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Reliable Sources

Are Journalists Jumping on the Bush Bandwagon?

Aired October 06, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

President Bush is getting more media coverage than ever, and the tone has changed dramatically since September 11.


KURTZ (voice-over): Less than a month ago, Bush was getting kicked around by the press. Sinking poll numbers, lots of criticism of his handling of the economy, even his month-long vacation.

But now the president is getting high marks from nearly all the media.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: He's done a terrific job ever since September 11. It's not to say he wasn't doing a good job before then, but I think it's very clear he has risen to the occasion.

KURTZ: His former rival is also jumping on the bandwagon.

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: George W. Bush is my commander in chief.

KURTZ: Even "Saturday Night Live," which had been portraying Bush as something of a dim bulb, declined to poke fun at the president in its season opener.

Meanwhile, the media are getting decidedly mixed messages from the administration about the possibility of more terrorist attacks on America.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Get on the airlines. Get about the business of America.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is a threat in the United States. I can't quantify that threat, but the president has made clear and spoken forthrightly with the American people.

KURTZ: And some stories that once would have been considered local, got the full blast television treatment.

RATHER: Word came today about a deadly attack aboard a Greyhound bus in Tennessee. Six people, including the attacker, are dead. PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: A Florida man has contracted a very rare and potentially deadly form of anthrax.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Martha Brant, White House correspondent for "Newsweek," Dana Milbank, White House reporter for "The Washington Post," and Jonah Goldberg, the editor of "National Review On-line." Welcome.

Dana Milbank, the upbeat coverage of President Bush; media critic David Carr says: "There's been a collective decision to re-image the president, and the media are fully cooperating. Journalists are very anxious to help him construct a wartime presidency, because he's the only president we have." How do you plead?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I -- guilty. I think there is some truth to that. Look, he's got 90 percent popularity in the polls and we are, most of us, Americans. It's not like we wouldn't, you know, we're going to be neutral between our president and our government and the Taliban.

That said, we are also taking time to, when he returns to his foibles; he said "misunderestimate" three times in a speech last week, and I felt compelled to write that. He said that soon ticket counters are going to be flying out of National Airport, and I felt it necessary to report that.

KURTZ: Well, I won't misunderestimate that aspect of the story, but Martha Brant, there have been an awful lot of behind the scenes pieces about Bush dictating orders to Condoleezza Rice and telling Karen Hughes he wants that speech on his desk in a few hours. I wonder, with this kind of, these anecdotes being fed to reporters, are reporters being used at all?

MARTHA BRANT, "NEWSWEEK": Well, of course we're being used, because the number of people who have that information are so much smaller, so we're relying on a very small cadre of advisers, but to Dana's point, "midunderestimate" and little foibles and bloopers are in a bigger more serious context, and the guy is doing a better job. He used to be overmanaged, and over scripted, and he's actually pretty good at improv and ex-stump speaking, and now we're finally seeing more of the real, casual George Bush, for better and for worse.

KURTZ: So, that's more important in your view than the anecdotes being spoon-fed by this tight circle of Bush White House aides?

BRANT: Yes, for me.

KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, President Bush at 86, 90 percent popularity, and battling the evildoers, as he calls them. Are journalists just plain more reluctant to criticize him?

JONAH GOLDBERG, "NATIONAL REVIEW ON-LINE": First of all, I always think when he says evildoers, he's referring to the Scotch, but that's a different story. I think that, I think Dana and Martha are absolutely right in that the tone has changed, and I do think one of the interesting things is the outlet in the way this analysis goes is you see all these stories about how George Bush is a changed man. And I think, I'm sure he is a changed man.

But, what's also changed is the media itself, and...

KURTZ: Is there a fear factor?

GOLDBERG: I think there is, and I think it's -- and it's a credible one. I think it's, people say it's dissent -- we're coming down in dissent, there's a new censorial tone. I think journalists are in the, for the most part, taking their jobs more seriously because of the more serious times.

MILBANK: You know, the White House is actually, I think, subtly encouraging this fear factor. I called one of my usual there and he said, "Hello, Mr. 10 percent," and he is saying, suggesting, I'm one of the 10 percent who is not with the rest of America. So, they want to say, look, get on board, everybody's behind him.

KURTZ: And was he helpful beyond that? All right, probably don't want to say.

The British government, Martha Brant, released on Thursday, I believe, a detailed document about Osama bin Laden's involvement in the attacks. And this is the same kind of document that the U.S. government had promised to release, decided against it, although the White House did approve 10 Downing Street going with this.

Why is Tony Blair more open with his press corps than the Bush White House is with ours?

BRANT: Very good question. We asked that of Ari Fleischer the other day. I think the White House feels that that message was more credible coming from somebody in the European union. We would certainly have liked to have seen it from our own government, but they're trying to coordinate the message not only internationally, but they have these meetings now where they get everybody in the cabinet on message once a week. They stagger the briefings.

Obviously, they can't do it -- it's not hermetically sealed. Colin Powell said he was going to release that white paper, and then they backtracked. There have been several occasions where they have backtracked. The message hasn't been perfectly managed.

KURTZ: I'm going to give you one right over the plate, Jonah Goldberg: a lot of commentators now blaming Bill Clinton for not doing more against terrorism during his term, particularly after that "Washington Post" story about Sudan had offered to arrest Osama bin Laden, turn him over to the Saudis, and the Clinton White House backed off or didn't make that happen.

Is Clinton fair game? Or is this the produce of, you know, you and your friends who want to blame him for everything this side of El Nino?

GOLDBERG: But only up to El Nino. Beyond that, we're totally fair towards him. I think there's some of that. I mean, Andrew Sullivan isn't doing yeoman work in sort of detailing how Clinton, in many ways, dropped the ball, and I think for a lot of people...

KURTZ: And Joe Klein and "The New Yorker" had a piece on it as well.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, Joe Klein...

KURTZ: Is there some piling on here for, perhaps, ideological reasons?

GOLDBERG: There may be some -- well, there's certainly some piling on. There's certainly some "got you" going on. I think it's all pretty much fair, and I think you under -- misunderestimate the degree of restraint that a lot of people on the right are showing in not doing more of it. If I had my druthers and these weren't more serious times, you know, I would be piling on Bill Clinton a lot more, and I haven't done -- personally, I don't think I've done any of it.

KURTZ: But don't -- either of you, the media also share the blame, not just for what the Clinton administration did or didn't do during eight years, but before September 11, how much airtime, how much print time, that was devoted to the general subject of terrorism? You know, there was that report by the two former senators, didn't even get covered by the broadcast networks.

MILBANK: The government has done extremely little, and we've done less. I -- three years ago I wrote a story about the dangers of bioterrorism, and I got so spooked I bought some Cipro, the antibiotic, and I kept it in my refrigerator, and people have laughed at me, until September 11.

KURTZ: But, would you agree that the media also fell down on the job here? While we point fingers at the intelligence agencies, and Clinton, and Bush, and the first Bush?

BRANT: Absolutely. And I also, I also feel, speaking of fear, I still have a little bit of that fear factor that I think goes into my own reporting. How much should we write about bioterrorism? How many disclaimers to put in? And even talking about White House security, I did something I would never have done before, I actually was writing about beefed-up security in the White House, I called the press secretary, one of them, and said, this is OK to say, right? This isn't going to get anybody in trouble or put anybody's life in danger? And I wouldn't have done that before September 11.

KURTZ: Was it something -- did you print it?

BRANT: Yeah, they said it was fine. But I wasn't sure if there was something that...

KURTZ: What kind of element was it? BRANT: Oh, it was just something about beefed-up security, a gate and the way the passes were being used, but I wasn't sure, in these times, whether or not somehow I didn't realize it would be putting somebody in danger, and I didn't recognize it, so I checked.

KURTZ: Well, since we're talking about the fear factor, "Newsweek" and "Time" both had those covers with people in gas masks pictured there, and then we've had these reports, anybody watching TV this week, one bus attack in Tennessee, one man in Florida getting anthrax and unfortunately dying, the Indian plane hijacking, which turned out not to be a hijacking, was a bogus or staged exercise. And I wonder, are the media falling into the hype habit and, you know, intentionally or otherwise scaring people?

GOLDBERG: Well, I mean, just before September 11, we were analyzing the same question about shark attacks, and it turned out that there had been fewer shark attacks this year than there had been previously. But it fit a storyline, it fit a pattern, it fit a national sort of journalistic trend, and people fell into it and I think...

KURTZ: So, the shark technique is now being used on this much more serious global threat?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think it's the -- I think it's the same sort of instinctual muscle memory of the media to do that sort of thing, and look, when a bus driver has his throat slit on a highway, it sounds perfectly consistent with everything and you should cover it.

KURTZ: But would it have been the lead story on the networks a month ago?


BRANT: And we're responding to the tension of the White House itself. When Bush got the news about anthrax, he called Karen Hughes and called Ari Fleischer into his office, and he set the tone of tension, and they are the ones who brought out Secretary Thompson to calm everybody. So, we're responding in part to their own tension and their own fear factor.

MILBANK: This is the opposite of the shark attack. It's, first of all, it's unknowable, we can't predict, and all of the signs we're getting from inside is that this is a virtual certainty, so I think it would be...

KURTZ: That what is a virtual certainty?

MILBANK: Further terrorist attacks, and possibly deadly ones.

KURTZ: But not necessarily biochemical ones?

MILBANK: Not necessarily, but we know that -- the government has said that these people have this material. It's in their possession. They are capable of doing this. I think it would be irresponsible not to. People have complained about our newspaper showing how easy it would be for a plane to drop anthrax over Washington. They say we shouldn't scare people. I think we should scare people, if this is a real threat.

KURTZ: So, you're all for scaring people, if it's justified?

MILBANK: Right, basically, right. This is not a shark attack. This is real.

KURTZ: But on that point, I sense just watching TV, reading the papers, that there's kind of this mixed messages coming out. One day, you see President Bush saying go to Disney World, let's return to normalcy. Let's not change our lives in response to these terrorist threats.

And then the next day, you have CIA officials telling Congress in a confidential briefing, which promptly leaked to "The Washington Post" and elsewhere, that there's a high probability of another terrorist attack. So, how are the media doing it, sorting this out?

BRANT: The best example I have of that was last week, going on Air Force I to Chicago, we're there to go to O'Hare, to demonstrate people should get back and fly, and Norm Mineta was coming on a commercial flight, and we were talking to the press secretary on board all about the military people they've put in command to shoot down commercial airliners. And I think it's just -- there's so much information, they're crossing wires. And it's very hard sometimes to separate.

So many of us actually led our stories with, that these two generals, and the fear we all had, even on Air Force One, and that's when we had an F-16, probably, off our wing, going to shoot down anybody who'd come near us.

KURTZ: You don't get that on the shuttle to New York.

BRANT: No, definitely not.

KURTZ: It's more like have a nice trip. Jonah?

GOLDBERG: I have some sympathy for the White House on this one, because this is -- America has never been attacked like this at home before.

KURTZ: Sure.

GOLDBERG: It is a very difficult new dance that we're trying to learn, and it's a new tempo, and we've never figured out how to say, on the one hand, don't go crawling into a bomb shelter. On the other hand, be responsible, be reasonable, and have some legitimate concerns out there. So, I think it's totally right that "The Washington Post" should report about the threat of bioterrorism, but that doesn't also mean that you should be sitting, like, you know, with Kleenex boxes on your feet, you know, breathing through towels all day. KURTZ: Just briefly, Dick Cheney made one appearance, days after the attack, on "Meet the Press." Since then, you might as well put his face on a milk carton. Should the press be asking what has happened to the most powerful vice president in history?

MILBANK: The press was asking before that one appearance. We saw that he's alive and well and in command, and I think that we'll accept that.

KURTZ: That we don't need to -- I mean, he's playing more of an inside role, in other words?

MILBANK: He is. It was a very commanding performance he had on a Sunday talk show, and I -- perhaps he'll have to do another one at some point, but I think we realize, he's at the helm.

KURTZ: OK. That's a good place to stop.

And when we come back, are journalists who step out of line risking a major league backlash? That's next.



Bill Maher, the host of "Politically Incorrect," touched of a furor when he said we have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. Among his critics, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who had this to say about such dissent.


FLEISCHER: It reminds all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.


KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, is it the role of the White House press secretary to urge people to curb their tongues?

GOLDBERG: I'm one of the only journalists I know that has absolutely no problem with what Ari Fleischer said. We're not talking about repealing the First Amendment. He's not talking about censoring anybody. He's asking for people to be responsible in how they phrase things and what they say. And if that creates a climate where people think twice before they say stupid things, so be it. And that seems fine to me.

KURTZ: Ari Fleischer told me that, in fact, what he was trying to say, was that people ought to be thoughtful in this sensitive time. But, Dana Milbank, we're in a climate now where columnist have actually gotten fired, one at "The Texas City Sun," another at "The Daily Courier" in Grants Pass, Oregon, for the sin of criticizing President Bush in relatively mild language, I might add. Is criticism of the president now endangering job security? MILBANK: Well, it is dangerous that this idea of what Ari was talking about could go further an extinguish all sorts of question asking. I mean, this is how we got into a big mess in Vietnam. People were afraid to ask questions. They felt it was unpatriotic to ask questions.

Now, I think -- I think we can agree that Bill Maher said something pretty stupid, but we don't want to convert that into saying, like Ari Fleischer said yesterday, the American people are satisfied with the amount of information. It's only you guys in the press who are asking for more. And I think that's a completely different story.

GOLDBERG: That may be right, but we also don't want to make a mistake of taking Bill Maher too seriously, and we also don't want to make the mistake of taking -- extrapolating too much from these two columnists. These are two columnists who got fired for expressing themselves in what I think were pretty dumb and sophomoric ways, and there have been probably 2,000 journalists, in one form or another, who have criticized the president, criticized the government, and they haven't been fired, because they've been more responsible in how they've done it.

KURTZ: But columnist are paid for their opinions, and they're allowed to be dumb and sophomoric, which might be your opinion, and somebody else might say right on.

GOLDBERG: And editors are paid for their judgment, and they can let someone go if they don't like what they're doing.

KURTZ: Right, or they can not run the offending column, or they can get rid of the person. In both cases, the publishers apologized and said this was the worst thing that had ever been done.

But, Martha Brant, let's take the broader view. Are journalists, including straight news reporters, not just commentators, pulling their punches because criticizing the president, in this climate, new war and all that, is often going to be viewed as, quote, "unpatriotic"?

BRANT: I don't think quite yet, because we don't have the sensitive intelligence information that we're going to have once the war starts, and we have to make those judgment calls of how we're going to put potential risk by what we're publishing. So far, we're still dancing around the edges.

But I gave you the example earlier, telling a tale on myself, where I called the press secretary and checked a little fact about White House security. Now, I'm censoring myself in a way by doing that. In the case of security, I think it's ethical and justified. In the case of an intelligence report, it's going to be a much harder call.

KURTZ: Well, so your self-censorship has more to do with fear of being blamed for letting out something that is too sensitive, or the fear of being criticized for pushing the envelope? BRANT: It's probably, to be honest, a little bit of both. But in that case, since it had to do with security, I was more worried that I might be actually endangering somebody. But certainly, you know, because the information is so closely held, you do risk getting your information shut, your contacts shut off.

KURTZ: Right. And I know a number of journalists who are holding back sensitive military intelligence type information for that very reason.

Jonah Goldberg, "National Review On-line" made some news this week by dropping Ann Coulter's syndicated column. You've heard a bit about this. Let's just clue people in. She wrote about the terrorist, quote, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

Let's take a look at what she had to say about the controversy.


ANN COULTER, COLUMNIST: I just think it's kind of silly, and it is part of the hysteria the country is going through, and rejection of common sense, for people to be interpreting that as if it's, you know, the Spanish Inquisition.


KURTZ: Now, Ann Coulter is provocative, that's what she does. So, why the decision to dump her now?

GOLDBERG: Well, we -- unfortunately, the back story is kind of long and we are more than eager to drop the Coulter Wars, one way or the other. That said, Ann didn't like our editorial judgment and decided rather than hash it out with us, to take her displeasure public and to criticize us vociferously...

KURTZ: For alleged censorship.

GOLDBERG: For alleged censorship and for -- and she made some arguments that we felt were sort of unwise, saying that the First Amendment was being rolled back and we didn't think this has anything to do with the First Amendment, because the First Amendment has to do with what the government does, not what the editors of "National Review" or myself do at "National Review Online."

And so there's a lot of back story to it. We wish her well, but...

KURTZ: OK. Well, Coulter said to me, to give her side, that "National Review" has no spine and every once in a while they'll throw one of their people to the wolves to get good press in left-wing publications.

GOLDBERG: As David Broder once said, journalists have to be fight promoters, and that may be what you're doing here, but we want to sort of walk away from the fight. I think, I think her remarks were generally silly. I think she made a really -- she used remarkably poor judgment, as was evidenced both in the column and in her response to our response to the column. And the idea that somehow I'm trying to curry the favor with the likes of you people by dropping Ann Coulter's column is fairly laughable to anybody who sort of knows me and knows what low regard I hold all of you in.


KURTZ: But now, you touched on a question about censorship, and censorship only being done by the government. Now, I would say, Dana Milbank, that journalists who lose their outlets for whatever reason, they often complain about free speech. "My free speech is being infringed upon."

But, there's no constitutional guarantee to have your own talk show or your own newspaper column.

MILBANK: No. The freedom of the press belongs to the people who own the press. So, I -- I mean, I don't have any problem with that sort of behavior. I mean, I think -- and I also don't have any problem with compromising the First Amendment in issues of national security and war and intelligence.

I think the only danger we've got to look out for as journalists is that we don't self-censor ourselves and stop asking questions, stop asking if our nation is prepared.

KURTZ: But in these cases, Bill Maher, the two newspaper columnists, Ann Coulter, we're talking about opinion. We're not talking about secret U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan. And so I wonder if you think this is a free speech issue.

BRANT: Well, it's one thing to fan the flames of bigotry, and it's another thing to say something kind of dumb. So they're not all apples here, and I think ultimately it is the editors choice to decide if something goes over the line. So...

GOLDBERG: I'm sorry.


GOLDBERG: I was just going to say, it's not necessarily that there aren't people at "National Review," myself included, that don't subscribe to some of Ann's views, we just didn't like some of the ways she expressed them and some of the ways which she responded to our editorial judgment.

But that said, about opinions, look, I think there is a constitutional right to burn a flag. But, I think if I went and exercised my free speech by burning the American flag in front of those firefighters in New York, I would be a bad citizen, I would be using poor judgment, and if my boss caught me doing it, he'd have every right to fire me.

There are all sorts of ways of expressing yourself that are perfectly illegitimate and generally stupid, and deserve censure from your employers or from anybody else, and from the society.

KURTZ: Of course, the judgment about stupidity is the judgment -- an editorial judgment made by people you work for.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, but also criticizing stupidity is just as much free speech as offering it, and so when people say there's this new censorial tone and the right win is trying to squash dissent, these people are saying we should stop offering our opinions about what they're saying, and that's ludicrous.

KURTZ: Free speech is a two-way street, and we'll have to leave it there. No more free speech for the rest of you.

And when we come back, whatever happened to politics?


KURTZ: Welcome back. Ordinarily, Martha Brant, we'd be hearing a lot about how the war on terrorism is hurting the Democrats, making it difficult for them to criticize President Bush and so on, but I have the impression that political coverage is really being downplayed. Why?

BRANT: Well, partly because the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee haven't been fanning the flames, as usual, sending out their "Talking Points."

KURTZ: Cease fire? Yeah.

BRANT: Right, exactly. But I think we're going to see it more and more, Howie. I mean, already we're starting to hear complaints about, from the Republicans, about federalizing the employees in the airports, and frankly, the first week, I was talking to somebody and they were already complaining about the seating arrangement being to partisan at the White House, so.

KURTZ: Jonah.

GOLDBERG: It's got to come back. You know, the political coverage has to come back because arguments that somehow this all justifies big government angers a lot of people, like me, and that's going to be a big fight.

I do think, for the foreseeable future, the sort of silly, personal, celebrification (sic) of politics that we saw, like "Politically Incorrect," like "George," and all that kind of stuff that marked the '90s, I think that's over for a while.

KURTZ: OK. And we are over for awhile as well. Thanks very much, Martha Brant, Jonah Goldberg, Dana Milbank. Appreciate you joining us.

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