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A Look at Coverage of Bush-Kerry Debate

Aired October 3, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Florida face-off. Did John Kerry win the debate as resoundingly as the media say, or are reporters just rooting for a tighter race against President Bush?

Do those quickie polls and dial groups mean anything, or are they just infotainment? And life in the spin room. Partisan, predictable and pointless?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, the three network anchors make a joint appearance, with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings offering support to an embattled Dan Rather.

But first, we turn our critical lens today on the pundits, the spinners, the media analysts and the debate watchers who have been telling anyone who will listen how John Kerry and George Bush did in their first televised confrontation. Who came out on top and who fell below expectations, or at least the media's expectations?


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: John Kerry looked -- and I hate this phrase -- as presidential as the president.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, "SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY": It was John Kerry's best performance ever.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: The president was more tentative and more on the defensive than we've seen him in previous debate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got the feeling he was distracted. He didn't answer questions quickly. He kind of stumbled all over himself.


KURTZ: All right. So we know that pundits are paid to sound off, but what about this near-unanimous verdict and those quickie network polls? Are journalists trying to create some kind of Kerry bandwagon? In recent weeks, many in the press have hinted, implied or suggested that the Kerry campaign was sinking like a stone. Have things really changed that dramatically, or is this just plain old pack journalism? Joining us now from New York, David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents who now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And here in Washington, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic." And Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News and World Report." Welcome.

Roger Simon, the cover of "Newsweek," just out, "Off the Ropes," referring to Kerry. I hadn't realized he was quite on the ropes, but when virtually everyone in the media says Kerry won, does that create a wave of momentum for him by itself?

ROGER SIMON, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: Sure, but it's not a conspiracy. Every now and then, journalism does reflect reality, even if by accident. And what happened was Kerry had a terrific debate. Bush was certainly not terrible, and he's not out, he's not on the mat. But journalism is reflecting that Kerry did not only better than expected but well, because as you said, people didn't expect him to do this good.

KURTZ: I'm not sure about that. David Gergen, does this media verdict have anything to do with maybe reporters being closet liberals or even rooting for a closer race?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I think there is an element of that. The press always likes a good horse race, and you know, it brings viewers in. It sells newspapers. And beyond that, I think there is a quality in the press of wanting Kerry to do better. I think there is some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) feeling among people in the press that Bush doesn't deserve to win by five or six points. A close race maybe, but not five or six.

But I think Roger Simon is -- put his finger on the fundamental truth. And that is, it was pretty clear to everybody watching the debate that Bush had a sluggish night. It often seemed it was past his bedtime. And I think that John Kerry rose to the occasion when he -- he was on the ropes. I think "Newsweek" is right about that. Had he lost that debate, this race would be over.

And Bush -- I think a lot of undecideds would have not taken a second look, and Democrats would have become even more discouraged, as it was. Kerry did better.

My sense, Howie, and I may have this wrong, but my sense is the press was pretty careful and qualified in saying Kerry had won, until the polls came out. And once there were three polls, then boom.

KURTZ: I want to come back to that polls question. But first I want to ask Michelle Cottle what you think about whether journalist types might be somehow trying to revive the Kerry candidacy. He had a good night, but it's just one debate.

MICHELLE COTTLE, NEW REPUBLIC: Yeah, but even the Democratic operatives all ahead of time were saying, if he messes this debate up, that's it, he's history. And the conventional wisdom was that Al Gore...

KURTZ: They weren't saying this on the record.

COTTLE: Well, no, but Al Gore was -- the conventional wisdom is that he started losing in 2000 when he had a terrible, terrible debate, performance with...

KURTZ: Although the quickie polls showed that Gore had won that first debate against Governor George W. Bush, and everybody was convinced that Gore did great. And later, it was the media reaction...

COTTLE: That's right, and it was the post-debate spin.

KURTZ: ... that said that Gore lost, that he sighed too much, and he...

COTTLE: And he was orange...

KURTZ: ... he got the facts wrong.

COTTLE: And his, you know...

KURTZ: His makeup was bad.

COTTLE: ... the makeup was bad, and he was condescending.

KURTZ: Sixty million people watched this debate, an unusually high number. So what does it matter what the commentators and the columnists and the headline writers say? Is there a kind of an echo chamber effect here?

SIMON: Well, that's a good point. It may not matter as much as we'd like to think it matters, since we're part of the echo chamber. But it does shape opinion. I mean, journalists are called opinion makers for a reason. Many people come out of these debates and figure, well, this is my first look at these two guys. Is this how it's always been the whole year? And then they go and they listen to the talking heads, and the talking heads say A, B and C, and people say, yeah, that's right. But basically, it confirms what you have already believed when you come into watch the show.

KURTZ: Now, those of us who watched the debate at the University of Miami didn't see what the rest of the country saw. We saw an official feed that didn't have the reaction shots, which have gotten so much attention in terms of the president looking testy or irritated. Now, here's a montage put together by "CROSSFIRE" co-host Paul Begala, who I hasten to add is an informal Kerry adviser, that kind of echoes the Democratic line about how the president did. Let's take a look.


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: Here's our president last night.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And uh, um, I have, uh, it's like -- anyway. Uh, so the answer to your question is uh, and, um, if you uh, if you uh, I uh...


KURTZ: David Gergen, is that sort of thing fair?



GERGEN: But it's television.

KURTZ: But why is there so much attention being paid to the hesitation, to the facial expressions?

GERGEN: I think most of the attention was paid to the annoyance factor that Bush showed when he wasn't speaking. You know, the ums and uhs and the stumbling, I think that's classic Bush. And we've been here before. But what I think was unexpected was that there was figuratively, almost he seemed to be doing the same thing his father was doing in the Clinton debates, some years ago, and that was looking at his watch, saying why the hell am I here, how soon can I get out of here? And there was a quality of being who is this guy to be questioning me this way?

I came away with a very distinct impression that he was paying a price for being so heavily sheltered and living in a bubble here for the last number of months, where he has nobody who's really challenged him and he has to face some of these harsh realities when people -- and I think he's uncomfortable with that.

KURTZ: Right, and he goes out and he -- and he goes out and faces prescreened crowds that are filled only with supporters, so he almost never gets a hostile question.

But Michelle Cottle, this was a serious, substantive debate, where the president had some trouble defending his position on Iraq, therefore he was accusing Kerry of having inconsistent positions, flip-flopping and so forth. So why are media types harping so much on facial expressions? Is it really that important?

COTTLE: Absolutely. That's what matters. Going into this debate, the media was chided to pay attention to substance over style. That's absolutely ridiculous. Americans sitting at home...

KURTZ: Ridiculous?

COTTLE: It's absolutely ridiculous. Americans sitting at home, especially undecided voters, who the research shows make these decisions based on kind of how they feel about the candidates. They're not watching this going, oh, my God, Kerry's absolutely right, we should have bilateral negotiations with North Korea. No, they want to see if he looks strong, if he looks resolute, if he looks presidential, or in Bush's case, if he looks testy, like he doesn't know what he's talking about. Those are the sorts of things that these televised debates tell people. KURTZ: So it's all about the theater, it's all about the performance, it's all about the image and it's not about this -- what they actually had to say about the fact that all these Americans are dying in Iraq?

COTTLE: To a certain degree, yes. People of course want to know if they're going to come out there and lie, and that's how the media follows up with its fact check. But what people are gauging as they're watching this is how the presidential candidates come across.

KURTZ: You're nodding your head.

SIMON: Yeah. Bill Clinton in 1996 rehearsed his facial expressions. He stood at the lectern day after day and rehearsed how he would look when Bob Dole was talking. Clearly, I'm guessing here, but I would think clearly John Kerry rehearsed how he would look when President Bush was speaking, and clearly President Bush did not rehearse, or else there's no explanation for the scowl and growl debate as it is now being dubbed.

KURTZ: All right. Let me turn to the polls, and Roger Simon, you're a good person to ask about this. Before the debate, Kerry campaign widely described as struggling and so forth. David Gergen says on the ropes. I'm not sure if I agree with that. Now we've got a "Newsweek" poll out today, in the wake of the debate, Kerry 47, Bush 45. "L.A. Times" has similar numbers. What did you make of that? What do you make of these quickie national polls, a half an hour after the debate, suddenly CNN says Kerry won by 16 points? How do they know a half an hour after the debate?

SIMON: Who knows. I make nothing of these polls. And the polls are going to switch, and they may switch five more times between here and November 2. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have an effect. It has a huge effect. Polls drive journalistic coverage, they drive how we write and talk about these men. Who is on the ropes, who's the front-runner, who has had life breathed back into his campaign. Now it's John Kerry, and we have polls to hang that on.

KURTZ: But the polls are often all over the map. In recent weeks, we've seen Bush up by 11, we've seen a neck and neck race. David Gergen, are journalists just addicted to polls that sometimes are just a very blurry snapshot?

GERGEN: I think we make too much of them. But may I respectfully disagree on two counts with...

KURTZ: Please.

GERGEN: ... my esteemed colleague Roger Simon and with Michelle.

First of all, on the question of the debates, whether substance versus style, I've had the opportunity, the privilege of working with several candidates in preparing for presidential debates, and I can just tell you, you spend one heck of a lot more time trying to make your substance right, getting the foundation right, and then you think about the style. But the substance is a foundation. If you've got nothing to say, and one of George W. Bush's problems in this debate was he showed up with so little to say, then all the rest of it, the style then sort of plays into that narrative about somebody who is not quite ready and not quite up to the debate.

On the question of polls, I have to tell you, I think the three polls afterwards did make a difference. I think they reflected the fact that most viewers or a plurality of viewers felt that Kerry had done a better job. And very importantly, what we've just seen in these two polls, the "Newsweek" and the "L.A. Times," is that dynamics of the race have changed a little bit. Is this permanent? No. I don't think -- I think Roger is right about that.


GERGEN: But the fact is, the race is taking a different turn now. It was going steadily in Bush's direction with a five, six, seven-point lead, solidly "The Washington Post" said about a week ago. Now we've got Kerry slightly ahead. I think that's ephemeral, but the dynamic -- the direction is changing.

KURTZ: We'll see how ephemeral it is. CNNFN, during the debate had like these people in Ohio, undecided voters, hooked up to people meters and they were twisting the dials, and they actually ran like a stock market ticker, the lines across -- not across their faces, but across the candidates' podiums as it was going on. Isn't that kind of a stunt?

COTTLE: Yeah. Of course it's a stunt. I mean, the idea that you can take a roomful of people who -- and some of these people obviously lean one way or the other, even if they're telling you they're not. They know what to say to get into these focus groups. And it's all kind of good gimmick for TV.

KURTZ: All right. One last point. Newspapers, magazines and television were running fact check pieces about what the candidates said afterwards. I think that's pretty good journalism. Let's take a look at some of that.


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, let's take a look at the facts.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: So one obvious difference in numbers there as researched tonight by our truth squad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He obviously believes it, but the experts I've spoken to say he's not right.

ALEX WITT, NSNBC: Another yardstick by which to measure last night's debate was everything each candidate said entirely accurate. That's the question. The answer to that, well, no, not really.


KURTZ: Does this kind of truth squadding make a difference, Roger Simon?

SIMON: I think it does. It's been going on for a couple of cycles now, and it was designed to be -- is designed to be both an antidote to the misstatements that the candidates say during the debate, but also it's supposed to be an antidote to spin. Spin is designed to sell one partisan side, and truth squadding is designed to say, well, wait a second, you may say such and such, but here's the record.

KURTZ: You set us up nicely for the next segment. We have to take a break. Still to come, Dan Rather faces the public. But first, into the spin room after the debate. We'll look at the frenetic attempts to influence the press.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. When I was at the University of Miami on Thursday night, I watched one of the great, some would say one of the silliest, rituals in presidential debating. The moment the candidates finish, hoards of reporters gather around the partisans who, shockingly enough, say great things about their man's performance and disparage the other guy. They set up shop in what's called spin alley, sharing their views with the media mob and on live broadcasts.


RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY: The subtlety of thinking about foreign policy that he very often isn't given the credit for.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), U.S. ARMY: John Kerry did a brilliant job in the debate tonight. He brought the issues really out to the American people.

KAREN HUGHES, BUSH CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Well, the president showed the American people both his heart and his great strength.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: I don't think there's any question who won. I think Kerry won, and I am not just spinning.


KURTZ: Not just spinning, says Joe Biden. Roger Simon, you were there getting spun silly. Karl Rove, who we rarely see, was out there spinning the press. McAuliffe, Card, Gillespie, Albright, Lockhart, McCurry. Isn't it all kind of pointless?

SIMON: It has been in the past pointless, because it's so partisan and so predictable. This, I have to say, is the first time in my experience the spin was valuable for one reason. The Republicans' spin was so subdued after the debate. You couldn't find anyone to say President Bush won this debate.

KURTZ: They criticized Kerry.

SIMON: They criticized Kerry...


SIMON: They said, we're still even, we're five points ahead, so who cares, blah, blah, blah. But nobody went out and really beat the drum for George Bush, and that told me these guys know Bush did not do a good job tonight.

KURTZ: And you used some of those quotes. Does this sort spin matter, Michelle Cottle?

COTTLE: No, it does at some level, because, one, you can give the faithful talking points to go out there and spread the word, or you know, with Karen Hughes in 2000, Bush was caught by a reporter. He didn't know the name of some foreign leader, and Karen comes out and she spins it, this wasn't in the debate but this was on the trail -- she spins it as, well, we don't want a "Jeopardy" contestant. And this stuck. This was like, oh, Bush is a regular-talking, straight- shooting good guy who kind of understands the big picture, I mean, there's always the chance that your spin is going to stick and it's going to work.

KURTZ: David Gergen, you were once what might be called a White House spinmeister, you dealt with the press a lost. In these kinds of situations, are you constrained to repeat the party line? You're not going to come out and say, my guy had a terrible night?

GERGEN: Depends on who you are. If you work for the campaign, yes, you're under a strong constraint. If you're John McCain, you come out and concede that Kerry had a great night.

KURTZ: Which McCain did to his credit. He said it to me.

GERGEN: Which he did to his credit.

And I thought that -- and I think as Roger said, people take their cues from when the spin is subdued, they understand that that's a subtle message, not too subtle message, actually, that we concede.

KURTZ: But have you ever, have you personally ever been a little red-faced about a spin that you had to deliver, knowing you didn't have, let's say, the strongest case?

GERGEN: I was continuously red-faced. And I think the worst thing is when you begin to sense that -- when you're asked, and tell a lie, that's when you really have to sort of draw the line.

But this spin alley, holding up signs, I have never seen that before. It really has gotten totally out of control.

But you know, the problem for the campaign is, there's no pulling back now, because if you don't go out there, the other side is just going to blister the airwaves and you're not going to get your point across.

KURTZ: It's like a nuclear arms race. Want to turn now to the role of the moderator, PBS' Jim Lehrer, who conducted this rather serious debate. Let's look, take a look at some of Lehrer's questions.


JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR: Do you believe that you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11 type terrorist attack on the United States?

Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?


KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, Lehrer certainly wasn't flashy. What kind of job did he do?

COTTLE: I thought it was a great job. I mean, this was a serious topic, foreign policy. Arguably the most serious discussion they'll have in the entire campaign, and he asked pointed questions. I mean, some of them were a little softball, but all in all, I thought it was much less silly than some of the Democratic primary debates we saw.

KURTZ: But one thing he didn't do, Roger Simon, was he never asked President Bush to reconcile his sort of upbeat stance on how things are going in Iraq with the continuing carnage there. In fact, on the day of the debate, 40 people were killed in attacks.

SIMON: You know, I can't account for every question he asked. In general, I think he did a good job. But also, Democrats were displeased with him four years ago and thought he was too easy on Bush, and some of them this time are saying the same thing that you said, that he didn't pin Bush to the ground.

I don't think Jim Lehrer saw that as his role. I think he saw that as Kerry's role. If someone was going to pin George Bush, it was supposed to be the other guy at the other lectern.

KURTZ: David Gergen, I've got 15 seconds for you to weigh in here.

GERGEN: I'm hopelessly biased in favor of Jim Lehrer. And I thought he did a very good job at bringing out the differences, and that's why the debate was so valuable. It helped to clarify the choices people must make at the polls.

KURTZ: All right. David Gergen, frequent "Newshour" guest, Roger Simon, Michelle Cottle. Thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Dan, Tom, Peter, and the mess at CBS.


KURTZ: The three network anchors shared a stage in New York yesterday to talk about the news business.

Dan Rather wouldn't comment on the continuing controversy over his "60 Minutes" report on those apparently bogus National Guard documents, but he did have this to say about the Bush administration's approach to skeptical journalism, which he said had been shared by previous administrations.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: They want to instill fear in you, that you won't ask tough questions, you won't do aggressive, bold reporting. You dare not take a chance, because if you do that kind of reporting, we're going to make you pay a terrible price for it. We will do our very best to smear you.


KURTZ: Rather said he would not give up the fight and doesn't plan to step down. He said he didn't know anything about CBS' decision despite another "60 Minutes" piece about forged documents relating to Iraq's supposed attempt to buy uranium from Africa, with CBS now saying it's too close to election day to air that story.

Tom Brokaw took a swing at Rather's online critics.


TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: What I think is highly inappropriate is what's going on across the Internet, a kind of political jihad against Dan Rather and CBS News. That is quite outrageous. There's certainly an attempt to demonize CBS News, and it goes well beyond any factual information that a lot of them have. There's a kind of demagoguery that is unleashed out there.


KURTZ: But Peter Jennings pointed out that it was bloggers who first questioned the CBS documents about President Bush. Jennings had this to say, however, about the crisis facing Rather.


PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: I don't think you ever judge a man by only one event in his career.


KURTZ: That got a lot of applause. The crowd at the event hosted by "The New Yorker" magazine was strongly pro-Rather. This was blue state America, after all.

We'll be right back. When we come back, Dr. Phil's prescription for helping the president and himself.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Dr. Phil, Phil McGraw, that is, is not exactly Tim Russert when it comes to interviewing, but he deserves some credit for his business savvy. Not only did Dr. Phil land an interview with the first couple at the Crawford ranch, he managed to plug his syndicated show and his new book, before even asking a question.


PHIL MCGRAW, HOST, "DR. PHIL SHOW": Thanks so much for having us in your beautiful home. I am really committed to putting family back in America, and I'm devoting so much of my third season to "Family First." In preparation for a book that I've done, I've conducted a survey of 20,000 parents, and asked them all the questions I could about parenting.


KURTZ: Hey, the guy writes self-help books. No wonder he knows how to help himself.

Thanks very much for joining us on RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. We'll be back next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern. Here's "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer.


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