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Reliable Sources

Relationship Between Hillary Clinton and New York Media Goes Sour; How Does Media Factor in on Campaign Trail?

Aired January 22, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Now playing in Iowa, the media's favorite candidates lose some altitude. Three veteran journalists, Jack Germond, Mary McGrory and Bruce Morton talk about boys on the bus journalism. And Hillary Clinton's private life, did the Buffalo press go too far?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

John McCain and Bill Bradley have run into a rough patch in the media lately. Now, with the Iowa caucuses upon us, the press scrutiny is tougher than ever.

First it was the buzz about Bradley's personality.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Bradley has, I think, one of the least attractive temperaments you could imagine.

MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: He's made Gore look soft and cuddly.


KURTZ: Then came the stories about his stalled campaign in Iowa, "questions about whether Bradley should have been more aggressive," said the "New York Times." "His insurgent aura has gone into hibernation," said the "Washington Post." Then, the news about his heart condition, with the candidate admitting he's had four additional bouts of irregular heartbeat since December. He made the disclosure only after ABC posted a report about one of the incidents on its Web site.

John McCain has also had to deal with tough questions from the press in recent weeks about his intervention with federal regulators on behalf of campaign contributors, about his comments about gays and his stand on the confederate controversy in South Carolina. But the issues don't always seem to stick and McCain still spends much of each day courting reporters on his bus.

So how much are the media driving these stories? Are journalists reflecting the concerns of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire or is the press just indulging in its usual fickle behavior?

Well, joining us now, Jack Germond, political columnist for the "Baltimore Sun" and author of "Fat Man In A Middle Seat: 40 Years of Covering Politics," Mary McGrory, syndicated columnist for the "Washington Post" and joining us from Des Moines, CNN National Correspondent Bruce Morton. Welcome all.

Jack, for about a year Bradley soared above the fray with lots of what I call high five journalism. Now, you pick up any paper, he's aloof, he's gruff, he's condescending, he's not connecting. Why has the press turned on him?

JACK GERMOND, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": I think it's totally predictable, Howard. He, you know, certainly Peter Dunn, as Mr. Dewey (ph) used to say, the Supreme Court follows the election returns. The press follows the poll results. Bradley was coming on, he was going up in the polls, he was getting a lot of attention, favorable attention from voters and from other people in politics...

KURTZ: So he was a political wizard.

GERMOND: So he was a wizard. Now he's, that brings with it to him and to McCain closer scrutiny. And the fact is Bill Bradley is aloof to some degree and in some cases he's a little cranky once in a while and so forth and now people are writing about it.

KURTZ: Why weren't they writing about it before? This is not hidden, these personality traits.

GERMOND: Because it wasn't so clear. You have to, it takes a while, you have to make some mistakes. You have to get -- you know, in the case of McCain, for example, he had to say something clumsy about the South Carolina situation before people would jump on him.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Bruce, what difference does it make if Bradley is characterized or portrayed as aloof or Margaret Carlson says Bradley has made Gore look soft and cuddly? What difference does that make in checking out whether a person is qualified to be president? Isn't there some sort of luxury on the part of the president to offer these subjective portraits?

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the fact is is, I think, you know, voters want to like the candidates they vote for. They want somebody they trust, somebody they feel good about. Somebody standoffish they probably don't feel good about. Somebody with a history of heart problems they might feel nervous about. For whatever reasons, the press, we are accurate reporting that in this state, in Iowa, Bradley is in real trouble. Polls have him maybe 20 points back.

I talked the other day to Anita Dunn (ph) of his campaign and said what does your guy have to do to do well? She said well, the best a challenger has ever done is 31 percent. That's what Ted Kennedy did running against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and he lost.

KALB: Yes, but it isn't... MORTON: So they're using the loser's figure as a benchmark. That's not a good sign.

KALB: But Bruce, it's not a question of somebody requiring a personality transplant. There in Iowa it may be the question of farm issues that make all the critical difference.

MORTON: Well, the fact is this is a lot less of a farm state than it used to be. Most of the growth in Iowa now is in its small cities. There's a lot of manufacturing, there's a lot of high tech. Bradley can talk about ethanol and he switched on ethanol. The family farmer, one great university sociologist told me the other day, is sort of a nostalgic memory here.

KURTZ: Mary, let's come back to the question of the press. Bradley has been, on some occasions, rather disdainful of reporters' questions, kind of dismissing questions that he sees as silly or superficial or trivial.

MARY MCGRORY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And some of them are, too.

KURTZ: OK, I'm sure that's the case, as in every campaign. But could there be just a little bit now of personal resentment on the part of reporters, Bradley loses a little altitude and a little blood in the water and the sharks move in?

MCGRORY: I guess there's something of that. But the point is that this personality problem which seems to have come up lately, he was never a very dynamic speaker ever.

KURTZ: Right.

MCGRORY: And he is a very concentrated, intense on certain issues and then ignores everything else. However, I thought he was doing brilliantly in New Hampshire because he seemed to be made for that state. He's laconic. He's a little gruff. Suited them down to the ground. Buys a pair of shoes every 25 years. I mean right up their alley. I thought he was, it was a designer candidate for New Hampshire.

KURTZ: But...

GERMOND: He began, his slip or his stall, if there was one, began when he started behaving like another politician by answering back Gore on these silly things Gore was going on, particularly on the health thing which nobody knows the truth of what the cost of the health program is.

KURTZ: Let me just bring it back to the press, Bernie. Let me go back to Bruce Morton. John McCain seems to be the opposite of Bill Bradley in the sense that reporters love traveling on his bus, love the hours of schmoozing and so forth. But he, too, has gotten more skeptical coverage, to say the least, beginning with the flap over the letters to the FCC and suddenly he says on the bus he can tell when somebody is gay by their attitudes or behavior and something that might have been let slip by the press say a couple months ago becomes a story. Changing standards by the press, do you think?

MORTON: Yes, I think so to a degree. I think once a candidate starts to look like a serious candidate, like somebody who might be president, you take him more seriously. Nobody is going to take Orrin Hatch and examine everything he says piecemeal because we know he's not going to be the nominee.

As McCain did well that became less certain about him. I still think reporters like him. Most of us like him because we think he might govern on principle and, you know, that would be novel.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Bernie.

KALB: Jack, when a candidate steps front and center at the outset, he's a new face, he's fighting the vice president for the nomination, there's a certain amount of political drama and the media eats that up, without question.


KALB: Then, as you suggested, when this candidate becomes a politician the media suddenly becomes disillusioned because he's acting like a politician. Isn't there another element at work in the narcissistic media? That is to say the media loves being pandered to and the minute a candidate is, to borrow the word you used about Bradley, that was used about Bradley, aloof, the minute a candidate is not as available or accessible, the minute the media is not being pandered to with the same volume...

GERMOND: Well, I mean the, I mean I like the fact that Bradley doesn't suffer fools gladly. I mean that's, that is a great, refreshing thing to me. What you have here is you have a few people get their noses out of joint and every, and all the other, most of the punditry and a lot of the reporting is totally derivative. Only about 10 people know anybody. And the rest of it is all sort of derivative stuff and that's what's happened to Bradley. I mean you hear people...

KURTZ: So you're saying these 10 people, these 10 powerful poobahs have decided that he's, should not be doing as well and everybody else is...

GERMOND: No, I'm just -- no, I'm just saying a lot of the press, the press consensus is based on other people's reporting rather than their own reporting. That's what I say.


GERMOND: The people who are talking about this who don't report the story themselves.

KURTZ: Jack, I'm sure you're one of the talented 10. Mary, let's touch briefly on Vice President Gore. To read anything that was written about Gore back when he was changing his wardrobe and moved his campaign to Tennessee, you would think that this campaign was on life support. Now, he seems to be doing fairly well. Were all those other stories premature? Did anybody pay attention to all those stories about what a terrible candidate Al Gore was?

MCGRORY: You mean we weren't having any impact, is that what you're saying?

KURTZ: I'm raising that possibility.

MCGRORY: Well, I totally agree with it. I think it's a possibility that we have zero impact. I think particularly in New Hampshire where people pride themselves on their independence and they have a very powerful tradition of self-government. I think that Gore's people made tactical mistakes...

KURTZ: But the fact that we don't have much impact shows that all the things that are said on television, all the things that are written, at least in the early stages, a lot of people just kind of tune out?

MCGRORY: No, I think they had the debates to go on to make their own conclusions. They didn't need us to interpret.


MCGRORY: They were all over the television innumerable times and they were expressing themselves and revealing some of their policies and more of their personalities so that I don't think that the public was as dependent on the written press.

KURTZ: And maybe that's a good thing to see the candidates live unfiltered for 60 or 90 minutes at a time.


KURTZ: Well, when we come back, the boys on the bus -- campaign coverage through the decades. We'll ask our distinguished guests how political reporting has changed.



You know, it's been about 30 years now since we've all been talking about the boys and occasional girls on the bus and Jack, your new book, here it is, "Fat Man In A Middle Seat," you write rather nostalgically about the time 20, 25 years ago when candidates could have background dinners with reporters, perhaps were not as wary of the press. Is it less fun now?

GERMOND: Oh, it's a lot less fun. The candidates now are so uptight and so suspicious and they -- and so are a lot of people on their staff, not all, but they're so uptight and suspicious that we, if you do have any social interchange with them it becomes, it's programmed and it's not revealing. There are exceptions to that. But generally speaking, I mean McCain seems to be an exception. That's why the reporters like him, clearly.

KURTZ: Right. Bruce Morton, do the candidates have a reason to be more wary of the press, a more 24 hour, voracious press that perhaps is a little bit different than in the '60s or '70s?

MORTON: Well, the whole environment has changed. I mean for one thing there's so many more of us. Iowa started having these early caucuses in 1972. That year I think there were maybe a dozen reporters here. I was one, Jack was one. You could troop around. You could hang out with candidates and with staff.

By 1976 there were so many reporters, press here that the Democratic Party had a fundraiser, cash bar, pay $10, watch the media work and they're all standing there saying oh, there's Jack Chancellor over there. There's Roger Mudd.

We're wall to wall and we're round the clock. You don't have two cycles a day where the candidate can catch his breath and think about what to say. Somebody is always sticking a microphone in here saying we're live, we're live, we're live, say something.

KALB: Mary, let me run a couple of Jack's assessments past you. Clearly when you read the book Jack's feeling of romance about political coverage has taken a big hit. But here Jack is saying press coverage has become too controlled by the lowest common denominator. The television networks set the national agenda even though they devote fewer and fewer resources to covering politics.

Are we really scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of coverage compared to the once upon a time heyday that Jack and Bruce just referred to? Is the coverage adequate for the time?

MCGRORY: Ooh, that's an enormous question.

KALB: Take a day.

KURTZ: Take 30 seconds or so.

MCGRORY: So the coverage is not adequate...

KALB: Is the coverage adequate for the moment of history that we live in in the choice of a president?

MCGRORY: I think so.

KALB: You do think so?

MCGRORY: Don't you, Jack?

GERMOND: I think that, my problem with it is the coverage that's influential and to which people pay the most attention is those brief stories on the network, the three big network commercial channels every night. That is much more important than anything I write in the "Baltimore Sun" or you write in the "Washington Post" and it, there's a small group of political junkies or serious people, whatever you want to call him, who will read our stuff. But they're the minority.

KALB: Let me come back to the word is the media coverage adequate for this particular moment in history in the choice of a president? GERMOND: No, I don't think it is. I don't think it is.

KALB: What's missing?

GERMOND: What's missing is more focus on the kind of people they are on television and more -- that means -- the free media on television makes to me. Get them -- you know, George, I mean Al Gore's idea about twice a week debates doesn't sound like a dumb idea to me now, because if you see everybody, if you see them more and more and more, you're going to find out who they are.

KURTZ: Mary, is there anything that you miss about the days before cell phones and laptops?

MCGRORY: Yes. I miss the Olivetti typewriter and, you know, a lot of carbon paper and all that. I think high tech has had a baneful effect...

KURTZ: Why so?

MCGRORY:... on the social life of the boys and girls on the bus. Well, because all the conversation is about modems and hard disks and soft disks and things that, you know, I don't even know what they are. And as Jack points out in his book there is a pervasive earnestness which before was blessedly absent. People didn't take themselves...

KURTZ: Let's hear from Bruce Morton. Bruce, an excess of earnestness on the part of some of your younger colleagues in the media?

MORTON: Well, A, they're terribly earnest. These are the most earnest young folks you've ever seen. But I don't know that they're very sophisticated about politics and part of that, again, is we don't have the kind of access that we used to. You used to be able to go and have a drink with the candidate, the candidate's staff in the evening and you got a perspective on them and they on you that you can't get anymore unless you're out two years ahead of the event or something.

It just, the cycle is endless and there are too many of us. I'd argue with Jack a little. I think there's some good reporting out there but the consumer has to want it. You have to be willing to go and read Jack and Jules. You have to be willing to go and read the "Washington Post" or, you know, try some of the cable networks. CNN has an hour on politics every day.

But most people get their news from the broadcast networks and they do less and less. They don't like politics.

GERMOND: Well, you know, the -- I mean I wouldn't, I am not suggesting the reporters now aren't as good as we were because that's not true because they're every bit as good. They are terminally earnest, a lot of them. Ooh, that's boring.

KURTZ: But you don't find them out in the bars at one in the morning, hey? GERMOND: The critical point is they don't like politicians and politics. You know, this is a job they have. It's a weigh station on the way to becoming a managing editor or something and they don't like it. It's not the same. I mean we love politics.

KURTZ: Jack Germond, just briefly, you've covered every presidential campaign since 1964. Could this be your last one?

GERMOND: This could be my last one for -- I'm not going to do a full court press again. This is the last one. I'm sick of it, to tell you the truth.

KURTZ: Now there's news. There's the lead, so to speak.

Well, when we come back, the Buffalo press gets personal with Hillary Clinton. Did one radio host go too far?


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in New York State, got plenty of attention this past week for comments about her marriage. During a live TV interview, she told a Buffalo reporter that she intends to spend the rest of her life with her husband, you know, the president. But it was a radio interview with WGR's Tom Bauerle that generated the most controversy.


TOM BAUERLE, "BREAKFAST WITH BAUERLE" HOST: Mrs. Clinton, you're going to hate me. You were on television last night talking about your relationship with the president, Bill Clinton. Have you ever been sexually unfaithful to him and specifically, the stories about you and Vince Foster, any truth in those?

HILLARY CLINTON, FIRST LADY: Well, you know, Tom, I do hate you for that because, you know, those questions, I think, are really out of bounds and everybody who, you know, knows me knows the answers to those questions. You know, I just...

BAUERLE: Is the answer no?

CLINTON: Well, yes, it's -- of course it's not. But it's an inappropriate question.


KURTZ: Bauerle declined to appear here on RELIABLE SOURCES but he defended his questioning in an interview with Fox's Bill O'Reilly (ph).


BILL O'REILLY, FOX ANCHOR: Now you're giving Mrs. Clinton a reason not to talk again to you or to me. She's going to say ah, these guys are just going to try for the sensational stuff.

BAUERLE: Well, if she does I think that's going to be her loss. To me, it gets to the character issue and again, if I were Hillary Clinton, if I were a Hillary Clinton supporter, I would be grateful for the opportunity to respond to this question and to go on the record with her official response.


KURTZ: Mary McGrory, those radio questions about infidelity, merely obnoxious or down in the gutter?

MCGRORY: Both. I do think one thing, I think they're going to help Hillary Clinton.

KURTZ: Why is that?

MCGRORY: Well, because I know she is resented as an outsider and a carpetbagger and so forth and I know that New Yorkers, by and large, don't put a high premium on politeness. But...

KURTZ: This is years of reporting that led you to this conclusion?

MCGRORY: Yes. And this, to me, even Hillary Clinton, even in New York, I think that New Yorkers will think well, we may be a little brusque and to the point, but we're not oafs. And the me this was oafish and I agree with Hillary Clinton, it was out of bounds. I think there might be a slight whiff of sympathy for the former first lady in this instance and I think that could help her.

KURTZ: Bruce Morton, out of bounds? After all, other candidates, male candidates have gotten questions about fidelity to their marriage.

MORTON: I vote the straight McGrory ticket on this one. I think yes, I think that's out of bounds. I, you know, I don't know if she confessed infidelity, half the country might have cheered and said good for you. But I just don't think that you need to know about your possible senator those kinds of things. If it gets in the way of the job, if the guy is, or the candidate is falling down drunk by nine o'clock every night, you probably do need to know that. There are some personal things that are public business.

This, it seems to me, loudly, emphatically isn't.

KALB: Clearly the interviewer of Hillary Clinton was prophetic, she was going to hate him, and I think we all have, share that feeling. Clearly his question will do wonders for the distaste of the media on the part of so many Americans. But even for Hillary Clinton, even for anyone, there is such a thing as a ridiculous, monstrous invasion of privacy. Who cares about that in terms of being efficient and competent to do the job? She wants to run for senator, let her throw her dice as she's going to and run for it without these sorts of questions. GERMOND: I mean I agree with that. We've all dumped on that guy, this guy in Buffalo, who will probably end up now in Eerie. The...

KURTZ: He could end up at "People" magazine.

GERMOND: And I agree with all this. On the other hand, I'll make one point here, one small point. Hillary Clinton and her husband are the ones who brought this into the business when they went on the "60 Minutes" show eight years ago and talked about their marriage and she is running first and foremost as his wife. It is her major credential.

So if she's not going to talk about it, she shouldn't talk about it at all and she did right before. I don't think the guy had a right to ask that question, but she is asking for this. I don't know why she even bothered to answer it, but she did.

KALB: Let me ask an irritating little question. Given the media culture and the media's pursuit of celebrity, what happens to this fellow Tom's career? Does it become meteorically successful now as a consequence of putting those questions to Hillary Clinton?

KURTZ: Well, I would say that instead of the 15 minutes he ordinarily gets he may get about seven and a half after that. Who knows whether -- he seems to be controversial in Buffalo as well as around the country. But let me come back to the TV interview, WKBW. The reporter asked him what about these stories, this buzz that when your husband's presidential term is over you're going to leave him?

I would argue that despite the temptation to be high-minded about it, Mary, that that's a question everybody wants to know the answer to, is she going to stay married to him. And she answered it and made some big headlines.

MCGRORY: Yes. Well...

KURTZ: Was that a fair question? Was that a legitimate question?

MCGRORY: Well, Jack has just brought back the context of this whole thing. We're all participants in the great domestic drama of Hillary and Bill.

KURTZ: Whether we want to be or not.

MCGRORY: We may want to be or not. And so that -- but there are some things, I think, Bill Bradley put it very well when they asked him some personal questions. He said look, the public has to right, has the right to know about my crimes but not about my sins, in effect, that's between me and god.

I think that as Jack says it is her personal celebrity that is the basis of her campaign. If she were Mrs. John McNamara, for instance, she wouldn't be out there.

KURTZ: And we wouldn't be out there.

MCGRORY: Exactly. But we are all involved in this willy nilly and I think that she ought to maybe develop a sort of stock answer like none of your business or...

KURTZ: It has the virtue of being short.


KURTZ: Jack Germond, Mary McGrory, Bruce Morton, thanks very much for getting off the bus and joining us today. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.


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