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Reliable Sources

Salon Stalks Gary Bauer as Journalism Hits New Low; Did the Press Help McCain Whip George W. Bush?

Aired February 5, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: McCain's media moment. Did the press help the surging senator whip George W. Bush?

And Salon stalks Gary Bauer. Has journalism hit a new low?

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

They're off to South Carolina. No, not just the candidates, the journalists, as John McCain continues to dominate the headlines.

We begin on primary night in New Hampshire with a taste of the action.


TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: A very substantial victory for John McCain.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: This has to be painted as a major loss for the Texas governor.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Perhaps it's time to rethink this multi-million dollar effort.

Keyes stays. He has no reason to leave.

WILLIAMS: Almost certainly, Mr. Bauer will drop out of the race.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Al Gore, whatever you say about him, is winning ugly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bill Bradley coming very close to beating Al Gore.

KURTZ (voice-over): As the New Hampshire primary stunned the Republican establishment, the contenders moved on to campaign stops in South Carolina and California. But for much of the media, there seemed to be only one story in play.

WILLIAMS: In a bombshell out of South Carolina, where there's word John McCain has apparently turned the tide on George W. Bush.

KURTZ: Newscasts and newspapers overflowing with effusive stories about the Arizona senator's dramatic progress.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some of his supporters are starting to use a word they say seemed unimaginable just a week ago: front-runner.

KURTZ: McCain, of course, continues to play as much to the media as to the growing crowds in South Carolina, continuing to let reporters tag along on the Straight Talk Express and record his every move.

So have journalists been co-opted by a friendly candidate who knows how to work the press?


KURTZ: Well, joining us here in Washington, Bill Kristol, editor and publisher of "The Weekly Standard," which has put John McCain and George Bush on the cover of its new issue; Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for; and in Detroit, on the campaign trail, Jill Zuckman, political reporter for "The Boston Globe." Welcome all.

Bill Kristol, let's face it, John McCain has gotten great press in New Hampshire and even greater press after winning the primary, including some of the nice things you've said. How much is this rather buoyant media coverage a factor in his continuing surge?

WILLIAM KRISTOL, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, it is a factor and they planned on that. That's why you want to have an upset in the New Hampshire primary. Gary Hart had one. He almost rode it to the nomination. People forget how close he came to Mondale.

KURTZ: Are you saying it's part of the game plan?

KRISTOL: It's part of the game plan. But to me fair to McCain here, look, McCain won New Hampshire by 19 points. That's a fact. That's not press spin. And New Hampshire was a state that looked -- that saw McCain and Bush most up close and personal. They cut through the press fog. The huge number of New Hampshirites saw the two in person, a huge number of them saw them on the local news. I mean, in a way, the Bush campaign likes to say the national media loves John McCain. And maybe they do like John McCain. But the place that McCain beat Bush was in New Hampshire, where the national media had the least effect not the most effect.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: The question about access that John McCain afforded to the press, the idea that access equals lots of coverage is about like discovering that the earth is round. Everybody knows that. Every candidate knows that access equals coverage.

The question that comes up now with the victory that we're talking about now, victory comes at a media price, and that is to say -- you agree, Jill? -- victory will lead to an even greater scrutiny of McCain's record? There have been the surveys of how he voted over the years, but now, the camera will zoom in.

JILL ZUCKMAN, "BOSTON GLOBE": Absolutely. I mean, that is -- that's the way it always is. You start doing well, you start having money, you get scrutinized. But, you know, McCain's been putting himself out there before reporters for a long time now so that they could ask him anything they want to ask him. So I think he's been looked and I think he will be looked at even more. But I don't think he's going to run away from it.

KURTZ: Jake Tapper, you've spent a fair amount of time on the Straight Talk Express as I have. I understand you have your own favorite chair there.

JAKE TAPPER, SALON.COM: I have a bunk.

KURTZ: Let's face it, McCain is funny and an interesting guy to be around and accessible. Any effort on the part of reporters to resist his obvious charms as they're chronicling the day-to-day campaign?

TAPPER: Right, well, I mean, that definitely works in his factor, but I think you also can't discount, (a) that he spent 65 days in New Hampshire.

KURTZ: Right.

TAPPER: I mean, that's twice as much as Bush. And (b) George W. Bush is running the exact opposite media strategy, which is to limit contact with the press, not answer questions, wants having nothing to do with his personal life, having to do with the issues. And I think that, you know...

KURTZ: When you're on the bus, do you make a conscious effort not to fall under the magical McCain spell?

TAPPER: Oh, you can't. You become like Patty Hearst when the SLA took her. In fact, I think McCain was referring to me as Tanya at one point.

KURTZ: Bill Kristol, as a conservative who edits a conservative magazine and who once worked for Dan Quayle, how can the so-called liberal press, at least major elements of it, be falling in love with a guy who's against abortion, who is against gun control and lots of other things that are part of the left wing agenda?

KRISTOL: Well, they agree with him on campaign finance reform.

KURTZ: True.

KURTZ: They like the fact that he's challenging the Republican establishment. And I think he's a moderate conservative, which he is, but so is George W. Bush.

Incidentally, if some nonpartisan media (UNINTELLIGIBLE) goes back and looks, George W. Bush got awfully good press, in my judgment, in most of 1999. I mean, he was getting very nice pieces; compassionate conservatism was a hopeful thing. His speeches that he gave in the summer and the fall of '99 were very respectfully reported. The press isn't quite as biased and liberal. They're actually conservative sometimes. But I also do think that reporters personally respect McCain. They should -- That's a fact. You know, what can you do? I mean, look he's a senator, he's a war hero, but also, he's a senator, he's also experienced at dealing with the press, and that matters.

One reason George W. Bush is in a cocoon is that he's only been in public life for five years. He's dealt with this press at a state level not at a national. But there is an advantage to having been in the Senate and having been a national figure for all the years that McCain has been. He's been on a presidential campaign. He traveled with Dole for those last two months of '96.

KURTZ: Right.

KRISTOL: I mean, that's the kind of knowledge that comes in handy in a political campaign.

KURTZ: Let me go to Jill in Detroit. Since Bill Kristol mentions "W" and all the admiring press that he got in '99, what about all those stories that many of us wrote saying that he was, you know, just this huge unstoppable front-runner? Now every time I pick up a paper, I read, "The aura of invincibility has shattered," or words thereof. Were we all falling victim to some kind of collective conventional wisdom?

ZUCKMAN: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, everybody sort of knows in their head that you can have a lot of money and go to nowhere, but I think a lot of people were sort of snowed by all the money, all the endorsements. But, you know, that's what New Hampshire is for. New Hampshire has always kind of pierced the balloon over the years. And now, people are starting to say, "Gee, you know, he doesn't have much of a message." And, you know, I gather that there are now discussions going on in the Bush campaign about retooling the message or how to regroup after what happened in New Hampshire.

KALB: You have to think -- Sorry, Jill, go ahead.

ZUCKMAN: That's OK. The other thing I was just going to say is that Senator McCain -- In a way, Governor Bush is running the sort of campaign that Senator Dole did in '96, which is staying away from the press, limiting access, and...

KURTZ: That's not entirely fair. He does take questions from reporters on a regular basis.

TAPPER: No, no, no, no, no. I have to jump in. He takes questions for five minutes; he doesn't answer the questions. You know, the thing is, I hop around from campaign to campaign, and you see it like when Bush was getting good press, he was getting good press, but at the same time, reporters would ask him questions: "What about your Louisiana campaign chair who bought mailing lists from David Duke? How does that square with this compassionate conservative rhetoric? What about the fact that earlier this week, you went to Bob Jones University and spoke there, a school that bans interracial dating?" His brother is married to a Latino, for God's sake.

KURTZ: Oh, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) got questions all the time.

TAPPER: But the point is he doesn't answer the questions, and he builds up a reservoir of ill will. Karen Hughes, his communications director, is feared on the bus. I mean, people do not have a good relationship with her with a person whose job it is to have good relations with the press. And that eventually turns around and bites them in the keister.

KALB: Let me be philosophical for a moment about the media. Have you noticed that even though the media offered the governor of Texas a coronation in the early reporting about what might take place even, even with that reporting, have you seen a single red face of embarrassment on anybody in the media? No. The media gap is together. It puts aside its bluntness of assessment, its bluntness of prediction and careens right into the future with all sorts of new predictions.

One has to be on guard against this powerful monstrous media by making these predictions. And I want to offer that point, Jill. On guard against predictions in the media. There's what is it? A media chutzpah that gives itself a constant acquittal as it goes off into the future with fresh and sometimes ultimately wrong predictions.

KURTZ: Bill, let me...

ZUCKMAN: Well...

KURTZ: Go ahead, Jill.

ZUCKMAN: You know, it happens all the time. Unless you write a story and the next day it's proven false, if it's proven false three days from then, nobody cares after that; it's just sort of over and you kind of move on and you adjust to the new reality.

KALB: Great profession.

KURTZ: Disappears into the ether.


KURTZ: Excuse me, I want get one last question to Bill Kristol before we run out of time. New study by the Projects for Excellence in Journalism about campaign coverage. Forty percent of the stories about John McCain were about the substance of what he had to say compared to, say, 26 percent for George Bush, 17 percent for the other GOP candidates. Does that suggest that if you have a candidate who's out there and talking to reporters all the time that he's going to get more substantive coverage, or does it only work if you're a good enough candidate to avoid blunders?

KRISTOL: Well, both. I worked for Dan Quayle, and he was actually a substantive guy. But the blunders become the story, the blunders become the story. Look, McCain, it's an impressive performance. People can talk about the press being in his pocket, but I was in politics and let me tell you what he has done over the last six months is a pure matter of political performance. It's very impressive. You can't take that away from him.

And one thing about running for president is if you're -- the better politician you are, the better you're likely to do.

KURTZ: OK, we'll hold it there. And when we come back, exit polls. Should the press make them public and when?



Jill Zuckman, John McCain obviously the media darling of the moment. For a long time, Bill Bradley also shared that status as an insurgent candidate taking on incumbent an vice president. No longer the case in recent weeks. Why?

ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, I think when you start to struggle, there's sort of an aura about you that you lose a little bit, and Senator Bradley's definitely been struggling against Vice President Gore. And Senator...

KURTZ: So you're saying we're somewhat slave to the polls? As soon as somebody heads a little south in those all important tracking polls, the coverage turns a little bit hostile.

ZUCKMAN: No, you know, as soon as somebody starts doing well -- and he was doing very, very well -- then they get more scrutiny, and that's always the case. And as he got more scrutiny he, you know -- And as he started having some difficulty responding to Vice President Gore, things got a little tougher. And I think they had a hard time responding and reacting to those changes.

KALB: But Jill, it doesn't all -- Sorry, Jill.

ZUCKMAN: Go ahead.

KALB: It doesn't always work that way. The media has an affection for the underdog. When a guy is losing, the media gather around and offers some support. It seems to me on this question, Jake, that the media has become disillusioned with Bradley because he's dropped his idealism to a certain extent and is behaving like a politician with negative attacks, et cetera. Seems to me this is a luxury the media cannot give itself and is a disservice to the electorate. What do you think, Jill?

TAPPER: I think that the media has really given Bradley an unwinnable proposition, which is when Gore was just coming at him like a nasty street fighter, people -- and Bradley was trying to rise above it, and you know, change the discourse and change politics, people in the media were mad at him; you know, fight back, fight back. Then he finally fights back, and it's like, oh, he's such a hypocrite.

KALB: He's just another politician all the same, exactly.

TAPPER: Yeah, so he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

KURTZ: And doesn't some of this, Bill Kristol, have to do with Bradley's own persona. He doesn't go out of his way, unlike John McCain, to court reporters. Suddenly, we see a spate of stories, "He's aloof. He's condescending. He's not connecting," in part because I think it's almost the opposite of a charm offense.

KRISTOL: In part because he is aloof and condescending. I mean, look, I've been mildly pro-Bradley from a distance but I must say, when people from our magazine have gone out with Bradley, he's apparently not particularly pleasant to cover. Not only doesn't he court the media, he half the time doesn't even take the media's questions.

KALB: So how does that enter into coverage? So the guy is aloof. That is a subjective judgment that you're engaging in now, that he's aloof. You want to be pandered to?

KRISTOL: He won't answer questions.

KALB: The media loves to be pandered to. It seems to me that when you use aloof, you're in acute personality subjectivity. I think it's kind of an irresponsibility on the part of the media to drop these adjectives on people. You're there to measure what a man stands for and not the character of his personality.

KRISTOL: I disagree. The media's suppose to report on the character of the candidates...

KALB: But subjectivity -- Aloof is your word.

KRISTOL: Aloof is not more subjective than health care plan is too big. I mean...

KALB: I think that's a luxury...

KRISTOL: ... or losing your temper or not up to speed on the issues.

KALB: I think it's a form of journalistic narcissism.

KURTZ: Let me jump in now, because I want to turn to the question of exit polls. Tuesday, New Hampshire. Every journalist on the air knew very well from the exit polls that John McCain was winning big. But there's an unspoken agreement that you don't report the exit polls until the actual voting polls have closed, although there were hints McCain having a good night, McCain doing very well.

What about this notion of holding back information that journalists otherwise would like to report?

TAPPER: I think it's responsible to hold back information. I really do. I mean, I think that anything else enforce -- has an effect, possibly a disastrous effect on the election. It interferes and...

KURTZ: And we know that.

TAPPER: I think it's -- I mean, it's been proven in the past. You would know better than I would, Howie; I'm just a young pup. But I mean, the fact of the matter is that when you report that there's a John McCain juggernaut going through, then that will have an effect on the people who haven't voted. And it's our responsible to show restraint. You know, all it is is restraint until 8:00, then go crazy.

ZUCKMAN: But the other thing -- You know, the other thing is the exit polls were wrong in New Hampshire, at least on the Democratic side. I mean, they were consistent on the Republican side, but, you know, if you start reporting -- Most pollsters will tell you that you can't count on those exit polls until at least 4:00 in the afternoon. So the 2:00 in the afternoon exit polls showed Gore barely edging out Bradley by about two points, and then they flipped and Bradley was beating Gore.

And so, you know, do you want to be having an impact, people saying, "Oh, I don't feel like going out," or, you know, that sort of thing? I think it ends up skewing things.

KURTZ: Well, the Internet may have made all this moot. "Slate" magazine put out the findings of exit polls out about 4:30 in the afternoon as a kind of a protest against this television practice, which Jake thinks is responsible, of holding it back. So have we lost control of the information?

KRISTOL: Well, to some degree, but "Slate" is irresponsible. Look, democracy should come first. It's not as if this is some -- it's urgent for people to know this.


KRISTOL: Yeah, it's just a matter of time about what the vote's going to be.

KALB: You want California to secede if it's not in the mix? Was it 1980 when they predicted Carter and millions of Californians didn't bother voting because the prediction was in?

TAPPER: That's the one I was talking about.

KURTZ: And there was such a backlash that I think the television networks have mostly behaved themselves.

KALB: Yeah, calmed things down.

KURTZ: Well, when we come back, Salon stalks Gary Bauer. A look at a new form of journalistic terrorism.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Jake, this week, "Salon" created quite a stir -- wasn't a story that you had anything to do with. But a contributor, a sex columnist named Dan Savage, wrote at great length about how he became a volunteer on Gary Bauer's Iowa campaign, how he himself had the flu and how because he didn't like Bauer -- because Savage is gay, he sees Bauer as anti-gay -- he tried to give Bauer the flu by doing everything from putting a pen in his mouth and handing it to the candidate to going around the office licking computer keyboards and door knobs. So my question to you is: Were you comfortable with this appearing in your magazine?

TAPPER: You know, I didn't sign it, I didn't write it, I didn't edit it. And, of course, I personally am opposed to trying to infect presidential candidates with the flu.

KURTZ: We may get a consensus on that but go ahead.

TAPPER: Well, that's my position. I don't know about you; I can't speak for you. But that said, let me just explain a little bit about where Dan was coming from. Dan was assigned to cover the Iowa caucuses and he was actually supposed to write a story, or actually his intention was to write a story humanizing Christian conservatives who hate him because he's gay with a husband and child.

He got to Iowa, and Gary Bauer compared gay marriage to terrorism. Around that same time, he got the flu. And then he decided, as part of a gonzo journalistic kind of thing, he would try to give Gary Bauer the flu. Now while Dan Savage, you know, may have gone over the edge and crossed the line in this, I think, you know, you have to ask yourself which is more important in devoting coverage and time on CNN, too: one gonzo journalist, you know, crossing the line, or a presidential candidate who, time and time again, says very, very anti-guy things, or, you know, George W. Bush going to a college and speaking at a college where there is a ban on interracial dating? You've got to ask yourself...

KURTZ: This has gotten plenty of attention.

TAPPER: It has not gotten plenty of attention, Howard. Definitely not.

KURTZ: Bob Jones University? I read it in Monday's papers. Let me move on to Bill, because let's concede that we all are against door knob licking journalism. But "Salon" says this after the flap: "We still believe publishing the article was the right choice, but we feel compelled to say we didn't assign Savage to infect Bauer. We don't condone or endorse what he says he did." But don't they sort of condone or endorse it by putting on the Web site?

KRISTOL: Just ludicrous double talk. I mean, if you edit a magazine, you're responsible for what shows up in that magazine. I don't blame Jake. I wouldn't shake his hand now, since God knows what they're doing at "Salon." But otherwise, I don't think -- I think he's free of responsibility. But the editor is responsible for what appears, not that the reporter is not responsible.

KALB: Let's be charitable in our assessment. It was revolting. The idea of comparing it to the satire of Jonathan Swift. It is so idiotic and so ludicrous. You can add -- Jake, your point. Somebody could be anti-gay and you could have a rebuttal on that, but not necessarily pass the flu around.

KURTZ: Jill?

ZUCKMAN: It's disgusting. I mean, it is just no other way put it. I mean, it's scary to me. I've tried everything possible not to get sick for the last few weeks to make it through the New Hampshire primary. It scares me, the idea of someone going around and licking door knobs I might be turning. I just...

TAPPER: Jill, do you think that the coverage of this would be as virulent if the guy who had tried to infect Gary Bauer had been straight? Or do you think the fact that maybe, you know, gays are perceived as being more germy...

KRISTOL: Oh, that's just ridiculous.

KALB: Oh, come on, that is crazy, Jay.

ZUCKMAN: No, it's the flu, it's the flu. It's so bad. And everybody's getting so, so sick. I don't care -- I just think people...

KRISTOL: He did it because he's gay.

KURTZ: Jake, are you a lawyer?

KRISTOL: He did it because he's gay, right?

TAPPER: He did it because he was offended by Gary Bauer comparing...

KRISTOL: Being against same-sex marriage, which 80 percent of Americans are against.

TAPPER: Comparing same-sex marriages to terrorism.

KRISTOL: No, he did not compare same-sex marriage to terrorism. He compared the Ramad (ph) judicial decision to a kind of judicial terrorism.

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: It's a little bit of a reach metaphorically.

TAPPER: I didn't write...

KRISTOL: You think that's a terrible thing for someone to say?

TAPPER: Do I think it's appropriate to compare gay marriage to terrorism or...

KRISTOL: He did not compare gay marriage -- Let's say it again right. He compared the judicial decision to a judicial kind of, quote, "terrorism." I wouldn't myself use that term, but you think that's -- Let's get straight what he said.

TAPPER: I think that's at least as offensive as what Dan Savage did because I think it shows that prejudice against gays and lesbians is the last vestige, the last acceptable prejudice in America.

KRISTOL: Oh, nonsense.

KURTZ: We will have to hold it there. Jake Tapper, Jill Zuckman, Bill Kristol, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, is what you see what you get on the campaign trail? Bernie's "Back Page," next.


KURTZ: In the world of media news, Steve Brill stepped down this week as editor of his media magazine, "Brill's Content," to focus on his new Internet venture. He'll relinquish day-to-day responsibility for the magazine and for the Web site called But Brill has come under some fire for becoming part of the new world of media synergy because he's joining forces for the Internet venture with CBS, NBC and the magazine publisher, Prime Media. Brill says he's protected against any conflict of interest because the magazine and the Web site will have full editorial control.

Well, time now for "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: Howie, this is a program about the media, right, and not about the human anatomy? So why am I suddenly talking about your optic nerve, that delicate link between your eye and your brain, and even more important right now, your eye and your vote?


KALB (voice-over): Remember these pictures from New Hampshire? George W. snow mobiling, George W. playing goalie, George W. bowling, George W. sledding? No accident, all these quick changes of scenery. It's pure politics. Or to quote George W.'s media strategist in New Hampshire, "Winning the New Hampshire primary is as much about image as issues. Our key right now is to optically differentiate the two men."

Optically differentiate. What an inspired phrase. But as we know, optically differentiating didn't do much good for George W., and he wasn't the only one who aimed for your optic nerve. One way or another, they all did, though it's unfair to call this Gary Bauer's finest moment, even if it may be his most unforgettable, if not unflappable.

Even so, the word from around the country is that many Americans right now are bored stiff with all the campaigning. But if you're a political strategist and you want to get your guy on the TV news shows and hit the voters' optic nerve, what do you do?

Easy. You stage political spectaculars designed to seduce the TV cameras. And let's face it, the cameras are suckers for the theatrical. So just think of the pictorial bait the strategists may be throwing at the cameras in the months ahead: Bill Bradley, dribbling the ball from coast to coast. John McCain campaigning in his old Vietnam combat outfit to deflect the flack. George W. thinking about borrowing his father's parachute and descending on America. Al Gore as superman reinventing himself.


KALB: OK, so it didn't work for George W. in New Hampshire, but hey, there are still 49 states to go, 49 great new opportunities to optically differentiate. In other words, from here on in, the battle for your optic nerve can only become more and more frantic.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, 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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