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Reliable Sources

'George' Folds; Is the Press Being Fair to the Bush Cabinet?

Aired January 6, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The Bush Cabinet: Is the press being fair to conservatives?

The crazy campaign: a first look at two new behind-the-scenes books.

And John Kennedy Jr.'s magazine down for the count.

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

And joining us now, Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for the "Washington Post" and author of "Smashmouth: Two Years in the Gutter With Al Gore and George W. Bush," which hits bookstores in a couple of days.

And Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News and World Report." He has his own book about the 2000 campaign coming out in April.

Roger Simon, the Bush Cabinet. The press has aggressively gone after these nominees -- John Ashcroft for attorney general, Gale Norton for interior secretary, and Linda Chavez for labor secretary. Isn't there some inherent bias and sense of shock that a conservative president would pick conservative appointees to change Democratic policies?

ROGER SIMON, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Yes, except that Bush ran on two programs, one being a compassionate conservative, which was supposed to mean that he was something different than an ordinary conservative, and two that he was a uniter not a divider.

I don't think anyone in the press corps took that too seriously. But having established that, and since we all have our hypocrisy antenna quivering, that's going to be the first thing we concentrate on when it comes to a Bush Cabinet. The real irony is we're spending all this time writing about people who for the next four years we're going to ignore.

KURTZ: With the possible exception of the attorney general, I agree most of these Cabinets do not get covered except when their confirmation battles are raging.

But, Dana Milbank, when Bill Clinton was elected in '92, he picked a Cabinet that clearly was going to undo some of the policies of the Reagan-Bush years. I didn't detect this kind of overheated, oh-my-God-they're-going-to-change-the-Washington-establishment tenor that we have seen with the Bush selection.

DANA MILBANK, "WASHINGTON POST": That is true. But they had their own problems of nominees running into trouble and being dropped and that sort of thing.

KURTZ: Nannies.

MILBANK: Nanny problems, that sort of thing.

KURTZ: But do conservatives have a legitimate complaint that the press is going along with the liberal activists who are shooting at Ashcroft and Norton and Chavez?

MILBANK: Well, they do to a point. But the problem is that we in the press are the ones who sort of created the expectation that they were going to name a whole bunch of Democrats and really reach across the aisle there.


MILBANK: If you look carefully, they were never promising that sort of thing. They were sort of hinting at that. But we're the ones who created that expectation.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: And Howie is suggesting that the knives are out, the journalistic knives are out for the conservatives. But when you start analyzing the record of these three controversial candidates that were itemized, there is a case to be made about highlighting the conservative personality and political personality of each of the three.

MILBANK: When the nomination of Gale Norton came out to run the interior department, the first people to respond where like the petroleum industry were praising the nomination. Now that I think did more harm to her than anything that Friends of the Earth was howling about.

KALB: But I want to bring you back to the media. Isn't the media responsible for doing an analytical examination of the biographic and political material available of different candidates? The answer obviously is yes.

So I would raise the question the knives really are not out. These people need to be examined thoroughly.

MILBANK: Oh, no, yes, I agree with you there. What I'm saying is we were reporting the responses from both sides.

The people who were enthusiastic about her were industry. The people who were critical were environmentalists.

KALB: Sierra Club, et cetera. MILBANK: Right. So I mean, these are consistent things. So I don't think we were approaching it with any particular bias. We are reflecting what's out there.

People who are not controversial -- you know, the veterans affairs fellow, nobody particularly cared. Sure, great, whatever, never heard of him.

KURTZ: To be candid, Roger Simon, when the issues are things like abortion and affirmative action, which a lot of journalists tend to at the very least be sympathetic to, there is a sense of alarm I think in some of this press coverage.

SIMON: Yeah, and don't forget we've come through eight years of a liberal Democratic presidency. And people are going to undergo a kind of a shock. Things are different. The conservative won.

And I think a lot of the coverage is going to be driven also by the dissidence that the press feels now exists between the smiling public image of a friendly, charming man, who is friendly and charming but who is on the other hand a real conservative. And he's going to make conservative choices. And he's going to do conservative things and going to back conservative legislation and going to put right wingers in his Cabinet.

KALB: Dana, why shouldn't the press reflect some of the coast- to-coast sentiments of the American public, for example on the question of abortion. For the majority, pro-choice, right? And if somebody, a candidate, is named who is pro-life, it obviously demands an examination. It demands a critical once-over.

KURTZ: An awful lot of people in this country are pro-life as well.

KALB: I'm not saying -- I'm talking about majority. I mentioned that.

MILBANK: For example, with Tommy Thompson, we reflected the views of the pro-choice groups and the pro-lifers. We put them both in the same story. I think they were saying the same thing, just one was opposed and one was supportive of it.

I think another reason why you're seeing the media have a more active voice in this was the Congress was out of session. You didn't have that sort of instant feedback from the Hill here. So I think we might have assumed we're sort of the loyal opposition here to try to bring out these issues that nobody else is going to talk about.

KURTZ: We will undoubtedly return to this subject. But we want to turn now to the literary season involving you two gentlemen.

And, Dana Milbank, in your book "Smashmouth," here is a quote from the text. "Our problem is not negative campaigning, but an increasingly puritanical press that often makes no distinction between negative comparisons, which are common and useful, and gratuitous personal attacks, which are harmful but rare. The result is that journalists are the ones poisoning public opinion and injecting cynicism into the electorate by making people think politics is much uglier than it is."

My question to you, surely you're not suggesting that when Gore surrogates raised questions about Bush's National Guard service or when Bush runs an ad mocking Al Gore's credibility or when Bush accuses McCain of being against breast cancer research, the journalist should dismiss this as mere patty-cake?

MILBANK: No. I think we should do a lot of what you do already, and that is say, "Here's what's true. Here's what's not true." But what I'm concerned about is people sort of equate the negative with the untrue like if you're using nasty politics, therefore it is bad. And this is not true.

And I think I would argue that some of the most -- the times when people are most dishonest in politics is when they're being nice and talking how bipartisan they are and how much they really enjoy this fellow that they're running against.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, you want to go negative on Dana's book by taking issue with his premise here?


KURTZ: Are you also a fan of negative politics?

SIMON: No. But it seems to me that politics today and this year is still being affected by the campaign of 1988, which was a terrible year.

KURTZ: The Willie Horton campaign, to use the short...


SIMON: And no flag factories and all that. And it was the way in which the Republican, George H.W. Bush, won.

And two things politicians learned from that. And I'm not sure either is true.

One is that negative campaigning works. You go to any campaign in this country. You will get chapter and verse negative. We may all hate it. And the public may say they hate it. But it works. It creates (INAUDIBLE)...

KURTZ: Well, what therefore is the press' responsibility, before I turn to Bernie?

SIMON: I think the press' responsibility, as Dana says, is one to separate fact from fiction. But it's also to expose how negative campaigning seems to crowd out and drown out what we do.

Our emphasis on ads, which I think few people actually see since the invention of the clicker, is enormous. And the exchange of negative commercials in South Carolina between McCain and Bush drove out almost every other issue except for the confederate flag, which was another negative issue.

KALB: What we should concentrate to some degree on is the appetite for the negative among the electorate. I mean, if you take a look at the last 15, 20 years as we report politics, international affairs, we see the ascent of cynicism. We see the ascent of skepticism.

Journalists, it turns out, are feeding that. Now in the book you're saying here the result is that journalists are the ones poisoning public opinion. Poisoning or nourishing public opinion or initiating public opinion?

Let's put the question this way. Whose cynicism came first? The publics, and you reporters are feeding their cynicism, or are you single-handedly creating cynicism, inflicting it on an innocent public?

MILBANK: Well, I think that what we see is that the public is always saying in opinion polls that we hate negative politics, but the same way the public is always saying in opinion polls that 99 percent of them go to the polls.

KALB: Public lifeblood.

MILBANK: Of course they do. We don't all go the opera. We watch football. We watch wrestling. I mean, we love conflict.

And the public loves conflict. And for us to pretend otherwise because of some poll in which people are saying, "Oh, we like good politics."

KALB: You say poisoning. I think the verb there, you are catering, catering to the cynicism of the public.

MILBANK: We are catering there. But where we're poisoning it is by also trying to suggest that there is something bad about being negative.

KALB: Last word, positive is passe. Howie.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, you write in your book, by the way, the title is classified at this point?

SIMON: We're still thinking of "Harry Potter Volume V" but I'm not sure it's going to pass.


KURTZ: That Al Gore was very, very concerned and absorbed with the minutiae of press management, the daily spin cycle so to speak. And yet George W. had better relations with the press. Explain.

SIMON: George W. believed in his own charm. The charm offensive was written about. But the charm offensive was really George W. Bush going down the aisle of the plane. It was an extraordinary thing to see. KURTZ: And so many reporters came on this show and said, "Oh, I'm not affected by that."

SIMON: Well, that's interesting because when it gets really down to a crisis point for the campaign, George W., it has been discovered, was arrested for drunk driving previously to the election.

KURTZ: Twenty-four years earlier.

SIMON: Right. But the story explodes in like the last week, two weeks, of the campaign.

KURTZ: Yeah, the last four or five days.

SIMON: He does a tarmac press conference. To his credit, he does a press conference. I don't recall a single reporter asking, "By the way, have you ever been arrested for anything else?"

That was a critical question to me. And we're never going to get it answered because his campaign refuses to respond. But you have to ask yourself is that a result of just 15 months of being charming to these people?

KURTZ: And you, in fact, Dana Milbank, argue that Gore campaign officials felt that the Bush press corps was in the tank, overly sympathetic to the Texas governor, whereas Al Gore was getting raked over the coals. Is there any basis for that perception?

MILBANK: Well, there was some basis for that. But I think the pattern here is that the press does respond to the guy walking down the aisle and shaking hands with them.

The press responds to the staffers on the campaign just being nice to them. The whole lesson of McCain, reporters fell in love with McCain not because of anything he believed in but because he was nice to them and he gave them donuts. They're like a bunch of children.

SIMON: It was access more than donuts.

MILBANK: It's not a flattering portrayal of the president. I mean, one of the things I wrote about is comparing the quality of food served on the campaigns. Reporters like to be fed. And we are absolutely a large group of children. And it has a tremendous effect.

So when you talk about ideological bias, it's nothing. It's sort of a culinary bias.


KURTZ: Indictment on the food question.

SIMON: I remember the Jesse Jackson campaign where we didn't get fed at all.

MILBANK: Exactly. Look where he went.


KALB: Let's hold off on the calories and get to the vitamins. You guys, normally you're writing your 800-word pieces on deadline. Now you can be terribly expansive, 500, 600 pages. In writing your separate books, and you can answer in alphabetical order, did you make any journalistic discoveries, and writing a book with lots of time, that never got into the stories, in your case the magazine, in your case the newspaper?

MILBANK: Well, I think Roger is working on a much longer-term project. So he has a lot more opportunity to do that. I'm sort of being a little more than a deadline person in putting out my book. But you get to see themes that you don't realize at the time.

KALB: That you missed.

MILBANK: Yeah, you missed or you just weren't -- it wasn't particularly relevant because you were writing about something else. But that's why sort of the negativity, the "Smashmouth" theme. I kept coming back to, the pettiness of the press corps was something I would keep coming back to.

But you realize these things, even if you're not writing about them at the same time, they keep surfacing. So it's easy to sort of group things together that you wouldn't see just day by day.

SIMON: Yeah, there are a number of revelations out there. I could use "Book of Revelations." That had already been done too.


SIMON: But what always surprises me, and this is my third campaign book, is when you call someone after the campaign and you say, "I know I'm the 20th person to call you," and they say, "No, no one has ever called me."

There are a lot of people who never get called. The daily journalism, understandably on a deadline just misses. And they're out there. And they have wonderful stories to tell.

KURTZ: We've got about 20 seconds. Any concern after this heavily covered, some would say over-analyzed, campaign that there won't be a very public appetite to read still more about election 2000?

SIMON: We're hoping it's the O.J. phenomenon. They're just going to keep reading everything they can.

KURTZ: I think we're in rare agreement here.


KALB: Good luck, you guys.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, Roger Simon, thanks very much for joining us. When we come back, the demise of "George" magazine and the legacy of its famous founder.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My perception is that the media kind of favored the Republican candidate.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think every media outlet has a slant. And the majority I believe are slanted to the Democrats.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All stories in the media, depending on what station, what pundit, you're watching, you're going to get a different spin on it.




"George" magazine is closing up shop a year-and-a-half after the death of its founder John F. Kennedy Jr.

The glossy publication favored for its celebrity covers was launched with great fanfare back in 1995.


JOHN F. KENNEDY JR., CO-FOUNDER, "GEORGE" MAGAZINE: Ladies and gentlemen, meet "George."

Above all, "George" is a magazine that understands that culture is more powerful than politics, that culture drives politics and defines it.


KURTZ: The magazine has since struggled to survive. And with advertising way down, its parent company has decided to pull the plug.

Well, joining us now from New York, the man who broke the story of "George" magazine's demise, David Carr, senior correspondent for He covers newspapers and magazines for the web site.


David Carr, was this a magazine that couldn't find its niche or perhaps had no niche once you removed the celebrity aura that surrounded its founder JFK?

DAVID CARR, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, INSIDE.COM: I think that when JFK Jr. first observed President Clinton on national TV playing sax or revealing his underwear choice, he was onto something that celebrity and politics were merging.

But that's an observation. It isn't necessarily something you could build a magazine out of.

KURTZ: And so you don't feel that a monthly publication devoted to covering politics as pop culture -- and they had Cindy Crawford and Bruce Willis and other stars on the cover -- was really a viable publishing content?

CARR: Well, I'm as compelled as the next guy by the sight of Cindy Crawford in a triangle hat. But the tempo issue that you bring up, Howard, I think is an important one. If you look at what they had on their cover this week or in the most recent issue is Linda Tripp. I don't know of anybody that's seeking more data about Linda Tripp.

And in order to include the celebrity component in what they did, they often had to go a long ways around the barn to make it happen. It's true that politics and celebrity were merging, but not always in ways that required a lot of journalism.

KALB: David, is it that broad spectrum is impossible to find an audience for such a magazine where you go from A to Z, where you have no absolute let's say cultural identity or political identity, that you're not a niche? And if you go broad, a little "Vanity Fair," a little "New Yorker," a little "New York" magazine, you go down?

CARR: Yeah, well, I think "George" proved empirically that advertisers hate it. Advertisers do not like a magazine that you cannot put into a box.

And I also think that they were significantly handicapped by John, Jr.'s original concept for the magazine, which they were going to lay off the gossip. As a person, a celebrity, who had been covered in the tabloids, he had no taste for that kind of coverage. But after all, if you or I tore that thing open, we'd probably be looking for some juice on this Hollywood on the Potomac, which "George" was constantly promising us.

KALB: David, has anyone done some sort of examination of the X number of issues at "George" to say this magazine for its approach in taking on American life is worth preserving regardless of the failure to advertise, to support it?

CARR: Well, I think we could sit here for a long time and chat about "George" and really not come up with a story that changed American discourse, had an influence in the last election. The last story in "George" I remember is the one that was illustrated by JFK, Jr. naked in which he talked about his relatives being poster children for bad behavior.

I never saw them really weighing in a significant way. I never saw them as preoccupying the conversation around politics...

KURTZ: Let me just jump in here. Some critics have felt in the last few issues under the current editor Frank Lowley (ph) that "George" had gotten a little better. It had gotten a little harder- edged. You weren't a fan of the Linda Tripp interview. And at the same time, although advertising was down by about a third in 2,000, the circulation went up from 400,000 to almost 500,000. So somebody must have liked it.

CARR: I think they were finding readers. They were finding them often with cheap subscription offers. But there were readers of the magazine.

They did a great job in the feature well of general interest journalism, published many high quality stories. But in terms of stories that would hue to the conceit of the magazine, that somehow celebrity and politics would lock in this death embrace and lead to really compelling stories, I don't think it ever happened. We always saw celebrities just holding up their pet rock issue. And that didn't really make for something people ended up talking about or wanting to read.

KALB: David, did JFK have to be alive for this magazine to succeed?

CARR: I think on the contrary he endowed its future by his death. And I know that's sad to say. But they had the gun cocked, the bullet at ready, the weed that JFK, his plane went down.

After that happened, they sold 470,000 commemorative issues in November. And Hashed (ph), who owned the magazine, just looked and said, "You know what? There is a huge brand here, an important brand. And we'd be fools to let it go. Let's see what they can do."

I think it was a pretty noble effort on their part. And it was an attempt to keep the legacy going. I mean...

KURTZ: David Carr, just very briefly -- I'm sorry to interrupt -- does this decision by Hashed Filipaki (ph) mean that the only political magazines we're going to now have are those like "The New Republic" and "The Weekly Standard" and the "Washington Monthly" that are small and lose money?

CARR: Well, and I think that "George" magazine turned out to be one of those magazines. It was small. And it lost money. And I haven't talked to anybody who's figured out a way to make a magazine about politics, about ideas, and make tall dollars.

KURTZ: OK, we'll have to leave it there. David Carr,, thanks very much for joining us.

CARR: You bet.

KURTZ: And when we return, spilling secrets, Washington's favorite pastime in Bernie's "Back Page."


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

KALB: George W. said something the other day that got me thinking about why reporters love working in Washington.


KALB (voice-over): First, here's the president-elect talking to reporters about the man he picked for attorney general.

PRESIDENT-ELECT GEORGE W. BUSH: When he gives me his legal advice, you won't know about it unless I tell you.

KALB: Meaning that when George W. takes over in Washington, leaks to the press will be a relic of the bad old days. The reporters displayed their usual good manners, no one so gauche as to burst out laughing.

The fact, is the president-elect is heading for an absolutely hilarious collision with reality. And the reality, as the "New York Times" put it recently, is this.

Elsewhere in the country, spilling secrets may be a pastime. In Washington, it's a profession.

Now for a reporter, a town that doesn't leak isn't worth living in. Leaks reveal secrets, scandals, sometimes sex.

Of course, there are times, alas, when the whole country, even reporters, are taken by surprise. No leak, for example, not even a drip of a leak, when he gave Wall Street a New Year's surprise by cutting interest rates. But luckily, that kind of secrecy is rare.

Sometimes reporters are misled. Sometimes they hit pay dirt.

A leak to Internet gossip Matt Drudge in '98, and bingo, the Monica story, leading to the impeachment extravaganza. A leak to the "New York Times" in '71, and page one, the Pentagon Papers about official deception during the war in Vietnam.

Leaks to the "Washington Post" all those years ago, and suddenly Watergate. His efforts to plug the leaks ultimately leading to his resignation. Even now, the guessing game continues about the identity of Deep Throat.

The list goes on. In fact, official Washington is so porous that back in the '80s, the Reagan White House wanted top officials to take lie detector tests. But the plan fell apart when it ran into tough resistance by then-Secretary of State George Shultz.


KALB: Now when the president-elect makes the journey from Texas to Washington, he won't exactly be an innocent abroad. Leaks are stateless. They happen everywhere. But here in the nation's capital, the leaks are big-time.

Welcome to Washington, Mr. President-elect.

KURTZ: Mr. Kalb, thanks.

We'll be right back.


MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll be on for a full hour talking about Alan Greenspan stepping in to boost the economy, controversial Cabinet changes, and big changes on Capitol Hill. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah joins us for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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