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Did Media Overdo Coverage of Iraq?; Is Al Gore Being Marginalized?

Aired September 28, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The missing in action campaign. The media are filled with Iraq, Iraq and more Iraq. What about the midterm elections and Social Security and the economy?
Tom Daschle rips the president over a "Washington Post" story.




KURTZ: Is the coverage serious or just soundbites? And Al Gore taking a stand on Iraq, but drawing yawns on television. Is he being marginalized?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Five and a half weeks until election day, lots of good races around the country, control of both Houses of Congress up for grabs, and yet, national media coverage of the full campaign has all but evaporated. Instead, we're seeing this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. Congress is still debating the language of a resolution to authorize military action against Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now to the U.S. and Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The subject is Iraq and terrorism.


KURTZ: From the airwaves to the big newspapers and magazines, Iraq and the possibility of war is being debated and dissected. If there are other campaign issues out there, say health care or the sinking stock market, they've been drowned out by the war drums. So does all this amount to media manipulation?

Well, joining us now E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist; Bryon York of "National Review"; Michelle Cottle of "The New Republic" and Dana Milbank of "The Washington Post."

E.J. Dionne, Iraq is a huge story, but in a campaign time, doesn't the media have some responsibility for more coverage of rising poverty rates, Social Security, prescription drugs, unemployment, you name it?

E.J. DIONNE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, the answer is obviously yes.

KURTZ: So what's happened?

DIONNE: There is no evading Iraq. When a country is about to go to war, it's going to dominate the news. So I think to complain about lots of coverage is Iraq is not the point. I think the issue is, is there a reason to have all Iraq all the time? Do -- I mean, we don't cover the poor at all as the media. I mean, the poor were fashionable in the '60s. They're not fashionable anymore, and so we don't talk about the effect of the recession on them. I think it's a broader problem than just the current problem with Iraq.

KURTZ: They're also not the customers that most media organizations want to reach because they're not the loved ...

DIONNE: Precisely.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, admit it. Haven't the media let the White House define the news agenda here, in which there's essentially one huge topic?

DANA MILBANK, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, think about it. Compare this to July, the last time the Dow Jones Industrials are where they are now. It was -- everyday was front-page stories about the market falling down, economic indicators ...

KURTZ: Corporate scandals.

MILBANK: ... the president -- the president felt he had to talk about it every day -- pretty much the same situation now. It's not making the front page at all, and what's making it, instead, is everything that the president has been saying about Iraq.

KURTZ: Byron York, last week Tom Daschle accused President Bush of an atrocious economic record and nobody really cared. It was a blip of a story.

BYRON YORK, THE NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, I think actually you could almost make the opposite argument about this and say is coverage of the elections obscuring coverage of the war? Every issue about the war is being seen through the lens of the election. Every domestic issue about that is being seen through the lens of the election. So ...

KURTZ: Rather than a debate about the merits or demerits of going after Saddam Hussein now, it's how is this ...

YORK: How is this flying out there?

KURTZ: ... affecting ...

YORK: How is this flying out there? The other thing is, is that out in local land there are a number of races for the House, in which people are discussing Social Security, are discussing big spending issues, are discussing health care. So I think -- I think just because you're in Washington and see that doesn't mean that it's not happening out there.

KURTZ: And I think, Michelle Cottle, it may be getting local coverage, although local TV is famously disinterested in, say, in local House races. But in terms of the national media, the fact that the American people may also be concerned about some other things, particularly the economy. It's not being reflected by what we see on the front pages and the television screens.

MICHELLE COTTLE, THE NEW REPUBLIC: Not a great deal. I mean, you see the occasional report like when it was announced that poverty is up for the first time or more than it has been. You saw that story, but it's always a criticism of media that what we cover is the horse race politics of any issue, and right now the squabbling is primarily over the Iraq situation.

DIONNE: You know, Howie, I think the interesting thing is perhaps the media doesn't have the impact on the election that the media always thinks it has. I was out in Indiana this week and a Republican called Chris Chocola is -- would like to use the war because he is a strong supporter of President Bush, but I asked him have the questions you've been asked changed much since the war entered the news, and he said surprisingly not. Most voters care about the economy.

The media has been out of sync with the voters before. The media were one place on Bill Clinton, and the voters in the 1998 election seemed to go somewhere else. It's quite possible that all of this attention on Iraq may not have nearly the effect on the elections. It's a little bit like Byron was saying, may not have nearly the effect on the outcome as we here in Washington think.

YORK: And another major issue in this election is because the houses of Congress are so closely divided, is who's going to control the House. So I think there are a number of candidates out there who are saying, you know, a vote for my opponent is a vote for Tom DeLay, and so these -- or the other way around, a vote for Dick Gephardt. So, here again are these actual non-war issues that are rather big out there and are being covered locally.

KURTZ: Well, if you're right, E.J., then we will be seeing the day after the election a lot of news analysis about, gee, perhaps some other things were also on the mind of the American voters.

But I want to turn now to a piece of tape that people have seen replayed hundreds of times now. It was the Senate majority Leader reacting to a story in a certain newspaper. Let's take a look.


DASCHLE: The president is quoted in "The Washington Post" this morning as saying that Democratic -- the Democrat-controlled Senate is not interested in the security of the American people. Well, that is outrageous. Outrageous! (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, you're the author of that story. While you were writing it, did you say to yourself, boy, when Tom Daschle reads this, he's going to go ballistic?

MILBANK: I had a feeling when I was writing it that some people in the White House might be a little bit displeased with it. I was quite surprised to see on C-SPAN that Tom Daschle apparently near tears and then this growling sort of thing in his voice, and then Robert Byrd got up and actually held the story up. So I was hoping I'd get a little bonus for that -- for the brand placement.

KURTZ: But some White House officials and other critics say the story was misleading because the headline -- I have it right here -- or the sub headline is "In President Speeches, Iraq Dominates, Economy Fades." And yet, the line from the president about the senators' interest in national security was about a fight about personnel rules in the proposed Homeland Security Department. So could you have made that more clear?

MILBANK: Certainly we could have, if we look at it in retrospect and, you know, we all say one thousand times, we don't write the headlines. In fact, in my story the word "Iraq" doesn't come up until something like the 20th paragraph. It wasn't about Iraq.

What -- the interpretation that I had, which it seems to be what many other folks are echoing is when you make a remark like the "Senate cannot be trusted with the nation's security," whatever the context is the only thing any of us is discussing right now is Iraq. So it has to have some reverberation.

So yes, I think if in hindsight it would be possible to go back and change national security to homeland security. It probably would have been better, but you know, it's always much easier to look at these things after the fact.

KURTZ: It's a deadline business. Let's take a look, for one minute, at what President Bush actually said on Monday on the campaign trail.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.


KURTZ: If that's such an inflammatory quote, why wasn't it big news the next day? Why did the outrage industry get going only when Dana Milbank wrote about it the day after that?

COTTLE: Well, Bush was speaking to -- at a Republican fund- raiser. These are not the sorts of folks who are going to go run home and lodge a complaint when a statement is made against the Democratic ...

KURTZ: There were reporters there.

COTTLE: ... Senate. And one reported it out and this has kind of rolled. The press loves a spat, so once Daschle picked this up and started firing back, it became a huge news story.

KURTZ: Or was this ...

YORK: It shows -- no, this shows you the huge agenda setting power of the "Post" because I think you reported that four times in the last couple of days the president said this. I actually went back and looked at his speeches and he'd said it a bunch of times before that. I mean, I counted eight times since this debate began on September 16.

KURTZ: Well, that would suggest that White House correspondents ...


KURTZ: ... are so used to hearing the president say similar things that ...


KURTZ: ... their radar detectors didn't go off.

MILBANK: Let me tell you how I found out about it and it's true, he first said it August 3 and he was ratcheting it up in the intensity. I found about it because Tom DeLay started to fax it around. He was saying, look at this. He's sending an e-mail to all the reporters, and I said wait a second, that does sound a little bit different. The next thing you know the Republican National Committee is sending this around. In fact ...

KURTZ: You've revealed your secret source right here on ...

MILBANK: My secret source is Tom DeLay. The Republican National Committee, even after Senator Daschle complained, was still circulating this around in their e-mail.

KURTZ: Would somebody suggest, E.J., that the media referees are perhaps a little afraid to blow the whistle on Bush? I mean, after all he was talking here about a spat, about personnel rules. It may be important for the Homeland Security Department, but to raise that to a level of the Senate isn't interested in the security of the American people, I just have a hard time understanding why it takes Tom DeLay to put this on the media radar screen.

DIONNE: Well, what's fascinating is that Tom DeLay ended up, unusually for him, operating against interests for the Republican Party. Look, and I think you've written this, Howie, that when you're covering the White House you hear certain phrases over and over again, and they don't hit you. Is it -- has Bush gotten an easier ride since September 11, 2001 than other presidents? Well, sure, and in the initial period I think most of us understand why.

There was a sense of genuine patriotism that even enveloped the press that surprises everybody else. But sure, I think there is a -- there was a kind of pulling back. I think that's over, and I think the significance of this week is that that ended, and to defend the story in the "Post," where I also draw a paycheck, the point is what did the president say? And you can sort of build it up and you know politicians always say this is out of context. He said those words -- those words essentially say -- he said Democrats don't care about the security of the country. That's a big deal and somebody put it in the paper and then there was a controversy, and that's very -- that's about democracy.

KURTZ: He didn't say Democrats. He said the Senate ...

DIONNE: He said the Senate, yes, correct.

KURTZ: ... which, of course, is controlled by Democrats. But I wonder if the awful effects of 9/11 now, Michelle Cottle, have so worn off that the media can spend much of their time on who's politicizing the issue of homeland security and terrorism in Iraq, as opposed to the substance that we all worried about in the early months. I mean, it just seems like we're obsessed now with the politics and the motivation of these political battles.

COTTLE: Well, sure, an election's coming up, and it is an incredibly important election. I mean, the control of both houses is up in the air and when you talk to analysts in both parties, they bring this up. I mean, there have been lots of quotes from Democrats and Republicans about the effects of this or that statement or you know Iraq versus domestic agenda. So it's not just the media that's looking at this. It's what the Republicans and Democrats are talking about too.

KURTZ: Is there any possibility that Tom Daschle was just really mad and this was not a calculated piece of outrage, as so many pundits have suggested?

YORK: Actually -- I actually thought that and most of the media interpretation -- I'm not talking about the op-ed people, but the actual news pieces have interpreted Daschle's remark as a cry of frustration, that he's so frustrated he can't get his issues to the floor, et cetera. And it just dawned on me, frankly, it was only the day after that I thought maybe he really meant it, maybe he was really afraid and then I thought ...


KURTZ: What a novel interpretation. We will take a break, and when we come back, Al Gore jumps into the fray over Iraq and the broadcast networks greet him with something of a yawn.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Al Gore delivered a major address this week. The former vice president sharply criticizing George Bush's handling of Iraq. But Gore's speech hit a thud on television. MSNBC was the only cable network to carry the whole address live, while Fox and CNN stayed with other programming. And the nightly network newscasts dealt with Gore's speech only briefly. Here's how ABC's "World News Tonight" handled it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In San Francisco today there was pretty strong criticism of the Bush administration from the former Vice President Al Gore. Mr. Gore told an audience that the administration's campaign against Saddam Hussein would damage the U.S.'s ability to win the war against terrorism.


KURTZ: And that was it. Michelle Cottle, this was a speech by Gore that really kind of changed the debate this week. Why not more exposure on the broadcast networks?

COTTLE: You know, I've asked myself the same thing because I watched the speech. I thought it was making an important point. Now the papers, though, were a little better about it. I mean, the "Post" led with it and things like this, but I guess maybe, you know, Gore doesn't make for good TV for one thing, and there was no kind of inherent back and forth with this. So maybe that's it.

KURTZ: Oh, by the way, you know, CNN and Fox, which carried so many sheriff's press conferences when there were missing kids this summer, I think could have spared 20 minutes to carry Al Gore's speech. I thought it was embarrassing.

Dana Milbank, again, all this analysis and psycho babble about what was Gore doing and he was appealing to the left, and he was positioning himself for 2004. Any possibility this is what Gore really believes or should it be reported in a strictly political context?

MILBANK: Well, it's funny. Here's a time when Al Gore actually took a risk and conceivably did something principled, and he didn't get any credit for it at all. That's partially our fault, perhaps, but it's also partially his fault. During the speech, at one point, he leveled all these criticism and then said, well, wait, I'm not actually saying this. There are other people who have said this.

So that sort of gave the opening for this sort of -- this industry of sort of Al Gore haters to jump on it and say just another bit of the typical Al Gore.


KURTZ: On the other hand, Byron York, did the media do a good job of pointing out some of the contradictions between what Gore was saying this week and his vote for the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and some of what he's had to say since then about Saddam Hussein?

YORK: Right. That would have been the bigger news story, it seems to me. The ...

KURTZ: The bigger news story ...

YORK: ... answer is ...

KURTZ: ... bigger than what Gore actually said?

YORK: Well, the fact that it was a major restatement of some of the things that he has said in the past. Yes, and I don't think there was enough coverage. "The Washington Post" did give it very good coverage. You -- I almost felt that some people were slightly chagrined for him. I mean he was -- he was kind of disheveled. He rambled around and it was a gross contradiction of the number of things he had said in the past. So ...


YORK: I think -- well he got really nailed by the op-ed columnists. Certainly, but I don't remember seeing the big stories about how Gore has -- this is a major change in the news sections.

KURTZ: The press -- some of the stories I saw, E.J. Dionne, were saying, well, maybe Democrats privately agree with Gore, but didn't want to say so publicly, though Ted Kennedy on Friday came out also in opposition to any immediate action against Iraq. Why wasn't more of that reported? It's not so hard to find out what congressmen think privately. There's a lot of them around. They love talking to reporters.

DIONNE: Well, I think that was reported, and I think it came out the day -- the speech you didn't see on television turned out to have an enormous affect, and as you say, it's a problem. I also think Al Gore is the only politician in America of whom it would be said simultaneously he's done this for political reasons, and it hurts him politically. I mean, you know, poor Al Gore.

But you know I was struck -- and I came across this looking up the text of the speech, and I found "The News with Brian Williams," and the tease began, is it un-American to speak out against the Bush plan to take on Iraq? But the next sentence says, is it democratic to ridicule and threaten those who do it?

I mean, since when do we debate that it's un-American to take on a president. Sure, that subject surely didn't come up during the Clinton scandals when people were trashing Clinton's foreign policy all the time. And then he went on later in the story to say today our ...

KURTZ: Brian Williams.

DIONNE: ... this is Brian Williams. Today our friend Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners he almost stayed home from work not due to any health reasons, but because he was so livid at the speech given yesterday by former Vice President Al Gore criticizing the Bush administration, et cetera. Now, have you ever seen the news report, Jane Fonda couldn't get out of bed because she was so mad about former Vice President Nixon's speech or Phil Donahue couldn't get out of bed because he was so mad about President Bush's speech. I mean, he got 47 million votes. Why couldn't you have a straight account of what Al Gore said, and then a debate, including all the questions, including the ones Dana raised about what he said?

What is going on here? I don't believe ...


DIONNE: ... there is a liberal media anymore.


DIONNE: That's -- that is Rush Limbaugh's now the producer of the news.

KURTZ: Well, that's going a little far because when you're on cable and people have seen the speech 20 times, by the time you come on, you look for a little different way to get in the story, perhaps by going to -- framing it around what the critics ...

DIONNE: Why begin with -- in other words, we are told all the time it is the liberal media and here Rush Limbaugh, not being able to get out of bed supersedes what Al Gore says. If you -- if you want to have Rush Limbaugh on trashing Al Gore afterward, fine. Report the news. Report what he said, and then criticize him.

YORK: And it's possible Rush Limbaugh wouldn't be able to get out of bed if he did not have Al Gore making him livid about it.

KURTZ: Well, it certainly helped -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) people to tune into the show. Now speaking of criticizing Al Gore, your magazine, "The New Republic," did just that, an editorial, sharp criticism about Gore ...


KURTZ: ... a man that the magazine supported in the 2000 campaign, a magazine owned by a close friend of Al Gore's, Marty Peretz. A difficult step for "The New Republic"?

COTTLE: Yes, actually I think it was very hard. The sense that the editors have is the magazine has always supported Gore, but one of the reasons that it has always supported Gore is very hawkish on foreign policy, and so the very -- the lead of our lead was that, you know, Gore has stepped away. He is no longer the Al Gore that we had supported in the past, and you know, I kind of disagree on the context of the editorial, but I think the vast majority of the staff believes this was the bitter rantings of a guy who is being politically motivated and disingenuous in his arguments.

KURTZ: And that's a big step for "The New Republic" because it so closely ... (CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... identified as a supporter of Al Gore. We will have to leave it there. E.J. Dionne, Dana Milbank, Michelle Cottle, Byron York, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, CNN's courtship of ABC News. Could this media marriage work?


KURTZ: OK, try to imagine this, "INSIDE POLITICS" with Peter Jennings, "Nightline" with Tucker Carlson, "CROSSFIRE" with Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters facing off. Just a fantasy? CNN and ABC News are in talks about a possible merger that would involve creating a stand-alone news company, giving CNN access to some big journalistic names and ABC a 24-hour outlet.

But don't expect to see Ted Koppel or Mickey Mouse on this network any time soon. CNN chairman Walter Isaacson calls the talks intriguing, but says they're not close to a deal. AOL Time Warner, CNN's parent and Disney, ABC's owner, would have to work out difficult issues of who owns what and who calls the editorial shots. A similar round of talks between CNN and CBS went nowhere.

But the door remains open, especially if Disney, which almost dumped "Nightline" for "Letterman" really wants to exile the news division from the Magic Kingdom. Hey, see if we can book Jennings for next week's show. All right, have him get back to me.

Well, time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): In the newsroom it's called a tick-tock (ph). That is taking a story apart piece-by- piece, minute-by-minute to see what happened along the way and then reconstructing it, which is what I'd like to do with a story that dominated the news the other day, turning up the heat between two fairly well known politicians.

(voice over): The story opened on Monday with a presidential blast.

BUSH: But the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.

KALB: That was featured in a front-page news analysis in "The Washington Post" with a reporter noting that the Senate was Democratic-controlled. All of this was just too much for the top Democrat in the Senate. He accused the president of politicizing the debate over Iraq and then in denouncing the president's accusation, he put those two little unspoken words into the president's mouth.

DASCHLE: The president is quoted in "The Washington Post" this morning as saying that Democratic -- the Democratic-controlled Senate is not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous -- outrageous.

KALB: Switch to the White House, no apologies there, Ari Fleischer saying that what the president was talking about was the Senate's failure to pass a Homeland Security Bill, not about Iraq, adding the president never said what the senator said the president said.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president never, in that speech, referred to the Democratic-controlled Senate.

KALB: Back to the senator, saying in effect that what the White House was saying was a distinction without a difference.

(on camera): And so it went, and what's the point of this tick- tock (ph)? Simply to note that there are still 38 days to tick away before the November election, which means we're going to be treated to a lot more of these many dramas before we actually cast our votes.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.



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