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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Is Press Going After GOP?; Interview With Wonkette

Aired May 1, 2005 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Capital warfare. The press grills the president in prime-time, goes after Tom DeLay on ethics, picks apart John Bolton's U.N. nomination, challenges Bill Frist's fight against filibusters. Are journalists crusading against the Republicans, or is the GOP just whining about aggressive reporting?

Plus, the Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox dishes on the White House correspondent's dinner.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the contentious relationship, some might say trench warfare, between the Republicans and the press. I'm Howard Kurtz.

After months of negative headlines for the party that controls official Washington on Social Security, on Tom DeLay, on Bill Frist, on the handling of Terri Schiavo, on the John Bolton nomination, President Bush held a news conference Thursday night, and he got his share of sharp questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A majority of Americans disapprove of your handling of Social Security, rising gas prices and the economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've made No Child Left Behind a big part of your education agenda. The nation's largest teacher's union has filed suit against it, saying it's woefully inadequately funded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we're winning the war on terrorism as you say, how do you explain that more people are dying?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: CBS, NBC and FOX all cut off the president so they can finish their special reports by 9:00 p.m. Eastern, in time to still air their highly-rated reality shows on the first day of the ratings sweeps.

Bob Schieffer said good night while Bush was still answering questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: For those of you in the East and the Central zones, "Survivor" is coming up right here next on CBS.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now here in Washington, Jill Zuckman of "The Chicago Tribune." Dana Milbank of "The Washington Post." And "New York Post" editorial writer Robert George. Welcome.

Quick question. CBS, FOX, NBC, they tried to blow off the president's press conference. They decided to carry it. Then they dump out a few minutes early so they can show Donald Trump and Paris Hilton. The president trumped by the Donald and Paris. Outrage or understandable?

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST: Well, the first thing is, the White House had to actually move up the time of the press conference to satisfy the networks in the first place. So I guess there wasn't enough reality television in the press conference, so they had to go to the real thing.

KURTZ: All right. Now, on the questions that we just saw, the president is down to the mid-40s in approval ratings, lowest ratings of his presidency, on the defense on a number of issues. Is that why reporters just seem to be pouncing on the guy?

MILBANK: Sure. And I'm sure the conservatives are going to say we're biased against the Republicans. The truth is, we're biased against whoever is in power right now, and our job is to afflict the comfortable. And a lot of troubling issues now for the leadership of this country, and it just so happens that all the leaders of the country are Republicans right now.

KURTZ: But the tone of the news conference, Jill Zuckman, was very different than the one that he held after he was reelected, when he was riding a little bit more high in the polls and had the momentum and all of that. So does that influence the kind of questions we see when reporters stand up and posture and ask those tough questions?

JILL ZUCKMAN, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: You know, the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of big issues out there right now, and I think that we would be sitting here talking about what lapdogs this press corps was if they weren't asking these hard questions. It doesn't matter that it's President Bush. If it had been President Clinton, if it had been another president, they would have been asking these questions, because they are questions that needed to be asked.

KURTZ: Robert George, I want to read you a little bit of the leads from the day after the press conference. "Philadelphia Inquirer," "President Bush acting to jump-start his moribund efforts to overhaul Social Security." "Wall Street Journal," "Struggling to give life to his initiative to revamp Social Security." "Washington Post," "in a bid to restore momentum to his flagging proposal to restructure Social Security and his presidency."

Are reporters enjoying seeing the president have political difficulties?

ROBERT GEORGE, NEW YORK POST: Well, yeah. I mean, I think there is -- there's a certain schadenfreude here of them seeing a president who's had a really good run for a couple of years, seeming to be on the defensive. But I mean, the fact is...

KURTZ: Is that ideological in nature?

GEORGE: Well, I don't think so completely. I mean, good conservatives like Fred Barnes in "The Weekly Standard" just talks about the fact that the Social Security proposal is in trouble, and it was. I think he actually did -- I think he actually did quite well, though, in terms of jump-starting it. It kind of started basically shoring up some of the Republicans who had been a little bit worried about it on the Hill, and it may start turning -- it may start forcing the press to take a reassessment of it as well.

KURTZ: All right. Now, Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, has been hit with weeks of negative coverage in major newspapers and magazines, and on television, and he was in no mood for reporters' questions earlier this week. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: It's been great.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How was that conference? Will this open the door to a lot of Democratic investigations as well?

DELAY: You guys better get out of my way. Where's our security?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: When House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced that the Republicans would retreat on a change in ethics rules that led Democrats to block any House probe of DeLay, he pointed to the press coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R-IL), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The media wants to talk about ethics, and as long as it were a stalemate, that's all that is in the press today is the ethics stalemate. We need to move forward. We need to get this behind us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, there's no question, Dana Milbank, that the press is going after Tom DeLay with this drumbeat of stories, led by "The Washington Post." Is there?

MILBANK: No, I don't think anybody would dispute that. But I mean, the question is not necessarily one of motive, but the question is what has Mr. DeLay actually done? Karl Rove gave a speech on the media recently and said, before you question your critics' motives, answer their questions, and that's what -- if Tom DeLay would get out there and say, OK, I'm going to explain all of this, you'd see the coverage change.

KURTZ: But there is a ritual in Washington when somebody is under fire, under investigation, they have ethical baggage, everybody piles on. There are stories almost every day.

MILBANK: Absolutely. Blood in the water, everybody will pile on, but that's going to happen with whoever it is, and when you get into this business, you realize that that's how you're going to be treated. This is how we deal...

KURTZ: I won't call you on the mixed metaphor there. Jill Zuckman, there were stories about Tom DeLay putting relatives on his political payrolls. Turns out a lot of members of Congress do that.

ZUCKMAN: That's right.

KURTZ: There were stories about Tom DeLay taking trips financed by special interest. A lot of members of Congress...

ZUCKMAN: A lot of others do it.

KURTZ: ... are amending their financial statements. They are not supposed to be paid for it directly by lobbyists. So why is DeLay being singled out?

ZUCKMAN: Well, first of all, I think there are a lot of questions surrounding DeLay. There are a number of investigations going on that have to do with DeLay, that have to do with associates of DeLay. So he's sort of in the crosshairs right now. But I think the coverage has in fact widened and looked at -- oh, other members of Congress have relatives on the payroll. What do they do? Other members of Congress have taken trips that might be problematic. What's been going on with them? So the fact is this is opening up a huge can of worms for every member of Congress right now.

KURTZ: DeLay blames liberal media, that's sort of the mantra, we've heard that from him many times. Isn't it true, though, that journalists will jump on any political leader? House Majority Leader Jim Wright, who was a Democrat, comes to mind, who was mired or seems to be mired in ethics allegations?

GEORGE: My former boss, Newt Gingrich. Yeah, this happens a lot. I mean, I'm more than willing to criticize the press on these kind of things, but I mean...

KURTZ: Let's go ahead.

GEORGE: Well, no, but I mean, I think the fact is, though, and I'm sorry, but the Republican House ended up putting themselves, I think, in this position, when they seemed like they wanted to start changing longstanding ethics rules, ethics rules that had gone back a good 10 years, basically changing them in mid-stream, making it look like -- whether that was actually their intention -- but making it look like they were trying to protect a leader of theirs that's under criticism. And when you see -- if they're focusing on just one member, it just becomes one member's story, but when it looks like there's an institutional attempt to cover this -- to protect this person, that escalates the story, and I think that's why the Republican had to backtrack this week.

KURTZ: Well, when you worked for Gingrich, didn't you have the impression that reporters took a special glee in going after conservative Republicans?

GEORGE: Oh, yeah, but that was because it was true at the time.

KURTZ: And it's not true anymore?

GEORGE: I think they -- I think they do, but you have to remember, the Republicans when they came in 10 years ago, it was in the context of Dan Rostenkowski's investigations, the then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Jim Wright had been going on. They have been a lot of what was perceived as institutional corruption, and the Republicans has helped ride a wave of moral fervor to overturn that, and they changed those rules. And now it looks like they've been in power for 10 years, it looks like they want to go back to the old way.

KURTZ: New stories in today, in "The L.A. Times" and "The New York Times" about John Bolton, that might be called history of a hothead, they're profile pieces. I mean, there have been allegations for weeks now about Bolton bullying subordinates, pressuring intelligence analysts, chasing a female contractor down the hall and calling her names. Is the press trying to paint him as an ogre, or is it just sort of following the paper trail here?

MILBANK: Well, the press is following what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is doing. If you want to point fingers of blame, point it at the Republican chairman of that committee, Lugar, and his staff, who are the ones who have dug all of this up. So sure, the journalists are amplifying it, but this is by and large not a press- driven story.

(CROSSTALK)

GEORGE: It was actually the Democrats on the committee that dug a lot of these allegations up. I think some of the criticism might go to some of the Republican members, like George Voinovich, who couldn't -- who wasn't at one of the -- some of the earlier hearings where some of these things got hashed out, and then when he heard the -- he came in and said he heard all these Democratic allegations, he said, oh, my goodness, I can't vote on this now. So I mean, I think some of the Republicans, who haven't been doing their work on the committee, are somewhat to blame for giving the story extra fodder.

KURTZ: Well, I think you're all minimizing the extent to which when the story is on the front page day after day, when investigative reporters all around town are going after somebody, in this case John Bolton, then politicians want to get into the act, because they know they're going to to get coverage.

GEORGE: But it goes on the -- but it ends up on the...

KURTZ: Let me hear from Jill. GEORGE: Sorry.

ZUCKMAN: You know what? If there was nothing there, then there would be nothing to write about. If people were coming up with example after example of great things he did and how wonderful he was to people and not chasing people down hallways and screaming at them, then, you know, what would there be to do? But the fact is, there are these examples out there, and people are focused on them, so reporters are writing about it.

GEORGE: And Democrats attacking a Republican nominee doesn't get on the front page. Republicans saying that they're not going to vote for that nominee, that gets on the front page.

KURTZ: Now, how about Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, trying to abolish filibusters for judicial nominees? A lot of coverage there. When he spoke to that conservative Christian gathering, which talked about Democrats opposing these nominees as people of faith. Huge amount of coverage. It seems, to kind of sum this all up, that there's a state of open warfare right now between journalists and Republicans on the Hill...

ZUCKMAN: No, no, no, there is a state of open warfare between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill. Journalists are writing about it.

KURTZ: But you are acting like we're just -- we're just passive transcribers of history. We make decisions every single day.

ZUCKMAN: Sure we do, sure we do, but the warfare is between the Republicans and the Democrats.

KURTZ: But how much -- you cover these people. How much resentment is there by DeLay's people, by Denny Hastert's people? How accessible are Hastert and DeLay to people like you?

ZUCKMAN: Well, in the House, it's difficult right now. Congressman DeLay...

KURTZ: Because they won't talk to you?

ZUCKMAN: It's difficult because they're under a lot of stress. They're feeling the heat, and you know, they don't want to be answering all these questions. But first of all, Speaker Hastert has never talked to reporters very much. He doesn't really like reporters, and he stays away. Mr. DeLay meets with reporters once a week, and he has actually continued to do that during this whole thing.

KURTZ: But he doesn't let cameras in.

ZUCKMAN: He's never let cameras in, but he's always limited the questions to what he calls "the agenda," which is the legislative agenda.

KURTZ: Briefly. GEORGE: Well, there is the institutional problem of the press will go after the guys that are in control. I think, frankly, there needs to be some more focus on some of the Democrats, whether they have proposals on Social Security, for example, or the actual history of the filibustering and so forth.

KURTZ: You say they're getting an easy ride.

GEORGE: They are getting an easy ride, unfortunately, because the thing is, they are in fact in the minority and they're not perceived as having power. Which they actually in fact do.

KURTZ: And speaking of changing the views on filibusters. "New York Times" editorial, 1995. "Filibuster is the tool of the sore loser." That was when Clinton was president. "New York Times" in March, "filibuster is a time-honored Senate procedure that prevents a bare majority of senators from running roughshod."

MILBANK: Look, you are talking about "The New York Times" editorial page, which is a liberal editorial page. Let's not make any apologies for that at all. I know that we at "The Post" have been talking about the hypocrisy on both sides, that everybody has completely changed their opinion.

KURTZ: You flip your position depending on who's in power.

MILBANK: Yeah, whatever's convenient. Now, you know, I mean, you're talking a little bit about a chicken-or-egg situation here, in terms of who's driving the negativity of the coverage. It's always the case, the press is good at digging things up, but we're not advocates, we're not going to hammer after it day after day, unless one of the combatants, one of the parties is doing.

KURTZ: All right, you have got the last word. Dana Milbank, Robert George, Jill Zuckman, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, the buzz about the first lady and that big party. We'll dish with the Wonkette about last night's White House correspondent's dinner. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

At the big Washington dinner last night, the president wasn't the only White House resident making jokes at the podium.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I always look forward to these dinners, where I'm supposed to be funny. Intentionally.

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: George always says he's delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Ana Marie Cox, the blogger known as the Wonkette, here to tell us now about last night's White House correspondent's dinner. So Laura Bush was the new rock star?

ANA MARIE COX, WONKETTE.COM: She killed, as they say in the biz. I think she actually outshone Cedric the Entertainer, who was the paid entertainment of the evening. I'm not sure, actually, maybe Laura got a little extra under the table or something, as it were. But she did great. She made some rather risque jokes, actually. Seh...

KURTZ: Not as risque as you would use on your Web site.

COX: Close. She talked about how, you know, a typical night at the White House -- it's 9:00, Mr. Excitement is in bed, and she's watching "Desperate Housewives" -- and in fact, ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife.

KURTZ: All right, well, since you're not a desperate housewife, let me ask you to explain this annual spring ritual, this senior prom for Washington.

COX: It is senior prom for Washington.

KURTZ: Why do news organizations go so haywire to get these celerity guests, these Hollywood types?

COX: Well, actually, you know, it's a relatively recent thing, that celebrities are a big deal at these dinners. It started with Michael Kelly bringing Fong Hall (ph) back in the '80s. And then, ever since then, there's sort of this combination -- it's a weird thing, because they want a celebrity, but you also want someone that people are going to talk about. So like a big -- someone probably should have brought Jeff Gannon this year. That would have been the really -- the really hot guest.

But instead you kind of get sort of a B-plus list. We had both of the Super Bowl quarterbacks. We had, you know...

KURTZ: The B-plus list is enough to get official Washington very excited.

COX: In Washington, they get real excited about it, because this is all we have, I mean, really. Like, this is it.

KURTZ: Really? We're talking about seasoned journalists who get to question every day the president and senators and governors and they get excited...

COX: Going nuts for Mary Tyler Moore.

KURTZ: Or Al Franken and Dennis Hopper? What explains that?

COX: I don't know. I think that -- I think that it's a chance for one thing, for journalists to kind of -- to be turned back into fans just a little bit, like everyone else. I mean, they're not impressed by the White House, but they are impressed by actual celebrity. By people who...

KURTZ: People who are really famous.

COX: People who are really famous.

KURTZ: So they're groupies.

COX: Groupies a little bit. Also, like, you know, I think journalists today are used to everyone in this town knowing how they are, but you know, their mom doesn't -- their mom's friends don't know who they are. But their mom's friends know who Donovan McNabb is. And so they're sitting next to Donovan McNabb.

What I love is the scrum of the dinner, all the table (INAUDIBLE) that goes on, and you see these seasoned journalists with their digital cameras, oh, my God, Richard Gere, Richard Gere! You know? If only they acted that way at press conferences, maybe we'd get some information out of Scott McClellan.

KURTZ: Now, there were awards given out at this dinner. But you did your own Wonkette awards, your readers wrote in. And among the categories, the best hair among White House correspondents -- ABC's Terry Moran. The worst hair, John Roberts. Now, John Roberts' hair is a friend of mine. I would disagree with that.

COX: His hair stands on his own, is a friend of yours?

KURTZ: But wasn't this, how should I put it, the height of superficiality?

COX: His hair indeed is the height of superficiality. And that's why it got worst hair.

I like John very much. It's just his hair...

KURTZ: No, but your categories.

COX: The categories are very superficial. I wanted them to be just as petty and self-serving as the press corps that they honor.

KURTZ: And the party that people really buzz about here is not the one people see on C-SPAN, the White House correspondent's dinner. It's the after-party, the Bloomberg News party. I understand you were there until a quarter to 3:00 in the morning. Why is that such a hot ticket?

COX: Well, I think people in Washington, this is actually a very conservative town -- not in a political sense, that depends on the administration, but in the sense of like -- that people don't like change. People are very uncertain about things. The only thing they can be certain of is that if something is hard to get into, then it must be good.

KURTZ: You once snuck in.

COX: I did not. I've never snuck in. Always invited. Always invited, but I keep...

KURTZ: But people do try to sneak in.

COX: People do try. My big -- the best -- the biggest compliment I've ever had is someone tried to get in as me. But the Bloomberg party, what's funny about it, again, is that, well, it is the one party of the year I think in Washington where people actually allow themselves to drink. I mean, the usual drinking strategy here is white wine and light beer. They have a vodka bar at the Bloomberg party, and it's well used.

KURTZ: I saw some drunk people that went there last year. Now, what was your favorite moment? Who did you get down with?

COX: I think -- I wish I could name names, but I think that my absolute favorite moment is going to go down, it's for the top 10 list of all-time, doing tequila shots with a very senior White House administration official.

KURTZ: You can tell us.

COX: Oh, no, I can't. I think I might, you know, I might get subpoenaed.

KURTZ: Just a few seconds left. Is it like the Oscars that we all now can tell who's hot and who's not?

COX: Oh, none of us are all that hot, but for a night we can sort of pretend we are.

KURTZ: And so that's the great appeal here?

COX: Yeah. It is. It's dressing up in something besides Ann Taylor.

KURTZ: I'd like to know what you were doing (INAUDIBLE), but all right.

Ana Marie Cox, Wonkette.com, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, two incredible tales too good to check. How the media went along for the ride. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It was a missing woman's story with a tantalizing twist. 32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks disappearing days before her wedding. So television news, naturally, went wild. Was she abducted? Was she dead? Was she the next Laci Peterson? And the subtext, could her fiance, John Mason, somehow be to blame?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Originally the fiance had agreed, at the beginning of the investigation, that he would be willing to take a polygraph test. Why is he hedging? GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS: Clearly, he feels the pressure of this pressure cooker that he is now living.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Early yesterday morning, the plot turns even more dramatic. The Georgia woman surfaces in New Mexico with a dramatic story of abduction, but within hours her story falls apart.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: And the whole story about being abducted and taken by van to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she may have even been sexually assaulted, all of that fake. Made up, case of cold feet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, Jennifer Wilbanks simply ran away. Cable news had turned the tale of an unknown woman into another chapter of tragedy TV, followed by a parade of profilers and psychologists to read the mind of a woman they'd never met.

But television also likes happy stories, so earlier this week the morning shows jumped on the yarn of two Massachusetts roofers finding buried treasure, ancient bills worth $125,000 in a friend's yard, and the roofers hit the airwaves.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How long did it take you to get these cans open?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not too much effort, because of us being roofers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, because we're so big and strong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Opened up the can and started pulling the dollars up out of the can. And so I was looking, like, wow. That's really cool.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That looks like an old ammunition canister or something. I don't know what it...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Close. It's ginger cookies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But police now say these two men, who couldn't resist the spotlight, stole the money from a house where they were working. They've pleaded not guilty.

So what's the morale here? Journalists, even the best journalists, sometimes get duped by people who lie, but the media, especially television, are far too prone to book first, ask questions later. This isn't the first time a missing woman has drawn national attention by faking a kidnapping, and if news organizations keep hyping these stories before they've got the facts, they may find that their credibility has been abducted as well.

Just ahead, the newspapers and the mobsters who weren't.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: "The Chicago Tribune" this week ran what was supposed to be a picture of Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, only it was a 69-year-old man who had nothing to do with the mob. Then, "The Trib" ran another photo of an alleged organized crime guy, Frank Calabrese, only it was the gentleman of the same name, and this Calabrese has filed a $2 million lawsuit. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

We're out of time. Here's "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer.

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