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Media Criticizes Dean

Aired December 7, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Open season on Howard Dean. "Newsweek" asks why the former governor won't release his Vermont records. "The New York Times" raises questions about his lack of military service. Is the scrutiny overdue or overdone? And is the press finding Dean to be a teflon candidate?

Also, the woman at the center of the CIA leak scandal lifts the veil.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media meat grinder that is attempting to chew up Howard Dean. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Let's look at the increasingly aggressive Dean coverage through the "Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): On the front pages and all over the airwaves, people aren't talking much about Dick Gephardt or John Kerry or Joe Lieberman. It is all Dean, Dean, Dean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's a fantastic politician. I mean, he is ruthless, he's ambitious. He is smart.

PEGGY NOONAN, FORMER REAGAN SPEECHWRITER: The "it" candidate is Howard Dean, and I think he's the "it" candidate not for reasons of policy or for reasons of the obvious blocks within the party. I think it is sheer attitude.

KURTZ: But that front-runner status means the press is starting to kick Dean around with issues that have been kicking around for a while, such as Dean having sealed his records as Vermont governor, a controversy revived by "Newsweek."

HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sealing gubernatorial records is routine. You don't actually get to seal the majority of the records, just those sensitive parts that apply to other people.

KURTZ: Suddenly it was the talk of the news shows.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean prides himself on being an uncensored straight talker and is quick to criticize President Bush for keeping too many government secrets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whatever is in there is going to come out at the end of the day, but none of that has impacted Bush politically the way this has the potential to impact Dean politically.

KURTZ: Old news kept becoming new news. Such as when "The New York Times" made a front page issue out of Dean having flunked his military physical with a bad back, and then going off to ski in Aspen.


KURTZ: So, have journalists now painted a big fat bulls eye on Dean's back?

Joining me here in Washington is "Newsweek" investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, whose story about the Dean records touched off the controversy this week; "USA Today" political columnist Walter Shapiro and Karen Tumulty, "TIME" magazine's national political correspondent. Welcome.

Mike Isikoff, Dean's refusal to release his Vermont records has been known for months. Why are you making an issue of it now?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Well, first of all, he's gotten very little scrutiny, and also because there was a lot more to it than I think had been reported before.

It turns out that Dean's efforts to scrub his records and remove them from public inspection was much more expensive than was previously known. As we reported this week, his state -- his chief counsel actually sent a memo to all state agencies, directing them late last year to cull their files, find any correspondence that bore Dean's name and ship them to the governor's office to be reviewed so that they could be removed from state files.

KURTZ: But Walter Shapiro, this is just a fishing expedition for reporters, right? Does that mean voters care about this? Only journalists care about this.

WALTER SHAPIRO, "USA TODAY": Journalists care about this, and journalists should care about this because in a certain way, first of all, at a point when open records are really under attack because of 9/11, the idea that a governor just scrubbing his records like this is something that journalists should be really upset about.

But the second issue is for a governor. A governor doesn't have a voting record, the way a member of Congress does.

KURTZ: So we should be able to see all of his e-mails, all of his internal memos?

SHAPIRO: Well...

KURTZ: You reporters are so nosy.

SHAPIRO: Oh God. Again, it's -- again, the problem is it is less -- what is actually in the records than the whole question is -- a Republican consultant told me, if he was running the Bush campaign, they'd already be out with the ads saying, "What is Howard Dean trying to hide?"

KURTZ: We can look forward to that. Karen Tumulty, the press, as you know, creates a narrative for each candidate. So is this more of a story for Dean than it would be for a Kerry or a Gephardt, who had long paper trail records in Congress?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: It would be, except that the one thing we're learning about Howard Dean is that none of the rules seem to apply to him. The story lines don't stick with Howard Dean.

KURTZ: You're saying you write stories and it looks like a story that casts the former governor, perhaps, in a less favorable light, and nothing happens?

TUMULTY: His campaign will tell you that the more he's criticized, the more money he raises. As -- It goes back to the episode when he appeared on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert, which would have been a disaster for any other candidate. In fact...

KURTZ: That's because he stumbled on a lot of the questions?

TUMULTY: Dreadfully. And when John Edwards, the senator from North Carolina, put in about the same level of performance, it set his campaign back for months. But Howard Dean raised $83,000 that day, on a Sunday.

KURTZ: You have any reason to believe that there's anything embarrassing in these Dean Vermont records?

ISIKOFF: Well, who knows? I mean, that's -- it's always the case in records that you can't see. But look, Dean has only recently emerged in the last few months as the clear frontrunner in this campaign.

So a lot of investigative energies, reportorial energies that were looking into the background of Democratic presidential candidates which had previously been focused on John Kerry -- I remember, like, a "Boston Globe" endless, like, six-part series...

KURTZ: Right.

ISIKOFF: ... on the history of John Kerry's life. Well, that hasn't been done on Howard Dean. There's just a lot that we don't know about Howard Dean, what his record is. And if he's going to be the frontrunner and going to be a Democratic candidate, he's going to get a lot more scrutiny than he's gotten so far.

KURTZ: So you'll be renting an apartment in Vermont, I take it?

Now, the other story recently revived or brought back to the front pages was this "New York Times" piece on Dean's draft record. He took a physical. He flunked it. He had a bad back. And then, of course, he went skiing in Aspen, although he says, you know, he submitted to the physical like any 18-year-old citizen would.

Let's take a look at Governor Dean asked about this by Chris Matthews on "Hardball."


DEAN: I had a condition that the Army decided did not qualify for me for service.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, "HARDBALL" HOST: When you went into the draft board that day, were you hoping to get deferred?

DEAN: I was not looking forward to going to Vietnam.

MATTHEWS: Were you hoping to be deferred?

DEAN: Yes.


KURTZ: Walter Shapiro, is this another media-driven scandal? Something happened 30 years ago during the Vietnam era.

SHAPIRO: I think to some extent it is. I come out of a personal point-of-view that we should just have a general statute of limitations on dredging up "what did you do in the war, candidate?" Because Vietnam was a terribly wrenching period.

And in the same way I don't think George W. Bush's interesting attendance record with the Texas Air National Guard is relevant. And in the same way, I don't think that -- Howard Dean did something totally legal. He didn't play fast and loose. There were no self- serving letters...

KURTZ: Why are reporters making an issue out of it? Because we have this constitutional reflex that somebody's got to go through the Vietnam ringer, and "did you smoke dope" and all those?

SHAPIRO: I'm sick of it. I mean, there's a level of gotcha journalism that I think has brought presidential campaigns down. Admittedly, it is interesting that Wesley Clark was immediately out there, giving radio interviews, saying, "Isn't it interesting, as I was recovering from Vietnam War wounds, Howard Dean was on the slopes of a ski slopes in Colorado?"

TUMULTY: Except that this was the single most important issue to young men of that generation. And the way that they responded to that. When we have such a variety of different responses among these candidates, I think tells you something about these people. And it's an important part of the biography, and I think it's at least worth asking.

SHAPIRO: What does it tell you about Dean? That he followed the law?

TUMULTY: It tells you that -- It tells you too that he was part of a privileged part of society, that there was -- he, as was George Bush, that there were avenues open to him that weren't open to everyone else. It's -- again, it's just a piece in the wall that is the biography, that tells you something about him.

ISIKOFF: This doesn't have to be gotcha journalism. And the stories I read on this weren't written that way, but they were an interesting look at an important part of Dean's life.

And you know, there were some details in there that I think probably gives this story a little bit of traction, the fact that he, you know, claimed -- got the exemption for the bad back and then spent the next year skiing in Aspen. I think that probably doesn't look too good or sit too good with some people.

KURTZ: Doesn't the public resent the press when it seems to be prosecutorial, digging into everybody's background, dredging up issues from 30 years ago?

ISIKOFF: Right. But that's not the way these stories were written. They were just sort of -- look, here is one facet of his life we've written about, you know, facets of every other candidate's life. Dick Cheney doesn't fare too well when you put this kind of lens under where -- what did you do during the war?

That -- also, I don't think it's going to be a big political issue, but that doesn't mean you can't write about it or say what happened.

SHAPIRO: But isn't there some standard about asking, "Is this relevant to how someone would perform as president?"

ISIKOFF: Well, it's part of the biography. If you use everything by that very narrow question, you get a very limited biography. If you want to understand the man and everything about him, then all of that is part of his life story. It's valid reporting for somebody who wants to be president of the United States.

KURTZ: Do you agree with Mike Isikoff that when a candidate surges ahead in the polls, that suddenly the gloves come off, the media who have been treating him as a colorful, you know, quirky ex- governor suddenly now have the right, the duty, the responsibility to do a full body cavity search and dredge up everything? Don't you think there is -- that that's one of the things that makes us a little less popular?

SHAPIRO: The point of us in covering a campaign is not necessarily to win a popularity contest.

KURTZ: Right.

SHAPIRO: But that said, there is that moment where journalistic resources are not infinite, and that to some extent, people -- reporters have made, and editors have made resource decisions on where to do deep investigations about who somebody is.

And when somebody emerges from the pack, like Howard Dean is, there's a resource shift. And suddenly Joe Lieberman, the attorney general years gets puts aside for Howard Dean's record, either with Vietnam or much more relevantly, as governor.

KURTZ: It reminds me of the media obsession with George W. Bush and did he do drugs back in the day and so forth. It went on and on. Bush wouldn't talk about it, and in the end most people didn't care.

TUMULTY: And that is absolutely people's right, not to care. People have that right. But we -- it's part of our job...

KURTZ: Why don't you try to make them care?


KURTZ: It's what the press does.

TUMULTY: It is part of our job to ask the questions and put it in front of them. Just as there was a huge controversy in the Schwarzenegger election as to whether the "L.A. Times" should have been digging into groping allegations. It's...

KURTZ: And what's the statute of limitations.

ISIKOFF: Hold on a second. Different people care about different things. And I don't think we all have to be -- adopt the same values the Walter Shapiro guy used to decide only things that Walter Shapiro cares about are going to get reported in this campaign.

There's a lot of people who will care about things that you and I may not care at all about, but you just make a judgment. Look, you're trying to tell the public as much as they might want to know about the presidential candidates and their backgrounds.

SHAPIRO: My only point is, I feel on the Vietnam point I'm waging a very lone battle to give everyone a "get out of Vietnam free" pass.

KURTZ: Quick question here for Karen. I covered Dean in New Hampshire last week, and I heard him say about George Bush that he has no understanding of defense, that he's petulant in foreign policy, that he's bullheaded. And at one point, he said, "Mr. President, let me teach you a lesson on defense."

Other reporters said, "Well, he's said that before. It's old news."

Sometimes -- why do reporters sometimes ignore the substantive things that candidates say, even though it's not a scandal, it doesn't involve skiing, it's doesn't involve the draft, doesn't involve marijuana. I was pretty stunned at the ferocity of the rhetoric.

TUMULTY: Those are absolutely stunning comments when they are being lodged at the commander in chief, and particularly after the experience we've all lived through.

This is the problem, though, of being on the bus. And I think we have all suffered from this. You hear the same speech over and over and over again. And if the rhetoric gets tweaked, it's like being, you know, a frog in boiling water. They'll keep turning up the heat a little bit and you're just not noticing.

And by the way, that is what I think is one of the biggest drawbacks of planting yourself on a fuselage or on the bus.

KURTZ: Of embedded reporting?

TUMULTY: Exactly. And in some ways, it's the worst kind of reporting to do about a candidate.

KURTZ: And that's the last word. Got to go. Karen Tumulty, Mike Isikoff, thanks very much for joining us. Walter Shapiro, stay put.

Up next, we'll discuss your book, "One Car Caravan, the Early Days of a Presidential Campaign." That's next.

And we'd like to know your thoughts about the media being unfair to Howard Dean. E-mail us at We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Still with us, Walter Shapiro of "USA Today." He's also the author of "One Car Caravan: On the Road With the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In."

So in two or three months, most of these candidates are going to be toast. Why write a book before anybody's cast a single vote?

SHAPIRO: Two reasons. No. 1, you get so much more interesting looks at who the candidates are and what they represent if you're out with them. If you're out with Howard Dean in a car on September 2002, talking for six hours then you're going to get in two-minute sound bites the day before the New Hampshire primary.

And secondly of all, I thought it was time to do a campaign book that actually came out when it was relevant to voters when they're making a decision, instead of a book that might come out that begins, "Bill Bradley was nervous."

KURTZ: So, you get this great access because you're the only reporter around early on. Tell us about some of the up close looks you've had at a couple of these campaigns.

SHAPIRO: Look, I'll give you a perfect example. John Kerry flew his own plane, flew me from Hansford (ph) Air Force Base to Keene, New Hampshire. And as we are going in for a landing in Keene, the cell phone in John Kerry's pocket goes off. And in a scary example of multitasking, he reaches for it.

And I am thinking, "Oh, my God. Is this what New Hampshire meant by 'Live Free or Die' on its license plates?"

KURTZ: I'm glad you're around to tell this anecdote. SHAPIRO: But basically, the point about Kerry was that cell phone was from his mother's bedside. His mother was in the hospital with a fatal illness. And what it also represented, it was an emotional umbilical cord. It was his sister calling, and it sort of represented the human side of a candidate dealing with the mortality of their last surviving candidate -- parent.

KURTZ: Parent. Yes. And there you are in the next seat.

Now, you also write quite a bit about Joe Lieberman being from Connecticut.

SHAPIRO: And partially, it's writing about Joe Lieberman, because I grew up in an analogous (ph) town in Connecticut, I really understand what he means, why he picked a multi-ethnic high school to announce his candidacy.

KURTZ: Did he open up to you? Did he tell you his innermost secrets?

SHAPIRO: No. Because at the level at which -- covering a campaign, even early, is not a buddy movie. And but -- there was some nice moments. Joe Lieberman, I think for the first time in American history -- I might have been the first reporter right after Passover. He offered me Passover matzo in the back seat of his van in New Hampshire.

KURTZ: Mazeltov (ph).

You've covered a lot of campaigns. What's wrong -- what's been wrong with your coverage and everyone else's coverage? What second thoughts do you have about the way that the whole institutional press does this whole extravaganza?

SHAPIRO: No. 1, too little effort to understand these candidates as people and too much gotcha journalism. No. 2, there's a real sense that a revealing quote a year ago, a long conversation, is less important than what the candidate said off of the sound bite yesterday.

And thirdly of all, the failure to really apply the test which I mentioned earlier. What does this tell us about how someone would behave in the Oval Office?

KURTZ: You write that you felt snookered by George Bush in 2000.


KURTZ: How so?

SHAPIRO: Because I really took that campaign on the surface. I did not do the homework. I was not -- I mean not I didn't do the homework. I mean, I did not camp myself in Austin, Texas in 1999. And to a large extent I accepted too much of the compassionate conservatism packaging of the campaign. And there's a level at which we all make mistakes. I'm not saying my coverage was factually wrong of Bush, but it was -- I didn't pick out the nuances.



KURTZ: Now that you have had this early time on the road with a lot of these Democratic candidates, you've bonded presumably -- you've been in the plane with Kerry -- will you be able to penetrate that bubble that surrounds them as the race moves on and this becomes a bigger enterprise, with planes and busses and so forth?

SHAPIRO: I hope so. And I hope to be able to pick up what's new, what's significant. I certainly have different sets of sources. I could talk to them. When I was interviewing Dean three weeks ago, I didn't have -- because I had the basic, basic material down, I could do an awful lot more for the 20-minute interview than someone interviewing Howard Dean for the first time.

KURTZ: Well, come back and report to us again on your findings. Walter Shapiro, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, the mysterious agent at the center of CIA leak scandal reveals herself, almost. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Time now for a look inside the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): From the moment former Ambassador Joe Wilson became a media figure, after two senior administration officials told columnist Robert Novak that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative, he's insisted that she will remain in the shadows.

JOSEPH WILSON, FORMER AMBASSADOR: And my wife has made it very clear that -- and she has authorized me to say this -- she would rather chop off her right arm than say anything to the press. And she will not allow herself to be photographed.

KURTZ: But Valerie Plame is the spy who came in from the cold in the new issue of "Vanity Fair," posing with her husband in their Jaguar. Which prompted "Slate" magazine to give Wilson its whopper of the week award.

Wilson says he doesn't believe the picture really identifies his wife, but even with that scarf, she looks less than covert to us.

After the firestorm surrounding the movie called "The Reagans," Showtime rushed to air the docudrama. This after CBS bowed to pressure from Reagan fans and conservative commentators and pulled it, burying the miniseries on its sister network in favor of a smaller audience, which is exactly what it got, just over one million viewers.

So where is the public outrage? The boycotts, the angry e-mails? Showtime says it got only a blip of viewer response, and most television critics called the film an unflattering portrait, but not a hatchet job.

Did journalists covering the Michael Jackson media circus secretly tried to eavesdrop on police? The Santa Barbara sheriff found wireless microphones hidden in the bushes outside the headquarters where Jackson was booked on child molestation charges. Officials say they believe that news organizations planted the microphones in an attempt to pick up confidential information. How low will they go?

A foul play photo-op? Every newspaper and TV network in the country carried this Thanksgiving picture of President Bush. But "The Washington Post" now reports the bird was just a decoration.


KURTZ: Guess we can stick a fork in that story. 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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