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Reliable Sources

Should White House Media Access Be Based on Ideology?; Is the XFL Dying?

Aired March 31, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Right turn at the White House: Bush and Cheney court conservative journalists who were frozen out under Clinton. But should access be based on ideology? We'll ask radio host Oliver North and "Washington Times" columnist Don Lambro.

And what if a network created a sports league and no one watched? Why NBC may pull the plug on Vince McMahon's much-hyped XFL.

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

There's a new tone at the Bush White House. And conservative journalists are coming in from the cold.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): Vice President Cheney gave his first newspaper interview not to "The New York Times" or "Washington Post", but to the smaller, openly conservative "Washington Times". And he granted his first radio interview to Republican-turned-talk-meister Oliver North.

Another sign of the shift: TV sets in the White House are no longer tuned to CNN, but to Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel.

The last White House played favorites, too. Bill Clinton's best pal in the media was Geraldo Rivera, while Hillary Clinton preferred public radio host Diane Rehm.

At the Bush White House, the press office insists it doesn't dole out access based on ideology. But the president has been favoring out-of-town newspapers, another way of circumventing the Beltway press.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oftentimes, what I try to say in Washington gets filtered. And sometimes my words in Washington don't exactly translate directly to the people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now: Oliver North, a host at Radio America and a commentator on MSNBC, and Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for "The Washington Times." Ollie North, this looks like the politics of payback. You're a Republican who ran for the Senate. You bashed Clinton for eight years. He'd never come on your show. You say nice things about Bush, and Cheney shows up.

OLIVER NORTH, TALK SHOW HOST, RADIO AMERICA: It's not at all unexpected. I don't hide the fact that I'm a partisan, card-carrying, practicing, heterosexual, conservative Republican. And that's why my radio show is a success. And that's why I believe that the current administration looks at mine as the conservative alternative to what they were getting from NPR.

KURTZ: And aren't they also making a calculation that when Vice President Cheney or Chief of Staff Andrew Card, or anybody else, comes on your show, they are going to get a less-than-aggressive interrogation?

NORTH: No, I don't think so. I like to think of myself as fair. I just happen to be a conservative. I think conservatives can ask good, hard questions, just like you liberals can, Howard.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: The idea of softball, Ollie? Is that what you're suggesting?

KURTZ: I'm suggesting that perhaps the White House sees a show like Oliver North's, and many others, as a friendly environment.

NORTH: Well, I did have the president, then governor, on several times during the campaign. I had the first lady on. I had the Cheneys on. They were kind enough to grant us an opportunity to let them offer their perspectives to the American people through my radio show, and if you call it payback, that's fine.

KALB: Donald, the selective access is something that President Bush is not the only one to have done. You've got that with President Clinton, with JFK, etcetera. You pick the people. That's at the outset of the administration. Ultimately, you found out that selective access is counterproductive, because you've got to reach the country. "It's not a village, stupid, it's the whole country," as the phrase goes, something along those lines.

So, what's so unusual about Bush, within the first hundred days, picking and choosing fellows like Ollie.

DONALD LAMBRO, "WASHINGTON TIMES": Well, there's nothing really unusual. I mean, FDR had his favorites: Arthur Krock of "The New York Times." And it's true; presidents always want -- can't ignore the big media, but what you have here, with a long drought of eight years of Bill Clinton, who favored, the Clinton White House favored the liberals in the media, and they leaked them the stories. "The Washington Post" certainly was one of them -- "The New York Times."

And now I think the conservative media and other papers that, I think, are going to give them a fairer shake, to the Bush administration, they're getting call-backs. I have to tell you, it is really great to be able to walk through the West Wing... KURTZ: Well, you were let in before.

LAMBRO: Well, not during the Clinton years.

KURTZ: You weren't barred from the premises.

LAMBRO: I was certainly, during the Reagan and Bush years. But, you know, during the Clinton years, they did not, you couldn't get your phone calls returned. Now they're returning phone calls for everybody in the media and that's, I think, a lot...

KALB: Don, there's a rumor going around Washington that reporters are human beings. Now, I say that because if the liberal media, the so-called, the alleged liberal media, feel that they are shortchanged, being deprived of access, won't that intensify, reinvigorate, the adversarial relationship between that element and the press corp and the president?

LAMBRO: I really don't think so. I think that it's going to make them work harder. I think, certainly, during the Clinton years, there was a laziness there. They just were fed this stuff. And a lot of these stories were not questions and challenged.

KALB: Well, is the flip side of that is you have to work easier?

LAMBRO: No, I don't think so. I think, you want to have your phone calls returned. And you want to make sure you get the interviews and you're not frozen out. I think we're getting back to a balance here in the media. They tilted, certainly, to the liberal media and I think now there's a better balance here where, obviously, I mean, Bush has had interviews with "The New York Times", with "The Washington Post." We've had interviews with him and with Cheney and others.

I think it's gotten back to a balance. I think that's healthy for the news business.

KURTZ: OK. I just want to make the quick point that the so- called liberal media, I'm sure you disagree with this, Ollie, you know, at times, was very tough on President Clinton, particularly during impeachment and some of the other scandals. So, we don't want to make it look like this was, you know, totally a hand-holding relationship.

NORTH: All you have to do is report the news, Howard.

KURTZ: Report the news, sure.

NORTH: Well, but, let me give you an example. I mean, this past week, we saw your news paper, "The Washington Compost," as I'm fond of calling it, as you know, on the air, published a -- oh, come on, Bernie. They published a poll. In the poll they say, and I think this is a direct quote, "Opposition to Bush is hardening."

You then open up the poll and you find out that disfavor has gone up to 33 percent. Now, you name a politician in America who wouldn't love to have an unfavorable rating of 33 percent when he's got positives of 58 percent.

KURTZ: Those are good numbers. But it was 10 points higher than it had been in the last poll.

NORTH: That's hardening? At 33 percent? Give me a break.

KURTZ: Let's come back -- excuse me, let's come back to your show and whether or not, if the president, the vice president, and assorted officials continue, which would be great for you, to come on the air, is there any danger that they will simply be preaching to the converted? You have a largely conservative audience.

NORTH: No more so than when Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Clinton and all the other regime appeared on NPR on a near-daily basis. And NPR just happens to be the biggest network in America today. They can be heard in every corner of the land. And they gave them almost exclusive access, on radio at least, for the whole duration of eight years.

So, I don't think it's anymore...

(CROSSTALK)

LAMBRO: ... a very big change. The change in the till here is by Bush going out to the media, outside of Washington...

KURTZ: Yes.

LAMBRO: ... on these road trips. And it's an old tried-and-true practice. Reagan did it with his tax cut plan. And out there, those stories, they end up on page one, you get multiple stories, the media gives it much bigger play. There's a cynicism here in Washington. Perhaps in "The Post" they might not get as much play and in the liberal medial, generally, they wouldn't.

KALB: The phrase, I think I used it before, "It takes a country to support policy, not a village," so that if the president goes around to town A, B or C and dominates television and the front page locally, that is not ricocheting across the country. There, essentially, is no escape from the nation media and all presidents learn that.

LAMBRO: I think that's true. But, when he went to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for example, that does ricochet across the country. He was going out there where the workers were, where they were losing their jobs in the auto industry, so it plays nationally.

But at the same time, he gets tremendous play in key states which are going to be very important...

NORTH: Bernie, your network, your network covers his appearances and shows nothing but the speech. You pan back and you watch the accolades of the crowd, as happened this past week when he appeared at the Radio and Television Broadcasters.

That evening, it was inescapable that this man dominated that evening. And we all saw it. And the fact is, you have to pan back to get it.

Your network, when they were covering his appearances in places like Kalamazoo, and places like Montana and the Dakotas, covered nothing but the speech itself. You pan back and watch the appearance of the crowd, and that is effecting people. It has, I think, overall, a profound impact on the American body politics.

KURTZ: Ollie has a future as a TV director. Don Lambro, in terms of the access we're talking about, and I don't recall, correct me if I'm wrong, seeing a strongly critical front page story about President Bush in "The Washington Times" in the first couple of months.

Is there any danger of that if the paper does become more critical, that some of that access and the returning phone calls very quickly will be snatched away?

LAMBRO: No, I don't think so. I mean, you know, Reagan, even in the papers that people, a lot of people criticized, when perhaps he needed to be. Bush is the same way. We're going to criticize him. There has been some criticism. I certainly have on tax cuts and other battles.

So, I think no, I think they're going to know that we're going to be fair. We have to reach out to the entire news media and be balanced. But let's not freeze out a portion of the media here in Washington, and elsewhere, where a lot of our supporters are.

KURTZ: Is there any danger, Oliver North, that you might be perceived over the next four years as a bit of a cheerleader for this administration?

NORTH: I hope so.

KURTZ: Well, don't you want to be an independent voice?

NORTH: I am an independent voice. He didn't bribe me to do this.

KURTZ: No, but...

NORTH: I stand very, very proudly as a conservative broadcaster. My network is a conservative network. Got over 400 stations around the country that carry conservative broadcasting, because people want to hear it. And, by the way, if you look at the last poll that your newspaper did, it shows that about 38 percent of Americans identify themselves as politically conservative, but only 18 percent call themselves liberals.

KALB: Howie, your newspaper, my network, pick it up.

KURTZ: I didn't know we were quite so in charge, but if he wants to promote us, that is fine.

Oliver North, Don Lambro, thanks very much for this discussion.

And, up next: a strong kickoff turns into a ratings disaster for NBC. Will the XFL be exiled from television?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, XFL)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A wobbly kick.

JESSE VENTURA, COMMENTATOR: He's got a field. It's a free ball. (INAUDIBLE)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's an XFL exclusive there! The ball goes 25 yards. It was not fielded by L.A.. It's a live ball. It's recovered by Chris Meane (ph).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: XFL, Xtreme Football, right now it's future extremely in doubt, teetering on the brink of televised extinction.

Well, joining us now is "Washington Post" reporter Paul Farhi. RELIABLE SOURCES asked NBC sports chief Dick Ebersol to join us, but he declined.

Paul Farhi, in the broad sweep of journalistic history, how big a disaster is this for NBC? Sheer or unmitigated?

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it's a press disaster. It's not necessarily a business disaster.

NBC put up about $55 million for the season. WWF, World Wrestling Federation, put up another $55 million, $110 million in the pot. Maybe the thing goes down, maybe it's a disaster, it goes up in flames. However, it was a good bet going into it. They had a smart idea. And it just hasn't panned out.

KURTZ: So, you're saying they don't lose much money, but they get a black eye.

FARHI: They have an extreme black eye public relations-wise, maybe with their advertisers as well. People will forget.

KALB: Who gave them the black eye? Was it the "fans" or was it the media reviews?

FARHI: Well, I think ratings rule in this case. They started out big. They were getting about 10 percent of the entire country. That was the first week. People tuned in and saw it and then, little by little, or quickly, in fact, the ratings just tumbled and now they're down to about the lowest possible rating for a prime-time program.

KALB: In history.

FARHI: In history. KALB: But, were the sports writers taken by surprise by the failure of counterfeit football? This, after all, was crass commercialism, an adventure of sorts. And it fell about. It never got past, what, the touchdown line, as far as the fans were concerned.

FARHI: Well, don't bet against crass commercialism. This is television, again.

However, I think there was a lining up against the XFL for the simple reason that this was not our game. This was Vince McMahon, pro wrestling and football. You're polluting the game. You're, you know, you're taking the national sport and making sport of it. And that had the sports writers up in arms right from the beginning.

KURTZ: But going back to the beginning and the marketing of it, didn't NBC present this to the press, and didn't we all lap it up as smash-mouth football. Reporters will be harassing coaches on the field. Sexy cheerleaders. Isn't that how this sort of got in -- burst into public consciousness?

FARHI: Yeah, absolutely. And it sounded, from the beginning, like it could work. The NBC and the WWF wanted a very small segment of the audience. They didn't really care about people over the age of 30. If you've got a male viewer under the age of 30, they were happy. They'll take the low number, but the right number, which is what they wanted.

And it was going to be razzle-dazzle, and it just didn't pan out that way.

KURTZ: What's a network doing owning and creating a football league in the first place? Usually we cover these things.

FARHI: And this is why the bet made sense. NBC lost out in the rights, there, before the NFL. They didn't put up enough money. The rights went to CBS. They said, "We've got to get back in the game, literally. We've got to get back into pro football. So, if we can't get into that game with the NFL, we'll start our own."

KALB: It was an interesting thing that NBC and WNBC, they gave the XFL a big, big ride, where as ABC and CBS sort of downplayed it, took a very dim view of the entire football session.

What does this tell us about, is the word I'm looking for, Howie, objectivity in reporting?

FARHI: Objectivity in reporting? I don't know. This was entertainment. This wasn't really sports in the purest sense.

KALB: Well, can't entertainment be objective? Or am I asking for too much?

FARHI: I guess it all depends on who is doing the covering. I think NBC, NBC News kept their hands off of it and covered it objectively. But, NBC is also an entertainment company, and they promoted it very, very actively. KURTZ: But, look, this was a league with $50,000 players and no stars, with the possible exception of the color commentator, Jesse Ventura, who was smart enough to hang on to his day job. And yet, you're right, it was promoted as entertainment. But I'm wondering about the viscousness, for lack of a better word, of the way the media has turned on this thing.

I mean, "The New York Times" called it trashy, "The New York Post" unmitigated garbage. Why get so worked up over a rinky-dink league that most people aren't watching any way?

FARHI: Well, again, I think it's because it's football. It's our national sport. It's replaced baseball long ago. It's the most popular sport on television. Anytime you tamper with the tradition of sport, the tradition of football...

KURTZ: Sacrilegious?

FARHI: A little bit sacrilegious, exactly. But, what do you expect from the WWF? I mean, these are the people who created an entire entertainment corporation out of people staging fake fights.

KALB: Why is wrestling fake fights? Why is wrestling so triumphant, fake fights, and why can't a little fake football work as well? In other words, how was there this colossal misreading of the ingredients that make up that generation between 20 and 30?

FARHI: Because you missed two things. You missed the football fan who wants pure football and you missed the wrestling fan, who doesn't really care so much about football, but cares about plots and story lines...

KALB: Don't give us hybrids?

FARHI: ... contrived characters and all those things. Hybrids doesn't work. It alienated both.

KURTZ: A hurry up offense, we're down to 15 seconds. The odds that this will be on television next year?

FARHI: Zero.

KURTZ: And without NBC, the XFL cannot exist?

FARHI: They can find another place, but it's not going to work. The economics just don't make sense for them outside of NBC.

KALB: Paul, could you give me that zero in writing?

KURTZ: Paul Farhi from "The Washington Post", thanks very much for joining us.

And, straight ahead: the president back in the media spotlight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

George W. Bush may have gotten just a little tired of seeing John McCain's face on television all week during the campaign finance debate. So the president decided to call a news conference, and he rattled some reporters by giving them just 45 minutes notice this time.

Bush resorted to humor when he demonstrated Thursday his ability, again, to mangle the language.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Let's forget tax relief, misunderestimate our -- or excuse me, underestimate. Just making sure you were paying attention.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: You were.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: In other RELIABLE SOURCES media items: "The Boston Globe" is wrangling with Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eileen McNamara over charges of censorship.

McNamara wrote a column criticizing the paper's policy of banning it's sports reporters from appearing on local radio station W-EEI and editor Matt Storin spiked the column.

McNamara fought back by going on the radio station herself to complain about the column's fate.

Storin says it's editing, not censorship, and that "The Globe" had already covered the dispute with the sports talk station, all of which produced another round of stories.

And how to keep the talent happy is very visible at NBC: The network, concerned about holding Katie Couric amidst talk that her contract, up next year, she may bolt to a daytime talk show.

So, the promos keep on growing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Congratulations, Katie, for 10 great years on "Today." Come celebrate with us, next week, on "Today."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And, checking our e-mail bag, our discussion of how journalists are covering the campaign finance reform bill fired up some comments.

"I am absolutely against it. As it is, the liberal press shoves the liberals down our throats" and "The one common characteristic of media folks, whether of left or right persuasion, is that all seem to think their intellect superior to the rest of the world."

And about our conversation over bias against minorities in news coverage, "Far too brief. We need to hear more about this."

We want to hear your questions and comments. Our address is reliable@cnn.com.

Just ahead, is the media talking down the economy? Bernie's "Back Page."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

KALB: So, is the press giving us a carefully balanced story, or is it hyping the story, doing what comes naturally? And what am I talking about? One guess.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): And it's all summed up in that familiar phrase, "It's the economy, stupid."

Well, the jury may still be out, the experts still arguing about whether it's a turndown, or a downturn, or a slowdown, or a hiccup, or the big "R" itself. But headline writings have never been famous for semantic agony, just the opposite. And we've been hit by a tsunami of gloom and doom. The media, in other words, piling on, even as it gives itself the acquittal of a question mark.

Obviously, the media didn't invent this story. There's this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And the numbers don't look pretty, as we settle here in the U.S.

KALB: And then these obvious statistics. And then there's the bully pulpit itself.

BUSH: Our economy is beginning to stutter.

KALB: Pour all these negatives into the journalistic Cuisinart and, voila, out comes a cocktail of pessimism, the media accenting the negatives, spreading the bad news, maybe even helping create it.

Now, to say the media have shed their usual skepticism, but let's face it. The press obsesses on the negative. Plane crashes, scandals, bombings, but bad news that also effects your wallet, well now, there you have a captive audience. Which, incidentally, isn't bad for circulation and ratings.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KALB: This tilt toward the negative is something built in to the media's genetic makeup. It's a prisoner of it's own DNA. Obviously, the economy has taken a big, big hit. But, even so, when you read those big, big gloom and doom headlines, read them with more than a grain of salt.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.

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