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Coverage of Last Weeks of Presidential Campaign

Aired October 24, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Trivial pursuit. Teresa Heinz Kerry insults Laura Bush. John Kerry chides Dick Cheney for getting a flu shot. And then goes goose-hunting. The flap over Mary Cheney's sexuality. Are the media losing sight of the big issues in this campaign?

We'll ask David Brooks, Linda Douglass and Bob Schieffer, who reveals what it's like to moderate a presidential debate.

An anti-Kerry movie makes a cameo appearance on Sinclair Broadcasting. Was the program fair? Plus, the Red Sox defy the sports writers. Who would have thunk it?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on coverage of the home stretch of the presidential campaign. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Just when you'd expect a laser-like focus on Iraq, the economy and health care, much of the press seems to be caught up in the small stories, the gaffes, the blunders, the stage craft, the off-message moments by the candidates, their wives, their kids, maybe even dogs.

Don't laugh. There's also some animal warfare going on, with John Kerry hunting swing state geese. President Bush unveiling an ad featuring wolves. And a Democratic ad likening Bush to an ostrich and Kerry to an eagle.

Do voters really care about all this? Let's turn to our all-star panel of journalists. Linda Douglass, chief Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News. Bob Schieffer, CBS' chief Washington correspondent and host of "Face the Nation," and the author of a new book about the greatest moments in the program's 50-year run. And David Brooks, columnist for "The New York Times," and author of the new book "On Paradise Drive."

Welcome. Bob Schieffer, I want to play a bit of tape of Teresa Heinz Kerry the other day, going negative, some might say, on first lady Laura Bush.


TERESA HEINZ KERRY, JOHN KERRY'S WIFE: She seems to be calm. And she seems to be -- she has a sparkle in her eye, which is good. But I don't know that she's ever had a real job, I mean since she's been a grownup.


KURTZ: Never had a real job. Why has this been such a big story for the press?

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, "FACE THE NATION": Well, I would just say first, as they say, I don't believe I would have said that. And obviously, I'm stunned that she didn't know that Laura Bush was a librarian, that she was a school teacher, two of the professions we honor most in America.

KURTZ: And a mother and a first lady.

SCHIEFFER: I don't know the answer to that, Howie. I don't know why she said it.

KURTZ: I would argue, David Brooks, that the war in Iraq is marginally more important than this. So why has this Teresa moment has been debated on 87 talk shows?

DAVID BROOKS, NEW YORK TIMES: Because we go through cycles in the election campaign. We've talked about the war in Iraq, I think, fully, but the last two or three weeks of any campaign are just the sleazy season. The issues fall away, and we go into pure pandering, like the Kerry goose hunt. You know, I was thinking if Jewish votes were in play, John Kerry would have been bar-mitzvahed this weekend. I mean, it's just pure pandering, and these sort of things, this -- which is what happens at the end of the campaign. It just gets into -- everybody's sleep deprived and they just get into pure trivialities, and we're following where the stories go.

KURTZ: It doesn't make the media look very good, Linda Douglass?

LINDA DOUGLASS, ABC NEWS: I would actually disagree with this. I think there's a lot of interest by women voters in Mrs. Kerry, and the relationship between the Kerrys, the Kerry marriage. I think a lot of women judge a president or a presidential candidate through his relationship with his wife, anything you can learn about her and him, and people -- I mean, everything that he says about her becomes very interesting to women. When you asked about, you know, his relationship with his wife and what he thought was so great about her during the debate, and he mentioned his mother. So I think anything Teresa Heinz Kerry says tells women voters something about him.

KURTZ: And speaking of personal controversies, the controversy that refuses to die from the last debate, which you moderated, Bob, the Kerry's comment about Mary Cheney's sexuality. Let's take a look at how it's still being debated on the airwaves.


BOB NOVAK, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": John Kerry gratuitously recalled to millions of Americans the fact that one of Dick Cheney's daughter is a lesbian.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's a lesbian, but we already knew that.

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": Kerry's reference to Cheney's daughter -- 25 percent said appropriate, 64 percent said inappropriate. How do you feel about it? Was it inappropriate?


KURTZ: And just an hour ago, Bob, on your program "Face the Nation," you had Liz Cheney and you asked her about her sister's reaction. She said that Mary Cheney was offended. And you followed up with this question.


SCHIEFFER: May I just ask you, why was she offended? She is openly gay. To what did she take offense?

LIZ CHENEY, DICK CHENEY'S DAUGHTER: Well, the same thing that we all did. That it was really exploitive, that it was bringing her name into it to try to score some political points.


KURTZ: My question is, why would you spend the first five minutes of a half hour show talking about this one issue?

SCHIEFFER: Because I've been out on book tour all last week, and everywhere I went, that was the first question that people asked me. And I think it plays to just what we're talking about here. The vote for president, Howie, is different than any other vote we cast. We're looking for the person that we're most comfortable with in a time of crisis. And that's the main reason that people vote and cast their vote for president.

So this whole issue of character, how one treats his wife, how one is a cool, or is he nervous, does he seem in control, all of those things factor into our presidential vote more so than any other vote we cast.

BROOKS: There's also some polling data that sort of backs that up. Even in presidential votes, if you ask people in years past, are you voting on the issues or are you voting on character? In years past, voters would say I'm voting on the issues, even though they weren't really. This year, they say I'm voting on character. And I think that's because of 9/11, because they know that history -- who knows what's going to happen in four years. So we've got to have somebody with strong character, and the relationship with an intimate one is a good revelation of character.

KURTZ: But wasn't the press also reacting, Linda Douglass, to a Republican spin effort? They decided after that third debate they were going to make an issue out of this, and they flogged it, and the Cheneys, Dick and Lynne, said they were outraged. And that set the ball in motion.

DOUGLASS: Well, and it did work. I mean, the fact is, it sucked the air out of the discussion of the debate, which polls show that Kerry won, but the following 24 hours was spent discussing whether he made a big mistake in talking about Mary Cheney.

On the other hand, again, about women, I think women generally reacted like that when they heard him make that reference, because he doesn't know Mary Cheney and he's talking about somebody's child. And even though she's out and she's active and she is a gay rights activist, still it was a reference to somebody's chile who he doesn't know, and I think that caused a gasp.

KURTZ: One more piece of tape to play. This one from Pat Robertson speaking to CNN's Paula Zahn.


PAT ROBERTSON, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I had deep misgivings about this war, deep misgivings, and I was trying to say, Mr. President, you'd better prepare the American people for casualties. Oh, no, we're not going to have any casualties.


KURTZ: The administration thought there would be few or no casualties? I would argue that's a more important story about where we are as a country. But that hasn't gotten anywhere near...

SCHIEFFER: Maybe where we are with the country is when we have to depend on Pat Robertson to find out whether the president is being credible. I remember when Pat Robertson announced on his broadcast that he had just talked to God and he had told him that Bush was going to win and win big. I have respect for Pat Robertson. I don't question his sincerity, but I don't see him as a source we need to be checking anybody's credibility on.

KURTZ: And the White House did deny that conversation.

BROOKS: And here is a sort of a media criticism. I was talking to evangelicals several months ago. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) lack of leadership in the evangelical community, and I said, well, what about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell? And they said, they have a flock. Their flock is ABC, NBC and CBS. That we in the media pay more attention to them as leaders of the evangelical community than the people who are the real leaders.

KURTZ: We sort of build them up. I want to ask you, David Brooks, about a column you wrote I believe last week, in which you said the following: "Nobody could imagine how incompetent, crude and over-the-top Kerry has been in the final phase of this campaign" -- you were talking in part about his accusing Bush of secretly plotting to slash Social Security in the second term and to bring back the draft and all of that. Do you think the press has given Kerry an easy ride on what you would describe I think as distortions?

BROOKS: No, I actually think we've been pretty good on that. There have been a couple of things he said that I thought were blatantly untrue; Bush has said other things that have been untrue. But they have been the pension, the Social Security, the draft, other things.

But you know, the newspapers are pretty good these days at doing those fact-check columns. If you want to get a fact check, you can get it. I'd say the one place I think the coverage has been not good is on Teresa Heinz Kerry. I think that's a hidden issue in this campaign. A lot of people are nervous about her. And I haven't seen too many wrap-up stories, has she been positive, has she been negative. I think we're a little afraid to go there.

DOUGLASS: I wonder what -- I wonder -- I mean, being nervous about Hillary Clinton is one thing, because she -- when she was going to be the first lady, because she had a political agenda that she might want to pursue. I'm not sure that nervousness is what people are concerned about.

KURTZ: Come back to the fact-checking question. Because President Bush has talked about government-run health care that Kerry is supposedly pushing. It's not government-run health care at all. David says the press has done a pretty good job. I would argue that it doesn't have much impact. How many times I and other people write that this is a distortion and this is an exaggeration. These guys keep saying these things.

DOUGLASS: Because they cancel each other out. We're always very careful in these fact-check stories to say, here's the mischaracterization over here, here is the mischaracterization over there.

But right now the most important media coverage is local media coverage, TV media coverage in the battleground states, and I guarantee you they're not fact-checking any of this. And I saw on CNN the other night President Bush saying that Kerry is going to raise everybody's taxes. That he's the most liberal senator in the Senate, which "The National Journal," which ranks, says isn't correct.

Nobody even put that in context at the last minute. So the fact checking may finally sort of -- they drown each other out, and in the end in local markets, you're not seeing much of that.

KURTZ: But here is an example. I wrote a story this week saying that John Kerry's campaign has been putting out phantom ads. That is, they release ads that we in the press all thought were real ads, but they don't spend any money to put them on television, they're like video press releases, and yet on Friday, the senator did it again. Let's take a brief look at his latest ad.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If I'm president, America will always have the strongest military. But I will return our foreign policy...


KURTZ: That was responding to the "Wolves" ad by the Bush campaign. So has the press been snookered here? Ads that we all think are real ads it turns out they're just really made for our consumption?

SCHIEFFER: Look, I think, Howie, one of the reasons that these debates attracted so much attention, finally we had something in our political process -- and not, I said this before the one I moderated, I don't insert myself in this -- it was finally something that people could actually be proud of. And I tell you, anything we can do to get the attention off these ads, I mean if all you knew about a candidate in our political process is what you learned from political ads, you'd think only thieves, thugs and deviants sought public office.

KURTZ: That's an excellent point.

SCHIEFFER: You never hear anything about normal, good people running for office in these ads.

KURTZ: Quick question, David Brooks. There's a poll coming out tomorrow that will show that the overwhelming number of Fox viewers, Fox News viewers are Bush supporters, and an overwhelming majority of CNN viewers are Kerry supporters. Do we now have red and blue media in this country?

BROOKS: I think we do. I think that's why people see the reality they want to see, because it's very easy to pick the media outlet that supports your point of view, that tells you how comfortable you can be, and believing what you believe, because you're right, you're right, you're right, you're right.

KURTZ: OK. The campaign continues on television tomorrow. Bush will be on "Good Morning America," Kerry on "The Today Show." And when we come back, Sinclair Broadcasting takes to the airwaves with a part of that anti-Kerry movie, but includes some pro-Kerry guests as well. Did the television chain cave under pressure?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Excuse me.

After two weeks of controversy that saw its stock price plunge and its Washington bureau chief fired for criticizing his bosses, Sinclair Broadcasting aired its hour-long special on John Kerry Friday night, beginning with the producer of the film "Stolen Honor," Carlton Sherwood, and clips of the former POWs featured in the movie.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is John Kerry and his campaign afraid of?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry is probably the first man in 200 years of American history to make Benedict Arnold look good.


KURTZ: But there were also clips from George Butler's pro-Kerry war film, "Going Upriver," in which former crew mate Jim Rassmann spoke of being rescued by Kerry. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM RASSMANN, VIETNAM VETERAN: I'm sure had he not, you know, run up there and pulled me over, I'd probably be dead.


KURTZ: David Brooks, is it fair a week before the election for a TV company to put on a special that asks the question, was John Kerry a traitor 35 years ago?

BROOKS: Well, the way it worked out I think is pretty good. And sort of validation of having private ownership in the media.

KURTZ: How's that?

BROOKS: Because they tried to do something which was sort of one-sided. There was stock pressure, which is the way we work in the corporate democracy...

KURTZ: And media pressure.

BROOKS: And media pressure. And the stock went down. And they said hey, we can't offend our public. And it sort of bugs me now that so many companies are part of large, Viacom type networks, GE. Maybe you can't put pressure on a network anymore, but in this case you could.

KURTZ: While Sinclair, Linda Douglass, did have some pro-Kerry guests and showed part of a pro-Kerry film, as I mentioned, there was only about five minutes devoted to President Bush's military history and the whole National Guard controversy.

So I'm wondering if you think overall, even though they've backed off to some degree, whether the company's reputation has suffered.

DOUGLASS: Oh, there's no question about it. I mean, you're right. The market really worked, and it did show, although the family owns most of the stock, but it clearly showed that the pressure of the market can make a difference. And it can make a difference with any big network as well. But they set out to send out a political message to stations that are in 24 percent of the -- you know, a quarter of the markets, and I think it did raise very serious questions about the consolidation of media ownership when media owners are going to use their ownership to send out a political message. And even though they weren't able to get the message out in the end, because the market worked, you know, I think it opened everybody's eyes to the possibility of that.

KURTZ: What about the First Amendment argument, that a television network or chain should be able to put on whatever it damn pleases, even if it's biased?

SCHIEFFER: I think they should. And I think that's what Sinclair did. Now, I work for a company that owns a lot of television stations. So I'm not going to take a position on this. But I think what this is going to do is revive the critics' claim that there should be a question as to how many television stations you can own.

KURTZ: There are, for example, 20 cities in which Sinclair owns two television stations, and some people think that's not such a good rule to allow that much dominance in a market.

SCHIEFFER: That's what I say, I think you're now going to see the critics revive that argument. But I come back -- it's their television station, I don't want the government telling them what they can put on.

KURTZ: David Brooks, was this a cave-in? I mean, some conservatives are saying, you know, they backed off their plan to show all 42 minutes of "Stolen Honor," and some on the right were not happy.

BROOKS: Well, you either believe in partisan ideology or the market. And the market determined the truth here, which I think is the guard. I mean, maybe even for the big networks, that if you're going to annoy large sections of your viewers, you're just not going to do it. And that does keep people slightly to the center.

DOUGLASS: Well, if your sponsors are going to pull out. I mean, no network, and no network -- none of the big networks want to get cross ways with their sponsors. If they're going to put on a program that all the sponsors are going to pull out of, they're going to think twice about it.

KURTZ: Speaking of pull out...

SCHIEFFER: The public is our ultimate editor. That's what it is.

KURTZ: Speaking of pull out, I've got to...


KURTZ: ... pull the plug on this segment.

Linda Douglass, David Brooks, thanks very much for joining us. Bob Schieffer, stick around.

When we come back, he moderated the third and final presidential debate. Bob Schieffer in the hot seat about questioning the candidates.

And later, the Boston Red Sox, left for dead, leave the baseball pundits in the dust. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Bob Schieffer, there has been so much focus about that third presidential debate in Tempe, Arizona, which you moderated, about Kerry's answer when he brought in Mary Cheney. I want to take a look at your question. Here goes. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCHIEFFER: I want to ask you a more basic question. Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?


KURTZ: Why did you ask the question that way?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I suppose I could have said, do you think heterosexuality is a choice, or is sexual orientation a choice. But it seems to me that's the core question here. How you feel in answer to that question pretty much tells you how you will react to the other questions that grow out of it, gay adoption, marriage, and so on, and so on.

KURTZ: Were you also trying to get the candidates with this and perhaps other questions off their talking points? Had you just asked about the amendment, you would have heard what they've said 500 times about the amendment.

SCHIEFFER: Yes. I was not trying to get them to say something they didn't mean to say. I was trying to get them to say exactly what they meant, and then -- and hope that this would open that up to some scrutiny. And I think to some extent on that question, I think I did get them off the talking points.

KURTZ: Let's take a look at another Schieffer question from that debate. This one about jobs.


SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, what do you say to someone in this country who has lost his job to someone overseas who's being paid a fraction of what that job paid here in the United States?


KURTZ: Why did you frame this question in kind of such personal terms?

SCHIEFFER: Because I was trying to frame these questions so the person who is sitting out there watching the television, who maybe doesn't follow it minute by minute like the campaign reporters, I was trying to frame it in terms that would be meaningful to them, and it seems to me again, that is the core question. I thought the president gave probably the poorest answer. He hit a couple of them out of the park, I thought, as did John Kerry. I didn't think either of them had a very good answer to that question.

KURTZ: Want to show you one more. This time it's an answer from President Bush responding to something that Kerry said. Give us a little insight into Bush's view of the media.

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


KURTZ: Now, you were friendly with George W. Bush in the '90s. He and your brother co-owned the Texas Rangers.


KURTZ: Does he just not like the press very much?

SCHIEFFER: Oh, I don't know. I think he saw an opportunity to stick a little needle in. I didn't think it was completely out of order. I took it as a joke, and I think he meant it in a good-natured way.

KURTZ: Was he sticking the needle to Bob Schieffer and CBS?

SCHIEFFER: Gosh, I don't know. What do you think, Howie?


SCHIEFFER: I expect he was.

KURTZ: Now, you've been on television for decades. We've seen you coming into our homes, but you've never moderated a presidential debate, at least not in the general election. Were you nervous?

SCHIEFFER: Yes, I was. I must tell you, this was different. Because suddenly, I thought, you know, this is the World Series here, and what one of these men say may well determine who wins the presidency. And then I thought to myself, you know, it may be the World Series of politics, but you're just the umpire. And if anybody deserves butterflies, it should be them. So that kind of got me through it, also the most interesting thing I've ever done, Howard.

KURTZ: I didn't detect any errors on your part, Bob Schieffer. Thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Up next, the know-it-all sports writers who act like undertakers when a team is losing. "Behind the Headlines" at the Yankees-Red Sox match-up.


KURTZ: They go out on a limb, pay too much attention to who's head, make predictions, and often wind up looking silly. Political pundits? no, sports writers. When the Yankees took a three-games-to- nothing lead over the Red Sox, a hole that no post-season team has ever climbed out of, the sports wise guys rushed to bury Boston as definitively as the political media once wrote off John Kerry in Iowa.

"New York Daily News" said it all -- "Dead Sox."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Boston faithful walking out in their team. Another winter of discontent is at hand here in New England.


KURTZ: "The Sox are done," said John Harper in "The Daily News." "The Yanks left the Sox for dead last night," said "The Boston Herald's" Stephen Harris. "It's over, and everyone knows it," said Jackie MacMullan in "The Boston Globe."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here it is, ground ball to second, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The Boston Red Sox have won the pennant!


KURTZ: But someone forgot to tell the Sox, who won four straight, broke the hearts of die-hard New York fans, and made the sports page savants look like morons.

And now that they've won the first game of the World Series, look for some pundits to start writing off the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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