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Were 'New York Times,' CBS News Orchestrating Pre-Election Hit on Bush?; Kerry, Bush Blitz Airwaves

Aired October 31, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): An explosive campaign climax. The missing Iraqi ammunitions story. Were "The New York Times" and CBS breaking big news, or orchestrating a late hit on President Bush?

Kerry and Bush blitz the airwaves. Are the anchors breaking through their scripted answers?

Should the networks have aired the latest Osama bin Laden threats? And should ABC have held back its tape of an alleged American al Qaeda member?

We'll ask Leslie Stall, Clarence Page and David Frum.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES on this Sunday morning, with less than 48 hours to go before the voting begins. Ahead, we'll talk about those terror tapes, but first with a look at the media's coverage of the final frenzied days of the presidential campaign, Leslie Stahl, of CBS's "60 Minutes" and "48 Hours Investigates" joins me now from New York. Welcome.

LESLIE STAHL, CBS NEWS: Thank you. How are you?

KURTZ: I'm great. Leslie Stahl, the missing ammunition story was not your story, but the original plan was for CBS "60 Minutes" to break it tonight, although it leaked out in "The New York Times" which had been working with CBS and decided to go ahead on its own. Wouldn't it have looked awful to drop that kind of journalistic bomb in the last 48 hours of the campaign?

STAHL: Well, I know there have been questions about that, a lot of questions. I think it all started by some blogger somewhere. But what are you going to do, Howie? You've got a story. When you get it, when you can get it organized, when you can get it checked out -- you know how hard it is to get people at the Pentagon to return your phone calls. Just to check it out.

This is when it was supposed to be ready. It wasn't a question of the election. It was how soon can we put these pieces together. Sometimes you can put a piece together quickly, and sometimes you just have to wait until your sources nail it down for you. And that's what happened in this case. I'm being very specific. KURTZ: It feels like it's been a rough few months for CBS News. There was also the "60 Minutes Wednesday" story, which again you had nothing to do with, about the president's National Guard...

STAHL: Wait a minute. Howie, I don't include this in the rough couple of months. I don't include this at all. I see...

KURTZ: In other words, you see a big distinction between a story that is now under obviously outside investigation and a story that nobody is saying the story is inaccurate, but there are questions about the timing of it.

STAHL: Well, the questions about the timing of it are unfair. We are just trying to get our pieces organized by the time they're finished. Nobody planned it to be two or three days before the election. So -- and I don't feel great angst in the office over this at all. Abu Ghraib, that's different.

KURTZ: Leaving these particular stories aside, there are an awful lot of people out there, as you know, who think that CNN and CBS and "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" comprise a liberal, pro-Kerry media, who are fed up with what they see as the mainstream liberal media. How do you deal with that?

STAHL: Well, I've been dealing with it my entire career. You know, I started when Nixon was president and Watergate, and I can't remember a time when the power -- whoever was sitting in the White House, the party that had the power wasn't coming after us.

The Carter people thought we were unfair. The charge was a little different, but that we were going after him. It's what happens.

And you know, the press is supposed to be a counterweight to power. That's our function. That's what the founding fathers envisioned for us, to kind of be a fourth counterweight. I just think this is the way it goes. We've always come under the attack.

The other thing is that I find that people in power attack the press, the messenger, when their backs are against the wall. I've seen this over and over and over. So you know, I think what we do is try to do our jobs. Try to do them totally fairly and just plow ahead, and say this is part of the job.

KURTZ: In this campaign, in this campaign, we have the distinction of a lot of people on both sides thinking that we're not being fair to either Bush or Kerry. But I want to play you some tape, because the candidates this week were peppered with questions as they made the television rounds. Let's take a look at some of these exchanges with ABC's Charlie Gibson, NBC's Tom Brokaw and Fox's Sean Hannity.


CHARLIE GIBSON, ABC NEWS: If I had said to you on March 19th, 2003, we're going to lose 1,100 kids and counting, we're going to have 8,000 kids wounded, would you say removing Saddam Hussein was worth it?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Listen, I calculated as best as I possibly could.

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: Do you regret invoking Mary Cheney in your debate with President Bush?


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Were you upset about Teresa Heinz's comments about Mrs. Bush?

BUSH: Not really.


KURTZ: Is it hard when interviewing candidates in that kind of pressure cooker situation to get them off the official talking points?

STAHL: Well, first of all, I was so struck by no one's going to apologize and no one's going to explain in this campaign. And by the way, that's what they used to teach guys at these men's colleges, at Yale and all these other schools. They used to teach the guys, don't apologize, don't explain. So they're carrying through on that.

And it is hard. First of all, again, it's sort of where we started. There are enormous deadline pressures, and you just are also given an hour, given a half hour, given 20 minutes, and they start filibustering. It becomes very hard to follow through, ask a second, third question if they don't answer, to keep going.

I interviewed Kerry right after he announced he was going to choose John Edwards. And I had an enormous deadline pressure. My stomach was churning, and it was on the eve of the "60 Minutes" broadcast. It's very tough.

KURTZ: You get nervous over these things. That's interesting.

STAHL: I was going to say, my hat's off to Tim Russert and Bob Schieffer, who do the Sunday live show with the same kinds of deadline pressures.

KURTZ: And in that Kerry/Edwards joint interview -- and you were the first one to have both of them sit down -- you said to Senator Kerry, "can I be candid? I never thought you'd pick him because he might upstage you." I am wondering, why did you ask that particular question? What were you hoping to get out of it?

STAHL: Well, I think at that stage in the campaign, I was convinced that likability and the way these candidates presented themselves in a personal way was going to be huge. And Kerry was coming under a lot of criticism for screaming, flailing his arms around. There were a whole lot of critiques of his performance, you know, as an actor, if you will. And I just thought in that sense that Edwards was going to upstage him.

But I don't think that happened at all. Not remotely. Also, you don't see much of Edwards. It may be calculated in a way.

KURTZ: Yeah, did he fade for quite a bit before coming back and doing some national TV interviews.

I want -- I've been dying to ask you this. Jon Stewart famously came on "CROSSFIRE" a couple of weeks ago and let it rip, criticized the show, said it was typical of the mindless shouting debates that are on many cable news shows. Was he right?

STAHL: Oh, was he right. I thought, why did it take a comedian to come out publicly and talk about the tone that those shows have set for the country? It's amazing.

You know, I used to think that public opinion drove us. I really believed that when I covered the White House. I thought public opinion drove everything.

Now I see that it doesn't drive tone. This campaign is really ugly and nasty. And I'm covering the Senate races. It's nasty everywhere, not just at the presidential level. And I just think we as a society have come to expect people to yell at each other and to say coarse things to each other, and the idea of gamesmanship has gone.

KURTZ: You know, it's not just cable.

STAHL: And I think those guys have a responsibility for setting the tone.

KURTZ: But speaking of responsibility, have all of us in the media spent too much time on whether Teresa got botox treatments and who did what in Vietnam and Mary Cheney's lesbianism. Have we allowed the campaign to be hijacked by some of this more trivial stuff?

STAHL: Well, I feel like I'm a politician, because I'm not going to answer directly. I am going to say, what's this "we"? What do you mean we?

KURTZ: You're finessing my question?

STAHL: Well, my question is it's not we, and that's one of the problems that we in the kind of work that we do at CBS News are tarred with. You know, we're all in this boat. How did we all get in the same salad bowl together? Why do people think that what we do at "60 Minutes" is the same thing that they're doing on "CROSSFIRE"? We're not the same thing. We have standards of fairness and -- I don't know. I just -- it worries me that even you, Howie Kurtz, would say we.

KURTZ: Well, because I think all, even the most respectable news organizations, have sometimes gone a little tabloid or have just managed to deal with things that are not about the important issues that are facing the country that happens.

Now, I want to ask you a final question because you're going to be on election duty Tuesday night, CBS News. A little bit of nervousness there? A little bit of caution about not repeating the Florida fiasco of four years ago?

STAHL: Oh, a lot. A lot. A huge emphasis on waiting. We've had lectures on it isn't so important that we're the first, we just have to be right. If a state has two polling time closings, we're going to wait until the very last precinct closes before we even breathe a word about what we've got. Yeah. We're going to be very cautious.

KURTZ: All right. I'll be checking it out. Leslie Stahl tonight on "60 Minutes" blows the lid off the Ashlee Simpson lip synching scandal on "Saturday Night Live." Thanks very much for joining us.

STAHL: Thank you.

KURTZ: Coming up, how are the media handling the Osama bin Laden tape? Plus "The New York Times," was it trying to sink Bush on the ammunitions story? We'll talk with Clarence Page and David Frum, next.



BUSH: The senator is making wild charges about missing explosives when his top foreign policy adviser admits he does not know the facts.

KERRY: Instead of coming clean with the American people, the administration has blamed the bad news on the International Atomic Energy Agency, and even blamed the United States military, and even blamed the media itself.


KURTZ: President Bush and Senator Kerry facing off on the trail during the final days of this campaign about the story dominating headlines this past week. "The New York Times," in cooperation with "60 Minutes," reported Monday that U.S. troops had failed to secure 380 tons of high grade ammunition at an Iraqi facility called al Qa Qaa. NBC News said Americans did not find explosives there during the war, but ABC News later aired footage from its Minneapolis affiliate that showed troops examining explosives at al Qa Qaa. The Pentagon now says that 250,000 tons were destroyed at the facility, but can't say whether this was the same ammunition later reported missing.

So how has the media handled all this? Joining me now here in Washington, Clarence Page, columnist and editorial board member at "The Chicago Tribune," and "National Review Online's" David Frum, also a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former speechwriter for President Bush. Welcome.

Clarence Page, "New York Times'" ammo story, legitimate piece or somewhat hyped?

CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: You could argue about whether it was overplayed or not, but the basic facts of the story are correct, and everybody has the right to respond to it. Everybody did. And we have seen the story get advanced by other news operations, particularly that Minneapolis station.

But this is very important, Howie, because this story gets to the heart of one of the key problems of the war. Not being enough troops over there. In this case, not enough troop to secure explosives that could be used by terrorists.

KURTZ: You say it's a phony story, right?

DAVID FRUM, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: I think it is a phony story. Look, there may be some truth in it. It may ultimately prove to be a good story. But I think "The New York Times" and CBS were very driven by their desire to get this out before the election. And so they did not...

KURTZ: Do you seriously believe -- I mean, this came to them from a letter written by the Iraqi interim government a few days before the story. Do you seriously think they said, a-ha, we can use this and we can get Bush with this story?

FRUM: No, I think what happens is one step more removed. It is very much like what happened with the forged National Guard story. I think that there are certain circumstances where the natural skepticism of some people in the media, their natural, their normal desire to complete the job gets eroded by their passions.

So in the forged documents story, here was something that was a pretty obvious fake, and yet Dan Rather was fooled. He was fooled because he wanted to be fooled.

KURTZ: This story is not fake.

FRUM: This is not fake. This is a story that raises a lot more questions than were answered at the time "The New York Times" and CBS decided to go with it. They went with it early because they were determined to get it out before the election.

KURTZ: Wouldn't it have been better if "The New York Times" had said, look, there was at least a possibility that Saddam moved these weapons before U.S. troops got there? We still don't know the full truth on that. And pointed out for context that the U.S. had destroyed hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition, and this was just sort of one example of a possible oversight?

PAGE: We're a daily business, Howard. We don't get all the facts in one day. And those facts did come out, or those qualifiers, with regard to Saddam. But we've seen the administration's response has been tepid at best, and the Bush campaign has responded with spin.

Again, the basic facts are still there glaring and are being expanded. Now the Human Rights Watch has come forth and said we too warned the military, warned the U.N., warned the administration about these weapons. Inspect this spot, secure it. It wasn't done.

And again, it gets back to that basic question of there not being enough troops in this war to handle the job.

FRUM: This spot has a perimeter of 30 miles. So there are probably not enough troops in the entire U.S. Army to secure this -- it's not a spot. This vast terrain.

My only point about the story is as we are learning more about it, the original story, the original claims are breaking apart. And with respect to your point about this being a daily business, we heard Leslie Stahl saying, you know, we sometimes check our time to check that it's right. But they didn't really want to take all their time to check that it was right, because that would have meant it would have run after the election, too late to do anything to the people whom John Kerry refers to as "even the media itself," his base.

KURTZ: In fairness...

PAGE: We're a news business. We don't (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: ... "The Times" did get a comment from the White House, the Pentagon and so forth, but I got to move on.

Project for Excellence in Journalism out with a study this week about the two-week period around those three presidential debates. Looking at newspapers and television, 59 percent of the stories about Bush clearly negative, meaning at least two to one negative; 25 percent of the stories about Kerry's debate and other performances pretty negative. That's pretty lopsided coverage.

PAGE: And it was a very brief period that the study dealt with, and it didn't deal with the fact of whether the response to Bush was deserved. The polling at that time also showed the public had similar perceptions of the president.

And that's going to happen. Elections go up and down. Approvals go up and down. Coverage goes up and down. But nobody made the claim that the coverage was distorted. It merely said the coverage for this period was more against Bush than is (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: It's subjective how somebody did in a debate. It's subjective. It's like I thought that Bush looked bad because he scowled too much.

FRUM: Look, I think we are -- it is good to try to quantify it. But no one who works in this business will doubt that this an election in which the press is very much an actor and very much against President Bush.


FRUM: And I say this remembering he got quite a lot of good coverage in his first, say, year and a half in office. But he goes into this campaign with a press corps that really feels he deserves to lose. And they are actors in this campaign.

KURTZ: In they, you're including every single member of every single news organization? FRUM: You're right. We have to be careful. Let us talk about the march national news organization, especially broadcast and especially the nationally distributed newspapers. And I think that's the inner meaning of the forged document story. CBS was -- and the people there were ready to believe something because they wanted it to be true.

PAGE: They deny the allegation, deny the alligator (ph). I mean, the fact is, the forged documents story had legs because it confirmed something that the public already knew about and whether or not there was bias with individual reporters and editors, that's...


KURTZ: ... put that aside, but I do want to mention to David that Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto made a joke on the air after the Osama tape came out about Osama bin Laden wearing a Kerry button, and the Kerry campaign was so upset that they threatened to throw the producer off the bus -- off the plane.

FRUM: I understand exactly why they would feel that way. That comment -- that's something you might say off the air in a light moment, but you should not say it on the air.

PAGE: You might say it in a bar.

KURTZ: The Osama bin Laden tape, why did all the networks run this videotape? I mean, doesn't that make them a conduit for the rantings of a mass murderer?

PAGE: Because the opposite response would be not to run the tape while the Arab networks are running it. Why should we deny Americans what the Arab and Islamic worlds is seeing?

KURTZ: You know, I know it's news, I know it has to be covered. But part of me says if Osama bin Laden wants to influence the election, let him buy time and say, I approved this message.

FRUM: But look, it's not just on Al Jazeera. It's going to be on BBC. So it is important that Americans understand that -- what he's up to. I think it's impossible to imagine that it wouldn't be broadcast. I think Americans do -- Osama bin Laden here is presenting himself now as a kinder, gentler Osama bin Laden. Hey, you know, if you stop attacking me, it reminds me of apparently that meeting that was had at the end of World War II when Himmler called in the head of the Jewish agency and said, it's time that you Jews and we Germans buried the hatchet, that -- Americans I think see this man for what he is.

KURTZ: Is it a little cold-blooded for us all to be analyzing the impact on the election when we're talking about a terrorist who (UNINTELLIGIBLE) people?

FRUM: It's an attempt to influence the election. And so you have to follow it. But here I think is the thing...

PAGE: I disagree (ph).

FRUM: ... we can take away from it, and this really is the good news. Videotape is not al Qaeda's preferred means of communication. If he could have sent murder and death into the United States before this election, he would have. And that tape is proof that we are doing well in the war against al Qaeda. They have been reduced to this.

KURTZ: We have a minute left. I want to turn to the other terror tape, this was the ABC News video obtained in Pakistan. They held it for four days. It allegedly shows an American member of al Qaeda making all kinds of threats, that blood will run in the streets and so forth. ABC tried to check it out. Nobody knows who this guy is. They turned it over to the FBI and the CIA, and yet got criticized for holding it back. What do you make of it?

PAGE: It's bizarre, Howie. You know, I mean, I guess the FBI thinks they know who it is, but they are not quite positive. This is the kind of thing that they appear to have checked it out. I can't see sitting on this, they would be criticized that they just continued to sit on it, so it had to come out, but I don't know what it means.

KURTZ: Is there now pressure on news organizations to just throw everything on the air or into print without having time to vet it?

FRUM: There always is. But I think there's a special concern here, which is after 9/11, no one wants to be the person who did not release a warning when a warning might have made a difference. And I think that's one of the things that you have to think about as a news organization, is could we put people in danger by not broadcasting something.

KURTZ: Good point, and on that point, we have to close. David Frum, Clarence Page, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, your viewer e-mail about media fairness during the presidential campaign. Plus the final round in the Bill O'Reilly sexual harassment lawsuit.


KURTZ: A couple of quick notes now from the world of media news. Bill O'Reilly has settled the sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by Fox producer Andrea Mackris for an undisclosed amount, likely to be in the millions of dollars. The Fox host dropped his extortion suit against Mackris and her attorney and said of the brutal ordeal that there have been, quote, "no wrongdoing by anyone." That language obviously worked out by the lawyers.

And goodbye to CNNfn, after almost nine years on the air. The cable channel which will fade to black in December never quite took off, and suffered in part from a lack of distribution. CNN Financial News available in only about 25 percent of American homes.

Turning now to our viewer e-mail about media bias in campaign coverage. Debbie in Georgia writes: "The media overwhelmingly support Senator Kerry and have it in for President Bush.

Don in Virginia disagrees: "The media, from CNN to Fox to "The New York Times" have given Bush a free ride on many of the most troubling scandals in his administration and campaign." Free ride.

But Melanie e-mailed us a very different view. "I think the media have been too harsh with both of them. If you pay too much attention to the press, you could easily believe that they are both liars and totally incompetent."

Coming up, those media predictions of another long drawn-out post election mess. We'll go behind the headlines in a moment.


KURTZ: With both parties dispatching thousands of lawyers and poll watchers, and with lawsuits and investigations into dead people voting and people with names like Mary Poppins voting, this is obviously an important story for the press. But lately we're getting a daily drumbeat about the huge Florida style fiasco awaiting the country just two days from now.

"There could be massive voting problems," says "Time" magazine. And the cover of "Newsweek" asking whether your vote will even be counted. Or "33 ways for there to be an electoral college tie that throws the race into the House of Representatives," says "The Washington Post" front page. Or a scenario in which John Edwards somehow becomes president, a "New York Times" columnist writes.

You have to wonder, are the media trying to scare the country? Are journalists rooting for a big, fat, huge debacle they can cover in crisis mode for weeks on end, complete with theme music and fancy graphics?

Well, here's one journalist who hopes this thing ends calmly on Tuesday night, or at least Wednesday morning.

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. Thanks for joining us.


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