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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; 8:59 AM

"Welcome to Crossfire, I'm Right-Wing Ray."

"And I'm Left-Wing Larry. In the crossfire: Did CBS do the right thing on the story about President Bush being coddled in the National Guard, which is so obviously true even though there were a few typographical problems with those memos?"

"You Bush-haters won't give it up, Larry. The report is a whitewash. Dan Rather, that Clinton-loving Bush-basher, gets to stay at the network? And Andrew Heyward, who presided over this mess, gets to keep his job? Give me a break."

_____More Media Notes_____
The Whacking of CBS (washingtonpost.com, Jan 11, 2005)
The Making of a Red-State Liberal (washingtonpost.com, Jan 10, 2005)
Department of Self-Defense (washingtonpost.com, Jan 7, 2005)
Inauguration Under Fire? (washingtonpost.com, Jan 6, 2005)
Pretty Ugly, Pretty Fast (washingtonpost.com, Jan 5, 2005)
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"Ray, you just don't get it. CBS acted courageously by bringing in outside investigators, including DickThornburgh, who the last time I checked was a Republican."

"But the report says there was no evidence of liberal bias. Come on! The Tiffany network is crawling with liberals. They wouldn't know fair and balanced if it smacked them in the tuchus."

"I feel like smacking you, Ray. But let's move on. In the crossfire: Should Armstrong Williams have taken big bucks from the Bush administration to praise the president's education policies?"

"Armstrong was just saying what he really believes about No Child Left Behind, Larry. You liberals just can't stand the idea that there are black conservatives."

"Two hundred and forty thousand freakin' dollars? More like No Pundit Left Behind. The man is a sellout!"

"You wish you could command that kind of price to sell out. Besides, it was for advertising. Don't you believe in the free market?"

"I don't think pundits should sell their opinions, and I don't think George W. Bush should be buying off journalists."

"Check your facts, man. It's Rod Paige who was buying off journalists. But let's move on. In the crossfire: Michael Chertoff--a good pick for Homeland Security, or Bernie Kerik with a beard?"

"Chertoff was a junkyard dog as counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, Ray. He spent millions investigating Bill and Hillary and came up with bupkiss. This man's going to protect us from Osama bin Laden?"

"After all these years, you're still carrying water for the Clintons. These are bad people, Larry. Remember Monica?"

"Lying about sex is better than lying about weapons of mass destruction."

"But--"

"The Clintons lost money on the land deal."

"But--"

"The whole thing was a Ken Starr put-up job."

"Chertoff was just doing his job. He's a fabulous prosecutor. He'll whip that place into shape."

"I'd like to whip you into shape. Well, he might still turn out to have an illegal nanny, or multiple girlfriends, or dealings with the mob."

"Dream on. Next in the crossfire: Crossfire. Why is CNN canceling the best debate show on television?"

"Because our new president, Jon Klein, agrees with Jon Stewart that we're partisan hacks who are more interested in pounding the table than providing intelligent commentary, Ray."

"Hogwash!"

"Yeah, hogwash!"

"You agree with me?"

"Yes. I mean, no! That's not allowed on this show. Klein is right. Crossfire is taking democracy into the gutter in a desperate search for ratings."

"Klein is just trying to please your liberal friends on the editorial pages who don't like the idea of conservatives getting equal time on TV."

"That's a bunch of bull."

"No it's not!"

"Yes it is."

"From the left, I'm Left-Wing Larry."

"From the right, I'm Right-Wing Ray. Join us again for another edition of Crossfire--at least until they turn off our mikes."

Changing the channel here, the day's big political news is clearly the Chertoff nomination.

"In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks," says the New York Times, "senior Justice Department officials were scrambling to find new ways to prevent terror suspects from slipping away. Michael Chertoff, a tough-minded prosecutor who was in charge of the department's criminal division, pushed a new tactic - declaring suspects to be 'material witnesses' and locking them up without charging them with any crime, just as Mr. Chertoff had done with mob figures before. . . .

"The tactic would prove controversial, as many civil rights advocates objected to the department's detentions of dozens of uncharged terror suspects as material witnesses. But to his many supporters, the tactic was typical of Mr. Chertoff's willingness to use smart, aggressive and creative tactics to meet the newly urgent threat of terrorism. . . .

"Even some critics who took issue with the department's aggressive antiterror tactics under Mr. Chertoff's leadership said they respected his legal intellect and integrity. They noted that Mr. Chertoff was willing at times to distance himself from administration policies, as he did in an opinion article in 2003 for The Weekly Standard in which he questioned the practice of holding enemy combatants indefinitely without charges."

The New York Post calls Chertoff "an intense intellectual who stands in sharp contrast to failed nominee Bernard Kerik. . . . Bush went for brains instead of brawn in tapping Chertoff. . . . Kerik is a karate black belt who never finished high school, while Chertoff is a magna cum laude Harvard Law School grad who's known for intellectual toughness, a near-photographic memory and a mind like a steel trap."

Sounds like an endorsement to me.

Slate's Fred Kaplan is skeptical: "Michael Chertoff is an odd choice to be the new secretary of homeland security. George W. Bush spent much of last year's presidential campaign lambasting Sen. John Kerry for viewing terrorism as a law-enforcement problem. Now, on the eve of his second term, Bush picks a lawyer as his counterterrorism chief. . . .

"Certainly he's a far better choice than Bush's first pick, the ill-starred Bernard Kerik, and more astute than his predecessor, Thomas Ridge." But "he has never run a large organization, managed a big budget, or dealt with larger issues of national security, transportation, infrastructure, or technology. There is also reason to wonder if Chertoff might wind up less a dispassionate analyst than a partisan cheerleader. In the mid-'90s, he worked as the Republicans' counsel on Al D'Amato's Senate Whitewater Committee. He made public appearances on behalf of Sen. Robert Dole's presidential bid, attacking Clinton on moral charges that the committee had raised (but not proved)."

The Wall Street Journal also mentions the Hillary factor:

"Mr. Chertoff had a key role in the bitterly partisan Whitewater hearings, where he was counsel to the committee chairman, former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Sen. Hillary Clinton later cast the lone dissenting vote against Mr. Chertoff in his 2001 Senate confirmation for a top Justice Department post. For years, he displayed on his office wall a framed copy of the Senate clerk's tally of the 95-1 vote."

Is Chertoff really, as Andrew wonders, Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons"?

Howard Dean is a candidate again--at the DNC. And reporters must be rooting for him as the most colorful contender in a field of little-knowns.

"Many party leaders have vowed to project a more moderate image on social issues, such as abortion, and a stronger image on national security," says the Los Angeles Times. "And they see Dean's candidacy for the party's chairmanship as a threat to the rebuilding strategy."

Dean's already lost one supporter, reports the New York Times:"His task is hardly easy, given the concern among some Democrats about having a leader so closely identified with the left of the party and its opposition to the war, and about the memory of the abrupt collapse of Dr. Dean's candidacy last year. His former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, was quick to say that he was not supporting Dr. Dean."

Say it ain't so, Joe!

Roger Simon still can't figure out why Dean is in the race:

"If you become party chairman in 2005, you cannot run for president in 2008. (At least Dean has pledged not to do so.) So why does Dean, who has a huge e-mail list, a proven ability to raise money on the Internet, the experience of one presidential campaign under his belt and a loyal cadre of followers not want to run for president in 2008?

"Well, I guess he believes he can transform the party. But as president you can transform the nation and the world.

"The only sensible explanation I have heard is that Dean never really wanted to be president in the first place. He didn't really want it in 2004 - - he ran to increase public awareness of his issues - - and he doesn't want it in the future.

"OK, nothing wrong with that. But can Dean really win an election where the voters are hardcore, party regulars? Obviously, he thinks so, but there is also an emerging Anybody-But-Dean coalition within the DNC that will try to stop him."

Other possibility: Maybe Dean doesn't think his chances of winning the nomination are that great.

Finally, here's my latest report on CBS:

If there is one line in the 224-page report on CBS News that has set critics aflame, it is that there is no "basis" for concluding that Dan Rather and his colleagues had a "political bias" in pursuing their badly botched story about President Bush's National Guard service.

What, they say? No evidence?

"In any fair-minded assessment of how CBS performed and why they so badly butchered their own standards, that has to be part of the explanation," said former New York Times reporter Steve Roberts, now a professor at George Washington University. "It's not just that they wanted to be first, they wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president."

The investigators hired by CBS "lay out a bunch of evidence of political bias, and very little exculpatory evidence, and then throw their hands in the air," said Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last. "Rather is sitting here maintaining, despite everything, that the memos don't actually matter, that the story is right."

Rather told the panel the accusations of bias were "absolutely, unequivocally untrue." The 73-year-old anchor was in the unusual position of declining to comment when Bob Schieffer led off the "CBS Evening News" on Monday with the report eviscerating Rather's Sept. 8 story on Bush. Rather wasn't granting interviews yesterday.

In a statement yesterday that dealt with none of the specifics, Rather, who will step down as anchor in March, addressed CBS's ouster of three top executives and his producer, Mary Mapes: "Four good people have lost their jobs. My strongest reaction is one of sadness and concern for those individuals whom I know and with whom I have worked. . . .

"We should take seriously the admonition of the report's authors to do our job well and carefully, but also their parallel admonition not to be afraid to cover important and controversial issues."

Also granting no interviews yesterday was CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who survived in his job while lesser heads rolled.

Louis Boccardi, the former Associated Press chief executive who headed the panel with former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, said they "didn't feel we could say, 'We accuse you, Mary Mapes, of having a political bias and we can prove it.' Instead we said, 'Look, here are the things these folks did, that the program did.' " This, Boccardi acknowledged, "won't satisfy anybody who thinks anything short of outright condemnation, a finding of political bias, was an act of cowardice . . . that we didn't have the nerve, courage, wisdom, insight to say it." But, he added, "bias is a hard thing to prove."

Not according to Rather's critics, who have long painted him as the embodiment of media liberalism. They point to Rather's on-air shouting match with then-Vice President Bush in 1988 and his 2001 speech at a Texas Democratic fundraiser involving his daughter.

Under the heading "Information that Might Suggest a Political Agenda," the report listed a five-year pursuit of the Guard story by Rather and Mapes; the use of strongly anti-Bush sources; and Mapes's call to Joe Lockhart, which put the John Kerry campaign adviser in touch with Bill Burkett, the source of the suspect Guard documents about Bush's military service. (On the opposite side, the panel cited previous reporting by Rather and Mapes in both Democratic and Republican administrations.)

Mapes's zeal for the story is clear from her e-mail to a freelancer with a lead on the Guard documents: "I desperately want to talk to you. . . . Do NOT underestimate how much I want this story."

CBS News Vice President Linda Mason, named to a new post overseeing broadcast standards, said the network faces a perception problem on the bias question, in part because the Mapes call to Lockhart "gives the impression you're working with a political campaign to help them."

"There was a rush because Mary felt it was a great story and she was going to get scooped on it by USA Today," Mason said. "I think she would have done that with any story. I firmly believe if they found something about Kerry and his past, they'd be rushing to get that on the air, too."

Hard-charging reporters, by their nature, push to get stories on the air or in print, sometimes against the reservations of their superiors. They are trained to see patterns, connect the dots, nail down the case against the politician or businessman in their sights. No one wins fame, fortune and journalism prizes by sitting on an explosive report.

"What happens is you become invested in a story and it becomes yours, and you want to nurture it and see it through to the finish," said Jackie Judd, an investigative reporter for ABC News for 16 years. Editors "want to see the product, get something on the air. . . . There is this race to be first that's undeniable. You just try to put the brakes on yourself."

During the 1998 Monica Lewinsky investigation, said Judd, now a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, she heard that another news outlet was chasing a story she was working on about a secondary player in the case. "In all candor, it did up the pressure to produce," she said. "We were working toward the goal of getting on the air that night. At 6 o'clock, my producer and I looked at each other and said, 'We don't have the goods.' " It was "really hard," said Judd, to tell that to her New York bosses.

If the impetus to air an eye-catching story is strong, the "we stand by our story" reflex is just as deeply embedded in the journalistic DNA. Thornburgh and Boccardi were sharply critical of CBS executives' decision to staunchly defend the "60 Minutes Wednesday" piece for 12 days, despite mounting evidence that it was shaky.

Two days after the broadcast, Mapes told top CBS executives in a conference call that her story was solid, that document validation was a "black art" and an "inexact science" and that two of the female experts hired by CBS and now challenging the documents' authenticity were "flaky."

Jim Murphy, the "Evening News" executive producer, sent colleagues an e-mail saying his media contacts thought CBS's defense of the story was weak. This prompted a response from Gil Schwartz, executive vice president for communications:

"1. We need our expert available NOW to speak to all those who are reporting the story. We need the expert. Now. We need him now.

"2. We need the talking points that can be crafted into a statement of defense and talked about by Dan when he calls people.

"#1 is essential RIGHT NOW. We NEED THAT EXPERT. [W]ithout him, we're TOAST."

Mapes, meanwhile, sent Schwartz an e-mail saying the issue of a superscript "th" that critics said proved the Guard documents could not be three decades old had been resolved. He replied: "As far as the press is concerned, the 'th' issue is NOT gone. . . . If we wait to address the issue until tonight's news, we will DIE in the press tomorrow. Die. As in . . . dead."

That afternoon, Heyward endorsed a plan suggested by Schwartz: "Dan get on the phone right now. He can say that we believe the forensics and will have more in tonight's report. . . . Jim [Murphy should] call back his various buds and tell them to watch tonight's evening news."

In a statement to the press, CBS said the documents were provided "by unimpeachable sources" and "backed up not only by independent handwriting and forensic document experts but by sources familiar with their content."

But the statement didn't hold up. The lead expert, Marcel Matley, later told The Washington Post that he had examined only a signature and made no attempt to authenticate the documents themselves. The female experts told ABC News they had warned CBS about the documents. And the "unimpeachable" source, Burkett, admitted having lied to CBS.

"We didn't come clean soon enough," Linda Mason said yesterday. But, she added, "Dan does think he's constantly attacked. If we backed off every story that was criticized, we wouldn't be doing any stories."


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