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Coverage of Presidential Election

Aired November 7, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Picking a president. Were the networks properly cautious or overly timid on election night until two of them called Ohio for President Bush? Were those pro-Kerry exit polls a failure?

Bush's second term. Will the reelected president give reporters more access or even less? Plus, pundits and predictions. Will they ever learn?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we begin by turning our critical lens on the coverage on a dramatic election night as the networks struggled to avoid another Florida fiasco. I'm Howard Kurtz.

As word of the exit polls began spreading Tuesday across the nation's newsrooms and were leaked to Drudge and, the race was at least briefly looking pretty good for John Kerry, and that affected what some of TV's talking heads were saying.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been on the phone for the last hour talking to Republicans across the country who are expressing a great deal of anxiety.

SUSAN ESTRICH, FOX NEWS ANALYST: I think what you have to say right now is that either the exit polls by and large are completely wrong, or George Bush loses.


KURTZ: But as the night wore on, the early exit polls turned out to be, well, completely wrong. President Bush was racking up red states, including Florida, leaving the crucial battleground of Ohio as Kerry's last chance for victory.

And by 1:00 a.m. -- by 1:00 a.m., first Fox News and then NBC made the crucial projections.


TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: This race is all but over. President Bush is our projected winner in the state of Ohio. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Unlike four years ago, they did not race to match the call.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The last thing we at CNN would ever want to do again is call a state for a president, for a presidential candidate and have to retract it later.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: We have to go by our own rules, our own traditions of being we'd rather be last than to be wrong.


KURTZ: So television had no winner until Kerry called the president to concede at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday. The 2004 campaign was finally over.

Joining me now, CBS News chief White House correspondent John Roberts, "Time" magazine national political correspondent Karen Tumulty, who contributed to the magazine's special election issue, and former CNN Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, now professor of public policy and communications at George Mason University.

John Roberts, you were on duty election night. Weren't you wishing that CBS was a little less cautious in refusing to call Ohio for 10 hours until after Fox and NBC made that call?

JOHN ROBERTS, CBS NEWS: You know, how many people were criticizing us in the year 2000 for being too aggressive in making the calls? Now we're being criticized for being too timid in making a call. If the secretary of state of Ohio didn't know who won the election, and it was close enough that he said, let's be cautious here, we don't have all of the votes in. We're just counting the number of provisional ballots that are out there, the number of absentee ballots that are out there. Nobody knew the exact number. We were hearing anywhere between 130,000 to 250,000, depending on which side you listened to. And until we finally got the count did the math and said, OK, for John Kerry to win, there was no way of knowing how it could tip.

So if the secretary of state of Ohio was urging caution, wait a minute, let's be patient here, why shouldn't we be patient here?

KURTZ: I'd be asking you a much tougher question if you had gotten it wrong and gone early.

Frank Sesno, you had this extraordinary spectacle where you had the Kerry aides calling the other networks, saying don't follow Fox and call Ohio, and you had Karl Rove and other Bush aides calling NBC and saying, don't back off Ohio and trying to get one more state called so that he would be beyond the 269 electoral votes, where Fox and NBC had him.

The networks say this sort of lobbying has no effect, but doesn't it create a certain pressure?

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: Oh, sure, it creates a certain pressure, but there was ample pressure out there anyway, just as John said. You know, the last time, the networks were, you know, beat on the head with a baseball bat for getting out there early, getting it wrong, flip-flopping all over the place. What they did this time is they said very deliberately and very transparently, directly to the viewers, here's how we're going to work tonight, and we'd rather be last than wrong, and some of them were last. And you know, that goes with the territory. The campaigns were leaning on those candidates -- I mean, on the networks very hard to get what they wanted.

KURTZ: I should mention that both ABC and CNN also did not call Ohio throughout the night and throughout the morning.

Karen Tumulty, when will we learn that exit polls are frequently off base? This is hardly the first time. And these, the early waves of the polls included too many Democrats, which really influenced the sort of pro-Kerry tone of that early coverage.

KAREN TUMULTY, TIME MAGAZINE: It sure did. And I don't think we're going to learn, because we are still using those exit polls. The last ones I have have Kerry winning the election by one point, to explain this election, to explain how many Hispanics voted, to explain why people voted the way they did. These exit polls are still being used among political analysts and the media as holy writ.

KURTZ: You're saying not only were they used for predictions that turned out to be wrong, leaning one way or another, but also all the demographic analysis about how many left-handed Hispanics voted a certain way...


KURTZ: John Roberts, do you think that the networks, including CBS, were finally sort of forced to be more responsible and more cautious and more deliberate about this because of the problems of 2000?

ROBERTS: Oh, yeah. I mean, who wanted a repeat of the year 2000? Who wanted to call a state and then have to take it back and call it for somebody else and then take it back again?

KURTZ: I would have enjoyed watching that.

ROBERTS: I'm sure you would have, because it would have given you a lot to write about. But sorry, Howard, in this particular case, we wanted to take away your ammunition. As Frank said, we would rather be last than be wrong, and there was obviously the chance that you could be first and be wrong because of the way that the exit polls were showing something completely opposite to what was happening on the ground.

SESNO: What's really interesting here is what 2004 also shows is that you have lost control, all right? Because ... ROBERTS: We never had it in the first place.

SESNO: Well, maybe, maybe not. But there is a place for professional gatekeepers. Whether they did their job professionally four years ago is another matter, but this time you had the exit polls, they were in your hot little hands, but within about 30 seconds they were in everybody's else's hands, courtesy of the blogosphere and the Internet and everything like that. To the point that Jim Zogby, renowned pollster, goes on his own Web site and says, Kerry wins with 311 electoral votes.

KURTZ: I bet you he'd like to have that back. I want to turn now to what some of the liberal writers and columnists and pundits have been saying. Here is two examples from "The New York Times." Paul Krugman: "President Bush isn't a conservative. He's a radical, the leader of a coalition that deeply dislikes America as it is." Maureen Dowd, "the president got reelected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule."

And that instantly famous headline in London's "Daily Mirror," how can 59 million people be so dumb?

It sounds like many journalists on the left are not exactly giving up their jihad against President Bush.

SESNO: You get the sense that there are some sleepless nights out there and people are rifling through the vocabulary, their vocabulary and the dictionary, to find these hot words.

Look, here's the problem. The red and the blue doesn't only apply to American politics. It applies to the media, as well. And some of the folks who are doing this writing are just as much out of touch with the red states and America outside the elite Eastern Seaboard and pockets on the West as the Democrats.

KURTZ: Do you think that all of these millions of words that are being written about the impending death of the Democratic Party and so forth are a little overblown in the sense that had Kerry managed to win Ohio, we'd all be talking about how his campaign was run by a bunch of geniuses and how President Bush blew it.

TUMULTY: Oh, not only -- in recent history, anybody who was around in 1992 when George Bush was defeated with Bill Clinton winning what, 43 percent of the vote, and people were writing off the Republican Party then, only to turn around two years later with Newt Gingrich ascending and starting to write off Bill Clinton.

I do think that the media has a tendency, we just can't stop ourselves from overanalyzing every single election, and then trying to put one bumper sticker sized slogan to explain the whole thing. And this year, it's values.

KURTZ: Speaking of that, if you had to pick one thing, one theme, one issue, John Roberts, that journalists missed in this campaign, what would it be? ROBERTS: I think it would have been this idea of values and how journalists' view of America, as Frank said, tends to be cut along very much the high population centers in the Eastern Seaboard and the high population centers on the West Coast.

KURTZ: In other words, a lot of journalists live in blue states.

ROBERTS: Yeah, and I think a lot of us are missing what happens in states like Indiana and Ohio and, you know, out in the Plains states as well. And I don't think that perhaps we've traveled enough to get a sense of what people are really thinking in those states.

SESNO: I think a lot of journalists live on the moon, quite frankly. I mean, here's what happens. What happens out there is that people have trouble paying their bills. They worry about their kids. They go to church and they hope that their kids are going to get a sense of values to resist all the bad stuff that we all know that our teenagers are facing all the time.

KURTZ: And reporters don't understand these basic things?

SESNO: I don't think they factor it in fundamentally enough to what politics is all about. And people vote their heads, yes, but they also vote their hearts.

KURTZ: All right. Now, I want to take one look back briefly at some of what you might call the low lights of the 2004 campaign and ask you all a question. Let's watch.


HOWARD DEAN, FORMER DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And then we're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House. Yeaaarrgh!

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Vice President Cheney used the "f" word as he confronted Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor Tuesday.

TERESA HEINZ KERRY, JOHN KERRY'S WIFE: You said something I didn't say. Now shove it.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian...

CHARLIE GIBSON, ABC NEWS: What the hell was that on your back in this debate?


KURTZ: Didn't the press repeatedly obsess on trivia during this campaign? You can admit it, you can tell us.


(CROSSTALK) TUMULTY: And you know what...

KURTZ: It was a really important election with a lot of very big issues. And yet we're talking about bulges and who's a lesbian and shove it.

TUMULTY: And trivia -- we have always obsessed on it. But I do think trivia gets amplified by, pardon the expression, cable television, because it gets played -- instead of seeing it once a day in your daily newspaper, you see it once every 10 minutes.

SESNO: And there is something very interesting here, and it's really a challenge to those all of us in media. The Project for Excellence in Journalism did their survey, and they showed that the campaign was covered more negatively and less substantively this time. This at a time when America is at war, when people are worried about their jobs. If ever there was a crossroads election, this is one time. And so I think what the people -- what people proved by tuning into those debates is they've got an attention span and they wanted to focus on issues, and maybe we didn't give them enough of that.

ROBERTS: The Internet drives it, as well. We didn't mention anything about the bulge in President Bush's back until it became such a hot item on the Internet that everybody was talking about it...


ROBERTS: ... everybody was talking about it, and we had to answer it.

But in terms of the substance, I mean, for six months, not to toot our own horn too much, but for six months on the "CBS Evening News," we did an "Eye on America" series called "What Does it Mean to You," where we took an in-depth -- as much as you can, I guess, in 22 minutes of news -- an in-depth look at both sides of the campaign, what the issues are and how they're addressing them.

SESNO: CNN ran an issue series. Many news organizations ran issues series. And they tend to get lost. People tend to forget that.

ROBERTS: Oh, no, no, because as much as we get criticized for concentrating on the horse race, when we don't concentrate on the horse race, people want to know about the horse race.

SESNO: And the talk show hosts scream about the horse race. They scream about it.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Karen Tumulty, you have a special election issue that you contributed to, "Time" magazine, you have one passage where you talk about that Bush's aides knew that his performance in the first debate was a disaster and tried to tell him that, but of course they all came out and told us, journalists, he did pretty well, or he didn't do that badly and so forth. So did you get the impression that we were lied to? Misled? TUMULTY: Well, who are you going to believe, Bush aides or your lying eyes? You know, no, I mean, I think that Bush's first performance in that first debate was just roundly panned. And I think it was reflected immediately in the coverage.

KURTZ: Despite the apparent spin. All right, we need to take a break. Coming up, the president meets the press. Will he negotiate a cease-fire with the fourth estate in his second term?


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now that I've got the will of the people at my back, I'm going to start enforcing the one-question rule. That was three questions.




BUSH: Yesterday, I pledged to reach out to the whole nation, and today I'm proving that I'm willing to reach out to everybody by including the White House press corps.


KURTZ: President Bush kicking off a White House news conference on Thursday.

Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. John Roberts, what would you say the president's attitude was toward the press at that news conference?

ROBERTS: Well, there was a lot of us that went into the Old Executive -- or the Eisenhower Executive Office building on that day, and said, well, it's not even officially the second term, but is this the first and last press conference of the second term?

KURTZ: So a notion that he's going to somehow, with the reelection behind him, be more accessible...

ROBERTS: I was saying to Frank in the elevator on the way up here, you know, it's difficult to read. It's difficult to know how he's going to be. With the majority of the popular vote behind him, with the Electoral College win, with a mandate that perhaps many people didn't allow him to have in the first term, can he afford to be more magnanimous with the press? He's not running for reelection. Could he be more open with us or...

TUMULTY: Why should he?

ROBERTS: ... will it be completely shut down. Well, that's what I'm saying that...

KURTZ: You could argue that the message disciplined and little access and the no leaking worked pretty well for him in the last year.

TUMULTY: Exactly. He's just been rewarded for that strategy by the first, you know, popular vote majority since 1988. I would be shocked if he changed his strategy with the press at all.

ROBERTS: Call me naive, if you will, but I have a sense that he would like to talk to us more than he does. But people around him are saying, do not do that.

KURTZ: He's the president of the United States. He has to get Karl Rove's permission?

ROBERTS: You know, I remember when it changed for us. We were in Camp Pendleton, California, and it was the sort of thing where -- and he was newly elected, just going through the transition and just become president, and you could catch his attention just by looking at him, and he'd feel obligated to answer you.

And I remember at Camp Pendleton that one day, I shouted a question at him, and he said, "John, I've learned not to hear what you're saying." And I think that other people coached him to do that. I mean, he's a naturally engaging guy, and I think that he would be more engaging if people let him.

KURTZ: Let's look at it from the other side, Frank Sesno, and that is, will the press corps become a little less hostile, a little more deferential to the president who's just won a reelection victory as opposed to one who's seen as embattled and fighting for his job?

SESNO: I think you've just touched on the key question. How is the press corps going to react to the president? Are they going to see the wind at his back and feel all the pressure from conservatives and others, and become a sort of chorus press corps? Are they going to become an attack dog or a watchdog press corps? I think you have a very big challenge out there, because there are a lot of people who -- look, we don't have much accountability in our system. There is no prime minister's question time where he goes out and gets pounded by the folks up on the Hill or anywhere else. It's only the press. And there are 52 million people out there who are very skeptical about this next term. And your job, it seems to me, is going to be tougher than it's been, because if you're going to have to be that watchdog press and really lean on him, you're going to come under a lot of pressure from the red states and the blue as a result.

ROBERTS: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) he feels less pressure to be as closed-mouthed as he was during the first term, then perhaps, yeah. I mean, we obviously didn't get much of a question period in the first term. I think it remains to be seen how much we get this term.

TUMULTY: Whether it's the media or circumstances, every recent president has had a much tougher time with the media in his second term than in his first. With Clinton, it was impeachment. With Reagan, it was Iran-Contra. But I would argue that it's going to get rockier from here.

KURTZ: Before we move on, I want to play a question that created kind of a surreal moment at the Bush news conference on Thursday. Bill Sammon of "The Washington Times" had this to say to the president.


BILL SAMMON, WASHINGTON TIMES: Maybe you haven't had a chance to learn this, but it appears that Yasser Arafat has passed away.

BUSH: Really?

SAMMON: and I was just wondering if I could get your initial reaction, and also your thoughts on perhaps working with a new generation of Palestinian leadership.


KURTZ: Arafat, of course, is still alive. John Roberts, you have something to do with that?

ROBERTS: I don't have anything to do with whether or not Arafat was dead or alive. But during that press conference, the ubiquitous Blackberry that we all have went off with an AP bulletin that says "Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has died, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker says." So the first thing I did -- John King got this at exactly the same time. He passed his Blackberry forward to Condy Rice, who took a look at it. I passed mine forward to Dan Bartlett, and then I thought, well, being the conscientious journalist that I am, just in case somebody has got something on the Middle East that they want to ask the president, I just shared the information with Bob Deans (ph) behind me and...

KURTZ: With Bill Sammon.

ROBERTS: With Bill Sammon. And I think there was one or two other people there as well. There was just sort of a little buzz going around the room, everybody's, what's going on, so I said, here is what it is.

KURTZ: And that led to the now historic question.

ROBERTS: It turned into a question.

KURTZ: All right. Now, Frank Sesno...

ROBERTS: There was no malicious intent here. I just wanted to share what was going on.

SESNO: It's called real-time journalism.

TUMULTY: It's the press conference equivalent of leaking the exit polls.

KURTZ: Now, Frank Sesno was talking about the challenge for the press corps in the second term. If there continues to be violence in Iraq, and the budget deficit grows, and the economy is not doing great, is it possible that any media honeymoon will vanish rather quickly?

TUMULTY: I think that it's very possible, and especially if there is a Supreme Court nomination that happens very soon. I think that could be the moment it ends.

KURTZ: Wouldn't journalists be a lot more excited right now covering a Kerry presidency? Not because they necessarily wanted John Kerry to win, I know some people thought that, but because you would have everything new. New policies, a whole new administration, a new regulatory approach?

SESNO: Yeah, maybe both.

KURTZ: But we got the same guy.

SESNO: Maybe both. Maybe more journalists wanted Kerry to win and maybe they wanted to cover a new story.

The change in administrations is always a great story, who's in, what's happening, are they going to rip up old policies, whatever. But you know, that's the way it goes, will of the people, you got your guy, you're going to cover him.

ROBERTS: Yeah, but I would say that the first four years of the Bush administration was pretty interesting story, and does that sort of foretell what's going to happen in the second term? Let's hope that...

SESNO: And there could well be some surprises here, as to how Bush goes on Iraq and jobs and a lot of other things.

KURTZ: Got to wrap it up. Best of luck to have your phone calls returned. John Roberts, Frank Sesno, Karen Tumulty, thanks for joining us.

Up next, our scorecard on all those pundit predictions, a look back at campaign '04 through the eyes of the talking heads.


KURTZ: Correspondents and pundits sometimes go out on a limb during a presidential campaign, and thanks to the magic of videotape, we can relive some of those less than stellar moments.


KURTZ (voice-over): Remember when the media's coverage of the Democratic primaries was all about...

BROKAW: Howard Dean.

RATHER: Howard Dean.


KURTZ: And the question on everyone's lips was... MARK SHIELDS, CNN: Can anyone stop the Dean machine?

KURTZ: And lots of smart journalists were diagnosing the Vermont doctor as the inevitable Democratic nominee.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: It begins to look as if it's almost impossible to see a way that he loses at the moment.

KURTZ: And eating Dean's dust before the Iowa caucuses was John Kerry, which prompted me to ask Slate's William Saletan this question.

(on camera): You wrote a piece this week about Kerry. Can this candidate be saved? Isn't it, shall we say, ridiculously early to be digging Kerry's grave.

WILLIAM SALETAN, SLATE MAGAZINE: Well, I don't think so, in the sense that Kerry hasn't shown anything.

KURTZ (voice-over): The day before the caucuses, I wondered if the press would turn on the also-rans.

(on camera): If Edwards or Kerry, for example, finishes a weak third or even fourth, is the press just going to declare them losers and are reporters going to stick microphones in their face every day and say, Senator, when are you going to drop out of the race?

(voice-over): I might have picked a better hypothetical example, since Kerry won the caucuses and Edwards finished second.

The real crunch time came this past week when it was time to predict the next president, as Margaret Carlson did on "CAPITAL GANG."

MARGARET CARLSON, CNN'S CAPITAL GANG: I have Kerry 274, Bush 264. And my switch from red to blue is Ohio.

AL HUNT, WALL STREET JOURNAL: I gave John Kerry 279 electoral votes. He wins the popular vote by two points.

KURTZ: They had plenty of company.

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC: There are some people suggesting it is going to be way off the charts, 122 million people or even higher. And if that's the case, Democrats and Republicans agree it is a John Kerry vote.

KURTZ: Turnout was 122 million, but Kerry lost anyway.

Also picking Kerry, "The New Republic's" Ryan Lizza, the Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox. Even conservative commentator Tucker Carlson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: So you think John Kerry is going to win?

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I just think he has a profound advantage, because of the intensity of his followers. DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the president of the United States.

KURTZ: Ouch. But don't despair, prognosticators of America, there's always...

DICK MORRIS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Hillary is going to run for the president in 2008.


KURTZ: 2008. It's starting already.

Just ahead, the blame game. Which candidate said the press should take the heat for his loss?


KURTZ: Losing candidates usually make nice on election night, but not Alan Keyes. The Maryland Republican turned Illinois Senate candidate didn't congratulate Democrat Barack Obama, saying that would have been a false gesture. And he had another opponent in mind when he thanked his supporters.


ALAN KEYES (R), FORMER ILLINOIS SENATE CANDIDATE: Working by the thousands against all the odds, against all the lies and fabrications of the media, against every word of discouragement, they moved forward.


KURTZ: He's lost the race by 43 points.

That's it for RELIABLE SOURCES. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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