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Supreme Challenge

Aired July 24, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Supreme challenge. John Roberts in the crossfire. Are journalists giving President Bush's court nominee a fair shake? Does he benefit from being a Washington insider? Are liberal bloggers helping drive the story? And is the nomination obliterating coverage of the Karl Rove controversy?

Plus, supreme chaos. Why did reporters go so overboard with speculation that the nominee would be Edith Clement?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media's treatment of the first Supreme Court nominee in more than a decade. I'm Howard Kurtz.

First came all those stories that William Rehnquist was going to step down. Wrong. Then came the fevered media speculation about who would replace Sandra Day O'Connor. Mostly wrong.

Bush finally unveiled his choice of Appeals Court Judge John Roberts at a prime-time photo-op that deprived journalists of the chance to pick apart his record in advance.


JOHN ROBERTS, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: It is both an honor and very humbling to be nominated to serve on the Supreme Court.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about coverage of the Roberts' nomination in New York, veteran magazine editor and blogger Jeff Jarvis of And "USA Today" Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic. With me here in Washington, Byron York, White House correspondent for "National Review." And Gloria Borger, CBS News national correspondent, also a columnist for "U.S. News and World Report." Welcome.

Gloria Borger, Tuesday afternoon, the airwaves were filled with careful and accurate assessments of who Bush was going to pick. Let's take a look.


WENDELL GOLER, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The name is Edith Brown Clement. She's an appeals judge on the Fifth Circuit.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Some even say they've been told by people inside the White House today that it would be Judge Edith Brown Clement.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Justice Edith Joy Clement seems to be now that she's at the top of the list.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Another possibility that remains alive is Judge Edith Jones, who is another woman named Edith.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Alberto Gonzales appears to have recently dropped out of contention.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The new buzz was about appeals Judge Michael Luttig.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I had to bet a dollar, I'd bet on Luttig right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The short list nominated by women that includes her colleague at the Fifth Circuit, Judge Edith Jones, Judge Priscilla Owen...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So now it looks like a woman?



KURTZ: What on Earth were reporters doing repeating all those rumors?

GLORIA BORGER, CBS NEWS: I'd like to point out, my colleague Jim Stewart did have Judge Roberts on his list that night on "The Evening News."

KURTZ: All of these rumors from unnamed sources. Were the journalists being misled?

BORGER: I'll tell you about, in my particular case, I was talking to a lot of the interest groups on the outside, particularly conservative interest groups. As it turns out, I think what the president did was exactly what John Kerry did when he was picking his vice president, which is he kept it to himself. He didn't tell anybody. Everybody knew that Clement had been at the White House the weekend before for an interview.

KURTZ: So that means that reporters relied on sources who didn't actually know.

BORGER: Didn't know, and that always gets us in a lot of trouble.

KURTZ: Jeff Jarvis, some bloggers are saying that the reporters who were left looking a little silly, shall we say, should expose the sources who gave them the bum information. What do you think?

JEFF JARVIS, BUZZMACHINE.COM: This is a ridiculous game where we all, reporters and bloggers, depend upon being in the know, and nobody knew nothing. And so, it exposes that.

So what comes out now, I'm seeing around, is coverage on the blogosphere too is downright funny. I saw that right afterwards, Kos talked about how to turn this into a political battle, but then we had a liberal funny blogger in New York say, if the guy went to an all- male school and he was a wrestler, maybe he's gay. It was a joke. It was a joke. But soon, you had conservative bloggers defending him against liberal homophobes, quote/unquote. You had Mickey Kaus talking about how the most shameful thing about the guy is he drives a PT Cruiser. Nobody has anything to say.

KURTZ: Boy, that didn't take long to degenerate.

Joan Biskupic, on the crazy Tuesday afternoon, did you start working on a profile of Edith Clement? Were you late in getting on to John Roberts?

JOAN BISKUPIC, USA TODAY: Of course, of course. Because I knew I had to be ready. You know, this was going to come at 9:00 p.m., I was going to have a deadline at 9:30. It was a day where you were happy to be a newspaper reporter and you could do this work in private and not have it all over the airwaves or the blogs. But of course I wrote about -- I did something on her. I started looking at more of Michael Luttig when we were then warned to kind of go back to the original list. Alberto Gonzales, his name would pop up during the day, and I was putting together lots of things.

Fortunately, you know, I know John Roberts, and I could put together something quickly, but -- and he had been a name that had been in the mix from the beginning.

KURTZ: Right.

BISKUPIC: But remember, Howie, the reason that a lot of us thought that maybe it might be Judge Clement is that Laura Bush had said that the president might end up picking a woman. The vacancy is for Sandra Day O'Connor, the nation's first woman justice. So it wasn't that crazy that people started following that rumor, but we're all in a terrible echo chamber.

KURTZ: It absolutely wasn't that crazy, it just turned out to be wrong.

Now, Byron York, I want to show you some of the questions that journalists have been asking about John Roberts' nomination. We're sure now that it's Roberts, I believe. Lets's take a look at that.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What affect do you think that this person, John Roberts, will have on abortion rights in America?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's talk about the hot issue, of course, which is abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you or the president know where he stands on abortion?


KURTZ: Are the media obsessed with abortion when it comes to Supreme Court nominations?

BYRON YORK, NATIONAL REVIEW: Actually, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, has a piece in "The New York Times" today saying the prime issue is abortion. So no, I don't think they are, and the issue is not whether abortion is important in the confirmation process right now; the issue is trying to find where Roberts stands on it. And it's gotten so bad, we have no real evidence about it. It's gotten so bad that "The New York Times" did a story yesterday about his wife, who is a member of a group called Feminists for Life, and her -- her views are important with him? You got me.

KURTZ: I was about to bring that up, Gloria Borger. Here's the headline from that "New York Times" piece. Let's put it up. "Anti- abortion advocacy of wife of court nominee draws interest." And this followed a Style section profile of Jane Sullivan Roberts in "The Washington Post." His wife's not the nominee.

BORGER: Yeah, right...

KURTZ: So why is everyone focusing on her? Would they be focusing on her if she was pro-choice? I don't think so.

BORGER: I don't think so. And even Senator Ted Kennedy has said the wife is off limits. This is...

KURTZ: But not of limits to the media, apparently.

BORGER: Well, apparently not, because they're just trying to figure out where he stands, because we know that he co-signed a brief that was against Roe v. Wade when he was in a Republican administration. We also know that he considers Roe v. Wade the settled law of the land.

So the question is, will he answer all of those questions that will be posed to him in a confirmation hearing? Probably not.

YORK: But I think this shows the degree to which coverage can be driven by the anti-groups, and this has been talked about, Mrs. Roberts' position has been talked about among the People for the American Ways, the NARALs, the Alliance for Justice, the groups that are lined up against Roberts, or will be. And they've done research on Roberts and his wife, and that's the stuff that gets in the coverage.

KURTZ: Joan Biskupic, how do you go about piecing together the record on abortion and other issues of a guy who's only been a judge for two years? BISKUPIC: Right. That's an excellent question. You go back and you look at what he did for the first Bush administration. You go back and see if he had anything to say when he was working in the White House counsel's office in the Reagan administration. You look at what he's said on -- in his first testimony. Remember, he's been up before senators twice before and actually written out answers to senators from when he was nominated to the D.C. Circuit.

So what you do is look at those things and you see how illuminating has he been and what is he saying broadly about privacy, what is he saying broadly about the value of precedent? Those are key questions when it comes to abortion.

KURTZ: Jeff Jarvis, on the night that Roberts was announced, about 50 liberal bloggers had a conference call to talk about strategy. And one of them told me that they had previous conference calls with Ted Kennedy, with Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid, with some of the interest groups like NARAL, Pro-Choice America and People for the American Way. I always thought of bloggers as being kind of quirky individualists, iconoclasts. Are they now, at least some of them, becoming organized partisans?

JARVIS: Well, absolutely. Some of them are. A blog is just a publishing tool. So you can do with it what you will. You go to DailyKos immediately after this, they were strategizing there, as they are, they are political strategists, and said, hmm, we're going to lose this, but how do we turn the loss into a victory in the next election? How do we tie him to one issue and say when that goes bad, see we told you?

That's what it's about now there, is strategizing. But you have all kinds of different stripes. You have for instance some very, very good legals, lawyers bloggers, Jack Balkin on the left at Harvard at Balkinization. Eugene Volokh. Powerline blog guys on the right are lawyers, and they have some very interesting commentary here from a legal perspective. And then there is also just plain citizens talking as well.

KURTZ: Yeah, certainly within hours when President Bush stood with John Roberts, I was able to look at excerpts from all kinds of decisions and rulings he'd been involved in, just by going online. You didn't have that before, because the last Supreme Court nomination in 1994, there was no thriving Internet.

Now, Gloria Borger, I want to first mention that "Newsweek" was the only one of the three weekly news magazines to put Roberts on the cover, so I'm wondering how big a story it is. But look at -- listen to some of the profiles of this Washington insider guy who's worked in the White House, Justice Department, at Hogan and Hartson, a blue chip Washington firm.

"Newsweek": "Roberts will decide each case one at a time with great intellectual rigor and honesty." "Time": "Roberts' resume reads so perfectly that it's easy to find the little flakes of destiny littered throughout his storybook life." And "U.S. News," your magazine, says: "The fight, it seemed, was over before it began." So it sounds like the media have decided that this is over and John Roberts is a great American.

BORGER: Well, I think what's happened is one top Democratic staffer told me, he said this administration threaded the needle on this one. And, if you look at Roberts, it is as if his whole life was geared towards this particular moment. He has been called the Supreme Court litigator of his generation. He's argued 39 cases before the court. He has the perfect resume, which is large intellect, small paper trail, and that is exactly what the White House wanted. They did not want a fight this time.

You can be sure there will be a fight, but there's going to be some differences within the Democratic Party about how far to...

KURTZ: Let me bring you back to the press. Is there a sense of disappointment, maybe of deflation among journalists who have been telling us for months this was going to be an all-out bloody war, they couldn't wait?

BORGER: Disappointment? Yeah, of course. This is a fight people were waiting for for 11 years on the interest groups as well as the media, and I think a lot of folks in the media are saying, the next fight is going to be the big fight.

YORK: "The Washington Post" today, front-page piece this morning, they've done a lot of research trying to get his political ideas. They began with a fellow lawyer, who had had lunch with John Roberts every day for years, and he said, well, I think he is conservative. I'm not sure why I think that. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what he thinks. I mean, and he apparently in all of these conversations, he's never really let himself on.

And you are right. John Roberts was first nominated for the federal appeals courts in 1992, and has been awaiting confirmation essentially since then, so he has kept this in mind for a long time.

KURTZ: And "The New York Times" this morning has a front-page piece on Ed Gillespie, the former Republican chairman, and his war room, except he doesn't have that much to do except go to meetings, because there's not much of a war on.

So, Joan Biskupic, you say you know John Roberts and you're familiar with his record. How do you explain the fact that this so- called liberal press is writing all these glowing pieces about this man?

BISKUPIC: Well, one thing I would say, it's not over. We haven't had the hearings yet, and the hearings are going to be especially important for this nominee, essentially because he doesn't have much of a record, so we're going to have to see how it emerges. A lot of the people in the liberal press, they all know him. Remember, he's been up there 39 times, which is a big deal at the Supreme Court. So people have been watching John Roberts for a long time. He really is a Washington insider. He's worked with a lot of the people who would naturally be his opponents, so they -- he's got that nice demeanor, which truly is -- he's a decent kind of guy, but does that translate over to ruling in a way that those groups would appreciate?

So I think what they're trying to do right now is gather everything they can on his record, and then hope that during the hearings, there will be enough information that comes out that either puts peoples' minds at rest if they can be put at rest, or gives them something that they can have the Democratic senators really, really press him on.

KURTZ: Jeff Jarvis, I want to put up one of the ads that's already hit the airwaves by the conservative group Progress for America. Of course, there are interest groups on both sides raising a lot of money.

Let's take a look at this Progress for America spot.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was awarded the ABA's highest rating. Colleagues call him "brilliant," and praise his integrity and fair mindedness.


KURTZ: My question is, does organized journalism pay too much attention to the partisans and bomb throwers on both sides?

JARVIS: I was just going to say (INAUDIBLE) something very important, which is that this is -- the press is deflated there isn't a fight because that's the narrative the press knows. This has to be about two extremes, red, blue, conservative, liberal against each other.

Well, it doesn't necessarily have to be that. And in fact, let's hope that we can have more intelligent reporting and it goes a little deeper.

Yeah, you know, you're right, you have that commercial pushing him; you have Ann Coulter asking whether he's one of us. You have all kinds of different perspectives here, but it's too much, I think, about the unknown. It should be more about what does the court mean? What are the issues facing us? There can be more interesting, deeper reporting on this. Instead, it's really "People" magazine gone mad.

KURTZ: But Jeff, you yourself have written on your blog that this is now a non-story, I presume because it lacks the partisan fire and divisiveness that many had come to expect.

JARVIS: Well, it simply lacks the suspense. If you had to take -- I don't know what the odds are on the betting, but I'm going to bet the guy is going to get -- putting on a robe pretty soon, and so we love suspense, in both the press and in blogs. Well, it's not there. So what do you do when you don't have the suspense? What do you do when you don't have the fight? Maybe you could actually have an intelligent conversation. We'll see.

BORGER: I also would say, Howie, that it's not over until it's over. That you never know through this process we call vetting what you're going to come up with.

KURTZ: Things surface, people come forward.

BORGER: What kind of -- and there's going to be a fight perhaps over documents, and will the Senate be able to get those? So we will cover the fight over documents. We'll cover whatever fights emerge, even if in the end, he does get confirmed and not filibustered.

KURTZ: Well, that's good, because we have to find something for Joan Biskupic to do between now and the first Monday in October.

We need to take a break. When we come back, did the Supreme Court nominee knock Karl Rove and that CIA leak investigation off the airwaves and the front pages? We'll talk about that just ahead.



Joan Biskupic, as one of a relative handful of newspaper reporters who covers the Supreme Court, do you find it disappointing at all that television has difficulty grappling with the complexity of these very important decisions, because it's not a very visual story for this medium?

BISKUPIC: Well, I'll tell you what is stunning this time around compared to back in the early '90s and the '80s. Everybody expects to have the answer right away. How many people have had the time to read all of his opinions, to read what he's testified to, and to go back through a lot of public files out at the Reagan Library that are available to sort of assess this man? It's almost as if with TV and the blog now, both of which I completely support, there is an expectation that we'll know right away what is he all about.

But we won't know right away. So that's the only thing. And I do have to say there's just a lot to unfold, and Howie, I am not going to be sitting on my hands until October 3rd, the first Monday in October.

KURTZ: I didn't think so. We live in an instant culture, and it does take time to read those decisions and those memos and so forth.

Gloria Borger, the Karl Rove CIA leak story was on the news magazine covers last week. Does the Roberts nomination kind of blow that away? Overshadow it? Not at all?

BORGER: No, the president did his job too well. Now, everybody assumes that this fellow is going to get confirmed, so they're back to Karl Rove and they're back to the leak investigation story, which, by the way, has been headlines all week long. KURTZ: There was a Bloomberg News story in recent days about Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President's Cheney's chief of staff, and whether his testimony before the special prosecutor and the grand jury might conflict at all with that of Tim Russert, as having to do with where the people in the White House learned the story.

Are Washington journalists, let's just face it, Byron York, more interested in Rove and Libby and pursuing that trail than getting into an intellectual debate about John Roberts and his legal opinions?

YORK: Just shows you the president's brilliance, that Roberts is not taking the heat off Rove; Rove is taking the heat off Roberts, and now we don't have the Supreme Court controversy which we thought we were going to have.

As far as the Rove story, the thing is that Washington journalists are actually involved. They have got -- a number of them have lawyers. They have been -- some of them have been called before the grand jury, have interviewed with the prosecutor.

KURTZ: They have a dog in this fight.

YORK: They really have a big...

BORGER: Somebody's in jail.

YORK: Exactly. So this is about them. So of course, they're interested.

KURTZ: Jeff Jarvis, from the blogosphere's point of view, is Rove and Libby and Matt Cooper and Judith Miller a better story than John Roberts, just because there's more passion to it, people feel more strongly about it?

JARVIS: Well, it's hard to say what the blogosphere says, anymore than it's easy to say what America says. And on certain sides, sure. DailyKos and Atrios were back on punching Rove, Rove, Rove.

I make people mad on both sides, when I say things like the Rove story, whatever you think of it, doesn't really affect our lives. It's a scandalous story, and scandals don't do much, and it really is distracting to the real issues that we should be talking about in government and in media, and we don't, because we like to have, again, the fight.

KURTZ: By the same token, Jeff Jarvis, the Michael Jackson story and the Martha Stewart story, and the missing women story, don't affect the lives of the average American all that much either, but they certainly have a big place in the media.

JARVIS: Well, hey, Howard, "People" magazine paid my salary for a lot of years. I can't exactly act like I'm on a high horse about this, too. And I'll blog about this stuff with anybody. It just that it goes into overdose and overdrive, and we get overloaded with it, and it's as if it's the only thing that matters in the country, and it is not.

KURTZ: And so, you believe, Gloria Borger, that the Rove story is not really running -- I call it the Rove story, obviously, the whole Valerie Plame is not running out of gas, and that the John Roberts less than anticipated debate, or less fierce debate, is not going to take that spotlight away?

BORGER: No, and don't forget, we have a grand jury meeting on the leak investigation. At some point, the special counsel, Mr. Fitzgerald, is going to come out with a report that may or may not contain indictments. And so we'll know either by the end of the summer, certainly by October, we're going to get some resolution and find out what his thinking is.

YORK: Well, Joan Biskupic said, we are going to have hearings for the Supreme Court nominee. It will be back in the news in September.

KURTZ: That's in September. Meanwhile, let's see if the media can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Byron York, Gloria Borger, Jeff Jarvis, Joan Biskupic, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, your e-mail on the CIA leak investigation. The viewers take on Bob Woodward and yours truly over our comments on Karl Rove. And historic changes at the top at "The Los Angeles Times."


KURTZ: Time now for our viewer e-mail. A lot of you wrote in about our discussion last week on the CIA leak investigation.

Tom in Jensen Beach, Florida took issue with one of our guests. "Watching Bob Woodward left me feeling that the sellout of media personalities for the pathetic 'access' to the Bush White House is complete. I never thought I would see the day when Bob Woodward would be defending Karl Rove and his ilk instead of smoking them out."

But Glen in Washington took issue with some of my questioning: "I am anything but an apologist for the Bush administration," he writes. "But it is obvious that Howard Kurtz is fixated on Rove's actions with respect to Valerie Plame. He's obviously convinced that Rove is guilty, probably for his own purposes. Howie's credibility is in serious question in my view."

What I'm guilty of is thinking that this is an important story that requires some aggressive journalism, and I have no idea whether Karl Rove or anyone did anything wrong.

Also, some news to report from the newspaper world. The editor of "The Los Angeles Times" has resigned, in part over frustration about budget cuts imposed by the parent Tribune Company. John Carroll, who helped "The Times" win 13 Pulitzer Prizes in five years is handing the reins to his managing editor, Dean Baquet, making "The Times" the largest newspaper ever ran by a black journalist. Baquet nearly quit, too, over concern about budget cuts, but told me he thinks he will have the resources to keep improving the country's second largest metropolitan daily.

When we come back, what's in a name? The Supreme Court nominee meets his match at CBS News.


KURTZ: When President Bush announced his Supreme Court nominee last week, John Roberts, the CBS anchor that is, was there.


JOHN ROBERTS, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: So President Bush has nominated Federal Appeals Court Judge John Roberts to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.

I'm John Roberts in New York.


KURTZ: Is it strange, even schizophrenic, to cover someone with the exact same name? Roberts, the CBS Roberts, wrote later that given the way this White House treats the press, "I couldn't imagine the name John Roberts and the phrase 'widely admired for his intellect, his sound judgment and his personal decency' being used in the same time zone, let alone the same sentence. More likely would have been, 'John Roberts should join Judith Miller in jail,' or 'frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs,' or 'oh, yeah, we've got a dossier on him.'"

But Roberts just might get his calls returned more quickly.

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. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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