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Are Media Building Up John Edwards?; Did Press Contributed to Dean Campaign's Demise?

Aired February 22, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): John Edwards loses again, but the media declare him the winner. Are journalists just trying to keep the Democratic race alive?

Howard Dean, once the news magazines' cover boy, bows out. Did the press help torpedo his campaign?

John Kerry loses momentum. Did that Internet rumor hurt him or embarrass the press when it fell apart?

And A-Rod puts on the pinstripes. A tale of two cities.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on John Edwards' media-driven surge, the Internet rumor that dogged John Kerry and the press's role in Howard Dean's remarkable rise and fall. I'm Howard Kurtz.

John Edwards has won just one state. He's far behind in the delegate count, and he lost Wisconsin by 6 percentage points and 45,000 votes. So why has the week's primary coverage looked like this?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Democratic presidential hopeful Senator John Edwards got a big boost last night with a surprisingly strong second place showing in the Wisconsin primary.

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Now to the man who came in second in yesterday's Wisconsin primary but is seen as a big winner today, North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

MORT KONDRACKE, FOX NEWS: Obviously, Edwards has got an appeal that -- that Kerry doesn't have.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC "HARDBALL" HOST: Is this a two-man race now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chris, it is a two-man race, and...

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: So is Edwards really surging, or is the media just trying to keep that Democratic campaign alive?

Joining me now here in Washington, John Harwood, political editor and columnist for the "Wall Street Journal"; Jill Zuckman, political reporter for the "Chicago Tribune"; and Terence Smith, a veteran reporter for CBS News and "The New York Times," now the media correspondent for "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer."

John Harwood, Edwards loses for the 16th time, and all night I'm watching the TV and, "What a great night. What a come back. It's a two-man race." Are the pundits on a different planet?

JOHN HARWOOD, POLITICAL EDITOR & COLUMNIST, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": You know, it's one thing, Howie, when somebody like John McCain breaks through late, beats George W. Bush and gets a ride in the polls and people say it's a two-man race.

But when you lose the primary by 6 percentage points and get sort of launched back in the race, you've got to think something's off kilter.

This is one of those cases, I think, where the second wave of the exit polls show that -- a three-point race. That shocked a lot of people, because the early pre-election polls showed -- showed a much wider margin. And so people let that drive the stronger than expected type of lead to their stories, which had a big impact.

KURTZ: In fact, the polls just a couple of days before Wisconsin, Jill Zuckman, had Kerry up by 30 points. And the exit polls that I saw, at least the first one, had him up by 11. So suddenly he loses by six and journalists fall all over themselves, "Wow."

JILL ZUCKMAN, POLITICAL REPORTER, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, but the thing is, even the Edwards campaign, campaign officials in Wisconsin were down in the dumps on -- in the days leading up.

They were really frustrated, you know. They felt that Kerry was, you know, running away with it big, and they didn't understand why. And everybody had that expectation, based on the polls. Everybody was seeing that. And so it was truly a surprise.

KURTZ: But is it the job of journalists, Terry Smith, to generate artificial drama or to keep some context and perspective in the fact that, even though it was a nice showing by John Edwards, it was still a second place showing. He still won one primary.

TERENCE SMITH, CBS NEWS REPORTER: Well, it's a classic example of how to win by losing. And -- and of a journalists' full employment act. I mean, let's face it. This keeps everybody busy for the next two weeks. Carries it through to March 3.

The news media are a special interest like any other. Their special interest is in a story. So they promote a story. Having said that, John Edwards did make a move late in Iowa. He did in other primaries, and he did in Wisconsin. So there is something there, just not as much as is being made.

KURTZ: I'll tell you who had...

HARWOOD: The press special interest has a conflict on this, too, though. There are people who want to get off the road and stop traveling, so it is a mixed interest for the press.

KURTZ: I'll tell you who had a special interest, was John Kerry on Tuesday night, coming out a minute after John Edwards started his victory speech, blowing him off the screen as everybody switched from Edwards to Kerry. You can really manipulate this.

HARWOOD: Great campaign choreography.

KURTZ: That's right.

ZUCKMAN: And their message was, a win is a win. Because they were trying to undercut that idea that second place was a good thing.

HARWOOD: And that is influenced substantially by the fact the early commentary was, "Here comes John Edwards." They wanted to try to put a quash on that immediately.

KURTZ: I'm going to be obnoxious here. Why does the press keep getting it wrong? Wrong on Howard Dean as the probable nominee, dismissed Kerry early on, dismissed Edwards in Iowa, dismissed Edwards before Wisconsin. What is the matter with you folks?

ZUCKMAN: Because everybody's a pundit. They want to say, "Here's what's going to happen." And when you say, "Here's what's going to happen," you end up being wrong a lot of the time.

SMITH: But newspapers come out every day, Howie. And when they reported that, Howard Dean had raised more money and was doing spectacularly well in the polls...

KURTZ: And nobody had voted.

SMITH: And nobody had voted. Then they did, and it was Kerry. And it's still Kerry. And yet, now there's great excitement about Edwards.

He's also -- he's a very attractive campaigner. He's doing extremely well. He's not going to be nominated, I don't think.

KURTZ: Take a position right here on the show.

ZUCKMAN: That's right. But you can't, you know -- you really can't say that. Because who would have thought that Dean would be out like this? Who would have thought that Kerry would have made that comeback? You've got to wait until it happens.

KURTZ: But in effect, the press is saying that, because every day when I pick up the papers, most of the stories I'm seeing are about the Kerry-Bush race. We're looking forward to the general election, even though Edwards has gotten this nice little mini-surge. That's not really reflected in the coverage after Tuesday night.

HARWOOD: Terry, if I could just say a bit, I don't think the press got it quite as wrong as you seem to think they did. You know, when Howard Dean was riding high, we were accurately describing the phenomenon.

Where the press has difficulty is when they take what's true today and try to project the fact that it will be true tomorrow.

KURTZ: And when John Kerry was being all but written off because he was languishing in Iowa and New Hampshire, was that an accurate snapshot? Or was it the press deciding -- and what we forget is that voters haven't tuned in, even, in November and December.

HARWOOD: Well, it's not just the voters. It's the circumstances in the campaign changed. Saddam Hussein was caught. Howard Dean was attacked by a third party group very, very strongly. He fell after getting into a murder-suicide pact with Dick Gephardt.

So it's not just that we were wrong. It's that things changed.

SMITH: I was out in Iowa just in the days before the caucuses, as many of us were. And, I mean, Kerry was coming on. Edwards was coming on. Howard Dean was in trouble. And you could tell that, you could sense it, feel it and report it, based on interviews.

KURTZ: As somebody who's been on the trail herself, does John Edwards suffer, in a way, in media attention because he's running a positive campaign, and journalists, myself included, like harsh debates and sharp rhetoric and attack ads? And he doesn't do much of that anywhere.

ZUCKMAN: We're attracted to conflict. We write about conflict every day. And so this guy is very funny, and he's keeping it positive. And so I think that he has had a lack of coverage to a certain extent, compared to how well he had done.

SMITH: In fact, he's trying to generate some conflict by stressing his differences on trade and NAFTA.

HARWOOD: Which are fairly slight.

KURTZ: But Kerry was really not -- but in a very polite way, at least by media standards.

Now Howard Dean, as you mentioned earlier, was flying so high. I mean, he was up there in the media stratosphere. This week, out of the race. He bows out, at least in terms of a formal campaign.

Let's take a look at what some of the pundits had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS "SPECIAL REPORT" HOST: Well, what has he achieved? Has he really achieved something lasting for the Democratic Party?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think so at all.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, a lot of Democrats will tell you at this point that Dean both dominated and defined the Democratic race for 2004 and wrote an awful lot of the dialogue.


KURTZ: Dean made plenty of mistakes, no dispute there, John Harwood. But didn't the press help bring him down with far tougher and more intense scrutiny than was visited on any other candidate?

HARWOOD: I don't think so. I think Howard Dean benefited from positive press when positive things were happening in his campaign. And he was hurt by negative press when negative things happened, most of them coming from Howard Dean personally.

KURTZ: But how can it be fair when all the other candidates are getting one level of microscopic examination from all the thousands of journalists who cover these things, and Dean has all these investigative reporters digging into everything he ever did in Vermont?

I mean, the imbalance there was just palpable.

HARWOOD: That's fair enough, but that's a reality of life. We cover much more seriously someone who is president or someone who has a very good chance of being president. And for a moment there, Howard Dean was very close to winning the Democratic nomination.

That's why he got so much more scrutiny.

SMITH: There's a dirty little secret here. Howard Dean was often brusque and abrupt with the press. He was certainly no favorite. And therefore, when things began to turn, they turned fast.

KURTZ: And in fact, to pick up on John's point, I don't think that Kerry -- although there's been some digging into his record and acceptance of money from special interests and all that -- is getting anywhere near the kind of scrutiny that Howard Dean got, in part because he's this guy we never heard of from Vermont. Small state, bunch of cows. And the press decided to go after him.

ZUCKMAN: Kerry -- Kerry's getting it now. It's the curse of the front-runner. If you are the front-runner, you're going to get scrutinized.

KURTZ: Do you seriously think that John Kerry is getting anything like the intensive media scrutiny, though, that Howard Dean got in November and December and January?

ZUCKMAN: I think there are reporters all over the country looking at his record. And the RNC and the Bush campaign is helping them gladly.

KURTZ: So you're saying it's going to be gearing up, probably, over what we're seeing now?

ZUCKMAN: Absolutely.

HARWOOD: Howie, could I go back to one thing that we did get very wrong? And I plead guilty myself to this.

KURTZ: We have welcomed all confessions on this show.

HARWOOD: The biggest thing we got wrong was believing that the Iowa process really is about organization rather than being a quasi- primary, where it's driven by voters -- surges in voter opinion.

I think what's happened is over the years Iowans have gotten so used to the caucus process that it's not quite an unnatural act for people to go out to these caucuses. It's more like a primary than we thought.

That's one of the reasons why we failed to see that Howard Dean, at the very end, was going to lose that primary.

ZUCKMAN: And it's one of the reasons why Wesley Clark had such regret that he didn't go. He thought he needed that organization to play there, and it turns out maybe if he went and talked to voters, it would have been different.

KURTZ: And last question on Howard Dean, Terry Smith. It's just sort of a microcosm, but television must have replayed that scream speech almost as often as it showed Janet Jackson's boob.

SMITH: Indeed, they did. And -- and you can take your pick as to which you prefer. But it -- it was grossly overdone. It was played again and again and again. And usually with the -- with the shriek pulled out by itself, rather than in the context of a very excited, pump up the crowd, thank your supporters speech.

It was not as bad as it sounded when television again and again and again pulled up just the shriek.

KURTZ: Even network executives now say it was overplayed. But they didn't seem able to stop themselves at the time.

Well, still to come, "The Drudge Report" strikes again. The rumor that had all of Washington buzzing. Was it one more example of Internet-driven sleaze? That's next.



When "The Drudge Report" carried an unsubstantiated rumor that John Kerry had an affair with a young woman, it was widely picked up by talk radio, the British press and the Internet.

Most major news organizations avoided the story. But when Kerry went on Don Imus' radio show and denied it, it was open season.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Several times today, including on a national radio program, the senator was asked whether rumors about him and a young woman had any substance. The senator denied it categorically.

JUDY WOODRUFF, "INSIDE POLITICS" HOST: Kerry also today publicly denied rumors on conservative outlets on the Internet and talk radio about the alleged relationship with a young woman.


KURTZ: And the New York tabloids trotted out their screaming headlines. The former Associated Press reporter Alexandra Polier issued a statement this week denying the allegations, saying, quote, "I have never had a relationship with Senator Kerry, and the rumors in the press are completely false. Because these stories are false, I assume the media would ignore them."

But they didn't ignore her statement, especially the "New York Daily News."

Terry Smith, this turns out to be a complete non-story, so should the mainstream have gotten into running with it because Kerry was forced to deny it on the radio?

SMITH: In a perfect world, no. But...

KURTZ: What about the world we live in?

SMITH: The world we live in, the dissemination of information is so fast and so immediate that the classic gatekeeper role that news organizations were supposed to play, namely to check out the truth of something and decide if it was news, it no longer applies now. Because of the dissemination you just said...

KURTZ: It's been eviscerated.

SMITH: ... particularly through the Internet. So it's out there.

I thought this was a particularly flagrant and outrageous example of running with it and covering it up, sometimes as a media story. I don't want to point any fingers, Howie, but I recall a piece in the "Washington Post."

KURTZ: Well, I wrote about it, just to be clear, the day that Alexandra Polier issued a statement, in her name, saying this never happened. Before that, the paper didn't touch it.

SMITH: Right.

KURTZ: Although it's a tough call when it's out there. Now, how did you feel, Jill Zuckman, putting this rumor in the "Chicago Tribune" with no facts, not even an on the record allegation, in the course of writing a campaign story? ZUCKMAN: I found it incredibly frustrating and kind of painful. It goes against what we are taught as journalists, you know, what you know. You don't put unsubstantiated things in the newspaper. It's wrong.

And yet, it's on the Internet. It's on talk radio. The candidate addresses it. And I'm sure it must have been a very difficult decision for the campaign, too, how to deal with something like that.

And once he addressed it, well, we felt like we had to mention it. So we did it at the bottom of a story, very, very low.

KURTZ: Now, John Harwood, Matt Drudge tells me that he didn't report there was an affair. He reported that news organizations were looking into the possibility of an affair.

HARWOOD: Oh, please.

KURTZ: So does that get him off the hook?

HARWOOD: I think this is one of the most outrageous stories that I can remember in recent campaign reporting. Not only are there no facts to the story, there are no allegations, either. This entire thing appears to be a fantasy by somebody that serves the interests both of the Bush-Cheney campaign and of rival Democratic campaigns.

And the idea that people would -- would traffic in this in the press is just -- it doesn't make any sense.

The problem is, I was walking around our newsroom and having people ask me about it. I went to take my kids to the bus stop for school and had all the parents ask me about, "Well, what about this?"

And you say there doesn't appear to be anything to it, they look at you like you're naive.


KURTZ: What about you? The "Journal" wrote nothing on this.

HARWOOD: Well, there's no story.

KURTZ: Did you take any heat for ignoring what was at least a controversy on the campaign trail?

HARWOOD: Well, this is one thing that we at the "Wall Street Journal" can agree on. This is not a "Wall Street Journal" story.


SMITH: And there's no -- it's self-generated heat among media and news organizations.

KURTZ: Well, hold on now.

SMITH: I don't believe that "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" has suffered one bit by not mentioning anything about it.

KURTZ: But Rush Limbaugh goes on the air and says this is liberal bias, because the media's just taking this woman's denials at face value. Conservatives are saying, "Boy, you sure didn't mind looking into the Bush National Guard records controversy, but you're not touching this."

So there are a lot of people on the right out there who think that the press is giving Kerry a pass.

HARWOOD: This is one issue on which Rush Limbaugh is a big, fat idiot. He's exactly wrong on that.

KURTZ: Because?

HARWOOD: Because what could the press look into? There's nothing -- there's nothing to look into. Nobody has alleged anything.

SMITH: The cover up really doesn't wash. And the parallel doesn't work.

But the fact is...

KURTZ: Why not? You don't know exactly what happened with Bush and the National Guard, but it certainly hasn't stopped lots of reporters from looking into it.

SMITH: But there are records. There are things you can report. There are people you can interview. And it's an issue, you can even argue the relevance to this campaign, that it's an issue of substance.

ZUCKMAN: The problem is that there are millions and millions of people out in the country who have to make a decision about how they're going to vote. And they've heard this rumor. And it was just so pervasive that, you know, I think a lot of mainstream outlets felt they had to address it in some way.

KURTZ: But...

SMITH: When the candidate did, when the candidate addressed it...

KURTZ: Right.

SMITH: ... and did so publicly on "Imus in the Morning," then I think it -- it is truly out there.

KURTZ: Is it -- it this so the...

SMITH: ... and worthy of reporting.

KURTZ: ... what some would call the conservative media machine at work? You have Drudge, a conservative, putting this out there; Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and a lot of talk radio people picking it up; Murdoch papers, Rupert Murdoch papers in London and New York giving it pretty good play. And everyone else forced to deal with it. SMITH: I'm shocked that you would suggest that.

KURTZ: All right. You shock easily.

Jill Zuckman, let's pick up on John Harwood's point. When Gennifer Flowers comes out and makes an accusation on Bill Clinton, we don't know whether it's true. But at least there's somebody with a name and a face...

ZUCKMAN: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... going before a camera to say it. Paula Jones, the same thing.


KURTZ: Here, we didn't even have the woman, in any form, before she issued a denial, saying this happened. So who is the source? I mean, how did it...

ZUCKMAN: We have nothing. We have no idea where it came from, exactly. We just know that it just got picked up and spread like fire, like wildfire. And, you know, it forced the candidate to address it.

I mean, it's the, "So Howie, are you beating your wife?" kind of question. It's really tough.

KURTZ: The answer is no.

Could there come a point where something like that got enough traction that even "The Wall Street Journal" would be forced to go with it, because to pretend it wasn't happening would be to distort what was going on in the presidential campaign?

HARWOOD: Sure. But it depends on where you set that bar. I mean, Terry's right. "The News Hour" didn't suffer by not mentioning this issue, nor did "The Wall Street Journal." And I don't see why -- there are many things that John Kerry said on Imus that day that were not put in the newspaper.

But if John Edwards and John Kerry had a debate, and John Kerry gets asked about it and it's on national television, sure. We've got to deal with it.

SMITH: To -- to your point about the -- the right and the conservative elements pushing this, I think the evidence is clear they are.

KURTZ: All right. We'll see if that happens again. And we'll see, as well, if it happens from the liberal side of the aisle.

Terry Smith, Jill Zuckman, John Harwood, thanks very much for joining us.

Still ahead, the New York-Boston sports world. Go behind the headlines at the blockbuster Alex Rodriguez trade.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: It was big news in the Bronx when the Yankees obtained baseball's highest paid player, Alex Rodriguez. "Megastar turned on by city's electricity," said "The New York Post," which plastered his portrait on the cover, along with "The Daily News." "A-Rod and Derek Jeter could be better than Mantle and Maris," the paper said. It was New York celebrity coverage, ticker tape kind of coverage. The pope doesn't get this kind of coverage.

But it's a different story in Boston, where the Red Sox, who blew the pennant to the Yanks last year, had tried and failed to trade for Rodriguez. "Say it ain't so," said "The Boston Globe." "Damn Yankees do it again," said a "Globe" column. And "The Boston Herald?" "Evil Empire strikes back."

Then New York's "Newsday" struck back with, "A-rod to Boston, get lost."

Long suffering Sox fans took to the airwaves to lament their cursed existence.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, Red Sox fans sort of have been acting as if they've been hit by a combination of a hurricane, a tornado, and an earthquake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, it's sort of a pathology to be a Red Sox fan. Every -- you see things in a conspiratorial way.


KURTZ: You want conspiratorial? Maybe George W. Bush was behind it. "The president," writes "The New York Post's" Eric Fetman (ph), "used to own the Texas Rangers, which sent A-rod to New York instead of Beantown. And the president will most likely be running against John Kerry, who lives in Boston and would be nominated in Boston." Coincidence? Maybe not. Forget the National Guard records. This calls for a full scale, no holds barred media investigation. Maybe even a special prosecutor.

Up next, your e-mails about television and the Janet Jackson peep show. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Last week we asked if you thought there was too much sexually explicit material on TV.

Grace in Florida writes: "I am so sick and tired of the media putting in their spin on bad TV and making excuses that it is what the American public wants. I for one am ashamed of what we broadcast on TV. Janet Jackson is just the tip of the iceberg as far as morality goes."

Ryan in Texas disagrees. "I don't think the network television program show too much sexual content. All the people who are making a big deal about the Janet Jackson incident will be dead in 20 years, so I doubt the networks care too much about their opinion. Face it, my generation has grown up with 'Friends,' 'Will & Grace' and 'Sex and the City.' In 20 years, no one will think twice about a boob during prime-time."

And finally, a view from north of the border. Dennis in Ontario writes: "I can hardly find the words to describe the utter contempt I have for the Janet Jackson boob imbroglio. For goodness sakes, suck it up and move on. There are far more pressing issues facing America and the world than Janet's breast. Is it OK to watch killings and mayhem on TV, but show a mammary, for two seconds, at 100 yards and we're apoplectic?"

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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