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A Look at Coverage of Blackout; How Are Media Covering Schwarzenegger's Campaign?

Aired August 17, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The great blackout of '03. How did newspapers publish in the dark and networks stay on the air?

And terminating the press? How long can Arnold Schwarzenegger get away with a glitzy photo op campaign? How fair are the latest stories about his Nazi father, his wife Maria and his comments about big-breasted women?

And whatever happened to all those folks running for president?

Also, unfair and unbalanced? Roger Ailes versus Al Franken over a network slogan.


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

The lights went out a little after 4 p.m. Thursday and the media kicked into crisis mode.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: This just in to CNN, word of the significant power outage in New York City.


KURTZ: Sometimes, incredible as it may seem, even Arnold Schwarzenegger can be upstaged.

The same goes for the president of the United States, who was boasting that afternoon about the capture of an al Qaeda suspect in last year's Bali bombing.

But the only story on television, carried from increasingly warm New York studios, was the huge power failure that blocked out much of the northeast, upper Midwest and Canada.


DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: The region stricken by this power outage is enormous. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Fortunately, as the hours of live coverage dragged on through the weekend, this was a crisis with few casualties. Kind of like covering Baghdad without the bullets. No terrorism, no looting, even no panic in the streets, even as hoards of people climbed out of subways, sat in traffic or walked miles to get home.

The major networks used backup generators to stay on the air.


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: When power comes on, use it wisely, carefully and don't use a whole lot of it.


KURTZ: The "Cleveland Plain Dealer" had to use the printing presses of the "Akron Beacon-Journal."

The "Detroit Free Press" put out an eight-page edition by candlelight, kind of like Ben Franklin, an editor said.

Despite the massive inconvenience to millions, TV presented it almost as a heartwarming tale, folks taking things in stride and helping each other out.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: No evident panic, a lot of people helping each other.


KURTZ: Joining us now from New York, CNN's Deborah Feyerick. And here in Washington, Paul Farhi of the "Washington Post."

Deborah Feyerick, what was the hardest thing in covering a sweltering grid locked city with no power?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The hardest thing was figuring out where we were going.

When the lights went out in our building, everybody didn't know what it was. A lot of people just started heading out onto the street and then we found people. Some of us ran down to another bureau where they had power.

And it was just a question of trying to get on air and trying to get information as we were walking down. We kept saying to people, what building are you in? Where were you? And just trying to get information. Bits and pieces because nobody knew what was going on at that point.

And of course, the big concern was that it could be terror related. And that was another issue. Do you go to work or do you start thinking about your family?

KURTZ: So you not only had to deal with this as a journalist but you had to deal with it on personal level and you not only faced a power blackout but kind of an information blackout, at least in the early hours?

FEYERICK: It was a total information blackout, and so we were trying to call as many people as possible. But again all the cell phones were down, the hard lines then went down, the hard telephone lines went down.

So it was a question of just trying to talk to whoever we could. Mayor Bloomberg gave a press conference.

And then the big question about 7 was it started getting dark the question was how do you get home? And, you know, lot of people, I myself walked 80 blocks just to make sure that, you know, my two babies were OK.

So it was a lot of challenges and a lot of different stories but definitely New Yorkers helping one another. The problem was there wasn't all that much help that could be provided.

KURTZ: Eighty blocks, when you're not sure about your family, that's difficult.

Paul Farhi, when the computers go down and the printing presses go down, it can be hard to put out a newspaper?

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Absolutely right. Some remarkable, even heroic efforts were made. The cooperation between the "Akron Beacon-Journal" and the "Cleveland Plain Dealer" is fairly remarkable.

I think in crisis the media, just like average citizens, sort of learns to get along. And there's a certain spirit to it that's actually fairly heartwarming.

KURTZ: And 99 percent of the coverage I saw, Paul Farhi, was about what was happening in Manhattan, pictures of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

What about Queens and what about Buffalo and Toronto and Detroit, which also didn't have any power?

FARHI: It was a very New York-centric quality to this. And part of this is obvious: that's where the networks are. That's where the reporters are.

We didn't learn much about Buffalo. We didn't learn much about Cleveland, Detroit, Rochester, Syracuse. For all we knew some spectacular things could have been happening there.

The fact of the matter is New York does believe itself to be the media captain of the world and in fact, it probably is. But there was a huge story going on all around the northeast, including parts of Canada. Heard nothing from them.

KURTZ: Deborah Feyerick, was it difficult for you to just get instructions from editors and producers as to where they wanted you to go, what they wanted you to do? Were cell phones working?

I mean, just paint a little picture for us of those early hours from your perspective.

FEYERICK: Well, once we got out of the building, about 15 minutes later a couple of the bosses were in front giving directions. They routed us to another station, a local station who we have an agreement with. This agreement was put in place after September 11 when so many people were knocked off of the air.

So everybody ran down there, but then it really was a question of trying to get into the control room, trying to give whatever information you could get.

But there was so many calls coming in and that, you know, often you were on hold, juggling two phones trying to get information so you could instruct people what was going on. But, also, waiting to go on air. And there was controlled mayhem, I should say.

FARHI: There really wasn't a lot of facts to be had, as it turned out. And what people, I think, learned from television was are the lights on or are the lights off?

You could watch it and not find out anything but the emotion, which television, of course, is very good at. But you couldn't find out the why; you couldn't find out about the critical infrastructure of the subways and the elevators and all that.

Really, all you could learn from television is it dark or isn't it?

KURTZ: Just briefly, Deborah Feyerick, what kind of mood were people in when it came to being interviewed by television reporters? Were they more concerned with reaching their families and getting home than giving interviews?

FEYERICK: Everybody was very anxious about getting home and reaching their families. But they were also in the spirit of it, because there was also that hope that perhaps somebody outside of Manhattan might be watching and might see that they were OK and at least have some guidance as to what they were doing.

So everybody was very friendly. Everybody was in this together. It was a real sort of team spirit. So people were speaking.

KURTZ: All right. Deborah Feyerick, thanks very much for that report from the front lines. We appreciate it.

We turn now to the media's continuing fascination with the California recall and, who else, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Paul Farhi stays with us here in Washington, and joining us from Los Angeles, Dave Brian, political reporter for KCBS and KCAL. And in San Francisco, Mark Barabak, political writer for "The Los Angeles Times."

Mark Barabak, you did a cover story on Arnold Schwarzenegger last year. How much interviewing time did you have with him?

MARK BARABAK, POLITICAL WRITER, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Oh, probably five or ten minutes, maybe. Part of the story was sort of the fact that I never got to talk to Arnold.

It was a funny thing. He came up to me, knew I was doing the piece and was very gracious and had a very long conversation about why wasn't cooperating. How it wasn't in his interest to cooperate.

Again it was very polite. In fact, it was a funny thing. I remember being very self-conscious because we were at this reception and it was me and Arnold and there was a swarm of people standing around us. And I kind of kept feeling I should cut it short because they all wanted to talk to him. But again, went on at some length, very polite, very graciously, about how he wasn't going to help me with the story.

KURTZ: Perhaps it was a harbinger of what we're going through now.

Dave Brian, I want to play a piece of tape in which one of the other Billion and a half candidates, Arianna Huffington, had some things to say about the media coverage of this California recall.


ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, CALIFORNIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: That it's time that the media started doing their job and asking the questions of the candidates instead of asking questions of his spokesman. It's not Pete Wilson who is running for governor; it is Arnold Schwarzenegger.


KURTZ: Dave Brian, have you been able to ask any questions of the Terminator?

DAVE BRIAN, POLITICAL REPORTER, KCBS AND KCAL: Well, I haven't. And few reporters have.

Actually, this past week on Thursday, Schwarzenegger did make an appearance at a middle school in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley and did take a few questions, although his main purpose for being there was to announce that George Schultz was joining his economic recovery team.

KURTZ: But did you feel -- I was told the question and answer session lasted a total of three minutes. Did you feel, shall we say, short-changed?

BRIAN: Well, I think we all did. And particularly that particular criticism from Arianna Huffington made some accusations about Schwarzenegger and his connection with Enron former chairman Kenneth Lay. And Schwarzenegger said he didn't remember the meeting and indicated that if he did he wasn't going to talk about it anyway.

KURTZ: Paul Farhi, let's face it: the press has just been dazzled by the Arnold campaign. And so for example, one day last week doesn't answer any questions but they put out word that Rob Lowe, the actor, is joining the campaign. Everybody writes about that. So how does he get away with it?

FARHI: Well, you're talking, first of all, about the smartest media manager candidate in a long time.

KURTZ: In recorded history, perhaps.

FARHI: Maybe. But maybe not that much.

But my point is that Arnold has spent 20 years as part of the Hollywood machine. Hollywood knows how to manage the press. And it does so every single day. Arnold has learned those lessons.

He has no incentive to actually answer any questions as long as he's up as many points as he in polls, as long as he can ride on this empty knowledge that people don't have about him. And so he's going to sit on it and there's no reason to play ball with the press.

KURTZ: Mark Barabak, should the press make an issue at some point of his refusal to provide specifics and answer questions. Or is it true, as some say, that voters don't care and he can just ignore political reporters like you?

BARABAK: No, absolutely. We should make an issue. I think voters do care.

I mean, look, you know, my job is going to be the same. I'm going to come to work whether Arnold answers questions or not. It's the people of California. And forgive me for sounding high-faluting and high-minded, but you know, they're voting on who their next governor is going to be, they should know.

And I want to add to something that Dave said about that whole event. It was even more calculated than that.

The Schwarzenegger campaign did not tell a lot of the political press that event was happening. In fact, one of our reporters just minutes before the event was told, "No, no public appearance today."

So what they have been doing is putting out word to selected news organizations, mainly TV cameras, that he's going to be in a certain time and a certain place. And shows up, poses for pictures. And reporters who might ask something a bit more substantive the kind of stuff you might get from "Access Hollywood or "Entertainment Tonight", with all due respect, aren't notified. So we can't cover these events.

KURTZ: You're not even told where he's going to be. That's amazing.

BRIAN: The event took place at 3 p.m. in the afternoon and I was called at 1:45. And in the Los Angeles area that's not much time to get to a distant location.

BARABAK: And as I said, we were on the phone literally minutes before he showed up, "No, no events today. Nothing."

BRIAN: There it was.

FARHI: Well, Arnold doesn't need you guys. I mean, Arnold has a public image already. And voters, I think, to some extent think they already know him because they've seen him for 20 years in the movies.

BARABAK: I think...

FARHI: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

BARABAK: I think to a large extent they think they know him, and they don't.

I saw the most amazing quote in "The New York Times" from someone saying, "I know Arnold. I've seen all his movies."

Well, you know, Arnold the movie star -- and don't get me wrong, this is not bashing Arnold, he could turn out to be the greatest governor in California history. He can cure cancer and solve the budget problem and all that stuff, but you know what? We don't know that. We don't know anything about him politically.

KURTZ: Let me just...

BRIAN: I think...

KURTZ: Hold on, Dave -- let me pick through some stories and you tell me if you think they're fair game.

Your newspaper, the "L.A. Times," had a piece about his father not only having been a Nazi but perhaps a Storm Trooper. I would raise the question who cares in terms of the gubernatorial campaign.

BARABAK: Well, you know, to put this story in perspective, I think it ran on page A16. It wasn't a front-page banner headline. I think there were two parts to the story. I think there was that part and then there was the fact that the institute in Los Angeles did what they said was a very thorough vetting of the case. We went back and found information that hadn't been turned up and put it out there on the record. And as I say, put it on page 16 or 18 or wherever they ran.

KURTZ: Dave Brian, the "San Francisco Chronicle" ran a piece about an interview in which Arnold Schwarzenegger had said, about his latest movie, "Boy, what great satisfaction to be able to take the head of the female co-star and shove it down a toilet."

That doesn't sound like a serious campaign issue. BRIAN: Well, it certainly, as you say, it ran in the "San Francisco Chronicle." And I would expect that as the campaign goes on that there will be stories like that, if in fact, those are things that he said and did.

It seems to me that people -- I think part of the problem here is that as we talked about earlier, people think they know Arnold but what they know is the public relations image and the movie symbol that he has represented.

I think we all agree that people don't really know him. And part of our job is to put out there the side of Arnold Schwarzenegger that people don't know, for better or worse.

KURTZ: Right.

BRIAN: And I think that's one small piece of that task.

KURTZ: Another piece, Paul Farhi, a quote in "Esquire" magazine, that's been recycled by the California papers. I'll have to clean it up a little bit. "When you see a blonde with a great chest and a great rear end, you say to yourself, hey, she must be stupid." He went on to say that sometimes it's shocking that they're not always stupid.

Are these kinds of past statements in entertainment interviews where you're having a little bit of fun, are they going to get him in trouble?

FARHI: I think people in California understand the context of those things. That's Arnold the movie star. Now Arnold has gotten serious. Arnold is running for governor. Arnold is in a different arena altogether.

I'm not so sure that the sophistication or lack of sophistication of the voters in California, that that really truly matters. Because we know there's a context and it's the Hollywood context. Now we're in a different arena.

KURTZ: What about the stories about Maria Shriver, Mark Barabak, and the very aggressive role that Arnold's wife is apparently playing in that campaign. Is that inside baseball or is that also an important part of campaign coverage?

BARABAK: Well, I think it's an important part to the extent that, let's say, Arnold is elected governor. You want to know who his advisers are going to be, the people around, advising him. She's taken a very important, very prominent role in his campaign. One would assume if he were elected governor she would continue to play a role like that. So I think it's important for people to know that.

KURTZ: OK. We need to go to break.

When we come back, remember when Howard Dean was on the cover of "TIME" and "Newsweek"? Has he been blown away by Hurricane Arnold? We'll talk about that next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


Mark Barabak, I would say that the other candidates in this race, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Bill Simon, who ran last time, even the governor, Gray Davis, combined have gotten maybe a quarter of the media attention that Schwarzenegger has gotten.

Isn't there a huge media mismatch developing because of the press's fascination with Arnold, the movie star candidate?

BARABAK: Well, you know, I think - I'm going to say something that's going to sound very, very California, so forgive me.

I think you need to take sort of a holistic look at the coverage. Look at it in its totality. We can talk about stories that ran on A16 and a quote here and a quote there.

I think if you take the coverage, I mean, there's 50 some days left. Yes, there's been a lot of focus on Arnold because there's a lot of interest in him from the start.

If you walk back from election day and you look at the coverage in its totality, I think you've got to ask yourself, will the voters of California be able to make an informed decision based on the information they've gotten from my paper, from whatever other sources? And I think eventually things are going to even out.

I think we are going to see sort of a settling down, if you will. And I think in some ways this could become a very conventional race between two or three Republicans and a Democrat or two. And a lot of the circus stuff that's been out there, that's fun, that's interesting is going to kind of fall away.

KURTZ: Right.

BARABAK: It might look very conventional.

KURTZ: Let me go to Dave Brian.

We on the east coast, first of all, will try to take a more holistic approach. I think that's a good idea.

But with some of the media oxygen being grabbed by the likes of Larry Flynt and Angelyne and the porn star, Mary Carey, do you feel any responsibility to try to devote more airtime to the other, quote, serious candidates?

BRIAN: Well, we in fact do. And I think there is a responsibility.

I think, as Mark was saying, that number one, our responsibility is to fill in the void about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because here's a guy who's leading in the polls. A guy nobody really knows much about, not only in a personal sense but certainly about his political views and views on issues. And that's a void that we have to fill.

We have also -- what we've done is we'll do two or three pieces and the papers have four or five, six stories where we talk about the other candidates in conjunction with Arnold and some of the other issues.

FARHI: You've got to make a distinction between what the national media is focusing on and what the California media is focusing on. The national media is, of course, enthralled by Arnold Schwarzenegger's candidacy and the circus of California politics.

KURTZ: I read the California papers every day now and they're doing a lot of Arnold, too, believe me.

FARHI: They are...

KURTZ: Sometimes there will be four Arnold stories and one about...

FARHI: But reading Mark's paper, I see quite a bit of detail going back to A16, every single day about Gray Davis, about the process. And, you know, it isn't hard to be informed in California.

KURTZ: Let me ask you a national question, Paul. What about the Democratic presidential candidate? I mean, with all of this going on, you know, you can barely find Joe Lieberman or Dick Gephardt. There faces are on milk cartons.

Is that a problem for them and the media coverage of the White House race?

FARHI: I don't think so because this is going to be over on October 7. We've got a long time for the average voter to focus on national politics.

The national media is always going to cover the presidential race. If they're taking a hiatus it's probably just going to be August.

KURTZ: Right. Well, one interested 2004 candidate had something to say about all this Schwarzenegger coverage. Let's take a look at George Bush.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is the biggest political story in the country? That's interesting. Isn't there, like, a presidential race coming up?


KURTZ: Mark Barabak, what do you think -- see as the impact on the 2004 race? I think these folks are going to have trouble, with the obvious exception of the president, getting any airtime at all until this recall is settled. BARABAK: Yes. That's probably true. I think maybe to the extent that it may hurt them a little bit in terms of maybe a little bit of fund raising and there are a couple candidates. I mean, let's talk about there are tiers of candidates.

I don't think Howard Dean needs to worry about it. You know, a couple of guys who need it, really, to sort of gin up their campaign are Joe Lieberman and John Edwards. It may hurt them to the extent that they're not getting the opportunity to catch fire. But you know, again, it is early and there's plenty of time for normal people, if you will, to tune in after this is over.

KURTZ: OK. Attention...

BARABAK: And I should say, I think Iowa and New Hampshire, I think most of the campaigning...

KURTZ: I've got to break here.

BARABAK: ... is going on there anyway.

KURTZ: Attention normal people, you can tune in a couple of months.

Dave Brian, L.A. television stations are famous for not carrying very much about politics. Now this is the lead story almost every night. What explains it in 30 seconds.

BRIAN: Well, first of all, the recall itself is a huge story, with or without Arnold. And then, when you add Schwarzenegger to it, certainly he adds the celebrity, the sizzle, the sexiness, that television stations love to cover. So it's even knocked car chases out of the top of the show.

KURTZ: That is truly a historic accomplishment. Thanks for wrapping it up so succinctly. Dave Brian, Mark Barabak, Paul Farhi, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Fox News faces off against Al Franken. No joke.


KURTZ: The following report will be fair and balanced. I promise. Fair and balanced. Not that I'm trying to borrow, steal or misappropriate anyone else's catchphrase. I just like the sound of those words, fair and balance.

So apparently does comedian and liberal commentator Al Franken, who's coming out with a book called "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." Which didn't go over too well at Fox News, the some say conservative network that touts itself every three or four minutes as fair and balanced.

Franken has already tangled with Fox star Bill O'Reilly at a forum carried by C-Span. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS TALK SHOW HOST: He's gotten six and a half years is that I misspoke, that I labeled a Polk Award a Peabody. He writes it in his book. He tries to make me out...

AL FRANKEN, COMEDIAN: No, no, no, no, no.

O'REILLY: Hey, shut up. You had your 35 minutes. Shut up.

FRANKEN: This isn't your show, Bill.

O'REILLY: This is what this guy does. This is what he does.

FRANKEN: Bill, you can't tell me...

O'REILLY: This is what he does.

FRANKEN: Take control...


KURTZ: So now O'Reilly's boss, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, is suing Franken, saying he would tarnish the phrase "fair and balanced" that he's not a journalist, not well respected, that he is, in fact, shrill and unstable and a parasite who has copied the style of O'Reilly's books.

Franken dismisses the lawsuit as a joke, saying, "When I read 'intoxicated or deranged' and 'shrill and unstable' in their complaint I thought for a moment I was a Fox commentator."

So why is Ailes giving Franken and his book all this free publicity? Is it really a diabolical plot to generate more publicity for Fox? Maybe we've just fallen in the trap.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us next Sunday morning for another critical look at the media.


Schwarzenegger's Campaign?>

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