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Reliable Sources

Veepstakes Reaches Fever Pitch; Former Clinton Aide Charges Hillary with Slur; Did the 'Boston Globe' Overreact in Latest Suspension?

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


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: In New York, have the media gone overboard on a 26-year-old charge against Hillary Clinton?

Heading for Philadelphia, the veepstakes reaches fever pitch as 15,000 journalists are looking for news at the Republican convention.

And banned in Boston. Was the "Globe" unfair to conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby?

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

We begin with the furor over the first lady and the accusation.


KURTZ (voice-over): It all started with this quote by Jerry Oppenheimer, a former reporter and editor for "The National Enquirer." The charge, that New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton shouted an anti-Semitic slur 26 years ago at Paul Fray, Bill Clinton's campaign manager in his unsuccessful bid for Congress.

Fray, along with his wife and a third campaign aide, made the accusation to the author of "State of a Union." And Fray later repeated the charge to other reporters and on "Good Morning America."

PAUL FRAY, FORMER CLINTON CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I asked her. She said, look, you (EXPLETIVE DELETED), I don't appreciate you putting us in this position. I said, I didn't put you there.

KURTZ: When the story first turned up in the "New York Post" and the "Daily News" last weekend, most news organizations ignored it in part because Fray had never mentioned the alleged incident in conversations with reporters over the years.

But last Sunday, Mrs. Clinton called a news conference to flatly deny the allegation. And she explained why.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK SENATE CANDIDATE: I knew that there would be people unfortunately who would be believing it or trying to push it into the body politic. And they still will. But I want it next to my absolutely unequivocal refutation of it. KURTZ: And the president himself called the "Daily News" to defend his wife. But midweek, the first lady's news conference had opened the floodgates for the rest of the press. The story got plenty of ink and lots of time on the tube.

This question, did the media give this 26-year-old charge more play than it deserved?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now Marie Cocco, columnist for New York's "Newsday," Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the "New York Daily News." And in New York, Tish Durkin, reporter for the "New York Observer."


Tom DeFrank, let's talk about the accuser, Paul Fray. He lost his law license for altering records. He suffered a brain hemorrhage that led to memory loss. He never made this charge over 26 years before in conversations with reporters. And he's not Jewish. He's a Baptist. Why is this a huge story?

TOM DEFRANK, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Well, for one thing it's the first lady of the United States, Howard. The other reason is that she is running poorly among Jewish voters in New York for her Senate race. She should be doing a lot better.

And third, it's just an incredibly explosive charge for anybody to be making about the first lady of the United States, even if it is 26 years old.

KURTZ: Marie Cocco, your newspaper, "Newsday," waited 48 hours...


KURTZ: ... after the "Daily News" and the "New York Post" to even touch this story. Why?

COCCO: Because this man is not credible. He has talked to probably two dozen, three dozen reporters during the Clinton era. At least six, seven books about the Clintons have described the very same argument that he is now claiming this epithet was uttered in.

And no previous description of this fight, and in no previous account of this incident by other journalists, including David Brock (ph), the conservative author who wrote a compelling book really about the first lady, this has never arisen before.

Not only is he not a credible individual, but even his wife in speaking to "Newsday" said that he had lost his -- claimed that he had lost his law license because of the memory loss that you just referred to. Well, in fact he lost his law license for taking a bribe to alter court records. So you could raise questions about her credibility as well. BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Let me raise a question with Tish. Tish, a lot of the reporting on this particular story has been he said-she said, et cetera. In your long piece in the "New York Observer," did you make any effort to authenticate the charge made by Fray?

TISH DURKIN, REPORTER, "NEW YORK OBSERVER": I didn't because for me I think the reason the story is important is that the first lady of the United States held this press conference. And then even more extraordinarily, the president of the United States in the context of what looked like an interruption of the Camp David peace talks no less, picked up the phone and called up the "Daily News."

And that in and of itself made it a huge, a New York political story. And to me what is as outrageous and important as these allegations are in terms of the first lady's reputation, I think one of the reasons that the story has a tremendous potential resonance is because the first lady does have, regardless of this episode, a real problem with Jewish voters.

KALB: But didn't you, Tish...

DURKIN: So to me, that's a story.

KURTZ: Let me pick that up with Tom DeFrank. Tom, would the national media have continued to ignore this story, as they did for the first few days, had Hillary Clinton not held a news conference and thereby served it up over the plate for everybody to jump on and cover?

DEFRANK: It just reminded me of the Troopergate story in a previous Clinton scandal when CNN ran the story about the allegations the troopers were making about allegations about the president and his personal life. The media jumped on that story. CNN gave them credibility.

And I think here when Mrs. Clinton and her press conference and when the president jumped in, in an extraordinary phone call, I think that's when it became fair game for everybody.

COCCO: I agree with you. But you have to understand a crucial point. The first lady's campaign says to I think most of us who have talked to them about this that the reason they did that frankly is that it was in the "Daily News." If it hadn't gone into the "New York Daily News" which continues to have on its logo "New York's hometown newspaper" -- with great validity, I don't knock it at all -- it is considered more of a mainstream publication than the "New York Post," which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also happens to own the publishing company that this book is being published by, who also happens to be a well known partisan figure in New York politics on the side of conservatives. And he will do anything to elect conservatives to office in New York.

KURTZ: He's also a Republican Party contributor. But let me just come back to Tish Durkin for one minute if I may. Let's say that Hillary Clinton -- we don't know the truth here -- let's say that she did in a moment of anger call this guy and expletive deleted Jew bastard 26 years ago. Would that have been as big a story for a Senate candidate whose initials were not HRC?

DURKIN: You know what, every time something comes up in this campaign, we ask ourselves that question. But you know what, this Senate candidate's initials are HRC. She does walk around with a cadre of Secret Service agents. She is for good or ill in terms of her campaign, there is a lot of good and a lot of ill in being an enormous celebrity and a political lightning rod. So it's just sort of fruitless to speculate on what if things were different.

KURTZ: But that seems to suggest a double standard because Rick Lazio, her opponent, not as well known obviously until he replaced Rudy Giuliani, the recent federal inquiry into whether or not when he did make a stock investment it yielded a 600 percent return in risky stock options, that got nothing near the coverage that this ethnic slur has received.

DURKIN: But first of all, Hillary Clinton invited reporters on a Sunday afternoon to her home for the press conference that we've just discussed. I mean, would it be ethical of us to say, "Well, I know she really wants to refute these charges, but we're not going to cover them."

And also, I do think that if a candidate, there was some type of episode that were seen as really potentially playing on a candidate's greatest, or arguably greatest, vulnerability with his or her own constituency, I think it would get covered. Now again...

KURTZ: Tish, let's let Bernie in here.

KALB: I just want to move this question in a different way for a moment. The original charge appeared in a book purported to be a nonfiction book. Now it seems to me that the charge percolated right into the media. Is there a responsibility since books are so much part of the media? Is there a responsibility given the book publishing culture for there to be a checkout of allegations of this sort made? Because...


KALB: ... let me ask that.

DEFRANK: I think absolutely.

KALB: Yes, I am check out mad. Is that your question? Am I check out mad? The answer is yes. That's our responsibility.

KURTZ: Tom DeFrank, the ball is in your court.

DEFRANK: Absolutely, Bernie. And one of the reasons why our paper's second-day story was much more elaborate than the first-day story is because we in fact independently contacted Mr. Fray, his wife, and the purported other third witness, all of whom corroborated it. In other circumstances, I've seen publications just go with what the book says.

KURTZ: Bernie, just briefly, you think that the media are took quick to embrace any charges between hard covers?

KALB: I think there's a surrender to allegations of this sort. I think there is a serious, critical journalistic responsibility to check out allegations of this sort.

We talked a moment ago about newspapers like "Newsday" and others resisting leaping into publication until there is a chance to check out. This is true now of the publishing business where there is no checking. We've all written books around this table here. And we know that whatever we put in just goes whistling through.

KURTZ: OK, Bernie, you've got the last word.

DURKIN: But Bernie...

KURTZ: Tish, I've got to ask you to hold off.

When we come back, rampant speculation over the veepstakes and next week's Republican Convention. What are thousands of reporters really planning to do there anyway?



Marie Cocco, the media's VP speculation totally out of control. We've gone just a few days from it's probably Tom Ridge, definitely Frank Keating, maybe Dick Cheney, and McCain coming up strong at the end. What's going on?

COCCO: We're all looking for something to do before we get on trains, planes, and automobiles and go to Philadelphia where we will have even less to do than speculate about the vice presidential selection. It's just trying to see how good your sources are, how close in you can get. It doesn't have a whole lot to do unfortunately with informing the public.

KALB: And what we're doing now, the requirement to fill air, and the requirement to fill space, et cetera, et cetera. There's an awful lot of, what is it, coast-to-coast thumb sucking about who might be designated the vice president.

So you join in the fray. It's one of your journalistic responsibilities.

DEFRANK: And but the truth is, not many people know. And the people who know really aren't talking.

I mean, I called my best go-to guy, somebody I've known for 20 years. And he picked up the phone, and he said, "I know why you're calling. Forget about it. Forget about it." He says, "Maybe I'll tell you what day the announcement is going to be made." And then he wouldn't do that even. It could be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.

KURTZ: Tish Durkin, isn't this a kind of silly spectacle where people emerge, and they rise and fall like it's a stock market? And the truth is, nobody really knows because the thing is so closely held.

DURKIN: It's completely wacky, although I do think it might be sort of an act of charity toward the eventual vice presidential designee because this is his or her virtual only moment in the sun. Once they become the vice president, they sort of fade into obscurity until it's their time to run for the top of the ticket. But otherwise...

KURTZ: All the eventual losers get 15 seconds, not 15 minutes of media attention.

Well, speaking of attention, media attention, a lot of it going to be in Philadelphia next week, 15,000 journalists, lots of TV and print coverage. But other than the big speeches, how many people are really interested? And how much real news is going to be made, Tish Durkin...

DURKIN: I think...

KURTZ: ... for all the journalists who are assembled there?

DURKIN: ... Really in terms of actual hard news, I imagine less than none. I mean, these conventions have just progressively gotten...

KURTZ: More scripted?

DURKIN: ... so much static. Well, it makes you cry for the time when they actually picked a nominee. I mean, they did have a purpose once. Tell your grandchildren.

KALB: The conventions once upon a time did have the question of suspense who indeed would be chosen to be the presidential candidate. Now you see the convention as essentially being prisoners of the past caught in the grip of antiquity out of touch with the modern requirements.

And the consequence is the net cable will carry it gavel to gavel. But the networks have cut into their own schedules to miniaturize the proceedings.

KURTZ: Well, Bernie, ABC now has backed off from dropping the Monday nights of both conventions all together in favor of pre-season football. They went to the National Football League and had them move up the games so they could put a mere hour of coverage on.

But Marie Cocco, maybe the ABC, CBS and NBC are right. Maybe people are not that interested, and it doesn't deserve that much air time on the biggest media platform.

COCCO: Well, I tend to agree with that, to be honest with you. I mean, we all know, and we all write and broadcast year after year now how scripted it is. We get behind the scenes with the way they stage manage it, exactly what effect it's supposed to have to put Colin Powell on the podium. What effect is it supposed to have to put Caroline Kennedy on the podium? It's to make people watch.

It doesn't have anything to do with the way voters should be making up their minds about the presidential election. I personally wish that we would give more coverage to the level of corporate involvement now in these conventions. These conventions have become case studies in the corruption, small C, of American politics and the two political parties.

KURTZ: Tom, real news or infomercial?

DEFRANK: Infomercial, expect there will be one moment of real drama that may be news. And that is Thursday night when George W. Bush gives his acceptance speech.

That's going to be a window into what he's going to be saying the rest of the way. And it's also going to be a good chance for people, probably more people than have ever watched him give a speech, to see how he does, see how he comes off, see how he delivers it.

Is he presidential? Does he do some of those famous malapropos? Or is it the speech of his life?

KURTZ: That is definitely the moment.

Tom DeFrank, Marie Cocco, Tish Durkin in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up, the latest ethics controversy at the "Boston Globe." Was one columnist hit with an unfair suspension?



Another ethics controversy has hit the "Boston Globe." And one columnist is taking the heat.

"Boston Globe" readers won't be able to find conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby on the paper's editorial page or on the "Globe's" Web site anytime soon. Jacoby was suspended for four months without pay for failing to tell readers that his July 3 column tracing the fate of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was not an original idea.

The subject had been written about numerous times, including accounts by such well known figures as Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh. Editorial page Editor Renee Loth defends the lengthy suspension of Jacoby saying, "Our decision is a proportionate response to such a journalistic lapse."

This is the latest embarrassment to hit the "Boston Globe" just two summers after "Globe" metro columnists Patricia Smith (ph) and Mike Barnacle (ph) were forced to resign from the paper in far more serious ethical controversies of their own.

So was Jacoby's suspension and overreaction by the "Globe"? Or did his writing constitute serious journalistic misconduct just short of plagiarism?

Well, joining us now from Boston, suspended "Boston Globe" columnist Jeff Jacoby.



KURTZ: Jeff, before we get into the details of your alleged wrongdoing, I think it's fair to say that many people both at the "Globe" and a number of outside commentators feel that the "Globe" acted too harshly in your case. Do you believe your punishment was in any way, even indirectly, related to the fact that you have been the only conservative voice on a very liberal op-ed page?

JACOBY: Indirectly in a sense maybe. It was probably easier to do this to somebody like me since I'm something of a lightning rod at the "Boston Globe."

But I think it's more likely that this was a drastic overreaction brought on by hypersensitivity to the Barnacle-Smith business from two years ago. And I'm paying the price that was done by others.

KALB: Jeff, how do you handle this specific that I will read now and direct quote by the publisher of the "Boston Globe" in which he ordered your suspension?

"We cannot look the other way if any of our columnists, reporters, or writers borrow without attribution from the works of others even in an attempt to improve on it? The "Globe" will not oblovigate (ph) in abiding by the highest journalistic standards and ethics."

Essentially they're accusing you of being guilty on a variety of counts. Your response?

JACOBY: I believe like the "Boston Globe" believes in high ethical standards, especially when it comes to journalism. I believe in dotting ethical I's and crossing ethical T's. But I also believe in common sense.

This independence day column that I wrote was a retelling of a story that's been told over and over and over again. What I sat down to write was an inspirational piece working with material that's in the public domain.

You've got to be able to use common sense when you're doing journalism as well. And there are some things that are so well known, so familiar, so common that to attempt to attribute them would be a little bit ridiculous.

KALB: I'm thinking of a definition of the word original. Do you have any original ideas lately? For example, if you take a long backward look in history, everybody has been rewriting the Bible for 2,000 years. KURTZ: Well, Bernie, there's a lot of recycling that goes on in daily journalism. But Jeff Jacoby, you acknowledge in an e-mail that you sent out to a bunch of friends the day before the column was published that this was in fact your treatment on an idea that had been treated many other times before by writers both in print and on the Internet.

JACOBY: Right.

KURTZ: So the question becomes why didn't you tell the "Boston Globe's" readers about that? Was that a mistake? And do you think that some kind of punishment would have been warranted in this case?

JACOBY: It would absolutely have eliminated this entire problem if I had thought to include a single line in the column saying, "Of course I'm far from the first to deal with the subject. It's been treated many times before."

So chalk it up to a moment's unthinking oversight in leaving it out. The way it should have been handled, as I asked the minute the first question was raised, to simply be allowed to tack a shirttail onto the end of my next column and clear up whatever confusion there was. There was so little confusion on the part of most of the readers it wouldn't have taken any more than that.

KALB: Is the lesson out of this that one has to preface a column with the phrase, "Look, this idea may have been explored by other columnists over the past 200 years, but here's my turn at it." Is that what we're facing here?

JACOBY: What I am hearing back from friends at the "Boston Globe" that this is having a real chilling effect through the newsroom. People are walking around thinking, "If I make one tiny mistake like this, if I forget to attribute something that it didn't even occur to me needed attribution, am I going to get cut off for four months without pay?"

It's a terrible overreaction. And the "Globe" needs to find a way to back down.

KURTZ: Jeff Jacoby, two quick questions. A little short on time here. You were told by the editorial page Editor Renee Loth that when or if you returned after the four-month suspension there would have to be a serious rethink of your column. What do you think she meant?

JACOBY: I don't know what that means. But it's something that gives me pause. And that feeds into this whole ideological question. My politics are clearly right of center. Renee Loth, the brand new editorial page editor, has politics that are distinctly left of center. When you tell a columnist there's got to be a rethink of his column, it sends up all kinds of red flags.

KURTZ: And just briefly, given what you've been through on this, given the national publicity, given the obvious discomfort and even anger that you feel, do you plan to go back to the "Boston Globe"? Can you go back to the "Boston Globe" after this incident? JACOBY: I guess in part that depends on the signals that I get back from the "Globe." I'm a columnist. I like writing columns. I think I do a pretty good job. And I've been hearing from a lot of readers who are dismayed that my voice isn't on the page.

I'd like to get back. And I'd like to get back much sooner than four months.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Jeff Jacoby, thanks very much for joining us.

JACOBY: Thank you.

KURTZ: Well, coming up, why milk isn't so healthy for two Florida journalists, and why O.J. -- Simpson, that is -- may become a staple of your media diet. That's next.


KURTZ: Bernie, do you think Jeff Jacoby got shafted by the "Boston Globe"?

KALB: The answer briefly is yes. I don't know how good a job I did concealing my sympathy for Jeff. But let me say this, if the criterion is absolute originality, I need a few days to find out whether anything original has come along since Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

KURTZ: I think Jacoby made a mistake, no question about it. But since he was never trying to hide it, the idea that this mistake would cost him four months' pay and this kind of harsh suspension is a little hard for me to fathom.

Also in the news this coming week, Bernie, O.J. Simpson is going to be on the "Today Show," on ABC's "The View," Fox's "The Edge," and possibly a few other programs. He's got a new Web site. He's actually going to try to make some money by having people ask him questions about of course the murder of his ex-wife. Your thoughts.

KALB: Ultimately it's an editor's choice. If there is absolutely no limit on the questions, on the type of questions, you can put to O.J., that's one thing. But it seems to me that all those networks that are going to feature O.J. are taking a risk at being perceived as being a launching pad for an O.J. commercial Web site.

KURTZ: Well, I'm not sure I see the news value here. And frankly, I think much of the media have never quite gotten over their O.J. addiction.

Well, before we go, one other item from the world of media news. Did a local Fox TV station bow to corporate pressure on an investigative story about milk? That's the charge of two of WTVT's former reporters in a trial now underway in Tampa, Florida.

The investigative team of Jane Acre (ph) and Steve Wilson (ph) is suing the station over a report called "The Mystery in Your Milk" about a controversial hormone used by Florida milk producers. The reporters, who were later fired, claimed the station bowed to pressure from the hormone's manufacturer Monsanto and that the station ordered them to include misstatements in their report.

The story eventually aired, but was done by a different reporter. Fox denies that it ever asked for false information to be included in this story and says that Acre and Wilson were insubordinate, unprofessional, and unwilling to be objective.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next weekend where we'll be live both Saturday and Sunday from the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll look at Dick Cheney as George Bush's possible vice presidential running mate. Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico joins us to talk about Al Gore's invasion of Texas and the latest Hillary-Lazio dust-up in New York next on CNN.



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