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Reliable Sources

Is the Media Coverage of John McCain and Dick Cheney Fair?

Aired July 30, 2000 - 11:30 a.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Philadelphia story: 15,000 journalists descend on the Bush-Cheney convention. Will they find news or a manufactured media event? And John McCain back on the bus: Is the press still gaga over the losing candidate?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Philadelphia, the site of the Republican national convention, this is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES with Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb.

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernie Kalb, and joining us, Bill Schneider, CNN senior political analyst, and Michelle Cottle, senior editor for "The New Republic."

Michelle will be picking up the speech by Senator McCain in a few moments. You rode up on the bus with him, with a bunch of other reporters, too, I should add, from Pentagon City in Virginia.

Is there some possibility that journalists are so fed up with a convention that seems so scripted and synchronized that they're flocking toward Senator McCain in the hopes that he'll say or do something that's a little bit off-message?

MICHELLE COTTLE, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Absolutely. On the ride out, there were 70 media, and they had to cycle us in, in groups of 15, and they had three chartered buses, and all of the questions seemed geared toward getting McCain to say something inflammatory about George W.

KURTZ: And with limited success?

COTTLE: Absolutely no success. He'll speak and he'll like with all of the enthusiasm of a child looking at a plate of spinach when he talks about Bush-Cheney, but he won't say anything wrong.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Is there a media surrender, Bill, to McCain, or is that too condemnatory a phrase?


KALB: Yes, I do.

SCHNEIDER: All right. Well, look, McCain was the biggest story this year. He was the biggest popular phenomenon, the biggest press phenomenon. I mean, that's when people really got excited. For all this talk of vanishing voters, people were really engaged for about a month.

He hit a nerve. He had a message that people responded to.

KALB: And in his case, it was the fact that the public perceived that there was real news out there, and therefore, did not abandon McCain as so many are abandoning these conventions.

SCHNEIDER: Well, there was news, because it looked like there might be a race for a while, after he won New Hampshire and Michigan, but there was something else: that bus. The bus is very important, the most important symbol in this campaign. It was brilliant: the Straight Talk Express.

When you ask what is it that people are looking for in this election that they're not getting from Clinton and they're not getting from Gore, the answer would be straight talk, because when people think of Clinton -- I always ask audiences what are the most memorable things that Bill Clinton has ever said. I didn't have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I didn't inhale. It depends on what the meaning of "is" is.

When McCain got on that bus, the Straight Talk Express, there was an immense popular response.

KURTZ: But for all the fun and excitement that McCain generated during the primaries -- and certainly, I rode the bus and lots of journalists thought he was a great story, because he talked to us over and over hours on end. I mean, that was three months ago. The guy lost. And here he is, he's on all the network morning shows this week, he has people like you, Michelle, following him around.

How -- how does he still have this magnetism for the media, or maybe it's that reporters like the guy? Maybe this is a little bit of letting the feelings show.

COTTLE: Well, they like the guy. I mean, it's hard not to. He's very enthusiastic. He doesn't feed you a line a lot the time, or it's a line, it's so clever that you can't really tell. But it's also, you know, they get bored following Bush and Gore around, who do the same speech all the time. And this was an opportunity to watch McCain stick his finger in Bush's eye.

KALB: Michelle, is there -- and let me use this phrase -- a kind of "scripted unscriptedness" about McCain?

COTTLE: I think there probably is. If you go on the bus a lot, he tells the same jokes, and he has the same stories, but at least he's talking something other than the party line a lot.

KALB: If he's repeating himself, how come you're not getting bored?

COTTLE: It's -- it's a sense of energy and spirit, and it's fun. But in this case, he also does some unpredictable things. He will say things that he shouldn't or he will make fun of people in a way he shouldn't. So there's enough unscripted stuff going on that you may at least get a good lead for your story.

SCHNEIDER: And he's still part of the story, because I'll tell you something, John McCain's message in the primaries to his fellow Republicans was the Republican Party cannot win this election simply as a conservative party. We have to have a bigger message. We can be conservatives, but he said we have to sell something else, because people aren't going to buy conservatism. He said we have to be a reform party.

If George Bush wins, John McCain is nowhere. But if George Bush loses, McCain then has a lot of influence, because he's the guy who said, "I told you so."

KURTZ: I was wondering how long it would take to get 2004. But before...


Before we do that, Bill Schneider, there's been a lot of talk here: 15,000 journalists, not a lot of unexpected news on the plate, very scripted and prepackaged convention. I'm wondering, since the broadcast networks aren't devoting a whole lot of time to this convention, if somebody like McCain soaks up a lot of the media airtime, does that have the potential at least to drown out part of what the Bush forces want to accomplish here?

SCHNEIDER: Well, of course, it has the potential of doing that, and I think one of McCain's purposes is not really to do that. I mean, he wants to get attention, but if he's seen as stealing attention and saying provocative things, attracting too much press attention, they'll be a lot of resentment against him in the Republican Party. He's got to walk a very fine line.

My point is I don't think -- look, I think he wants Bush to win. I think he believes Bush would be better for the country. He has endorsed Bush. But I'll tell you something, it is not in his interest, in his political interest for George Bush to win. He just can't say that, but I can.


KALB: The line is so fine. I'm thinking of a line he had, that McCain himself used. "I apologize if I have caused any discontent." You can almost see the winking eye in a sentence like that.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, that's right. I mean, he -- he wants to be correct and proper, but I repeat, it's not in his interest for Bush to win.

KURTZ: You know, another person who is getting an awful lot of media attention in the last few days besides John McCain is of course Dick Cheney, who's been, I would say, kind of roughed up by the press as we have excavated his voting record, looked into his history of health problems and so forth.

Now, Cheney this morning on five different Sunday shows -- he'll be on "LATE EDITION" after this program.

I'm wondering, Michelle Cottle, whether -- there have been accusations that the press in looking at Cheney as the vice presidential nominee has taken a bunch of Democratic talking points, picking out the most controversial or embarrassing votes and kind of made that the story. Is there any truth to that?

COTTLE: Well, it may be that Cheney himself is not a particularly exciting guy and there's not a lot that people are going to get up there and find on their own. And so the conservative voting record would be a controversial point to talk about.

KALB: I disagree with you, Harry, when you -- Howie.


I disagree with you when you talk about the fact that the media have roughed up Cheney in doing the excavation, suggesting in a way that there's some sort of conspiracy between the media and the Democratic Party. You're not suggesting that. But there is the necessity on the part of the media for independent investigation of someone's record to prepare a composite portrait of where a man stood on a particular series of issues when he was in Congress. No problem in that. I don't see it as a roughing up of Cheney.

KURTZ: Well, absolutely, although I think the tone and the volume of it can be adjusted depending on how the media views the potential nominee.

But Bernie, joining us now from downtown Philadelphia is Rich Lowry, editor of "The National Review."

Rich, we've been talking about John McCain. You wrote not too long ago that McCain was acting like somebody who was making quite a nuisance of himself in this maneuvering about whether he would get the vice presidential nod instead of Dick Cheney.

What do you make of the continued media fascination, some would say fixation, with the senator from Arizona.

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Oh, the media really can't give it up, and you know, this bus tour yesterday, it's a little bit like a Rolling Stones reunion tour, where you see guys who are 60 years old with gray hair and still have ponytails, and you just want to say, give it up, you know. It was great in 1969, but it's a little old now.

And the bus tour was great in New Hampshire, but not it's really taken on a ridiculous life of its own, and I do think we'll see McCain changing his tune. I think his convention speech will be very gracious and very supportive of George W. Bush, because he does have ambitions in the Republican Party, and he has to be seen as more a team player than he has been... KALB: Right.

LOWRY: ... since the end of the primaries.

KALB: But Rich, if John McCain is, as you suggest, some kind of recycled Mick Jagger playing his greatest hits, how do you account for the presence of not just our colleague, Michelle Cottle, but some dozen of other journalists who couldn't resist taking that ride on the Straight Talk Express and who are putting him on TV constantly here in Philadelphia.

LOWRY: Well, it's because it's more fun to be on a bus with John McCain than it is to be on a bus with Al Gore or George Bush. It's just a good time. And it's also -- it's a "meta media" story where a lot of people are covering it because other reporters are covering it. So it's really taken on a life of its own.

KURTZ: Bernie.

KALB: Well, I was thinking again about the coverage of McCain and the fact that it has been so incessant and so relentless, and raise the point here about the fact that it may in fact detract attention on the part of the media from the main event taking place right over our shoulders when it begins tomorrow. And at the same time, you feel that it is impossible for the media to let go, because the media thrives on the sense of even disguised revolt. There's a bit of -- a little bit of suspense. And as you're suggesting, somewhere along the line, as you raised the point before -- 2004 -- there is a possibility, there is a possibility -- dot-dot-dot.

SCHNEIDER: The press want a story. They always want a story. And I don't think -- there's a bias toward conflict, confrontation. There always is.

But you know, when others, when Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro, I remember the press went after her pretty fiercely, Tom Eagleton. I mean, there's a whole history of this. Democrats, Republicans, if there's a story, the press is going to go after it. And McCain was the story of this campaign.

KURTZ: Rich, one more question to you before we break. We're talking about Dick Cheney, who's also getting a lot of media attention, to what extent -- you write for a conservative magazine. To what extent do you think the media coverage in the last four or five days of Cheney's emergence as George W.'s No. 2 has been a fair and balance recitation of his voting record and his career and his history, or has been perhaps a little bit on the hostile side?

LOWRY: Well, Howard, you'll be shocked to learn that I think it's been -- it's been OK. I mean, the main line of Democratic attack...

KURTZ: Let me catch my breath here.

LOWRY: ... has been on his voting record. So it's legitimate for the press to cover that. And what's interesting is how it hasn't really affected Cheney at all or Bush's standing in the polls. And that's because image is so important in an age of TV. And he's just -- it's strange, because he's a totally "non-mediagenic" personality. But just because he's so easygoing, so soft-spoken, none of these attacks take hold.

KURTZ: He seemed mildly testy with Sam Donaldson on ABC this morning talking about these questions about his voting record being trivial. Obviously, some of those votes are very important.

We have to get a break. We'll be back in just a moment with more of our report on convention coverage here in Philadelphia.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We understand Senator McCain is getting ready to speak. Let's turn it over to Frank Sesno.




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