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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Did Press Sink Howard Dean?; Was Media Too Timid in Challenging Bush's Pre-War Claims?
Aired February 1, 2004 - 11:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Rise and fall.
HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yeah!
KURTZ: Did the press sink Howard Dean with coverage that made some Democrats want to scream?
Is John Kerry starting to undergo the same trial by media fire?
And after missing the boat in Iowa and New Hampshire, are journalists all but writing off the rest of the field?
Also, the failure to find Saddam Hussein's weapons. Was the press too timid in challenging President Bush's prewar claims?
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn a critical lens on the media's role in the Kerry comeback and the Dean decline. I'm Howard Kurtz.
John Kerry, all but written off by the press a few weeks ago, became the official front-runner by winning New Hampshire. The New issue of "TIME" Magazine goes so far as to ask, "What kind of President would John Kerry be?"
Meanwhile, former cover boy Howard Dean is now zero for two and facing a tough day in Tuesday's seven primaries. And he hasn't been shy about taking swipes at the press.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DEAN: Every media organization and reporter went after us because, you know, take down the front-runner. You know, I never worry about the news media being fair. The news media does what the news media does. They're an entertainment business, at least as much as the news media.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining me now here in Washington, "TIME" Magazine reporter Karen Tumult. And in New York, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the editor of "The Nation" Magazine. Welcome.
Karen Tumult, is there any question that an avalanche of bad press at least contributed to Howard Dean's decline?
KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, certainly there was the sort of signature moment on stage on the night of the Iowa caucuses that I think really did -- it was just devastating. And the fact that it replayed over the next 10 days thousands of times from late night TV to, you know, 24-hour cable, yes, I think that...
KURTZ: But even beyond that. I mean, he had already lost Iowa by that point. There were so many stories questioning his record, picking up on his misstatements. I mean, clearly, Dean made a lot of mistakes, but didn't the press decide they're going to take this guy down?
TUMULTY: Well, this is our job.
KURTZ: To take somebody down?
TUMULTY: Our job is to report what he's saying and to look at what he's done. And he became -- he fell into a pattern of saying, you know, one reckless thing after another, including, you know, raising the possibility -- raising the theory which he later said he didn't believe that George Bush was tipped off by the Saudis before 9/11. I mean, these are just not the sort of comments that are going to go unremarked upon in the media.
KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, why would the so-called liberal press go after a liberal candidate so hard?
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, "THE NATION" Well, Howard, first of all, the idea of a liberal press, as you know, is a myth. Second of all, by the time Howard Dean walked out on that stage in Iowa he had a big "A," angry, stamped on his forehead -- this is without taking sides -- by a media that had a story line and was going to follow that story line.
That story line was that Howard Dean was too angry, too pugnacious, too gaffe-prone and too electable to be President of the United states. It started, I would say, last June, when he sat down with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," where Tim said he didn't know answers to a certain question, he wasn't electable.
KURTZ: But you're suggesting that this was a caricature on the media's part?
VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, listen, every campaign makes mistakes. Howard Dean deserves scrutiny. But instead of his policies, too much of it became personality.
I would argue, when he made the unarguably correct assertion that Saddam Hussein's capture did not make this country more secure, "The Washington Post" had an eye-popping editorial saying this guy was ludicrous. He made unfounded assertions, and that he was out of the Democratic mainstream.
Excuse me. "The Washington Post," where are they? Howard Dean was in the Democratic mainstream. A majority of Americans do not believe the country is more secure.
So I would argue the media painted him as unelectable, too gaffe- prone, too angry to be President. And Karen Tumulty's cover story in "TIME" Magazine last summer, I hate to say, contributed to this view of him as too testy, too pugnacious.
KURTZ: Got to let you defend yourself.
TUMULTY: Well, again, this was -- when the country elects a President, they elect a personality along with the President. The fact is, his testiness, his pugnacity, was also -- those were also ingredients of his success. I mean, this is the thing that had really...
KURTZ: He roused passion among Democratic voters.
TUMULTY: Absolutely, at a very passionate moment. So again, I mean, yes, we talked about his personality, and it was because it was as much a part of his success as it was ultimately a part of his stumbling.
KURTZ: Now Karen, you mentioned the coverage of the now infamous "I have a scream" speech. ABC's Diane Sawyer did something interesting the other night, using a directional mike to play a tape of what it actually sounded like in that room. Let's take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANE SAWYER, ABC (voice-over): And what about the scream as we all heard it?
SAWYER: Well, listen to how it was in the room. The so-called scream couldn't really be heard at all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Is there any question, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, that everybody, television in particular, but newspapers, the Internet, just overplayed that moment as fascinating and strange a moment as it was?
VANDEN HEUVEL: There's no question that it was overplayed. It is the nature of our media system right now, that it's so fixed on the horse race, on the personality. But it's so interesting. I did see that the other day, that this was a unidirectional mike.
Why wasn't that context given to the speech? The context -- and why was it so overplayed? Why did this moment get such attention when, you know, President Bush, who doesn't read newspapers, why isn't that more of a story? Finally, Joe Lieberman -- in New Hampshire, Howard, he comes out, gives a speech saying -- this is Mr. Ethics, Joe Lieberman -- that he's tied for third place? That was unhinged. Why didn't that get more attention?
KURTZ: I think a few people took issue with Senator Lieberman's observation when he actually finished fifth.
I want to turn now to John Kerry on the cover of "TIME," as we mentioned, today. I hear from journalists, particularly in Boston, that a lot of reporters don't particularly like John Kerry. And so now does he got the bull's-eye on his back? Are reporters going to enjoy kicking Senator Kerry around?
TUMULTY: Well, I think it's irrelevant, first of all, whether reporters like a candidate or not. Once you are a front-runner, you are going to get a different kind of scrutiny than if, you know, you don't seem to have any sort of chance of being elected. And yes, it is absolutely fair game to go and look at Senator Kerry's record and to try and draw for people a portrait of what kind of President he might be as a result of that record. And Senator Kerry has a very long, varied, sometimes contradictory record.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, in terms of the scrutiny of Kerry now, we also see a lot of commentators on the right taking aim at the Massachusetts senator. Here's "The Weekly Standard" out today talking about Kerry's long face. And Sean Hannity said on his radio show the other day, "We're digging up as much information on this guy as we possibly can and it isn't pretty."
So will some of this conservative criticism help drive the mainstream coverage?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely. I mean -- but the whole issue electability, Howard, who is deciding why a candidate is electable or not? Who is in the "Democratic mainstream?"
These are issues that should be left to the voters, but instead the media comes in and says, so and so is too liberal, so and so is too that. You know, in New Hampshire, 85 percent of that state, the Democrats who voted, are dissatisfied with the economy. Let's look at John Kerry's record and proposals.
This morning I watched some of the talk show, Howard. There was more attention paid to his potential cosmetic surgery than to his actual record, which is far more in the mainstream of this country's politics than the arrogant extremism of this Bush administration.
TUMULTY: Although, Katrina, with all due respect, if you look at the entrance polls in Iowa, the exit polls in New Hampshire, you see that as the pollsters were talking to people going into and coming out of the vote, those people were saying that the primary concern on their minds was, in fact, electability. VANDEN HEUVEL: But how is that defined? That's an interesting question, it seems to me, because the press plays a role in defining it. And...
TUMULTY: Well, it is very much in the eye of the beholder. But these voters want more than anything else as they look at that Democratic field to find themselves a candidate that they think in November can go toe-to-toe with Bush and beat him.
VANDEN HEUVEL: And beat Bush.
KURTZ: OK. I want to come back to the media coverage, because it is interesting that the botox issue got mentioned. In "The Drudge Report," the day after Kerry won New Hampshire, put up pictures of him that seemed to suggest that perhaps his face had been smoothed out. "The Washington Times" put it on the front page, and then it was mentioned on CNN and every place else. So just wanted to set the record straight.
In this "TIME" cover story out today -- you did not write it -- but there is an anonymous quote from a GOP hit man saying, "We made Al Gore look like a Massachusetts liberal. Can you imagine what we'll do with a Massachusetts liberal?"
The Bush campaign has spent like $30 million in the last quarter. Why can't we get people on the record when if comes to characterizing Democratic campaigns? Why do we let them take these unnamed shots?
TUMULTY: That is a good shot, I think, probably at us. At this point, what we're trying to do is get a sense of what their strategy is going to be. And the fact is, they're not going to talk on the record with the degree of bluntness that they do off the record. So occasionally we've got to give people the veil of unattributed sources so get them to tell us what they're really thinking.
KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel...
VANDEN HEUVEL: As Karen knows, I mean, in some of the coverage of Dean, you had unattributed not only GOP sources, but you had people within the Democratic Party, the Democratic Leadership Council, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, leaking memos about how Dean was unelectable, contributing to the sense of...
TUMULTY: Oh. The memo you're talking about was very much attributed. It was from Al From and Bruce Reed. Bruce Reed having been President Clinton's domestic policy adviser. That was very attributed.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Right. But there were sources that were unattributed. But the botox story seems to me, Howard, to go back to what Howard Dean was saying to Wolf Blitzer, the line between entertainment and news coverage. And when it comes to presidential primaries, has maybe been forever blurred, that we're talking about this kind of trivial issue when there are issues of war and peace and the economy.
KURTZ: Got to jump in here. A quick horse race question. If Kerry wins five or six of the primaries on Tuesday night of the seven, will the press declare this race over? Would we kiss off John Edwards and Wesley Clark, for example?
TUMULTY: Probably, yes.
KURTZ: Should we?
TUMULTY: No. But that probably will be what happens. And the fact is, these primaries are so -- back to the horse race -- are so front loaded now, that after this Tuesday, if he doesn't -- if somebody else doesn't win somewhere else, it's going to be very, very numerically hard for them to get the nomination.
KURTZ: Well, I'm reminded of all the pundits who said that Dean was unstoppable. That turned out to be wrong. But we have to take a break.
Still to come, new testimony that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Should the press have been more aggressive last year during the run-up to war?
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
The argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was the backbone for President Bush's case for going to war against Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country, to our people, and to all free people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now with former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay saying he believes there were no such weapons, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has been facing skeptical questioning from the media.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATT LAUER, NBC: Dr. Rice, how does the administration convince the American people that this was not a case of manipulation of intelligence?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The American people only have to look at the facts of Saddam Hussein.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Today's "Newsweek" puts it quite starkly on the cover: "We Were all Wrong."
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, should the press have been more aggressive, more skeptical, in challenging the administration's claims before the war?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely, Howard. With some honorable exceptions, the U.S. media acted as stenographers to power. They failed to challenge this administration's systematic abuse of the facts and the intelligence process.
On the eve of war, it was well known and reported by Dana Milbank, by Walter Pincus and your paper, Howard, that key allegations, assertions by this government, were disproved by the United Nations, inspections team, by European governments, and by U.S. intelligence itself. So the question is -- you have on "The New York Times" front page today a story that should have been written then and could have been written, which is when Colin Powell, Mr. Credibility, went to the United Nations, presented fragmentary, circumstantial evidence that Iraq posed an imminent threat to this country.
The media fell for it hook, line and sinker. Where were the tough questions? Where were the challenges? Finally, even your esteemed editor, Ben Bradley, says the media has never learned how to handle public figures who lie. How do we do that?
KURTZ: Former "Washington Post" editor Ben Bradley.
It's awfully hard, though, Karen Tumulty, with intelligence being inherently murky and not having access to people in Iraq, to present the other side at a time.
TUMULTY: Because the other question, of course, is then where was the evidence that these facts -- that what we thought were facts were not facts, that these claims were untrue? You not only had what Colin Powell presented in front of the U.N., but the fact that what -- the information from British intelligence, even German intelligence. Even though the Germans opposed the war, they were actually putting out stuff that was even more alarming. So...
KURTZ: But was there an atmosphere at the time before we went to war -- after all, the country was being mobilized for sending American men and women to fight and die in Iraq -- where it's sort of intimidating for the press to challenge what the president of the United States and his top people are saying?
TUMULTY: Well, again, it is intimidating, but it is really hard to do unless you actually have some facts on your side. And certainly Colin Powell's presentation in front of the U.N. was absolutely riveting television. And, you know, it is possible that, you know, that sharper questions should have been raised then.
But he's sitting there with a stack of photographs and a stack of documents, that the story then was how closely that those had been vetted. And perhaps -- perhaps that's the line the press shouldn't have fallen for.
KURTZ: But do you believe, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, that the media at that time, or at least most elements of the media, were sort of acting as cheerleaders for the White House, or simply were unequipped, unable or perhaps afraid to take on the claims the president was making about Saddam's weapons?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I think both, Howard. Again, there were honorable exceptions. But for the most part, the media acted as conveyer belts for this administration's manipulation, its cherry- picking of evidence, its hyping of evidence.
KURTZ: But what are you supposed to do when the president goes on television day after day and says, we have this evidence? You say conveyer belt. I mean, we have to report what they're saying.
VANDEN HEUVEL: You know what, Howard? Excuse me. The president goes on or Dick Cheney on "Meet the Press" says Iraq is attempting to reconstitute nuclear weapons, in complete contradiction to an International Atomic Agency report. And there were other -- there were scores of those, as I said, of evidence out there that could have at least been used to push these administration officials who were misleading the nation into war. That is a political capital crime.
So there was evidence out there, Howard. But yes, intimidation. This White House last attempted to intimidate the press in ways no previous administration. Even "TIME" Magazine correspondent -- I believe Richard Stacks (ph) -- I forget his name -- has said this administration has done this in ways we haven't seen.
Finally, the problem is good reporting. But Howard, what do you do with a president who says he doesn't read the newspapers? Can the media stop an administration that was intent on going to war? This is a terrible question.
KURTZ: Well, aside from what Katrina is saying, I mean, the media has challenged the Bush administration on all sorts of things. But it is difficult to do. I have a talked to reporters who have covered intelligence for 25 years, and it is hard to get the facts in a situation with a hostile country.
TUMULTY: And when we have gotten the facts, for instance with the misstatements last year in the State of the Union, I mean, we did a cover story on that. Once you have the hard evidence that something is not true, you can go with it.
Now, there is a real question now as to, you know, how long the media keeps the heat on. I mean, I think there's a real responsibility on our part now not to be distracted but to keep with this story, because it's going to be an investigation that drags on for many months.
KURTZ: All right. I want to turn now to the BBC. A judicial report this week blaming the British Broadcasting Corporation for its reporting on the so-called sexed-up intelligence dossier. And that resulted in the two top executives of BBC resigning, the reporter who did the story, Andrew Gilligan, resigning, and a massive walkout by many of the reporters there to protest those resignations.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, how much has the BBC been tarnished by this report that seemed to side with Tony Blair's government?
VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, Howard, I think in the history of politics, official commissions are usually set up to whitewash governments. And I think that this was an attempt to deflect attention from the fundamental core questions of whether the British government misled its nation into war, along with the Bush administration. So I think it -- you know, the BBC has taken the fall, but the Blair government should have.
KURTZ: Well, on the other hand, the report very squarely blames the BBC. And this was not just some mistake. They accused the country's leader of lying.
TUMULTY: Well, the problem here, though, is that the developments we've seen at the BBC in the last week should just bring a chill to the heart of every journalist on the planet. Because while you can certainly take issue with some of the techniques, some of the carelessness along the way, the fact is that the general thrust of what they were reporting is now looking like it was true.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely.
KURTZ: The general thrust, but not necessarily the specific charge about sexing up a dossier about Iraq could strike within 45 minutes.
TUMULTY: But it now looks like they were relying on -- that the information that was given to the British people was incorrect. And I think that this is the BBC's responsibility to raise this. And if -- you know, if they're going to be intimidated by a government commissioned report, it's a real problem for journalists everywhere.
KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel in New York, Karen Tumulty right here. Thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, Dennis Miller returns to prime-time television, while Barbara Walters prepares to leave. That's just ahead in our "Media Minute."
KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now for the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute."
KURTZ (voice-over): A comedian turned conservative joined the cable world this week. Dennis Miller, whose last gig was on Monday Night Football, launched a nightly talk show on CNBC. And there were few Democrats in sight. Miller, who campaigned for Arnold Schwarzenegger, landed an interview with the California governor, along with John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
Oh, and there was a chimpanzee, too. I guess you had to be there.
Barbara Walters is stepping down as co-host of ABC's "20/20" in September. Walters, best known for her A-list celebrity sit-downs, not to mention her earlier interviews with world leaders and a monster exclusive with Monica Lewinsky, says she wants more flexibility in her life after 25 years at the network.
She'll still have her hand in ABC news specials and her talk show, "The View." Walters, by the way, says that when she showed up at Martha Stewart's trial this week it was as a journalist, not a friend.
KURTZ: Just ahead, your e-mail on the media and the 2004 campaign.
KURTZ: Time now for your feedback on the media's coverage of the presidential campaign.
Carol Anne in California asks, "Can you please just concentrate on the issues so we can make good decisions? Is that too much to ask from a responsible news service? Don't tell me how some groups think or what I should think or dazzle me with your predictions."
Michael in Ontario, Canada, writes: "Maybe the media should stick to reporting the facts and lay off making predictions. They are barely competent in making unbiased news reports. What makes them think they have the intellectual capacity of making predictions?"
And Dan in West Virginia says, "CNN failed as a reliable media source on the Dean scream story because it didn't report the news. It made the news by calling the scream outrageous and out of control and other similar adjectives than overplaying it constantly."
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern.
"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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Challenging Bush's Pre-War Claims?>