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Reliable Sources

How Are the Media Handling Election 2000's Eleventh-Hour Drama?

Aired December 9, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The cliffhanger continues. Just as the press was crowning George Bush as president-elect, the Florida Supreme Court puts Al Gore back in the presidential game. But the U.S. Supreme Court holds up the action.

How are the media handling this eleventh-hour drama? Is the coverage fair? And has it triggered an orgy of speculation?

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

It's been another amazing day here in television news land, just part of a roller coaster of a week in this seemingly endless Florida drama. We begin with the Friday decision that pulled Al Gore back from the brink of conceding the election.



BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: Vice President Al Gore winning a major victory before Florida's Supreme Court.



PETER JENNINGS, NEWS ANCHOR: It's one of those extraordinary times to be in the news business.



DAN RATHER, NEWS ANCHOR: This decision four to three by the Florida Supreme Court breathes new life into Vice President Al Gore's chances.


KURTZ (voice-over): After all, George W. Bush was acting like the president-elect. And the media were treating him like the president-elect. Just hours earlier, the networks had carried news that seemed to bring Bush closer to the finish line. Judges in Martin and Seminole Counties had refused to throw out 25,000 absentee ballots, an unmistakable blow for Gore. Speculation was rampant that the end was near.

Then came SIMON:00 p.m. Friday and the Florida Supreme Court's order of a manual recount of disputed ballots in all the state's counties. Finally, one thing was clear. It wasn't over, not by a long shot. The TV talking heads found themselves reaching for superlatives.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a logistical task like the invasion of Normandy.



JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What was the cliche that everybody was using a couple of weeks ago, uncharted waters? No, no, no, no. Now we have left the gravitational pull of the Earth.


KURTZ: And the pundit predictions were dire.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No matter what happens now, the losers are going to be in a position to say that the election was stolen from them.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tempers are going to get worse and worse and worse and the animus between the parties worse than we've ever seen it.


KURTZ: Then Saturday afternoon, yet another dramatic turn. The recounts underway, of course, Florida halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.


LESTER HOLT, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It has been an amazing last hour.



JIM ANGLE, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, you have five people who thought there was a serious constitutional problem with the way this recount was going forward.



JONATHAN ALTER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: You just can't make this stuff up. I mean, it is a wild scene outside the Leon County Public Library.



KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News & World Report," Tamala Edwards, political writer for "Time" magazine. And in Austin, Texas, Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for the "Dallas Morning News."

Roger Simon, when the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount just hours ago, four justices had to agree that there was a substantial probability of success for the Bush team in its appeal. So it's significant.

But will this lead to yet another round of journalistic speculation about whether the Supreme Court will or won't slam dunk Gore after the arguments on Monday?

ROGER SIMON, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Oh, yeah, I think our mood rings have turned once again. And I think we're back to assuming that it's all over for Gore. And that is the undercurrent of most of the TV reportage.

KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, this cover of the "National Journal" showing George W. Bush, what now, lots of pages inside about the transition. Let's face it. Before this latest round of dramatic rulings, the press pretty much treating Bush as the president-elect.

Every day, we've covered his transition, photo ops. And yet only a few reporters have been following Al Gore to Starbucks. And you occasionally have been among them. Does the coverage of Bush as the potential president now seem a trifle premature?

TAMALA EDWARDS, POLITICAL WRITER, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, you know, it's interesting because that ties in to the question that you asked Roger. If you look back over the last month, I mean, the call on November 7 for George Bush was a huge thing because even though we pulled back and said Al Gore is still here, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

And I think a lot of people have really covered George Bush as if he was going to be the president. Let's look at his advisers, his inner circle. How will he bring Democrats and Republicans together? And with Al Gore, the story generally was, well, what's he doing? Not what is his...

KURTZ: Was he hanging in? Was he alive? Why is he still kicking?

EDWARDS: When will he concede? And, in fact, I had an adviser say to me tonight with this turn of the Supreme Court, well, you know, what he's worried about is does it give it a chance to jell in the media yet again that Al Gore is on bad footing? Before 12 hours there, it looks as well, there really are two candidates.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Wayne, I've got a science fiction kind of question for you. The newspapers, when they've been coming out, they've been out of date the moment they hit the street. Now I have the feeling today watching television that television is not fast enough. It's not quick enough.

I think television is too slow, not instant enough. Do we need a new kind of technology to keep us abreast of these developments?

WAYNE SLATER, AUSTIN BUREAU CHIEF, "DALLAS MORNING NEWS": A new kind of technology to keep abreast of these developments? I don't know how much faster things can go.

You have the Internet. You have the television. You have these developments.

It kind of reminded me, this episode last night, when the court ruled in Gore's favor, of that scene in "Pulp Fiction" where John Travolta stabbed - brought back the mobster's girlfriend by stabbing her with some adrenaline shot. You had Al Gore suddenly lurching up and saying, "I'm alive. I'm still alive."

I think you're right. But frankly, I don't know what kind of technology it would be.

KALB: It's got to be something faster than television. Let me pick up with the question that was raised about orgy. Did you use the word orgy?

KURTZ: I did.

KALB: Frenzy, maelstrom, yes, yes, yes. But how can you avoid it with the Supreme Court acting on Monday, or at least hearing the oral arguments on Monday? It's a journalistic free-for-all. You've got to speculate. Otherwise, what are you going to print?

KURTZ: What about the speculation, Roger Simon, that the Supreme Court wouldn't take the earlier case, the one it ruled on last Monday? Then they had a lot of very famous, well paid anchors on TV saying it would probably be a five-four decision. Instead, it was a unanimous kicking back of the things in the Florida Supreme Court. So what is the point of speculating when there's this chance that you may well be wrong? SIMON: Well, you put your finger on the heart of it. I think that makes the public feel wonderful, by the way, when all the experts get it wrong.

But back to this question about frenzy and orgy. I think really the one phrase that is overused and seriously overused by the media is constitutional crisis.


SIMON: We do not have a constitutional crisis. A constitutional crisis...

KURTZ: We could have one by Tuesday.

SIMON: ... No we won't. A constitutional crisis is that one of these guys, Bush or Gore, says, "I'm not listening to the Supreme Court. I'm showing up on January 20. And everyone who believes in me show up with me."

KURTZ: Right.

SIMON: If Nixon hadn't turned over the tapes, that's a constitutional crisis. Everybody here is following the rule of law. It is the opposite of a crisis.

KURTZ: Well...

EDWARDS: Well, I'd like to disagree a little bit...

KURTZ: ... go ahead, Tamala.

EDWARDS: ... first of all to your point about television and do we have a medium that's fast enough? To pick up Wayne's point about "Pulp Fiction." I'll just take the soundtrack. I think if we had some great music, that would make this better.

But in terms of constitutional crisis, I agree. I think that was overused and was used very quickly. But I do think that we're starting to get to that point. What happens if we have a court sanctioned set of Gore electors and a legislative set of Bush electors? What do we do? That's a crisis.


KALB: Frenzy calls for a supercharge vocabulary. You can't help it. There's got to be that semantic hype on these stories.

KURTZ: Let's face it. The media need a sense of crisis in order to justify the 24-hour coverage.

Wayne Slater, let me ask you a version of the question I asked to Tamala, and that is the recent coverage of the Bush transition and the photo ops with Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, congressional leaders, and so on. To what extent have we in the press kind of fallen for what seems to me to be a concerted effort by the Bush campaign to act as if this other stuff is just minor and he's getting ready to move into the Oval Office?

SLATER: You know, that's a great question. And I've thought about that in these last days that we've been writing exactly that.

But on the other hand, the media has to write about what happens, not what doesn't happen. We write about what's going on, not what isn't going on.

And part of what's been going on is that Bush has been involved in a transition. To what degree, I'm not really sure. But certainly, when you see Bush with Colin Powell by the fence, when you see him by the fireplace with Trent Lott, when the Bush people actively, bullishly float out a few names of potential cabinet members, it's crazy to think that we're not going to write that, that we're not going to present that, that we're not going to broadcast that.

So that's something that's going on. And I think we'd be derelict in our duty if we didn't report it.

KALB: Wayne, is this the indictment of the media being seduced by a very skillful scenario on the part of Governor Bush? Is that what you're saying?

SLATER: Yeah, I think...

KALB: Seduced. Surrendering to a scenario.

SLATER: ... one thing I think helps us a little bit in this regard. And that is that in almost every story, or at least in almost every story that we write, we also point out that this is an effort in part, this projection, these pictures of George Bush with Colin Powell and with Condoleeza Rice.

This effort is an effort by his campaign to project the image of inevitability. So long as we put that in there, that this is part of a media effort by the Bush campaign, and conversely by the Gore campaign as well to the extent that they've done that, I think that we're fulfilling our obligations.

KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, let me touch on the question of coverage of judges as partisans. And we'll come back to this in the next segment.

Nikki Clark...


KURTZ: ... She's the judge who handled one of the absentee ballot cases. She's black. She's a Democrat. She worked for former Governor Lawton Chiles.


KURTZ: She was passed over by Jeb Bush. And there was a lot of media coverage about whether she would basically be in the tank for Al Gore. But when she ruled against Al Gore - it wasn't Al Gore, he wasn't the plaintiff, but obviously Gore supported the position of tossing out some of those absentee ballots - I didn't see anybody come back and say, "Well, maybe she wasn't partisan after all."

We seem to be a conduit for an awful lot of criticism at these jurists.

EDWARDS: Well, what's interesting is that the personality of all of these judges came into play. It wasn't just Nicki Clark. It was Terry Lewis. It was Judge Sauls. It was the seven justices on the Supreme Court both in Florida and in the United States Supreme Court. And I found it a little bit disturbing.

What happens if we get to the point where we're talking about the United States Supreme Court as a group of partisans? We know that they're human beings and political. But at what point do you assist in de-legitimizing the process?

SIMON: I think that's a good point. You saw constant references in editorials and in columns and in talking head journalism about the Florida Supreme Court justices being all Democrats, being appointed all by Democratic governors. One was a joint appointment.

You never see that the U.S. Supreme Court has seven justices appointed by Republican presidents, two of which were appointed by Bush's father.

KURTZ: Bush's father.

SIMON: So I think it is a danger. And I think we should have laid back on all of that. There was really no reason to believe that either of these courts are politicized, that they're doing anything but voting according to what they think the law is.

EDWARDS: At the same time, there was a great drama in Florida between Judge Sauls and the Florida State Supreme Court, that they had a long history of not getting along personally, which was sort of taken out in their rulings.

KURTZ: This thing has human, political, and legal aspects. And we will pick that up in a moment. More about the press, the post- campaign, and the art of speculation.


KURTZ: The United States Supreme Court a few blocks from here where the media mob will be showing up on Monday.

Wayne Slater in Texas, political reporters like to speculate. I think it's hardwired into their genetic code. So this would seem to be a dream come true.

You can talk about the Florida legislature naming its own electors. You can talk about two slates potentially going to Congress. You can talk about the Senate, where Vice President Gore would be the tie-breaking vote. Is all this fun? Is it serious? Or is there too much of it since the last 48 hours have certainly proved we have no idea what's going to happen next?

SLATER: I think it's fun. I think it's great. I think it's extraordinary. This is an extraordinary story.

I mean, it reminds me - again, to use another movie, to paraphrase "Annie Hall," I think that was the movie, when he said, when Woody Allen said a story, a relationship, in this case, a story is like a shark. It's got to move forward, or it dies.

This thing has moved everywhere. And I think it's extraordinary to watch this thing move from one thing to another.

Now having said that, I picked up my cowboy boots the other day at the boot shop, the boots that I wore all year on the plan with Bush, and got them refurbished. And when I talked to the guy at the boot shop, he didn't know very much of what was going on.

But he knew that there was no constitutional crisis. He had confidence that everything was going to work out. He had a sense in his mind that Bush would probably win, but if Gore won it would be OK.

So is it too much? I don't know if it's too much or not. I think real people out there really in America have a pretty sanguine sense about this.

KURTZ: Wayne, we'll see if Roger Ebert has an opening for your movie reviews.


KALB: I wanted to come out of the Texas cowboy boot and go to simple loafers and ask Roger this question. Have you noticed the fact that the ups and downs, the sudden decisions that would come out of the courts, have had a powerful impact on journalistic metabolism?

Once upon a time, let's say last week, before editorial writers would weigh in with a heavy opinion, they would take a day or two and think it over. We now see the editorials appearing the very next day after the court appears. Hasn't there been a step up in the whole velocity of journalism as a result of this case?

SIMON: As a result of this case and during the campaign, which campaigns always complain about, that the public has no time to digest or absorb anything anymore because of a 24-hour news cycle. So you always try to have to stay ahead.

KALB: Everything is on fast forward. And it should be.

SIMON: Yeah, and print has to compete with electronics. So print tries to be more and more forward looking in its stories. And the danger of that is when you have this story shifting back and forth continuously. And print is going to get caught. KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, what about the role of the media as a kind of a conduit for all the partisan rhetoric that is filling the air? We're certainly accustomed to that. Every time there is a court ruling...

EDWARDS: Right, we get both sides.

KURTZ: ... the Bush lawyers come out and the Gore lawyers come out. Every member of Congress I think has been on TV talking about it. And just in this morning's papers talking about the Florida Supreme Court, which has now been I guess overtaken to some degree, Tom DeLay, Republican congressman, said the court had squandered its credibility.


KURTZ: A spokesman for Dennis Hastert called them a "bunch of partisan hacks." I guess he meant the four partisan hacks who ruled the way he didn't want it, not the three partisan hacks. Are we kind of fanning the flames here by allowing so much air time and so much ink to people who are using this kind of rhetoric?

EDWARDS: Yes and no. I mean, essentially you've got to go to your sources. You've got to go to the people who are involved in the story.

KURTZ: Sure.

EDWARDS: They've got their talking points. And you start to notice that all these partisans say these points and all those partisans say those points.

And what I've seen happen I think this year as much if not more than ever is that people start with those quotes at the top. And then they immediately start talking about privately. Privately, aides say this. Privately, aides say that. You know, that a good deal of the story is what people are saying away from the cameras, away from, outside the gates of the vice president's mansion or the governor's mansion.

KALB: Are we fanning the story, Wayne, are we fanning the story? Obviously, we're fanning the story. Anybody with two feet standing erect can get a few minutes on television reacting.

But I think it's important to note that this is cable that's doing it. I watched this morning the networks, the broadcast networks. And they're all in cartoons.

If you switch between the broadcast networks Saturday morning, there are cartoons as though it's the most serene world in the world. And then you switch to the 24-hour stations, and bingo, you're in the midst of this conflict.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Bernie, every story on the front page of "The New York Times" today was about this election. That's very unusual for "The New York Times." And Wayne Slater, you seem to be suggesting with some of your earlier comments that there is a gap here between the media, which just love this story, are all over it, great fodder, ratings up, circulation up, and average folks, who are interested certainly but not panting after every detail.

SLATER: Well, I think there's that. They're not panting after every detail, although I think clearly people are watching.

The other thing, one of the things the media has done right I think this week was a show I saw the other day where a group of - a panel of historians were talking about this whole event, took a step back and said, "You know what? This isn't crazy. This isn't nutty. This is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind."

The system creaks and moves. It's messy. That, I think, is the kind of attitude that many Americans or real people I talk to have.

They're not scared. They're not afraid. Our nation, there aren't tanks in the streets. This is kind of an interesting development. Some partisans have somebody they want to win. But in the end, I think people have a sense that, you know what, this is the way the system works, and I think it's working pretty well.

KALB: You think journalists are being more impatient with the outcome, waiting for denouement, than the public is?

KURTZ: Just briefly.

SLATER: It's denouement, yeah. It's denouement is what it is.

KURTZ: OK, Wayne Slater, we have to hold it there. Got to get a break.

When we come back, we'll talk more about the press and what I can only call Indecision 2000.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't really perceive there being a bias in the media of one candidate over another. Frankly, I'm just tired of all of it.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The media is definitely favoring Gore because the media is so liberal.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I haven't perceived any media bias. I think that a lot of people see bias when information is reported that they don't agree with.



KURTZ: Welcome back.

Roger Simon, "U.S. News" deadline was last night. Yesterday afternoon, you're writing your story, you don't know how the Florida Supreme Court is going to rule. How do you handle that?

SIMON: You do the classic journalistic feat of writing the story what we call A matter in print, what I think you call B role in TV. You write the story one way, and you wait for reality to happen.

And Friday, I wrote a whole story of Gore concedes, threw it away, and wrote "Florida Supreme Court breathes new life into the campaign."

KURTZ: Did you call up people and ask them about, "Well, what if Gore did concede?"

SIMON: Yeah. And they'll give you quotes both ways.

KALB: Wayne, that's very interesting what Roger is saying because this story is changing so fast. You can be wrong one day and you're vindicated the next day because there's been a shift in the story.

I suppose when somebody does the journalistic arithmetic on the columnists, they will be right all the time or wrong all the time. But it will cancel itself out.

SLATER: I think it probably will cancel itself out. I did exactly the same thing that Roger did.

We had some stories ready. We had a whole series, a package of stories, ready for this weekend, especially if Bush were to win. Frankly, my sense is that the packages that we had together, that everybody else has together, will have something right when it's time to print.


KALB: That's right. Exactly.

KURTZ: You keep writing a different version of the story, eventually they will get into print. EDWARDS: That's the attitude.

KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, we talked about the journalistic bottomless appetite for speculation.

EDWARDS: Right. KURTZ: A lot of the speculation also has to do with whether whoever becomes president will be badly tarnished, unable to govern. I happen to think some of this is overstated. But clearly, the longer this goes on, the harder that is.

Do you think that we in the press, with our sort of crisis mentality, are overdoing the idea that whoever takes the oath next January 20 will have a mess on his hands?

EDWARDS: No, I don't think we are. I mean, I think the American public itself has a short memory. There will be some sort of crisis, some big deal. And the person will be the president. That will be the country's president.

But we live in Washington. And some of us live in New York.


EDWARDS: And we know how Capitol Hill works. We know if the president is Al Gore, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott are not going to be happy men, and they're not going to be easy to work with. We also know that if George Bush is the president, there's going to be a lot of difficulty.

I think that's where a lot of those stories come in. Do you find yourself with a president who finds himself ineffective, unable to get things done?

KURTZ: Just very briefly, Roger, it's not just a question of getting legislation through the Hill. It's also a question of rallying the country. And any president has a lot of media machinery at his disposal to do that.

SIMON: Yeah, and I think as a colleague of mine, Terrence Samuels (ph), says, "Whoever gets the plane and whoever gets that "Hail to the Chief" song, pretty soon people are going to say, "Hey, that's the president." Reporters stand up when he enters the room."

And I think there will be a certain amount of goodwill on the part of people wanting to give the new president, whoever it is, a break because it was such a rough election and such a rough aftermath.

KALB: A break? Journalism being generous? Is that what you're suggesting?

SIMON: I was thinking the public.

KALB: What I was thinking of the way television and print media working in tandem, we see this day after day, television giving us the headlines, the quick run of what's happening. And then we're getting context and analysis and commentary in the paper that supplement what we're getting off television. I think it's a one-two punch of information that is terrifically good.

KURTZ: Wayne Slater, we're going to give you a brief last word. Is the Bush team cognizant of the fact that it has to use the media if in fact George W. becomes the president-elect to try to heal some of these wounds?

SLATER: I'm sorry. One more time. I didn't get it.

KURTZ: The Bush team using the media to help heal some of these wounds if in fact it's President-elect Bush?

SLATER: Absolutely. Absolutely, they're aware of that. I've already talked to some people on background, and they're prepared to present a number of things that are designed to do that. Whether he's successful is another matter.

KURTZ: OK, that would be a matter for next week's show.

Wayne Slater, Roger Simon, Tamala Edwards, thanks very much for joining us.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for another live edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, 11:30 a.m. Eastern.

Thanks for joining us. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll be on for a full hour to look at the ups and down for both Al Gore and George W. Bush and what comes next in the Florida recount. Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn of Washington state joins us for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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