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Doubting Dean; Governor Arnold; 'USA Today' Reporter Resigns

Aired January 11, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Doubting Dean -- is the press portraying the Democratic front-runner as too angry, too nonreligious, too left wing to win? And are journalists about to make Wes Clark the flavor of the month?

Governor Arnold. Why are all those reporters suddenly showing up in Sacramento?

And a globe-trotting "USA Today" reporter resigns after an investigation.


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

With eight days to go before the Iowa caucuses, everyone in the press seems to have doubts about Dean. As "Newsweek's" cover puts it, from investigative pieces to campaign trail reports, the questions keep mounting. Why doesn't he release his Vermont records? Talk more about religion? Talk more to reporters? Put his wife on the campaign trail? Explain how he's going to avoid becoming the next George McGovern?

Dean, for his part, sees the press as part of the Beltway establishment.


HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: First of all, in general, there's been a lot of talk about this from the Washington politicians. And a gaffe in Washington is when you tell the truth and the Washington establishment thinks you shouldn't have.


KURTZ: The other candidates, meanwhile, have been gasping for media oxygen, with the exception of Wesley Clark, who's been edging up in the polls, not to mention his crucial endorsement from Madonna.

Well, joining me now from Manchester, New Hampshire, Jill Zuchman, correspondent for the "Chicago Tribune." In New York, Frank Rich, columnist and associate editor at "The New York Times." And with me in the studio, "San Francisco Chronicle" Washington bureau chief Marc Sandalow. Welcome.

Frank Rich this so-called liberal press has been pounding Dean with investigative stories and negative editorials and TV reports and cover stories. What gives?

FRANK RICH, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" COLUMNIST & EDITOR: I think what gives is that he is, obviously, as we all know, the person that emerged from the pack. He's a mystery, I think, to many Americans outside of political junkies and people within the Democratic Party. And so he's a character that has to be created.

And he's frankly not all that interesting a character, so things have to be attributed to him, some of which are -- will stick and some of which won't.

KURTZ: You're suggesting that Howard Dean is actually on the boring side and the press has to make him more interesting by creating this colorful persona?

RICH: Well, he's had this -- he hasn't had this terribly exciting background. I'm not saying it in a critical way, but you know, he's not someone with a great long personal story. He's unknown to many people. So he's angry that, certainly, things will be found out that are not kosher -- I'm speaking figuratively, not literally, in Vermont. And the rest of it.

But also, he's really the only character on the stage. None of the others, with the possible exception of Clark, have gotten any kind of media traction. So he's the only story.

KURTZ: We'll come back to that.

Jill Zuchman, have you noticed Governor Dean becoming less accessible to reporters on the trail? I mean, just the other day, he was asked a question about tax policy and he said he couldn't answer because his advisers had veto power over what he could say.

JILL ZUCHMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE" CORRESPONDENT: I think they're definitely trying to exert a little more message control over him, because if you have, you know, a pack of reporters asking you a hundred different questions every day, then everybody could write a hundred different stories.

And they want to have one thing out there all the time. So they are trying to pull back just a little bit.

KURTZ: Sounds like the old-fashioned bubble is being recreated.

Marc Sandalow, when you were out on the campaign trail, you talked to Howard Dean. How did that go? How does he seem to deal with being interviewed by people like you?

MARC SANDALOW, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE" BUREAU CHIEF: There's nothing worse than a disciplined candidate from a reporter's standpoint. I had a 15-minute interview with Howard Dean. I got to tell you: I've had more pleasant experiences in my life. I tried to push him, being from the San Francisco paper, on the idea of gay marriage. Why did he support gay civil unions but not gay marriage? I've heard the one-minute stump response. He repeated it to me. I pushed him on it. He repeated it again. I asked him to further that point. He said, "If I am going to have to repeat this all the time, I'll say this as many times to you as you'd like."

About six or seven minutes into my 15-minute interview, he told me in a conference call he had to take. He was abrupt.

Now, to do...

KURTZ: You say he cut short your interview because he didn't like your persistent questioning?

SANDALOW: I can't tell you why he cut it short, Howard, but I do know that he was not pleased with the line of questioning and treated me brusquely as a result. Now, to do that to reporters is one thing. I've seen him do this at town hall meetings to regular voters in New Hampshire. When November rolls around, this is not an attribute that's likely to play well among the masses.

KURTZ: Well, we'll try not to treat you quite as brusquely. Frank Rich, there have been a number of stories, including one the other day in "The New York Times," about the sort of anger question: does Dean have a temperament? Is he suited to be president?

In fact, I want to play a piece of tape with one media expert's take on this issue.


STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE DAILY SHOW": The point is, Dean's anger has been widely reported.

JON STEWART, HOST, "DAILY SHOW": Right. I understand that. But for instance, you're following the campaign. What incidents have you yourself seen?

COLBERT: Doesn't matter what I've seen, Jon. It's been widely reported. And that makes it fact-esque.


KURTZ: Frank Rich, is this one of those media rituals that every candidate goes through when it seems like they have a shot at becoming president?

RICH: Yes. I think to a certain extent, it is. Of course, he's got anger in his -- and many of his supporters have a lot of anger. But -- but he's kind of a bland white guy, you know, and in a not that exciting field.

To me, the real story that's not really been quite understood about Dean is the movement around him is -- or underneath him, one should say, is much more interesting, in a way, than he is as a candidate. He really is using the Internet in another way that doesn't just involve raising money, though he's done that, too.

And I think that campaign is playing out in the new medium that the regular mainstream media, including print and broadcast, don't really understand that well. So the stuff of categorizing him as being angry or his various gaffes rolls off his base of support. Not even on their radar screen.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Jill.

ZUCHMAN: Howie, there's something else that's going on here in New Hampshire, too. The voters of New Hampshire, they don't really like frontrunners and they particularly don't like it when the media tells them who's going to win and who they're going to vote for.

KURTZ: Are you doing that?

ZUCHMAN: I think that the media has built Dean up. He's been one person that really stood out. And so he's been on top for so long and partially, you know, did do his own hard work in his own organization that people are now saying, "Well, I haven't finished deciding. And I'm going to take a look at somebody else and someone else."

And I just think it's not over here.

KURTZ: Well, we should note that the media initially underestimated Howard Dean, then anointed him, and now seem to be in the process of tearing him down.

SANDALOW: It's always easy to beat up the media for their stereotypes, because they're over simplistic. If you think back, Clinton was stereotyped for being less than honest and a womanizer as a candidate. That came to define his presidency.

George W. Bush was simplified, or was reduced to being a simplistic guy with a black and white view of the world. That has defined, to many people, his presidency.

For the media not to talk about his anger might be doing a disservice to the people. The anger may be overblown by the media, but it is a character trait, which, if Howard Dean becomes president, the American people will have to deal with.

RICH: And by the way, I would say one other thing. Is anger really so bad? Isn't it better to sort of let out anger than bottle it up?

But I do agree, while this is all up for grabs, it's hard to fight something with nothing. And the problem with the rest of the field, including even Clark, as a media story, is that none of them have created much excitement. And it's sort of hard to sort of build them up as characters now. It's such a divided field.

KURTZ: And I would say that's in part because so much of the media oxygen has been taken by Howard Dean. Speaking of the media's impact on this campaign, I want to play a clip from a report the other day, NBC's Lisa Myers digging up some old talk show footage from a Canadian talk show involving then Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

And here's one of -- some of what he had to say. This is some years ago.


LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Four years ago, Dean had almost nothing nice to say about the Iowa caucuses.

DEAN: If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests on both sides in both parties. Special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They tend to represent the extremes.

MYERS: Dean even suggested the caucuses were a waste of time for ordinary people.

DEAN: But I can't stand there and listen to everybody else's opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world.


KURTZ: Jill Zuchman, is this just another media flop or has the good doctor fatally insulted the fine people of Iowa?

ZUCHMAN: Well, I think we're going to have to see how that plays out. He did call up Mike Brever (ph), who's the preeminent AP political writer in Iowa and said, "You know, I didn't know what I was talking about. I've come to discover that this is a great process."

And now we hear that Senator Harkin is going to be endorsing Governor Dean, and I think that that may help kind of soothe that little, little bruise there.


SANDALOW: What other point, though -- earlier you had a clip of Dean saying, you know, in Washington a gaffe is when you tell the truth, which of course he didn't properly attribute. That's a famous quote of Mike Kinsley's.

This is an example of that, because of course he's right about Iowa. "The Times," on its op-ed page, ran this hilarious piece this week by the writer Dan Savage (ph) about sort of how amateur, how likely for stacking the deck and all the rest of it the Iowa caucus system is.

KURTZ: Well, politicians say all sorts of things that are true, but are nevertheless sometimes insulting to the targeted constituencies, in this case the all-important Iowa caucus goers.

Now, Marc Sandalow, Frank Rich mentioned a couple of times about Wesley Clark being the one candidate who has gotten a little more attention lately than some of the others.

I would say the press initially ripped Clark as a terrible campaigner, but now he's getting a mini-boomlet. Is that because he's inched up a little bit in the polls and has raised a lot of money? Are journalists really that fickle?

SANDALOW: Well, he has inched up a little more than a little. There was a poll out this week that had him, you know, within the margin of error against Howard Dean nationally.

But you know, the media -- I'm going to be going up to New Hampshire. I know you will in a little bit. This is definitely a -- editors would like the reporters to come back -- I mean, Jill, you're in New Hampshire. Your editor's not going to smile if you say, "Hey, I've got a story. Howard Dean continues to hold a comfortable lead in New Hampshire."

You get the word "surging" in there, you know, "Wes Clark is surging and Dean is stumbling," suddenly, editors' eyes open up. The media loves a contest, and they are ready for Howard Dean to stumble, because the last thing the media wants to do is to swarm on Iowa and New Hampshire and find out there's not a story.

KURTZ: Jill Zuchman, are you pro-stumble?

ZUCHMAN: You know what? I mean, I'm for whatever happens. I'm just going to tell my readers what's happening. And I -- I read a story about Clark, and he is getting tremendous crowds. He's getting Howard Dean sized crowds. There is something happening.

In a tracking poll here, he's going up two points a day. He's really -- he's got something going. And you know, I don't think that reporters are making that up. If he -- if he was stumbling in his stump speech, if he was not getting people to come see him, then, you know, he wouldn't be the one.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, you were a long-time theater critic. Marc Sandalow seems to be suggesting that journalists are fiddling with the plot here in order to get a more exciting performance to cover.

RICH: I don't know if -- it's just the nature of the beast, particularly in the 24-7 news world that we live in now, that you want a story that plays out like a soap opera. And indeed, it would be an extremely dull story if Howard Dean has this thing locked up and we can all go home.

That doesn't mean, though, that the journalists can change the storyline of something like this. In the end, voters are going to decide on the storyline.

KURTZ: Jill Zuchman, just briefly, do you detect any frustration on the part of the campaigns of John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, that so much of our attention has been focused on frontrunner Dean and now, to a certain extent, General Clark?

ZUCHMAN: Absolutely. They are just outraged that, you know, we're looking at these polls that are showing Clark moving up, that we're not giving them credit for what they're doing. I mean, it's very frustrating, and I think part of the problem is the media cannot focus on nine candidates all at the same time and give them the same intense amount of attention.

KURTZ: Just briefly.

SANDALOW: Very quickly, the one thing that readers and listeners ought to be looking for is poll numbers. And you know, when Jill Zuchman writes that Wes Clark has huge crowds, that is important.

Don't listen to the other candidates' anecdotes, because there are nine candidates right now who all feel as if the world is surging toward them and they're telling reporters this, and some of them irresponsibly pass that on.

KURTZ: We can't walk and chew nine sticks of gum at the same time. Got to hold your thought for just a minute. We have to take a break.

When we come back, Governor Schwarzenegger makes headlines with his State of the State address. Are his policy ideas attracting all this attention, or could it be something else? Stay with us.



It's been nearly two months since Arnold Schwarzenegger took the reins of power, and this week the new governor gave his first major speech, speaking in upbeat tone about the problems facing California.


GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: People have asked me many times, "Arnold, isn't it a terrible burden being governor at a time of such crisis?" And I tell them no, not at all. I love working for the people of California. It is better than being a movie star.


KURTZ: Such speeches rarely get much national attention, but Schwarzenegger's address to about 250 reporters from all over the world.


RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I've been covering California politics and Northern California for 13 years for CNN. This is the first time that we've come here to cover a State of the Union -- or State of the State message.


KURTZ: Frank Rich, do all these reporters have a sudden interest in the inner workings of state government? Or is this just more celebrity journalism?

RICH: This is laughable. I just find it hilarious. I mean, all politics is local. Who really cares, outside of California, how Schwarzenegger is going to deal with his budget problems?

But people are hoping something will happen. Maybe there will be a tie-in to the Kobe Bryant case. Maybe something will happen to Maria Shriver over at NBC. Hoping that some plot is going to emerge beyond the mechanics of California government.

KURTZ: Marc Sandalow, what's not making national headlines -- it certainly is in the state -- is that Schwarzenegger promised during the campaign not to cut education, has now proposed $2 billion in education cuts. Why isn't that more of the story?

SANDALOW: Well, you know, he got to give the good news speech earlier in the week. At the end of the week, on Friday, he presented the budget. That's the damage. Now, there weren't 250 reporters at his budget hearing. He does have to deal with some reality.

Schwarzenegger, I'm not making any judgment about his ability as a governor to balance a budget. He is so good at playing the role of a governor. I mean, you showed that one clip...

KURTZ: He's not a movie star any more. He's (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SANDALOW: At one point, he said, "If I could sell 'Last Action Hero,' I can certainly sell the state of California." Got lots of laughs, not -- you know, papers like the "San Francisco Chronicle," we have to cover this anyways. We would cover it even if it were Gray Davis.

The coverage out of places like Japan and Australia that were there...

KURTZ: I don't think so.

SANDALOW: ... you know, they played the State of the State speech. I don't think they're going to cover the budget speech, and I have a feeling pretty soon the cameras are going to be pulling back on Arnold Schwarzenegger.

ZUCHMAN: You know, I was watching C-SPAN the other day, and I saw the governor of New York giving his State of the State address. And I just thought it was so funny, because it was just on lowly C- SPAN and not, you know, on all the networks and...

KURTZ: I was going to ask you about that, Jill Zuchman. Well, why is it -- I mean, other than the obvious...

ZUCHMAN: I have an answer for you.

KURTZ: Well, let me sort of give the question to you. You know, you've got a new governor in Illinois, Rod Blagojevich. You've got George Pataki, Rick Perry in Texas, Jennifer Granholm in Michigan. These governors get almost no national attention outside their state, unless they're about to resign or they're in a scandal like Connecticut's John Rowland. Why the unbalance?

ZUCHMAN: What's going on here is that the national media and the global media wants to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger can walk and chew gum at the same time. And that is all this is about.

KURTZ: But chewing gum involves dealing with a pretty serious state fiscal crisis.

ZUCHMAN: I know. I know. But they're -- you know, this is all celebrity issue and it has nothing to do with the serious problems facing all of our states right now.

KURTZ: But isn't it true, Marc Sandalow, that if -- if Schwarzenegger stumbles in terms of dealing with this very serious budget deficit in California, that eventually those headlines may not be quite so glowing?

SANDALOW: His image is changing. When you're flipping around C- SPAN, Jill, and you see the governor of California, you stop because you think, "Whoa! There's Arnold Schwarzenegger." I don't know if three years from now people are going to be stopping in the same way.

He is going to look more like a Republican governor than he does. You know, he's got some serious problems to deal with in California, but he's got a bully pulpit unlike any politician I've ever seen. Based on the way that he plays the media, he can bring attention to any issue. It will be very interesting to see what he does with that over the next couple of months.

RICH: But there's a ceiling on his story, because he cannot constitutionally run for president of the United States. And my guess is that's going to diminish it a bit.

And I think at a certain point, Americans outside California, except for those involved with politics, aren't going to care what happens to California's budget. And they'll lose interest in him, unless there's some subplot involving scandal or celebrity in some heightened way. It has nothing to do with policy, or public policy.

KURTZ: Speaking of subplots, Frank Rich, "New York Daily News" reports that NBC, at least some executive there, would kind of like Maria Shriver to bow out as a correspondent, because she has been reported by the California media to be such an activist first lady.

Do you think that she can continue to handle both jobs?

RICH: It depends on what they have her doing, really. She's not a real hard news reporter in recent years. My guess is that the calculation will not be made on journalistic ethics or conflicts of interest but on Q ratings and whether she's of value commercially to the NBC schedule. And in terms of ratings.

KURTZ: Jill Zuchman, a brief answer from a woman's perspective?

ZUCHMAN: I just think that's an uncomfortable juxtaposition to have her actively working at, you know, a political setting with her husband, and then, on the other hand, trying to be a dispassionate journalist. I just think there's a problem with it.

KURTZ: We will have to leave it there. Jill Zuchman in New Hampshire, Frank Rich in New York, Marc Sandalow right here. Thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, a high profile reporter quits "USA Today" under a cloud. And the reporter who blew the whistle on Britney's mini-marriage.

That and more in our Media Minute.


KURTZ: Welcome back. "USA Today" star foreign correspondent Jack Kelley resigned this week, after the paper spent months investigating whether he had fabricated some of his stories. Kelley told me the allegations, sparked by an anonymous letter, were false, but editors refused to say that he had been cleared, only that they have no plans to run a correction, quote, "at this time."

But while many "USA Today" staffers are angry at the way he was treated, Kelley also acknowledged to me that he had not been entirely honest with the newspaper during the investigation, and that, he says, is why he decided to quit.

Kelley, who often parachuted into war zones and was outside a Jerusalem pizza parlor when a suicide bomber blew it up in 2001, talked about the difficulties of such reporting on this program.


JACK KELLEY: My sole purpose here is just to report the news and to be as objective as possible. I'm keeping my personal feelings out and just going to report the facts.


KURTZ: More news now from the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): Pop princess Britney Spears got married and divorced faster than you can say media frenzy. The paparazzi were unaware of the quickie marriage, except for Las Vegas review columnist Norm Clark, who received an anonymous tip. He got the Sin City scoop while tracking the media's other favorite target, Ben and Jen. Clark says he's still fielding calls from reporters around the world.

Similarly, commitment-phobic MSNBC is taking the plunge with Deborah Norville. The former "Today" co-host and "Inside Edition" anchor is slated to launch "Deborah Norville Tonight" at the end of January. She may have to pull a double shift. Her "Inside Edition" contract doesn't expire until 2005.

MSNBC, which has given shows to Phil Donahue, Michael Savage, and Jesse Ventura, and then dropped the programs, is trying to beef up its prime-time lineup.

Want to give baseball superstar Hank Aaron a call? How about NASCAR's Jeff Gordon or boxing promoter Don King? It might be possible now that the Associated Press accidentally sent out its internal list of phone numbers from its (UNINTELLIGIBLE) department source list Thursday. While no media outlet carried the list, many of its numbers did find their way onto the Internet. But beware, many of the numbers are way out of date, and some of the people are dead.


KURTZ: When we come back, mad cow, killer flu, terror alerts. You weigh in on whether the media are scaring people. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Last week, we asked, are the media scaring the public unnecessarily? Scott in Nevada writes -- "Why are the news media so reluctant to report good news? Does it have to be bad to be news? I for one no longer watch the news, because I believe that at best it lacks credibility, and at worst it is intentionally and profoundly distorted to foster fear and anxiety."

But Theresa in California disagrees -- "There is a lot of negative stuff being reported. It's a negative world, and a dangerous one. Americans have the tendency to want to ignore what the rest of the world has dealt with for years. If this upsets Americans, perhaps they should not read a newspaper or watch the news."

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. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.



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