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Coverage of Third Presidential Debate; Should FCC Stop Sinclair From Broadcasting Anti-Kerry Film?

Aired October 17, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The post-debate debate. Why were the pundits so sharply split on who won the final Bush-Kerry face-off? And are the media fact-checking both candidates with equal fervor?

Trouble in the no-spin zone. A Fox News producer accuses Bill O'Reilly of sexual harassment. He sues her for extortion. Will cable's most controversial host be tarnished?

Plus, should the FCC stop Sinclair Broadcasting from airing an anti-Kerry movie?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Today we turn our critical lens on the media's impact on the presidential campaign, beginning with debate number three and the many pundits who dismissed its impact.


PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC ANALYST: In the overall, I wouldn't declare a winner.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think this is going to change the dynamic of the campaign in any real way.


KURTZ: But the folks at Fox News had a decidedly different take.


FRED BARNES, WEEKLY STANDARD: The president was smashing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Bush knocked Kerry out tonight. I think he jut slaughtered him.


KURTZ: Were they watching the same debate? Just one of many questions for our guests today. Evan Thomas, deputy managing editor of "Newsweek." Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post." And radio talk show host Laura Ingraham.

So Evan Thomas, was the Fox team right, or were the other networks pundits just too wimpy to say who they really thought won?

EVAN THOMAS, NEWSWEEK: Well, Fox team is rooting for Bush. I don't think there's too much question about it. But they were looking -- they chose to narrowly look at one debate, and I think the others were looking at all three debates. And in the context of three debates, it's basically a tie. I think you can make a good argument that Bush won the third debate.

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, I know you thought Bush won, because I've heard you say it a few times. But journalists point to polls showing that Kerry came out on top, these instant polls, by as much as 15 points in that third debate? Are these polls meaningless?

LAURA INGRAHAM, TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I don't know if they're polling people in the CNN green room, maybe Kerry won by a large margin. I don't put all that much stock in some of these instant polls. I think on some key issues, I think the president was able to separate himself in his vision from John Kerry. On the issue of Mary Cheney, which I'm not sure I'm going to talk about, I think John Kerry really made a big mistake...

KURTZ: In bringing up the vice president's daughter.

INGRAHAM: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the vice president's daughter. I thought it looked -- it was obviously planned. And however you want to describe it, as tawdry or a cheap shot, it just looked very odd. And he could have talked about the issue without the invoking what Mary Cheney feels about an issue. I'm not sure John Kerry has actually asked Mary Cheney what she feels about it.

KURTZ: That's quite a range you give us, it's either tawdry or cheap shot.

INGRAHAM: Yeah, well, that's what the Cheney people described it as.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, are the media making too much of Kerry's three debate performances? Because, you know, there's been a lot of talk and stories about, this is a brand new race and he's got the momentum and all of that.

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST: No, I don't think we are. What we are is we are Kerry in that windsurfing ad going one way and the other. We look at the polls and we reflect the polls. So even the instant polls. Kerry is up in the polls, Kerry is terrific.

KURTZ: Have journalists no backbone? We just sail with the wind?

MILBANK: I know you're shocked to learn that journalists have no backbone. But no, we are -- that's why you saw the covered shift soon after that first debate, we saw huge poll results the next day. Suddenly it was Kerry slaughtered him, whereas most of us watching it the first night thought, ah, it was roughly even. So it's really -- we're just blowing with the wind.

INGRAHAM: I did hear people in the media talk about this new Kerry momentum, and every poll, every poll out today, whether it's "Time," "Newsweek," ABC, Zogby, CBS, all show Bush up. "Newsweek" has Bush up by 6. Zogby has Bush up by 4. CNN has Kerry up by 1. No comment on the CNN poll.

THOMAS: I think the mainstream media doesn't trust its instincts anymore. I mean, I think they feel cut off from the rest of the country. And when I talk to reporters, I was surprised at how often I hear, you know, I don't really know. I mean, I have my own views, but I don't know how they're reading it out there.

KURTZ: Well, it is a tight race. But do you believe that most reporters want John Kerry to win?

THOMAS: Yeah. Absolutely.

KURTZ: Do you think they're deliberately tilting their coverage to help John Kerry and John Edwards?

THOMAS: Not really.

KURTZ: Subconsciously tilting their coverage?

THOMAS: Maybe.

KURTZ: Maybe?

THOMAS: Maybe.

KURTZ: Including in "Newsweek?"


KURTZ: You've said on the program "Inside Washington" that because of the portrayal of Kerry and Edwards as young and dynamic and optimistic, that's worth maybe 15 points. That would suggest...

THOMAS: Stupid thing to say. It was completely wrong. But I do think that -- I do think that the mainstream press, I'm not talking about the blogs and Rush and all that, but the mainstream press favors Kerry. I don't think it's worth 15 points. That was just a stupid thing to say.

KURTZ: Is it worth 5 points?

THOMAS: Maybe, maybe.

KURTZ: Is he admitting what journalists believe privately?

INGRAHAM: I think it's significant. And whether we're talking about the Mark Halperin memo at ABC directing reporters to level the playing field, because Kerry doesn't distort as much as the Bush people, I think we've seen that in the mainstream media. Not as much coverage is given to Kerry saying there will be a draft, which essentially is what he is saying on the campaign trial. These distortions I think are targeted at young people, and they matter. The press should cover those as much as they cover what President Bush said about not being concerned about Osama bin Laden. I don't think they do.

KURTZ: We will come back to the Halperin memo in a moment. But you're a reporter, do you want Kerry to win?

MILBANK: In one sense only, and that is his vacation spot is in Nantucket and in Idaho, and it's not in Waco. So in that sense, absolutely.

KURTZ: You've had enough of Crawford.

MILBANK: I've had absolutely enough of Crawford. But it's just -- I mean, it is really just not the case. In fact, journalistically, even if some reporters personally would prefer Kerry, I think journalistically it's probably a better story if Bush wins. How does he deal with Iraq? How does he make his promise on bringing the budget back in balance?

INGRAHAM: You think that the reporters that you travel with every day aren't supporting Kerry...

MILBANK: I think...

INGRAHAM: ... the majority of them are Democrats? The majority of them vote.


INGRAHAM: Probably like 85 percent of the reporters.

MILBANK: Listen to what I'm saying. I'm saying, in terms of reporters want a good story -- so first of all, we want a close race. Second of all...

KURTZ: Some would suggest that a new president would be a big story, because it's a new administration...

MILBANK: Well, you could argue it either way, but you could also say there will be an interesting thing of keeping Bush to his promises.

INGRAHAM: We have Mike Allen on the cover of "The Washington Post" today saying that conservatives are questioning the Rove strategy and they are all worried about Karl Rove. I think I know more conservatives than Mike Allen does. I don't hear anybody saying that.

KURTZ: And how many stories have there been, I'll let you get in on in a second there, have there been about questioning the Kerry strategy and his new team? INGRAHAM: Not lately. Not lately. I don't think in the last four weeks, I've not heard any of those stories.

THOMAS: Kerry team is doing better. They are. They're much better. It's a vast improvement over the old team.

KURTZ: I want to turn to this question of the fact checking, which you brought up, Laura, and want to play for you some tape showing two fact checking pieces about one of the claims by the president of about Kerry's health care plan. You may recognize one of the voices, and then how this played out in the Arizona debate. Let's watch.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But that's not true. John Kerry's plan does not call for a government takeover of the health care system, far from it.

KURTZ (voice-over): Hold on, Kerry isn't pushing a government- run health plan.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, two leading national news networks have both said the president's characterization of my health care plan is incorrect.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about -- never mind. Anyway...


KURTZ: I don't feel personally offended by the president's remarks, but Evan Thomas, do you think that these truth squad pieces have much impact in the great cacophony of the presidential campaign?

THOMAS: No. I mean, I wish they did, because I think it's one of our historic functions and all that. But I start to read them, I get lost in the details. Health care is very confusing anyways, but I don't think that they have much impact. And I wish I understood better why. But I think they do get drowned out a little by the noise. Maybe they're too even-handed. I don't now, but I don't think they have any impact.

KURTZ: You mentioned the Halperin memo. He's the ABC News political director. What he wrote was that in his analysis of the situation, the president is engaging in more distortions than John Kerry, although John Kerry is certainly engaging in exaggerations and mistakes as well, and that ABC shouldn't have a false equivalence, to pretend, well, they all do it, one side the same as the other. Do you disagree with the principle or do you disagree with the conclusion that Bush is stretching the truth more often than the senator?

INGRAHAM: This is a tough political campaign. Both sides are trying to paint the other as an out-of-touch liberal and a confused, misguided conservative. That's a fact. However, Halperin's memo irritated people within ABC who leaked that memo. People who don't consider themselves political, whether it's the issue of the draft, or losing Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. John Kerry has been pushing those two issues. Flu, that the flu vaccine is somehow President Bush's fault, even though we've overregulated vaccine manufacturers to stop making vaccines....

KURTZ: But you're arguing interpretation.

INGRAHAM: No, no, no, what I'm arguing was that ABC, a political director essentially giving marching orders or advice to reporters, saying do it this way because John Kerry hasn't been able to respond to these distortions. And he said George Bush's people are out trying to destroy John Kerry. Come on, that is just lame.

KURTZ: You have often written as a White House correspondent about exaggerations or misstatements by the president. In fact, one piece you wrote, that in the Bush universe, facts are malleable. What kind of reaction do you get from the White House when you write those stories?

MILBANK: This was two years ago, as well.

KURTZ: And you've done it more recently.

MILBANK: Absolutely. And I think that is our main function as journalists. Now, Laura would see a liberal bias in me. I think there is a bias...

INGRAHAM: You don't do it as much when it comes to the Democrats.

MILBANK: I think there is a bias in favor of fact versus fiction. And I think that the Halperin memo, if you read what he's actually saying at the time it was written, he is saying there has been a larger number of misstatements, of dishonesty on the Bush side. Now, I happen to think that since the debates started, John Kerry caught on here. He said, wait a second, there's no penalty for just making stuff up, and all those things you mentioned, absolutely. I think at this point, they're both full of you know what.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Kerry did correct something he had been saying repeatedly, which was that the war has cost 200 billion. It's actually although cost $120 billion, although projections offer $200 billion. The president still talking about government-run health care. Almost every expert in journalism I've talked to says there may be a lot of problems with Kerry's health care plan, but it's not run by the government.

THOMAS: Look, I think at this stage, they are consciously twisting the truth. It's not just little accidents. And I think as Dana says, they've caught on. The big lie or maybe the little lie works.

KURTZ: The medium lie.

THOMAS: The medium lie works. So they're doing them.

MILBANK: We catch up to it a few days after the fact, and everybody has forgotten.

THOMAS: But not very successfully and not very well. We do not do a good job.

MILBANK: We should be doing a lot more.

INGRAHAM: I think that actually is a decent function for the press to do, instead of either leaning one way or another. And I think more of that is better, but not sending out memos, internal memos saying, well, the Bush people are trying to destroy Kerry. Both sides are trying to destroy each other. This is hardball politics.

KURTZ: Yes, absolutely.

INGRAHAM: Everyone's fighting it out to the last day.

KURTZ: On that rare moment of agreement, we will take a break. Coming up next, Democrats cry foul over the airing of an anti-Kerry documentary. Plus, Bill O'Reilly off balance in the no-spin zone. The cable anchor facing a sexual harassment lawsuit from a Fox News producer. Stay with us.



Sinclair Broadcasting's decision to air a 42-minute anti-Kerry film on all of its 62 television stations is still sparking outrage from Democrats, who accuse the company of a partisan effort to help the Bush campaign.

The Kerry campaign is demanding equal time, but the movie will probably air next week.

Sinclair executives say that "Stolen Honor," which attacks Kerry for his 1971 testimony about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, is newsworthy. Sinclair Vice President Mark Hyman asked why mainstream journalists are ignoring the POWs featured in the film.


MARK HYMAN, VP, SINCLAIR BROADCASTING: This is news. The networks had this opportunity over a month ago to speak with these people. They chose to suppress them, they chose to ignore them. They're acting like Holocaust deniers, pretending these men don't exist.


KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, do you have a problem with a media company airing an anti-Kerry film a week before the election?

INGRAHAM: I think if more people in the mainstream media, as Mr. Hyman said, had actually spoken with a lot of these POWs, he probably wouldn't have said, oh, it's such a big deal to air this. I think it's an important film for people to see. I think the 1971 testimony of John Kerry really moves people in one direction or another when they hear it.

KURTZ: If CBS, for example, were airing "Fahrenheit 9/11" a week before the election, you would go nuts.

INGRAHAM: Well, actually, CBS, NBC and ABC have probably had Michael Moore on more times to talk about "Fahrenheit 9/11" and various other people like Al Franken. I mean, these guys are given carte blanche on networks. And meanwhile, conservative best selling authors are ignored by a lot of these networks.

So I think a lot of conservatives, conservatives -- I can see liberals would be upset about this -- I would be upset, by the way, if it were (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

KURTZ: I think I got that one right.

INGRAHAM: But I think a lot of conservatives are saying it's evening the playing field.

KURTZ: Democrats have complained to the FEC, the FCC and the Justice Department. But is this really a matter for government intervention? In other words, it may or may not be fair, but?

THOMAS: Well, we used to have something called the Fairness Doctrine, which required fairness. And now that's I guess a dead letter. So I don't think this is a legal issue, but it gives me qualms, because you know, this whole problem of red versus blue America, a country that's divided, now it's media is divided. And the more there's the perception that media is not objective, they're rather just taking one side or the other, the worse it is for our business.

KURTZ: Now, Sinclair says that the other networks are biased, picking up Laura's point, by refusing to put these POWs on the air. But would you say that Kerry's Vietnam record and his anti-war testimony in 1971 have gotten a small amount of coverage in this campaign?

MILBANK: Well, I wouldn't say they've gotten a small amount of coverage. On the other hand, I think the First Amendment doesn't discriminate, and Sinclair should be absolutely free to do what they're doing.

The bigger scandal at Sinclair is that they wouldn't run Ted Koppel's "Nightline" when he read out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq. So they're not -- they're not being fair here. But absolutely...

KURTZ: And their executives have contributed a fair amount of money to Bush and the Republicans. So they've got a fairness issue here. MILBANK: If nothing else, this should dispel the notion of the liberal media, when you have Sinclair, when you have "The New York Post," when you have "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page, when you have "The Washington Times" and when you have a towering giant like Laura Ingraham.

INGRAHAM: I totally agree.

KURTZ: You totally agree with what?

INGRAHAM: I'm a towering giant. No, just kidding.

KURTZ: You want to quickly rebut that?

INGRAHAM: I just think, look, "Fahrenheit 9/11" did get an enormous amount of play in the mainstream media.

KURTZ: But they didn't run 45 minutes of the movie. People -- Michael Moore was asked questions, including on "The Today Show."

INGRAHAM: Some would say -- some would say that the network broadcasts for the past several months, each individually and collectively have tilted to John Kerry. We've talked about this on my show. Conservatives have been talking about this for 25 years. And so yes, Sinclair is running this broadcast. I think liberals should say, look, the more the merrier. A lot of people don't know that John Kerry is a self-admitted war criminal, Howie, a lot of people don't know that. They'll know that after they see this film.

KURTZ: So much for some would say, I think Laura Ingraham has said, but we need to take a break.

When we come back, Bill O'Reilly in the hot seat and the allegations of sexual harassment, and the Fox anchor fights back charging attempted extortion. Plus, Jon Stewart unloads in the "CROSSFIRE."


KURTZ: The highly opinionated Fox News host Bill O'Reilly now finds himself at the center of a highly public legal fight. Fox producer Andrea Mackris, who worked for CNN earlier this year, is suing her boss O'Reilly and the network, alleging that he made offensive comments and repeatedly tried to get her to engage in phone sex. O'Reilly has filed his own suit, accusing Mackris and her lawyer of attempted extortion. Mackris took her charges to the airwaves, appearing on the network morning shows and on CNN's "NEWSNIGHT."


ANDREA MACKRIS, FOX NEWS ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: I'm not used to saying no to this man on any level. I had said no to him and no to him and no to him and no to him and no to him and no to him about his saucy language. It had never gotten to this level until I came back. It got to that level immediately. It escalated.


KURTZ: O'Reilly's lawyer says his client did nothing illegal, and O'Reilly said he had no choice but to file the extortion complaint.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": There comes a time when enough's enough. And so this morning I had to file a lawsuit against some people who are demanding $60 million, or they will, quote, "punish" me and Fox News.


KURTZ: Mackris' lawyer calls that "garbage." O'Reilly also spoke out on "The Regis and Kelly Show."


O'REILLY: I've got to tell you, this is the worst day of my life.

Now, if I have to go down, I'm willing to do it, but I've got to make a stand.


KURTZ: Dana Milbank, does it make sense for Bill O'Reilly to be talking about this on television and then say, well, I can't address whether these phone sex allegations are true or not because of the lawsuit?

MILBANK: Well, he's just narrowly not addressing the allegations, but certainly not denying the allegations vigorously as people often do in this case. He's just begging for more coverage on this.

KURTZ: He didn't deny it in an interview with me. His lawyer hasn't denied it. But on the other hand, that doesn't mean it's true.

MILBANK: It does not mean it's true, but by doing that, he's encouraging further coverage. I mean, there's this whole sense of...


MILBANK: ... in the media generally. And of course...

KURTZ: You're saying people who don't like Bill O'Reilly are enjoying this.

MILBANK: Yes, and there are certainly more than a few of them.

KURTZ: O'Reilly told me he was embarrassed by having all these salacious allegations coming out. Is he particularly vulnerable to charges of bad behavior because he is kind of moralist who's just written a children's book and he lectures the world about too much sex and entertainment?

THOMAS: It does have unfortunate timing that "The Factor for Children," or something, just hit the bookstores. Yes, obviously, he's a moralist. So every time a moralist gets -- does something immoral, it's the old -- the ancient hypocrisy charge. It's like Elmer Gantry, the hypocrisy charge comes out.

I got to say, these stories are (UNINTELLIGIBLE), because we don't really know the facts here, and it makes me uneasy for us to be passing judgment on Bill O'Reilly. But he does set himself up, because he passes moral judgment.

KURTZ: These are for the moment unproven allegations. So you think the press has gone overboard on this story?

INGRAHAM: I think Dana was right to point out, there seems to be a little bit of a glee in some members of the media reporting on this. But one thing that was incredible to me is that 3.3 million people tuned into "The O'Reilly Factor" on Thursday. It's almost double his normal audience. So to some extent, I think CNN and MSNBC ought to be careful about how much they cover this, because you might be inflating his ratings for some time to come.

KURTZ: Uncomfortable as this might be...

INGRAHAM: People are tuning in.

KURTZ: ... it's a publicity boon.

INGRAHAM: People are tuning in.

KURTZ: People want to see what he's going to say next.

INGRAHAM: Yes, absolutely. And I agree with Evan. It's a sad situation and who knows what the truth is.

KURTZ: Andrea Mackris, who still works for Fox News, although she has not been showing up for work, says that she was offended by all this talk, but she stayed on the phone during these conversations, apparently. She went back to work at "The O'Reilly Factor" after having left -- after having left for a few months for CNN, and she never filed any kind of complaint or told anyone at Fox that she felt she was being harassed. Could she have a bit of a credibility problem here?

MILBANK: Well, she certainly could. But I think as Evan was saying, I don't think we're in any position to be making these judgments as to who's credible or not. I think we're perfectly justified in writing about it, since both of them have gone to the courts and made it a very public thing. And certainly, although readers will tell us -- viewers will tell us they don't want this filth, this is exactly what they tune into. So there is no way to stop this.

KURTZ: Now, O'Reilly has said that if I have to go down over this, I'll go down. Everyone thinks there are tapes. The lawyer for Mackris hasn't said so, but he hasn't denied it either, because there are very detailed, graphic conversations in this lawsuit. Could this potentially sink Bill O'Reilly's career?

THOMAS: I guess so. These things never end happily.

KURTZ: But you seem to feel that this whole thing is kind of something that's smelly and we should stay away from it. Bill O'Reilly is the most...

THOMAS: But we're not going to stay away from it.

KURTZ: ... highly rated cable news host.

THOMAS: Here we are, we're sitting here talking about it, so obviously we're not staying out of it. But it does make me uncomfortable, because I don't know the facts, I don't know what the heck happened. There may be some back story I don't even know about. And it's just, you know, catching one of our colleagues in phone sex, I mean, you know, it's just not a great story.

INGRAHAM: Very unpleasant. And I think one thing what I had heard in the green room, I think it was Blitzer was mentioning -- I think you have to have consent to tape someone else over the phone in New York State, and if that's the case, that could be trouble for her.

KURTZ: We'll see. Laura Ingraham, Evan Thomas, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Jon Stewart's "CROSSFIRE" moment.


KURTZ: Jon Stewart has been ripping CNN's "CROSSFIRE" for years, including on this show, and on Friday, the Comedy Central host sat down with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala and let it rip.


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": I have privately, amongst my friends, and also an occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad.

You're partisan, what do you call it, hacks.

When you have people on for just knee-jerk reactionary talk...

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Wait, I thought you were going to be funny. Come on, be funny.

STEWART: No, no, I'm not going to be your monkey.


KURTZ: For a guy who announces he's a fake journalist, Jon Stewart landed some very real punches. Well, that's it for us on RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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