Trent Lott was putting them on the wrong side of those questions.

KURTZ: The night after Lott made the remarks at Thurmond's 100th birthday party, you played a clip of what he said on "Washington Week in Review," talking about Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist candidacy for president. Let's take a look.


IFILL: That career detail brings us to tonight's little history quiz, something we call what was he thinking. The he in this case, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.


KURTZ: Why wasn't this on every newscast? Was this a case of white journalists being tone-deaf?

IFILL: No, not strictly that. But what happened, I actually heard it from a white journalist.

A reporter for the note (ph) in ABC News Web log had been inside that room, had come back and had written it. It was just one mention of it, the quote.

As I was preparing the program for that night, I looked at it and thought, this strikes me as odd. And I read it aloud to a couple of other people, including Dan Ballis (ph) from the "Washington Post," Linda Greenhouse from "The New York Times," who were scheduled to be on the program that night, and their reaction was, what.

And so I thought, OK, I'm testing my instincts. It's not just me. So let's just -- but then, I thought it's not up to me to be an opinion reporter and to tell you what I think about it, but let's see what the viewers think.

We got hundreds, hundreds of e-mails from viewers saying either this was just a remark at a birthday party, in the vast minority, by the way, and many more from people saying things like I'm from Mississippi, I'm 80 years old, and I think it was outrageous. From people saying, Gwen, why don't you just say what Lott was thinking? You knew what Lott was thinking.

And the emotional outpouring is one of those hot buttons that I think only race brings up. It's the sort of thing that people react to in a way they don't about tax cuts, in they way they don't about Social Security.

And the debate was so large, just from my viewers, that I began to think there was more to it than that. And I know from talking to people at other news organizations, and especially African-American journalists, that they got it instantly. And it took a little longer, often, for the white colleagues to get it.

CARLSON: We had it the same night on "CROSSFIRE," on Friday night. And I remember being confused by the pure weirdness of it. Because you knew that Trent Lott was not, strictly speaking, announcing his support for segregation in a crowded room in front of television cameras. That's insane.

But on the other hand, you couldn't come up with an alternate explanation because it was such an odd remark. So... KURTZ: You had trouble coming up with an alternate (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

CARLSON: That's exactly right. So it wasn't -- the narrative wasn't really clear. I'm not sure it's even really clear now what Trent Lott was trying to say. If this was his id escaping or what.

IFILL: Except that we know he's said it before. We knew that this was the sort of thing, when he gets in a friendly crowd, he tends to throw out.

I don't think he necessarily meant it as, I believe in segregation. But the question is did he mean it as anything? Did he have any appreciation for the sensitivities it raised (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CARLSON: Well, that's right. But what you just said indicates that it's actually a little bit more confusing, when you really begin to think about it, than it is right off the bat.

HARWOOD: One of the hardest things for journalists to do is to parse the motives and intentions of politicians. We can look at the words that come out of their mouths. We can look at the votes that they cast. It's really hard to know what's inside them.

In this case...

KURTZ: In this case, one of the things that kept this story alive was all these subsequent stories about Lott voted against the Martin Luther King holiday, Lott voted against the voting rights act extension. Why did it take these remarks to get journalists to look at a record that was public and was out there that nobody had made an issue out of?

HARWOOD: Well, that aspect of the Republican Party's record, which Tucker mentioned, is something that has been looked at in the past. It's just that George W. Bush has, lately, tried to take the Republican Party in different direction and go beyond some of the tactics and strategies that have helped the Republican Party.

The polarization of black and white votes in the south realigned the south, politically, in favor of the Republican Party. George W. Bush knows the demographics of the country are changing. He's got to take the party in a different direction.

And in this case, we had comments, contemporary comments, same comments 20 years ago and a long voting record. If he had Paul Wellstone's voting record, these stories would have died out.

IFILL: A few years ago, when I worked at NBC News, it emerged the story that he had been -- had spoken to a group called the Conservative Citizens Council ...

KURTZ: Right.

IFILL: ... which was kind of a state's rights, white supremacy group, and he said, at the time, oh, I don't know who they -- didn't really know who they were...

KURTZ: Right.

IFILL: ... He was on their Web site.

I remember going to Mississippi at the time and trying to do a story for NBC about his comments and about what people in Mississippi thought he meant. And it didn't ever gel.

And in order to do a story, based on what somebody says, it has to be as clear enough puzzlement, as were his remarks at Thurmond's birthday party, that you can actually get people to react one way or the other. And it never gelled.

KURTZ: Let's come to the media's handling this because a key moment in this narrative, when it wasn't clear what Trent Lott was going to do, was when he went on Black Entertainment Television and talked to Ed Gordon. Now, let's take a look at some of that.


SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSISSIPPI: I'm now trying to find a way to deal with the understandable hurt that I have caused. You can, you know, say it was innocent, but it was insensitive, at the very least, and repugnant, frankly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he's sincere about growing up in the time and the area and environment he grew up in. I don't know if it's for me, as a journalist, to really dictate whether he was sincere about the other things.


KURTZ: Is it the role of journalists to decide whether Trent Lott was sincere or not?

IFILL: It's the role of some journalists, who are opinion journalists. It's -- but I have to say, his appearance on Black Entertainment Television, talk about a puzzlement. It was unclear what he thought he was going to accomplish by speaking to that audience, who weren't going to believe him, many of them, and by speaking, when he spoke, saying that he now wished he could vote for Martin Luther King's holiday, and he, now, was for affirmative action and losing his constituency on the right. So it was -- that was...

KURTZ: Did he lose Tucker Carlson with that interview and many of your conservative colleagues, who suddenly see Lott appearing (ph) to change political stripes?

CARLSON: Look, if he had got up on BET and said, I have this vision for a color-blind America, OK? And that's why I'm opposed to affirmative action because it springs from the same idea, essentially, as segregation. If he had taken a the government ought to treat races differently, if he had stuck to some principle, rather than just getting into this sort of wild pander that he did, maybe he would have had more support. But the fact is a lot of conservatives didn't like him, anyway, so he had a John Tower problem. He just didn't have that many friends in the end.

IFILL: And the angriest conservatives were black conservatives, who felt that they gone out on a limb for Trent Lott and for these principles for many years and were having it sawed off behind them.

HARWOOD: And one reason he had to pander so much in that BET interview was he did such a poor job of selecting a forum for his first apology, calling up Sean Hannity, a conservative media broadcaster. That's not where he should have started this thing.

KURTZ: And literally phoning it in.


KURTZ: Let's talk about the coverage of the last two weeks of the Bush White House and its role.

Here's Saturday's "New York Times" front page headline, "Bush Orchestrates an Ouster." Now, Ari Fleischer told me, this week, that he was just apoplectic and that the president was upset over all of these stories that are saying, White House officials say Lott should go. They don't want to say so publicly, but they would love to see him take a long walk off a short pier.

Do you buy these White House protestations that these were just a few anonymous aides and that this was not something orchestrated, as "The New York Times" says, by the president of the United States?

HARWOOD: I do not believe it was orchestrated by the White House. I think this is a much exaggerated part of this story.

Did the White House want the bleeding to stop? Yes. Would the White House have rather had Bill Frist than Trent Lott, as leader? Yes.

But so did every Republican. The fact that they had a problem that they wanted to get past doesn't mean they made it happen. Republican senators do stuff that's in their interest, not because Karl Rove tells them to do it.

KURTZ: But all of these stories quoting so many senior White House officials...

IFILL: Saying exactly the same thing. Walking pinata. Lott is a walking pinata. That same quote turned up in two major newscasts on the same day.

HARWOOD: But (UNINTELLIGIBLE) statement of fact. That's not...


HARWOOD: Everybody knew that. IFILL: I know, but for a White House official, if indeed it was a White House official, to say that is sending all the signals you need to see. For Jeb Bush to speak. Why does Jeb Bush have anything to say about this?

CARLSON: Not only that. Jeb Bush, of course, does not have an independent view of this. It's not like Jeb Bush and Colin Powell are going to stand up without having spoken to the White House about it.

And it's true that every Republican, probably, wanted Trent Lott to go. But the president is not just every Republican. He's the Republican, right?

IFILL: Right.

CARLSON: And his statement, itself, of course, was the push that really did Lott in. I think it's...

KURTZ: What do you make of all these anonymous quotes?

CARLSON: Well, they're true. And the White House...

KURTZ: Should reporters say, are you speaking for the president or is this just your personal opinion? I mean, it's easy to take shots on background. Let's face it.

HARWOOD: And it's also very easy to find somebody who calls himself an adviser to Bush. You can find those people all over town and build a story saying Bush advisers say thus and such. That doesn't mean President Bush is trying to make it happen.

IFILL: Do you honestly think nobody inside this White House was talking to reporters and suggesting, quietly, sotto voce, that Lott should go?

HARWOOD: No, I don't disagree with what you just said. I'm just saying that's not why he left.

They did not -- this did not happen because the White House wanted it to happen. It happened because there was a huge problem facing the Republican Party that every Republican knew they had to deal with.

KURTZ: What do you make of Ari Fleischer's complaint about it wasn't us, and you people in the press are just exaggerating it?

CARLSON: I must say I disagree with John. I think that if the president hadn't gotten up and denounced Lott and made no effort to defend him at all, that Lott perhaps would still be there. And I think most people believe that, in any case. Which is why I think the White House protest now that we didn't really have anything to do with it, it's an independent matter in the Senate is ludicrous and won't work, as sort of a line, because people just don't see that as true.

HARWOOD: I'm even more contrary than that. I think when President Bush criticized Lott, he was doing two things. One, distancing himself from the controversy, taking care of number one, which politicians do.

IFILL: He was inserting himself into the controversy, not distancing himself.

HARWOOD: No, no. There was no escaping this for George W. Bush, when Trent Lott -- but he, also, created conditions that Lott could have survived in. By having the top Republican criticizes (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that could have brought an end to this, if Trent Lott had handled it properly. He did not.

KURTZ: I want to come back to the media question. What about Strom Thurmond? Here's the guy who actually who did run for (UNINTELLIGIBLE), these remarks, the media and official Washington was just going to sort of send him off in a warm and fuzzy bath.

IFILL: There was a warm, fuzzy thing going on, no question.

KURTZ: Why was that?

IFILL: Well, because he was old. And because people thought, well, a hundred years and oh, well. And they had -- this interesting thought had taken hold in Washington and elsewhere that Strom Thurmond had apologized for his earlier behavior, when, in fact, there was nothing farther from the truth. He had not.

KURTZ: Very briefly. Double standard in the media. Robert Byrd, former Ku Klux Klan member, not getting this kind of coverage that Strom got.

CARLSON: Robert Byrd, who said that he would not fight in the armed services alongside black people because he feared the mongrelization of the army? Yes. There is something of a double standard, but I think John Lewis had it right when he said, look, you know, at some point, you have to forgive someone who's changed his ways. Both Strom and, I think, Senator Byrd have.

KURTZ: On that forgiving note, we will hold it there. And when we come back, Al Gore says no to another presidential race. Did the press give him the final push?



Al Gore made news twice this week within 24 hours. First, he did more than just his toes in the comedy waters of "Saturday Night Live." And then came the surprising full dressing down with Leslie Stahl on "60 Minutes."


LESLIE STAHL, 60 MINUTES: Are you going to run?

AL GORE, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I've decided not to run, and I...

STAHL: You've decided not to run.

GORE: I decided that I will not be a candidate for president in 2004.


KURTZ: John Harwood, the press is finally praising Al Gore for getting out of the 04 race. Isn't it true that most journalists really did not want this guy to run again?

HARWOOD: I don't know if they didn't want him to run again, but most journalists are not comfortable around Al Gore the way that Al Gore is not comfortable around journalists. He did not get good press. And I think that's one of the considerations he took into account in thinking about how painful and difficult the 2004 campaign would be.

KURTZ: A former Gore aide told me that the ex vice president was well-aware that hostile media coverage or, at least, tenacious media coverage, would have been a factor, if he had run gain. How much does this play into this sort of thing?

IFILL: What we really wanted to know was a story line. And the great fear among the journalists I know about an Al Gore candidacy is we were going to cover the same stories we covered four years ago. That we would be stuck revisiting the question about the Florida race and the hanging chads and whether he had a chance against George W. Bush, and that just didn't seem like a brand new story to anybody. I don't think...

KURTZ: Reporters were not excited about this.

IFILL: ... there was personal hostility towards Gore any more than would be personal hostility toward anyone who wasn't give them a good story.

KURTZ: But now, does Gore have a point? I mean, even "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page praised Gore for a gutsy decision. What's up with that?

CARLSON: It's, obviously, some sort of backhanded compliment. I actually do think that Gore -- well, first of all, Gore, apparently, is obsesses with his own -- with the coverage of him. And reads, very carefully, virtually everything written about him.

KURTZ: Unlike most politicians?

CARLSON: Well, unlike some politicians. I do think it's true, though, that there was hostility toward Gore. I know a number of liberal reporters who really actively disliked Al Gore. More maybe even than I do, as a sort of out-of-the-closet right-winger.

And I'm not exactly sure. I think the root of it is Al Gore never liked politics. Not good at it, not comfortable dealing with the process of politics.

When you're covering Al Gore, there's something a little bit excruciating about it, and I think reporters resent it.

HARWOOD: And he was, also, not comfortable opening himself up and being candid in a way that made people feel like he was laying on the line with them. So that when Al Gore said, you know, if I run this time, I'm going to let it all hang out and not talk to my political consultants. Journalists found that very hard to believe.

KURTZ: He opened himself up on "Saturday Night Live."

IFILL: Yes, but he already knew he was out of there, by then.

But they also found it hard to believe because they were talking to Gore as advisers, who were just as angry, if not angrier, at Gore than any reporter could be because they felt like he hadn't done it well, that he was blaming them for his mistakes. And these are the people we talk to. And after awhile, we begin to reflect, in our reporting, what it is that his closest advisers are telling.

KURTZ: So recalling the nice, warm relationship that John McCain had with the press during his run in 2000, it sounds like sucking up to reporters is an important part of running for president.

HARWOOD: I think it's a great thing. I wish more politicians did it.

KURTZ: You're in favor of this?


HARWOOD: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that Bill Frist brings to his job as majority leader. He has very, very good relations with the press. That's one of the reasons why he's going to get a good initial ride.

KURTZ: Just very briefly, the fact that it's now a wide open Democratic field is probably great for reporters, but I wonder how engaged the public is, at this point?

IFILL: They're not engaged, and neither do we expect them to be engaged, which doesn't mean we don't do our story. I mean, there are a lot of stories we cover, which the public could care about, especially in the beginning. Witness the Trent Lott story. But after we cover it, then they get engaged.

KURTZ: Now before we go, there's piece of videotape I want to play. John Harwood, you were on this show a few weeks ago with Laura Ingraham talking about whether Al Gore would run again. Let's take a look.


HARWOOD: I wouldn't be too quick to assume that he's definitely running. I think Al Gore...

LAURA INGRAHAM: I'll bet it. I'll bet it.

HARWOOD: I think Al Gore means it when he says he may not run. And some people close to him think he's not going to do it.

KURTZ: Sounds like we have a wager here and...


KURTZ: Have you collected on the bet?

HARWOOD: No, my biggest mistake, Howie, is in not setting the stakes very, very high on that bet.

KURTZ: What did you know that other people didn't about whether Gore would run or not?

HARWOOD: I had just talked to friends of his who thought he was genuinely ambivalent, getting comfortable in his new life in Nashville, making money, teaching and just not exposing himself to the rigors of the campaign. Once you -- that was the first time in his adult life he'd had a taste of that life.

KURTZ: Were you surprised?

CARLSON: Not at all.

KURTZ: Not at all?

CARLSON: I think I won two bets on it. Partly because...

KURTZ: All this wagering going on in the journalistic casino.

CARLSON: Sure, you always got to bet on races. I mean, it's like baseball.

But look, I mean, if Al Gore -- I think in the end -- well, who knows exactly what goes on in the mind of Al Gore? But I think in the end, if he ran again and lost, he would be this kind of pathetic character. If he never runs again, he's always this kind of poignant footnote. And I think that's what made the decision...

KURTZ: On that note of poignancy, we will leave it there. Gwen Ifill, Tucker Carlson, John Harwood, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, more on Al Gore, late night comic. Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb with his view of Al Gore, comedian.



GORE: It's great to be here this week in New York.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: "Saturday Night Live?" Hey, how about Saturday Night Dead or Saturday Night Embalmed or maybe I Can't Wait Til Sunday Morning.

Look, the show may have been around for 28 years. I've never seen more than a minute or two. But with Al and Tipper and what was, clearly, a major media event, I couldn't resist. So I watched. All 90 minutes.

And I kept thinking not only do we have a budget deficit, we've also got a comedy deficit.

But even more, if presidential wannabes have to dunk themselves in self-caricature, self-satire, self-parody, we are finished, finito. Our days as a super power are numbering. I mean, can you see these guys dunking themselves in the Potomac just to get a few votes?

Now, I'll admit to a chuckle or two, though the skits themselves were triumphs of predictability with Al joining in to show he was a regular guy, playing all sorts of roles. As Trent Lott.


GORE: I, myself, am a white man, and some, if not all, of my best friends are white.


KALB: As himself being treated for political depression.


GORE: All I have to do is be the best Al I can be.

My wife is missing.


KALB: And what about the foreign policy implications? The almost president being led around by a bunch of comedy writers. They are going to attack me?, this guy must be saying to himself.

OK, the show did get great ratings and even some TV critics loved it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought Gore was great. I thought his timing was terrific.


KALB: His timing was terrific. The next day, he said, I'm out of here.

But even with Al out of the race, I've still got a problem. Not so much with "SNL", but with the politicos who are ready to jump through hoops of ridicule just to get a handful of votes.

I'll tell you this. There were moments during the show, when I found myself thinking about renouncing my citizenship and buying a seat on the next spaceship out of here.


KURTZ: Well, I thought it was funny.

Bernard Kalb.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 11:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


Factor Into Gore's Decision Not to Run?>

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