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Media's Coverage of John Edwards

Aired July 11, 2004 - 11:30   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Now in the news at this hour, the Philippine government is refusing to pull its troops out early from Iraq to meet the demands of hostage takers. A Filipino truck driver is being held in Baghdad, where his captors are threatening him with death. There have been conflicting reports about his fate over the last 24 hours.
In Israel, a bus bombing has killed one person and wounded at least 20. Palestinian terrorists take responsibility. Israeli police say it was not a suicide bombing, but rather the result of a bomb left near a bus stop. Then it was set off by remote control.

World leaders, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan are attending the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok. Annan opened the conference and pleaded for more money to help with spread of the disease. Meanwhile, protesters are also urging the world's rich nations to do more to fund AIDS projects.

LATE EDITION with Wolf Blitzer is coming up at the bottom -- at the top, rather, of the hour. Don't miss his interview with Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. Stay with CNN, the most trusted name in news.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The dream ticket? Has the press fallen in love with John Edwards? Are journalists being manipulated by the Democratic, seems, perfect photo ops? And why is Dick Cheney drawing much tougher coverage than his new challenger?

Also, John McEnroe swings away.

And Michael Moore returns fire at us.


Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Today, we turn our critical lens on the media infatuation with the man who just joined the Democratic ticket.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have word now as to who John Kerry has chosen. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Is the selection for Senator John Kerry to be the running mate on the Democratic ticket.

KURTZ (voice-over): By early Tuesday morning, the veepstakes was over and the race was on to define John Edwards. And journalists made it crystal clear they like the guy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's got a lot of sizzle. He's got pizzazz. He's very good as a vote getter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democrats say that Edwards makes up for his slim political resume with raw political talent, a natural style.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Picked in part to soften Kerry's remote edges, Edwards did just that by simply showing up, smiling, charming, bringing the kids.

KURTZ: There were even some upbeat remarks from unlikely corners.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "O'REILLY FACTOR": Now, Edwards is a smart choice for Kerry, because he appeals to women and is a friendly guy.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, "SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY": You know, John Edwards is one of the more articulate people to be in the Democratic Party in quite some time.

KURTZ: By midweek, the front pages were filled with pretty pictures and nice headlines about Kerry, Edwards, the wives, the kids. So is this a budding romance, or just a brief honeymoon for the newcomer to the race?


KURTZ: Joining us now in New York, Mark Halperin, the political director of ABC News. Here in Washington, Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News & World Report," and the author of this week's cover story on how Kerry saved his candidacy in Iowa. And Jill Zuckman, who covers the Kerry campaign for "The Chicago Tribune."

And on this Sunday morning, the news magazine covers -- "Time" has "The Contenders"; "Newsweek, "The Sunshine Boys," and lots of major newspaper front page interviews with the new dynamic duo.

Mark Halperin, you write in "The Note" on, "we the media love John Edwards." I thought journalists weren't supposed to fall in love with candidates.

MARK HALPERIN, ABC NEWS: Well, we're not, and we wrote that a little bit as a cautionary note, as well as an analysis of what we thought was going on during the week. There is lots of reasons why I think the mainstream, dominant political press is attracted to John Edwards. Always has been throughout his political career. The guy has got a great set of clips, and the campaign did nothing in the first few days of launching John Edwards to get in the way of the press' natural affinity towards him.

KURTZ: Jill Zuckman, "Chicago Tribune" piece which you contributed to talked about Edwards' graceful poise and abundant energy. Seems to me the press wanted Kerry to pick Edwards, and now that he did they are rewarding Kerry with all this fabulous coverage.

JILL ZUCKMAN, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: I wouldn't say that the press wanted him to pick Edwards. I mean, nobody really knew who Kerry was going to pick. And so, I mean, people were waiting to see and they were trying to handicap the race. I think a lot people thought he might not pick Edwards, because Kerry had made it clear during the course of the primaries that he thought this guy had a lot of chutzpah for running for president so soon in his political career.

KURTZ: Right. Let's take a look, Roger Simon, at the first time that President Bush was asked, his reaction to the new vice presidential nominee. And listen in particularly, to the question from Steve Holland of Reuters.


STEVE HOLLAND, REUTERS: Described today as charming, engaging, a nimble campaigner, a populist and even sexy. How does he stack up against Dick Cheney?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Dick Cheney can be president. Next?


KURTZ: Nimble, sexy. We're talking full swoon here.

ROGER SIMON, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Yeah, we're deep in the Edwards swoon, and we have not seen its likes since the McCain swoon of four years ago. It's not quite as bad as the McCain swoon, but it's close. The press loves John Edwards. John Edwards has worked very hard to make the press love him for more than a year. I mean, he has taken reporters to lunch. There have been dinners at his house. His wife, who is a very smart and capable campaigner in her own right, has also worked the press very hard. This is no accident. This is a guy who has reached out to the media and now has wrapped his arms around them, just like he says he wants to wrap his arms around the voters.

KURTZ: Does this bother you?

SIMON: It's part of life. There will be negative stories. What the press creates, we also destroy, and probably the destruction stories will be as vigorous as the adoration stories are now.

ZUCKMAN: You know, I mean, the press -- everybody says the press loves John McCain too. But John McCain has not lacked for critical news stories when he ran for president, and in the aftermath, even though the press is obsessed with him. And I think you're going to see that John Edwards is going to get his share of critical coverage.

KURTZ: That will be next week's topic. Go ahead, Mark.

HALPERIN: Howie, can I disagree?

KURTZ: Please.

HALPERIN: Can I disagree with Jill about -- for whom I have tremendous respect. But if you can tell me that the press would have been just as happy for its own parochial purposes to cover Dick Gephardt or Bob Graham or most of the other people under consideration, I just don't think it's true.

ZUCKMAN: No, no, I...

HALPERIN: You suggested -- you suggested we talk a little bit later about potential liberal bias in the media, and maybe that skews the Edwards-Cheney coverage. But there is other biases going on here, at a minimum. We like covering young, interesting, accessible candidates. And the thought of covering someone no more interesting than the other three people on the tickets, I think is something the press did not look forward to.

ZUCKMAN: No, I mean, I agree with you, Mark. I don't think that the press would have been all excited about Dick Gephardt or Bob Graham. I think the reaction would have been somewhat flat to that. And I think it's true that the press just likes him personally. But I'm saying, I think he will get his share of critical stories.

KURTZ: And don't leave out the fact that he's got these two wonderful toddlers, and we've seen all these pictures of them and everyone is gushing over them, and I wonder if yuppie reporters are just identifying with John Edwards in a way that they wouldn't with, say, Bob Graham.

SIMON: Well, sure. And Americans love children, and the two kids are wonderfully cute. And nobody believes the kids are scripted. I mean, they're put out in front of the cameras and they do kid stuff. And we're going to see a lot of these two kids. I predict a lot more than we're going to see of the Bush twins between now and November.

KURTZ: There's an expert on the subject, his name is Dan Quayle. And here's what he had to say on MSNBC. "All of those who criticized me for my youth and inexperience back in 1988 and are trying to give John Edwards a free pass, they owe me a big-time apology." Are you sorry?

SIMON: Well, I'm not sorry. But I think he's got a point. I mean, John Edwards doesn't have much experience. And I don't think he passes the test that John Kerry said he was going to impose, of this was the candidate most ready from day one to be president of the United States.

KURTZ: And if that's the case, Mark Halperin, why does the coverage not reflect that more heavily? Sure, there have been a few pieces about his controversial trial lawyer background and his relative inexperience and he's only run one race. But I mean, it's hardly been the dominant theme of what we've seen and read.

HALPERIN: I think there are three main reasons. One is that the rollout that the Kerry campaign put together was incredibly effective. Any political professional or political journalist has to take your hat off to how carefully they planned this. And they had to plan it not knowing exactly who Senator Kerry would pick or when he would make his selection.

The second reason, I think, is that John Edwards did run for president. Dan Quayle was thrust into a situation where he had not been carefully vetted, where he didn't have his answers down pat to the hard questions he would be asked.

John Edwards has spent his year answering those questions, and he was ready.

And finally, again, I think the Republicans, a little bit of inside baseball, but important, the Republicans, I think, may have hurt themselves by putting out a small novella about John Edwards. All the criticisms they wanted to make of him. And I think that scatter shot approach kept the press from seizing on a single type of criticism that we could feature that might have competed, at least in a small way, with some of those incredible photos as part of the rollout.

KURTZ: There was a story, Jill Zuckman, in yesterday's "New York Times," at the bottom of page 15 here, that talked about Edwards using a tax shelter to avoid paying $600,000 in Medicare taxes. A perfectly good story. I'm wondering why it wasn't on the front page saying John Edwards, who casts himself as a man who fights for the average guy and who made $27 million in the four years before he joined the Senate and who criticized tax shelters during the campaign, used one to avoid paying more than half a million dollars to the Medicare program.

ZUCKMAN: I just find it really amusing, because I mean, it's still legal. And he may criticize it. He may say it's not right. He may say the rich should be paying higher taxes, and that means him, but it's not like he's going to go and pay more taxes if he doesn't have to. And I can't believe that, you know, George Bush and Dick Cheney have never used a tax shelter.

KURTZ: But the press loves to jump on these questions of hypocrisy and tax shelters and so forth. And instead, look at this. "That's the Ticket." "The Dream Ticket."

ZUCKMAN: Come on, it's only like day four or day five after he was announced. I think you're going to see -- I think you're going to see more.

SIMON: Well, there is a point. He's been announced very early, the earliest ever for a vice presidential choice, which is really to our detriment. It robs us of the only news story during the convention, which is who is the vice president, and let's learn more about him. What we're going to write for that week in Boston, I have no idea. KURTZ: Maybe you should cancel your plane tickets. I want to take a look now, not everybody on the airwaves has been praising John Edwards. Let's listen to some critics.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": He has not one piece of legislation we could find where Edwards has been the lead sponsor that became law. Not one single, solitary piece of legislation.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I think in picking John Edwards, Kerry betrayed some of the party's principles. This is not a ticket that looks like America by any stretch.


KURTZ: Mark Halperin, compare the, at least, the initial Edwards coverage to the kind of coverage that Dick Cheney gets. Vice President Cheney, widely described as a lousy campaigner, secretive guy, dishonest about Iraq, Halliburton problems. I mean, can we really, really say Edwards is being held to the same standard by the press?

HALPERIN: Are you talking about the coverage the vice president gets now or when he picked himself to be put on the ticket?

KURTZ: Either one. Take your pick.

HALPERIN: Well, I think that, you know, there's a lot of criticism of the press, some of which I share for spending so much of our resources and time and energy trying to break the story of who is going to be picked every four years. But you do learn something about the candidate as you try to peel back the process. And the process is illustrative of how organized they are, what kind of things they value, how careful they are.

And I think Vice President Cheney got a lot of negative coverage in the beginning when he was selected to be George Bush's running mate, in part because the process was not just secretive, which I think is fine and the candidate's prerogative, but also perhaps not as thorough as the Kerry people were in thinking about two things. How to look at the background and be ready to explain the background. And then how to roll it out in a way where the pictures, whether you got cute kids or not, but whether the pictures so overwhelm any smaller stories about congressional votes or fund-raising or personal finances. And I think in this case, the coverage largely is driven by an effective rollout. And again, as I said before, by a very prepared candidate.

KURTZ: But of course, Journalists are not supposed to be sucked in by the pictures. We all know how it works in modern politics. And yet, you must see a contrast between the way Cheney is covered and the way Edwards is being covered, at least in these initial days.

ZUCKMAN: Well, but Cheney's been under the spotlight for four years, and there's been a lot to write about in the last couple of years. And Edwards is still relatively new. I mean, he's kind of gone through the process over the last year. There's been a lot -- journalists have gotten to know him, they have written a lot about him. But you know, there's no spotlight like a presidential spotlight. And I think that he'll be subjected to more scrutiny.

KURTZ: This reminds me, Roger Simon, of the initial coverage of the Clinton/Gore team in '92 and the bus trip and all the pretty pictures then, and the press got very carried away, I believe, in that kind of coverage. Now, "Time" magazine, I should mention, has a scoop this morning, based on the interviews the candidates are doing, Kerry is stunned to learn Edwards drinks a lot of Diet Coke.

SIMON: Now, that's a scoop.

KURTZ: But I mean, let's get serious for a moment. Isn't this what people mean when they talk about the liberal media? Republicans don't get this kind of coverage.

SIMON: Well, I don't know. I -- Maureen Dowd did an excellent column last week about the two tickets and why we like one and why we like the other. It really isn't about politics. It's about Dick Cheney presents this sort of dour, Darth Vader -- she didn't use that term -- outlook on the world. I mean, this is a gloomy ticket. Bush is not, but Dick Cheney certainly is. John Edwards is the sunny...

KURTZ: So it's style?

SIMON: Yeah. John Edwards is this sunny, bright...

KURTZ: And optimism and good hair?

SIMON: ... optimistic guy. Actually, the public likes George Bush's hair more than they like Kerry's hair. Go figure.

But it's a lot has to do with style, which is what campaigning is, to a large extent.

KURTZ: All right, we have to take a break. Just ahead, is the Hillary obsession on hold for now? Don't bet on it. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We're in the middle of the 2004 campaign, and some pundits are now talking about 2008 or 2012. Let's take a look.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Within about three seconds, we're going to hear, what does this mean for Hillary Clinton, because she's now got a young, charismatic guy on the ticket.

SUSAN ESTRICH, FOX NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: This is not good news for Hillary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You've got a very young, potentially very attractive vice presidential pick. And if this team wins, that puts Hillary in a pickle.


KURTZ: Mark Halperin, what explains the media's Hillary Clinton obsession?

HALPERIN: Well, you know, I consider myself one of America's leading spokespeople for trying to stop the obsessive speculation about Senator Clinton. I...

KURTZ: Is this an organization you've formed?

HALPERIN: It's loosely formed. It's kind of a guerrilla operation; we live mostly on the Internet and amongst the trees in the villages in the hinterlands.

But we're interested in trying to get people to stop speculating when it doesn't make sense. This is actually a case where it does make sense. John Edwards' selection does actually have a very real impact on Senator Clinton, and anyone else, Al Gore or anyone else of a generation of Democrats who are looking to run for the White House. John Edwards could mess this thing up royally in the next few months and make this discussion moot. But if he does well and/or if they win the White House, he puts himself in a very strong position and upsets Senator Clinton's position as the clear favorite if she chose to run in 2008.

ZUCKMAN: But if they lose, then you've got to ask Joe Lieberman, what did it mean for him when he wanted to run for president? I mean, it doesn't -- it's not a total guarantee for John Edwards. But if he conducts himself well, it certainly puts (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: Let's face it, the press always makes it about the Clintons.

SIMON: Sure. And this is one battle that Mark is going to lose. There are only three political superstars that the Democrats -- the Democrats and Republicans really have left. We have ex-President Clinton. To some extent, Ted Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton is clearly the most dynamic of those three.

It's an obsession that will not go away. She'll get extraordinary coverage. And I don't think the Clintons are really that worried about John Edwards either way. I think they think Hillary is going kick his (UNINTELLIGIBLE) butt no matter what happens.

KURTZ: I would just add the caveat, if she runs.

Now, five days ago, a certain New York tabloid had a Dewey defeats Truman moment. Let's put up the cover of "The New York Post." Kerry's choice, Gephardt. Not, apparently. Jill Zuckman, is this a humiliating moment for that newspaper?

ZUCKMAN: Yes, "The Chicago Tribune" is still feeling the ramifications of Dewey defeats Truman, and I think "The New York Post..."

KURTZ: That was 1948. You still haven't gotten over it?

ZUCKMAN: We think about it a lot. "The Tribune" is very careful when it comes to going out on a limb on something like that. And that's my feeling about the whole vice presidential selection process. Any story that is written before the candidate says who it is is just somebody kind of making it up and speculating and not based on anything real.

KURTZ: Mark Halperin, "The New York Times" reported the other day that Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the paper, was actually the source who phoned in the tip. Murdoch has denied that. You're a New Yorker. Do people there just laugh at this sort of thing and say, well, it's "The Post," it's a fun tabloid, let's not take it all too seriously?

HALPERIN: I consider it interesting that "The New York Times" story, reporting Mr. Murdoch's alleged involvement, was explicitly based, they said, on exactly one source.

Look, American journalism is in crisis in terms of credibility. I love "The New York Post," I think it's one of the most entertaining and biggest must-read papers in America. But when stuff like that happens and "The Post" is not at all transparent about why it happened and how, they simply apologized and said they were wrong, kind of an interesting explanation for being wrong, I think it's bad for everybody in our business. And I think they'd be wise to be a little bit more forthcoming about this case, and obviously more careful in the future.

KURTZ: Yeah, the editor of "The New York Post" refused all interviews about how this happened. But I want to give you the last 30 seconds, because you have got an extraordinary cover story this week on how Kerry saved his candidacy in Iowa. I'm told it's the longest story ever to appear in "U.S. News," possibly in the history of magazine journalism.

SIMON: It weighs five pounds.

KURTZ: Some bullet points?

SIMON: The campaigns who were supposed to have the worst organizations, Kerry and Edwards, came in one and two. The candidates who were supposed to have the best organizations, Dean and Gephardt, came in three and four. And it was because nothing was as it seemed in Iowa. The press to a large extent, bought the spin. We missed the story, myself included. And this is...

KURTZ: The spin that the Dean campaign was a juggernaut?

SIMON: Absolutely. And unbeatable. And that Gephardt campaign was close behind, if not ahead. And my purpose was to go back to Iowa and find out what really happened.

KURTZ: It's all there. Roger Simon, Jill Zuckman, Mark Halperin in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, have the media been unfair to Michael Moore? Your viewer e-mail, and Moore's film company fires back at us. That's next.


KURTZ: Lots of e-mail response to our question about whether the media have been fair to Michael Moore and his film, "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Lisa wrote -- "The media is not being fair to Michael Moore. He is being attacked, picked apart, viewed under a microscope. All things the mainstream media, including CNN, fail to do to the Bush administration.

Dan in Santa Barbara adds: "It seems that a lot of people in the media are feeling defensive over Moore's pointing out their obvious deficiencies, and feel the need to discredit him."

But Greg in Arlington, Virginia writes: "Michael Moore calls his latest film a documentary. However, it is really a reprehensible attempt to swing voters during an election year."

And Kevin in Des Moines says: "The real question is why is the media being so kind to this guy? Whether you like President Bush or not, you should be offended by this movie."

Meanwhile, Michael Moore himself isn't happy with our coverage of "Fahrenheit 9/11." Last week, we had on "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff, who challenged the film as a reporter but says it raises legitimate questions. Also, "Vanity Fair's" Christopher Hitchens, who blasted it, and MSNBC's Bill Press, who vigorously defended Moore.

But the president of Lions Gate Films has put out a letter to us, saying "there is not a factual error in it. If someone wants to argue with Michael Moore's analysis of the facts, that is fair game. But to say the film is not a documentary is not only untrue, but also part of the campaign to smear the film so as to imply that it is not factual, which it is."

Well, we presented a range of opinions in this segment. We showed clips of the filmmaker criticizing the media. But more importantly, we invited Michael Moore to come on RELIABLE SOURCES. We're told he was unavailable. So if you're watching, Michael, you have a standing invitation to appear on this program. Just say the word.

When we come back, the Mac attack on cable.


KURTZ: John McEnroe swung into action this week as a CNBC talk show host. And the hard-charging former tennis star seems to believe that delivering the news is like yelling at an umpire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN MCENROE, HOST: Ken Lay has been indicted. Yeah! That son of a bitch that stole billions of dollars from people has been indicted. And he's going to go down!


KURTZ: John, there's a presumption of innocence in America. Lay hasn't been convicted yet.

McEnroe did have an interview with Ralph Nader, but the presidential candidate had to follow Metallica.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again at our usual time next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for a special interview with ABC newsman, Ted Koppel. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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