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Reliable Sources

Election 2000 Coverage Casts Media in a New and Often Unappealing Light

Aired November 12, 2000 - 11:00 a.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The endless election. Are the media turning the Florida recount into a circus? Should television be banned from calling the election based on exit polls? How did so many newspapers get it wrong, and what's the fallout?

All that ahead on a special one-hour edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

Welcome to this special one-hour edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is off today.

Just ahead, we'll talk about how the television networks made a humiliating error on election night not just once but twice, how some of the nation's top newspapers wound up with history-making headlines also wrong, and how the news magazines and the Internet have been coping with the chaos. We'll talk with the managing editors of two top news magazines, "Time's" Walter Isaacson and "Newsweek's" Ann McDaniel, and with "Slate's" Michael Kinsley.

We begin now with day five still waiting for a president elect.


KURTZ (voice-over): The media coverage of the post campaign continues round the clock with a journalistic invasion in Florida and dueling photo-ops between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and high stakes diplomacy by their spokesmen, two former secretaries of state.

Meanwhile, reverberations are still being felt from the television coverage on election night, which began on a high note.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Let's get one thing straight right from the get go. We would rather be last in reporting a return than to be wrong. If we say somebody has carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank, book it that that's true.


KURTZ: Just before 8:00 p.m. Eastern, the networks weighed in with a major announcement.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: A big call to make.



BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: Mr. Gore will take the state of Florida.


KURTZ: Two hours later, a very different story.


RATHER: Bulletin: Florida pulled back into the undecided column.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC ANCHOR: There has been a chance or we're going to make a change.

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: What the networks give us, the networks taketh away.


KURTZ: It was the beginning of a long night.


BRIT HUME, FOX ANCHOR: Lots more to talk about, waiting on Florida. Stay tuned, folks.


KURTZ: Then, at 2:16 a.m., what appeared to be the big moment.


HUME: Fox News projects George W. Bush the winner of the presidency of the United States based on the call we now make in the state of Florida.

COKIE ROBERTS, ABC ANCHOR: Here it is, what, 2:30 in the morning. So this is likely to be it, yes.


KURTZ: But, of course, it wasn't.


RATHER: This is where we appear to be, folks. The CBS News has now, for the second time tonight, pulled back Florida.

SAM DONALDSON, ABC CORRESPONDENT: We ought not to speculate on a Bush presidency yet, and I think you're right. Should we speculate on a Gore presidency? I mean, someone has got to be president.


KURTZ: As Americans awoke Wednesday morning, there was no president elect in sight.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We still don't know.

KATIE COURIC, NBC CORRESPONDENT: No, it is so strange, isn't it?


KURTZ: Plenty of newspapers across the country had gone to press with the wrong news: the "St. Louis Post Dispatch," the "Oakland Tribune," the "Atlanta Constitution," and others. Many papers updated their editions through the long night as the uncertainty became clear.

Plenty of newspapers held the presses for a clearer picture. The "Chicago Tribune," famous for this 1948 headline, got it right this time around. But for much of the press, there was no forgetting that election night 2000 was not the media's finest hour.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Tallahassee, Florida, Mizell Stewart, managing editor of the "Tallahassee Democrat"; and from outside Bush headquarters in Austin, Texas, Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for the "Dallas Morning News." He covers George W. Bush. And here in Washington, Ceci Connolly, political reporter for "The Washington Post," who has been covering the Gore campaign. Welcome.

Wayne Slater, what's it like these last five days covering sort of maybe President-Elect Bush, and what is the Bush campaign trying to accomplish in terms of dealing with the media?

WAYNE SLATER, "DALLAS MORNING NEWS": Well, in the last five days, they're trying to accomplish -- give us the impression that he's in charge, that he is the president in waiting, that ultimately, the votes are going to be counted, and he's going to be the guy who wins. So I think what they've tried to do and the impression that they've tried to leave in the limited film clips that we've seen, these pool images, these visuals that we've seen and in what we've heard from the Bush campaign operatives we've talked to is: It's only a matter of time, stay cool. This guy will be president.

KURTZ: OK, Ceci Connolly, on the other side, we have the Gore campaign perhaps trying to give the press and, of course, the country the impression that it's not over. Tell us what they have been doing in this propaganda war up until this morning.

CECI CONNOLLY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, very different imagery from what you're seeing down in Texas. The vice president has not said a single word publicly since the day after election day when he gave a fairly bland statement. They, too, are very image conscious, and it's interesting because we wake up every morning and are told we won't see the vice president, and then once George Bush comes out and does some sort of photo opportunity, looking, frankly, fairly presidential holding a serious meeting in a suit and tie, then the Gore people scramble to do a photo opportunity, which is why you saw him playing touch football with the family one day. Last night here in Washington, D.C., he went out to the movies with the Liebermans. There was a big crowd in the mall, cheered, gave him a very enthusiastic greeting.

KURTZ: But what does all this accomplish? In other words, what is the thinking behind watching Al Gore play football but hearing only from Warren Christopher or Bill Daley on his behalf? In other words, why isn't Gore speaking for himself?

CONNOLLY: Well, that's a great question. And we could certainly debate whose strategy is the better one. I think that the thinking in the vice president's camp is they don't want him to seem over eager or arrogant about seizing a presidency that is not yet declared. So they want him to stay very low key, almost out of the picture and leave it to his spokesman to really sort of engage in this new rhetorical war that we have going on.

KURTZ: Wayne Slater, "Newsweek" reports in its new issue out today that they were faxed talking points that went out from Austin telling spokesman and surrogates only to refer to President-Elect Bush. I think those have now been countermanded. But what about the air of transition and Governor Bush being photographed with potential members of his cabinet. All of this very deliberate, do you think, to try to sell the media on the notion that it's Bush?

SLATER: Absolutely, it's deliberate. Look, these guys new very well on Wednesday morning that there were three things going on, three levels of battle: One was administrative, that's the recount; one is legal, those are the pending legal challenges; but maybe the most important, according to some Bush people I talked to, was the public relations battle. So when we saw Governor Bush the other day sitting in the parlor of the governor's mansion that had the vague look of the White House, surrounded by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, who will be his -- likely his foreign policy adviser, national security adviser, we had the image of a president in waiting. It's all very much by design.

You're right. The next morning, they were sending talking points designed to make people think that this guy inevitably will be the president.

KURTZ: Wayne, flash back to election night, because for you, George Bush is not just a potential president, but he's your governor. And if he does win the election, then there's a new Texas governor. What was it like in the crazy roller coaster ride of election night for you trying to cover the story?

SLATER: Well, let me talk about it personally from my point of view as a one-print reporter in the mob. This was a war zone. We had very cold rain. It was pouring, and then ultimately, it would be kind of drizzly, and then it would be icy cold. And we would hear one thing and another.

For me, I had to write several stories during the night in a very confusing -- at a very confusing time. First, I wrote a story that was designed to go to press before any polls had closed. It was pretty much the Bush day. That was to be revised by 10:00. And by that time, we had heard both Florida went for Gore and then that it had not. I negotiated with my editor at the time and said, "You know, we've got to write a story first that's a little more negative in tone, anticipating a Bush defeat after the Florida call." But then when it was pulled back, I said, "Wait a minute. We've got to scramble here on deadline for a second edition and write something that's different, very different."

As the night wore on, I ultimately ended up writing two stories, thinking that at any given moment as we approached our next deadline at about 1:00, 1:30 at Central Time, 2:00 to 2:30 Eastern time...

KURTZ: Right, you got to be ready.

SLATER: I had to be ready.

KURTZ: Well, since you were...

SLATER: And as it turned -- go ahead.

KURTZ: I was just going to say, since you were in a war zone, I hope you got combat pay. Let me -- we'll pick that up in a minute, but let me turn now to Mizell Stewart.

Your newspaper, you called it your worst nightmare, came out with a big headline, "It's President Bush." I wonder if you think, with the benefit of hindsight, that that was your fault, the paper's fault. Was it the fault of the television networks whose lead you were following? Just what happened that night?

MIZELL STEWART, "TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT": I call it the domino effect. You had television networks who were calling the race. You had print reporters in that war zone who had to make a call before that deadline because they knew the presses were waiting. And we're sitting back in the newsroom here in Tallahassee waiting for the presses to start and waiting for a decision. And once those TV calls came, once the story started moving on the wire, we were in a position where we pretty much had to pull the trigger.

KURTZ: And tell us then what happened. I'm told you printed about 11,000 copies with "It's President Bush" headline. I should note here that "The New York Times," the "New York Post," "St. Louis Post Dispatch," and a whole bunch of other papers also, at least for part of their run, went with some version of "Bush Wins" headlines. So you had plenty of company. But what if anything we were able to do once those papers had been printed?

STEWART: Well, we were very fortunate in that we were able to get the press run of the last 11,000 copies. That was over. We replayed it. And then we called all of our drivers back and we were able to -- of those 11,000 that we printed, only 3,000 papers with "President Bush" headline made the streets.

KURTZ: That's better than "Stop the Presses."

STEWART: And we were real happy to be able to reverse that.

KURTZ: I like that. It's better than "Stop the Presses." Get the drivers on the phone. But in retrospect...

STEWART: Get the drivers on the phone.

KURTZ: ... a pretty serious mistake on your part?

STEWART: Well, I would say that that as -- the information that we had at the time, we felt like we made the best call that we could. In hindsight, the one thing that was crucial was that the associated press never made a call on that election. And I give credit to the AP for that.

One thing that people tend to forget is the exit polling and all of the work that's done on election night by Voter News Serve -- Voter News Service is actually a consortium of the networks and the Associated Press.

KURTZ: Right.

STEWART: And in hindsight, I wish that had pointed out some red flags for us.

KURTZ: OK. Ceci Connolly, this period, this crazy period that I call the post campaign, involves not just the dueling press conferences and the spin by the candidates, but a lot of chatter in the media. What do you make of and what do you think the Gore folks make of some of the more prominent commentators who have come on and said, "Well, Gore should concede for the good of the country. And the country can't afford this sort of endless recount business"? Is that hurting the Gore camp? Is it the media's role to be making those kinds of suggestions?

CONNOLLY: Well, as I always do, I'm going to point out the media's not one unit. And I think that tends to be more the commentators than the actual reporters covering the story. That said, I think the feeling on the part of the vice president and the people around him is, "Listen, I've fought most of my life for this job." This is probably his one and only opportunity. I don't anticipate he would run again if he were to lose. And we're talking about perhaps a couple of hundred votes.

I think what really turned the tide for the vice president and people around him this past week was hearing about some of the details of the irregularities in Florida, in particular, Palm Beach County, those 19,000 votes that were invalidated. A lot of these other ones, the chads, as those little pieces of paper that are punched through are called, only half way punched through or dangling. And that sort of stiffened their resolve a little bit.

The chattering around -- I talked to a number of his advisers over the weekend, and what they're trying to do now is quickly get a strategy where they start talking to members of Congress, calming them down, saying, "We're only talking about four or five days here. There's still plenty of time. Everybody, hold your fire."

KURTZ: OK, we'll hold our fire for a minute. When we come back, more about Gore, Bush, the media, and a country waiting for a president elect.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of times, you're under the gone. You can't wait. You got to get that story as soon as it breaks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I woke up that morning and I got the newspaper that said, "Bush Wins." So I thought, wow, you know, wow, OK, we've got a president. And by the time I drove to work, they told me, no, we don't have one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they should wait a little bit to be more accurate. I mean, I realize they all want to be the first one with the story, but a little of accuracy would be very good.




Mizell Stewart, where you are, Tallahassee in the state of Florida, seems to have become something of a journalistic epicenter right now, kind of a media circus. I wonder if you and people there resent to some degree all the bad press that Florida seems to be getting aimed both at the Florida election officials and at the stereotype of, you know, elderly voters who can't read the ballot and so forth. Is there a little bit of sensitivity on this score?

KURTZ: Well, actually, one of the funniest things that's going around the Internet is an editorial cartoon that has a straight line pointing to George Bush and -- oh, I'm sorry, Pat -- or Bush and then squiggly lines going to all the other candidates, and they're calling it Florida's official election ballot.

My wife's getting -- works in Texas from time to time, and she's getting plenty of ribbing about people in "Flori-duh." It's just amazing to me the kind of attention that's been focused here.

KURTZ: I'm glad I didn't say that one. And do you or people who are your readers not feel just a little bit of resentment the national media for some of this ridicule?

STEWART: I don't see any real resentment. I see people here in Tallahassee are telling us they just want this to be over. They want to have a full and fair process and it doesn't matter how much time it takes in order for that to happen. I think what's driving people crazy is the way that the count is being emphasized. And yesterday, you saw scenes out of Palm Beach where you got the canvassing board and observers sitting in a glass room almost in a fish bowl. And right behind the cameras, you see a wall full of reporters and cameras and people. I mean, it's a surreal scene.

KURTZ: The whole thing is surreal.

STEWART: Here where I'm standing in Tallahassee at the capital, you've had all kinds of demonstrations going on behind me. You had students from Florida NM camp out at the capital overnight earlier this week to have their election complaints heard. Just an amazing...

KURTZ: We've all seen those pictures. Let me jump in here, Mizell, because I want to turn to Wayne Slater. You've covered George W. for a long time. There's been a lot of talk, as you know, that he charmed the campaign reporters on this plane, at least had a pretty good relationship. In fact, even in some of these tense post-election photo ops, I've seen him joking around by first name with some of the reporters. Do you think all this has helped him both in the campaign and in the post campaign?

STEWART: Well, to be honest with you, I think it does. I know that's counter to some points of view by reporters who say that, "I can't be charmed. I can't be moved." But I think the relationship that he built -- and he began doing this in June of 1999 -- with the national press and reporters around him was, one, instinctive. I mean, that's just the kind of guy he is. But, two, I think it really helped when push comes to shove. Reporters are more likely to give him a break.

Now having said that, when something big happens -- the DWI episode the other day, or questions about his military service -- Bush has seen very quickly and he understands very well that reporters will go fast and hard with stories that don't make him look very good. But overall, I think it's probably worked to his advantage.

KURTZ: Ceci Connolly, flip side of that question. Vice President Gore sometimes has had a difficult relationship with the press, sometimes a remote relationship where he hasn't talked to the press very much. Do you think that on balance, looking back through the campaign and the last few days has not played to his advantage?

CONNOLLY: Howie, I think it is naive for anybody to suggest that some of the nation's best political reporters will write positive stories if somebody's nice and friendly or negative stories if somebody's not so charming. But what I do think happened over the course of this campaign was that Governor Bush built up a relationship, in some ways a little bit of credibility and a little bit of trust, through all of that access that he provided day in and day out. He stood there and took questions. And if you had one...

KURTZ: And gave reporters nicknames.

CONNOLLY: Well, we won't get into that.

KURTZ: OK. And the contrast with Gore?

CONNOLLY: And the contrast with Gore was that the vice president and the people around him did not build those relationships of trust, credibility, respect, access, and it hurt him along the way, no doubt about it. And it's hurting right now, I think. You notice where are the Gore spokespeople? Where are the people -- I mean, aside from Daley and Christopher who stand up each day and give a technical statement, where are the other people making the case on behalf of Al Gore?

KURTZ: Good question. We'll have to leave it there. Ceci Connolly, Mizell Stewart in Tallahassee, Wayne Slater in Austin, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, we'll talk about where the TV networks went wrong on election night and should they stop calling the election based on those exit polls.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They definitely rushed it and they did it twice. So I think they really messed up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I really thought, they really don't know what they're talking about.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think my faith in the accuracy of the reporting was probably not cheapened as much as my faith in the accuracy of our system.




REP. BILLY TAUZIN (R), LOUISIANA: We are beginning an investigation of how this system works and how it works well and how it works badly.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: How do we expect the people of this country to be patient if the media of the country is not patient in order to get the accurate information in front of people?


KURTZ: Two members of Congress talking about the blunders on the television networks on election night.

We turn now to Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media & Public Affairs.

Thanks for coming in, Bob.


KURTZ: Well, the public has weighed in on this. There's a "Time"-CNN poll that says that 79 percent believe the media acted irresponsibly on election night. In your judgment, where does this mistake, this pair of mistakes, actually, rank in the great panoply of media blunders?

LICHTER: I'd say this is on the level of the Exxon Valdez. This is one of the...

KURTZ: One heck of an oil spill?

LICHTER: Yes, one of the grand blunders. In fact, journalists had started congratulating themselves that they did better in the election this year -- I've heard a lot of positive views from journalists. And of course, this is going to blow everything away. The only thing anybody is going to remember about the media's role in this election is that they not only botched it once, but twice.

KURTZ: Absolutely.

LICHTER: In fact, I have one television executive say to me that, "Well, we had a pretty good night. We called 49 states right," which is not that different from saying, "All the other planes landed safely except for the one that blew up."

KURTZ: All the other oil tankers got their cargo to port.

LICHTER: Pulled it without a spill. Last night on RELIABLE SOURCES, Bob, we asked Sam Donaldson and Dan Rather about this historic screw up by the networks. Let's take a look at what they had to say.


RATHER: We've always said, you know, this is not an exact science. It's an imperfect art at best. And one of the things I think we could do better is to underscore more often with people that while we believe we were right in making these calls that they can be wrong.

DONALDSON: Well, no one's happy about it. We have egg on our face, no question about it. And Howard, we're determined, all of us, to see that it doesn't happen again.


KURTZ: Bob Lichter, the first mistake, which was the early evening about 8:00 p.m. Eastern, called Florida for Vice President Gore. That was based pretty much on exit polls. As you know, these exit polls come from a consortium of the television networks and other news organizations called the Voter News Service. With the benefit of hindsight, is it a mistake for everybody to rely on one set of data?

LICHTER: Well, now we are seeing the down side of the money saving that go into Voter News Service. The benefit of competition is if one network makes a call on spotty data, the other networks are going to say, "What are our people saying?" And the network that made the first call has a reality check. The problem is if one of them gets it wrong, all of them get it wrong. And the anchors, who have been very contrite, ended up looking like Larry, Moe and Curly Joe.

KURTZ: Not pulling any punches here. But let's not let the networks off the hook, because even though they're getting the data from Voter News Service, either the Voter News Service makes recommendations about, OK, it's time to call a state, each network has a decision desk and top editorial people who are suppose to do their own analysis and decide whether they want to risk the credibility and prestige of that network by going along. Now, in this case, they all went along but they did it twice. So -- but I don't want to give the impression that they were just blindly repeating whatever a few exit polls just tell them.

LICHTER: No, I'm not letting them off the hook. On the contrary. I'm trying to reel them in and throw them squiggling into the boat. You know, Voter News Service, when they say, "Well, we got bad data," well, who created Voter News Service? It is a creation of the networks of, by and for the networks. And it's their responsibility. And again, then if they see something going wrong with all those pundits and experts and some very smart people in some of those studios, nobody thought to say, "You know, this just doesn't look right." And beyond that, it was such an early call anyway with the polls still open, which really annoys voters.

KURTZ: Right. Now most of the polls were closed in Florida but not in the western part...

LICHTER: In the panhandle.

KURTZ: ... of Florida, which -- and, of course, not in the rest of the country, which was getting a signal from the media commentators, particularly after Gore "won," in quotes, Florida, but also won Michigan and Pennsylvania, that the vice president was cruising to victory. But now the 2:00 in the morning call, 2:00 in the morning Eastern had nothing to do with exit polls. That had to do with the fact that most of the vote was in, Bush had a big lead, and the networks one after one in the space of four minutes said, "Let's call the state of Florida and the election to Governor Bush." Why weren't they more cautious after already having blown it just hours before?

LICHTER: I think it was kind of a bend-over-backwards of saying, "Well, we screwed up once. Now we're going to -- we made our mistake. Now we'll get it right by giving the final total. But, really...

KURTZ: People say, "What's the rush? Why can't you wait another hour and make sure that, in fact, this is the result?

LICHTER: And people have said that election after election, even when it doesn't really matter. And studies find it very difficult to show...

KURTZ: ... and turnout as the press.

LICHTER: Right. But nonetheless, it's a sort of thing that rankles voters because it seems to be something for the journalists instead of for the voters, a way to compete with each other, show off what they can do.

KURTZ: Right. Just briefly, do you think that there will be serious calls in Congress and elsewhere for regulation that would prevent the use of these exit polls to call states and to call an election?

LICHTER: I think there will be calls. They won't really be that serious. People will back off. But the media will suffer more at the hands of the public than the legislators. I think the two big losers in this election are the Electoral College and the media.

KURTZ: The college of media cardinals.


KURTZ: And as you say, the court of public opinion perhaps the highest court here as well. Bob Lichter, Center for Media & Public Affairs, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up next, the top editors of "Time," "Newsweek" and "Slate" in a moment.



Joining us now from New York, Walter Isaacson, the managing editor of "Time" magazine. And here in Washington, Ann McDaniel, Washington bureau chief and managing editor of "Newsweek," and Michael Kinsley, editor of the on-line magazine


Well, Walter Isaacson, you've got some fascinating stuff in your special election issue. I read that Barbara Bush was quoted as saying, or telling someone, "I was the mother of a president for 30 minutes" -- president-elect, that is. But of course, this special issue was supposed to come out, I guess, on Thursday. How did you make the decision to scrap it, and was that a difficult one?

WALTER ISAACSON, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME" MAGAZINE: It wasn't all that difficult of a decision because we were staying up all Tuesday night. And we watched the networks call it -- call Florida for Gore. Then we watched them call the whole election for Bush, and everybody's sitting there with egg on their face. We were having breakfast around 5:30 that morning, and I gathered all of our troops -- there were about 70 people in the building, trying to put out this issue.

And I said, "This is crazy. Everybody else is rushing to judgment. Let's go home. Let's come out on our regular schedule. Let's dispatch a lot of people to Florida. Let's get behind the scenes with the campaigns and get our photographers in there." But everybody's losing all their credibility. It wasn't that tough of a call. It was around 5:30 in the morning on Wednesday morning when we said, "Let's not print now. Let's wait and see what's happening." KURTZ: OK. Well, before I turn to you, Ann McDaniel, let's take our first peek at what's on the cover of the newsmagazines this morning. "Newsweek" -- "And the winner is?" "Time" -- "The wildest election in history." Not many would argue with that.

"Newsweek"'s special issue -- you can't have a special issue that doesn't have President-elect Somebody on the cover?

ANN MCDANIEL, MANAGING EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": Well, we have a special issue coming out tomorrow, and it does have not only the news of this week, but our special election project that looks at how the campaign -- behind the scenes of the campaign for the whole year. We have a special staff that looks just at -- that works for an entire year, promises the candidates that none of the information will come out before the election, and usually before the result. But this year it comes out after the election and before the result.

We had much the same process Walter did. Over at "Newsweek," we were up all night. We were watching what was happening. We saw the networks call the election for Bush at about 2:15 on Wednesday morning. About 20 minutes later, Mike Isikoff, one of our very distinguished investigative reporters, came running down the hall, and he had been on the Web site that both Jeb Bush and the Gore people were looking at as the Florida vote was tallied. And he came running down the hall saying "This isn't over yet."

Well, that was about the moment that Al Gore was calling George Bush and giving him the same message, too. So...

KURTZ: It sounds like Isikoff was right on top of it.


KURTZ: Michael Kinsley, when events are moving so quickly, what does a magazine like "Slate" do? Do you move from daily publication to hourly publication?

MICHAEL KINSLEY, EDITOR, "SLATE": Well, we publish hourly anyway, although at "Slate," unlike other Web sites, we like to take the longer view. We -- you get e-mail from people saying, "It's been 45 minutes since such an event has happened, and you have nothing up about it yet." And I write them back saying, "We take a longer view. Give us another 10 or 15 minutes."


KINSLEY: And of course, that Web site of the Florida Election Commission was our biggest competition on election night.

KURTZ: Oh, so you...

ISAACSON: Let me make a point, Howie...

KURTZ: Go ahead, Walter.

ISAACSON: ... on this, if I can, because one of the things that happened Wednesday night was a symbolic transition of authority. The networks and broadcast television lost all semblance of authority. Everybody's wringing their hands about it, but in some ways, it's kind of useful that this happened. And you could see -- it happened -- the younger people on our staff, just as Ann McDaniel was saying, were looking at the Web and saying, "No, no, no. You can get better, faster, more reliable information directly from the source in Florida." We had a couple people come running into my office saying that.

And it was almost like you were there at a symbolic moment, like, "Don't trust TV anymore. They don't" -- because basically, the TV commentators don't trust the viewers. They just try to say, "We'll make a call without explaining all the details about it, without being nuanced about it, without giving raw numbers." The Web was giving the raw numbers and being reliable, and I think this election will be looked back on as the election where the Internet overtook broadcast television as a source of credibility, reliability and authority.

KURTZ: You could well be right.

You know, Michael Kinsley, we've heard a lot about credibility, give the colossal screw-up by the networks on election night. But in your magazine, "Slate," you raised a different kind of issue of credibility. Should we -- should people know how the journalists who cover this election voted? And in addition, on Tuesday, you disclosed that you and many of the top editors and writers and other staffers at "Slate" magazine voted for Al Gore. Why did you do that? And of course, don't you run the risk of people now seeing "Slate" as kind of a pro-Gore, pro-Democratic publication?

KINSLEY: Well, we run that risk, but I don't think it's true. We try to tell it straight, and I feel you have to be honest. An intelligent, intellectually curious person, such as yourself, Howie, and such as most journalists, cannot help but develop opinions about the subject they cover. And I think you have to educate your readers or your viewers that there's a difference between having an opinion and having a bias.

And rather than pretend that you have no views, which seems to me ludicrous, you should -- you should reveal your views and say, "Look, these are -- these are my political views. This is where I come from," and let you readers judge for themselves whether you're telling it straight or not.

KURTZ: Ann, is "Newsweek" ready to sign onto the "Slate" full- disclosure program?

MCDANIEL: I completely agree with Michael that it's all about opinion. You know, every talented journalist has opinions about what they cover. At the same time, I don't see why we should disclose who we vote for unless, at the bottom of virtually every story, we're going to disclose our opinions about it.

KINSLEY: Well...

MCDANIEL: I do think you have to educate the readers... KURTZ: Not just who you vote for, but whether you're in favor of a property tax increase and...

MCDANIEL: Exactly.


KINSLEY: Howie, you press critics are constantly demanding disclosure of conflicts of interest...

KURTZ: Right.

KINSLEY: ... about this, that or the other. Your aunt owns 10 shares of AT&T, therefore you should say this before you comment about -- about the telecommunications reform. Surely your political views are -- I wouldn't call them a conflict of interest, but they are a relative piece of data which -- which your readers could use to assess what you write.

KURTZ: Well, Walter Isaacson, one thing that misses, in my view, is that somebody who doesn't -- who isn't particularly inspired by either candidate, maybe holds his nose or her nose and votes for one of them, then is put down as a pro-Gore or pro-Bush partisan. What do you think of Michael's journalistic disclosure approach here?

ISAACSON: Well, I answered "Slate." I think I was probably the first one to do it. And I answered it honestly, which is that, personally, I went to the polls in Yonkers, New York, where I live. I voted for judgeships. I voted for bond issues and local officials. But I didn't vote in any race that "Time" magazine covers, including the presidency or the Senate.

I disagree with Michael slightly. I'm not sure all of us have deep partisan or biases or feelings. I'm not sure how I would have voted, and I didn't want to force myself to have to make up my mind because, as the editor of the magazine, I wanted to stay as neutral as I could. I'm not saying this is a grand matter of principle. Other people may have -- but it's the thing that makes me feel most comfortable personally.

And I think it is possible, because I know -- I know what was going on in my own mind, that it was easy not to make a judgment. It was easy not to force myself to say who would I vote for. And when you're not -- when you know over the course of a year that you're not going to vote in a certain election, you're registered as an independent, I think it helps clear your mind so that you don't try to make up your mind.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Michael -- has it been a cop-out for editors to say, "Well, I'm just not going to vote, and therefore I'm going to be adjudged as"...

KINSLEY: I think maybe in this election, especially, it might well have been possible for people to be ambivalent to the end. But Walter is, as I say, an intelligent, intellectually curious person, and I don't believe that he can routinely purge himself of all opinions. And I think the more important job is to rise above your opinions and avoid bias, which is a very different thing.

ISAACSON: I agree with Michael on that. And I do think it was a particularly easy election in order to -- it was a particularly easy election in which you could enjoy not allowing yourself to have an opinion or be on one side or the other, and that there are times when you do have opinions. And certainly, I have opinions, as a journalist, on all -- a variety of issues. I try not to be partisan about it. I think I can be on the left or on the right on...

KURTZ: And we will get...

ISAACSON: ... an array of issues, but...

KURTZ: And we will get to some of those opinions right after this break, Walter. So let me take a time out.

When we come back, more about campaign 2000 with our magazine guests.



CONAN O'BRIEN: It was reported today that the television ratings on election night were the highest in 40 years. Can you believe that? It's amazing. That's right. Yeah, the networks were thrilled. And as a result, they promised to incorrectly call the election from now on.


KURTZ: Conan O'Brien.

Well, some of our viewers have weighed in by e-mail. One person writes, "It is unethical, and as we now see, also highly error-prone, that an election ever be `called' when the number of votes yet to be tallied, including absentees, is larger than the margin of victory. We, the public, don't want or need to know who is winning. We want to know who has won."

Another person writes, "I, for one, don't give a damn about network competitive woes, and I don't care about their self-serving projections. The networks should report the facts, and let the numbers speak for themselves and stop playing prophet with our precious democratic system."

Boy, the magazines could give that person a job. Knows how to write.

Ann McDaniel, do you think during campaign 2.0 that the media are in danger of becoming consumed, almost like during the Lewinsky saga, by the partisan wrangling going on now on both sides? Because, after all, this election is so close. Both sides can taste it -- 327 Florida votes. Does the press have any responsibility here to try to maintain a certain calmness during this tense period? MCDANIEL: Well, I think it's a good story. I do think both sides are trying to spin as hard as they can. They're certainly using the media to get their message out and try to convince the public. I was struck by "Newsweek"'s poll that's out this morning, and that shows that about 80-plus percent of the people said, "You know, it's OK to do a recount. The country isn't falling apart. We can wait."

Now, they also seem to be indicating that if we wait beyond this week, when the absentee ballots are counted, that they may get a little more restless. I'm not sure the American public is going to be thrilled to see this thing go into court and stay there for weeks and weeks and weeks.

I think we in the media have the responsibility to cover the story, to tell people what's happening. It's so confusing. It's an opportunity to educate ourselves and educate others on how the process works and just see where we end up.

KURTZ: Michael Kinsley, do you believe that if the situation was reversed, we would have a flip, where Republicans would be saying, "Of course! There's a moral obligation to have a hand recount in all these counties," and the Democrats would be saying, "Let's not replay the election. Let's move on. The people have spoken"?

KINSLEY: Oh, sure. In fact, there was a story in the New York "Daily News" by Michael Kramer before the election about Republican plans to do exactly that when it looked like it might -- it might work out in exactly the other way. And I just don't...

KURTZ: To be aggressive in -- in challenging...

KINSLEY: Challenging -- or encouraging electors in the Electoral College to vote -- to vote the popular vote way, to launch a PR campaign saying the popular vote is what matters. And I don't think there's any doubt that the Republicans would -- would be doing exactly what they accuse the Democrats of doing. And the idea that there's something suspicious about a hand recount is something which I don't think ever occurred to anyone, certainly any Republican, certainly to Jim Baker, until about 48 hours ago.

KURTZ: Walter Isaacson, does print have a certain advantage here over television? By which I mean, if you watch particularly cable, you -- ever 12 minutes, you've got Florida officials coming out. You've got Warren Christopher or Jim Baker coming out. You've got these carefully staged photo ops, Al Gore playing touch football, George Bush with his dog. And I wonder if -- if television, which has a need for pictures, is being used more by the spinners on both sides, whereas print has the relative luxury, if you agree, of being able to step back.

ISAACSON: Here's two things that I think print have going for it at a time like this. First of all, it tends to have more authority and credibility. If you read something, it sinks in. You tend to believe it. And it puts pressure on us in print to try even harder to get things right. I think at a time like this, people are looking for a little bit of authority and credibility. Secondly, what we can do in print, especially in magazines -- and I think "Time," "Newsweek" and others do it this week -- is the narrative, telling the story in context, from behind the scenes, putting it all into a nice narrative. "Here you are. Here's why people are acting that way," as opposed to the bombardment of bulletins and headlines and spinners that happen on TV or, for that matter, the Internet.

It's easier to get fast facts from headline bulletins on TV and the Internet, but if you want the story to be told as a story, I think that's where print does a good job.

KURTZ: Does the -- do the journalists, as opposed to the public -- would they like this to go on for several weeks and -- you know, I mean, after all, we don't -- you know, we are all sort of addicted to campaigns, and now we've got a new campaign? Or you think some media folks are getting a little tired of this?

MCDANIEL: Well, I think both. I think journalists always love a good story, and this is an amazing story, one we never anticipated -- at least, the election being absolutely this close. At the same time, it is exhausting. And journalists had themselves geared up to finish up Wednesday morning, have a new president, start the transition within journalistic organizations, as well as within the country, for who would cover the White House next and what the coverage would look like.

So I think there's some of each. I think some people are really exhausted, and other people are just thriving off the good story.


KINSLEY: Journalism, as a business, loves crises like this.


KINSLEY: I mean, our traffic is through the roof. I'm sure CNN down in Atlanta is just -- is just cackling.

KURTZ: "Keep it going. Keep it going."

KINSLEY: And it's one of the built-in hypocrisies of our business that bad times are good for us.

KURTZ: OK. Michael Kinsley can always be counted on to give us the built-in hypocrisies of our business. Ann McDaniel of "Newsweek," Walter Isaacson in New York.

We will be back with all of our guests for more discussion in a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I guess they should have erred on the side of precaution, and waited until they had the actual numbers to report. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They shouldn't have jumped at the first chance they got it because it was wrong the first time. And as the polls said, it was pretty close. So I don't think they should have jumped as fast as they did.




Walter Isaacson, we've had kind of a good time this morning beating up on the television networks, but in a more serious vein, how seriously damaged do you think they are with their very flawed performance on election night? And is this the kind of thing that'll be remembered a half century from now, the way we now talk about 1948 and "Dewey Defeats Truman"?

ISAACSON: Oh, I think there'll be -- it'll be remembered for 10, 20 years, at least. And I'm not sure this is a bad thing, no offense to wonderful television networks. I think it's good for these exit polls and projections and calling of states to lose credibility. That'll solve the problem. If people no longer worship these things and trust them totally, it's probably good for the process.

KURTZ: But Ann McDaniel, if exit polls were to lose credibility -- and clearly, they kind of blew up on Tuesday night -- what about the media's addiction to polls? There's a "Newsweek" poll, a "Washpost" poll, an ABC political, a CBS poll. We all just went nuts over these polls. The polls bounced around -- 7-point Bush lead, 2- point Gore lead. In retrospect, it all seems kind of overheated.

MCDANIEL: Well, it does, although one might think that the polls, at least near the end of the election, got it pretty close to right. I mean, they were constantly within the margin of error, and it seems that the result, in the long run, is going to be within 1 or 2 percent.

Although I agree with Walter. This is good for the process. Why do we need to call the election within hours? As long as all the networks and all the media agree that you're going to wait to have all the ballots counted, including the absentee ballots, that seems fair to the country. It seems like...

KURTZ: Because -- I asked that to...

MCDANIEL: ... a good idea for them to...

KURTZ: I asked that to Sam Donaldson. He said, "Well, we at ABC would be happy to wait, but of course, everybody else won't wait."


KURTZ: So you have this sort of pack journalism instinct, Michael.

KINSLEY: I think...

MCDANIEL: But don't you think...

KINSLEY: I think that's completely wrong, Ann. And I think the viewer who wrote in saying "We don't want this information about who's leading" is either kidding -- kidding herself or is an exception, not the rule. If the information is -- people are more skeptical about the information, that's good. But I don't want to see a conspiracy between all of the media to agree not to release information on behalf of people who don't claim to want it. Put the information out there. Put the exit polls out there. Say what you think they mean, and people will treat it skeptically...

KURTZ: Even at the risk of being wrong and ending up with egg on your face?


KURTZ: That's OK?

KINSLEY: If you're wrong, you're wrong.

MCDANIEL: But there's a difference. You can have it both ways. We can put all the information out. I agree with you. We just tell people what it is we know, but how reliable or not it is. We don't have to call the states. We don't have to say "This is the next president of the United States." We don't have to reach conclusions based on exit polls. We can -- or at least final conclusions. We can give analysis of that and go move on.

KURTZ: But of course, Walter, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings -- they don't want to come and say, "Well, we sort of think this person might be ahead." They want to, you know, intone with the great baritone of authority that here's the next president.

ISAACSON: Exactly right. That's why it's wonderful that they've lose their baritone of authority. They should put out -- I agree with Michael. They should say a lot, put out information, give all the information they have. But they don't have to call it. They can just say, "Here's what the votes are looking like. Here's what the exit polls are looking like." Other networks can give it their way. Papers, the Internet, can each give it their way. And trust that the viewer's smart enough to make up his or her own mind instead of having to be told "We're now going to call it" in grand, stentorian tones.


ISAACSON: In fact, they can still say that, but nobody'll believe them anymore, which is kind of good.

KURTZ: We'll see if there's any self-restraint the next time around.

Walter Isaacson, Michael Kinsley, Ann McDaniel, thanks very much for joining us.

I'll be back with a final thought right after this.


KURTZ: Before we go, this note about the post-election drama. Finally, we have a soap-opera story that the media can feel good about. After all, no one can accuse the 4th estate of engaging in tabloid journalism.

It's not the O.J. case, with two dead bodies and a racially- charged trial. It's not the maudlin coverage that surrounded the death of Princess Diana or that of JFK Jr. It's not a tawdry tale of Oval Office sex, like the Monica story. It's not an overhyped extravaganza like the nanny trial or the Elian Gonzalez case.

No, this is a dramatic presidential election in the extra innings, a story of the utmost political importance. Then why does it feel like just another excuse for the talking heads to shout at each other? The partisans accusing each other of bad faith, the "breaking news" logos, the theme music, the hype machine once again in high gear. The other night on Fox News, one Florida congressman called another a liar. Where have we heard that before?

And the media are once again being cast in the role of villain, not just for their dumb behavior in blowing the big calls on election night, but for seeming to tilt against Bush or Gore in the eyes of some viewers, for high-decibel reporting hour after hour, even when the ballot recount hasn't changed, and there's no news to speak of.

But the press has yet to learn that even the most important story, the fate of the White House hanging by a Floridian thread, can be reported without the yelling and the posturing and the "nation in crisis" promos. So let's take the volume down just a drop. When there's real news, it's not hard to get America to listen.

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

Coming up next, "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER," which begins right now.



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