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Hillary Clinton Blasts Media; Did U.S. Journalists Drop the Ball on Downing Street Memo Coverage?; Interview With Columnist John Tierney

Aired June 12, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Going soft? Hillary Clinton says reporters are wimping out in covering the Bush White House. Is she right, or just trying to work the media referees before running for her husband's old job?

Did American journalists drop the ball on the Downing Street memo that accused Bush of fixing the intelligence on Iraq?

And how much attention will the press give a harsh new book on the former first lady?

And news outlets paying sources like Deep Throat for information? "New York Times" columnist John Tierney says, it's about time.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our crucial lens on a new broadside against the press, this time from the Democrats. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Republicans have complained about media bias for decades, from the days of Richard Nixon and Watergate, to the first President Bush, to the current president, all arguing that journalists tilt to the left. But now, leading Democrats say the press has gone soft in covering a Republican administration, and the latest to make that charge at a fund-raiser this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I mean, it's shocking when you see how easily they fold in the media today. They don't stand their ground. You know, if they are criticized by the White House, they just fall apart. I mean, come on, toughen up, guys. It's only our Constitution and our country at stake. Let's get some spine going here.


KURTZ: Now, there was a time when one of her family members occupied the Oval Office when Senator Clinton believed the fourth estate was too tough on the White House, with some journalists in league with that vast right-wing conspiracy. But she sees it differently as a Democratic senator who may well have designs on moving back into her old house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Joining us now from San Francisco, John Fund, columnist for "The Wall Street Journal's" In New York, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of "The Nation" magazine. And here in the studio, "Washington Post" political editor and long-time Clinton watcher, John Harris, author of a new book "The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House."

Welcome to all. John Harris, do Hillary Clinton's remarks just possibly have anything to do with her resentment over the way she and her husband were covered in the White House?

JOHN HARRIS, THE WASHINGTON POST: Absolutely. It dose. It feels like, hey, give those guys a taste of that medicine that we swallowed for eight years. And you know, she says it with resentment against the press, but I happen to know from her advisers, she says it with admiration of the Bush White House that she thinks, look, they do a good job keeping the press at heel, and they're doing exactly what she wished and tried to do in those eight years.

KURTZ: John Fund, it seems to be the new Democratic mantra. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi telling the liberal blog RawStory that the mainstream press or the print press will either leave you out of the story or mischaracterize what you are saying. So is it possible that Hillary Clinton's ripping the press here is not so much about 2008, as just as she's fed up with what she sees as a double standard?

JOHN FUND, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well, Howie, I think the Democrats are doing what they can, because if you complain about media coverage, you might get some more ink and some more perspective in. But for Hillary Clinton to complain about media coverage, this is a woman who as first lady tried an awful lot to discredit reporters, including Sue Schmidt of "The Washington Post" on Whitewater and other coverage. She has obviously had an adversarial relationship with the media for a long time. So as a presidential candidate, if she wants to give advice to the media, I think she's probably not at the top of the list in terms of credibility.

KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, how is it that Hillary Clinton is accusing the press of timidity towards the Bush administration when millions of conservatives out there, as you know, are convinced that journalists have a liberal bias?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, "THE NATION" EDITOR: The liberal bias is a myth, Howie. I think that's been fully discredited, not just in the last weeks in the media's failure to cover the Downing Street memo.

But let me just say, I think this is not a left/right issue. I think at this point, when Hillary Clinton said, hey, guys, our Constitution, our democracy is at stake, that's what we're looking at. We have an administration which is waging a war against the media and trying to undermine democratic accountability, taking on a media which they know is under attack by public opinion because they want to gut the vestiges of checks and balances in our system. And I think we see that every day, Howard. And we see, let me just say, on the Downing Street memo, it took five weeks before a handful of columnists reported on this life-and-death memo. That epitomizes the timidity, the cowardice of a media that has been manipulated, intimidated, bullied by an administration that has taken it to a high level. And maybe Hillary Clinton admires that on some level, but we are seeing an unprecedented manipulation and control of the media by this administration.

KURTZ: Well, those are strong words, timidity and cowardice. I want to come back to that Downing Street memo, but first I want to ask John Harris this question. You covered the Clinton White House. And the relations with the press were extremely tense. All the scandals, impeachment and all of that. Are reporters less aggressive in covering the Bush White House? Are they being manipulated?

HARRIS: I don't think they are less aggressive, but I do think it's a fact that the Bush White House is more disciplined in information. And fine with them. That doesn't relieve us in the media of our responsibility to ask the questions and to go after it, but they do, for a variety of reasons, have better message control.

Usually in the Clinton White House, there were factions around Bill Clinton. We could use those factions to get more information. In the Bush administration, we've occasionally had that. Remember how we had been able to work in the first term the State Department and the Pentagon off each other, but...

KURTZ: But most of the time, it's the same set of talking points, which serves their purpose.

HARRIS: Right, because George Bush's White House is very controlled, and there aren't those factions in the White House. In the cabinet departments, yes, but inside the White House, they stay on script.

KURTZ: Now, on that Downing Street memo, British officials accusing back in 2002 the Bush administration of fixing the intelligence on Iraq in order to justify an invasion. According to Salon, two of the next 940 questions asked of White House spokesman Scott McClellan concerned the Downing Street memo. This was broken by "The Times of London." And then, finally, the president had a news conference and Steve Holland of Reuters asked him this question.


STEVE HOLLAND, REUTERS: The so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is this an accurate reflection of what happened?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go, to use military force to deal with Saddam. There's nothing farther from the truth.


KURTZ: Now, John Fund, does this indicate that the press is wary, shall we say, of confronting President Bush, particularly on a foreign policy issue?

FUND: No. I think there are some practical reasons why this didn't reach high altitude. It's a three-year-old memo. By the way, it was broken in "The London Times," which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, something that you wouldn't normally expect. And the memo is best characterized as a British aide's impressions of what his cabinet minister's impressions were in a meeting with U.S. officials who were unnamed, and the source of course is anonymous. And not conclusive.

So should it get some coverage? Absolutely. Is it the smoking gun? Give me a break. It didn't even get much coverage in Britain, even though it was released just days before the British election, in an obvious attempt to try to discredit and defeat Tony Blair.

KURTZ: Now, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, you've given us your thoughts on the Downing Street memo, but if you look at the coverage of the ongoing war and difficulties and casualties in Iraq, if you look at Social Security, if you look at stem cell, if you look at this "New York Times" story about a former oil industry lobbyist now in the White House, actually just resigned, who was watering down government reports on global warming, the press has not exactly been giving the president a free ride.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Howard, you are talking about a few newspapers in this country. And listen, "The Minneapolis Star Tribune" had an editorial on Memorial Day saying that Bush had lied this nation into war. There is life in the media. But let's take the Downing Street memo for a moment, Howard.

The runaway bride story has received wall-to-wall coverage. Cable news did almost nothing, virtually ignored the Downing Street memo for the first two, three weeks after it was front-page news in Britain. This is a story about how maybe more than 1,600 men and women in Iraq are losing their lives for a war that was an unnecessary and unjustified.

I think there should be no shortage, no statute of limitations, no shortage of media attention to a story that cuts to the core of this government's integrity and credibility. To me, that epitomizes it. How many people watching cable television know that over half a million Americans have signed on to a resolution seeking answers from this administration, that Representative John Conyers is holding hearings next week? A challenge to the media: Cover those hearings. After, go to that Web site to learn more.

KURTZ: John Fund, OK, Katrina, let's hear from John Fund -- John.

FUND: Katrina, I admire your passion. But even you should at least acknowledge that this memo was supposedly written in July 2002. No officials are named. Three months later, both Britain and the U.S. went to the United Nations Security Council, asked for sanctions, and action -- military action against Saddam Hussein. In November of 2002, the United Nations unanimously passed it.

KURTZ: OK, John, I don't want to -- I don't want to re-fight... (CROSSTALK)

VANDEN HEUVEL: But John, no, I don't want to re-fight it either, but here's a question to journalists. Shouldn't -- and Jeff Morley of "The Washington Post" took this up in a chat on the Web site -- shouldn't journalists try to report the hell out of this story? Who was at the meetings with Dearlove? Did Dearlove, the head of British intelligence, meet with Cheney, with John Bolton? Don't we want to see the minutes released to know this other side of the story?

KURTZ: All right, I'm coming...

VANDEN HEUVEL: Shouldn't citizens ask their local papers to publish the memo?

KURTZ: ... in here, I'm exercising the host's prerogative.

There was a journalist, Neil Cavuto, FOX News anchor, who got a chance to sit down with President Bush this week. Let's take a look at some of that interview.


NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Do you think you get a bum rap in the media on the economy? When you see these polls that show your popularity down a bit, it doesn't frustrate you?

BUSH: No, not at all.

CAVUTO: Really? So do you think -- I know this is a little outlandish, Mr. President...

BUSH: That's all right, Neil.

CAVUTO: ... that focus on Michael Jackson has hurt you?


KURTZ: Talking about the Social Security plan was hurt because Michael Jackson is getting all this coverage and runaway bride, et cetera. Would you regard that interview as being a little bit on the soft side?

HARRIS: Yeah. I thought it was a little bit of slurp, slurp, to be honest. You know, I don't know, certainly probably if you and I did the interview, we would have come up with different questions.

KURTZ: Maybe you and I wouldn't have gotten the interview.

HARRIS: I think there's something to that. But...

KURTZ: All right. Now, I want to come back, we were talking about Hillary Clinton, and as all the guests know, there is a new book coming out in about a week and a half, by Edward Klein, former "New York Times" magazine editor. It's already been excerpted in "Vanity Fair," and "The New York Post," conservative "New York Post," no fan of Hillary Clinton, says this is a hatchet job, because it talks about her sham marriage and says she was, quote, "influenced by the culture of lesbianism." Does this book deserve any attention at all, Katrina Vanden Heuvel?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Boy, Rupert Murdoch is getting some truth- telling.

Listen, you can just hear the right-wing media chamber remobilizing, salivating. The publisher of the book, Howard, and I think this needs to be covered in the coverage of the book, has put out a memo, a press release saying this will do to Hillary what swift boats did to John Kerry. If that is the case, then we're looking at a stream of lies, distortions, misrepresentations, and the danger is that the right-wing media, which you know, Howard, has such an impact on the mainstream media, corrodes, distorts it, this may well shape and be a partisan political tool in trying to demobilize Hillary's 2006-2008 campaign.

KURTZ: All right, I want to be careful about using words like lies, distortions and misrepresentations, because we have not seen the book yet, it has not come out...

VANDEN HEUVEL: I'm talking about the swift boat. Swift boats.

KURTZ: All right, John Fund, you want to jump in here on the book?

FUND: On the media controversy, look, with Richard Clarke's book on terrorism, with the swift vote book, with this book, it would help all of us if we had actually read the thing and actually looked at Mr. Klein's record and his track record on previous books. He is a former "New York Times" magazine editor. That doesn't mean that it's necessarily accurate. I'd like to see how many sources are named in the book.

HARRIS: Right, although, John, I think one thing to point out, we do need to read the book, but there is no question that they are marketing it this way. I mean, it's a very deliberate and pretty obvious campaign to sort of build a right-wing echo...

FUND: Let's find how many sources are named in it and what they...

HARRIS: Look, I...

FUND: (INAUDIBLE) of the articles.

HARRIS: Trust me, I'm all in favor of people selling books, but I do think that, you know, it's clear how they are positioning this book.

KURTZ: The "Vanity Fair" excerpt, by the way, was filled with unnamed sources. Of course, unnamed sources sometimes have good information.

Now, before we go, Howard Dean very much in the news this week, taking heat even from his own party, the Democratic chairman, for comments like Tom DeLay should be in jail and calling the GOP a white Christian party. Now, Dean, this is a scream, met with reporters on Capitol Hill, and let's see what he had to say to them.


HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN: We're going to talk about our agenda. We're not going to let the Republicans set the agenda, and to be quite honest, we're not going to let you set the agenda. We're going to set the agenda.


KURTZ: John Harris, is the press making Howard Dean a target, or is he making himself a target?

HARRIS: Well, it's both. Because he is a controversial figure, he is obviously, you know, going to be that. I thought millions of Americans could name who the Democratic chairman is, and probably a much, much smaller group can name the Republican chairman. It's just -- this is what Democrats got into by picking a high-profile person like this.

KURTZ: But Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Dean has never had a great relationship with the press, and they seem to be seizing on these admittedly inflammatory comments he's been making. We have got about 20 seconds.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, I mean, dumping on Dean has been part of the inside-the-Beltway media crowd. You know, he's not perfect. He's tough-talking. But where are the stories about his trips to 18 states in these last three months? The fact -- that -- put it in context. Terry McAuliffe was tough-talking. The fact that he's remobilizing the base, and he's doing a very good fund-raising job rebuilding the state parties, where are those stories? Stop the presses, Howard Dean is tough, blunt-talking. Please.

KURTZ: All right. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, John Fund, John Harris, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Deep Throat's sudden emergence has sparked a journalistic debate. Should anonymous sources be paid for their information? That's what one "New York Times" columnist says. John Tierney weighs in next.



Did former FBI official Mark Felt out himself as Deep Throat after 33 years go in search of a big payday? "New York Times" columnist John Tierney wrote last week that journalists should pay sources for information, and that this would help them do their jobs even better. John Tierney, welcome.

JOHN TIERNEY, COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES: Thanks. KURTZ: Why exactly should news organizations pay sources?

TIERNEY: Because we get better news. Money would buy news. It would give us one more tool to do that, and Deep Throat is a great example. Where "People" magazine had a policy of not paying families and they didn't get the story. Instead, "Vanity Fair" got it because they paid the lawyer of the family a little bit of money.

KURTZ: But you understand that this would shred the reputation of news organizations by lowering them to the level of supermarket tabloids in the cash-for-trash department, paying for information?

TIERNEY: That's because we like to -- our journalistic sort of ethics gurus say that this would lower us, but in fact, in Britain, tabloids and some mid-market papers sometimes pay for sources. I mean, right now newsweeklies and newspapers will pay for news by buying memoirs from people. The money is basically laundered through a publisher. And I think that going straight to the source and getting it would help.

I mean, if Bob Woodward, for instance, had been able to pay for sources, if "The Washington Post" didn't have that policy, he could have gone to Mark Felt five, 10 years ago when he still had more of a memory of this and said, look, let's collaborate, I'll give you a cut of this book, and you can tell me the inside story from the FBI.

KURTZ: But the other question is...

TIERNEY: (INAUDIBLE) readers would have gotten (INAUDIBLE).

KURTZ: But the real question is whether he should have paid Felt in 1972.

TIERNEY: Well, he couldn't have then because of bribery rules, probably. But in fact, there are a lot of people outside government who you could -- who do have stories to tell. And would be much more willing -- right now we just get stories too often I think from sources who are coming to us because they have personal and political agendas. And we sort of reward them with publicity. That's how we now pay our sources.

KURTZ: You made that point in your column. I want to read a little bit of it: "Money would give journalists more leverage than they have now over their sources, because they can withhold some of the payment until the story comes out and is proven correct. They would have access to more sources than the ones they so often rely on now, people peddling stories to further a political or a personal agenda."

So it's kind of an installment plan? You get half the money upfront and...


TIERNEY: That's one way to do it. Just the money -- I mean, Mark Felt is a great example, where the one thing that seemed to make him come forward was when his daughter said there might be money in this. And right now, we basically depend on sources who -- I mean, we do get sources who simply care about a story and come forward out of their own good will, and they would still do that, money or not. But there are people who have stories to tell who would only tell it I think for money.

KURTZ: Now, maybe I'm a purist on this, but it seems to me that giving information, giving an interview to a reporter shouldn't be a financial transaction. And here is the practical problem. People sweeten their stories for money. If you know that there is going to be a bidding war for your hot tip, maybe that story gets a little bit better, and the readers would say, well, you know, this guy, why should I believe this source? "The New York Times" is paying him.

TIERNEY: That's a real danger, but sources sweeten their stories for all kinds of reasons. Democrats sweeten their stories about Republicans. I mean, a reporter's job is to try and figure out the fact from the fiction in this, and I think we can do that with money, also.

KURTZ: The odds that "The New York Times" will adopt your policy?


KURTZ: All right. That's why (INAUDIBLE).

Now, let's talk a little bit about your approach to column writing. You wrote a column for "The Times" in New York before coming back to Washington. And one time, you acted like a homeless person and tried to sleep on the street in front of Hillary Rodham Clinton's house, Hillary and Bill's house, and at another time in front of Rosie O'Donnell's house. Why?

TIERNEY: Well, Hillary and Rosie had criticized Mayor Giuliani, because he told the police to not let homeless people sleep on the sidewalks. Police were instructed to escort the homeless people to hospitals or shelters, whatever they needed, and Rosie and Hillary had denounced this as so heartless, you know, why don't we let them sleep on the sidewalk.

So I went in front of Rosie O'Donnell's mansion and tried sleeping on the sidewalk in front of her house on a very cold winter day.

KURTZ: And what happened?

TIERNEY: Well, her guard came in first, made me move away from the driveway. And then within about 10 minutes, the police arrived and informed me I could not sleep in front of Rosie's house, that this was a threat to public security.

KURTZ: Now, on another occasion, you put on a ski mask, jumped into a series of cabs, and told the drivers that you had just robbed a bank and step on it.

TIERNEY: I actually had this pillowcase with like dollar signs...

KURTZ: Like the (INAUDIBLE). The reaction of these drivers?

TIERNEY: Every single one of them, you know, took me. And you know, I said, please, you know, step on it, I'm kind of late. And then one of them -- he did draw the line when I asked him to stop at another bank and just wait outside for a minute. That he didn't want to do.

KURTZ: You've also posed as a blind panhandler and things like that. So Washington is a little bit more of a staged city. Will we be seeing some of this gonzo journalism by you here in D.C.?

TIERNEY: I would love to try some, but Washington is much more of a challenge than New York.


TIERNEY: Well, I mean, there is...

KURTZ: Go sleep in front of Capitol Hill.

TIERNEY: Well, I'll try. That's a good idea. I'll try that.

KURTZ: But it's more of a challenge because it is such a government town?

TIERNEY: It's more of a government town. There isn't the kind of street stuff here. And I'm just getting started. I mean, I'll have to try and find some things. But you know, there isn't the kind of things on the street that you find in New York. Here it's more -- I mean, it's kind of harder to crash a subcommittee meeting. It's not quite as...

KURTZ: Well, I think you should try anyway, and we'll have you back to talk about it. John Tierney, the latest edition to "The New York Times" op-ed page, thanks for joining us.

TIERNEY: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: When we come back, some heated words between two journalists up on Capitol Hill in our look at the world of media news.


KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. We are ending early because of an important breaking story. Let's go to Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta for the latest.


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