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Interview With Cokie Roberts

Aired December 28, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Cokie and the Capitol. She's covered Congress for two decades, written books, interviewed presidential candidates, spent Sundays arguing with Sam Donaldson and George Will. Cokie Roberts talks about George Bush, Al Gore, Trent Lott, George Stephanopoulos, media bias and why reporters think most politicians are liars.
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Cokie Roberts surprised a lot of people earlier this year when she announced she was stepping down as co-anchor of ABC's "This Week." She remains a correspondent for ABC News and National Public Radio and writes a newspaper column with her husband, Steve Roberts. But her decision to resign as a Sunday morning talking head caused plenty of buzz in a city where some people got to know her as the daughter of two members of Congress. So we ventured to her home in Maryland for a glimpse of the world according to Cokie.


KURTZ: Cokie Roberts, welcome.

COKIE ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: It's good to be with you.

KURTZ: When a big story breaks, don't you miss being part of the Sunday morning action?

ROBERTS: Ever so often, sure. When there's something that you just want to weigh in on, but I'm on National Public Radio and have that opportunity, and Steve and I write a weekly column, and so I have that opportunity. So sure, I miss doing it with my colleagues, Sam and George, but I have other opportunities.

KURTZ: You walked away from a big national network platform. Nobody does that.

ROBERTS: Well...

KURTZ: You have no second thoughts?

ROBERTS: ... I think people do, do that, but no, not even...

KURTZ: Most of them get shoved. They get shoved out the door.

ROBERTS: It was time, you know. KURTZ: Why was it time?

ROBERTS: Because I had reached a point in my life where it was time for me not to be getting up at 5:00 every Sunday morning and going to work, and then coming back and going to church and then taking a nap, and not really having the opportunity to spend time with people I wanted to spend time with, mainly my family.

KURTZ: So this wasn't something that you agonized over. You just...

ROBERTS: Not at all. In fact, a couple of years ago, I said very directly to my executive in charge, I will do this for a couple of more years and that's it. And the lawyer who works on my contracts worked it out that way and that was always the plan.

KURTZ: What would have been the reaction if a man had said you know I really want to spend...

ROBERTS: Well...

KURTZ: ... more time with the grandchildren.

ROBERTS: ... it's unfair to men, but the truth is if a man says that, you figure that the posse is on the way, and an indictment might show up at any moment. But, the truth is and we can argue about whether this is right or not as long as we want to, but the fact is that women really do spend more time with their families. Until I can find a man who can tell me the dates of all of his nieces and nephews birthdays and get presents out to them regularly, I'm going to stay by that statement.

KURTZ: You've talked publicly about battling breast cancer. How are you feeling?

ROBERTS: I'm feeling fine. I'm almost done with chemotherapy. I'll be glad when it is done, and I'm doing fine.

KURTZ: You notice changes on your old show this week. I mean I still turn on Sunday morning expecting to see you and Sam going...

ROBERTS: Well that's good.

KURTZ: Does it seem to you the show is evolving in a different direction?

ROBERTS: Well I -- every new anchor takes a show in a different direction. It was different with David Brinkley than it was with Sam and me, and it's different with George Stephanopoulos than it was with Sam and me. But George is a very smart person, who is -- brings an interesting mix.

KURTZ: There was a lot of talk when he got that job about he'd worked in the Clinton White House, would people see him as a Democrat? Do you think he is in the process of overcoming that? ROBERTS: I think he has overcome that. I think that George is a fair-minded analyst and that he's bent over backwards to show that. That sometimes makes Democrats mad, but I had that just growing up in a Democratic family where it sometimes made Democrats mad that I was fair.

KURTZ: And I was going to ask you about that. I mean you grew up in this house in Maryland.


KURTZ: And your late father was House majority leader and your mother was a congresswoman. When you first started as a journalist, was -- did people look at you as...


KURTZ: ... Democratic heritage. Could she really be fair.


KURTZ: Was it an obstacle for you?

ROBERTS: It probably was something of an obstacle to be seen as a Democratic kid. But very quickly people get to know your work, and I was covering Capitol Hill and covering it for National Public Radio, so I would walk into that smallest town in America every day, and out of the 535 key people, a couple of hundred of them had just heard me. So you can't pull any punches under those circumstances and the truth is, as you well know, you don't want to.

KURTZ: But did you occasionally find yourself ticking off people who were friends of your parents...


KURTZ: ... being there for dinner, for example.

ROBERTS: Sure. There were times when people felt that I was being too fair, that...

KURTZ: Too fair meaning not...


KURTZ: ... their position.


ROBERTS: That's right. I mean who needs her to be fair. Why isn't she on our team? And I think that that there was some residue of that. But as I got older, people got more used to it.

KURTZ: I remember when you first starting on Sunday morning roundtable on "This Week" and you talked about you wanted to do analysis, but you didn't want to give opinions. ROBERTS: Right.

KURTZ: It all sounds kind of quaint these days when all journalists seem to give opinions, but was that something that remained in your mind about -- was there an invisible line you didn't want to cross?

ROBERTS: Yes. When I was first doing the roundtable, I was covering Capitol Hill on a daily basis, and both for NPR and then for ABC, and I thought it was important not to come out on one side or the other on any particular issue, and it wasn't a partisan thing as much as it was just you were covering the issue and people shouldn't know exactly how you felt about it.

Now, the truth is about most issues on the Hill, you don't have strong opinions because you hear those debates over and over and over again, and you get to the point where you're for whichever side you didn't hear last. And I always say yes, I have a bias, it's for dinner. I want you to finish so I can go home to dinner.

KURTZ: They do tend to go on at some length...

ROBERTS: That's right, and so you don't. I think a lot of political reporters end up not having strong political opinions.

KURTZ: And yet, you know that a lot of people out there would have a hard time believing that. They have a conception about the liberal media and that journalists they believe are sort of secret activists and do have these views. So why is it so hard to convince people otherwise?

ROBERTS: I think there are a couple of reasons. I think one is something you've dealt with for many years, is that the journalists are by definition people who are tilting the authority, and for a very long time, the White House was occupied by Republicans, and so there was a sense that the journalists were always out to get the Republican and the White House, although, there are some who would argue about that in the Regan years, for instance. And I think that also there has been a concerted effort on the part of some conservatives to portray the media as the liberal media because I think that works when you want to raise some money or you want to get people mad, it works.

KURTZ: It plays fair bait (ph), so to speak.

ROBERTS: That's right.


ROBERTS: But it is also true there have been surveys done that do show that a lot of people in the media vote Democratic.

KURTZ: Or are to the left of the general population on a lot of social issues, for example.

ROBERTS: Particularly cultural issues, and that's where I actually would agree, and it's not just the media in the sense of we think of the people here in Washington who cover politics, it's the broader media, particularly Hollywood. I think that there is not an understanding of the fact that most Americans get up every day and go to work and work hard to try to just get their kids educated and they don't want to be assaulted by things on television that do not reflect their values and that make it harder for them to raise their children in the way that they feel is the appropriate way to raise them.

KURTZ: There's a certain disconnect...

ROBERTS: There's...

KURTZ: ... culturally.

ROBERTS: Culturally, I do think -- you never -- do you ever see people going to church on a sitcom? You know, it is just not an understanding of how most people live their lives.

KURTZ: There are those, Al Gore among them, who say that, in fact, there's now something of a conservative tilt in the media with the rise of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and "The Washington Times" and so forth. Is there some truth to that...

ROBERTS: Well, I think...

KURTZ: ... Democratic indictment?

ROBERTS: I think it's a good thing to have a lot of voices in the media, and I think, you know, let all flowers bloom. But it's certainly true that talk radio tends to be more conservative than anything else. I mean it's -- it is hard to find a voice on talk radio that is not a conservative voice. But I think that came out of a sense that people felt that they didn't have access to the media and that the media was liberal and tilted left, particularly culturally, and that this was the way that they could have their voices be heard. So I think it's a chicken and egg thing.

KURTZ: Speaking of Al Gore, he finally got some good press when he announced he wasn't going to run for president in 2004. Have you been struck at all over the years by the fact that a lot of reporters just don't seem to like him very much or certainly don't give him the benefit of the doubt?

ROBERTS: It's interesting because people do like him personally. If Al Gore was sitting where you're sitting and these cameras weren't on, we'd be having a very pleasant conversation, and he could be very interesting and funny and self deprecating. But the minute the camera goes on, he becomes the boy that his parents raised him to be, and I think that's very hard.

KURTZ: And so do you think that in accessing whether to run for president again, Gore not only had the fact that a lot of people in the Democratic Party wanted a fresh face, but knew that he was not going to get any great ride from the media.

ROBERTS: I'm sure that was part of his calculation. He spent a couple of weeks before he made this decision out testing it... KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: ... and probably saw what the reaction was. I must say, though, I thought his "Saturday Night Live" performance was awfully good.

KURTZ: Maybe that's where his future lies.

ROBERTS: That's right. There you go.

KURTZ: Now as somebody who worked on Capitol Hill for so many years and knows a lot of the players, were you struck at all by the fact that it took a number of days for most of the mainstream press to jump on Trent Lott's remarks about Strom Thurmond, that this was almost deemed to be a non-story until finally it became a huge story.

ROBERTS: It is interesting that it took a while for that story to percolate. I think part of it was that a lot of people who cover the Hill know Trent Lott and just said, oh there he goes again. A lot...

KURTZ: You mean they had heard him say...

ROBERTS: Well, they've heard him say things he...

KURTZ: ... things over the years?

ROBERTS: ... shouldn't say. We always loved having him live on television because he would say something that would make his press people crazy. But -- and some of it was that the testimonials to Strom Thurmond were over the top, which is normal when somebody is 100 years old. We don't have that very often...

KURTZ: Not too often.

ROBERTS: ... and leaving. But I think that it did take a while for people to just sort of look at it. I remember when it was in "The Washington Post" that Saturday, I guess.

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: And Steve and I were having breakfast, and Steve said did you see this? And I was shocked when I saw it.

KURTZ: But even then a lot of newspapers took several days, a lot of network newscasts did not jump on it. So, is there a certain coziness that evolves between the veteran Hill reporters and...

ROBERTS: Sure there is.

KURTZ: ... lawmakers that have been around for a while.

ROBERTS: There is a coziness, but I don't think it's the coziness that press critics would assert, which is oh, they just want their parking places and they're afraid to criticize. I think that's just wrong. We've criticized people on the Hill for many years, and are not thrilled to do it, but do it. I just...

KURTZ: So what kind of coziness is it?

ROBERTS: I think it's just that you know who they are and sometimes you don't hear how the rest of the country hears something because you've heard their voices so many times.

KURTZ: In a moment, more of our sit-down with ABC's Cokie Roberts as we talk about overly scripted talk show guests and why she's less cynical about the motives of politicians than most journalists.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Before she was a journalist, Cokie Roberts grew up as the daughter of House majority leader Hale Boggs and Lindy Boggs, who succeeded her husband as a member of Congress in Louisiana, and we wondered how this affected her view of Washington and the media.

Does it seem to you as the daughter of two politicians that a lot of journalists who don't come from this kind of background, are very cynical toward politicians...


KURTZ: ... don't particularly like them, are much quicker to be more adversarial and maybe you grew up in a different atmosphere.

ROBERTS: Yes, I do think that if people talk about bias, I do have a bias toward the institutions. I think the founders had the right idea, and I'm a great believer in public service and have no hesitancy to say that, and...

KURTZ: You don't see this as a collection of names...

ROBERTS: Not at all...

KURTZ: ... and schedules and money grubbing...

ROBERTS: I see this as a collection of people who are doing their best to serve the public in the way that their lights (ph) tell them to do so. And I know how hard it is. They are on call 24 hours a day. They are not only working very hard at the Capitol and doing the legislative business, but the amount of just service, personal service that's done is unbelievable. The phone rings all night long with people calling and saying get my kid out of jail or my neighbor's husband is beating her. Do something. The sense of your representative being the access window in a way to government is very, very strong, and they work incredibly hard at it, and many of them could be doing a lot better in the private sector...

KURTZ: Certainly making more money. But what accounts for the increasingly shrill tone of a lot of political coverage, which you've probably seen change from the time that you started on the Hill to say recent years? ROBERTS: That's my dog Rupert (ph). He doesn't live in a shoe.


ROBERTS: But the -- I think it's a variety of things. I think one of it is that members of Congress themselves run against the institution. Sudden need of Washington to clean up the mess in Washington...

KURTZ: I'm going to take those folks...

ROBERTS: That's right.

KURTZ: I'm going to show them how we do it here...

ROBERTS: And we had a...

KURTZ: ... fill in the blank.

ROBERTS: ... variety of presidents doing that. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, everybody was going to clean up the mess in Washington. Reagan even did it for a second term. It was as if he had not been here, and so I think that there's a lot of that, of running down the institutions that they serve in themselves.

KURTZ: What about journalists...

ROBERTS: And then I think journalists approach politicians as if every word they're saying is a lie and that they're there solely for self-aggrandizement and there's no sense of public service. I think a little of that changed after September 11. I think there was a little sense of government being a worthy occupation, but it hasn't changed enough.

KURTZ: And obviously you're not a fan of this...


KURTZ: ... prevailing assumption that -- you say that they're probably lying.

ROBERTS: Of course not because I don't believe it to be true. I think that most people in public office are there to serve the public good. Now, are some of them also serving their own good at the same time? Of course they are. Are they trying to get elected? Are they trying to say something that will appeal to people? Sure. But, they're not there all day every day trying to promote themselves and nobody else.

KURTZ: You talked about the perception that perhaps the press was biased against Republicans because so many years a Republican president and coverage tends to be more aggressive or adversarial. Where does the coverage of President Bush fit on this scale? Obviously after September 11, a lot of people thought the media became almost like a cheerleading squad for the White House. ROBERTS: The -- and Democrats complained mightily that the press has not been hard enough on President Bush. So much is in the eye of the beholder, and I think that some people -- one person will read a story and say that's horribly critical and another person will read the same story and say (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they're giving him a pass. But the president has done very, very well with the American people, and if the press coverage reflects that, I think that's probably appropriate.

KURTZ: All those Sunday mornings when you got up early and interviewed...

ROBERTS: All those people.

KURTZ: ... candidates, members of the Congress, and you know administration officials and so forth, was it frustrating in a sense that you know how the game is. They come in with their talking points. They have two or three points they want to make. You want to get them off the script. Did that get wearing after a while?

ROBERTS: Sure. And over the years politicians have gotten more scripted. They have media consultants who tell them how to do it. They've learned how to speak in 11-second sound bytes. I at one point was saying to people, look, I work for public radio. You can talk longer. You know, but...

KURTZ: Keep going.

ROBERTS: Keep going. Like finish the sentence please. But -- so it is irritating and you do try to think of something to ask that maybe they haven't thought of so that they are thrown off the script a little bit, but it's hard to do. They have thought through pretty much every question.

KURTZ: So you try to get them to react...

ROBERTS: Like a human being.

KURTZ: ... human being.


KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) funny. And finally, you know, we've talked here about problems with the press, you know, in the years that you have done this for a living, why do you think that the public view of our profession has continued to go down and down? I mean we're ranked down there with you know, used car salesmen and...


KURTZ: ... shotty lawyers.

ROBERTS: It's interesting, though, because local news is seen as better than newspapers, for instance.

KURTZ: People trust their local anchorman. ROBERTS: And I think some of this gets back to this question of public service. I don't think people like the idea of the press always beating up on everybody. In the olden days, maybe it was too cozy where the local newspaper and the Chamber of Commerce were all together. But there was a sense that we were all on the same team.

KURTZ: And where if a lawmaker was drunk on the Senate floor, it wouldn't be reported.

ROBERTS: Well that's true, but I'm talking more about this question of seeing the press -- people seeing the press as not being one of them.

KURTZ: Right.


KURTZ: Like who elected you.

ROBERTS: Who elected you and that's -- so a local anchorman they trust because they see him at charity events and doing good in the community. The national anchorman they're likely to meet never. And I think with newspapers a very interesting thing happens, which is that I think a lot of people now are in situations where (UNINTELLIGIBLE) event that is covered. I mean the dog doesn't like it either, and they see that something is wrong in their coverage, and it could be something as simple as the tables had orchids on them and the reporter said irises. But the person who got those orchids was really mad, and I do think that there is a sense that we don't get it right enough.

KURTZ: And who's the blame for that?

ROBERTS: Editors.

KURTZ: A good place to leave it. Cokie Roberts, thanks very much for letting us into your living room.

ROBERTS: Well, you're welcome to be here. It was lovely to have you in my home.

KURTZ: Our talk with ABC's Cokie Roberts. We'll be right back.



KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of the program. I'm Howard Kurtz. Happy Holidays from all of us here at RELIABLE SOURCES. You can catch our show again tomorrow morning at 11:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


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