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Reliable Sources

Media Prepares for the Great Debate; 'New York Times' Admits it Went too Far on Wen Ho Lee

Aired September 30, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The great debate: Will the media rush to tell us who won?

Plus, Bush's rats, Gore's dogs, the aluminum can lady, and MTV. Are journalists short-changing the issues?

And "The New York Times" admits it went too far on Wen Ho Lee.

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

The countdown is on to debate day. And the press is eagerly awaiting the main event.


KURTZ (voice-over): As the candidates get ready for Tuesday night's showdown in Boston, the media are gearing up for the parade of the pundits, telling us who won, who lost, who connected with voters, whether or not the voters wind up agreeing. For now, the prognosticators are playing the prediction game.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The challenge for Bush is that inevitable moment when he's knocked off the stride a little bit. Does he have the verbal dexterity to get through that?



MORT KONDRACKE, FOX NEWS: He's going to have to somehow figure out how to skewer Bush, but not look like he's going over the top with it.


KURTZ: The conventional wisdom, Gore is a world class debater, Bush a tongue-tied amateur. But how often has the conventional wisdom been wrong? Plenty.

And for the candidates, the stakes are higher than ever, the media spotlight more intense. In fact, the low expectations for Bush could even turn out to be a hidden advantage.

And as the candidates continue to spout the same well-worn rhetoric on the campaign trail, reporters pounced when there was an unscripted moment.


WINIFRED SKINNER, 79-YEAR-OLD DES MOINES CITIZEN: I walk an hour-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, sometimes three hours, seven days a week. And I pick up cans. And that's what puts the food on my table.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was one of those rare moments when an ordinary citizen could convey the importance of an election year issue better than any candidate ever could.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She is 79 years old, a widow, a retired auto worker from Des Moines.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Winnie Skinner, too proud for handouts, embraced by her country's vice president, and now a symbol of what many seniors say is wrong with America's health system.



KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Marie Cocco, columnist for "Newsday." In New York, Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review." And Tamala Edwards, political writer for "Time" magazine.


Tamala Edwards, the second the debate ends Tuesday in Boston, there will be a stampede on the airwaves of columnists and commentators and surrogates and spinners, all vying to tell us who won. In terms of people's perceptions, does all that punditry matter?

TAMALA EDWARDS, POLITICAL WRITER, "TIME": You know, that's an interesting question. I will be part of the herd of buffalo running for the cameras. I'll be doing some stuff on your channel, CNN, in a town hall forum.

And what's fascinating to me is that you will have all these people saying who won, who lost, what they thought happened. And then the behind story is two days later after there's been time for polling, after people have had time to go into coffee shops, workplaces, catch people as they're picking their kids up from school.

And what you often find is that moments that seem to matter a lot to us don't matter to them, or things that we thought were trivial or minor actually were turning points. And so it will be interesting to see because we've been wrong a lot this year in where the race was going.

KURTZ: And we will have to make those adjustments.

Rich Lowry, Fox is blowing off the debates. On Tuesday, it's going to air a sci-fi adventure show called "Dark Angel." And NBC on Tuesday will be carrying baseball, although the network announced Friday that it's also going to offer its affiliates the debate feed for those that choose to take it.

Why should I not be convinced that for these big broadcast networks this is all about money and they essentially don't care all that much about the American political process?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, I'm a little bit of two minds about this. On the one hand...

KURTZ: You want to watch the baseball game, huh?

LOWRY: ... Exactly. I think there are two things here.

One, you do think the networks have some basic civic responsibility. They carry the most important debates we're going to see over the next four years. I mean, these are important things.

On the other hand, we live in a deep politicized time. And if people prefer to watch the Mets game, it's a little difficult to force them to sit down and watch Bush and Gore instead.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Marie, are these debates being overblown? In other words, does a talent for debating indicate a requirement to be president? Are we going to be treated to what I'll call political vaudeville, or some real test at the comprehension and understanding of the issues?

MARIE COCCO, COLUMNIST, "NEWSDAY": I think in fact we're going to be treated to both. And that's why the debates of all the big times...

KALB: Theater and substance.

COCCO: ... Absolutely. I mean, that's why debates in my view are much better as campaign events than the political conventions. We know that the political conventions have become all theater.

And in a debate situation, you get candidates in at least some unscripted moments having to not only relate to the people through the camera but also to demonstrate some kind of -- a whole bunch of things, sensitivity to people, knowledge of the issues, ability to stand up as a leader. I think it's a much more revealing portrait of these men than voters ever get in a side-to-side view like this.

KALB: I'll come back and say it's really going to be a paraphrase of what they've been saying week after week on Medicare, on education, crime, et cetera. And the audience, that is to say the fans out there, 90 million, 50 million, whatever it is, at the ringside will be looking for the blow that counts. In other words, they'll be looking for the soundbite.

COCCO: I disagree. I think we're the ones looking for the soundbite. I think the public is looking for more information. One of the things that's been striking about...

KALB: You think the candidates have been withholding information?

COCCO: ... No, it's not that they've been withholding information. I think that the voters tune out many of the ways that candidates convey information these days.

For example, people don't like to listen to or believe political ads, which they're spending millions and millions of dollars on. And time and again, particularly in this year where there's been such a close race and such volatility among the electorate, so many undecided voters, or at least so many voters who seem to keep switching between these two candidates, I think these are actually more important to the public than we would think.


EDWARDS: You know, though, the obvious thing is that this is the first time in a while that you're going to see both gentlemen standing next to each other answering these questions. It's one thing to see Bush give a speech, to see Gore give a speech.

It's another thing that in a matter of minutes they've got to lay out their positions. And also, the element of surprise. The office of the presidency isn't completely scripted. And you want to see how someone reacts when Lazio pulls an offer "will you sign this?" out of his pocket...

KURTZ: Against Hillary Clinton.

EDWARDS: ... and a zinger of a question comes out. How do they react to it?

KURTZ: Rich Lowry.

LOWRY: I think the Lazio-Clinton debate is actually a good template for how these things work. I think I'm a little biased, obviously. But if you just read the transcripts of that debate, I think Lazio won on the merits, just his answers were more coherent, he was less defensive. But the press afterwards focused on one key, symbolic moment when he went over to her podium with that soft money pledge. And that's what everyone heard about... COCCO: Can I, can I...

KURTZ: Marie...

LOWRY: ... that debate. And that's what played very importantly into Lazio's disadvantage.

KURTZ: ... I need to ask you to hang on here because I want to move on to something else, although, Rich, Tamala made the point that sometimes we have to wait to see how the public reacts. And apparently, a fairly -- a lot of women didn't like that Lazio moment.

In any event, Marie mentioned soundbites. And one of the places where we got some soundbites this week was at an event on MTV where Vice President Gore took questions from young people.

Tamala Edwards, you were part of that. Let's take a quick look at some of the action.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With racial profiling been going on for far too long, why you haven't you and President Clinton signed an executive order to ban it?

VICE PRES. AL GORE, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: A ban on racial profiling will be the first civil rights act of the 21st century.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's in your CD player right now, in your stereo right now?

GORE: Sister Hazel.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the highly unlikely chance that you may lose, what would you do if you don't?

GORE: Oh, it's a purely hypothetical question.



KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, what was the reaction of the traveling press corps to Gore getting down with MTV?

EDWARDS: It's interesting because since I was part of the forum itself, I was separated from him. And as he left, they ripped out of there pretty quickly.

But one of the stories that came back to me was that there was a bit of disappointment. The kids, I mean, the things you selected were some of the fun bytes. But by and large, they asked really serious, really hard-hitting questions on things from tax policy to health care to, as you saw, racial profiling, the use of marijuana, all kinds of things...

KURTZ: Yeah.

EDWARDS: ... that put him on the spot. And there were reporters who had written their story. And they were waiting on "boxers or briefs." And they were like, "Well, wait a second, where's the fun byte out of this?"

So it was interesting to me that the kids were very serious and had some stuff on their minds. But the reporters came into it not wanting to look for that, wanting to look more so for the fun byte.

KURTZ: Well, Rich Lowry, along with the coverage of rats and dogs and moles and aluminum cans...

LOWRY: It sounds like Discovery Channel, doesn't it?

KURTZ: ... Yeah. And MTV...

LOWRY: Discovery Channel race.

KURTZ: ... Could an argument be made that the press in this, as the horse race really heats up and is very close, is just looking for fun and novelty and unscripted moments at the expense of issues?

LOWRY: Sure. No, absolutely. And I think the aluminum can lady is a great example of that. You know, it was a compelling anecdote because it was so extreme.

KURTZ: It's good television.

LOWRY: It's compelling because it was totally unrepresentative. And the problem with a lot of the coverage, especially on the TV networks, is they played as though this lady was completely typical and illustrative of the problem with prescription drugs in this country, as though every retiree in Florida is scrounging around their golfing community looking for Diet Coke cans. It's totally ridiculous.

EDWARDS: You know, I have to argue with Rich on that. I mean, this woman might be an outlyer. But at the same time, a lot of people are struggling to pay for their drugs, struggling to deal with their health care. And it may not be to the point that they're picking up cans. But they definitely know what it's like to be in a tough spot...

LOWRY: According to the survey...

EDWARDS: ... And that's why that story rang a bell. LOWRY: ... According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a report they did in '97, two percent of seniors have difficulty getting their prescription drugs. Two percent.

KALB: I want to take us back to the debates if I may. And Tamala, you raised the question the unscripted moment. Or let me try Marie since Tamala raised the question.

The unscripted moment would give you some idea of how a president might act in a crisis. That raises the question that presidents operate solo once they're in the Oval Office. It doesn't happen.

The idea that a stumble or some brilliant response, an unscripted moment in a debate, is the key clue to the makeup, confidence of a potential president doesn't seem to tally.

EDWARDS: Well, you know...

COCCO: No, I...

EDWARDS: ... I'm disagreeing with everybody I guess today because I've got to disagree with you on that a little bit. I think you're absolutely right that you also have to look at the cabinet and the people that the president would surround himself by. But I think we see this as a leadership role.

And who will he listen to? How will he lead? How will he react?

And in those tough moments, I mean, the thing that immediately comes to mind is Kennedy with the Cuban missile crisis. Yes, there were plenty of people surrounding him. But in the end, the president makes the call.

KURTZ: Tamala, let me get Marie in here. Just a minute, please.

COCCO: I also have to say it's not so much what it reveals about how he would be as president. But sometimes there are moments that just encapsulate what's going on in the voters' minds about a particular candidate. For example, I would go to the debate between President Bush and now President Clinton when President Bush looked at his watch.

And the sentiment, people were dissatisfied. The recession was going on. There was a sentiment growing in the country that this guy was detached from things, didn't care about them, and he looked at his watch, and that was it.

KURTZ: It was a symbolic moment. OK.

We will continue our debate here in a moment.



Rich Lowry, conservatives are really angry about what they see as pro-Gore bias in the mainstream media. Now, I know about this firsthand because I wrote about the subject this week and got deluged with e-mail by people saying it's 100 times worse than you're letting on.

LOWRY: Angry e-mails I hope.

KURTZ: Most of them. Do you agree that there is such bias? And if you do, do you think it is ideological on the part of many journalists?

LOWRY: Yeah, it's just a fact, Howard, that most reporters are liberals. And so that makes them little sponges waiting to soak up Democratic spin. They're just much more susceptible to accepting the Democratic line.

We saw it with Rick Berke of "The New York Times" writing that rat story, which I think now is generally regarded as a joke. But that drove the coverage for days in the networks.

We saw it with this aluminum can lady where the reporters are just ready to believe that AL Gore's plans are the best thing for America and are going to help all these destitute elderly people. And it would take some imagination for a reporter actually to say, "Wait a minute. The elderly people in this country are healthier and wealthier than ever before." But no one thinks to write that story.

KURTZ: Do you really believe -- let me (INAUDIBLE) -- do you really believe that reporters blew those stories out of proportion, if in fact they did, because they go to bed dreaming about a Gore administration?

LOWRY: No. I think it's more subtle than that. I think a lot of reporters try to be as objective as they can.

But the fact is, since they're liberals, there are certain things that they're blind to. And that's just human nature.

I mean, there are certain liberal stories that I wouldn't pick up on because I have certain ideological blinders myself. But it's folly to pretend that reporters, who are voting 90 percent for Bill Clinton, that that doesn't somehow come through in their coverage. Obviously, it does.

KALB: Rick, let me pick up and put the question to you, Marie, if I may. What happened before the Democratic Convention? The media was writing about the coronation of George Bush.

COCCO: Absolutely.

KALB: Suddenly, there's an indictment of the media, as Rich suggests, on liberal grounds rooted into your soul if you're a reporter. But month after month, we've had the trumpets in the media sounding for George Bush. What happened?

COCCO: The polls changed. I mean, the real scandal here...

KALB: Follow the polls.

COCCO: ... and I do think it is a journalistic scandal, is that we are as poll-driven as anyone else. And when George Bush was riding high looking like he could do no wrong, we were writing wonderful stories about George Bush, the different kind of Republican, the guy who was going to capture the center back for the Republican Party.

And here was poor Al Gore, who was not only a tin man, but he was bound at the hip to this horrible Bill Clinton, who was going to drag him down.

KALB: Who is this Bill Clinton? Who is he?

COCCO: That was the story line until the polls changed.

KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, if it is true at least in recent weeks that a lot of the coverage was kind of tilted toward Al Gore, hasn't that started to change a little bit when we had stories about the vice president's apparent hypocrisy in scolding Hollywood and then going to a big Hollywood fundraiser, also what was seen as a flip-flop on the question of oil, releasing oil from the petroleum reserve where he had opposed that several months ago? Do you see a turn in this?

EDWARDS: Absolutely. And as somebody who stands in a lot of those scrums, I mean, I do think that a lot of the reporters who cover Al Gore do ask a lot of pointed questions and are often ready to take him to task.

And I think that is an interesting point that if you had looked at the press coverage a couple of months ago, George Bush would have been a lot more happy with the way things are going than Al Gore.

And when you make the point about the polls, I understand that. But I think you kind of have to look at the news a little bit. Why is it that one candidate is getting a bump in the polls? Why is it that the polls are tightening?

And that tells you that for some reason voters are starting to key into one argument or another or not like a candidate or another. And that does lead you to be a little bit more critical or a little bit more beneficial to one candidate or the other.

So I don't know that we should just sort of stand here and wear hair shirts and say, "The poor press, they're just so awful." I have to disagree with that.

KALB: So Rich, are you ready to abandon your theory...

LOWRY: Not at all.

KALB: ... that being a liberal or a conservative is in one's bloodstream and you cannot escape from it? It's destiny?

LOWRY: Let me try again here. There was a fascinating story last week in "The New York Times" magazine, OK?

KURTZ: Just briefly.

LOWRY: About the late night comedy shows. And the reporter went in and listened to their story meetings, prior, coming up with that night's jokes.

And all these people are liberals. They all think that George Bush is an idiot. And that comes through in their stereotypes, which are inherently disadvantageous to Bush.


LOWRY: ... If you have a choice between stupid and stiff, most people will choose being stiff.

KALB: It's a question of material.

KURTZ: I've got to blow the time whistle here. Thank you very much, Rich Lowry, Tamala Edwards, Marie Cocco.

When we come back, the gray lady admits error, a follow-up on our story about "The New York Times" and former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.


KURTZ: Last week, we talked about "The New York Times" under intense scrutiny for its reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case. Lee, the former Los Alamos scientist under suspicion for giving American nuclear secrets to China, was freed recently after pleading guilty to a single felony.

"The Times" framed the story as a huge spy scandal beginning back in March of 1999, but has come under fire for its early stories, which some have called overzealous and inaccurate.

This week, in a lengthy page two editor's note, the paper took on the criticism. "Our review found careful reporting that included extensive cross-checking and vetting of multiple sources."

But the "Times" also acknowledged that, "We fell short of our standards and found some things we wish we had done differently in the course of the coverage to give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt.

And it cited a problem of tone in parts of some of the articles. "In place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally use language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports and was being voiced to us by investigators, members of Congress, and administration officials."

The "Times" also defended its reporters Jeff Girth (ph) and James Risen (ph) saying there were additional stories that should have been assigned by editors but were not, such as a full-length profile of Lee.

We asked our viewers last week whether they thought "The New York Times" had been unfair to Wen Ho Lee. Among the responses, one viewer wrote: ""The New York Times" in particular should assume some of the blame for the public turning against this man."

But another said: "God bless the American press. Give "The New York Times" a little credit for bringing the subject to light."

Bernie, what did you make of the editor's note?

KALB: Well, what about that, giving "The New York Times" a little credit? Look, these are tough times for "The New York Times." And usually, when a news organization is under attack, not only criticized by other newspapers and other journalists, but by the White House in effect, the usual response is "we stand by our story." That is chiseled in concrete.

In this particular case, "The New York Times" did a bit of soul- searching. It did a reassessment on its coverage. And it offered an itemized list of what it really called its flaws in the coverage.

I think that's kind of a double-edged quality about it. I think for lots of people there will be, as the viewer cabled, e-mailed, "Congratulations to "The New York Times" for taking a look at its own coverage." But for others it's going to be a reinforcement of the bruised reputation the media now has.

KURTZ: I give the "Times" credit for the difficulty of admitting error. But I did find the tone of the thing a little defensive.

I thought it would have been better if its top editors had been available to reporters like me to answer questions rather than simply issuing a statement. They excoriate politicians when they do that.

And finally, I thought given the shortcomings that the paper acknowledged that perhaps there should have been some expression of regret toward Wen Ho Lee.

Bernard Kalb, when we return, we'll have your "Back Page."


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

KALB: Howie, back to this coming Tuesday, the first of the debates, and what do you want in them? A discussion of the issues. OK. But what you really want is a KO.


KALB (voice-over): That's right, a knockout, not just a lot of fancy dancing around in the ring and a lot of quick jabs, because if you look at these debates -- how to put it -- subliminally, they're just plain old-fashioned prize fights. And what the fans want most of all is that sudden, swift uppercut.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I serve with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.



KALB: Now let's be absolutely nonpartisan. That was a beauty. Hard to get off the mat after that one.

The first televised debates go back to 1960 between JFK and Richard Nixon. People who saw this one on TV thought Kennedy won, people on radio just the opposite. In other words, a split verdict. Boring, boring, boring.

The fans want a KO. Hitting below the belt would probably be in bad taste. And taking a bite of the other guy's ear would probably cost you a lot of votes.

Over the years, the debates have demonstrated that they're high risk, full of surprises.


BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR AND DEBATE MODERATOR: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?



KALB: It seemed to lots of fight fans that Mike was caught flat- footed, his reply lacking real wallop, and it cost him.

And remember this, the most costly glance of the campaign? For lots of fans, Bush's time was up, a self-inflicted KO.

You can feel the excitement. In this corner, weighing in at less than 800 pounds, from the great state of Texas, W-W-W. And in this corner, weighing not an ounce less, the VP from Tennessee.

They've been training for weeks. No one knows how it will turn out Tuesday night.


KALB: What the fans want now is for the two guys to take off the gloves and have a real go at each other. They've all got ringside seats. And they're waiting to see who will land a knockout punch.

Oh, one bit of advice to the two contestants. You're better off not wearing a watch. It's just too tempting.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

And finally, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said goodbye this week after two years as President Clinton's top spokesman. He offered some parting thoughts about the fourth estate the other night on "Crossfire."


JOE LOCKHART, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We've got a culture now that rewards in the media those who can say the most extreme things. There are a lot of people competing to get out and say things and get on television and get in the news.

And there seems to be now this premium on someone who will make the most outrageous charge and will say the most extreme thing. I think the vast majority of reporters are still out there just trying to get it right, doing their job.


KURTZ: Joe Lockhart getting in his final jabs.

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.

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

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll tell who has the big bow in the presidential race and will preview what to expect from the first presidential debate Tuesday. That and much more right here next on CNN.



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