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Analysis of Presidential Press Conference; Shocking the Shock Jocks

Aired April 18, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Prime time showdown.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Two and a half years later, do you feel any sense of personal responsibility for September 11?

KURTZ: Why do reporters keep insisting that President Bush apologize?

Shocking the shock jocks. Is the half-million dollar government fine aimed at Howard Stern an effort to push him off the air and force radio stations to tone down their act?

And from pundit to California candidate: a conversation with Arianna Huffington.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we begin by turning our critical lens on the people asking the questions at the third evening news conference of George Bush's presidency. Everyone knows the president doesn't particularly like these face-offs with reporters, and when the questions about Iraq started coming, the aggressive tone was unmistakable.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong, and how do you answer your opponents who say that you took this nation to war on the basis of what turned out to be a series of false premises?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I guess I'd like to know if you feel in any way that you failed as the communicator on this topic?


KURTZ: Journalists also zeroed in on 9/11. If Richard Clarke can off a televised mea culpa, why not the president?


JOHN ROBERTS, CBS NEWS: Do you believe the American people deserve a similar apology from you, and would you be prepared to give them one?


KURTZ: Reporters kept trying to elicit the "M" word and failing.


JOHN DICKERSON, TIME MAGAZINE: ... might have been after 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.


KURTZ: Joining us now to grade the press' performance in New York, Janeane Garofalo, the actress and comedienne who now hosts a talk show on Air America network. And here in Washington, Blanquita Cullum, talk show host for Radio America, and she's also president of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. And commentator Arianna Huffington, author of the just-released book "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."


Blanquita Cullum, were the White House correspondents we just saw trying to ask tough questions or were they trying to embarrass the president?

BLANQUITA CULLUM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I think right now it's become the kind of thing where you have the journalists out there trying to ask the tough question. It's almost getting your own little 15 minutes of fame.

KURTZ: Or 15 seconds.

CULLUM: Or 15 seconds of fame, actually. And it was a tough venue, I think, for the president. He did have a lot of courage going out there. He knew he was going to get those tough questions.

There was no surprise for him that he was going to get him. But I think the journalists did want to aim for the hard questions. They wanted to be recognized as the one that asked the toughest question.

KURTZ: Janeane Garofalo, are these the kinds of questions that average Americans would ask, or is this more of a Beltway elite thing, trying to get the president to back off, to admit mistakes, and that sort of thing?

JANEANE GAROFALO, ACTRESS, COMEDIENNE: Well, I don't know why people keep saying it's elite to ask questions. I think the White House press corps has been very poor kind of for a very long time with this president. He sort of gets graded on a curve and he gets a free pass. That's obvious. But... KURTZ: A free pass? An absolutely free pass.

GAROFALO: Yes. I would say almost absolutely free pass. But I would say the reason he didn't offer up an apology is because, according to the Center of Public Integrity, polls that were taken on his behalf, the people polled said that he shouldn't apologize or say that he made any mistakes. So...

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, should journalists be, in effect, staking out a position, we think you should admit mistakes, we think you should apologize? That was sort of the message of the news conference.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, AUTHOR, "FANATICS AND FOOLS": I think actually they were asking legitimate questions. There's a real contrast in the tone between this press conference and the press conference on the eve of war. You remember when everybody was so differential.

KURTZ: Just about a year ago.

HUFFINGTON: Yes, just about a year ago. I think that is when they were really not doing their job. And what is amazing is that it is very troubling to the American people that I talk to that he's not willing to course correct. Because there's nothing inconsistent with leadership and course correction in a sense the questions were trying to elicit that kind of response.

KURTZ: Blanquita Cullum, you say it was courageous of the president to go out and face the reporters. I would argue it is part of his job. But let's talk about the coverage of the event.

In the mainstream media, it was that he stumbled, he tripped over his own words, he provided no specifics. But conservatives mostly said, boy, what a strong performance. How can there be such a huge gap? Did we all watch the same show?

CULLUM: Well, I think there was a strong gap because, frankly, you have the choir that supported him, you had the left that was going to hurt him and say he didn't like it that he stumbled, and then you had the middle that was looking there with different eyes than either side. And frankly, where I think he did a good job -- I mean, I think he was really right. He said two things I thought were very important. A, the person that should apologize were the Taliban, the al Qaeda, the Osama bin Laden who took -- who directed the planes to go into the building. He should be sorry. They should be sorry, the terrorists.

The other thing that he said that I felt was extremely important is maybe he's not the most articulate in some ways, but, on the other hand, unlike other presidents in other administrations, when he says something, he means it.

KURTZ: Janeane Garofalo, you said that the White House press corps in your view has been rather soft on President Bush. But do you think that was the case on Tuesday night? GAROFALO: Yes. There's many other questions that can be asked.

Everything -- you know, it wasn't just one tough week in Iraq. You know, there's a lot of problems with Iraq. There's a lot of mistakes that were made. And it's not because of faulty intelligence. It's because the intelligence was hyped deliberately. It's because Iraq was a plan on the table long before 9/11.

And, you know, there are so many other questions that need to be asked by the mainstream media all the time of all politicians that don't get asked. It's a real problem with the mainstream media.

HUFFINGTON: Well, there's also something very troubling about the fact that this president is using staying the course and not wavering as a sign of strength, as a sign of leaderships. We Greeks call it hubris, and it comes right before the fall, when you are not willing to actually look at the reality of what is happening.

KURTZ: But in terms of reporters asking a president questions, that's a perfectly legitimate response. You may not agree with it. I may not agree with it. But if he says we need to keep doing what we're doing in Iraq, is it the job of reporters to try to move him off that position?

HUFFINGTON: No, but I think it's the job of reporters to ask the second question. I mean, that's always the problem with these press conferences, is that you only get one question, then you cannot ask a supplementary question that will elicit a deeper kind of response. And remember...

KURTZ: Which is an advantage to every president has. When you hold a news conference you get one shot.

HUFFINGTON: I know. But the other problem, though, is that, remember, Rumsfeld and the president have both been taking on the media recently. They have been saying that the media is a kind of filter through which we have been seeing Iraq, that the media is over stating the problem in Iraq.

Remember, all that going on for the last two or three months. And now, of course, it's unavoidable for everybody to actually have to admit that the situation in Iraq is chaotic, bloody, and...


KURTZ: We don't seem to hear as much, Janeane Garofalo, of things in Iraq are actually fine, with the media making it look worse. I think in the last few weeks that argument has fallen away because things actually look pretty bad.

GAROFALO: Well, if you watch international news or you listen to Pacifica Radio or you read alternative news sources or blogs, things are much, much worse than we know. And there are things that never get discussed like the use of depleted uranium and the refugees from Fallujah. All kinds of things that are part of war that don't get shared in the mainstream media. That's a tradition, unfortunately. I guess it's called the fog of war or the first casualties of the troops, all those old adages.

Can I say one thing, Howard? There's a teleprompter I'm looking at that is giving me copy for another news program.

KURTZ: Well, if things get kind of boring, why don't you start reading it.

CULLUM: But, you know, listen, we're talking about intelligence. There's a lot of intelligence out there that clearly supports the fact that there was questions of weapons of mass destruction, there still are questions of...

KURTZ: I don't want to get bogged down -- I want to ask you a press question. Doesn't President Bush raise the stakes by holding so few of these news conferences that each one becomes a huge extravaganza and a big deal?

CULLUM: Listen, the president is leading the country at the time of war when we're facing incredible surmountable evidence that there are threats against this country and other countries.

KURTZ: And talking to reporters is therefore not an important part of the job?

CULLUM: No, I think it's a very important thing. But I think that at some point here he's got to lead the country. And, yes, maybe he has to answer questions of the reporters, but he does have things that are going to jeopardize national security that are not going to be able -- that he's not going to be able to tell the press.

KURTZ: OK. We need to move on.

I want to talk now about the situation with the FCC. Howard Stern, a $495,000 fine against Clear Channel which had suspended Stern from its six stations. He's now off the air. It remains to be seen whether or not the government now goes after his main syndicate, Infinity Radio, part of Viacom.

Janeane Garofalo, FCC chairman Michael Powell has been leading this effort. Is Powell and the Republican administration basically trying to drive Howard Stern off the air?

GAROFALO: Well, you know, I think that a lot of time during conservative administrations they kind of trot out the culture war as a distraction. I think that the Janet Jackson issue, the Howard Stern issue are distractions from the real problem with media consolidation and deregulation. One of them being the loss of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 under Reagan, the other being the further deregulation under Clinton in 1996.

There's too few hands owning too many media outlets. And the answer isn't pulling Stern off. It's actually putting more voices, more perspectives on. Now, I'm no fan of morning -- kind of morning drive shock jock radio. So it's hard for me to sort of defend that. But I also feel that this is a distraction. There's a lot bigger problems with media consolidation than that.

KURTZ: Right. Now, you were on Howard Stern's show this past week, Arianna Huffington. How did that go for you?

HUFFINGTON: Actually, you know, it was great, because when I arrived I had already gotten a promise from Uma Thurman to go on Howard Stern and lead a registration drive. And so Howard Stern has agreed to register many of his eight million listeners who are not registered, because, you know, he is now determined to get Bush out of office. And he even promised, Howard, that nobody will go on his show, including the hookers, who is not registered from now on.

KURTZ: OK. But you suggested he take his glasses off at one point.

HUFFINGTON: Oh, yes. At one point, I asked if he would take his glasses off so I could look at his eyes. And he said only if I took my clothes off.

KURTZ: You didn't do that?

HUFFINGTON: No, not quite.

KURTZ: Blanquita Cullum, you are also a presidential appointee to the broadcasting board of governors, which take as stand on First Amendment issues.

CULLUM: That's correct. Right.

KURTZ: Is Howard Stern worthy of First Amendment defense.

CULLUM: Well, the broadcasting board of governors doesn't take a stand on First Amendment issues. We oversee all the international broadcast.

The National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts takes a position on First Amendment issues. In fact, we give an award called the Freedom of Speech Award. And one thing I think it's important to know, it wasn't a Bush administration issue that brought this forward. It was guy in Florida that filed a lawsuit and has been following Stern for 10 years.

We as an association...

KURTZ: But you're part of the government.

CULLUM: No, no. I'm...

KURTZ: You are part of the government that is leading this crackdown.

CULLUM: No, that's not right. I am a part of the government that oversees international broadcasting, but I'm also the president of an association that stands for the First Amendment.

Now, I got to tell you something. Pretty much like Janeane, I don't care for a lot of these shock jocks like Stern. But I do believe in the First Amendment, and I believe that he has a right to speak.

I think it's a broader issue. I think that Janeane -- and she and I will probably not agree on a lot of issues. But on this one, I think there's a lot more to it. And I believe that it has been driven actually by the judiciary, by lawsuits and the Congress.

KURTZ: Let me jump in here. Stern has been doing a lot of talking on his show lately. And let's take a listen at what he had to say about President Bush.


HOWARD STERN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: If you are listening to me now, the one thing I ask you to do is vote against Bush. Vote for Kerry. This all happened when I stopped endorsing Bush. And, by the way, I said, "Let's give him a chance." But I made a mistake.


KURTZ: Janeane Garofalo, a lot of young men listen to Howard Stern. Could this sort of political activism on his part have an impact on the election, in your view?

GAROFALO: I don't know. I would hope that just a one-issue vote like that wouldn't change people's minds. I know that Howard Stern was perfectly willing to support President Bush in all other areas until he felt slighted by the president.

HUFFINGTON: That's OK. It doesn't matter what...


GAROFALO: Well, whatever. But I would hate to think that like a morning drive voice...

HUFFINGTON: Why not? I'll take anything.

GAROFALO: ... was a voice of reason.

HUFFINGTON: But here's what I find is the greatest hypocrisy: you know, the free market here is in the Republican Party. It supposedly believes (ph) each one of our responsibilities, what we eat and listen to. Remember, they passed a bill in Congress to protect the fast food industry from lawsuits about too big or too fattening cheeseburgers.

KURTZ: But more to the point, there's a lot of sexual material on prime-time television. Why is that not the focus of a FCC crackdown and a few radio talk show hosts are?

HUFFINGTON: Well, exactly. It doesn't really make any sense. And I think it's just part of what Janeane said, that it's like the president now becoming the culture war president.


KURTZ: You disagree?

CULLUM: That's ridiculous. I mean, Arianna, now that she is no longer a Republican, wants to take down the president. And that's oh her right. She can do what she wants to.

But I will tell you that It doesn't. It doesn't have anything to do with the president. He's not micromanaging this. This was done from an individual who decided that after years of obscenity on the air, that he wanted to have the FCC take a stand.

Now, look, you know, everybody has a right to do that. Stern has a right to tell his listeners to be able to vote for the president, and they also have a right if they don't like what he says to take him off the air.

KURTZ: Plenty of free speech on the program. I have to blow the whistle.

Janeane Garofalo, Blanquita Cullum, thanks very much for joining us. Arianna Huffington, stay put.

When we come back, Arianna and her new book, media coverage of her campaign for California governor and more.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Still with us, commentator, author and one-time California candidate, Arianna Huffington.

You were a columnist and a commentator. What in the world were you doing running for governor of California? You must have known you weren't going to win.

HUFFINGTON: Well, you know, when I announced, Arnold wasn't in the race yet. So, of course, the minute he entered the race everything changed. One, because he stole the kind of populist rhetoric of my campaign.

KURTZ: Stole as in thievery?

HUFFINGTON: Well, in thievery the sense that he didn't mean it and he's not governing that way. But it is what pollsters told him would determine the election.

KURTZ: Right. And he overshadowed everybody else.

HUFFINGTON: And then, of course, he was a huge celebrity going on "Oprah," going on "Howard Stern," and having $20 million to run advertising on the issues. So once he entered the race it all changed. And for me it became a way to put out my ideas.

KURTZ: There was a moment that was replayed probably a hundred times on television you knocking over a microphone stand and racing into the picture with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria, I believe. Did your image kind of take a beating in this campaign?

HUFFINGTON: I don't think so at all. I think that I learned a lot in this campaign. You know, we all commentate and criticize. And suddenly, being a candidate for seven weeks had a very profound impact on my writing and my thinking.

The book originally was going to be "Fanatics and Fools," plain and simple, criticizing the Republicans and Democrats. The second part of the book, "The Game Plan for Winning America," the positive vision that I believe is needed for the Democrats to win, was completely a product of my insights and my understanding as a result of what I heard people expecting politicians to do.

KURTZ: Now, you now you write in the book that before the recall campaign last year you were friends -- social friends, at least, with Arnold Schwarzenegger.


KURTZ: Then there was this moment at the debate which everybody remembers. Let's take a look.


GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: You are talking about the contacts (ph) right now, not about education.


HUFFINGTON: Let me finish. Let me finish. You know, this is completely impolite. This is the way you treat women, we know that. But not now.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in "Terminator IV."


KURTZ: Are you still friends after that?

HUFFINGTON: Actually, you know, our children go to the same school. I really like them personally. As I say in the book, Arnold would have made a great king. But he's making a lousy governor, doing exactly the same things that Bush has done.

KURTZ: Lousy governor? He just got into office. But since you brought this up.

HUFFINGTON: No, hold on a second. Let me just answer that, because it's very important. KURTZ: Do you think that reporters are doing a fair job of covering Governor Schwarzenegger or do you think they are still mesmerized by the celebrity aura?

HUFFINGTON: I think they're still mesmerized. I think they will wake up in a few months, as they woke up with Bush, and discover that he's cut $4.6 billion of services to the poorest Californians, that he's making harder for thousands of kids to go to college, and that he is governing like a Bush Republican, as opposed to the kind of moderate Republican that he claimed to be.

KURTZ: Now, you also write in this book that the media during that campaign distorted your tax situation. People may recall that you are somebody who often criticizes fat cats for exploiting tax loopholes, and then the story emerged that you paid $771 in federal income taxes over two years and no state income taxes. Now, I know your income fluctuates, but can't you see why that would be a story? Did you think it was a non-story?

HUFFINGTON: No. I really think it's a non-story, because there was no loophole. It was very, very conservative tax deductions that did not even include my home office. And this year, 2003, when I just paid my taxes, thousands and thousands of dollars, because it was good year.

So it was a non-story. But it was a story that fit in a certain narrative. And that's the other thing I learned, that the media covers stories that fit a narrative. And that is very...

KURTZ: So what was the narrative about Arianna Huffington?

HUFFINGTON: The narrative was hypocrisy. The media loves that.

So in the same way now for John Kerry, which is really much more important, he needs to put forward his own narrative about the war hero who comes home, who takes on the establishment against the war in Vietnam and has the power to change America, as opposed to allowing the Bush people to define his narrative as a flip-flopping senator.

KURTZ: Now, you, again -- I guess it was back in 1994 you worked on the Republican Senate campaign of your then husband, Michael Huffington. Initially, you said some nice things about Newt Gingrich.

Now, here we are a decade later, you are writing this book that Bush is a fanatic and you want to do everything you can to get him out of office. It seems kind of flaky to some people to have that kind of political journey.

HUFFINGTON: I think it's very wise for people to evolve as the evidence comes up and as we see what is happening in this country. Today, hard not see today's headlines as evidence of fanatics running the country. These are the people who are the fanatics that invaded Iraq when Saddam had nothing to do with September 11. So Saddam is now in jail and Osama is free.

KURTZ: So were you wrong then or did you just get educated into your new views?

HUFFINGTON: Oh, I got educated, absolutely, because I got educated on the key issue of the role of government. I was always a moderate Republican on the social issues. So my education was on the role of government.

But what is interesting is that nobody is asking Dennis Miller why he changed from liberal to conservative. It seems that if you change from conservative to progressive it's somehow less acceptable.

KURTZ: I see. Well, Dennis Miller didn't run for governor of California and didn't write a book. So, just in five or 10 seconds, are you now a Democrat?

HUFFINGTON: I'm supporting John Kerry because I believe that the House is on fire. And when your house is on fire, it's not the time to talk about remodeling. It's not the time to talk about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) votes and voting for Ralph Nader. It's a time to get Bush back to Crawford, Texas, where he seems to prefer to be anyway.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington knows something about sound bytes. Thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, Bob Woodward gets scoop, Justice Scalia apologizes, and one magazine gets a bit too creative with Demi Moore. It's all next in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): It wasn't exactly a great day for the First Amendment when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave a speech in Mississippi and federal marshals seized the tape recordings of two reporters in the audience and had them destroyed. Scalia, who does not like his speeches broadcast, has now apologized, saying it's all right for print reporters to tape him for accuracy sake. What a relief.

Bob Woodward is a master of leaks, but now he's been the victim of one. Woodward was supposed to break the news in his forthcoming book about the Iraq war this morning in The Washington Post and tonight on "60 Minutes." But after the AP got hold of some excerpts, The Post reported the highlights on its Web site Friday.

Air America grounded, at least temporarily. The fledging liberal radio network of Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken was knocked off the air in Chicago and Los Angeles in a financial dispute with the owner of two stations it's leasing. Air America, which has only four other stations, has gotten a court order clearing the way for a return, at least in Chicago.


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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