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Reliable Sources

How is the Press Covering the Endless Florida Recount?

Aired November 18, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: It's still not over. How is the press covering the minute-by-minute developments in the endless Florida recount? Are journalists being spun by the Bush and Gore teams? And does the reporting and the punditry have a partisan tilt?

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

Well just ahead we'll talk with the editors of political magazines from both sides of the ideological spectrum, Rich Lowry of "National Review" and Katrina Vanden Heuvel of "The Nation."

And we'll hear from reporters who have been tracking the moves of Al Gore and George W. Bush.

But first, day 11 of no president elect and the media still in overdrive.


TIM RUSSERT, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": Gosh, who will be our next president?

KURTZ (voice-over): Another week, another whirlwind of special reports, breaking news, press conferences, live shots, up-to-the- minute, round-the-clock, this-just-in coverage.

In print day after day and on the airwaves, there was no escaping it.

RUSSERT: It's obvious there is not only a legal struggle going on, but there is a political chess game.

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST "HANNITY & COLMES": They were even in court today talking about dimples.

TED KOPPEL, HOST, "NIGHTLINE": It's enough to make the nation's eyes glaze over.

KURTZ: And just like during O.J. and impeachment, the legal experts were out in force.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And the courts said, look, we're taking charge, we're stepping in. No one asked us for this, but we're putting everything on hold while we decide this very important issue.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: The fact that these manual recounts are going forward, a mild legal victory for the Gore team.

KURTZ: The media mob in Florida, hungry for news, was fed by a constantly evolving cast of characters, from court spokesmen to the secretary of state, from local election boards to the vote counters.

Meanwhile, the men who would be president played the game with dueling TV appearances, first Gore and then Bush and then Gore again, as their staffs continued to spin the press corps to their side of the story.

And with Friday's Florida Supreme Court ruling delaying any final announcement of the vote totals, the media drama has yet to run out of gas.


KURTZ: Well joining us from Austin, Texas, CNN's senior political correspondent Candy Crowley. And here in Washington, CNN's Chris Black, who's been following Al Gore.

Candy Crowley, just a few hours ago Karen Hughes, Governor Bush's communications director, was out before the cameras again trying to discredit the manual recount, throwing around charges of fraud. Since no legal action has been filed, at least not today, was this just the daily salvo in the ongoing spin war?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, sure. But it's not just a spin war, you know, in terms of reporters. As you know, Howard, the court of public opinion holds a lot of sway here, so you sort of have the story evolving at two levels. You've got, you know, whatever's going on in the legal arena, and then you have what's going on in the political arena. So today's event was definitely one that you put in the political arena category.

KURTZ: When the Bush team is not coming out for a photo-op or a statement or some other kind of rhetorical appearance, has it been difficult for you, Candy, and other reporters in Austin to get information about what's going on behind the scenes, about how they're reacting to the latest legal and political maneuvering?

CROWLEY: Absolutely. I mean, part of it is logistical and part of it is just sort of a planned media strategy.

Look, you know, what you have here are reporters that gathered in Austin, you know, last Monday night -- was it last Monday night? -- or however long we've ago we've been doing this, you know, whenever the election was and, you know, expecting that the political story, the campaign story was going to end.

So now we're all sitting in Austin, and the political campaign story is going to end in Florida in an arena that most reporters are not used to dealing in. You know, you get court orders and, you know, looking at them thinking, OK, what does this mean? Now inside the Bush campaign, they're essentially doing the same thing. This is the political arm of the Bush campaign, Austin headquarters. So it has to first learn from their lawyers whet the heck this means. If it's a bad ruling, they have to find out what the bright side is, where the pony is...

KURTZ: Right.

CROWLEY: ... and then they come out and, you know, talk to reporters. So it's -- you know, they're caught up in both a logistical problem as well as just a strategy problem.

KURTZ: I think everybody's had a crash course in dimpled chads.

Chris Black, same question to you about the vice president's campaign. When they're not doing something for the cameras or bringing out Warren Christopher or now David Boies, has it been difficult to get information from the Gore folks about what their strategy is and how they're reacting to all the maneuvering?

CHRIS BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I must tell you, Howie, I haven't had any difficulty at all. And I think part of the reason is there are just so many Gore campaign sources. They have an army of 500 people right now in Florida, and most of them are veterans of many political wars, a lot of lawyers, a lot of political operatives. So if you can't find one person, there's about five, six, seven, a dozen more you can find. So I personally haven't had any difficulty at all.

But this PR war really goes right to the heart of the perception of the legitimacy of this victory, so it's important. And what the Gore people are trying to do is paint a picture of a very partisan secretary of state, the co-chair of George Bush's Florida campaign, trying to deny the will of the people.

While on the other side, the Bush campaign is making a very aggressive effort to completely delegitimize the recount process, saying, oh, it's chaotic, there's these old people, they don't know what they're doing...

KURTZ: And trying to convince the public through the...

BLACK: Precisely.

KURTZ: ... through the mechanism of the media.

BLACK: Exactly. But, you know, what's interesting to me is the pictures of this seem to be helping the Gore side a little bit more than the Bush side, because the secretary of state, whatever you think of her, unfortunately invites parody. And they -- the -- she's sort of -- her physical appearance is feeding the Gore campaign';s attempt to paint her as this terrible dragon lady.

KURTZ: OK, but let me turn you back to the Gore campaign, Chris Black. And for all the army of spinners that you say are out there, we haven't seen on camera in recent days the main Gore team spokesmen, Mark Fabiani or Chris Lehane. Is that an accident? BLACK: Well, Lehane has unquestionably become a little bit radioactive, and he would admit that himself. He was the pit bull during the campaign. He made a lot of enemies, including Senator Specter of Pennsylvania, who absolutely hates him. And he was very partisan, very tough, and a decision was made that it was better to present a slightly more low-key face of the campaign, which is why Doug Hattaway is doing a lot of the public appearances and why they keep rolling out the gray beards.

KURTZ: The gray beards and the lawyers...

BLACK: Precisely.

KURTZ: ... and make it look a little less political.

BLACK: Exactly.

KURTZ: Candy Crowley, back to you. Is it part of the Austin strategy that we don't see Governor Bush that much? After all, one of the only times he came on camera to respond was because he felt he had to respond to Al Gore, who had made a statement, s surprise statement for the cameras at the top of the evening news a couple nights ago.

CROWLEY: They have. What they -- you know, you have almost a mirror problem on the Bush side. Sort of early on for the first seven or eight days, it was hard to get your phone calls returned. And, you know, we saw very few appearances by anyone other then James Baker down in Florida.

KURTZ: Right.

CROWLEY: Now why? You know, first of all, they know that Karen Hughes is associated with, you know, the political arm of the campaign. She's the one closest to the governor's side day in and day out. And they felt that that did give a political bent to it. It's one of the reasons why you saw Governor Mark Racicot out there today holding the bulk of the problem and saying, look, you know, here's Governor Racicot because he doesn't look as political.

KURTZ: Right, so both campaigns being very careful about the image they present to the media and to the public.

Candy Crowley, Chris Black, thanks very much for joining us.

And now we turn to New York, where joining us is Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of "The Nation" magazine and here in Washington Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review."


Rich Lowry, I confess I was going to start by asking whether you felt partisan journalists on both sides were going too far in throwing around words like grand larceny in regard to this election, and here's the cover of your magazine,"National Review," "Thou Shalt Not Steal," and of course the person alleged to perhaps be doing the stealing is Vice President Al Gore. So are you very much in the position of blaming Gore for all that the country's going through now with this disputed election?

RICH LOWRY, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well this is part of our ongoing series on the Ten Commandments. This is the first in a series.

Look, I think Bill Daley gave the game away when in the initial days of this controversy he said it's the people's will that Al Gore win Florida, which basically said they were going to do anything to get the count that they wanted.

And I do think there are legitimate problems with these hand recounts when you have chads falling out on the floor, when you have people trying to divine what was someone's intent when you find a dimpled chad. That's not just finding legitimate votes, there';s some of that going on. But they're also creating new votes, and that's extremely problematic.

KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, is there any danger in terms of the media that when we have conservative columnists, commentators and magazines accusing Gore of theft and liberal commentators throwing it back at Bush that people are going to viewer the press, or at least the opinion press, as being predictably partisan?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, "THE NATION": Well I think partisanship is good. I think what we have in this country is partisanship that tries to obscure its partisanship. I think of the first few days of whatever we're calling this, the morass, which is an opportunity to learn things.

But you think about the media and how it was playing by the Bush playbook. All this talk about closure for the sake of the country, instability, crisis -- what crisis? What's more important is who actually won this election. And that was obscured, not only in the pages of "The Wall Street Journal," which predictably called this a coup d'etat, though faithfully following laws hasn't been a coup d'etat before, but "The New York Times," "The Washington Post."

And then you had people like Tim Russert offering advice to Gore to step down, be magnanimous, William Safire worried, touchingly worried, about Al Gore's future.

Finally, listen, you know, Rich Lowry and I come from two openly partisan publications. We are opinionated, we are not biased. What do you do with FOX? Live up to the courage of their convictions. They talk about their mantra as we report the news, we decide -- you decide...

KURTZ: We report, you decide.

VANDEN HEUVEL: ... What about, we distort the news, we decide the news?

KURTZ: Well I'll tell you what...

VANDEN HEUVEL: Think of the role of FOX television in calling this election.

KURTZ: OK, let's come back to FOX in the next segment. But I want to give Rich Lowry a chance to respond.

And Katherine Harris, the Florida of secretary of state who was the chairman, co-chairman , excuse me, of George Bush's campaign. Chris Black made reference to her being a much-ridiculed figure. You wrote the other day in that she deserves an apology. Why did you write that?

LOWRY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the idea that the press is skewed toward Bush on this is totally ridiculous. First of all, it is a legitimate question to wonder whether we';re in a crisis when we don't know who the next president of the United States is, you know, a week or so after the election. It's not outrageous for people to bring up that concern.

So I think...

KURTZ: I don't see any rioting in the streets, however.

LOWRY: Well, no, but it's an extraordinary situation...

KURTZ: Sure.

LOWRY: ... there's no doubt about that.

And, look, there's absolutely a double standard in the way that Katherine Harris is being treated in several different ways. One, we don't see the same hue and cry over Bob Butterworth, who is arguably...

KURTZ: Florida attorney general.

KURTZ: The Florida attorney general, who is arguably just as partisan and is supposed to have no role in election matters, yet has butted in with a crucial opinion on this matter. But -- so we don't hear about Butterworth.

And also, the extraordinary thing about Katherine Harris is we have a culture where it's generally considered taboo and out of bounds to make comments about the personal appearance of women elected officials. And the only time we had exceptions to that is when there's an inconvenient conservative woman like Linda Tripp, or in this case Katherine Harris, and both -- just the most nasty, low-down things are being said about her.

KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, isn't it fair for the press to point out, as in the case of the Florida Supreme Court, where I've got articles saying that they are all Democrats, most of them registered Democrats, to point out that Katherine Harris was a big Bush supporter and that everything she's done in this campaign, in terms of the post- election dispute, has been to the benefit of George W. Bush?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely. I think it's irrelevant to talk about how she looks. What is important is who she is. She has in her hands the decision, the power to decide who the next president of this country is.

She's a Bush, you know, co-campaign manager. She was a Bush delegate. I think, you know, this may lead -- maybe Rich and I could take up the issue of non-partisan election officials. Why do we have it in this country that someone who is so partisan is in such a position to decide this.

KURTZ: OK, I've got to call a brief time out here. And when we come back, more about the endless recount and the flap at FOX.



Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of "The Nation," we now know that on election night, the decision desk at FOX news was headed by one John Ellis, who happens to be the first cousin of George W. Bush, that it was Ellis who made the strong recommendation around 2:00 in the morning, actually 2:16, that the state of Florida, and, therefore, the election, be called for George W. Bush.

And the thing that bothered me about it was that by his own account, Ellis, during that night, was on the phone with Jebbie Bush, the governor of Florida, as well as George W., talking about the exit polls and so forth.

At the very least, does this look bad?

VANDEN HEUVEL: I mean, it looks -- you know, you said it all, Howard. I mean, this is -- it gives new meaning to the word partisanship. We have sort of family consigliari (ph) partisanship at FOX. This was a partisan cousin who signed on to every Clinton conspiracy theory in the last couple of years who was swapping embargoed information with the Bush camp in violation of FOX's own news policy.

But, you know, now you have Congressman Billy Tauzin calling for an investigation of how this -- how Florida was called for Gore back and forth. You know, the government should not be in the business of investigating the media -- period. It has enough -- Congress has a difficult enough time legislating.

You have a congressman who has been for deregulation of the broadcast media, has given the broadcast media everything it wanted, including valuable spectrum. So now he's going back and saying, you know, he wants to make some government regulation of media? This is hypocrisy at the highest level.

KURTZ: OK, I should mention that FOX news says there is no evidence so far in their view that John Ellis shared any embargoed exit poll information with the Bush...

VANDEN HEUVEL: But, Howard, you know, it's...

KURTZ: I just want to get there.


LOWRY: But this is...

KURTZ: Let me bring in Rich Lowry, editor of "National Review."

LOWRY: It's a total non-issue. Any reporter worth his salt on Election Day is calling campaigns and asking them what they're hearing and trying to...

KURTZ: They're not trading these numbers.

VANDEN HEUVEL: ... find out what's going on. Of course, it's just a standard journalistic practice. And, you know, Fox is just a breath of fresh air. I think it provides a little bit of diversity on people's TV sets. And that is a good thing. You know, I can watch FOX, and Katrina can watch PBS and there we go. And what's wrong with that?

KURTZ: OK, let me turn now, Rich, to a column in "The New York Times" today by Frank Rich, who writes the following:

"The apocalyptic shrillness generated by the Washington establishment and amplified 24-7 by TV's latest mediathon is utterly askew from the mood of the country," which he contends is not terribly upset over this constitutional impasse. "Neither of these guys deserves to be president. Let them both lose."

Isn't the television coverage here getting a little overheated as we follow each time the ballot falls on the floor, each recount of a half dozen votes?

LOWRY: Perhaps, but, you know, the reason why everyone is doing it is because it's getting ratings. And if it wasn't getting ratings, the conversation would move to something else. And there is a hard core of political people in this country who are fascinated by the story.

Frank may be right about the general public, though. You know, sometimes you wonder if they care much who becomes president.

KURTZ: Katrina, do you find there's more passion in terms of following the media coverage of this disputed post election than perhaps there was of the election itself?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, you know, Rich is talking about people can watch this and that. You know, we did have a Telecommunications Act of '96, which is something Billy Tauzin should look into. It's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) which was about public interest. I think anytime there's attention paid to the electoral process in this country, it's a terrific thing. We are learning things about what -- how people vote, the problems with our voting process and if there's actual movement on it.

I guess I'd take issue with Frank Rich. I know it's conventional sort of pap maybe, but this is a great civics lesson if the right lessons are learned, and not just about reforming the electoral college but looking at the disenfranchisement -- think about it -- of 31 percent of African-Americans in Florida.

What does that say about our system? I think we're stronger in the eyes of the world and we're not a laughing stock in light of what's going on in this country right now.

KURTZ: OK, although I would agree with Rich that if the ratings suddenly tank, the media may find themselves fascinated by some juicier scandals that don't just have to do with the spindling and mutilating of ballots.

Well when we come back, we'll take a look at the question, how long can this go on?


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Rich Lowry, there's been a lot of punditry lately about looking ahead here and saying, in the opinion of many commentators, that neither man is going to be able to govern. This is going to be a tarnished presidency no matter who wins, that either Gore or Bush would be better off losing. And I wonder if you agree with that, because, you know, six months from now this may -- this whole battle, as intense as it seems right now, may seem as distant a memory as impeachment.

LOWRY: I think that's absolutely right. And what we know from our past experience with these total media-obsessive stories is that when they end, they really end. And when this thing is over, I'm sure very soon we'll be thinking, you know, why did we ever care about Kato Kaelin, and why did we ever care about dimpled chads? And that's why this is a prize, the presidency, that's still very much worth having.

KURTZ: Katherine Vanden Heuvel, do you think that this talk, this punditry about a discredited presidency, will be forgotten, or is it an important point, obviously with also facing a very tightly divided Congress?

LOWRY: I think if Gore is elected, the Republicans have in place an apparatus that will make it harder for him to run. They will consider him more legitimate, ironically, than Clinton, but it will be difficult.

But I think that there will be gridlock. But in essence, you know, both men, though there are differences, ran on similar enough programs that Gore might block some of Bush's works. But they'll get different things through. To use...

KURTZ: Katrina, you used the word "illegitimate." Is there a possibility that if Al Gore pulls this out that he will be seen by his conservative opponents as an illegitimate opponent?

VANDEN HEUVEL: I think that you will have a core which will keep to this, hammering away, but that he will have the chance to get through some modest things, as would Bush. And if there is gridlock, Bush will not get through the more radical -- you know, radical tax cut proposals are going nowhere. More radical Supreme Court justices are probably going nowhere.

KURTZ: OK, Rich Lowry, just briefly, do you think, as you alluded to earlier, that the media will move on and we won't have all of this -- all of these headlines about an accidental or illegitimate president?

LOWRY: Well it just depends on how it ultimately plays out, and that we don't know. As long as the result is in doubt, it's going to be a big story for the media.

KURTZ: OK, well I think even next week we won't know whether it's going to be in doubt or not, but maybe we'll have you back to talk more about that.

Rich Lowry, Katrina Vanden Heuvel in New York, thanks for joining us.

We'll be right back with a look at some viewer e-mail.


KURTZ: And before we go, our viewer e-mail. Last week, we asked whether the media should be banned from reporting exit poll information on election night. Well one viewer wrote, "The media had an appalling role in the election fiasco. Journalists should not speculate ahead of the official certified results. We need a gag order on the press."

But another said:

"The media did call it right based on those exit polls. It is the voting mechanism in Florida that skewed the data and produced an incorrect voting total. I think you in the media are being a little hard oin yourselves. If we ever get an accurate count in Florida, you may be vindicated."

Of course, only one of the 45 precincts visited by Florida exit pollsters was in Palm Beach County, where many of the problems occurred.

Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for a special one-hour RELIABLE SOURCES at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. We'll talk more about the press coverage of the Florida recount with top political reporters and how it's playing around the country with three prominent radio talk show hosts.

And we'll talk to Republican Congressman Chris Cox about his charges of network bias on election night. That's 11 a.m. Eastern tomorrow.

Thanks for joining us. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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