Return to Transcripts main page

Reliable Sources

Do Journalist Prefer to Print Stories on Clinton, While Short- Changing Bush?; Chandra Levy Coverage: The Blunders Continue

Aired August 04, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: A president in the spotlight, and one in the shadows. What explains the media's endless fascination with Bill Clinton? Are journalists giving short shrift to George Bush's efforts on energy and patient's rights? We'll ask Paul Gigot, "The Wall Street Journal"'s new editorial boss, and columnist Ron Brownstein.

Also, the Chandra Levy saga. The blunders just keep on coming.

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

We'll get to our guests in just a moment, but first it's been three long months since Chandra Levy disappeared and the media have, let's face it, pretty much run the story into the ground. But as the parade of ex-homicide detectives, out of work profilers, hacks and hangers-on and the occasional psychic have filled the screens with speculative chatter, one thing is becoming clear. Journalists have made some important mistakes on this tragic story. And that, as we saw in the Monica Lewinsky melodrama, is almost inevitable when the 24-hour media machine kicks into overdrive.

"The Washington Post" made the highest-profile blunder by relying on the account of Otis Thomas, a minister who claimed his daughter had had an affair with Congressman Gary Condit when she was just 18. Thomas has now told the FBI and the newspaper that he made it up.

And while the "Post" ran a piece retracting the stories, other news organizations that trumpeted the charge have carried no follow- up.

Another report, aired by NBC, CNN and others, that Chandra Levy was spotted on a 7-Eleven video tape in suburban Virginia, quickly evaporated.

A "New York Post" report on the flurry of phone calls that Levy supposedly made to the California Democrat in the days before she vanished: "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff says those calls never happened. And so does D.C. Deputy Police Chief Terrance Gainer.


TERRANCE GAINER, D.C. DEPUTY POLICE CHIEF: I would like to knock that down. And, frankly, we've spent an awful lot of time trying to disprove rumors and innuendoes and people's theories of this case. We've tried to remain steadfast and focused on the facts, even when others have not.


KURTZ: Police chief Charles Ramsey has also discounted reports that Condit's wife Carolyn talked to someone in his apartment, possibly Chandra, when the congressman wasn't there.


CHARLES RAMSEY, D.C. POLICE CHIEF: We have nothing that will confirm that. I'm aware of that story floating around; but unfortunately there has been a lot of information floating around that we simply have no knowledge of.


KURTZ: And a new frenzy on Wednesday, first CNN, then Fox News Channel and MSNBC trumpeted an anonymous tip to a Web site that Levy's body was buried under a Virginia parking lot.


BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: D.C. police have told CNN that they are, in fact, going to follow-up on a tip that they got on a California Web site yesterday and will be checking a parking lot under construction near Fort Lee, Virginia.

JOHN GIBSON, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: The big story at this hour, of course, there's a tip that police are now investigating that there may be the body of a female buried near a parking lot in suburban Virginia in a place called Fort Lee, Virginia.


KURTZ: Law enforcement sources now say that tip was a hoax. Perhaps a metaphor of sorts for what has been, to put it mildly, an unimpressive journalistic performance.

Well, joining us now, Paul Gigot, "The Wall Street Journal" columnist who in September will become the paper's editorial page editor. And Ron Brownstein, national political correspondent for "The Los Angeles Times."

Paul Gigot, has this all-Chandra all-the-time media environment, particularly on cable, made it harder for the Bush White House to get attention for the president's issues?

PAUL GIGOT, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": I don't think so. I think it has been everywhere, but I think it's mostly a crime story. That's the way I view it. It's a crime story involving a celebrity, happens to be a member of Congress. But I don't think it has had big political ramifications or overtones. I think most people, most viewers, understand it in those narrower terms. KURTZ: And Ron Brownstein, has the Levy/Condit story sucked up some of the media oxygen for Congressional Democrats, who don't have the bully pulpit of the White House, in getting their message out?

RON BROWNSTEIN, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, I think for everyone it probably has, I disagree with Paul a little bit, in essence. But I think of it more as filling a vacuum than necessarily displacing something that might have been there otherwise.

Bush has had a lower profile media strategy as president than any of his predecessors, from the beginning and, you know, what we've seen with Chandra is sort of moving into that, especially on the cable. I mean, the fact is, though, Howie, as the Pew) Research Center polling has shown, this story really hasn't grabbed the mass public the way other scandals have.

I mean, there is an audience for a scandal story, but this really is not a mass phenomena. We're still talking about a minority member of Congress on the agriculture committee, and I think as you get out around the country, there are limits to that.

KURTZ: It certainly has helped cable's ratings, though.

All right, well, when we come back, when it comes to media coverage, why is President Bush still playing second fiddle to Bill Clinton?



Once again, George Bush this week found himself sharing the media spot light with his predecessor.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: In 1992 I came to Harlem and I said, "If you vote for me, I'll turn this economy around."

KURTZ (voice-over): On Monday, Bill Clinton opened his office in Harlem and the media hordes were there to cover the official re- launching of his post-presidency.

CNN went as far as showing a split screen of Bush, who at the time was addressing a police organization, and Clinton, before cutting away entirely to the former president.

The current commander-in-chief flew below the media's radar as he made a series of public appearances and lobbied members of Congress on his energy plan and a patient's bill of rights. By week's end, President Bush was back in the headlines with House victories on both fronts.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: After a lot of labor and a lot of hard work and a lot of discussion, we shook hands in the Oval Office, about ten minutes ago.

KURTZ (voice-over): But how long before president number 42 steals the limelight again from 43?


KURTZ: Paul Gigot, I want you to admit right now on national TV, you miss Bill Clinton. You love when he pops his head up so you can kick him around some more.

GIGOT: He was great for my career. He was great for business. He is great for journalism. I mean, he's a wonderfully, a fascination political character and I think we do all miss him, just as a news- maker.

But he also, I think, to some extent, still remains the leader of the Democratic party. His capacity to raise money. His wife in the Senate. His protegee running the Democratic National Committee. Those make him, those facts, make him a significant political player. And then this sense of nostalgia among Democrats, you know, they want to see him because they remember him as the time when they won.

KURTZ: Nostalgia among journalists as well. Bernie.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: So, Ron, how do you explain the magnetism of Bill Clinton? Is it -- have to do with the superficiality of the press? Does it have to do, because he's part vaudevillian, part politician? Because he turns and he's always on stage and is performing constantly? And the press surrenders to that sort of personality.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, well, first of all, in the long run, George Bush is going to get more attention over the next three-and-a-half years than Bill Clinton...

KURTZ: Going out on a limb, here, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: It will not be a big competition. But the fact is, I think you have this sense in the press that we're in the middle of one of these arcs in the Clinton career that are relentless, from down to up and before we go to the next down one, that we're probably in the beginning of a cycle where he is going to become more visible, where he is going to become more of a public figure, and there is a synergy here as Gore comes back and Gore becomes more visible, they probably tend to encourage coverage, one of the other, as each of them step out a little bit. So, I suspect that we're on an upswing of Clinton coverage, but it's still not going to threaten Bush's hold on the bully pulpit.

KURTZ: Compared to Clinton and his scandal-scarred soap opera presidency, Bush's sometimes seems to be almost a passionless presidency, or is that just the media portrayal?

GIGOT: Oh, I don't know if it's passionless is the word. I think you talk to people in private about him and he can be very passionate. KALB: Yeah, but what about the public opinion...

KURTZ: The way he comes across on the screen, behind a podium, making speeches and so on.

GIGOT: Well, I agree with Ron. I mean, they have almost in a calculated fashion tried to downplay him using the traditional bully pulpit of the presidency. I'm not sure that's a good bet, because I think they're giving up a tool of the modern presidency, but they think it serves them better. They think maybe times he's not good at press conferences, therefore don't have them.

BROWNSTEIN: And the fact is, even this week, you know, on his big victories, it was behind the scenes in the White House in a private meeting rather than appealing to the public and trying to leverage public opinion against legislators. That was the way he governed in Texas, that is really the pattern he has brought to Washington and it does leave kind of a vacuum that other things move into, whether it's Chandra Levy on the one hand or Bill Clinton or Al Gore on the other, because Bush does not dominate the headlines the way a president traditionally does.

KALB: You talked about the calculated decision to downplay Bush, but what about a...

GIGOT: On a public stage.

KALB: Yeah, but what about up-playing it? Is there a concern that if they were indeed to up-play him, there would be a display of public hesitancy, uncertainty before the cameras?

GIGOT: Well, every president is good at some things.

KALB: Yeah, I -- let me -- one phrase. If I use the phrase vaudevillian for Bill Clinton, by contrast you think that President Bush has a front row seat to watch rather than to perform.

GIGOT: Perhaps, but it is so far, if you look at the polling, it is serving him well. I mean, one of the things the public likes about him in "The Washington Post"/ABC poll this week is that they think that he is somebody who is honest and trustworthy. They like the fact that he is not somebody they have to explain to their children, that he is not somebody that is not somebody that is dominating everything.

So, in that sense, maybe the White House is on to something. I don't know in the long run, but they seem to think it's smart.

KURTZ: Turning back to the media coverage, Ron Brownstein, a lot of attention this week, maybe not to Chandra Levy-like levels, to the very tight votes in the House, lobbying over the energy bill, passage of the patient's bill of rights compromise that President Bush wanted.

But Bush's education bill, which he has made a signature issue in the campaign, has gotten relatively little media attention. Why is that? BROWNSTEIN: I have really been struck by that. I mean, all year long, not only scandal, but any issue that arises, taxes, energy, immigration, really it generated more attention in the press than the education bill, which is in some ways the furthest Bush has gone toward building a new kind of bipartisan coalition.

I mean, we simply have not been able to sustain attention on this -- what is especially paradoxical about this is that probably other than the tax cut, it is the thing that is most directly going to effect the most people. I mean, there are...

KURTZ: But there's no boxing match.


BROWNSTEIN: You know, and in a way, in a way -- I was going to say, in a way the press coverage is defeated by the very success at building a bipartisan support. Really, you know, we are attracted to heat and conflict, like the alien in "Predator," you know.

KALB: You've got...

BROWNSTEIN: I mean, it's the same thing, without it, we have trouble focusing on what the story means.

KALB: You've got pipelines to the White House, Paul, haven't you? That's fairly true, we all know that.

GIGOT: A couple of sources.

KALB: A couple of sources. Does Clinton's visibility represent some sort of a threat to Bush's lack of visibility? His own desire to be -- get his message out, his word out, and so forth?

GIGOT: I'm convinced that if you asked that question of White House communications, they would say no, it's a huge asset. We love the contrast. That is...

KALB: I mean, you'd expect a predictable...

GIGOT: No, but I don't mean that's just a spin. I think they believe that. They really do believe that.

KALB: You mean a rationed Bush is more effective than...

GIGOT: That's right. They think that that -- they think that the country, after eight years of Clinton, wanted a respite. It wanted to take its breath. It doesn't want a president in their face all the time.

BROWNSTEIN: A return to normalcy.

GIGOT: That's the phrase you will hear. And they believe that to be true, and if you look at the polling data, it is serving them well.

KALB: The media, by the way, hate normalcy.

On the patient's bill of rights and on campaign finance reform, do you think the press coverage tilts against Bush and toward the so- called reformers?

GIGOT: Yeah, I would think it does. I mean, partly because of the general bias in the press towards reform and partly because I think that, you know, by and large the press does tend to tilt toward more activist government. So, I think for some years now it's tilted in the favor of a bigger patient's bill of rights.

BROWNSTEIN: As well as -- and on campaign finance reform, I have to agree with Paul. I think even more so on campaign finance reform, because there is an assumption in the press that the problem with Washington, the reason why Washington doesn't work is largely the money. And that is a very debatable argument, but it is one that really is deeply ingrained in the press corps.

KALB: What sort of guidance would you give the White House about how to present the president, in the competition for space right now with President Clinton.

KURTZ: He's not a political consultant.

GIGOT: I mean, I don't know. I mean, I...

KALB: Well, in examination of the media strategy, what do you think?

GIGOT: I think ultimately -- so far it does seem to be working. You can't argue with results. In the long term, I think, though, particularly when he gets into trouble and particularly on foreign policy, the president has to be able at crucial moments to go to the public, to be credible and to explain himself.

KALB: And is he doing that?

GIGOT: And I have not seen his ability so far to do that, except in set-piece speeches like the inaugural.

BROWNSTEIN: Not to get in a political debate, but I think it is more questionable whether this media strategy is working, in the sense that Bush is reinforcing, I think, by and large, the people who voted for him. There are probably very few people who voted for him who feel that, six months later, they made a bad decision. But he's made much smaller inroads, I think, on convincing people who didn't vote for him that either he agrees with them on -- they agree with him on the issues or that he has the capacity, and that is in part because he has been a less vivid presence than presidents usually are.

KURTZ: Well, I think the media have to find new and creative ways to cover a president who isn't necessarily performing for the cameras all the time.

Ron Brownstein, thanks very much for joining us. And up next, we'll talk to Paul Gigot about his new job. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with Paul Gigot, the new editorial page editor of "The Wall Street Journal."

When your appointment was announced a couple of weeks back, you told me in an interview that you are not a knee-jerk Republican. What does that mean?

GIGOT: Well, it just means that I don't consider myself a political partisan in the sense that we back one party or another. Certainly, our philosophy, which is conservative, would agree more often with Republicans, but we disagree with them sometimes to; trade, immigration.

KALB: You also declined at one point in one of the early interviews, you declined to identify yourself as a conservative. So, the question stands in midair, as it were, what in fact -- how do you indeed describe yourself, politically?

GIGOT: Well, I wouldn't give -- I didn't mean to give that impression, if I did. I am a political conservative. I think what I meant, if I said that, was I'm not sure how you define a modern conservative. There are a lot of -- the old Reagan definition has changed, there is a lot more fault lines in the conservative movement, two of which I mentioned before, immigration and trade, for example, where you people would identify themselves as conservatives, but be on opposite sides for those issues.

KALB: Am I going to see a difference in the editorial flow of "The Wall Street Journal" between you and your predecessor, Bartley?

GIGOT: I subscribe to his philosophy...

KALB: A loyalist to Bartley...

GIGOT: I'm not just a loyalist. I mean, I agree with him on a broad philosophy...

KURTZ: What about the tone of the page, Paul? Admirers say it's colorful and pugnacious and critics say it's shrill and harsh and sometimes seems partisan.

GIGOT: I'm on the colorful and pugnacious side of that. No, I think you have to keep people awake. You have to write with prose that people want to go to, and I hope that that doesn't change.

There always is a line, you don't want to step over, to seem shrill or seem mean, but, you know, the best editorial pages are readable, and I give Howell Raines of "The New York Times" high marks for turning that page into a much more readable page by raising the volume a bit.

KURTZ: With people like you, excuse me Bernie, and Bob Novak and Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson and George Will on the tube these days, is television giving conservatives a fair shake, or do you sometimes feel more like a token?

GIGOT: I don't feel like a token. I've always had a fair shake on television and I think television has a lot of conservative commentators. I don't know that it has a lot of conservative reporters. I would draw that distinction.

But no, there's no shortage of conservative commentators on television and I've been pleased to be one.


KALB: But Paul, are you going to see the editorial page that you'll be masterminding in conflict with the reports that take place on the other pages of "The Wall Street Journal"?

GIGOT: Well...

KALB: Because there's been that portrait, hard hitting, how should I put it, maybe even liberal journalism on some pages of "The Wall Street Journal," in full conflict with some of the editorial positions.

GIGOT: Well, we see ourselves as a "church and state" operation with that distinction. They do their thing, we do ours. But one thing we do do on the Editorial Page is we don't think we're just in the opinion business. We think we're in the information business and the news business, and so we don't try to write editorials that are simply points of view. We try to find things out. We try to dig up facts and tell people things that are happening so even that even people who disagree with us will have a reason to turn to the page. They might learn something they didn't know.

KURTZ: Investigative editorials. In a recent column you called Hillary Clinton a backstage liberal power who is buying influence by raising campaign cash and made her bones by knocking off this week President Bush's nominee to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Do you think the rest of the press is too soft on Senator Clinton?

GIGOT: Well, I think they missed the story. Until this week, it was way under covered, and not because of Senator Clinton. She was out there in April, raising this issue. And if you talked to any Democratic Senators, they were saying, boy, she's really working this issue. And that's how I found out about it, from Democrats. So, I think they missed that story, and that was news.

KALB: Paul, you're going to be taking over in mid-September as commander-in-chief editorial page of "The Wall Street Journal." Will I see a difference in the page?

KURTZ: Just briefly.

GIGOT: I don't think you'll see it right away, certainly, no. Not a sharp difference. I hope I can keep it as readable and as interesting.

KURTZ: We will keep an eye on that. And we hope you'll come back and visit with us sometimes. Paul Gigot, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, the case of the jailed writer, your e-mails and Bernie's BACK PAGE on the media and the rift between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.


KURTZ: Vanessa Leggett hasn't even published anything, but she's in jail for contempt and may stay there awhile. The Houston writer, who is working on a book but has no contract, refused to turn over her notes about the three-year-old killing of the wife of a millionaire bookie. The Justice Department hasn't jailed a reporter in ten years. And Attorney General John Ashcroft did not personally approve a subpoena for Leggett's notes, the usual procedure, because the department does not consider her a true journalist.

"I'm not a martyr," says Leggett, "but I am doing what I must to protect the public's interest in a free press."

She faces 18 months behind bars. An appeal is pending.

And now to our e-mail bag about our interview last week with the White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

One view writers, "I thought Ari Fleischer was superb. At last, an honest press person for our president."

But another viewer gives two thumbs down; "Ari Fleischer reflects the attitudes and character of this administration. The adjective that most represents this higher echelon is arrogance."

Finally, on the media coverage of the Chandra Levy case: "For goodness sakes, please tone down the coverage. You folks are like sharks in chum-filled waters."

Well, let us know what you think. E-mail us at

And it's time now for "The Backpage." Bernie.

KALB: So, this is the question of the week, are the media up to mischief or are they on to something? And what I'm talking about is this.


KALB (voice-over): And what's the Tango got to do with all this? Well, you know the old saying, it takes two to Tango. The trick is to carry it off without stepping on each other's toes.

This past week, a couple of Washington's best known hoofers gave us a virtuoso performance of their own semantic Tango. Two guys taking great pains not to step on each other's views. It was their first joint appearance overseas, and it seemed choreographed, you might say, to kill off the buzz in Washington that they are not in sync on all the big policy issues. The secretary of defense, regarded as the administrations top hawk, the secretary of state, the administrations leading dove.

Here's pretty much the way it went:

Powell: There is no real space between us, as suggested.

Reporter: Do you always agree on everything?

Rumsfeld: Are you trying to find some daylight between Colin and me?

Powell: Yes.

Rumsfeld: Well, except in those cases where Colin is still learning.

It was great theater, a great Tango, but was it convincing? Well, the conservative "Washington Times," for example, gave it a question mark and cataloged conflicting statements by the two secretaries on China, Russia, North Korea.

The fact is, policy splits between the Pentagon and the State Department aren't exactly new. The most publicized clash of views in recent years was between Secretary of State Schultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger.

So, this time around are we watching the case of the media making mischief, creating a Rumsfeld/Powell rift where one may or may not exist?


KALB: Well, the thing to remember is that you're rarely ever going to get a couple of heavyweight secretaries to admit they are not dancing to the same tune. And so ultimately, it's up to the media to keep digging, despite the official denials and those Tangos at press conferences.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.