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The Battle for First Lady; Mea Culpa at 'New York Times'

Aired May 30, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The battle for first lady. Teresa Heinz Kerry has become a lightning rod, and newspaper and magazine cover girl, just as Laura Bush is playing a bigger role in her husband's campaign.

Why are the media so gaga over John Kerry's wife and her wealth? Does Mrs. Bush get the same kind of scrutiny? And what does this have to do with who will make the best president?

Mea culpa at "The New York Times." The paper criticizes the work of Judith Miller and other reporters from much hyped stories on whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

And a new look at the liberal media.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the strikingly different media coverage of two very different women: Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry. Both are playing key roles in their husbands' presidential campaigns, doing more interviews, appearing in campaign ads and on late night talk shows.

Teresa Kerry has been landing lately on newspaper front pages and the cover of "Newsweek." But is the press pigeonholing these women and egging on the more controversial Mrs. Kerry?

Joining us now, Mark Leibovich, reporter for "The Washington Post," who wrote a widely read profile of Teresa Heinz Kerry as the campaign was getting under way. "USA Today's" Jill Lawrence, who's profiled both women. And writer Lisa DePaulo, author of a recent profile of Teresa Kerry for "Elle" magazine.


Jill Lawrence, Teresa said to you, "It's like if you don't have a size 48 bust, you're not sexy. If you're not 24, you're not attractive. It's so limiting and uninteresting."

Now admit it, you went to interview her hoping she would say all kinds of controversial things so that you could get your story right there on the front page of "USA Today." True or false?

OK, next question. What is it about interviewing her that produces these kinds of stories?

JILL LAWRENCE, REPORTER, "USA TODAY": Well, I think that most people who get interviewed get interviewed a million times and get asked the same questions a million times. She just is incapable of answering a question the same way twice.

And so she wanted -- we wanted to talk about her money and how it does or doesn't define her, and she gave me a milder version of that quote in one interview. And then she gave me that version in a phone interview.

And I think, you know, to keep it interesting for herself, she just keeps changing what she says. And sometimes that's what you get.

KERRY: Keep going back, you get better stuff.

Mark Leibovich, your piece said, "She hits on the following things: the excessive drinking of a Massachusetts politician, a miscarriage suffered by one senator's wife, her own miscarriage and the Boston TV reporter who is an unhappy, lonely man. She also talks about how shy she is."

Did you come back to the office and say, "All right. I've got all of her -- her saying all these embarrassing things"?

MARK LEIBOVICH, REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": It wasn't clear to me until I listened to all the tapes exactly what she had said. I mean, I had three fairly wide-ranging interviews with her, and it was striking to -- how candid she was and to what she was willing to say.

You know, frankly, I think she -- I don't think it's mutually exclusive to be shy and to speak somewhat out of school, because I think when you're shy, maybe you compensate more by -- by talking more. And she'll say repeatedly that she's shy. And I think one of the products of that is her outspokenness.

KURTZ: Before we get to you, Lisa, I want to take a look at Teresa Heinz Kerry on a recent edition of "20/20." She was asked initially about this cover of "Newsweek" that had the headline was, she "crazy like a fox?"


TERESA HEINZ KERRY, JOHN KERRY'S WIFE: I've heard sly. I've heard cheeky. But I never heard crazy.

BARBARA WALTERS, "20/20" HOST: What's the biggest misconception about you?

KERRY: Probably that I am forthright, opinionated. A lot of people are not used to having a dame, a lady, or something, have opinions.


KURTZ: Now, reporters say they want people to be real and not scripted, but when they are, they sort of hang them with their own controversial words, right?

LISA DEPAULO, FREELANCE WRITER: No. I think she's -- of course, she's every reporter's dream.

KURTZ: Because?

DEPAULO: She's great copy. And she actually answers questions. She doesn't -- she doesn't have the script. She doesn't, like, go to this default that most of these political wives go to. So she's fabulous.

KURTZ: And when you wrote your "Elle" magazine profile, weren't some of the people in the Kerry campaign less than thrilled with it?

DEPAULO: I heard that, as someone put it, the white boys in the campaign were not thrilled.

But, you know, Teresa is Teresa, and she's not going to change. They have tried to control her. I think we can all attest to that.

LAWRENCE: Right. But I would argue about your statement that she's hanging herself. I don't necessarily think that that's the case. I think a lot of people find this very appealing.

I was at a fund-raiser where she was speaking with her husband, and a lot of the women there had never seen her, or heard her or anything. And people were crying, they were so excited by what she was saying.

KURTZ: No, I didn't say she was hanging herself. I said the press is playing this game of trying to see who can get the most outrageous, controversial statement, because it makes good copy. But at the same time, it's not necessarily helpful in a presidential campaign.

But you've interviewed both Teresa Heinz Kerry and Laura Bush. Very different experience?

LAWRENCE: Very different.

KURTZ: How so? What's it like interviewing the first lady?

LAWRENCE: Well, I interviewed Laura Bush when her husband was running for governor, when he was running for reelection in 1998. And he was, of course, thinking about running for president and laying the groundwork.

And she was pretty subdued. She did talk about his drinking. She talked about her daughters and how they felt about politics. What we would consider good copy from Laura Bush pales beside what you get from Teresa Heinz Kerry.

So I mean, even though -- and I guess the feeling that she was more open then than she's been in interviews more recently, since he's been president. But it's...

KURTZ: Meaning she's learned to -- to curb her tongue, is what you're saying?

LAWRENCE: Right. Even so much as, you know, she hasn't said much before. But they're just such different types of people. Their experiences are so different.

KURTZ: Laura Bush has been making the television rounds lately. It's campaign time. Let's take a look at her with Jay Leno.


JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Didn't I read your husband says he doesn't read the newspapers? Because I've done a lot of jokes about this.

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: He only reads -- he really does read the newspapers, of course, just not the reporters that follow him.

LENO: OK. Now, why is that?

BUSH: I mean, because he says he doesn't want to be mad at them the next day. Also, because he was there at the event, so he doesn't need to really read their commentary.



KURTZ: Mark Leibovich, Leno aside, isn't there a natural tendency, when interviewing a first lady, to be more respectful? Or is it just that Laura Bush has this sort of librarian's personality and rarely makes waves?

LEIBOVICH: Maybe, although I would argue that I don't think journalists have been particularly disrespectful of Teresa Heinz Kerry, either in person or in their stories.

I think the controversial things that have -- that have defined, largely, Teresa Heinz Kerry in this cycle have been things she has said. Unless she's being quoted inaccurately, you know, these are her words and no one's spinning them in any particular way, despite what some of the campaign might say.

KURTZ: She said your profile was silly, among other adjectives.

LEIBOVICH: She said many things about my profile. I think I'm...

DEPAULO: Your profile was brilliant.

LEIBOVICH: Thank you, Lisa. I think I'm the journalistic equivalent of Hunt's ketchup in the Heinz circle. But I think that, yes, there are going to be certain stories that campaigns don't like and the subjects don't like. I mean, that's true of every story.

DEPAULO: And that's -- you know, everyone who came after Mark to profile Teresa did not expect her to be as forthcoming because of the, you know...

KURTZ: Figuring that she would be gun shy.

DEPAULO: Sure. That's, you know, or "maybe I shouldn't say all those things." But she still does, even with handlers, even -- so that is who she is, and I think that's pretty neat, that she...

KURTZ: Did you once have an interview with her in which she was not terribly exciting?

LAWRENCE: Well, I had -- I had one of two interviews, the first two interviews after Mark's story. And it was six months after his story. They waited a good long time before they let her back into the media spotlight.

And she was very subdued. She didn't say much that was interesting at all. But I...

KURTZ: What did you do?

LAWRENCE: Well, I panicked. And then I wrote a story about how hard she was trying not to say anything interesting.

But I do think that over the past year, which is how long it's been since that interview, she emerged in Iowa and New Hampshire as a -- as a good campaigner and some of the people found appealing. And so she's got a little more leeway. She's sort of back out, about maybe three-quarters of the way toward where she was before.

KURTZ: I don't see you profiling Laura Bush for "Elle" magazine.

DEPAULO: I interviewed her when -- during the election.

KURTZ: I think that you are dying to see Teresa Heinz Kerry in the East Wing. She would be the most controversial first lady since Hillary.

LAWRENCE: Oh, absolutely. Well, you know, I vote based on who would be the best copy so -- no, I do think that she would be great. But I also think that she's going to do a great job, because she already kind of does it in the endowments with the Heinz Foundation.

KURTZ: Does Teresa Heinz Kerry get covered differently because she is rich and controls a big charitable foundation? I sense a certain degree of maybe ridicule in some of these stories -- the five houses, the skiing in Aspen. She met her husband at a global warming conference.

LEIBOVICH: Right. I don't think I see ridicule there. I mean, I think, again, these are facts. And I don't think any of us are going to judge her because of her wealth, and I think probably there are some people out in the country...

KURTZ: Why are there always these sidebars about how wealthy she is? LEIBOVICH: Because it's a detail. It's true -- well, I don't think it's how wealthy she is, per se, but she has give house. I mean, that's...

DEPAULO: Also, she subsidized part of this campaign. I think that's really important. I think you could argue that he would not be the nominee without her wealth.

KURTZ: Well, you could argue that on political grounds, and I'm talking about the sort of lifestyles of the rich and famous.

I want to turn now to other members of the presidential family. Jenna and Barbara Bush graduated from college. Are they now out of the bubble? Are the media gloves off? Will we be seeing lots of stories about them in bars and nightclubs?

LAWRENCE: Well, I don't know about the bars and nightclubs. It sounds like they're going to get involved with their father's political career for the first time.

Their mother said that they're going to campaign, or at least work in his headquarters. And they both seem to have jobs lined up for the fall. So maybe over the summer they'll be more in the spotlight. And certainly, they're going to be interviewed by "Vogue" and an appearance on media, which is very different from how it's been.

KURTZ: And speaking of kids of candidates, Alexandra Kerry shows up at Cannes Film Festival in a very sheer dress that turned out to be a little too revealing. Those pictures were seen around the world.

Isn't that a little cheesy, on the media's part?

DEPAULO: Yes, and I also think that you had that explanation. The lights were hitting her a certain way, whatever, whatever. But we're fascinated with these daughters, and it's kind of -- the Kerry daughters are pretty exciting women.

I didn't know she was a filmmaker until the headlights picture came out.

KERRY: Well, are we fascinated with embarrassing family members, whether it's Alexandra or whether it's Jenna drinking when she's not supposed to, or whether it's Teresa Heinz Kerry? Just briefly.

LEIBOVICH: I don't know if it's fascinating, but I think they're certainly worth running, you know, within -- within the bounds of taste.

DEPAULO: And these -- Kerry -- Teresa and the daughters are much more interesting than John.

KURTZ: Well, perhaps that explains the obsession. I've got to call -- I've got to hold it here. Lisa DePaulo, Jill Lawrence, Mark Leibovich, thanks very much for joining us. When we come back, "The New York Times" says its pre-war reporting on Iraq and WMD wasn't good enough. Did the paper go far enough?

Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. More than a year after "The New York Times" ran stories by Judith Miller and some colleagues, suggesting that Iraq may have been hiding weapons of mass destruction, the paper's editors now say they wish they had been more aggressive in reexamining those claims.

An editor's note this week says: "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.

Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted.

Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all."

Joining me now, editor-at-large Jack Shafer, and "Washington Post" ombudsman Michael Getler. Welcome.

Jack Shafer, you've been calling on "The New York Times" roughly every three or four days for more than a year to come clean on this issue. Now that they've run the editor's note, you say they kind of admitted they've been saps. Explain.

JACK SHAFER, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, SLATE.COM: Exactly. I called the editor's note a mini culpa.

It comes a little bit late. It's maybe 14 months after the fact when they should have made it. They buried it at A-10 inside the newspaper. They might not have been as self-critical as they should have been.

But they really came forward and do -- did what a lot of publications and broadcasters don't do. They said, "We -- we published faulty stories. We wish we'd done a better job. And now we're going to devote ourselves to going back and correcting the record."

KURTZ: This was the first major damage control effort by editor Bill Keller, who took over for Howell Raines, under whose editorship many of these original pieces were published.

What did you make of the editor's note? It did take the rather rare step, in my view, of blaming the editors, not just the reporters.

MICHAEL GETLER, OMBUDSMAN, "WASHINGTON POST": I actually think that's a good step. I really do. I think editors are ultimately the gatekeepers at newspapers. I was glad that "The Times" did it that way.

They actually did it that way, also, as I recall, when they published an editor's note a couple of years back on the Wen Ho Lee coverage that caused them problems, also.

I think it's very important for newspaper -- news organizations to understand and to put the burden on editors for what -- what actually gets in the newspaper. It's not...

KURTZ: They -- they do have the final say.

GETLER: They absolutely have the final say.

KURTZ: They've got the key to the front page.

GETLER: And we remember the reporter bylines, but it's the editors that really have that responsibility.

KURTZ: Let me read a couple of the headlines of the stories that were being dissected here.

September 2002, "U.S. says Hussein intensified quest for A-bomb parts."

April 2003, "Illicit arms kept until eve of war, Iraqi scientist is said to assert."

Now, many of these stories were by Judith Miller, but she wasn't even named in the editor's note. How important was Judith Miller's reporting in the run-up to war?

SHAFER: I think it was very important. What's interesting to note about "The New York Times," and they acknowledged this in their editor's note, is that they would publish stories like this and then whenever they followed up on the story, they would bury the story inside the paper.

KURTZ: If the follow-up...

SHAFER: The follow-up was much more critical...

KURTZ: ... had any doubt?

SHAFER: ... and much more doubting and skeptical. So I think what's important is not only what Judith Miller wrote, but -- and some of the other pieces that the note itself is critical about, but where they placed them, page one.

KURTZ: But how do you not name the reporter? I can't imagine "The New York Times" writing a story or an editor's note or correction about anybody working in a government agency or a corporation and writing around the fact that this was the person whose name was on, not all the stories but some of the stories. GETLER: I think they should have named her, along with other people. I think that would have given more credibility to the -- to the note that they did publish, which I was glad to see.

KURTZ: Could they have named some of the editors?

GETLER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KURTZ: So really, it's -- they're only taking a half step, three-quarters step toward what we would ordinarily consider to be a full accounting, full disclosure?

GETLER: At this point. I mean, there may be more to come.

SHAFER: I disagree with that. I mean, one of the things the "Times" also did is it put all of the stories that there are serious criticisms to be monitored (ph) against on their Web site. So any reader who wants to know -- it might be important to journalists, like us sitting at this table, or who wrote that story.

But -- but I think for most news consumers, what they're most interested in is the publication. And it was "The New York Times" authority that was -- that's being called into question here, and it's "The New York Times" as an institution which is saying, "Hey, we did it wrong. We're going to go back."

KURTZ: And one of -- one of Judith Miller's chief sources was Ahmed Chalabi, by her own account. Of course, a lot of these organizations used Chalabi.

Did the recent U.S.-backed raid on Chalabi's home, and the Bush administration has now kind of discredited or disowned him or walked away from him. Do you think that kind of forced the "Times" hand here?

SHAFER: You could speculate that. I think, from what I've heard inside "The Times" newsroom, there were moves afoot to publish an editor's note. The raid on Chalabi, I think, is mostly a coincidence.

KURTZ: Now, "The New York Times" has had plenty of company on this subject. You've criticized "The Washington Post" reporting in the pre-war period. You've also said that some of the more skeptical stories didn't get the same play as the stories that screamed, almost, that Hussein was hiding weapons.

And you also criticized the paper, of course, for hyping the Jessica Lynch story and taking its time to correct those misimpressions.

So is this a problem for much of journalism?

GETLER: I think it's -- there's a bit of that problem all over. You know, the "Post" probably has a couple of stories that they might like to have back. Or that they would perhaps present a little bit differently. But I think -- I think the "Post" generally did fairly well on this story. The problem in many cases is that, exactly as you say, that these stories are buried. They are put inside. There was a whole string of stories, excellent stories, actually, that "The Post" had in the run-up to the war that were back on page 16, 17 and 18.

And it comes, again, to the question of editing. Editors, why were those stories put there?

KURTZ: Well, in part because it may have been difficult to go up against an administration that was pounding the drums and saying Hussein was a threat and trying to prepare the country for war.

In fact, I want to play a clip of Vice President Cheney just a couple of days before the war started to remind us all of what the climate was like.


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We know he has, in fact, developed these kinds of capabilities, chemical and biological weapons. We know he's used chemical weapons.

We know he's reconstituted these programs since the Gulf War. We know he's out trying, once again, to produce nuclear weapons.


KURTZ: There's this huge debate now whether Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld took the country to war under false pretenses. But why hasn't every news organization gone back and questioned whether they were complicit in some of that effort?

SHAFER: Well, I've got a modest proposal for all news organizations. They should run a regular column called "Previously Thought to be True." And it wouldn't be just about -- about the war in Iraq, about a whole array of issues, where if they'd fundamentally gotten a story wrong, there's a place, there's a format and there's an expectation that they'll go back, correct the record and become more accountable.

I'm a great believer in a journalist's right to get it wrong. I mean, in order for the truth to be discovered, there has to be a lot of breathing room. And every -- every journalist who's worked a beat has made mistakes.

KURTZ: We've got about 10 seconds. Would you agree with that sort of self-examination, maybe not with the same name?

GETLER: Absolutely. I think there's nothing more important than going back and looking at the pre-war coverage. There's just been nothing quite like this in the last several decades. And every news organization needs to go back and see how they did.

KURTZ: Well, failing that, we'll have you both back on. Jack Shafer, Michael Getler, thanks very much for joining us. Up next, is the press really crawling with liberals? Some eye opening research next.


KURTZ: You out there, yes, you know who you are, the ones always complaining about the liberal media. The ones who think that mainstream news organizations are filled with lefties.

Well, there's a new survey out that shows you may have a point. The study, by Andrew Kohut's Pew Research Center and Tom Rosenstiel's Project for Excellence in Journalism says that 34 percent of journalists at national news outlets describe themselves as liberal; 54 percent as moderate and just 7 percent as conservative.

The numbers were less lopsided in local newsroom. But still, twice as many liberals as conservatives.

But journalists, of course, are trained to keep their opinions out of their work. Except that nearly half of those in national newsrooms say ideology does color the reporting. Which leads me to the most eye-catching fining: 55 percent of the national journalists and 37 percent of the local ones say the press has been too soft on President Bush. Too soft in the midst of all this Iraq coverage? And yes, more of the liberal media people hold that view.

If the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts led you to believe that journalists are to the left of the public on social issues, you're right. Eighty-eight percent of national journalist say society should accept homosexuality. Only about half the public agrees.

Who do the journalists think is biased? Asked to name an especially conservative news outlet, 69 percent of the national journalists picked Fox News Channel. As for an especially liberal organization, 20 percent named "The New York Times." Only 2 percent chose CNN.

Media bias remains a complicated subject, but those who are convinced of that bias just got a whole new round of ammunition. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: We had Tim Russert on last week, and he does not put people to sleep. But that's the impression left by this "Boston Globe" picture of the "Meet the Press" host speaking to Boston college students. "Globe" editor Marty Baron says he regrets running such an inappropriate photo. I'm sure most of the graduates managed to stay awake.

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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