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Did CNN Rock the Vote?; CBS Cancels 'The Reagans'

Aired November 9, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Hoping for hipness. Did CNN and the Democratic candidates rock the vote or just pander to young people? Do regular folks ask better questions than journalists, and is the public sick of all these debates?

Movie meltdown, CBS cancels "The Reagans," the unbalanced and controversial film about the former first couple. Did the network abandon a flawed piece of fiction or bow to pressure from Matt Drudge, Bill O'Reilly and Republican chief Ed Gillespie?

And "Autumn of the Moguls." Author Michael Wolff on Rupert Murdoch and other media big shots, and how he wants to join their club.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Journalists love asking questions at political debates. After all, they're the ones who study the issues and scrutinize the candidates, and they believe they have a special ability to pin down the politicians, to make news, and, let's face it, to bask in the spotlight. Which is a perfect subject for "The Spin Cycle."


BERNARD SHAW: If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty?

KURTZ (voice-over): But in recent years, it has become more fashionable to let real people ask the questions. Since, the argument goes, they care more about down to earth bread and butter issues than preening press types.

All the better for trend watchers if the regular folks are part of an identifiable group, say, MTV-loving 18 to 30-year-olds who advertisers know like beer and fast cars. So if CNN's "Rock the Vote" debate in Boston was any indication, here are some of the serious issues on the minds of young Americans who asked the candidates directly or submitted their thoughts to moderator Anderson Cooper.

Grand questions of strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're the manager of the Boston Red Sox. It's game seven.

KURTZ: Technology issues.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it's not quite boxers or briefs, but Macs or PCs?

KURTZ: Preservation of the species.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: "Why did you have to kill those two pheasants in Iowa last week? You find it necessary to kill animals for photo-ops?"

KURTZ: Social interaction.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you could pick one of your fellow candidates to party with, which would you choose?

KURTZ: Not to mention national drug policy.

COOPER: Which of you are ready to admit to having used marijuana in the past? Yes?

KURTZ: There were cheers, but mainly for the candidates who said yes.


KURTZ: Boy, things have changed since Bill Clinton told the world he didn't inhale. But it was Clinton, of course, who told an MTV audience he wore briefs, not boxers.

So are the media serving up news with these debates, or just political theater? Well, joining us now from New York, Michael Wolff, a columnist for "New York Magazine." His new book, "Autumn of the Moguls: My Misadventures with the Titans, Poseurs and Money Guys Who Messed Up Big Media."

And here in Washington, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. She's the author of the best-selling "Shut Up and Sing: How Elites in Hollywood, Politics and the U.N. are Subverting America."

And William Saletan, chief political correspondent for the online magazine "Slate."

Welcome to all.

Laura Ingraham, was CNN trying to connect with young people with this debate or just project a hipper image?

LAURA INGRAHAM, "SHUT UP AND SING" AUTHOR: CNN was trying to look a little hip and also trying to get young people, I think, to turn into cable news and into politics early on this political season.

And there's some fun that comes out of these debates, some questions that, you know, you wouldn't ask and I wouldn't probably ask. But you know, people are 18 or 19 or 20, they look at the world differently and I think sometimes this kind of thing is fun. I'm not sure who's paying attention and it's a fun issue and a fun time to do it. But I don't think much is getting accomplished here.

KURTZ: A lot of slack being cut by Laura Ingraham.

William Saletan, you're a young person. At least, you're younger than me. Did this debate speak to you, or were you embarrassed by some of these inane questions?

WILLIAM SALETAN, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "SLATE": I was embarrassed. I think if you watched the first 15 minutes of this debate, you saw all that was worth seeing. It was all the flag stuff, the Confederate flag.

And then after that, it was just these silly questions, like Macs versus PCs. A completely useless question. Showed nobody -- didn't show anything about the personality of the candidate, much less their policies. And what really bugs me is the way the candidates pandered to these questioners. When they ask stupid questions, you know, just talk about something else.

KURTZ: What do you want them to do? Slap them around? Insult them?

SALETAN: They patted them on the back. John Kerry comes out after he gets asked about the Red Sox. He says, "Great question." No, not a great question. You just wasted two minutes of John Kerry's time and everybody else's time.

KURTZ: And our time.

SALETAN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: All right. Michael Wolff, could all this have anything to do with the 10 percent drop this season in the Nielson ratings for 18- to 34-year-olds? Everybody wants those younger viewers, right?

MICHAEL WOLFF, "AUTUMN OF THE MOGULS" AUTHOR: Well, everybody does, but this is not the way to get them. You know, the idea -- I mean, in this whole Rock the Vote thing, when it originally began, has always seemed to me for one thing to be incredibly condescending. It gives me the creeps.

And I think it gives most young people the creeps. I mean, it certainly has never produced ratings before. It's not producing them now.

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, what do you make of all the cheering for the past marijuana users? The point at which -- Joe Lieberman said -- he had to say he was sorry he never tried it.

INGRAHAM: It's just goofy. I mean, the whole thing is goofy. But the idea that the Democrats want to connect with young people, well, they'd better start. The Harvard Institute for Politics study that just came out last week shows that young people support Bush at a larger rate and larger percentage than other age groups. Eighteen to 30-year-olds tending to be more conservative on a whole host of issues. That's bad news for the Democrat Party.

But asking questions about, you know, computers and, you know, what downloads do you do? It makes no sense. But what do you expect these kids to ask? You know, questions about the GDP? I don't think so. That's not going to -- that's not going to get any yuks from the audience. And they want to goof around. They want to go, you know, go have a keg afterward or something. So it's not a big deal.


INGRAHAM: Yes, exactly.

WOLFF: But there's actually -- there's actually a larger point here, because the Democrats do connect with young people demonstrably more than Republicans.

INGRAHAM: No, they don't.

WOLFF: Yes, they do.

INGRAHAM: No, they don't.

WOLFF: They...

INGRAHAM: Did you see the Harvard poll, Michael?

WOLFF: Yes, but that's young people who vote. If you look at young people who don't vote, which is the great majority of that age group, they connect with the Democrats in theory.

SALETAN: One of the problems, though, is that when these politicians try to connect with young people, they do it in this very ham-handed way, and they end up looking silly. I mean...

KURTZ: It's condescending.

SALETAN: It's what happened with Clinton, you know, with boxers and briefs. He was trying the saxophone thing.

And this happened to Howard Dean, you know. They asked the question, "Have you used pot?" You know, and Dean begs off the question, wisely, I thought. And then all the other politicians say, "Oh, I used it. I used it. I used it." And then Dean feels a necessity to come in at the end and say, "Oh, yeah. I did, too." Like that's really hip.

KURTZ: Speaking of Howard Dean, you mentioned the Confederate flag controversy. Now, this had gone on for a couple of days, a little bit of a flap about him saying he wanted to appeal to Southerners who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals.

But when it's said in the debate, then the media kind of pumps it up to a huge story to the point that, you know, Dean had to apologize. So are the media just, you know -- are these debates really being staged so the media can have fresh headlines on this campaign? SALETAN: I don't know. I mean, that flag story was -- what really bothered me there was the way that the media tends to get lost in the nuances of a story. Like, is Howard Dean sort of not apologizing enough? Was he insensitive? When the average person watching this is wondering, "Is Howard Dean a racist?" And I don't think the media paid enough attention to getting out front and addressing the question of whether he is or not.

INGRAHAM: Is Howard Dean a racist? I think what happened is Howard Dean made a statement, which is a true statement, that Democrats have to connect with the South. He then took that -- he initially said, "Yes, I mean what I said. We have to connect with the South."

Then he apologized and offended Southerners by then saying, "Well, you have to stop voting along the lines of race, God, gays and guns." Saying that two days later. He has hurt himself in the South with the way he reacted to his initial comment.

KURTZ: And Michael Wolff, Al Sharpton was really all but accusing Dean of being racist in that debate. Don't reporters have some responsibility to point out that Sharpton, who was making these charges, has a long history of racial insensitivity, going back to the Tawana Brawley days?

WOLFF: Well, the Sharpton story is always amazing, how little is mentioned about how Al Sharpton got to be Al Sharpton.

But I think the Confederate flag thing really is just those two words, "Confederate flag," the story was done. That's a hot button. Dean mistakenly pushed it, and everybody went with it.

KURTZ: I want to move on to the perhaps emotional or cultural highlight of the Rock the Vote debate. And that is they all had to produce these 30-second videos. Let's take a look at a few seconds of Howard Dean's attempt at a rock video.


KURTZ: Were you down with these videos, Laura? Did they rock your boat?

INGRAHAM: Horrifying. Horrifying in every one. But it's always like when an adult tries to act like a kid. So you always kind of get slightly embarrassed for the adult who does that. And that's kind of what they were all doing on these tapes.

I think young people really are attracted to confident, strong candidates who are principled. Period. And you don't have to act like a kid in order to win the younger person's vote.

SALETAN: This was the most insane part of the debate. Here we have what candidates object to: having to boil down their message to 30 seconds and not say anything. So they're given a 90-minute debate where they can talk about things substantively.

And what does the format do? It makes -- it cuts it up into little 30-second videos. It's entirely counter-productive.

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, journalists love to cover these things, love to go to them, but are ordinary people paying attention? Does anyone at this stage of the campaign care about all of these debates?

WOLFF: I think -- I think not. I mean, certainly, nobody's getting any ratings here. Journalists obviously are paying attention, obviously getting stories out of this. Is anyone following these stories? I think it's entirely, completely a turn-off at this point.

KURTZ: And do you think, Will Saletan, that some of the also- rans here who are cluttering up the stage -- we're talking about Sharpton and Braun and Kucinich -- ought to be excluded from the debates? Or should the media be ignoring these people? Because obviously, to call them a long shot is to put it charitably.

SALETAN: Well, what we had, in fact, was that we let them in the debate. But we in fact excluded -- I mean, Dennis Kucinich didn't get to talk until halfway through this debate. He didn't get a question. We are de facto ignoring these guys, and maybe we've got to face up to it and just cut them out of the debate.

KURTZ: What do you think?

INGRAHAM: I mean, they're not adding anything. But there's a lot of humor in these debates, and I think at this time, a lot of serious news and a lot of sad news coming out of Iraq. And I think people want to laugh. So turn into a Democrat debate, and you'll laugh a lot.

KURTZ: So you're portraying it as a sit-com.

INGRAHAM: It's -- it's funnier than most sit-coms on television today. I mean, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich -- Dennis Kucinich who is a ventriloquist in his spare time. You know, he has a dummy. I'm not kidding. I want the dummy to speak next time, at the next debate. That will be really fun.

KURTZ: All right. You guys are tough theater critics.

Will Saletan, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Ronald Reagan, too hot for TV? CBS drops a controversial mini-series in the face of a media firestorm. That's next.



CBS President Les Moonves bowed to pressure this week and yanked that mini-series on Ronald and Nancy Reagan.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you run an actor for governor? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's on television. Everybody knows him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody knows him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nancy, we want to put him in the governor's seat. We want to put him into the presidency.

JUDY DAVIS, AS NANCY REAGAN: He doesn't want to do it.


DAVIS: These men are serious. And they're Republicans.

JAMES BROLIN, AS RONALD REAGAN: Well, I'm an actor, not a politician.


KURTZ: From the moment "The New York Times" disclosed part of the script, there was an avalanche of criticism from Republicans, Reagan loyalists and conservative commentators, who said CBS was doing a hatchet job on an ailing former president.

Moonves says he concludes the film was badly flawed, but some Democrats cried censorship.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER: I think any time occasions arise when the essence of the judgment made by television producers is influenced by outside forces, we have to call into question whether that level of intimidation is appropriate.


KURTZ: That wasn't enough for Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie, who says CBS is merely handing off the admittedly unfair film to the pay cable network, Showtime, which is also owned by Viacom.

Gillespie declared that "misleading a smaller audience of viewers is not a noble response to the legitimate concerns raised about this program."

Well, still with us to talk about the controversy, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham and "New York Magazine" columnist Michael Wolff.

Laura Ingraham, is this a victory for Republicans and Reagan loyalists and conservative commentators?

INGRAHAM: I've got to tell you, I think what we heard from Tom Daschle shows you why the Democrats are in trouble. He said it's disturbing that "outside forces" would influence a network's decision to push off the series to another network.

Those outside forces are hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country. And because they listen to talk radio, are they any less legitimate?


INGRAHAM: Yes. It's the public's airwaves. We forget that. With these huge corporations owning the networks, we forget that the airwaves are our airwaves. And if we aren't going to have any influence over what goes over these airwaves, who should? Just Les Moonves?

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, did CBS and Moonves really have any choice in the end but to pull the plug on this apparently ill-fated project?

WOLFF: Of course they had a choice. They could have shown it. They could have said, "This is -- we've done hundreds of these kinds of films. We've done them about -- we've done hundreds alone about the Kennedys. And we're going forward with this because -- because we don't bow to pressure from political groups."

KURTZ: But if CBS admits that the film is biased and unfair and unbalanced, then why not walk away?

WOLFF: Well, because they're -- well, they can't -- they can't admit that they've bowed to pressure, so therefore they have to go back and say, "Oh, yes. This project that we've been developing all along, which everyone has seen countless times, scripts have been approved and vetted, there's something wrong with it. Oh, we see it now. We missed it before."

KURTZ: So you believe that they're not being candid? That really, they're caving in to all the noise about this film and that the cover story is, "Well, I guess it wasn't very good after all"?

WOLFF: I think everybody believes that they've caved in. I mean, this is -- there doesn't seem to be a mystery here about what happened. It's a total, complete cave. The idea that they're suddenly bringing a kind of critical intelligence to the programs that they produce, well, we know it's television. And we know that has never happened.

INGRAHAM: Well, I think Michael's off about the motivation for changing the film. But the fact is, these are the people of the United States, and it's their airwaves. And CBS likes to pride itself on being called the "Eye on America": "We are the Eye on America."

Well, America still loves Ronald Reagan. Probably about 100 and what, 50 million Americans really love this man.

KURTZ: You haven't seen the film yet.

INGRAHAM: Now, but an executive from the film, let me finish, Michael, an executive from the film actually talked to "The New York Times." That's how this story got started. And that executive revealed that a quotation was made up, which really made Reagan out to be this terribly anti-gay individual. And there are other things about the movie that were clearly mischaracterizing...

WOLFF: I would never...

INGRAHAM: He was not like that.

WOLFF: I would never put myself in a position to defend one of these biopics, all of which are ridiculous and stupid. But let's go over all of the others which have not been forced off the air. Just deal with the poor Kennedys alone.

INGRAHAM: Well, then people should have spoken out about it, Michael. If people spoke out about it, maybe they wouldn't have aired. I mean, what's the big deal?

KURTZ: Well, one difference is that JFK has been dead for four decades now.

INGRAHAM: Sure. But his family is very strong and they're very powerful in the United States.

KURTZ: Of course. But I think why...

INGRAHAM: His legacy is important.

WOLFF: But poor Jackie was on those -- those biopics for two generations.

KURTZ: I just think one of the reasons this struck a nerve with the public to the extent that it did is because you have a president who's dying of Alzheimer's. And you have a first lady who's struggling to care for him. And it was seen as...


WOLFF: There's an assumption there that I would question, that it struck a nerve with the public. We don't know that.

INGRAHAM: Yes, it did.

WOLFF: We know only...

INGRAHAM: Better get out of New York more, Michael. You've got to get out of New York.

WOLFF: I never leave New York.

INGRAHAM: Yes, I know. It's obvious. You never leave Manhattan. How could you think that? It's totally...

WOLFF: What, it struck -- how do we know this? Let's go over the imaginary (ph) theory.

INGRAHAM: Well, I talk to hundreds of thousands of people every day on the radio, and I'll tell you something. It lit up the phones like nothing else we've talked about in the last few months.

KURTZ: If this were a movie about Bill Clinton...


KURTZ: ... that had fictional scenes with Monica Lewinsky, I doubt CBS would have bowed to liberal pressure.

INGRAHAM: Well, probably not. Probably not.

KURTZ: Well, what's the difference?

INGRAHAM: Because there probably wouldn't have been the same liberal pressure. I mean, if the liberals organize and they work to either effect a boycott or some type of change in artistic projects, let's say the crucifix in urine. They fought for that artistic expression, right? They fought all the way for that.

KURTZ: So how is it, Michael Wolff, that CBS can spend $10 million on this project and no senior executive looks at the thing until a couple weeks before it is supposed to go on the air? How do you...

WOLFF: Well, obviously, that's not true. Obviously, everybody saw it and everybody said, "Oh, this is what we do. This is a traditional biopic. It's about a popular president, it has some controversy. It has romance. Good. Book it. Let's do it."

INGRAHAM: I don't know. I mean, Barbra Streisand was on "Oprah" about three weeks ago, talking about her husband being Reagan in this biopic. And she was laughing with Oprah, and she said, "I didn't have a problem with it, as long as they told the truth about Ronald Reagan."

And the audience laughed, and Oprah laughed.

When I heard that, it struck me at the time, and I ran a clip of that on my radio show. And that kind of foreshadowed what was going on with this film. I think she had actually seen part of the film. When this controversy began, she didn't have a problem with it.

KURTZ: Well, to find out we'll have to watch Showtime, I guess...

INGRAHAM: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... at the appointed hour.

Laura Ingraham, thanks very much for being with us.

Still ahead, Michael Wolff on why the age of media moguls may be fading and what he's doing to become one himself.


KURTZ: We're talking with Michael Wolff about his new book, "Autumn of the Moguls."

Sumner Redstone, Barry Diller, Michael Eisner. Why are you down on all these big, powerful media moguls? WOLFF: Well, because they've ruined the media business. They've ruined the business that I work in, that I've grown up in.

KURTZ: What did they do that was so terrible?

WOLFF: Well, they took literally thousands of companies and they reduced them to five. And five companies that are fundamentally dysfunctional from a business point of view and also from the other point, that produce media that no one is interested in.

KURTZ: You say some nice things in the book about Rupert Murdoch. In fact, you say you have a semi-crush on him. You interviewed Murdoch on a conference, which you wrote about...

WOLFF: Emphasis on "semi," though.

KURTZ: Semi. OK. Well, that's more of a crush than some people have. And yet, as you freely acknowledge in your book, you know, Murdoch -- Harper Collins is the publisher of the book. Was that an awkward situation for you?

WOLFF: It threatened to be an awkward situation at several times, but in fact, it wasn't. And I must say that -- that Rupert was -- or let us say Mr. Murdoch, well, in fact, I understand, he didn't read the book. So...

KURTZ: I've read it.

WOLFF: ... I've been OK.

KURTZ: You write a lot in this book about this big media conference. You go to a lot of these conferences where Murdoch and the likes of Diller and others show up and rub shoulders with other very important, very rich people. Why is that important enough to be worthy of your attention? Do the average people care about these things that are held in places like Aspen?

WOLFF: You know, I'm not sure if the average people care, but I think they probably should know that these kind of conferences occur, that this is where real decision are made. It's where real power exists. It's where the course and the fate of the media is decided, and the media is the most powerful influence in all of our civic lives. Certainly more powerful than politics.

KURTZ: Now, you yourself were involved with some other investors in trying to buy your magazine, "New York Magazine."

WOLFF: I certainly am.

KURTZ: Why do you want to move over to the ownership side, and how realistic is this bid that you're involved in?

WOLFF: Well, I like to think of this as sort of practicing what I preach. But I'm not about becoming a mogul but, in fact, about becoming something of an anti-mogul, to take back this little piece of the media business for the people who actually run the business, put out the magazine.

The chances -- my chances, you know, I actually think they might be pretty good. The bidding formally starts next week, so I -- my fingers are crossed.

KURTZ: A lot of journalistic eyebrows were raised when "The New York Times" wrote about you a few weeks back, and you said that as a columnist you're paid $450,000. I mean, how'd you get to be so valuable?

WOLFF: They were -- that was "The New York Times." You know, "The New York Times" always gets these things wrong, and they got this one wrong.

KURTZ: You're not well compensated?

WOLFF: I am well compensated, and I'm grateful to be well compensated. As a matter of fact, there was a lot of people said to me, they said, no writer is worth that much. These are other writers who said this. And I thought to myself, wow, think about that statement.

Anyway, I am well paid, but I'm not that well paid.

KURTZ: Just briefly, the...

WOLFF: I wish I was.

KURTZ: "The New York Observer" ran an unflattering review of the book, and you wrote to the editor of the "Observer," Peter Kaufman (ph), and say -- I'm cleaning this up, "Bleep you. Let's go out of our way not to talk again."

Sounds like you're being a little thin skinned?

WOLFF: I thought -- it was actually something I've always -- the kind of e-mail that I've always wanted to send and I'm always surprised that more people don't send. So I read that interview, and I said -- I said, "Hot dog. I'm going to send an e-mail to Peter," who I have known for 25 years. And I thought, "Here it is. Lay it out there."

KURTZ: We'll see what kind of reviews you get from the moguls you're writing about.

Michael Wolff, "Autumn of the Moguls." Thanks very much for being with us.

WOLFF: Thank you.

KURTZ: We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.



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