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Attack on Hillary Draws Fire From Conservatives; Durbin Apologizes

Aired June 26, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Book backlash. A much-hyped personal attack on Hillary Clinton draws fire from some conservative columnists, and most talk shows give author Edward Klein the cold shoulder. Is the hostile reception justified?

A tearful apology. The conservative press unloads on Democratic Senator Dick Durbin for likening U.S. interrogation techniques to Nazi Germany. Why were most journalists so slow to cover the story?

Plus, public broadcasting Chairman Ken Tomlinson hires a conservative to count anti-Bush guests on Bill Moyer's show while PBS uses its airwaves to lobby against budget cuts.

And the congressman who stiffed Bill O'Reilly gets a tongue lashing and bites back.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media's coverage of two senators, a former first lady attacked in a new book, and the number two Senate Democratic leader apologizing for his own ill-chosen words. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Ahead, the controversy of whether PBS is being politicized. But we begin with "The Case Against Hillary." The book by former "New York Times Magazine" editor Ed Klein had been trumpeted for weeks by the Drudge Report and makes all kinds of personal allegations against the New York senator, based mainly on unnamed sources. Nearly all television talk shows have ignore Klein so far, with the exception of FOX's "Hannity & Colmes."


EDWARD KLEIN, AUTHOR, "THE TRUTH ABOUT HILLARY": The Clinton campaign of trying to undermine people's credibility is something to watch when it is happening to somebody else. But when it is happening to you it is kind of interesting to see that they turn the story away from Hillary.


KLEIN: And make me the story.


KURTZ: But many conservative commentators seem to agree with Bill O'Reilly.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: And most of the contemporary stuff comes from anonymous sources, which is not good. Far too many accusations are coming from people who are settling grudges in a cowardly way.


KURTZ: Joining us now from New York, senior writer Eric Boehlert. In San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the "San Francisco Chronicle."

And here in Washington, David Folkenflik, media correspondent for National Public Radio. Welcome.

Debra Saunders, I want to give our viewers an idea of the tone of this book, the beginning of chapter one, "was it true they slept in separate beds?" And then, "she was a mother but she wasn't maternal. She was a wife but she had no wifely instincts. She said she was passionately in love with her husband, but many of her closest aides and friends were lesbians."

What do you make of the media's, shall we say, tepid reaction to this book, including many conservative commentators?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, I'm a conservative and I just don't have a desire to read the book, and I should say I haven't read the book. You know, I had to read the Starr report, that was my job, and that was smarmy enough. I know enough about the Clintons' personal life. I think what the country wants to know about are policies and how they conduct themselves in public. But this -- all the personal innuendo and stories like, Bill told me over drinks, and the fact that that would get into a book, it just violates Hillary Clinton's zone of privacy. I find it revolting.

KURTZ: OK, Eric Boehlert, this book, as you know, has been promoted by Drudge and others, it was going to do Hillary's possible 2008 campaign what the swift boat veterans did to John Kerry. Was that a strategic mistake?

ERIC BOEHLERT, SALON.COM: I think it was, and specifically, you know, Drudge did Ed Klein no favors, particularly when he splashed the allegation about the rape charge. I think the morning that went up on the Drudge Report that was sort of the end of this book, I think, in terms of anyone taking it seriously.

It is interesting. You mentioned the conservatives have shied away from it. You know, the conservative press is very loyal and it is trying to find Republicans peeling off the White House, but in this case they did almost across the board, and they decided they could ignore the book and they sort of threw Ed Klein overboard, which we don't rarely see -- which we rarely see among the conservative press.

KURTZ: Just to clarify. The rape charge is supposedly, allegedly, purportedly, Bill Clinton raped his own wife Hillary many years ago. Now, David Folkenflik, Kitty Kelley wrote a book with lots of allegations of a personal nature against George Bush, lots of unnamed sources. She got a three part interview on the "Today Show" but we have so far only one show having Ed Klein on and maybe a few others. What do you make of that?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR: She clearly has been able to plug herself into the celebrity media industrial complex with a lot more grace and ease. Even so, I think there was a real backlash against that. The "Today Show" came under fire for essentially being seen to promote that book, even with what amounts to a fairly combative Matt Lauer interview with her. In this one, if you look at the book -- I have not read all of it, I have read much of it, certainly extended excerpts as well.

It seems to be an accumulation of previous stories, anecdotes, a few interviews, also a lot of anonymous sources that are single source anonymous sources. The things like the rape allegation is not exactly an allegation of rape. What it is is an anonymous source saying he was in the islands with the Clintons, and Bill sort of boastfully said, "I've got to go rape my wife."

It's not clear what credence to give that allegation. It's not clear whether to credit that as being an actual sexual assault at all. It's not clear what it adds up to.

KURTZ: Now, a spokesman for Senator Clinton told me that when news organizations call, they do make the argument, why give this guy airtime, because the book, in their view, is filled with unnamed sources and what they say are inaccuracies.

Debra Saunders, I mentioned conservative columnists ripping the book, John Podhoretz of "The New York Post" is one example, "This is one of the most sordid volumes I have ever waded through. Thirty pages into it, I wanted to take a shower; 60 pages into it I wanted to be decontaminated." Do you think that at least for some, certainly not all conservatives columnists and commentators, that they would rather go after Senator Hillary Clinton on political grounds than rehash the old debate about her marriage and her sex life and all of that?

SAUNDERS: Of course they would. You know, a lot of people don't remember this but in 1992, when Gennifer Flowers first came out against Bill Clinton, a lot of conservatives wanted nothing to do with those charges. They disagreed with his policies; they didn't want to make it personal and Republicans understand that if somebody can write a book about Hillary Clinton this way, that can happen to the GOP nominee as well. And there is such a thing as too much information. People have a right to privacy and have private conversations with her friends.

I want to know about her childhood in general, but I want to know about her conduct in public, and in public life, and I want to know about her policies. And the idea of having this kind of gossip as being part of a political debate, it's destructive.

KURTZ: That's funny. I thought the media had utterly obliterated any privacy by politicians. Now, Eric Boehlert, one conservative who has criticized the media about their handling of the case against Hillary is Rush Limbaugh. Let's take a listen to see what he has to say.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO HOST: The media is creating a backlash about this book before the book even comes out. The book came out yesterday. This Klein guy is having a tough time getting on TV for any interviews. The press is not curious about what he is saying. They are circling the wagons, trying to defend Hillary.


KURTZ: So, are journalists showing their true liberal colors by not even giving this book a fair hearing?

BOEHLERT: No, I think Rush is pretty much all by himself on this one. It is interesting. You know, Klein did not get that echo chamber, that conservative press echo chamber. He certainly did not get the FOX family, the "New York Post" as I've mentioned, and without that there is no momentum. And Rush is sort of the last man standing, trying to pretend this is a liberal bias. But conservatives, as we have talked about, saw it, didn't like it. I think they thought it would create a backlash. It would actually help Hillary, and so they wanted nothing to do with it, and Rush, as I said, is sort of the last man standing with his liberal bias conspiracy theory.

But there is the thing of standards, and if producers are booking authors on shows, they have certain standards. I mean, you mentioned Kitty Kelley. This book makes Kitty Kelley look like Woodward and Bernstein. I mean, this is not a serious book, and I think that is reflected with the reaction that it's got among the mainstream press.

KURTZ: OK, just briefly before I move on. Would you be interested interviewing Ed Klein for NPR?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'm not a host, I don't do interviews in that way. One could certainly take a look at the sort of journalistic approach he has taken but it hasn't been high on our priorities right now.

KURTZ: All right. Now, Eric Boehlert mentioned the conservative echo chamber, as I think he put it. Another Democratic senator in the news this week, Illinois' Dick Durbin, who got very little mainstream press coverage at first when he used a Senate speech to rip into the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.


SEN DICK DURBIN, (D-IL) MINORITY WHIP: You would most certainly would believe this must have happened by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, the "Washington Times" and right wing bloggers have all denounced Durbin, as did plenty of conservative pundits.


KATE O'BEIRNE, NATIONAL REVIEW: Senator Durbin issued a stunning, premeditated slander of American troops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What he said is reprehensible and it is also factually wrong.

HANNITY: It is beyond the pale and worse than anything that I have heard, because it puts our troops in further jeopardy.


KURTZ: NBC's "Nightly News" and ABC's "World News Tonight," but not the CBS "Evening News," finally covered the controversy when Durbin apologized.


DURBIN: I am also sorry if anything I said in any way cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military. They're the best. I never, ever intended any disrespect to them.


KURTZ: Debra Saunders, as I mentioned, very little mainstream press coverage, at least in the early days of Dick Durbin's remarks. How many stories were there in the "San Francisco Chronicle"?

SAUNDERS: There were no stories in the "San Francisco Chronicle," and yet the Karl Rove story made page one. Go figure that one. I mean, to me this is a perfect example of liberal bias, where a senator can make statements like that that play around the world and somehow they didn't make it into my paper and in a number of other papers. Certainly didn't get the kind of coverage that they deserved.

KURTZ: Eric Boehlert, you'd have to acknowledge that some news organizations just blew it. This became a very big controversy.

BOEHLERT: Well, I think it did become a controversy and I think everyone eventually covered it. He made his statements, as I recall, sort of in the middle of the night. The next morning radio talk shows and bloggers were on it, and within 24 hours most of the networks were on it.

I mean, most of the...

KURTZ: No, that's not true. The network newscasts did not cover it even 48 hours later, and the stories that ran, even in newspapers like the "Washington Post" and the "New York Times" were, three, six, seven paragraphs. Certainly not front page. That certainly suggests a certain double standard.

BOEHLERT: Well, I don't -- I don't think it's a front page story.

KURTZ: Why not?

BOEHLERT: Why? Because, I mean, when Rick Santorum, when he brought up the Nazis and equating them with Democrats during the judicial debate, I don't think that was a big story. It wasn't a front page story. It didn't deserve to be. It actually got less coverage from the research I did than the Durbin story, and I think the Karl Rove story is a much bigger story, and it deserves to be on page one.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Debra.

SAUNDERS: Well, it's a much bigger story in the "San Francisco Chronicle" that put it on page one. I really don't understand why. Karl Rove didn't talk about Democrats, he talked about liberals, and what he said was true.


SAUNDERS: It was true. After 9/11, there were a lot of liberals who wanted to understand the root causes of what happened, and I think his remarks are on the money. It's funny how sometimes when conservatives say something true, that's front page news.

And then you have what Dick Durbin said. Yes, he qualified his remarks a little bit, but these are remarks that were carried around the world and they put a taint on the U.S. military, people who are fighting in Iraq, fighting in Afghanistan, this is not -- what he said was ill-considered and he should have apologized, and yet my paper only has the Karl Rove story on page one and didn't cover Durbin.

KURTZ: I want to come to David Folkenflik, but first, since everyone is talking about the Karl Rove story, I want to show people what the White House senior adviser said, and this time it was covered the day after it happened by NBC "Nightly News" and ABC's "World News Tonight." Let's take a look.


KARL ROVE, PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks, and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding to our attackers.


KURTZ: So, Dick Durbin, modest story; Karl Rove, big story instantly. How do you explain it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think sometimes media has trouble finding his feet. I mean, what Dick Durbin said was clearly offensive to a lot of people. Mike Miner (ph) of the "Chicago Reader" in Chicago did an interesting thing, where he excerpted a longer version of Durbin had said, and what he said was reading aloud, I believe, from an FBI agent's affidavit, and he said the language here is -- and then he said what we now know is the thing.

Nonetheless, it is a perfectly legitimate news story. Perfectly legitimate major news story to explore. What Karl Rove said to some is also incendiary. I do think that you can find things -- I think this rhetoric seems to have ratcheted up. You've got things like Santorum, things like what Howard Dean said ...

KURTZ: Did conservative radio talk show hosts and bloggers and columnists in effect forced the establishment press to deal with the Durbin story after it had been more or less brushed off?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that those sort of quasi-alternative news outlets do force the media at times to pay attention to things they might let slip by. I think that is true.

KURTZ: Eric Boehlert, Karl Rove's remarks a big story, and yet you see distinction between whether that should have been covered in a major way and the coverage of Senator Durbin.

BOEHLERT: Well, I think the players involved are important. I mean, when you had Senator Reid, the head of the opposition party, calling for the resignation of the president's deputy chief of staff, in Washington that's a page one story, as it should be in the "Washington Post." And certainly when you mix in the rhetoric and the media and the bloggers and things like that. I mean, I think the characters involved and the rhetoric used made it a bigger story than the Durbin story.

KURTZ: But in fairness, we also had Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calling for an apology from Senator Durbin, from Senator Dick Durbin, and that became front page news. In the "Chicago Tribune," of course, there in Illinois, and the "Washington Times" but not in a lot of other papers.

We are going to have to leave it there. When we come back, Big Bird off the hook for now, but charges that public broadcasting is being politicized just heating up. That debate next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Rest easy, Elmo fans. "Sesame Street" will remain unscathed at least for now. Congress voting Thursday to reject a proposed $100 million budget cut for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund PBS and public TV and radio stations around the country.

PBS has been accused of leaning to the left for years and some of the criticism now comes from the corporation's chairman, Ken Tomlinson, who appointed a conservative to rate the guests of Bill Moyers' show as pro Bush or anti Bush.

Moyers and Tomlinson have been making their case on the airways.


BILL MOYERS, PBS HOST: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supposed to be a firewall between journalists and the government. This is the first time in my his -- I've been with it 35 years, since I was present at the creation, that from inside the Corporation for Public Broadcasting they have tried to dismantle that firewall.

KEN TOMLINSON, CHAIRMAN, CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING: What is controversial about seeking balance in public broadcasting? I am not trying to push liberals out of public broadcasting. Liberal- oriented programs are important for support of public broadcasting, and I wouldn't remove any of the programs of this nature.

But why not add diversity? Why not add balance?


KURTZ: Eric Boehlert, lots of Americans do think that public broadcasting leans to the left, and Tomlinson says he is trying to restore balance. What is wrong with that?

BOEHLERT: Well, he paid for two rounds of polling, actually, in 2002 and 2003, used taxpayers' money to find out what Americans thought about PBS and whether it had a liberal bias. And the answer was a resounding "No." The CPB -- Tomlinson then refused to release the polls, attached it to a congressional report. Asked about the polls this year, he said, well, polls don't really tell you much of anything. The point is, why are you going to spend taxpayer money trying to find that bias?

You know, he thinks there is a bias. His conservative Republican friends think there is a bias, and he has decided he is going to sort of dump all over PBS, when, as Moyers mentioned, his job is to be a cheerleader for PBS, to get more money out of Congress, and he has done the exact opposite.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, something tells me you are going to disagree with this assessment, but Ken Tomlinson has also just this week hired Patricia Harrison, she's a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. So my question is, is he being a little heavy-handed here?

SAUNDERS: Well, I mean, I'm not happy there is a Republican who is going to be president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, because it means they will get more taxpayer money, so of course he is being political. I think that Eric just said he is supposed to be a cheerleader. If they did a poll of FOX News viewers, they would probably say that that network was down the line too. That doesn't matter.

BOEHLERT: No. This poll was of Americans. This poll was not of PBS viewers. This poll was of Americans.


BOEHLERT: That's important to keep in mind. SAUNDERS: Journalism is all about trying to expand our base, and we always hear about how we have to have more minorities writing for newspapers and on televisions. We need more Muslims. The idea that we should expand the number of people working in public broadcasting so that it includes a marginal amount of Republicans, more Republicans, when this country has a Republican president, Republican House, Republican Senate, I don't see what the problem is.

If we're supposed to be more inclusive, then we should be adding more Republicans into the mix and more conservatives.

KURTZ: David Folkenflik, I want to play for you an ad that has been airing on some public television stations on the very subject on whether -- how much funding the CPB should receive. Let's take a look.


ANNOUNCER: Do your elected officials know how you feel about funding for public broadcasting? Call your members of Congress today.


KURTZ: Should public television, which after all is subsidized by the taxpayers, be using its own airwaves to air an ad to lobby for more money?

FOLKENFLIK: And -- I just want to make clear, I am here as a reporter for National Public Radio and not to represent the institution exactly.

I think that is an open question. It certainly stirred some interest over the last week or so as stations have tried to galvanize their listeners and viewers, both in public radio and public television, to reach out to Congress. Indeed, they cite that kind of outreach as pressing the levers that allows their to be a vote in recent days to restore money to the Corporation or Public Broadcasting that had been cut on the House floor.

It is an interesting use. I have heard some criticism of it.

KURTZ: Well, you'll hear some criticism here, because I think it's an inappropriate use. If ABC or CBS did it, there would be a huge storm of reaction.

Debra Saunders, you said you didn't want a Republican new president of PBS to help it get more funding. You think PBS and public television should get no federal funding at all?

SAUNDERS: You want to keep politics out of public broadcasting? Take public money out of it. I don't think they should get taxpayer money. We have a deficit.

KURTZ: And if they went away as a result, that wouldn't cause you to lose any sleep? SAUNDERS: They shouldn't go away as a result. We have a PBS station in San Francisco and in the peninsula. There are too many in this area. They don't have to go out of business. Let the people who watch pay.

KURTZ: And this is a debate that won't go away. Debra Saunders, Eric Boehlert, David Folkenflik. Thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, the story of the congressman, the FOX News anchor, the empty interview chair and some angry words.


KURTZ: Sometimes in television guests don't show up. It's happened to us at RELIABLE SOURCES. But the penalty for doing it to FOX's Bill O'Reilly is a tongue-lashing.


O'REILLY: Congressman Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, is supposed to be here right now, in front of you. He didn't show up. Didn't call. Didn't do anything. This is grossly irresponsible. So, he is banned from "The Factor" forever, and we thought you would like to know what kind of a classy guy the congressman is.


KURTZ: The congressman cried foul on the House floor.


REP. CURT WELDON, (R) PENNSYLVANIA: Mr. O'Reilly proceeded to tell his national audience last night that I, quote, "snubbed" him, that I failed to call him, that I was inconsiderate, that I was rude. Talk about spin, Mr. Speaker. I would remind Mr. O'Reilly that the secretary of energy had an important meeting on nuclear issues in the former Soviet States, it takes my top priority.


KURTZ: Did that placate O'Reilly? Well, not exactly.


O'REILLY: Now look, Congressman, man to man, me and you, OK? We have an e-mail that proves your staff didn't tell you the truth, and your own publisher apologized to us. Don't embarrass yourself any further, sir.


KURTZ: Maybe we should have Congressman Weldon on to talk more about this, assuming he shows up.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I am 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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