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How Did Media Cover Senate Deal?; Interview With Alexandra Pelosi

Aired May 29, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Nuclear war averted. The press hails a Senate deal on judges that preserves the filibuster. Are journalists puffing up mavericks like John McCain who broke party ranks? And does television favor partisans on both sides who would rather go nuclear than compromise?

Were "Newsweek" and Mike Isikoff right? New FBI documents show detainees have charged that American guards put the Koran in the toilet.

Plus, Alexandra Pelosi on life with a campaign press pack. And an editor defends an online sex sting.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the filibuster fallout and new documents in the case that put "Newsweek's" reputation in the toilet.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

From the moment that 14 moderate senators of both parties cut a deal that derailed the Republican plan to abolish filibusters for judicial nominations, much of the media has been in full swoon.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Showdown averted on Capitol Hill. There's something for everyone in this bipartisan agreement hammered out last night.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": So, David, who are these 14 magicians who cut the deal tonight?

GLORIA BORGER, CBS NEWS: Last night's deal was an extraordinary one, brokered by a bipartisan group of senators who disregarded the power and the money of outside special interests and worked without their own leaders to cut a deal.


KURTZ: So why are journalists lionizing the so-called "gang of 14"? Joining us now: Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic"; and Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for "National Review Online."


Michelle Cottle, "Washington Post" news story talked about the courage of these senators to risk the wrath of partisans on both sides. Why is the press just genuflecting at the feet of these moderate lawmakers?

MICHELLE COTTLE, SENIOR EDITOR, THE NEW REPUBLIC: Well, anytime you have somebody going against their party, like think of them as mavericks, I mean, look at how popular John McCain has been over the years way before this.

The press likes gray areas, and they like people who they see as standing up to kind of the traditional interest groups on their side.

JONAH GOLDBERG, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: Yes, but there's something missing in that, in that we're not seeing the Democratic moderates being lionized nearly to the extent we're seeing the Republican moderates being lionized.

KURTZ: Because?

GOLDBERG: Because in some ways, to borrow a phrase that Howard Fineman used about the Republican Party when there was the Colin Powell boomlet, is that the media really wants a Republican Party they can live with, and that they want a moderate Republican Party. They like the idea of a moderate Republican Party. They want a Colin Powell party, a John McCain party. And they just think this is wonderful.

To listen to the giddiness that Katie Couric had on "The Today Show" for how it's now hip to be a moderate was just the most extreme example of a certain level of wish fulfillment that is running its course throughout the entire media.

KURTZ: And, of course, John McCain got the most attention of these 14 senators, the Republican moderate or centrist or deal-maker, made all the morning shows. And let's take a look at what some of the people on the air have had to say about Senator McCain.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to turn now to the man of the hour, Senator John McCain. He brought the Senate back from the brink of what they were calling the nuclear option.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: McCain is finished for '08.

MATTHEWS: To run for president, you must look strong. McCain is the one looking strong now. He is looking effective now.


KURTZ: Are journalists going back to the Straight Talk Express in 2000 campaign, just in love with this guy? COTTLE: Some of them haven't left it. I mean, there are still a huge chunk of...

KURTZ: They're still on the bus?

COTTLE: They're still on the bus. There are waiting for him to ride again. I mean, what he does better than anything else, better than poke his base in the eye or alienate his party leaders, is woo the media. They just can't get enough of him. It's what he does.

GOLDBERG: Yes, I think, you know, John McCain in 2000, he kept using this terrible "storming the Death Star" analogy when he was talking about running against his own party, essentially. And I think it has sort of gone to seed in his brain that, you know, he's the Jedi here to save the Republic, and that he is fighting all forces and...

KURTZ: And more conservative Bush loyalists don't get the same treatment from the press?

GOLDBERG: Of course, well, obviously not.

KURTZ: Bill Frist, for example?

GOLDBERG: Obviously not. Although the idea that Bill Frist is some sort of rabid right-winger is kind of odd. The reality is, is that they just like John McCain because he makes Republicans look bad.

COTTLE: That's not...

GOLDBERG: I think that's exactly it.

COTTLE: He's charming, he cracks jokes, he talks to them.

GOLDBERG: That's gravy. They like him, but as a political image they...

COTTLE: You're so cynical.

KURTZ: But when it comes to booking guests on the subject, other than McCain, who always seems to be everywhere, it does seem that cable networks in particular, and the broadcast networks as well, go to the partisans on the left and the right.

Let's take a brief look at some of what has been on the air this week.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": Isn't that what this deal, this backroom deal, among 14 people, allows the Democrats to basically characterize anybody as extreme.

KIM GANDY, NOW: It's not really a compromise. It's a lot like a mugger who says, give me what I want or I'll shoot you. Or, give me what I want and I won't shoot you, and saying that that's a compromise. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Doesn't television have a fatal weakness for polarized politics? As long as they can get somebody on the left and somebody on the right to beat each other's brains out, it's good television, right?

COTTLE: Oh absolutely. You want drama, you want tension, you want conflict. You don't want somebody coming on, saying, well, this is the reasonable position and everybody agreeing and hugging. That's boring.

KURTZ: Does that fairly reflect the story? The story being that this was at least one instance in which people -- this group in the center, so to speak, came together to save the day?

GOLDBERG: They didn't save the day. This is what drives the base on both sides. All they did was kick the can down the road. This memorandum of understanding, whatever it's supposed to be called, all it does is it postpones this.

And I think in many ways, for the media to cheer something like this, when in reality all they're going to do is make this fight uglier and more partisan three months or six months from now...

COTTLE: Well, that's what the media likes. Then we get to get back out there and we get to do this all over again.

GOLDBERG: I agree. But I think what really explains more the media here is the cynicism of the media, where they actually don't believe in sort of ideological differences. They look at things, everything has got two sides, therefore the answer must always be in the middle.

KURTZ: I was referring to save the day as the storyline that has emerged, which is clearly -- nobody can agree on what this agreement does anyway.

Now, I want to turn to "Newsweek." On Thursday, "Washington Post," "New York Times," front-page stories about newly declassified FBI documents in which detainees allege that, yes, there were instances, up to a dozen, according to these papers, in which the Koran abused, kicked, dropped on the floor or put in a toilet.

Now this comes after "Newsweek" has been beaten, flogged, tarred, feathered for its story, which it retracted and apologized for. Does this in any way vindicate "Newsweek?"

COTTLE: Well, no, I mean, on some level, "Newsweek's" problem was they said that this was in a government report and they sourced it weakly, and it wasn't there. Now...

KURTZ: They sourced it to a source who backed off. So they still made a mistake.

COTTLE: They sourced it to a source who backed off, but I mean, that said, this puts the light to all of the kind of hyperventilating from the right about, oh my God, how could you ever have believed something like this would happen? We would never, ever possibly think of doing something like this.

Well, from what we know of what they have done, what has been proven that they've done, of course this is not a far-fetched accusation. So on the substance maybe, but "Newsweek" would have still been in trouble because they said it was in this government report.

KURTZ: And these allegations by detainees have been in the press before, going back a couple of years.

GOLDBERG: I think Michelle's essentially correct on that. I think that a lot of people on the right went immediately into this very defensive mode towards the media, because they do believe that there is a pervasive anti-Bush, anti-military bias in the media.

I think there is a lot of merit to that point, but they went overboard with this gotcha-aha-"Newsweek"-lied-people-died, trying to stick it back in the face of what -- their perceived enemies.

And the reality is, of course this story was plausible. Of course it was. It has been in the media for a long time. I think there are a lot of people on the right who sort lost their senses when they started talking about how -- that we should somehow apologize or make account for the fact that these savages are killing people over this story.

KURTZ: OK. But is your view of this influenced by the fact that it was "Newsweek's" Mike Isikoff who was in the bull's-eye, and you obviously became friendly with him during the Clinton-Lewinsky business?

GOLDBERG: It's not like Isikoff and I play poker or anything. But no, I think knowing the fact that Michael Isikoff is not by any stretch of the imagination some Chomsky-reading, you know, crazy left- winger, does influence some people's opinion on this.

COTTLE: And that's fair.

KURTZ: I want to quote you, because you wrote in "The New Republic," this is when the administration was just going ballistic, Scott McClellan, the Pentagon, against "Newsweek." You said that, quote: "Destroying the credibility of the entire mainstream media would be just fine with most Republicans, especially those in the White House. They are at war with a liberal, elitist mainstream press."

And you went on to say, Michelle Cottle, that: "The press is ill- equipped for this kind of combat." Why?

COTTLE: Well, on some level, journalists are in this phase where they back down immediately. You know, they have...

KURTZ: They back down? "Newsweek" was wrong. COTTLE: They have -- no, no, no, I'm not -- I'm talking about...

KURTZ: Generally speaking.

COTTLE: Generally speaking, and also on this, "Newsweek" was wrong, but "Newsweek" was not part of some kind of plot. You know, there were congressman out there saying this was fabricated, that this is -- and there are Republican activists out there saying, this is kind of amoral, unpatriotic, some kind of intentional effort to undermine the armed services.

That's ridiculous. And journalists should have come out swinging, saying that's absolutely way out of control.

KURTZ: Are liberals just trying to change the subject here, pointing to other allegations to get "Newsweek" off the hook?

GOLDBERG: I think critics of the Bush administration are pointing to these things. And I think journalists have every right to point to these other allegations.

KURTZ: Why has it gotten so little coverage, particularly on television on Thursday, barely mentioned. I mean, "Newsweek" was the national obsession for two weeks and now no one seems to care about that.

GOLDBERG: And I actually don't think anyone is actually surprised that this might have gone on. Although to be fair...

KURTZ: Given what we know about other abuses.

GOLDBERG: ... the stories that came out this week were all from former detainees. And there is a lot of reason to believe that al Qaeda and these guys have a lot of incentives to muddy the waters.

So I mean, we don't know for sure that these events actually happened. All we know is that detainees said they happened.

KURTZ: We can never really totally resolve this because of that very question. And we need to leave it there. Michelle Cottle, Jonah Goldberg, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Alexandra Pelosi's flying circus. The documentary filmmaker and author gives us the lowdown on covering presidential politics and how she became part of the story.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Five years ago, Alexandra Pelosi was an NBC producer covering the Bush presidential campaign. She turned that experience into an Emmy-winning HBO documentary, "Journeys With George."


ALEXANDRA PELOSI, FILMMAKER: It was rumored that you like baloney sandwiches.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I like a good baloney sandwich. (INAUDIBLE) every day, but I like just baloney.

PELOSI: You don't find that ironic?

BUSH: I find you ironic.


KURTZ: Now Pelosi has produced a sequel of sorts about last year's Democratic primaries, with her new book "Sneaking Into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns Into Freak Shows."

Pelosi recently spoke with us from New York.


KURTZ: Welcome to our freak show.

PELOSI: Thanks, I'm happy to be here.

KURTZ: Now, you traveled with Governor Bush in 2000. You had a lot of close-up, personal time with him, but you did not travel with him much this time. Did you not get the same access?

PELOSI: Well, you know, I had set out in 2004 to document what it takes to run for president, sort of the absurd hazing rituals that the candidates go through. So I was really concentrating on the Democrats, because I'd already done the whole Bush thing, and it's sort of like a one-trick pony.

KURTZ: Right.

PELOSI: I was looking for a new show. And but, yeah, with the Bush -- you know, it's really hard. You know what it's like to cover these campaigns. You go up, you get locked in an auditorium for five hours before the president arrives. There wasn't any action there. Every moment of the day is scripted when you're covering a presidential candidate. So there wasn't much use in trying to cover Bush.

KURTZ: Now, you did cover for a long period of time, Howard Dean, now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. You quote him as saying that "journalism is in deep, deep trouble," that most people under 35 don't think "The New York Times" has any more credibility than anything on the Internet. And then you say that Dean, in your view, doesn't understand the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press. Explain.

PELOSI: Well, I thought the moment that he said he wasn't going to charm and seduce the press and he wasn't going to whore himself out the way you have to if you're running for office, that he revealed quite clearly that he wasn't going to dance, that really sort of interesting little dance that the candidates have to dance with the press.

KURTZ: Now, hold on, hold on, hold on, charming and seducing the stress is a requirement of running for president?

PELOSI: You know that! Come on. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. I mean, I don't think it's possible to run for president. I think anyone who ever is going to try and run for president, I think should read my new book, because it teaches you some of the things that you have to do to live with this pack of dirty, unwashed press for a year-and-a-half on the campaign trail.

KURTZ: Now, 500 politicians are now going to go out and buy it just because you say they're all people who want to run for the White House.

You talk about a group-think mentality on the campaign plane, on the campaign bus, where the networks spend all this time and money to put somebody out there, and then just parrot the candidate's stump speeches. So do you think the networks are abdicating their responsibility to cover the substance of the campaigns?

PELOSI: Of course they do. But I don't think there's anybody out there that thinks the networks are actually doing their job. I think that they have completely undermined all presidential campaigns in the last -- I mean, I would say the last elections that I've covered. I've felt like that -- when I worked for a network, I felt like all I -- I could have paid a monkey to do my job. You just sit on a bus and repeat back what the candidate said.

KURTZ: But that's not entirely fair. There are some pretty good reporters who go out there and try to provide analysis and try to talk to the aides and find out what's going on behind the scenes. I'm sure they won't be happy to hear your comments.

PELOSI: Well, that's true, and it's like Abu Ghraib. There are good apples and there are bad apples. And like everything in life, there are bad pharmacists and, you know, bad cops. I think that they're some of the best-working journalists in America. Candy Crowley from CNN is one of my heroes, and she makes a lot of the best points in the book.

KURTZ: All right, let me...

PELOSI: So there are great and responsible journalists, but then there are also, you know, the monkeys on the bus.

KURTZ: John Edwards, who may run again in 2008, you call him a one-trick pony. You say, he was so on message that he was boring, but you know, is it the candidates' job to entertain the press? The people he's speaking to haven't heard the speech 100 times the way the traveling reporters have.

PELOSI: I understand that. But what I was showing in the book is what it was like for an average American citizen to go to an event and realize -- there is a whole chapter in which I talk about, where I interview the people that are at the event, and they realize that they came because they wanted to get to hear the candidate, and they ended up just being props on a television show, which was what a presidential campaign is now. They use the American citizens, they pack them in like cattle, and give them flags to wave, and they use them as props on -- on -- in the theater of the American (INAUDIBLE).

KURTZ: Right. Now, you say you had casual conversations with other journalists on the trail about your family, about your employer, that you thought were off the record and some of this ended up getting published. So just between you and me, are some reporters slime balls?

PELOSI: Well, I've had some unpleasant experiences. I'm sure you have. I've also had some great experiences. And that's the thing -- it's like, in real life, it's complicated. Real life is gray. Everybody wants it to be black and white. Reporters are scumbags. No, they're great, honest people. But I do think in the end that it's time for the American media to take a look at itself, because you know, the American people really have -- any romantic notions they had about journalists post-Watergate, I think are dead. I think that people really don't trust the media, and I think they put the media and politicians both in the bottom of the barrel, you know?

KURTZ: Just briefly, Alexandra Pelosi, your mother is Nancy Pelosi. She's the House minority leader. Was it difficult for you in reporting and writing on campaigns to keep your own feelings and political views out of what you were covering?

PELOSI: I've never been a political junkie. I've always said all along that, you know, I never -- I was drafted into this business. I was never sort of a political junkie. But I'm not a die-hard -- I can see things for being what they are, very complicated. I never see things as black and white, good versus evil. It's always never that simple, I think.

KURTZ: All right...


KURTZ: You may have been drafted, but you seem like a willing recruit right now.

PELOSI: I'm out. I'm out. I'm turning over, I'm out.

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE). Alexandra Pelosi, thanks for telling us about the freak show.

PELOSI: Thanks for having me.


KURTZ: Just ahead, was a newspaper justified in using deception to go after a mayor? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back. New allegations this week against Spokane, Washington Mayor Jim West. A 36-year-old man alleging in court documents that the mayor, a former sheriff's deputy, molested him when he was a boy. West returned to work last week after a leave of absence prompted by an undercover sting by the local paper, "The Spokesman-Review."

The newspaper hired a computer expert to pose as an 18-year-old in a gay chatroom frequented by the mayor, who admits to such online activity, but says he's never had sex with anyone under 18. We now bring you an interview with "Spokesman-Review" editor Steven Smith that was interrupted on a previous show.

I began by asking him if he had second thoughts about the deception.


STEVE SMITH, EDITOR, SPOKESMAN-REVIEW: No second thoughts at all. It was the right thing to do given the circumstances. We gave it considerable thought and agonized over the decision. But once made, we felt it was the right approach.

KURTZ: Even though obviously it involved deception? Even though it obviously involved lying, things that a newspaper would not ordinarily do?

SMITH: Agreed. There are ethical codes that we adhere to, of which you're familiar. There is the code of the Society of Professional Journalists, which is the mother code for our own "Spokesman-Review" code. There are guidelines, ethical guidelines from Poynter Institute.

KURTZ: Right, but you decided to bend those.

SMITH: No, those codes say that deception can be an appropriate approach if the story is of significant public import, and if there is absolutely no other way to obtain the information.

KURTZ: You had a lot of other evidence, including allegations from two men who say that West abused them as children back in the 1970s, which he denies, so why take this extra step of having the expert pose an 18-year-old, which you knew -- which you had to know would make the "Spokesman-Review" the issue.

SMITH: Well, we knew it would be an issue. I think it's inappropriate to characterize it as the issue. We're dealing with a mayor with a 25-year record of sexual improprieties. The deception, as it were, was aimed at one particular part of our investigation, where the only witnesses, participants that we had to rely on were two 18-year-old boys whose knowledge of the mayor was questionable.

And our concern was that they in fact had not met the mayor online, and in one case had not had consensual sex with the mayor. Possibly they were involved with a poser. We needed to know before that part of the story ran that we were dealing absolutely 100 percent without qualification with the mayor of the city of Spokane. KURTZ: Well, Steven Smith, you did explain the paper's reasoning in the column that you wrote the day the first story appeared. Would you have done the same story if the mayor had been a liberal Democrat who supported gay rights instead of a conservative Republican who had a history opposing gay rights? In other words, was the hypocrisy angle a factor in your decision?

SMITH: Not really. I think any editor in the country confronted by a politician, an elected politician who is going online to lure young lovers, male or female, with the perks and benefits that the job offers, or who had been accused of sexual molestation in the past, gay or straight, would be subject to a story. That's a red herring.

KURTZ: Could you have used a real teenager to chat up the mayor on and therefore gotten around the need for deception?

SMITH: We considered that as an option. It would have required us recruiting, to be 100 percent honest, an 18-year-old gay male with some confusion over his sexuality, and attempting to use that individual to elicit the information we needed. I have to tell you, Howard, we felt that was even ethically more unsound that the choice we finally made.


KURTZ: Steven Smith.

When we come back, "Nightline" remembers the fallen in Iraq, again, with a very different reaction.


KURTZ: Tomorrow, on Memorial Day, Ted Koppel will devote all of "Nightline" to reading the names of Americans killed in Iraq. And unlike last time, it hasn't caused much of a stir. In fact, Sinclair Broadcasting, which boycotted a similar "Nightline" last year, is now applauding the move.

Now, this flip-flop could be because this isn't the first time, or because Koppel is leaving ABC, or because so many more Americans now have been tragically killed in Iraq. Or maybe it's just that the presidential campaign is over.

Well, 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.


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