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Covering the Debates

Aired October 10, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): St. Louis showdown. Did Bush bounce back in the townhall debate, or is the press giving the president points for style? Do ordinary folks ask better questions than journalists?

When Dick met John, gauging a vice-presidential gaffe. And jock shock, Howard Stern blasting off to satellite radio. Will his fans follow his orbit?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

John Edwards blitzing all five Sunday shows this morning. The North Carolina senator -- in point, what's called a full Ginsberg (ph). He'll be on "LATE EDITION" after us. "Time" and "Newsweek" out with new election coverage. Twenty-three days to go. And today, we turn our critical lens on whether the press is holding the Bush and Kerry campaigns equally accountable, and how journalists are scoring Friday night's debate in St. Louis.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: I don't think this debate had a one-sided quality that the first one did.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not ready to award either of them the victory here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I couldn't tell you who won this. And I think that who won this debate is going to be a decision that's made on an individual sort of basis.


KURTZ: Joining us now here in Washington, Gloria Borger, the co- host of CNBC's "Capitol Report" and a columnist for "U.S. News and World Report." Jake Tapper, political correspondent for ABC News. And in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle." Welcome.

Gloria Borger, wasn't the game here on this second debate that if Bush didn't stammer and scowl the way he did in the first debate, the press would say, well, he did much better than the first debate and he'd more or less be called the winner?

GLORIA BORGER, CNBC: And guess what he did? He did a lot better, although he did at times seem to me like a jack-in-the-box who kind of was ready to pounce before Charlie Gibson, the moderator, could ever get at him. And you saw his anger in different ways.

KURTZ: But the media verdict was?

BORGER: The media verdict...

KURTZ: So much better that it was at least a draw?

BORGER: At least a draw. And I think a draw was very good for George Bush this time.

KURTZ: Jake Tapper, the president definitely scored points, but if you look at the transcript, on many of the questions, he was on the defensive. Isn't there a reluctance among journalists to call two debates in a row for Kerry and be accused of favoring one side over the other?

JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: I think empirically probably there is. The media in general is defensive about the liberal label. It's certainly no secret. But I also think in this case, it happened to be a draw. Certainly I watched the debate. I certainly didn't think that one man performed noticeably better than the other. And if you look at the polls afterwards -- ABC did a poll with "The Washington Post" -- that had it roughly a draw. Maybe a few more points for Kerry, although they've sampled a few more Democrats than Republicans.

KURTZ: Right. Although I am always skeptical about these quickie polls that come up a half an hour later.

Debra Saunders, you have written that George Bush more or less won both debates, at least on substance, but perhaps not on style. Are the media just too obsessed with the style in these contests?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: No, I think we do get overly obsessed with it. And so we look at the expectation game, and the fact that Bush doesn't stutter at much and he hasn't -- you know, he's not doing what is it -- 30 minutes worth of punch and 90 minutes, and all of that.

And what is public is looking for is answers to their questions. And I think the big question is, what are the candidates going to do on the war on terror and the war in Iraq. And so when we look at the style and we -- I think we do a bit of a disservice to the public.

KURTZ: And picking up on Debra's point, Gloria Borger, is it more important that the president seemed energetic and engaged, more so than in the debate in Florida, or that he had some difficulty justifying the Iraq war, his decision to go to war in light of this inspectors' report that said Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction since the early '90s.

BORGER: I think they are both important, but you know, as a viewer watching out there, one of the most interesting things to me, Howie, was sort of the question that the president was asked about, can you ever remember a mistake you made? And this time, unlike the last time he was asked that...

KURTZ: When he was at a press conference.

BORGER: When he was at a press conference, he was a little bit more prepared. And he said, well, if what you mean is did I make a mistake in going into Iraq, the answer is no. Yes, I made a couple of mistakes on presidential appointments, but I'm not going to talk about those now.

And what you see is the Kerry campaign saying, this is a stubborn person who will never admit that he has made a mistake. And that is something they are talking about. For women voters who don't like stubborn men.

KURTZ: I tend to be a little skeptical, Jake Tapper, of the townhall format, because you get a lot of people saying, what are you going to do about my medical bills? And the candidates give their stump speeches. I thought the questions in St. Louis were somewhat better. We had one woman who actually produced a "read my lips" moment by asking John Kerry to take a pledge on not raising taxes. Let's take a brief look at that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you be willing to look directly into the camera, and using simple and unequivocal language, give the American people your solemn pledge...

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, right into the camera. Yes, I am not going to raise taxes.


KURTZ: My mistake. Obviously that was a man and not a woman, but my question is, do ordinary citizens of any gender ask more direct and maybe less posturing questions than do journalists?

TAPPER: I don't think so. I mean, I think some of the questions were the kinds of questions that journalists have been asked. I mean, one thing I would like to say about the point about -- that you made about George W. Bush being asked if he had ever made a mistake, his mistake that he admitted was that other people had made mistakes and he had relied on those other people. So he basically was blaming other people for that. So I don't know that the woman really got an answer to her question.

KURTZ: Debra, on the other hand, you know, subjects like abortion and stem cell research came up, that might not have been at the top of some journalistic list. So what was your feeling on turning over the 90 minutes to a hand-picked, uncommitted audience?

SAUNDERS: Well, you know, it was smart the way they did it, because Charlie Gibson picked the questions. So you didn't get -- so many of these townhall debates used to be, what about me? What will you do for me? And I think he cut those out. And that was a benefit.

I want to say something about the mistake question, though, because there's all -- you know, press conferences reporters keep asking Bush if he made mistakes. And, of course, he's not going to give that fodder to the Kerry campaign. I don't see the people asking the question of Kerry as much. I don't see reporters asking it. I mean, he also voted for the resolution. He was asked in the Grand Canyon if he regretted that vote, and he says, no, that vote wasn't a mistake. So let's try to hold both candidates accountable on this. Neither one of them is admitting to making any mistakes.

KURTZ: And speaking of holding both candidates accountable. "New York Times" story on Friday, headline: "Bush Pushes the Limits on Facts." ABC political director Mark Halperin has written a memo which leaked out, saying, telling his troops "don't reflexively and artificially hold both sides equally accountable. The current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done." Is that a fair point?

BORGER: Well, I think it's our job to kind of be the truth squad. you do that with political advertising all the time. You know, that's our job during a campaign. On any given day -- this is the presidential race -- on any given day, everybody is distorting everything, and we ought to sort of use that and say, OK, that's kind of the base line. And it's our job not to pick one candidate over the other candidate. In one debate, maybe there would be more distortions by the Bush campaign over the Kerry campaign. But in the next debate, it might switch. And that's why you see every network having truth squads after the debates, to point out what is right with the unemployment numbers, to point out about Kerry's record, whether Bush was distorting Kerry's votes, et cetera, et cetera.

KURTZ: In fact, Jake Tapper, you performed that function for ABC News after Friday's debate. I want to take a quick look at that. You made a point about the president and some comments about al Qaeda. And you also dealt with Kerry and his comments about an Army official who asked for more troops. Let's take a look at Tapper's segments.


TAPPER: Well, that's not right, Peter. There is actually no way to know how many members of al Qaeda there are in total.

That is incorrect. And Senator Kerry must know this by now. It's been pointed out in fact checks all over the country.


KURTZ: Obviously, you have a limited amount of time. But do you feel the need to have an artificial balance, it's got to be one mistake by Kerry, one exaggeration by the president?

TAPPER: I would not feel the need to have an artificial balance. And lucky for me, I don't have to, because both candidates misrepresent and both candidates distort. So I don't need to create an artificial balance. They both say things that are wrong and we try to hold them accountable.

KURTZ: What about Mark Halperin's suggestion that there's more distortion on the Bush side and let's focus our fact-checking firepower there?

TAPPER: Well, you are talking about an internal memo, and without getting too much into the weeds on that, I'll say that this is a conversation that we have at ABC News. And I'm sure happens at NBC and CNN and everywhere else, where somebody, you know, posits a point. This "New York Times" story by Adam Nagourney and Richard Stephenson was making the point that these two reporters thought that the Bush administration was doing distortions more than the Kerry campaign.

You know, I don't think that everybody agrees with that. And I don't think that it's reflected in the coverage at ABC News that we think that.

KURTZ: OK. But for example, Debra Saunders, you know, the Kerry campaign engages in plenty of exaggerations. But President Bush in the debates and just about every day now says that John Kerry is pushing a government-run health plan. Well, that's just not true. It may be a dumb idea, it may be a costly idea, but it relies on the system of private insurance. So should reporters point that out every time the president says that sort of thing?

SAUNDERS: Absolutely they should point it out. And it isn't true. It's a problem with Bush. But I want to say something about this. I think in the media, I disagree with Mark Halperin's memo. I don't think that the Bush campaign has been more misleading than the Kerry campaign. And I think we in the media have given Kerry a pass about this whole war resolution thing. I mean, he was saying...

KURTZ: Hasn't it come up again and again and again?

SAUNDERS: Well, you know, he kept saying during the primary that voting for the resolution made it harder for Bush to go to war. I don't get it. He kept saying that he thought that Bush was going to go to war as a last resort, even though the vote came after Bush had gone to the U.N. and said you can be part of a real peacekeeping body, or you can be irrelevant. And I don't think the press has held him accountable on that.

KURTZ: All right. We will duly record your objection on that.

We have to take a break. Just ahead -- judging the vice- presidential debate. What did the TV spin experts do when there's no clear winner?



Win, lose or draw, that's what the pundits were trying to figure out in the wake of last Tuesday's vice-presidential debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cheney clearly won the first half on national security. I think Edwards won the second half on domestic policy.

CARLOS WATSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that the vice president and John Edwards both did their jobs. I think Edwards probably did a better job with persuadable voters.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: John Edwards did not make a strong enough argument against what is happening on the ground. And let Dick Cheney run over him.


KURTZ: Jake Tapper, given the pundits were kind of all over the map, isn't it a bit silly for the press to keep trying to declare a winner in these things? They both scored their points.

TAPPER: Yeah, that's exactly what I was thinking.

KURTZ: So what is the obsession with saying, this guy won, this guy lost, this guy is on the defensive?

TAPPER: Well, I think...

KURTZ: Boxing match mentality?

TAPPER: Yeah, I think it was a bit of the horserace mentality, obviously, but also people want to know that there is some sort of result from this activity that we've all just spent 90 minutes going through. I mean, people want to know, OK, this has advanced the Kerry campaign or this has advanced the Bush campaign.

But I agree with you, I mean, especially with the last two debates, the vice-presidential and the second presidential, I don't think you can just say flat out that one man won.

KURTZ: Was there too much about Cheney as a grumpy old man and Edwards as the overeager young student?

BORGER: Right, Cheney the high school principal looking like he's calling Edwards in his office and saying, you know, I've been here for so many years and I have never met you, you've cut too many classes, you know. Sure, but the thing that I think is the worst is putting on the spinners right after the debate, because it's just...

KURTZ: Everybody does it.

BORGER: ... so much noise.

TAPPER: ABC News does not put on the spinners.

BORGER: It's just noise.

KURTZ: Is it a no-spin zone?

TAPPER: It's a no-spin zone. BORGER: That is a great idea.

TAPPER: Because Peter Jennings declares flat out they don't add anything to the conversation.

BORGER: Exactly. They do not add one thing. So you have a spinner for one side making the points that he or she thinks their candidates forgot to make during the debate. And then you have the spinner for the other side doing the same thing. And it's annoying.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, are you tired of the spinners talking about how great their man did?

SAUNDERS: I'm really sick of it. I have to agree. And I think what the public wants to know is, what did these people say that isn't quite accurate? And that's the sort of thing that the networks and all the news organizations should be telling people.

KURTZ: I want to show some of the coverage of the point you made, Gloria, about a moment that perhaps Vice President Cheney wishes he had back. Let's take a look.


RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: It turns out not to be true.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Cheney and Edwards met twice in 2001, and again at the beginning of last year.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: They stopped and shook hands. They were at a prayer meeting together.


KURTZ: Debra Saunders, was that a blunder on Cheney's part, or is this just the kind of thing that the media love to pounce on?

SAUNDERS: Well, you know, to me there's a real question with that. Did he really not know? And did you -- you know that he planned on saying it. So the question is, did they know it wasn't true? Or did they just not check into it because they were arrogant? I mean, I have a question about Bush in the first debate. Did his campaign staff tell him you can't grimace like that, or did no one even think of telling him that?

I mean, these are the things when you follow politics you get curious about. So, you know, obviously it was a stumble. Obviously, it shows a certain kind of arrogance and disregard for the facts. But it also made, I think, John Edwards look sort of small, because Dick Cheney sort of kind of doesn't remember meeting him.

KURTZ: You want to jump in here? TAPPER: Well, I mean, I agree with Debra's point. I mean, and when you follow politics, especially when do you the fact checking, you kind of start to think about, do these guys know that they are saying things that are incorrectly...

BORGER: Yeah, sure they do.

KURTZ: So for example, Kerry keeps saying the war cost 200 billion, but it's 120 billion by now.

TAPPER: Exactly right, but by repeating the false claim that it cost 200 billion, he guarantees that the media will jump on that as a fact check and not other misstatements that he makes, and the subject is on how much the war in Iraq is costing, which is what he wants the subject to be.

BORGER: You know, Bill Clinton once said to Howard Dean, if you are strong and wrong, you can beat somebody who is weak and right. And so you can be strong and wrong, and I believe that there isn't anything they don't know they are doing. Do I believe that Dick Cheney kind of remembers that he met him at a prayer breakfast? Maybe. Maybe they didn't have a conversation, but what he was trying to say is, hey, you whipper-snapper, you haven't been around, you are not substantive. I have never been in negotiation with you. You're not important.

KURTZ: What you don't want to do is make a mistake that the networks have video showing that you got it wrong, because it will be replayed for (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

All right, when we come back, going into orbit. Howard Stern is abandoning traditional radio for a brand new industry. Is that the future for "R" rated entertainers? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back. The self-proclaimed king of all media is blasting off to a new realm, satellite radio. Howard Stern has signed a $500 million deal to move his raunchy and controversial program to Sirius satellite radio in 15 months, when his contract with Viacom ends. Satellite radio is still in its infancy, available only to subscribers who pay a monthly fee and who listen mostly in their cars. Stern now has 12 million listeners, while Sirius has just 600,000 subscribers. But no more expletives deleted. Satellite radio is beyond the reach of the FCC, which has fined Stern's station hundreds of thousands of dollars for his sexual explicit comments. Stern isn't exactly low-keying his potential impact.


HOWARD STERN, RADIO SHOCK JOCK: This marks the death of AM and FM radio. I guarantee it. I changed radio when I got into this 20- something years ago, and I'm going to change radio again. I'm going to make satellite radio hopefully the most important media.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Debra Saunders, Howard Stern told me in a rare interview this week that the last two years for him have just been a nightmare in terms of the fines and the regulatory crackdowns. Was Howard Stern driven off commercial radio by the FCC?

SAUNDERS: You know, I have a feeling in a way that the FCC may have made him sound better, because he is pretty awful to people when you listen to him or watch his show. I think he's very demeaning to women. I think he belongs on satellite. I hope he has a good time there. It will be interesting to see if people like having an uncut Howard Stern, however, and I think a lot of people are going to be rooting against him because when this guy says he wants to kill radio, you don't make friends that way. And I hope he's wrong.

KURTZ: Debra says his show is demeaning to women, but obviously he has a great male fan base in that 18 to 49 demographic that advertisers love. Is there a danger now, Jake, that anyone who is controversial or talks about sex or goes up to the line will try to avoid government regulation by moving away from the tentacles of the FCC?

TAPPER: Yeah. And that's what happened with HBO, and that's what happened -- you know, when HBO started a few decades ago. And now some of the best television programming on TV today is on HBO, not regular TV.

KURTZ: So could satellite radio become the new HBO, where you go when you want something that's edgier or dirtier?

TAPPER: Absolutely. I think that's what this is. And I think it's a brilliant move both by Sirius Radio and XM, which is signing other shows, like Bob Edwards and Opie & Anthony, and it's a brilliant move by Howard Stern. And I think we're going to look back on this and see it as an HBO-like movement.

KURTZ: Brilliant move, except he could end up with a fraction of the listenership he has now. Now, you bring a certain expertise to this, Gloria...


KURTZ: ... because you actually listen to satellite radio.

BORGER: I do listen to satellite radio, and I should disclose here, because my son in college is a shareholder in both XM and Sirius. That's where experts heard about it.


BORGER: He did. And that's where I first heard about it. I started listening to satellite radio. I can listen to you, Howie, I can listen to CNBC, I can listen to television, I can listen to music. It is uninterrupted.

But I must say that only the FCC could turn Howard Stern into a hero for the First Amendment, right? And I think that's really interesting, because Howard Stern is not someone that I as a woman would particularly chose to listen to, but he does have a right to speak.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, we always think of radio as being free. It's kind of like turning on the tap and getting water. Will people pay for "X" or "R"-rated entertainment and sports and commercial-free music?

SAUNDERS: I think that's a big question. Is Howard Stern worth $500 million? And I have big doubts about it.


SAUNDERS: I'd be interested to hear what Gloria and Jake have to say.

BORGER: But they are not paying a lot of money, Howie. They are paying $10 a month. It may cost you a couple of hundred bucks to get it in your car. I'm sure that's going to go way down. You can now buy a car with satellite radios, and you know, I think for $10 a month you can listen to what you want to listen to. People are going to turn to it.

KURTZ: "New York Post" columnist Bill Hoffman (ph), clearly a Stern fan, writes -- "we're ready for more lesbians, more porn stars, more "Wheel of Sex" games in beautiful, uncensored glory."

TAPPER: Why are you asking me that question, Howie?

KURTZ: Because these other two women don't like Howard Stern. We're looking for a fair and balanced view from you.

BORGER: Do you like Howard Stern?

TAPPER: He has his moments. Look, I think Howard Stern is entertaining. And I think there are a lot of people -- he has 12 million listeners. That's a lot more listeners than a lot of the pundits we consider powerful here in Washington, D.C., and I think a lot of them will buy satellite radio.

KURTZ: And nobody is forced to listen...

SAUNDERS: And I live in San Francisco, where we get that free, by the way.

KURTZ: OK. We got to end it there. Debra Saunders, Jake Tapper, Gloria Borger, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, is a "New York Times" correspondent headed to jail in that CIA leak case? More on that in a moment.


KURTZ: Could a right-leaning broadcasting company maybe just possibly be trying to influence the election? Sinclair Broadcasting has ordered its stations to preempt regular programming days before election day to air, get this, an anti-Kerry movie. The film "Stolen Honor" is an attack on Kerry's Vietnam War protest, says "The Los Angeles Times." Sinclair, you may recall, was so offended when Ted Koppel read the names of Americans killed in Iraq that it dropped that edition of "Nightline."

Sinclair, we don't even pretend to be fair and balanced.

Finally, a top "New York Times" reporter facing jail for contempt of court. Judith Miller says she won't cooperate with the investigation into who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak and others 15 months ago. A federal judge ordered the contempt citation this week, pending appeal. The controversial Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winner, says she won't back down.


JUDITH MILLER, NEW YORK TIMES: We are operating in an increasingly secretive environment. And it's harder by the day to get information out to the American people. And that's really what I'm protecting here.


KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer and John Edwards begins right now.


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