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Did Media Turn Bush's Speech Into Campaign Kickoff?; Why Is Democratic Debate Not on TV?; Are Santorum's Remarks About Gays a Non- Story?

Aired May 4, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Victory at sea. Have the media helped turn the president's aircraft carrier speech into the kickoff for his reelection campaign?
The nine Democrats who want Bush's job face off in South Carolina. Does anyone care if it's not on national television?

Rick Santorum's remarks about gays. Scandal or non-story?

And two big media embarrassment. A "New York Times" reporter resigns over plagiarism charges, and the editor of "The Salt Lake Tribune" is forced out over checkbook journalism in the Elizabeth Smart case.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. A jam packed show this morning. We'll get to those ethical lapses at "The New York Times" and "The Salt Lake Tribune" later in the program, but first, joining us now to talk about the president's picture perfect moment at sea and the clash among the nine Democrats who want his job, Laura Ingraham, host of "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Westwood One Radio. Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of "Newsweek" magazine. And E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist and a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Evan Thomas, the president gave a nice speech, but TV turned this extravaganza, excuse me, on the aircraft carrier into a 24-hour campaign commercial. This was like Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. Did the press get snookered here?

EVAN THOMAS, NEWSWEEK: I think that was sort of the idea. The White House wanted it to be a campaign commercial...

KURTZ: Why did they play along?

THOMAS: Why not? I mean, it's great theater. I mean, the president is entitled to theater. He wins a war. Why shouldn't he have a triumphant return? What are we supposed to do, not do it?

KURTZ: E.J. Dionne, isn't this kind of typical of the huge media buildup that Bush has gotten since this war? Yes, the war was a great victory, but this -- I mean, it just looked so much like a 30-second ad with the 5,000 soldiers serving as a backdrop.

E.J. DIONNE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: It did, and the thing that was frightening is it might be a short-term success and a long-term problem, because I went back through the coverage, and the number of times that the word "campaign commercial" was used actually had the effect of undercutting what he said, and I think the staging was so good that very little attention was paid to his words, and so I think, as I say, it may have been great for him to get this press now. A lot depends -- those pictures will look great if everything goes well in Iraq. Those pictures will look very different in six months if things aren't going so well.

KURTZ: Actually, Ronald Reagan taught us that pictures are much more important than words. The reporters can say what they want, but the pictures have a great effect. Let's put up a pictures of the two New York tabloids and the top gun coverage that they gave President Bush. People can take a look at that. Laura Ingraham, even you have to admit that the mainstream liberal press has given this president one heck of a ride over this war.

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: First of all, even you. The elites are being driven crazy by the fact that this president said that he was going to go into Iraq, try to get the job done with as few casualties as possible. He's essentially done that, with the help of the great U.S. military. The country has rallied to this White House, that's what's driving the elites crazy. They had 24-7 coverage of this war, with embedded journalists, so they covered this for one day, and everyone is like, oh, isn't this troubling that we covered this, this president landing on the aircraft carrier. Speaking as a woman, and listening to the women who called into my radio show, seeing President Bush get out of that plane, carrying his helmet, he is a real man. He stands by his word. That was a very powerful moment.

DIONNE: And that's why it is a campaign commercial.

INGRAHAM: What are you supposed to do, not cover it?


INGRAHAM: Yes, journalistic elites.

KURTZ: Have you been driven crazy?


INGRAHAM: You are being driven crazy by that.

DIONNE: No, not by that. In fact, I think that it's not the case that people are driven crazy by the fact that the war was won. I don't think that's a problem for people. I think the notion that the elites are somehow ganging up on Bush is undercut by the very fact that he got all this coverage, so that's simply not true, and again...


DIONNE: Let me finish -- he looked better in a jumpsuit than I ever will.

KURTZ: Like Michael Dukakis looked like in a tank. THOMAS: My elitist opinion here. He is an in-your-face guy. This is part of his charm, and also something that people don't like about him. Everything about him, about his presidency, about his war, he's a risk taker, he's bold, he's the kind of guy that will get into a fighter plane and fly into it. That's who he is, and most people in this country like that. A significant minority do not. It will only turn against him...

KURTZ: The significant minority include the press, which might have preferred a more dignified Oval Office speech.

THOMAS: Look, the press is torn. They love images, they like theater. So they love that part. But they're a little snooty about Bush is a cowboy, so they don't like that part. So they are ambivalent.

INGRAHAM: But this is where the divide exists, though, between inside the Beltway journalistic mentality and the heartland of America. No, the heartland of America. I'm not talking politics here. Bush's approval rating is pretty high. That is going to go down. We all know that. But the fact that the military is actually being given the respect and appreciation that it deserves finally in the United States after a period of time where a lot of people doubted that, people really like that image, and I don't think there's anything for a day or two, nothing wrong with that. We're making such a big deal out of the fact that he landed on this aircraft carrier. Good for him. It was a nice day for the military.

DIONNE: If Bill Clinton had done this after the Kosovo war or the Bosnia war, Tom DeLay and perhaps even Laura would have said, my God, here's a president who never served in the military, wrapping himself...

INGRAHAM: Well, President Bush actually did serve in the military, however.

DIONNE: National Guard...


INGRAHAM: Try to fly one of those planes, E.J. Then you can tell us about that.

KURTZ: Let me blow the whistle here, because I want to move on to last night's debate in South Carolina, among the nine Democratic contenders. This was moderated by ABC's George Stephanopoulos and offered up to ABC affiliates, about 50 of them took it, none of them live, except for one cable channel here in Washington, and in New York, for example, this aired at 5:30 this morning. So my question, Evan Thomas, is do ordinary people care at this stage of the game about Kerry and Edwards and Lieberman and Gephardt, or is this really an inside baseball media story at this point?

THOMAS: They don't care, and nor should they. Why should they care? This is an early process, important process amongst the candidates and amongst the party faithful to kind of sort out, to see who wears well.

KURTZ: One of these people could be president. Why shouldn't they care?

THOMAS: We'll get to it. Don't worry. The public will have plenty of time to decide who is the winner. But why start now?

KURTZ: If almost no one actually sees this debate, although it is being replayed on C-Span today and that sort of thing, then is the media interpretation, the media spin even more important in terms of how for those who are paying attention, how their candidates are perceived?

DIONNE: Yes, and it's that for the mass audience, and then it's how people who give money, vote in primaries look at that coverage, even though more of them will watch this thing. And the problem for the Democrats is that the individual interests of the candidates are at odds with their -- is at odds with their collective interests. See, individual interest is separate yourself out, attack the other guy, so you had "The Atlanta Journal Constitution" this morning, "Kerry and Dean take off the gloves." "Chicago Tribune" -- "Democratic hopefuls get down to the fight." Almost all the headlines were like that. So you have got these irascible Democrats going at each other, which may be good for one of them, if he breaks out, but is not great for the collective image of the party.

KURTZ: Speaking of Kerry and Dean take off the gloves, we'll get to you in a second, Laura, let's take a look at Senator Kerry and Governor Dean, a couple of their sharp exchanges, last night.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I believe that anybody who thinks that they have to prepare for the day that we're not the strongest is preparing for a day when we have serious problems.

HOWARD DEAN (D), FORMER GOVERNOR OF VERMONT: No commander in chief would ever, and I am no exception, willingly allow our military influence to shrink. Unilateralism is a mistake. That's what I said before. I think the senator made a mistake in criticizing me.

KERRY: Well, I don't need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean.


KURTZ: Howard Dean, 3 percent in the polls nationally, but getting a lot of attention in the debate last night. Is he somebody who's been built up by the media or is he becoming a first rate contender?

INGRAHAM: Yes, the media loves Dean. And that's fine. Well, he's kind of the ant at the Democratic picnic right now. He's the one who's going to bite and nip at all the other Democrats on the stage. And I don't think he's, in the clips that I've seen, I don't think he came off particularly well. I think Kerry really sort of said, "down, boy," right there, and I served my country, I know the military. This idea that you're foreshadowing a weaker day for the country, we saw that a couple of decades ago. We don't want that again in the United States. So Dean is going to be a media fascination, but as a sustaining involvement of the Democrat Party, I don't think so.

THOMAS: The press is always looking for the non-candidate, a person who doesn't seem like a politician. And Dean is the best bet for the person who will wear with the public as someone...

KURTZ: This is the Bruce Babbitt role.

THOMAS: Yes, and John McCain a little bit, but it's somebody who sounds like a human being instead of a pol, and I think he does have some of those qualities. He is a little bit to the left.

KURTZ: A little? I mean, he's obviously strongly anti-war.

THOMAS: Even for the Democratic Party he's a little bit to the left, and that's going to, I think, going to hurt him. Catch on.

KURTZ: You know, I've traveled with Howard Dean. Most political reporters have done early profiles of him. How much has that helped boost him? Here is a guy who was a virtually unknown, former governor of Vermont. How much did that boost him?

THOMAS: He wants to be the media candidate. McCain used to say forthrightly, the media is my base, and that's what Dean wants.

DIONNE: And that's going to be harder now that the war is over. There was one thing, though, that you probably won't see much of. Some of these guys were funny last night. I mean, Kerry was asked by Stephanopoulos, George Stephanopoulos, you know, about his problem of aloofness. And he replied, "probably I ought to just disappear and contemplate that by myself." Or Joe Lieberman was asked, "are you tough enough?" "I'd like to come over there and strangle you, George." And I think there was the Lieberman line you're going to hear a lot is, "I know I can beat George Bush. Why? Al Gore and I already did it." And that was an interesting moment, because the Democrats -- the Democratic base doesn't like where Lieberman was on the war in Iraq; they do like where he was in the battle for Florida.

KURTZ: I guess Jay Leno will be booking him soon. One more press question before we move on, for Laura Ingraham. John Howard writes in "The Wall Street Journal" that Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun and Reverend Al shouldn't even be on the stage. They are not serious candidates, in the sense that they have no hope of winning the nomination. So my question is, should the press largely ignore them? Because it's hard to get nine candidates into every story, let me tell you.

INGRAHAM: It's hard to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. But they're interesting characters. I mean, we have this debate, it seems, every primary season. Who deserves to be on the stage? And I think the parties have to work that out amongst themselves, but, look, this was derby day, Kentucky Derby day, this came right off the heels of this aircraft carrier story. This was a tough act to follow. KURTZ: OK. Want to touch now on Senator Rick Santorum, this was kind of a modest story for about a week and a half, likening gay sex to incest, bigotry, polygamy, in the context of the Supreme Court case. He likes homosexuals fine, he just doesn't like what they do, thinks perhaps it should remain criminalized. Why did the press make so much of Trent Lott's remarks? And why was that such a huge deal and this was only a modest story?

THOMAS: Well, I think that was clear cut that Trent Lott just said something absolutely outrageous. Santorum said it outrageously, and there wasn't a legal issue here. He wasn't contradicting anything the courts hadn't already said, it was more of a taste issue. And he wasn't flatly contradicting years of Supreme Court rulings.

KURTZ: In media terms, is bashing gays just not as explosive as, say, waxing nostalgic about the good old days of segregation?

DIONNE: I think if we're honest about it, there is a stronger consensus on the civil rights period and on what was wrong about the way white Americans treated black Americans than there is now about gays. Gays are still a very divisive issue. Countries change hugely. The fact that Santorum got into as much trouble as he did is an indication that the country is much more open to gays, cares a lot more about their rights than we ever have before.

KURTZ: You're saying the fact that it was an issue at all shows a change in the culture?

DIONNE: It's a big change in the culture, and my hunch is that he would have gotten into even more trouble 10 years from now as the culture further changes.

KURTZ: Did the press try to cast Senator Santorum's remarks as an example of Republican Party intolerance?

INGRAHAM: I think it probably wasn't as outrageous as the media would have liked to have us think. I mean, Santorum was stating the Supreme Court decision, as Evan pointed out. And I think if you really focus on what he said, read the lawyers who are questioning the Texas Supreme Court justices below on this issue. Arguing the case below, the judges on the Texas Supreme Court were asking the same questions that Santorum was raising. He was stating a legal point. And people who aren't sort of all that conversant in the legal principles think, oh, isn't that outrageous, he said these things. That is where the court is today, and that's what he was stating.

KURTZ: That is law and this is politics. And when you bring in words like incest and adultery and bigamy and liken it to consensual sex among gays, that's...


THOMAS: I do think that one thing that's going on here, the press loves to portray cultural Neanderthals. I mean, that's one of our favorite things, and he fit that description for that moment, so that's one reason he got a lot of play. KURTZ: But of course, Republicans -- most Republicans neither defended him or (UNINTELLIGIBLE), which I think took some of the air out of the story. And we will have to leave it there.

When we come back, a case of plagiarism red handed, in fact, at "The New York Times." Plus, why did two reporters covering the Elizabeth Smart case sell out to "The National Enquirer"? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Sounds like we're starting again. Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Two controversies in the world of newspapers to talk about this week. First, "The New York Times" editor Howell Raines has apologized for a plagiarized article that he called "a grave breach of the paper's journalistic standards." Reporter Jayson Blair resigned over his profile of a Texas woman who lost a son in Iraq. Blair's story copied quotes and lots of other details from an earlier piece in "The San Antonio Express News."

Laura Ingraham, this reporter, Jayson Blair, one of the youngest reporters hired by "The Times" in recent years, had 50 corrections on previous stories in about three and half years, once quoted a Kent State official who said he never talked to Jayson Blair. He wrote stories during the Washington sniper case the prosecutors said was dead wrong. Should "The New York Times" have caught on to the fact that there might be a problem here earlier?

INGRAHAM: Well, I don't know how long any of us would last in our jobs currently if we had made 50 mistakes. I think it seems like something weird is going on here. I don't know what the story is. He's 27 yours old. A couple of mistakes, you know, youthful exuberance, but 50 mistakes? I think "The Times" has a lot more to answer for regarding this. It also fuels people's cynicism about the press. We don't need any more of that. "The New York Times" is a celebrated newspaper, my favorite paper to read, I've got to say. So I mean, Howell Raines is going to beat him up for this? I don't know, but it would be nice to know, at what juncture did they consider getting rid of him earlier.

KURTZ: Right. You know, I guess we should explain, E.J. Dionne, you know, that copying someone else's work is really a cardinal sin in journalism, because you are not only not giving credit, but in effect you are pretending that you did the reporting itself. So how much of a black eye is this for "The Times?"

DIONNE: This is not the first time this has happened to a newspaper. And I think actually in this electronic age, it becomes a whole lot easier for people to sort of pull chunks out and throw them in somewhere else, so I think everybody -- every single person including reporters themselves have to be doubly, triply, quadruply careful about this possibility. There is an inconsistency in a way -- if you go back through the annals of plagiarism, there is an inconsistency in a way people are dealt with. Some people get a slap on the wrist; some people get fired. And I think the burden here is that this wasn't the only case, it wasn't a one-time thing, and that's why they took the kind of action they did.

KURTZ: This has happened at "Businessweek," "The Washington Post," just about every other major publication. I fail to understand why reporters continue to take the risk of this, because it's so easy to get caught these days, in the world of electronic, online databases.

DIONNE: Also, it's so easy to attribute things to people. I mean, I don't think you ever lose by attributing to somebody.

THOMAS: There is a lot of pathology in these things. We don't know the back story. This is a guy who made 50 mistakes. The real story here, is did "The New York Times" give this guy so much rope that he blew up and hung himself and ruined his career, or along the way did they try to correct whatever mistakes he was making, did they deal with a real problem?

KURTZ: Look, this was a promising young black reporter. I wonder if a middle-aged hack would have gotten away with 50 mistakes and still be at that job.

THOMAS: Your question is rhetorical. You'd think not. And I think that's probably -- but we don't know the facts. The real story here is the hidden story of how they treated this guy in the three and a half years. Did they warn him, did they take him aside, did they say, look, you have got to clean up your act, or did they say, hey, go for it?

KURTZ: Any dispute that this kind of plagiarism should be a firing offense? Should he have been given a second chance?

INGRAHAM: A 51st chance? No, no absolutely not.

KURTZ: All right, let's move on to media controversy number two. Jay Shelledy, editor of "The Salt Lake Tribune," resigned under pressure this week. Shelledy had belatedly fired two of his reporters on the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera, for selling information to "The National Enquirer" for $20,000. Shelledy did not know about the secret dealings, which he likened to drinking from a toilet bowl. But he came under fire for initially putting the reporters on probation and for disclosing the unseemly mess in his column rather than ordering up a news story.

This is up for grabs. Why does the editor bite the dust when the sin was committed by two reporters and he didn't know about it? Is it sort of like the baseball team firing the manager when things go bad?

INGRAHAM: I think this whole story is so bizarre at every level. I mean, "The Salt Lake Tribune" working with "The Enquirer" selling stories? I guess it's information that he didn't think was usable and they didn't think was usable in their own story, so kind of scraps on the floor that they sold over to "The Enquirer."

KURTZ: Exactly, there were sexual rumors that ...

(CROSSTALK) INGRAHAM: How enterprising.


THOMAS: It was unbelievably outrageous. Let's stop for a second. Reporters who sell sexual rumors because they won't print them in their own papers to "The National Enquirer, " bam, you're gone. Tomorrow, clean out your desk right away. This isn't even a debate over a close one. His editor made the mistake of slapping them on the wrist, and then when it all came out he had to go down with them.

DIONNE: It is just such a bizarre story. I can't imagine how one would sort of get from here to there to do that sort of thing. And it's a real problem for journalism, because mainstream journalists say, wait, there is a big difference between us and certain other kinds of reporting.


INGRAHAM: Not really. They pay.

DIONNE: And I guess these guys could say, well, yes, there is, we don't print it, we just sell it to them. But it's just the strangest story.

INGRAHAM: How much did they make?

KURTZ: Well, $10,000 apiece to blow up your career is not very good money in my view, and one of the reporter was caught on tape saying, "don't worry, our paper won't beat you on the story," telling this to somebody from "The Enquirer." "The editors there are lightweights." On tape, not a good idea. We'll have to hold it there. E.J. Dionne, Laura Ingraham, Evan Thomas, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, which NBC reporter is biting from the hand that feeds her? We'll let you know in a moment.


KURTZ: Remember Ashleigh Banfield? She was the "it" girl at MSNBC for a time until she lost her prime-time show and was relegated to a sideline role during the war. In a recent speech, Banfield chastised the networks, including her own, for their glorious and wonderful coverage of Iraq that glossed over the brutality of the war. "It wasn't journalism," she declared. Banfield also ripped MSNBC for giving a show to fire-breathing conservative Michael Savage, who once called her a slut.

Well, that was quite enough for her bosses, who declared themselves deeply disappointed and troubled by Banfield's remarks. MSNBC News President Neal Shapiro called her in for a scolding. Insiders began taking bets on how much longer Banfield would last.

But hold on. The media routinely criticize politicians, businessmen, athletes, and just about everyone else. Why is it that when a journalist raises questions about her own Business, it's practically deemed an impeachable offense? We praise whistle-blowers at companies like Enron and WorldCom, but treat our own profession like it's above reproach. No wonder people think there is a double standard.

It's a fickle world, though. Keith Olbermann left MSNBC a few years ago after accusing the network of going overboard on the Monica Lewinsky saga. The network badmouthed him as well. Now he's back on MSNBC with a prime-time show, where he'll stay as long as he pulls in the ratings.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Be sure to join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

And be sure to stay with CNN for the latest on the news from Iraq and around the world. Coming up at the top of the hour, "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER." Wolf's guests today include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Then, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, check out "IN THE MONEY" with Jack Cafferty. And at 4:00, get the latest headlines with "CNN LIVE SUNDAY." "LATE EDITION" begins right after this look at the hour's top stories.


Is Democratic Debate Not on TV?; Are Santorum's Remarks About Gays a Non-Story?>

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