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Reliable Sources

Are Journalists Clueless About Christian Conservatives?

Aired March 4, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: John McCain denounces Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Has the press been fair to the religious right? Are journalists clueless about Christian conservatives? And did the media miss the story on Bob Jones University?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is off this week.

The question of religious intolerance took center stage this week as the GOP candidates ratcheted up their rhetoric.


TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: The fight for the Republican presidential nomination, already bitter, moved to a new stage today. It's now a holy war.

KURTZ (voice-over): When John McCain went to Virginia Beach on Monday, he turned the campaign upside-down, taking on to of the most famous leaders of the Christian conservative movement.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.

KURTZ: Bush, meanwhile, was expressing his regret for the most controversial appearance of his campaign at Bob Jones University, which regularly denounces Catholics and the pope.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I missed an opportunity to stand up and say, We're all God's children.

KURTZ: But both candidates seized the opportunity to use religion as a wedge issue.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: John McCain said George Bush is now aligned with, in McCain's view, peddlers of intolerance, division, and smears.

BUSH: An outrageous attempt to call me an anti-Catholic bigot. It's going to backfire, and it's going to continue to backfire on him. KURTZ: As the charges and countercharges echoed across the political landscape, the candidates crisscrossed the country in the last days before Super Tuesday with the media in hot pursuit.

In this highly charged atmosphere, the question remains, has the press been fair in covering all the denunciations and defenses of the religious right?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now here in Washington, Rich Lowry, editor of "National Review," Michelle Cottle, campaign correspondent and senior editor of "The New Republic," and in New York, Frank Rich, columnist for "The New York Times." Welcome.

Frank, you've written that John McCain is the first major GOP presidential candidate, quote, "who is not running as a pious moral scold in hock to the religious right." Now, you're a columnist. You're paid for your opinions. But don't Christian conservatives have a point when they say that they are pilloried and sometimes caricatured by the media?

FRANK RICH, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Of course they do. I think that much of the coverage of the religious right is extremely unsophisticated. And by the way, not even with a particular ideological cast. As Ralph Reed likes to bring up, there was that famous quote in "The Washington Post" some years ago calling religious conservatives easily led and duped or whatever, which was, of course, outrageous. He's right to scream about that.

But even people who aren't out to demonize the religious right often miss the subtleties, miss the difference between the various leaders. That was certainly -- happened with the McCain story this week. There was very little analysis of how he, for instance, could at least be briefly supported by Gary Bauer on one hand, even as he was trashing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the other.

KURTZ: Perhaps because the press didn't want to muddy up the dramatic story line of McCain taking on these two leaders with the nuances, as we say.

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, when McCain beats up on Robertson and Falwell, as he did rather vociferously this week, are the media cheering him on?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Oh, absolutely. They love it. And it's clearly a case of John McCain playing to his political power base, which his aides are quite frank about, saying it's the media, and beating up on the Republican power base. Now, it hasn't worked particularly well. But Frank is absolutely right. The media didn't analyze the substance of that speech.

What separates Robertson and Falwell from Gary Bauer, who's standing there at McCain's side? And the comparison... KURTZ: And why did the media fail to do that, in your view?

LOWRY: Because they -- the story line they want is heroic courageous John McCain goes into the back yard of these religious right bigots and calls them to the carpet. That's all they're interested in. They're not interested in taking it any deeper than that.

And frankly, the comparison also of Robertson and Falwell with Al Sharpton's completely outrageous. I mean, Al Sharpton has incited mob riots. Robertson and Falwell have done nothing remotely similar to that. So the comparison is just totally bogus.

KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, as someone who grew up -- excuse me, Frank -- in Alabama and Tennessee, what do you make of the coverage of this story, and of the general media coverage of churchgoing Americans?

MICHELLE COTTLE, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Oh, I think, to some extent, this is to be expected, that the Washington and New York press corps are not peopled by a huge number of folks who grew up in Christian conservative communities, and so there's this kind of tendency to lump them all together and view them as this slightly sinister alien force.

At some point there needs to be a distinction made between kind of more extreme elements and the basic Christian communities that -- who -- they get very upset when their own are attacked, even if they don't agree with all of what Falwell and Robertson say. It's like you can insult my -- you can't insult my family, but I can.

I mean, if you say something unpleasant about these leaders, you're still going to upset a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't agree with them.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, did the press have a responsibility, when we talk about the nuances of the assault on Falwell and Robertson, to point out, for example, to remind us that Jerry Falwell a few short years ago was peddling a video that accused Bill Clinton, among other things, of being involved in murder?

RICH: Yes, of course the press has an obligation to point that out. But also, they could point out, just to take Jerry Falwell as an example, that he's to the left of both George W. Bush and Gary Bauer on some cultural issues in a weird way, because Falwell, after all, in the past year has reached out to gay groups, had a summit with gay people in Lynchburg, Virginia, whereas Gay Bauer was leading the charge with the Family Research Council about the Matthew Shepard case, and George W. refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans.

So there are many nuances here. All of them are lost in the shuffle. But I would say this is not just true of coverage of Christian conservatives. Jews are lumped together, Catholics are lumped together, it's a syndrome generally in media coverage of religion. LOWRY: But I think it goes deeper with voters, the religious right. I mean, there's a great example this week after the Virginia primary. In "The New York Post," a news story in "The New York Post," said, Great news for George Bush, you know, he won the Virginia primary. But there's also really bad news for George Bush yesterday. He won religious conservatives eight to one.

And this is because the media consider these voters inherently problematic and somehow illegitimate. I defy anyone to show me a story saying Gore had a great victory in Washington State, but guess what, he won union households eight to one, and that's a real bad thing for him. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

KURTZ: Is this a question of ignorance on the part of the media, unsophisticated reporting, or is it a question of letting personal antipathy and personal notions seep into the coverage?

LOWRY: I think it's the latter. And I don't even know if it's conscious. They -- the media just assumes these people are some sort of freaks because, as Michelle points out, you know, most members of the media tend to be secular, liberal, live in New York and Washington, and these people are just totally alien to them.

KURTZ: Michelle?

COTTLE: I think members of the Washington press -- and I think it's probably the same in New York -- are very surprised when surveys come out saying how many Americans believe in God, or attend church regularly or have considered themselves to be evangelical Christians. I think they look at those very skeptically, because within Washington and New York, that's not the case.

KURTZ: Frank, you live in New York. What's your take on that?

RICH: Well, my take is that Christian conservatives are not the only people who are subject to this approach. Look at the Jewish vote in New York. Every time either Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani does something that is supposed to have an impact on the Jewish vote, they're described in exactly the same monolithic and unsophisticated terms that Christian conservatives are in Virginia.

And so it's just a really unsubtle presentation of this. I do think -- I disagree with the fact that most journalists are unaware of the religiosity of America. Polls consistently show this is one of the most religious countries in the world, if not the most. And I think most journalists know that.

KURTZ: OK, I spoke with Rush Limbaugh this week, who made the point to me that he doesn't think the mainstream press, while treating in some ways people like Falwell and Pat Robertson as radioactive, does the same when Bill Bradley or Vice President Gore goes to sit down with Al Sharpton. In fact, "The Washington Post" a couple times described Al Sharpton as a "civil rights activist." I think that's an incomplete description at best, given his involvement in the Tawana Brawley hoax...

RICH: Absolutely.

KURTZ: ... and several other sort of racially inflammatory incidents.

But let's turn now to the coverage of Bob Jones, because we went back and took a look at how did the press the next day -- I guess three weeks ago now -- play Governor Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University? And "The New York Times" called the school "a bastion of Christian conservatism," "Washington Post," "conservative Bob Jones University," "L.A. Times" went a little further, "a fundamentalist Christian college that prohibits interracial dating," and "USA Today" also noted the dating ban, a ban which, I guess, the school has now renounced as of Friday.

But in each case, we're talking about a half a sentence or a phrase. In other words, the press was not all over what later became this big story line, Bob Jones is this bastion of intolerance.

What do you make of that, Rich Lowry?

LOWRY: Well, I think the coverage just worsened as time went on. I think a good analogy is Pat Buchanan's speech to the Republican National Convention in 1992. It was a very powerful speech, played very well for a day or two, Republicans got a bump in the polls. But then, you know, three months later, it was the worst Republican disaster since Watergate, or was being played as that. And that's exactly what happened in the South Carolina primary.

Six months from now, it'll be part of conventional wisdom that the South Carolina primary was a two-week-long Klan rally. I mean, the media is trying to illegit -- make illegitimate George Bush's victory there.

KURTZ: Well, Frank, I worry -- I wonder whether reporters were reluctant or timid to make Bob Jones an issue on their own. It's a lot easier when you have the opposing candidate coming in and beating up on the university.

RICH: Well, of course that's true. And Bob Jones is hardly an obscure place, and everyone knew its profile, except, apparently, George W. Bush going in. But I have a theory about the Bob Jones thing, which is the videotape. That image of George W. on that vast red carpet, embracing Bob Jones, that is -- that was constantly replayed, including on CNN, almost as a Monica Lewinsky rope line moment.

And I think it's been very damaging and will continue to be damaging in the fall when Democrats use it, because it just looks creepy, it looks almost like a Maoist event. It's -- the image, I think, even overpowers the reality of what happened.

LOWRY: Can I just jump in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- this -- the coverage on this is so unfair. It's so circular. The media is giving this so much coverage because they think it was a tactical error on Bush's part. And the reason why it's a tactical error is because the media's going to cover it so unfairly. No one believes... KURTZ: You're saying there's no inherent controversy? I mean, Bush has now apologized.

LOWRY: No one -- no one -- no one -- Howard...

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) apologized because the media made this issue?

LOWRY: Howard, no one believes that George Bush is an anti- Catholic, OK?

KURTZ: I agree totally.

LOWRY: No one does. And no one is calling Lindsey Graham a bigot because he accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University and said it was the happiest day of his life.

And look, what sort of new standard are we going to have? Every time I go to a liberal university now to speak, am I going to have to say, You know, I don't like your admissions policy, I don't think you should have condom machines in the bathrooms, and by the way, I think you should have dead -- more dead white males on your curriculum? And if I don't say those things, does it mean I agree and I'm pandering with liberals and agree with those policies?


LOWRY: It's a totally ridiculous standard.

KURTZ: You see it as unfair guilt by association. Michelle, what do you think of the Bob Jones coverage?

COTTLE: But I think -- I think part of what drives the press crazy is hypocrisy. And George Bush pitched himself as, I'm going to be a compassionate conservative, I'm uniting everyone.

KURTZ: Inclusive...

COTTLE: And then when he goes to Bob Jones, it looks like he's trying to unite the white heterosexual Protestants of the party. And this makes -- I mean, the press goes berserk with any hint of hypocrisy like, you know, McCain and campaign finance stuff.

KURTZ: OK, we need to leave it there. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment, and we'll take a look at some of those obituaries before Super Tuesday being written about Bill Bradley.



Rich Lowry, your magazine, "National Review," ran an editorial beating up on Bill Kristol, the editor of "The Weekly Standard" and David Brooks, a staff writer there, over their support for John McCain. Has this -- what someone described as a civil war ripping apart the Republican Party, has it now reached the conservative press as well?

LOWRY: Well, I don't think it's quite a civil war. But this is an unusual step for us, because, you know, we're basically friendly with the "Standard," we're on the same team.

But when a respected conservative leader, namely Bill Kristol, sort of gleefully declares the conservative movement over and advocates blowing up the conservative-Republican coalition, with no idea whatsoever is going to take its place, that's something we need to comment on. And we just think a lot of the "Standard"'s coverage of John McCain has been a combination of mischieviousness and wishful thinking.

KURTZ: Frank, the media's so-called love affair with John McCain, I wonder if the romance has cooled a little bit. You had some critical coverage in last week about McCain for saying his campaign wasn't making phone calls to Catholic voters slamming Bush in Michigan, then admitting that he had. What do you make of the state of the cozy relationship?

RICH: I think you're right. I mean, to quote Cole Porter, it was too hot not to cool down. And so now it's -- also -- you know, the -- I think the media likes a winner, and he's stopped winning. And that, I think, has much to do with the cooling this week as anything else.

They may really -- or we may really turn on him if he's really out of it after Super Tuesday, because then the story comes back to the one thing that the media most dreads this year, Bush versus Gore.

KURTZ: Frank, the perfect setup for my next question, because if the media likes a winner, clearly Bill Bradley has not been a winner, at least in the two contests on the Democratic side so far. And so you have this spate of articles.

Here's one in Saturday's "Washington Post," front page, "Where Did Bradley Go Wrong?" At the CNN debates, CNN-"Los Angeles Times" debate in Los Angeles, Jeff Greenfield asked Bradley basically, What happened to your campaign? It was almost sort of a veiled version of, Why aren't you dropping out yet?

Is all this prem -- in other words, whether Bradley is doing well or not, should the press be writing his obituary now, Michelle?

COTTLE: Well, I think the body watch is the natural thing to do right now, I mean, especially he's doing odd things, like going and doing a foreign policy speech? I mean, he's so far behind in the polls, voters aren't that interested in foreign policy. It's almost as if this is his last chance to have his say. And so he's kind of feeding this on some level.

LOWRY: Yes, I would also say about Bradley, you know, almost every candidate gets his brief moment in the media spotlight, and the question is whether he's a strong enough candidate to do something with it. And Bradley had his chance, and the fact was, there just wasn't much there. The message wasn't there. The cam -- you know, the effect of campaigning wasn't there.

And for all -- you know, Howard, you know how much I complain about the media's coverage of John McCain, but the fact is, there's more to McCain than just the media. I mean, he has a real connection with people, and that's why he's been able to last while Bradley just sort of fizzled out.

KURTZ: Connection is the key word, and Frank, I went out with Bradley to Iowa, the early stages in the summer of '99, and was surprised at how he -- you know, his sort of aloof and lackadaisical style, he didn't seem to be hungering for it. And I think voters noticed that.

But yet for the last six months of '99, I mean, I read in every newspaper and magazine in America that Bill Bradley was hot, he was raising a lot of money, he as coming up in the polls. Did the media kind of pump Bradley up?

RICH: I'm not so sure. I mean, I -- certainly I agree entirely with your interpretation of what really was there. But I did pick up a real genuine enthusiasm about Bradley from real people who were not in the media, all of whom are deflated now, of course. And the media probably pumped him up a little bit.

But I think there's a real story here, and for all these post- mortems and not premature, in my view, obituaries, someone still has to do -- and it'll be fascinating -- the real story of how this balloon ran out of air, because it really is more than just the fact, I think, that he didn't connect, and that the campaign seems to be very incompetently run.

He did have money, he did have real enthusiasts, he did have strong views about subjects, and he was somebody of substance and integrity. And I think it's a little -- we can't just say, Oh, it's another version of Gene McCarthy or Dukakis.

KURTZ: Right, right.

RICH: We got to go further and find out what happened behind the scenes.

KURTZ: Michelle, just briefly, the conspiracy theory would be that the press wanted a race, they didn't want Al Gore to run away with it and so they helped build out the underdog so that there would be something for us all to cover and get out there and work the expense accounts.

COTTLE: Oh, I think even beyond that, you know, Al Gore is not that likable a candidate, and on some level there was this, you know, give Bradley a chance. People were flocking to him because Gore was just stinking the place up, and the press was covering that as well, and -- but Bradley never quite broke out.

KURTZ: Frank, a final question for the former theater critic. I was in New York on Friday and watched this incredible scene where Matt Lauer of "The Today Show" got on John McCain's bus, and they had a helicopter hovering so they could ride down West 49th Street and go around the block and conduct the interview on the bus, instead of in the warmer confines of 30 Rock. We've seen both -- all the candidates going on Leno and Letterman.

Is this the final triumph of the education of the -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the entertainment culture over politics?

RICH: It's one of the continuing final triumphs. I did find, as you did, the Lauer-McCain ride "Truman Show"-like in its surreality, and, of course, the George W. appearance on Letterman is a classic that will be replayed, I guess, like "Reefer Madness" in years to come.

KURTZ: You're saying it was less than successful?

RICH: I don't think it was successful, no.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Frank Rich, "New York Times," Michelle Cottle, "New Republic," Rich Lowry, "National Review," thanks very much for joining us.

And speaking of entertainment, when we come back, why the men who would be president are trying their luck at standup comedy. Are they getting laughs? Or laughed at?


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Bernard Kalb may be off this week, but he left behind his "Back Page."


BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Howie, you know, when I find myself switching channels at night at 11:30, there's this question that haunts me. It's one of those big questions that has to do with the true character of America.

(voice-over): Would any of these guys -- the big four of our history -- would any of them have turned up on this guy's show? Or this guy's?

Can you see George volunteering to be Dave's straight man? Or Abe as a straight man for Jay?

Well, the age of TV makes all of that past history. In fact, the candidates in our time scramble furiously to mix it up with the late night comics. And if it means being turned into a joke, suffering a little humiliation, well, that's part of the price. Anything to get what's known as face time before millions of voters.

Here's George W. this past Wednesday via satellite. Dave has just reminded his audience of what he once called G.W.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," CBS) DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: And early on in the campaign, I said, This guy to me looks like he could be a colossal boob.


KALB: And here's G.W., trying to top Dave with a one-liner about his host's recent heart surgery.


BUSH: It's about time you had the heart to invite me.


KALB: A couple of channels away, same night, the John and Jay Show. It's a tradeoff. The shows get a ratings spike, the wannabes get free air time. It's become a kind of pilgrimage. Here's Bill, pre-presidency, June '92. Here's Hillary and her Senate race last month.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I knew that if I were going to run for the Senate, I had to come and sit in this chair.


KALB: The list is long. Would-be leaders of the free world turned into the butt of jokes.


JAY LENO, HOST: Bill Bradley is so boring his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.

ALBERT A. GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that -- I think you ought to loosen up a little bit.

LENO: Yeah, you think I'm a little stiff?

GORE: Yes, I mean...


KALB: And on and on and on.


LETTERMAN: The road to the White House runs through me.


KALB: The whole idea is for the candidates to show that they're regular guys with a great sense of humor, which, as we all know, is absolutely critical in trying to solve challenges like the global threat of terrorism, the tensions between China and Taiwan, the murderous floods in Mozambique, and things like that.

(on camera): One of these years, they'll decide that Mount Rushmore could use an update, maybe add a few new faces. Well, given their place at the very center of American life, what do you think? Any chance of this?

Wanna bet?


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. And let's not forget that millions of people who don't read political news or watch cable news do watch Leno and Letterman, an important forum.

When we come back, some viewer feedback.



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