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Is the Media's Continued Fascination With the Levy Disappearance Warranted?; Was Karl Rove's Meeting With Intel a Conflict of Interest?

Aired June 23, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The president, the press, the Karl Rove story, the battle over energy costs and patient's rights and the media's continuing fascination with Chandra Levy and Congressman Gary Condit. We'll talk about all that and the Sunday morning TV wars with Bob Schieffer and Gloria Borger of "CBS News."

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

We'll get to our discussion on the media and politics in just a moment, but first a look at the strange Washington mystery that has become the latest cable news soap opera.


KURTZ (voice-over): They are being linked in the press hour after hour; Chandra Levy, the missing Washington intern, and California congressman Gary Condit. When the Levy family's lawyer held a news conference Thursday, the reporters wanted to know about Condit, and got no answers.

(on camera): Unfair? Maybe so. But in early May, the media were treating the strange disappearance of Chandra Levy from this apartment building near Washington's Dupont Circle, like they do most of the 98,000 people reported missing each year; which is to say, it was barely news at all.

(voice-over): Then an e-mail surfaced in which the young woman spoke of a mystery boyfriend, and the Levy's got themselves booked on the CBS "Early Show."

BRYANT GUMBEL, HOST, "THE EARLY SHOW," CBS: You're daughter friends say that she was secretly dating a politician. Was that anything that you were aware of?

SUSAN LEVY, MOTHER OF CHANDRA LEVY: I don't know anything about it right now.

KURTZ: But there was no proof of a relationship with Condit, who called Chandra a good friend, and much of the media held back from a seemingly tabloid story. That began to change two weeks ago when "The Washington Post" quoted an unnamed relative of Chandra Levy as saying the two were having an affair and reported the congressman had told police that Chandra had spent the night at his Washington apartment.

Suddenly, journalists couldn't get enough. The saga had all the elements of a media blockbuster: a missing woman, an alleged romance with a politician, a flurry of phone calls between the two and plenty of unanswered questions.

Condit isn't answering those questions. He's had nothing to say in public in the seven weeks since Chandra disappeared. Condit's lawyer, Joe Cotchett, while not denying a romantic relationship, blames the press.

The Levys are growing more critical of Condit, and some journalists are being critical as well.

MARGARET CARLSON, "CAPITAL GANG": There are two persons missing in Washington: Chandra Levy, the intern who vanished May 1, and California Democratic Congressman Gary Condit.


KURTZ: Condit met with the Levys Thursday night. In a written statement, he said he would help with the investigation without hesitation.

"All I ask," said Condit, "is that the media show restraint and avoid distracting the public and law enforcement." Adding: "The tabloidization of these terrible circumstances can only cause more pain to the Levys, while at the same time doing nothing to help find Chandra."

Well, joining us now, Bob Schieffer, CBS chief Washington correspondent and anchor of "Face the Nation" and Gloria Borger, CBS special correspondent, columnist for "U.S. News and World Report," and a close personal friend of Bob Schieffer.

Bob Schieffer, is the press going overboard on the coverage of Chandra Levy's relationship with Congressman Condit? By many indications, a romantic relationships, though there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her disappearance.

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, "FACE THE NATION," CBS: Well, I would point out first that neither the ABC evening news nor the CBS evening news, to my knowledge, have broadcast this story, but I must say, I think it's a legitimate story. I mean, you have almost a man bites dog story here.

This is the first time that I can think of in the history of the world that a congressman who had a constituent in trouble was not trying to get on television. I mean, most of the time a congressman in a situation like this will crawl over, you know, broken glass to get to a television camera. You have to ask the question, why is this congressman refusing to meet with the press? I mean, is he getting very bad advice from some sort of media adviser or are there simply some questions that he does not wish to answer? I mean, that in itself seems to make it a news story.

KURTZ: And on that very point, Gloria Borger, is it reasonable for journalists to be criticizing Gary Condit for basically staying silent, saying nothing, and stiffing the press for seven long weeks?

GLORIA BORGER, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Absolutely. He's a public official. He's been elected by his constituents. This is a story that clearly involves him. We don't know what his relationship was with Chandra Levy, but we do know that they were friends, at least friends, and I think he has a responsibility to answer some questions.

At the beginning of this, you'll recall, he did donate $10,000 to help finding her and then suddenly he disappeared...

KURTZ: It's hard to find him.

BORGER: And now you can't find him, right.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: What about his characterization of the way the media has been covering this story, Gloria? He used the word "tabloidization." This story is so critically media-driven, taking place against the backdrop of the Monica and the president, now we have that extraordinary sexy word, "intern." Say intern and bingo, all the networks go -- although Bob says CBS did not carry it and ABC.

So, a direct question: is the media gone nuts on covering this story?

BORGER: No, I don't think the media has gone nuts on covering this story.

KALB: So, is ABC and CBS nuts for not reporting this story?

BORGER: No. ABC and CBS have reported this story. They haven't done it on the evening news, they've done it on the morning news shows. As soon as there is a solid development, I would presume that CBS evening news would cover it, right Bob?

KURTZ: Solid development. Interesting that you mentioned that, because I saw on one of the cable networks the other day the headline "Chandra Levy Still Missing" and I'm wondering, you know, in the cable environment, you know, MSNBC does this story every 12 minutes, CNN maybe every 15. But there's very little new information about what happened to this young woman. Does that put journalism -- I mean, we'll all been in a situation where it's a big, hot story but you don't have much to report. Does that put journalism in a difficult position because everyone's talking about it, but we still don't know very much?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think you're absolutely right. I think it does put us in a difficult position. I'm not sure. While I think it's a legitimate news story, I'm not sure it demands wall-to-wall 24- hour every nuance reported kind of coverage, which you're seeing in some places.

But I just go back to what I said in the beginning. The odd behavior of this man -- I have no idea what this man's relationship is with this young woman, but it's a very odd relationship at best and it seems to me as a public official he would want to come and explain what is going on here. It's just too strange, what we're saying here.

KURTZ: Excuse me. We do have the very serious spectacle of a woman who is still missing...


KURTZ: ... and no one knows what has happened to her.

Well, let's move on to some political subjects. And Gloria Borger, the Karl Rove story -- this is the tale of one of the presidents top advisers meeting with top executives for Intel about a proposed merger while owning more than $100,000 worth of Intel stock.

Now, "Slate" magazine and some other critics have said, why is the press giving Karl Rove a pass? This was kind of a one-day story. I wonder if you think we're making too much of it or not enough.

BORGER: I think at this point it's a little too early to say. The White House explanation on it, of course, was that this was a problem in the White House Counsel's Office, that his paperwork didn't get completed quickly enough...

KURTZ: In terms of selling the stock...

BORGER: ... selling the stock. But the White House does have a problem here, and that is when you ran a campaign that talked about the appearances in the Clinton administration of conflicts of interest, you have to be real careful that you don't have those same conflict issues. And a lot of people are saying, look, this is what you talked about in the campaign. You'd better be careful to be just as clean in your own White House.

KALB: That asks the question, Bob, of ethics appearance; the appearance of whether you have embraced ethics or you're abandoning ethics, notwithstanding what you may have said during the campaign.

But do you think that there's a certain point where the media keeps, what is it, regurgitating the same details over and over to keep the story front and center. Do you think it's being driven, let me put it this way, but the liberal media?

SCHIEFFER: No, I don't. But I do, I do sort of give Karl Rove the benefit of the doubt on this particular story. He says he was trying to get rid of this stock, and it is not, when you have a large block of stocks, sometimes that's not the easiest thing to do.

So, if he's telling the truth, and I have no reason to think he's not, he was trying to get himself in-line with what the ethical standards were. I think the larger problem is going to be for Karl Rove than for the Bush White House in the future, is this highly visible political director. I have never seen someone who wanted to attach themselves to a story the way this political director has.

In the past, most presidents and most political strategists have felt, when you attach the political director to something, you automatically get stories of, well, they're doing it for political reasons...

KURTZ: Right. They've all had political directors.


KURTZ: But you're saying they kept a lower profile.

SCHIEFFER: Yes. And I think that, in the long run, that's where Karl Rove is going to have a problem.

KURTZ: Let me turn to the energy question, Gloria Borger. Bush says he is opposed to energy price controls. The Federal Energy Agency imposes partial controls in California. Bush says those aren't price controls. Ari Fleischer calls it "a market-based mitigation plan"...

BORGER: I know, I saw that.

KURTZ: Should the press be playing this as a kind of a flip-flop on the administrations part?

BORGER: Yeah. I think if -- someone once said, "if it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck." And I think that the administration is playing a very nuanced game here, because they...

KURTZ: Are they fooling the press?

BORGER: Well, the press has been writing stories, saying, look, this isn't exactly a price cap, but it's kind of a price cap, and that the administration is trying to have it both ways. So, yes, I think you have seen a lot of stories...

KALB: What we've left out of this discussion is 2-0-0-2, the White House dueling with the governor of California against a background of that election. You can exploit what is taking place on the energy level for powerful political dividends the next time around when they elect a new congress. And we see the administration and Sacramento dueling regularly on that. And the media is playing that razor political duel.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think what the media is doing is reporting what is sinking in on the White House, and that is, it's well and good to have a long-range energy plan, but a lot of people on Capitol Hill are telling this White House, look, that's all well and good, but if you don't do something about high gas prices and high electricity prices out there in California, we may lose the House and the Senate next election. KALB: 2-0-0-2.

SCHIEFFER: You're seeing that being reported. That's what happening.

KURTZ: A quick question, I need a quick answer: the media have been giving Bush flack, I would say, on the Europe trip, on the question of energy, on opposition to patient's bill of rights, at least the Kennedy-McCain version; is the president's media honeymoon pretty much over now?

SCHIEFFER: I think so. I think so. I don't know, the reviews of the president's trip to Europe, sometimes, dependent on which newspaper your read. "The Washington Post" gave one account of the meeting with Putin and "The New York Times" gave an entirely different one. But I think it is. I think we're getting into normal times now.

KURTZ: OK. Can I hold it there?

Up next, we'll talk more with Bob Schieffer and Gloria Borger about the Sunday morning talk show wars.



The challenge for journalists, like our guests here, is to force politicians to answer questions they'd rather duck.


SCHIEFFER: This meeting with the Russian president, Mr. Putin, the president said, "I looked him in the eye and I think he's trustworthy." Do you trust him?

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MINORITY LEADER: Well, I don't know if I would put it in those terms.

BORGER: Do you think it would be a political mistake for President Bush to veto a patients' bill of rights?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think so. In other words, I think most any piece of legislation that's important to the American people, we don't want the president to have to veto.


KURTZ: Bob Schieffer, don't you find it frustrating when politicians come on your show on Sunday morning and try to stick to their prepackaged sound bytes, almost no matter what the question?

SCHIEFFER: Well, that's always the challenge. And one way that we try to counter that is sometimes I will say, "as you have said in the past," and I will try to take away what they...

KURTZ: So they can't simply repeat it. SCHIEFFER: ... they're prepared remarks, and try to get right to the second question. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

KALB: What sort of little conspiracies, Gloria, do you and Bob work out in fact, in fact he gets somebody to answer a question which a politician would rather duck?

BORGER: Well, Bob and I talk an awful lot.

KALB: I mean the one-two whammy kind of things.

BORGER: Well, we talk an awful lot before the show about the questions we're going to ask and we sort of understand, going in, where the politician may be going with a certain question and we know what our follow-ups are going to be. And if I don't get to the follow-up, you can be sure that Bob will, and vice-versa. I mean we kind of plan things sometimes, believe it or not.

SCHIEFFER: Gloria doesn't know this, but I always try to work it so she has to ask the really nasty questions, you see.

KURTZ: You're the good cop, then. You're the good cop.

BORGER: Oh, no, no.

KURTZ: But if somebody continues to bob and weave and duck and evade and you've only got seven or eight minutes for the interview, a politician can get away with that, can't he?

SCHIEFFER: He can. I mean, there comes a point where, you know, when people just start to repeat themselves...

KURTZ: Right.

SCHIEFFER: ... you generally try to move on.

KURTZ: Well, some people -- excuse me, Bernie -- say that, you know, they prefer the sort of pit-bull interrogation style of a Tim Russert or a Sam Donaldson. You're sort of a more gentle questioner.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I try to get information. That's our point, is to try to elicit information...

KURTZ: Rather than to show off?

SCHIEFFER: And when I see that we're not going to do that, you know, I always say we only have a half-hour, so we have to ask shorter questions.

KALB: Gloria, is this the moment to overhaul Sunday morning? I mean, we've been watching "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" and "This Week," et cetera. We've been watching them for years, and after a while they become eminently predictable; you ask the rough questions, the politician bobs, ducks, and so forth. Is Sunday morning in need of an overhauling?

BORGER: No. I think what is wonderful...

KALB: I'm not talking you out of a job. I mean...

BORGER: No. Well, certainly not "Face the Nation." No, I think Sunday morning is the one place on national television where you sort of get this unrehearsed real, unedited interview. And you get to see a journalist ask a question on policy and a politician answer a question on policy, and a journalist follow-up and go back and forth. And then the public can make up their minds. And, you know, you get a lot of terrific guests, and it's a way to really try and get to the bottom of policies for the viewers, I think...

KALB: Let me follow-up, briefly, if I may. Do you determine the success of a program whether the next day, Monday morning, it's on the front page of "The Post" or "The Times"? Is that critical for the Sunday morning talk shows?

BORGER: Well, we like that to happen, obviously, but it doesn't determine success or failure for us. But we like to get a politician to make a little news if we can, sure.

SCHIEFFER: Every so often, you know, you'll have a show that does not make any news, as it were, but you come away feeling you've really learned something about a particular issue. And those are the ones that I really feel good about. Our bosses also feel good when the ratings are good.

KURTZ: Well, speaking of ratings, "Face the Nation," for a long time, has been number three among the broadcast networks, but in the last 18 weeks you've beaten or tied ABC's "This Week" 16 out of those 18 weeks. What's the secret of this recent momentum?

SCHIEFFER: It's a very interesting thing, Howie. As you know, we are a half-hour. The other two broadcasts on the networks are an hour. And that's very difficult for us to compete with them because, for one thing, we have to book our guests. If the news changes, they can take the guests they've already booked, put them at the back of the show and put somebody else at the front of the show. We have to be very, very careful.

I think it has to do with consistency. You're talking about it is it time for an overhaul; I would say the answer is no. What we find is, we are a Washington talk show. Everything that we find out about the people who watch us is they turn it on because they want to see and find out about an issue that's at the top of the news in Washington.

So, we try to make sure there are no surprises. They know what they're going to get when they turn on "Face the Nation." It's like going to McDonald's, you know what they've got when you get up there to the counter. We try to stick to that and we try to stay as close to the news as we possibly can.

KURTZ: Bob Schieffer, chief hamburger flipper on Sunday mornings. You'll understand this, we're out of time. We'll have to leave it there. Gloria Borger, Bob Schieffer, thanks very much for a fascinating discussion.

Well, when we come back, same guy, same time, same interview, but journalists come away with very different stories on Vladimir Putin on our "Media Roundup."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Check out the different headlines in "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" this week following the same sit-down with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"The Washington Post": "Putin upbeat on U.S. ties" and "missile defense aside, he sees partner in Bush."

A less upbeat angle from "The New York Times," same day, same story placement; "Putin says Russia would add arms to counter shields" and "he invites a joint effort, but if Washington proceeds alone, so will Moscow."

Were these reporters in the same room?

And "The Baltimore Sun" is the hometown paper for the Orioles, but it was "The Washington Post" that hit the home-run with the front page scoop that O's star Cal Ripken is retiring. "The Sun" was not pleased.

Well, turning now to the coverage of the Texas child killings; the cable networks went live when the distraught father spoke to reporters at length outside his home Thursday after his wife was arrested for killing their five children.


RUSSELL YATES, FATHER OF SLAIN CHILDREN: My wife, I'm supportive of her. You know, it's hard because on the one hand I know she killed our children, you know, but on the other, I know that, you know, the woman here is not the woman that killed my children. And, you know, Andrea, if you see this, I love you, you know.


KURTZ: Bernie, what did you make of the cable networks carrying that live and at some length?

KALB: I don't know what it did for ratings, but I must say that hot pursuit in the midst of such of a heavy tragedy is inexcusable. And there seems to be a split verdict in the media world. "The New York Times" did not carry this story on Friday. "The Washington Post" by contrast, gave it a big ride on page two. There is no fixed opinion.

KURTZ: Well, I guess I'd make a terrible television executive, but I just think this kind of exploitation of tragedy and staking out somebody's house in their moment of ultimate grief and putting it on for so long reinforces the public view that we are rather heartless.

Well, coming up next, a 30-year-old media drama in Bernie's "Backpage."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Backpage" -- Bernie.

KALB: For reporters, it doesn't get much better than this.


KALB (voice-over): "Supreme Court six to three upholds newspapers on publication of the Pentagon Report. `Times' resumes it's series, halted 15 days."

That was 30 years ago, July 1, 1971, but it wasn't just a victory for journalists. It was a reaffirmation of the First Amendment; that the Nixon administration could not stop the presses by invoking a legality known as "prior restraint"; censorship, in a word, on the grounds of national security.

And so the presses began rolling again, and there it was on the front pages, the Pentagon's own secret critique of how JFK and LBJ led the country into the Vietnam war and the official lies and deceptions along the way.

The Pentagon Papers have been described as the biggest leak in U.S. history, some 7,000 pages, more than 40 volumes. And the very day that the first "New York Times" story hit the streets, June 13, 1971, President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger spoke by phone.

Here, some excerpt from this recently declassified report.


RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, this is treasonable action on the part of the bastards who put it out.

HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: It's treasonable. There's no question it's actionable. I'm absolutely certain that this violates all sorts of security laws.


KALB: But a different view, though it came about 20 years later, from the solicitor general, who argued the Nixon administrations case in court, Erwin Griswold: "In hindsight, it is clear to me that no harm was done by publication of the Pentagon Papers."

So, the First Amendment and freedom of the press triumphed in 1971. But a poll published by the Freedom Forum last year shows 51 percent of those surveyed say that the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants.


KALB: So, let me leave you with this question, would the First Amendment be ratified today if it were put to a vote?

KURTZ: I'd ask all my friends to vote yes. 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.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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