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Democratic Convention Wrap-Up

Aired August 1, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Kerry wows the press. Was the speech really as good as the pundits are proclaiming? Did the Boston convention produce real news or was it mostly created by the 15,000 journalists there?

Why was there so much media focus on the Teresa soap opera?

And with CBS, NBC and ABC cutting back, are networks like MTV, ESPN and Comedy Central now filling the void?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the hordes of TV anchors, correspondents, print reporters, pundits and Internet bloggers who covered the Democratic Convention searching for actual news. Did they find some, or just get swept along by the Democratic Party's carefully choreographed hoopla? I'm Howard Kurtz.

The nominee's speech, not surprisingly, drew huge headlines. And this morning, there is no escaping John Kerry and John Edwards on the Sunday talk shows.

But have the media lost all sense of perspective after a week in Boston? Joining us now from Boston, Dan Kennedy, media critic for "The Boston Phoenix." In New York, Robert George, editorial page writer and columnist for "The New York Post." And here in Washington, Anna Marie Cox, who covered the convention for MTV News and is better known as The Wonkette for her Web site. And Dan Klaidman, Washington bureau chief of "Newsweek."

Dan Klaidman, I want to show a little bit of what the anchors and correspondents and pundits had to say about the Kerry speech right after he addressed the convention in Boston. Let's take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry demonstrating what has been known about him in his political career, that he gets stronger as the campaign goes on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought that Kerry had a bunch of powerful themes and raised the bar quite high for President Bush to attain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The best speech I have ever heard John Kerry make.

JOE KLEIN: I have never seen the man speak so well.


KURTZ: The media loved this speech. They adored it. Going overboard?

DAN KLAIDMAN, NEWSWEEK: Look, these are people's impressions when they saw the speech. And I think part of what drove...

KURTZ: It's subjective.

KLAIDMAN: Of course, it's subjective. I mean, people are asking for their reactions. There's only a subjective reaction. I think part of what's driving this is that particularly people who had followed John Kerry closely and had been following this campaign, they actually have seen a fairly significant improvement, and they saw him at this convention and during this speech looking human, getting away from that sort of heavy, robotic style that he's had.

KURTZ: I am here to tell you...

KLAIDMAN: Sounding a little bit like a Roman senator.

KURTZ: They've seen a lot of bad Kerry speeches; this was not one of them.

KLAIDMAN: That's right.

KURTZ: Anna Marie Cox, is this kind of like a college romance, where the suitor has to court the press corps and get their approval and their love and kisses?

ANNA MARIE COX, WONKETTE.COM: I think so, except the bar is pretty low. It's less like a college suitor than maybe somebody having a crush on you. Like the class president, who's like too busy usually, doing his homework, to pay attention to you.

I think that -- I watched this speech with some Kerry people. And it was amazing to me how for them the bar was pretty low for him too. I mean, they were just happy -- they were happy that he sweated. The fact that he was glowing. They interpreted that as oh, my God, like he's putting effort into this.

KURTZ: Well, it's the first time that would be considered a plus in presidential politics. Dan Kennedy, the media have never particularly warmed up to John Kerry, perhaps until now.

DAN KENNEDY, THE BOSTON PHOENIX: Yeah, that's right. And I mean, he did give a pretty good speech. I mean, personally, I rated it an A-minus for content and a B-plus for delivery. And you know, I think not only is that quite a bit better than he has sometimes given in the past, but it was a fair amount better than people had expected. So I think on that basis, they did warm up to him.

KURTZ: The all-important expectations bar.

Robert George, was this a bit of a swoon by the liberal media?

ROBERT GEORGE, NEW YORK POST: I think it was a partial swoon. It wasn't quite as much of a swoon as they've given, say, Bill Clinton in the past. I actually thought that Kerry almost took a page out of George Bush I's speech in '88, by coming across as, you know, the patrician senator who doesn't quite have the common touch, but then suddenly, you know, shows up on the scene and shows that he can give a serviceable speech.

KURTZ: Right, right.

GEORGE: ... which everybody sees as great.

KURTZ: OK. Now, there was one -- in the opening days of convention, there was one bit of tape that almost reached Dean scream levels, it was played so often. Let's look at a little incident involving Teresa Heinz Kerry.


TERESA HEINZ KERRY, JOHN KERRY'S WIFE: Are you from "The Tribune Review?"


HEINZ KERRY: Of course, understandable. You said something I didn't say. Now shove it.


KURTZ: A reporter was told to shove it. Was this huge news?

KLAIDMAN: Look, there are a couple of things going on here. One, this was an unscripted moment in a very scripted convention. And that's something that reporters are interested in, and, frankly that people out there want to hear. And also, you know, the relationship with -- the media's relationship with Teresa Heinz Kerry is evolving. And she is a complex woman. She's an interesting woman. She's somewhat exotic. And there is often a need in the press to have a kind of a dragon lady.

Now, I'm not suggesting that she is that, but people are looking for that.

KURTZ: Your magazine put her on the cover a couple of months ago.

KLAIDMAN: It was a pretty positive profile, I should say.

KURTZ: Anna Marie Cox, what explains this media obsession with Teresa, her houses, her Botox?

COX: Well, I was actually just going to get back to the "shove it" comment for a second. The other thing about this that made interesting for me it was an outbreak of partisanship. You know, the person that she said that to was from an incredibly conservative news organization.

KURTZ: It's from "The Tribune Review," owned by Richard Mellon Scaife.

COX: That's right, and has had an axe to grind against her for a long time. Not only was it an unscripted moment, it was an actual like partisan moment, which face it, like we're not seeing a lot of at this convention.

KURTZ: Because everything was so tamped down, and we're not going to be too anti-Bush and that sort of thing.

Dan Kennedy, "The Boston Herald" had a couple of stories this week on the front page slamming Teresa, in one case over 30-year-old remarks. And then "The Herald" and "The New York Post" had those cover pictures of Kerry in a space suit after he had visited Cape Canaveral, looking kind of goofy. Do these papers have a vendetta against Kerry?

KENNEDY: Oh, "The Herald" doesn't have a vendetta against Kerry. "The Herald" is trying to find a niche for itself. "The Herald" has been kind of reinventing itself as a downscale tabloid this year, after a number of years of being a pretty good local news outlet. And I think one thing that they see a market for is some Kerry-bashing, because they're really not getting that from "The Boston Globe," which is the city's dominant daily. You know, it's entertaining. I don't really know how seriously anybody takes it.

KURTZ: All right. The pictures of the space suit and Teresa telling the reporter to shove it were soon replaced by that shot of Kerry and the veterans in the boat crossing the Boston Harbor. All the television networks used that. It was on the front page of "The Washington Post." Was this really a battle of images, who could get the better pictures and get TV to bite?

GEORGE: Yeah, absolutely. And just to say on the record, "The Post" does not have a vendetta against John Kerry, anymore than we have a vendetta against any Democratic candidate. But no, but that was -- but seriously...

KURTZ: That was very diplomatic.

GEORGE: Thank you. But no, you know, of course, I mean, he obviously has the image -- he's selling himself as, you know, the Vietnam veteran who's coming to save the country and so forth. And the NASA thing was obviously very unscripted, but it was a great TV image. It was a great image to put on the front of a newspaper.

Just to go back quickly on the Teresa thing, what got completely overlooked on that was the fact that the question that the editorial writer from "The Pittsburgh Tribune Review" had was a legitimate one. She said "un-American" and she then denied it when he was asking about it.

KURTZ: OK, but, that, of course, is not why television replayed it 6,000 times.

Dan Klaidman, here's "The Weekly Standard" cover this morning, if I can hold this up. "The Media's Convention" is the headline. So was there enough news to justify the presence of 15,000 of us?

KLAIDMAN: Look, not -- this was not a traditional convention. You know, there hasn't been one pretty much in my lifetime. It's not a nominating convention. So that takes away some of the drama, some of the suspension. But you know, I have to say, I got a little tired of the sort of wining and carping from reporters that there isn't any news there. You know, you've got hundreds if not thousands of great sources there, interesting things happening in this campaign. You have Barack Obama, who just, you know, arrived on the scene like a thunderbolt.


KLAIDMAN: This is a guy who, you know, who knows, 20 years from now or less than that, he may be president of the United States. Are we going to be looking back and saying there was no news at this convention?

KURTZ: Well, we will be looking back and saying that CBS, ABC and NBC did not carry Barack Obama, because he spoke on Tuesday night, which was a night...

KLAIDMAN: But they had them on their Sunday show.

KURTZ: Well, sure, but they blew off the live speech.

So was this a media convention for the media? Was it really all about parties and networking?

COX: Well, there were a lot of parties and networking. And I agree that there was news there. I do think Obama got covered, because he was one of the few -- he was the rock star.

KLAIDMAN: He did get covered, that's right.

COX: So it was one of the stories that was there. But I actually feel like I know less about politics than I did a week ago.

KURTZ: You have negative net ratings? It went down?

COX: I have a negative net rating. We were at the center of the media universe for a whole week, and the biggest story to come out of it was a balloon drop going back.

KURTZ: There was a bubble-like atmosphere to all of us being there.

COX: Yeah.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, Fox News didn't carry Al Gore's speech, they ran only snippets of Jimmy Carter, and later Ted Kennedy and Al Sharpton. Instead of Gore, we got a lot of Bill O'Reilly and also Sean Hannity. What is the point of covering a convention and then talking over the speeches?

KENNEDY: Well, you know, Fox News wasn't the only one. I was watching sober PBS one night, and they wouldn't run the biographical video of Teresa Heinz Kerry. They went to their talking heads, so I ended up switching to C-SPAN, because I wanted to see the video.

You know, I mean, there seems to be this thing that the coverage is being parceled out in a rather parsimonious way. And even when the coverage is offered, it has to be -- the media organizations, I think, too often want to make it appear that they're the show and not the convention.

KURTZ: All right, let me...

KENNEDY: And you're right, if you're going to cover the convention, cover the convention.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Robert George, was this more about the talking heads and the pundits and the commentators than it was about the speeches, at least at times?

GEORGE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when you have that amount of people, when you have that amount of people descending upon it, it becomes more an analysis of what's going on than what you actually see going on. And I think it's unfortunate that, say, Barack Obama didn't get live coverage on the broadcasts, because I think that's a significant story.

KURTZ: Right. All right, before we go to break, this e-mail from a viewer in Tennessee who wrote -- "The perfect coverage for the convention would be to turn the cameras on, send the reporters on vacation, and let us watch the convention. We don't need someone telling us what we just heard."

Well, there is something like that. It's called C-SPAN.

Next, did MTV, ESPN and Comedy Central fill the void left by the broadcast networks at the convention?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Anna Marie Cox, let's share with the viewers some of your convention coverage for MTV.


COX: Will the world end if you don't return this e-mail immediately?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To this person, it will.

COX: Do you actually need to be using this right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I do. I'm addicted to it also.

COX: I understand that before Blackberries, no one could report anything. There was no news.


KURTZ: What were you trying to convey to the viewers of MTV about this convention?

COX: I think I was trying to convey what it's actually like to be there. How there is this obsession with Blackberries, there is obsession with like how good your credentials are, do you have a yellow credential, which means you're a dork, do you have the red credential, which means you can get on the floor. Do you have the honored guest credential, which means you can drink, you know.

KURTZ: Some might say that's a kind of a fluffy look at important political proceeding.

COX: Except that I think that fluff is an important part of this. You know, one of my favorite metaphors for what I do is to describe it as dessert to your political news meal. Unfortunately, I do think at this convention a lot of what should have been the main course was full of carbs and was fried. You know, it was a pretty unhealthy main course.

We were covering the coverage to a degree that made the actual substance of the convention seem like -- seem unimportant.

KURTZ: The lemon meringue pie approach to political conventions. Dan Klaidman, MTV was there, BET, ESPN, Comedy Central and the mainstream networks, Jon Stewart was interviewed by Ted Koppel, Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show." Mo Rocca was CNN's floor reporter for Larry King.

So are all these other outlets now more important than they used to be with the big networks cutting back?

KLAIDMAN: Oh, I think they're clearly more important than they used to be. The question is, are they overwhelming the traditional coverage and are people being served by all of this diverse media?

KURTZ: They're certainly reaching people who aren't political addicts.

KLAIDMAN: Absolutely. And I think it's a great thing. And I think it's going to make the people more -- it's going to make the process more inclusive. You're going to get more young people involved, you're going to get people who traditionally have not been involved, interested in politics. That's all great, as long as...

KURTZ: Got to cut you off. Sorry. We have some breaking news. Let's go to Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. Tragedy many times over throughout Iraq. Various news agencies are now reporting another explosion at a Christian church. This time, taking place in Mosul, about 225 miles north of Baghdad.

Earlier today, in Baghdad, there were at least two reported car bomb explosions outside three Christian churches in an area called Karadi (ph). This is a middle class community, also known to inhabit a number of Iraqi Christians there.

The casualties are expected to be high. Iraqi officials tell CNN that these three churches, including two Christian churches, at least three, including two Christian churches, were targeted. And mass was taking place in one of the Christian churches when the first explosion took place. When Iraqi emergency teams responded, a second -- and they were apparently cordoning off a second suspicious vehicle, that second explosion then took place.

The casualties, again, are expected to be very high with several tragedies taking place throughout Iraq. At least two car bomb explosions in Baghdad, and now a new one being reported in Mosul, about 225 miles north of Baghdad.

We'll have more on this throughout the morning here on CNN.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Dan Kennedy in Boston, you were blogging all week. I was blogging all week. I love bloggers. But you've got to admit, the amount of hype visited on the fact that 30 Internet commentators came to the convention, how much did they really add?

KENNEDY: It was a ridiculous amount of hype. And I really think that what the bloggers -- when bloggers are at their best, they're staying home watching TV and reading the papers and trying to make sense out of all this stuff that's being produced. I think that in some ways, they made a mistake coming to Boston, because they weren't fulfilling the one thing that we most depend on them for.

KURTZ: Robert George, what do you make of all this alternative coverage, from MTV to ESPN to blogging? Did it add a good dimension to a convention everybody complained was overly scripted?

GEORGE: Well, I think more information is better, especially for people who often don't pay attention to politics. What I think is more interesting about -- in terms of the bloggers, of course, is that the mainstream media, CNN and other outlets, felt the need to get into the blogging aspect. So the main thing of blogging, which is the real-time analysis, was also seen as well.

KURTZ: Do you feel your turf has been invaded?


COX: I don't think my turf has been invaded. Oh, actually, I welcome the invasion. I was happy to not be blogging during the convention. I do feel like the bloggers were actually further away from the action than they would have been had they stayed home and watched it on C-SPAN. I do think -- but I got on TV a lot. That was... KURTZ: Well, therefore -- you got on TV, therefore you exist.

I want now to turn to the operative cliche of this convention and post-convention. Let's take a look at some commentary about the bounce.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very quickly, how long big a bump do you think that the Kerry-Edwards ticket will get?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: What's the bounce? What's the bounce?

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": Five points is my marker. Will it go up 5? Because that has been the true average.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Minimum 5. I'd say 5 to 7 or 8.



MATTHEWS: Five to plus.

BROWN: Five plus.

MATTHEWS: Howard, a pure guess here?



KURTZ: Isn't this whole bounce fixation a little much, a little simplistic?

KLAIDMAN: Look, we are obsessed and probably overly obsessed with the horse race. But that doesn't mean, Howie, that who is winning, who is up, who is down, isn't legitimate and isn't important. And it ought to be reported, as long as it doesn't overwhelm all of the other important coverage about policy, about personalities. It's important to know.

KURTZ: It's a brief and blurry snapshot of a couple of days.

KLAIDMAN: And the reporting of the bounce evolves. And we've got our first poll out, and we will update it as the campaign goes on. If people are going to be interested in it, we're going to continue doing it. You just have to keep it in perspective.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, I've got 20 seconds. Bounce? Too much bounce? Too little bounce?

KENNEDY: Well, I mean, I want to know what the bounce is. But believe me, I was covering a lot of events away from the FleetCenter this week, progressive groups and community things, and believe me, the further you got from the FleetCenter, the less talk there was of the bounce.

KURTZ: All right. That will have to be the last word. My thanks to all the guests, too numerous to mention. Appreciate your coming on this morning.

Coming up, why do journalists really go to the political conventions anyway? We'll go behind the scenes and behind the headlines next.


KURTZ: So why exactly did 15,000 journalists descend on Boston for a convention they kept describing as absurdly scripted to the last balloon drop? I worked in a tent with bad air, bad $10 sandwiches, security guards that confiscated makeup. How could television possibly function? And rancid porta-potties that should have been shut down by the EPA.

Well, it's a summer camp reunion for media folks. But I learned something by talking to the pols and the spinners and listening to speeches by the likes of keynoter Barack Obama, who wasn't important enough to make the broadcast networks that preferred to air "Extreme Makeover" and "Trading Spouses."

But here's the problem. By cutting back, by talking over some of the speeches, by denigrating the proceedings as meaningless stage craft, we, the media, have sent you the message that conventions don't matter. Then we wonder in our hand-wringing way why fewer people are watching.

What we should do is either treat the conventions more seriously -- it's only once every four years -- folks, or stay home and zip it.

What we shouldn't do is go to the conventions and whine about it. Or else you should tell us to shove it.

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. We're happy to be back from Boston and here in Washington.

Time now for "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer, which begins right now.


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