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Reliable Sources

The Real Al Gore and George Bush: Is the Press Getting the Full Story or Falling for the Image?

Aired March 25, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The real Al Gore and George Bush: Is the press getting the full story or falling for the image? We'll ask their biographers, Molly Ivins and "Newsweek's" Bill Turque.

Standoff in Baltimore: Did television get too close to the police?

And pretty woman ogled by the media.

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

First up today, as Al Gore and George W. Bush exchange daily accusations in the long run-up to the fall election, are the media presenting a clear snapshot of the two men or is the picture rather blurry?

Well, joining us now, Bill Turque, Washington correspondent for "Newsweek" and the author of the biography "Inventing Al Gore." And with us in Austin, Texas, syndicated columnist Molly Ivins of "The Fort Worth Star-Telegram," and the author of "Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush."

Molly Ivins, W., as you were calling him probably just before just about anybody, sometime during the primary season, he went from the compassionate conservative to the reformer with results, the results of course being touted in your great state of Texas.

Has the press been a little too quick to play along with this repositioning by the governor?

MOLLY IVINS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: It seems to me that what the press has failed to do is look at the record, which is the really sort of the simplest requirement for political reporting so that suddenly George W. has this claim to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) record on education. And of course, education reform has been advanced slowly, painfully for years in this state, and hearing W. stand up and take credit for what was already under way when he walked into office is a little disconcerting to people who were part of the fight down here.

And there are a couple of others, his attacking McCain's environmental record. "Chutzpah" is not a word in Texas, but if it were, that was the one that would have been used about that. KURTZ: You'll have to give us a synonym later on.

Bill Turque, a similar question for you: Al Gore, the vice president, suddenly, when the primary season was over and he vanquished Bill Bradley, the champion of campaign finance reform, the guy who raised money at a -- famously at a Buddhist temple in 1996. What do you make of the press coverage of this particular reinvention?

BILL TURQUE, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK" MAGAZINE: Well, I don't think "chutzpah" is a word in Tennessee either, but I think that for Al Gore, what strikes me and what I tried to deal with in the book is that there's always this -- this rediscovery of Al Gore every time he runs for office. There -- everyone is shocked by this -- by the aggressive sort of attacking stance that he takes.

And he starts...

KURTZ: So the press has failed to learn from Gore's history in covering him?

TURQUE: Yes, there's always this sudden discovery of, hey, this guy isn't as stiff as we thought. Gee, he's pretty lively. When you go back to 1988, he was very tough on his opponents. In 1992 he played the attack dog role for Bill Clinton in -- as vice presidential candidate. And -- so there's always -- they always seem to be rediscovering Al Gore anew in that way.

BERNARD KALB, HOST: Molly, since we're practicing bilinguality, let me go from chutzpah to maven. And you are a maven on Bush. So this question, somewhat opinionated, I add. Is the Bush you know emerging in the coast-to-coast national coverage of Bush?

MOLLY IVINS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: There are times when I find media coverage of Bush -- it's strange to me, or it sounds strange to me, because they're not familiar with him. In other words, there was a "New York Times" article that drew a little fuss a week or so ago, and in it he sort of dissed, or at least was casual, about McCain and was not, you know, as properly respectful as he should have been for polite political purposes.

And that Bush is very familiar to me. It seemed to startle so many people who don't know him well.

KALB: And you don't find the Bush in the coast-to-coast coverage that you know?

IVINS: No, I don't. I think the media have really taken far too much of his self-portrayal at face value. I'm always interested -- I mean, you talk about language -- that he's continually described as bilingual. It's very -- the Spanish is very sort of Spanish II. I don't think he could possibly carry on a conversation in Spanish, certainly not one about ideas or of any depth.

KALB: Let me switch...

IVINS: But when he goes down to the valley, it's the same two sentences in Spanish, and then they cue the mariachis.

KALB: Bill, let me switch to you. You tried repeatedly to get an interview with the vice president for your book, and he turned you down, I'm told, each time. Does he pay a price in the writing of the book by refusing you access?

TURQUE: I don't think so. I mean, I tried not to do that. I mean, I think there was maybe a temptation in the beginning, but I honestly think it did not change the fundamental themes of the book, which is, this is a complicated guy, a guy who's ahead of the curve on a lot of issues like the environment and arms control, but also under the Dudley Do-Right image, is a real warrior, someone who's not afraid to carve up opponents and stretch the truth a little if he has to.


KURTZ: But to follow up on Bernie's question, does the vice president pay a price for stiffing the press as he has done for two months now? Other than some selective interviews, he does not meet with reporters who travel with him. What's he afraid of?

TURQUE: I think he definitely pays a price, and I just think at this point he feels there's no big upside to exposing himself. I mean, it's sort of like a quarterback falling on the ball at the end of a winning game, you know.

KALB: Let me ask a question of you, Howie. Does he pay a price because he resists being spontaneous?

KURTZ: Well...

KALB: Is the risk of spontaneity?

KURTZ: Well, I'm constantly reading -- and I'd like to hear Bill on this -- about the private Al Gore, and he's charming and he's funny and he is a real human being and less cautious and careful than he is in public. But then because all of that is put off the record, we hardly get to see that.

TURQUE: It is very frustrating. Anyone who's been on Air Force Two for any length of time will spend all his time with him, and it isn't, it's a source of exasperation to people who cover him and the people who work for him that it can't squeeze enough -- some of this private Gore into the public venue.

KALB: Is it that politics is paralyzing?

TURQUE: Politics is paralyzing...

KALB: I mean, when you think of Gore kind of shriveling up, as it were, in contrast to the ebullient Gore that you see privately, is it because politics has a way of paralyzing personality, real personality?

TURQUE: I just think he's...

KALB: If you're cautious?

TURQUE: ... got a -- he's got a vestige of the old senatorial formality of his father. I think he watched his father in 1950s and '60s Washington. There was a certain way a public man handled himself. And I just think some of that formality is just bred in the bone. He has a certain fear of informality in that way.

KURTZ: Molly, let me read to you a passage from "Shrub" that I've been dying to ask you about. You write -- and your co-author -- that "Some Austin bureau chiefs decided to hitch their stars to Bush's wagon. He was their ticket to Washington, their entree into the bigs, their chance to become talking heads on the Sunday chat shows. The result was a genuinely embarrassing amount of ass-kissing by some political reporters."

Having made that rather colorful charge, do you want to tell us who some of these kissers are?

IVINS: No, I'd rather not name names. But I think that's an easily substantiated charge. I mean, I -- the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) press corps in Texas has in the main, with some honorable exceptions, been in the tank for Bush to an embarrassing extent.

KURTZ: In the tank. By which you mean?

IVINS: That...

KURTZ: In the tank in the sense of not...

IVINS: Which means that they...

KURTZ: ... skeptically covering him?

IVINS: ... haven't -- exactly. They really haven't examined his record. And some of the really good stories have actually been broken by out-of-state reporters. I mean, you talk about shameful.

KURTZ: Bill, as a former journalist for the "National Tennessean" in 1970s, you would think that Gore would sort of understand the rhythms of the press. Why does he not seem to have a better feel for at least -- is famously wary of the fourth estate?

TURQUE: Well, I think there was a time when maybe he was -- he did have better press relations. I think he sort of prided himself on sort of an insider's knowledge of the craft. But I think the campaign finance investigations and all the hits he took in '97 and '98 with the Hsi Lai Temple and the West Wing phone calls, I think he really felt kind of scalded by that. And I think he kind of pulled back a little and became a little more wary of the press.

KALB: Molly, I think you're a little too hard on your governor. By that I mean, the media has been examining the record. You're suggesting that it has not and that he's gotten something of a pass, or to borrow a phrase you used in the book, which I won't use now, but that Howie just used. But I think he is undergoing examination. So I'm going to ask another professional here, Bill Turque, to take a look at that very question. Do you think Bush is escaping serious scrutiny the way Molly suggests?

TURQUE: I honestly don't think so. I think it's scrutiny that plays out over time. I mean, I think it's incremental. But I don't, as a consumer of stories about George Bush, I don't lack for interesting stories about his record, hard-hitting stories about his record in...

KURTZ: Molly, why don't you jump in here?

IVINS: Well, I think that -- I think there is a question to be raised here, which is timing. What happened was that most of the national press corps came into Austin last summer and did three-, four-part series on the record while absolutely nobody was paying attention. And then, of course, this always happens, you know, we woke up on January 1st, staggered through our millennial hangovers, and then said to one another, it's an election year, Maude, who's running?

And of course by then the entire political press corps -- as you know, we tend to focus on very sort of inside baseball stuff -- we all thought, we've done the record, we're -- I mean, everybody knows what this guy is about. And forgetting, of course, that the American people hadn't been paying attention.

I think it's that timing: The cycle is off in terms of the public's interest in these guys.

KURTZ: Molly, has the press been fair, perhaps even a little elitist, in suggesting -- sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly -- that Governor Bush is not the sharpest knife in the drawer?

IVINS: I do think that there's been a certain amount of silliness. The pop quiz on the foreign leaders struck me as beyond silly. And...

KURTZ: Or he was a C student at Yale, I mean, that sort of thing...

IVINS: Right.

KURTZ: ... do voters really care?

IVINS: No -- well, they certainly don't care. I'll tell you one thing they don't care of. I notice that people in the media, because we work with words, are fascinated by the fact that Bush, like his father, often gets tangled up in his own tongue. And we are very amused by this and sort of given to pointing it out. And I don't think most people care at all. They -- very few people in this country speak English in complete sentences and then in complete paragraphs.

And they flub words and tangle their grammar all the time. So I think that is a source of amusement only to a few.

KALB: Did you...

KURTZ: Go ahead.

KALB: I was going to ask -- I'm thinking of the phrase you use in the book -- that there's no "there" there, as it were. Did you have much difficulty doing intellectual arithmetic on Bush?

IVINS: No, we've stuck with the record. It's a very old- fashioned thing to do, I know, but it had seemed to me for some time that the character issue has become a synonym for the sex lives of politicians, and I really don't care how many sins they have committed in their lives. That's not my charge to figure that out. I mean, I'm just writing about politics in their lives, in their public lives.


IVINS: I think we've gotten ourselves really fouled up that way.

KURTZ: Molly Ivins, we'll have to leave it there. Bill Turque, Molly Ivins, thanks very much for sharing the biographical insights.

And when we come back, the hostage standoff in Baltimore, did local TV stations do the right thing?



We turn now to the story of fugitive Joseph Palczynski and how local TV stations reacted as this week's hostage drama played itself out in the city of Baltimore.

The tape you will see is from WBAL-TV.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE ANCHOR: Right now, police say the man accused of killing four people is holed up at a home in the North Point area. We're going to switch live right now to Jayne Miller, who is near the scene there.

Jayne, what do you have?

JAYNE MILLER, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Well, Rod, we are at the command post, and the Baltimore County Police Department continues to update us on this very active situation.


KURTZ (voice-over): The station also warned residents as the crisis unfolded.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: ... what's going on. If you live in this region, police are urging you to please stay inside. If you're trying to get home, you can't get home, you need to go to that elementary school.


KURTZ: Then on Tuesday night, a dramatic development.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: ... the announcement that Joseph Palczynski, the murder suspect who has held hostages for the past four days in this Dundalk community, is dead, shot and killed by police as they entered the apartment after apparently two of the hostages has got -- had gotten out, and they went in while the 12-year-old boy was still inside.



KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Princell Hair, the news director at WBAL-TV in Baltimore. Welcome.


Princell, this was obviously an extraordinarily tense situation, and your station and its rivals exercised unusual restraint, unlike we've seen in other situations, in not doing anything to inflame the tense situation.

But one thing that your NBC affiliate did that was controversial was to keep off the air interviews that had been conducted with Palczynski's father and girlfriend on the show "Inside Edition," I guess at the request of police. And it kind of prompts the question, was this in essence a surrender of editorial control?

HAIR: No, I don't think it was. There were several instances that came up during the course of this whole situation where we were asked by police -- we were asked by police to either not air something or to air something. And we took those as requests, and we evaluated those requests each one at a time and really did what we thought was best.

I mean, we tried to uphold our responsibility as journalists, but at the same time, we have responsibility as citizens of the community, and that's how we approached each one of those decisions.

KALB: Princell, you're confronted with that editorial challenge. Which comes first, the full story, or saving lives?

HAIR: I think every situation is different. I think in this case, we chose to save lives rather than necessarily giving the full story. And really, you know, the issue of the interview with the girlfriend, that was an ex-girlfriend that was airing on a syndicated program. And we felt like that airing this interview would have agitated him. So we decided not to do it.

It turns out that we ended up in continuous coverage, and we ended up covering the program anyway. But we were making preparations not to air that particular interview.

KALB: It's not that you felt he would be agitated. I understand that the police told you not to run that interview with his ex- girlfriend because it would antagonize him and subject him to who knows what.

In other words, in other words, you took your editorial decision -- I don't mean to be cavalier about it -- you took your editorial decision from what the police were requesting on the theory that, in fact, that could save lives.

HAIR: Well, I -- you know, I guess I wouldn't characterize it as that. The police made requests of us...

KALB: Requests.

HAIR: Right. They made requests of us, and we evaluated those requests and tried to really -- to weigh the need for the public to know and the need to do our part in trying to, you know, help this situation and try and help save lives. And often -- in many -- in most cases, we decided that to err on the side of caution and not to air something, you know, in hopes that it would help save lives.

KURTZ: You also said that you did air some things at the request of authorities. Would that have included -- because I guess we all were told that Palczynski was watching much of the coverage while this hostage drama was playing itself out. Would that have included putting on the air Palczynski's former attorney, who made a plea to him to end the crisis?

HAIR: Yes, that's true, that was probably the most difficult decision to make, because it's easier to make decisions not to air something. But when you -- when a request is made to air something, there's just something about that that certainly gets into that gray area.

But we were told by the police that Palczynski was watching the live coverage. And, you know, based on the fact that his attorney, who had a relationship with Palczynski -- he became a newsmaker in this story. And that's the way we approached it. He became a newsmaker, and it was newsworthy to have him on the air.

KALB: Princell, do you feel in retrospect you should have shared your decisions with your audience? That is, if you were responding to police requests, and you therefore were obliged, should you have told your audience what you were doing so that they were in on the decision-making process?

HAIR: Well, we did in fact share with our audience some of those decisions, but not all of them. I think in retrospect, if there was something that I think we could have done better as a news organization, I think we could have done a better job of sharing that information with the audience.

We did some of the time, but we didn't all of the time.

KURTZ: Was there an underlying fear, again in this extraordinarily tense situation, that if you did something that was contrary to a request from the police, and something went wrong and somebody got killed, that you might have been blamed?

HAIR: Absolutely. I mean, that's -- any time you're in a situation like this, that's always an underlying fear. And that certainly factored into all of our decisions.

KURTZ: Princell Hair, WBAL in Baltimore, thanks very much for joining us.

HAIR: Thank you for inviting me.

KURTZ: And when we return, Bernie's Back Page.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Bernie?

KALB: Let me run some faces past you, and then we can talk.


KALB (voice-over): Vladimir Putin. Chen Shui-bian. Alberto Fujimori. You see what I'm getting at?

Well, then let me add a couple of more faces. This one and this one.

Well, what they've done, this quintet of VIPs, what they've done is remind the media that there's a whole world out there that the media have largely ignored and underreported.

For example, when was the last time you saw South Asia leading the nightly news? South Asia, with brand-new nukes and more than a billion people?

The president puts one little foot on the subcontinent and suddenly the U.S. media jumpstarts, lots of stories about the explosive tensions between India and Pakistan. It's been anchors aweigh night after night, the greatest single burst of overseas coverage in years.


PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: Good night from India.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: Good evening from the Holy Land.

(END VIDEO CLIPS) KALB: Same thing with the pope. He embarks on a historic visit to the Middle East with the media in hot pursuit, and we get a media cram course on the turmoil in the area, all of this in vivid contrast to the way the media's been short-changing the world since the end of the cold war, no threat, no coverage.

But wait a minute. Russia is suddenly a big headline once again. With the presidential elections this weekend, the campaign by this ex- KGB officer producing a rush of stories about the unpredictability of Russia's future.

And in Asia, there's Chen Shui-bian surprise victory as the new president of Taiwan. It's produced lots of coverage about the tug-of- war between Taipei and Beijing.

Even Latin America has made a bit of a media comeback beyond the usual drug coverage: the focus now on next month's presidential election in Peru.


KALB: All this heavy overseas coverage reminds us of how little we normally get, but hey, I'm not complaining. Just the opposite.

I know that once Bill gets back to Washington and the pope back to the Vatican, the media will once again start disengaging, leaving us journalistically marooned in America.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, up next, viewer email and some final thoughts about a moving star getting plenty of up-close media attention.


KURTZ: Now our viewer email. Last week, we asked whether the TV networks were doing Al Gore a favor by giving almost no attention to the conviction of his friend and fund-raiser Maria Hsia.

"Of course," said on viewer. "The conviction of Maria Hsia should have brought the whole shameful affair to the front page in huge bold headlines."

Another had a different take. "As long as the economy is good, the majority of the American people could care less. So why should the media continue to beat a dead horse?"

But there was this disagreement. "The explanation that the public isn't really interested is pure baloney. It is the media's fundamental purpose to inform the public, not to pander."

Finally before we go on this Oscars weekend, you may have noticed that Julia Roberts has a new movie out, "Erin Brockovich." It's based on the true tale of a single mom in dead-end jobs who takes on the local power company that's accused of poisoning the neighborhood. But the media seem more interested in Roberts' gravity-defying performance: "USA Today" going so far as to invite reader email on her tight tops and plunging necklines.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're selling Julia Roberts with her big smile, beautiful hair, and cleavage: lots of cleavage.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dirty of mouth and sluttish of dress.


KURTZ (voice-over): This seems to be a rather prominent theme in the showbiz coverage.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I think you'll love the fact that Julia Roberts' cleavage is Erin Brockovich.



MATT LAUER, CO-HOST: Where did all this cleavage come from? He says, desperately trying not to stare down as he says this.

JULIA ROBERTS, ACTRESS: Charged extra for the breasts.


KURTZ: But is it a good movie?


ROBERTS: And believe or not, all from a push-up bra. Nothing fake in there.


KURTZ: And how's Julia's acting?


LAUER: You're walking around in next to nothing with these heels and those boobs...



KURTZ: Maybe that's why they call it the "boob tube." Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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