The Interviews

Interview with Howard Kurtz

Interviewed June 1996

ST: Has TV really changed politics?

HK: Television has changed not just politics, but has kind of transformed the landscape of journalism because so many people on the print side of the business who, at one time would have been satisfied just to be on the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or the Washington Post, now want to have their own talk shows, they want be famous, they want to be celebrity commentators. And that has really altered the ethic of the journalism business from the gathering of facts to the popping off and the serving of opinions.

ST: Did this begin with the sort of wild talk shows like McLauhglin that started in the 1980s?

HK: The McLaughlin Group was probably a seminal event in the notion that you take a collection of journalists, put them on the air, have them throw food, have them insult each other, have them play these very extreme liberal or conservative positions, and you make stars out of them. Once that formula worked, everybody wanted to get in on the action.

ST: As you say in your book Hot Air, the talk shows are basically sit-com.

HK: Some of the people who do this are pretty candid about the fact that they are playing sit-com characters. In other words, they are not like this when they write or produce papers and magazines, they are reasonable, they are nuisance, they pay attention to detail, but that doesn't get you on television. What gets you on television is the ability to slam dunk the other guy in 6 or 7 seconds. It's the ability to come off as a curmudgeon, as a hard-right conservative, as a wild-eyed liberal. Those are the kind of sit-com characters that the television camera seems to appreciate. And so, in order to grab this sort of bit televised fame, people do things that they wouldn't ordinarily do in journalism.

ST: You compare these shows to pro wrestling. Want to tell us about that?

HK: Well, there is a pro wrestling aspect to it in that a lot of these guys are friends, the guys and women are friends, they get along fine behind the scenes, but as soon as that red light comes on, they go for the throat. They try to take the other person down. Because that's what some shows demand, that kind of drama, that kind of rhetorical, high-wire act. And so there is a certain stage quality to it.

ST: There are a lot of blurred lines here, and one line that this seems to cross is the line between news¤reporting, journalism¤and entertainment. Does that confuse audiences?

HK: I think it particularly confuses audiences when people who pose as serious, hard-news reporters¤the guys and women you see standing up in front of the White House doing the stand-up with the microphone¤pop-up on Sunday morning to tell you all their opinions about the very same issues. So, clearly, what the talk shows have done is to transform news into entertainment. Nobody pretends anymore that there is anything other than entertainment going on in most of these shows because that is how you grab audience share; that's how you become famous; that is how you make a name for yourself and get out of the lecture circuit. And so the core values of news¤which is you report the story but you yourself are not part of the story, you are not the star¤that has sort of fallen by the way side in this talk show culture.

ST: Now what is wrong with this? I mean, at one point you say the McLaughlin group is fine as long as you don't think of this as journalism. What's the downside of having shows like this?

HK: Well, I don't suggest that these talk shows are some grave threat to the Republic. But the extent to which they convince viewers out there that these issues are not really serious, that they're just sort of fodder for the Washington rhetorical game, that the things they are shouting about don't really affect people's lives, nothing will ever really change in Washington. We all just sort of sit here and posture and try and beat up on the other guy. It gives people the sense that politics doesn't matter. It gives people the sense that it is just a game. And it gives a lot of folks the sense that the journalists¤who used to think of themselves as the outsiders¤are part of this political league, or part of a political class that increasingly Americans are angry at. So that is the downside.

ST: Now some of these people on these shows are real journalists. Jack Germond, as you say, used to be an ink-stained wretch.

HK: Right.

ST: ...has covered every Presidential candidate since 1960. We've talked to him, you have talked to a lot more of these people, how do they justify it? How do they make the transition from being the person writing a serious column, a serious news piece in a newspaper, and then throwing food on a lot of these shows.

HK: I guess at bottom they understand that throwing food in many instances is what it takes to get on television. And what they do is they separate in their minds: well, my real job, my real career is writing forNewsweek or is writing forTime magazine or whatever. What I do on TV is just sort of for fun and for entertainment, and it's to make a little extra money. So they think of themselves primarily as print journalists, as serious players of the journalistic game.

But of course to millions of Americans, they are the person shouting on Sunday morning, they are the person playing the sit-com character, posing as an extreme conservative or liberal, and they are willing to take on that role because television is so powerful in it's magnifying effects that that is how you become part of this talk show culture.

ST: What do you think about the phenomenon where, it seems to me that, more often these days, you see actual politicians or semi-retired politicians appearing on these shows as journalists -- John Sununu or a Geraldine Ferraro come to mind. Doesn't that sort of muddy it up even more, the line between politics and the press?

HK: There is this endlessly spinning, revolving door in which a lot of ex-politicians¤ mostly folks who were booted out of office by the voters¤show up behind the microphone as talk show hosts or as commentators or as part of the press gang. I think there is a real serious problem for my profession, because it makes it seem like we are all just players on the same team. There is no real distinction, if we are just talk show celebrities, between the people who are professional partisans and people who at least pretend to be journalists. I think it is a problem for the audience as well because you get a lot of partisan agendas mixed in with the relatively honest commentary. You have people who not only have held public office in the past, but would like to hold public office in the future¤Pat Buchanan being a prime example. You have to factor in what they say on the air with the fact that they are trying to build a base for a future run at elective office. And so it really does muddy the waters of an area that used to be pretty much an exclusive preserve of card-carrying journalists.

ST: How about someone like David Gergen....speaking of revolving doors?

HK: David Gergen is a terrific example of somebody who has the dexterity, one

might say, to go back and forth between a media job and the Reagan White House,

and a media job, and the Clinton White House, and then back to the world of

media. So you, when you click on that set, you sort of have to say to yourself, am I

seeing David Gergen, the thoughtful journalist as he sometimes is, or am I seeing a

guy who fairly recently was in the employ of Bill Clinton as a paid propagandist.

Sometimes even I find the lines too blurry to follow the action.

ST: Now one of the other thing you write about is that a lot of the journalists that go on these shows aren't paid that much to be on the actual show, but there is a financial bonanza. Can you talk about that?

HK: The pot of gold in the talk show world is not just for the half hour you spend on the program. Maybe you get a few hundred dollars at most. But it opens up this world of the lecture circuit which has become a real scandal, i think, in the world of journalism. The reason so many journalists want to get on these shows and become these identifiable personality is they can then go out and speak to corporations and lobbying groups for sometimes ten of thousands of dollars for a single speech, more than some Americans make in a year. And then argue with a straight face, that this kind of money¤hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in some cases¤doesn't affect their judgment at all. It doesn't have to be disclosed to the public, isn't any kind of public relations problem, even though these same journalists criticize politicians, when they take money from special interest groups. So the fact is that many of these high-profile, celebrity journalists in effect have a second job. And that is selling themselves on the lecture circuit in a way that a lot of other journalists who are not a part of this gravy train find increasingly distasteful.

ST: You talk to a lot of people about this. Sam Donaldson at least sat down with you and discussed this all. What's he have to say?

HK: Well, Sam Donaldson, who is really one of the hardest working reporters around, doesn't see anything wrong with making a 30,000 dollar speech¤it's 30,000 dollars for about an hours worth of work¤to an insurance group, even though the program he works for, "Prime Time Live," exposes that kind of thing when Congressmen take junkets with the same insurance group. On the other hand, I at least give him credit for being willing to talk about it, and being willing to explain his position. Too many journalists, these defenders of the First Amendment, take the view that we are private citizens, and we don't have to discuss whether we make 10 or 20 or 30 thousand dollars talking to the National Association of Wigget Manufacturers. And these are the same folks who call for full disclosure from politicians about any financial matter. And so, I think, increasingly, part of the public anger at the news business comes from this sense of arrogance, this double standard, that it's okay to go moonlight and take money from corporations if you are a journalist, but you don't feel you have to talk about it publicly. I don't think that washes anymore.

ST: In your book you detail how many well-known journalists are in on the lucrative lecture circuit...

HK: An awful lot of very well-respected, well-known journalists have been unable to resist the lure of lecture circuit cash once they ascend into this pantheon of celebrity journalism. And I don't suggest that any of these people are on the take, or that they would knowingly slant a story just because they spoke to a health insurance group the week before. But sometimes, perhaps, it's the stories that you don't do about these interest groups that could be a problem. And certainly when health care reform was at the top of the Washington policy agenda, for many of these folks to go out and talk to health industry groups for tens of thousands of dollars, and then talk about those same issues on Sunday morning, and then say that the public didn't even have a right to know that money had changed hands, I just think that is an awfully short-sighted view of journalism.

ST: What'd Cokie Roberts say to you when you talked to her?

HK: Well, in the particular instance about the health insurance group, Cokie Roberts said that she'd decided¤because, I guess that she was afraid of being criticized¤to donate that money to charity, which is fine. But as far as all the other speeches that she makes, Cokie Roberts contends that this is no different than being in a college singing group. You show up, you entertain, you take the check, and you go away. Now I would simply suggest that if a politician offered that explanation, we, in the press, would be just a little bit skeptical that it had absolutely no affect on their public performance. And I think that at the very minimum we ought to play by the same rules. We ought to tell people if we are taking money from these special interest groups and let them decide, let the public decide, whether it is affecting our performance either as writers or as broadcasters.

ST: So that's the reform here, the way to deal with it, is to press for disclosure, for people to say, "Look, I got $20,000 from the Wigget Manufacturers Association?"

HK: Well, some news organizations, including the Washington Post, just flat out prohibit their reporters from taking money from any group that they cover or any group that lobbies before Congress. I think that's not a bad idea. If you are going to insist on taking this money, I think that at the very least we ought to disclose it, let the public decide, rather than hiding behind this false argument that I am just a private citizen. I mean, some of these journalists have more influence on the public debate than most members of Congress, and we need to recognize that reality.

ST: What kind of reaction from the press tribes do you get here, in Washington, to your book? On that score, specifically.

HK: You'll be stunned to know that journalists don't like being criticized, perhaps even less so than politicians. And so, yeah, I've got a few people mad at me for making an issue out of this. Some of them, to their credit, are willing to talk about it and understand that they, inevitably, are going to be in the spotlight and have to answer these kinds of questions. Others just think it a gross infringement of their privacy for anybody to raise questions about them..... somehow forgetting for the moment that that is what we do with everybody else. That is what reporters do to politicians and business leaders, we raise questions about their public behavior, and so it's probably safe to say that at the moment I am not the most popular person in town.

ST: I hear over and over the complaint that the media has a liberal bias. Is that true?

HK: Well, I think it's fair to say that most Washington reporters are probably to the left of the general American population. I also think that many in journalism have kind of a blind spot on certain cultural issues, particularly abortion, religion, homosexuality, that they don't realize, they are out of step, to some extent, with the rest of the country. Having said that, this notion that reporters are quasi-Democratic activists who want nothing better than to re-elect Bill Clinton completely misses the nature of journalism. That is not how reporters think. Reporters would write stories about their own grandmothers if it would get them on the front page. And so, most of us¤and you know there are exceptions of bias and of sloppiness¤but most of us don't come to work every morning with a partisan agenda because that's not why we went into journalism. That's not to say we don't make mistakes. That's not to say we don't have certain cultural assumptions that set us apart from the people who we write for and we broadcast for. But the notion that it's an organized conspiracy, I think, kind of misses the mark.

ST: We covered the White House correspondence dinner a couple of weeks ago. There are a series of these dinner events that bring together media people in Washington, the politicians they cover, and maybe even a little Hollywood glitz. What's the role that these sort of gatherings perform inside the Beltway?

HK: You know these black tie media-political dinners are kind of a tribal ritual in Washington, and it lets everybody kind of strut around and feel like they're important. Probably more importantly, they show the country a glimpse of the fact that, in some ways, it is kind of a club. And we do all kind of enjoy being at the same buffet table. Journalists, who once were society's outsiders, who you were more likely to find wearing a Fedora sitting at the corner bar having a beer, today would rather be going to a fancy Georgetown party with Senator so-and-so and business leader so-and-so and that sort of thing. And that's one of the reasons I think that we have lost our edge in this profession. That is we now, many of us, are a part of this game rather than identifying more with the plumbers out there, we identify with the policy-makers and the politicians.

ST: Is that part money? It used to be that the highest aspiration in journalism was you got 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year at the top of your field.

HK: It's certainly true that the more journalists have become part of the affluent, upper-middle class, as they have started to identify more with the elite in our society rather than the people who clunk down their quarters at the newsstands for newspapers, I think that's a real problem. I mean, I'm certainly not going to object to journalists making a decent living. But, to the extent that we grow out of touch with the people who we are supposedly reporting for, that really can be a problem. You saw this most vividly during the Nanny-gate episodes, Zoe Baird's nomination to be Attorney General, when all of these journalists, many of whom know all about the illegal baby-sitter market, went on various talk shows and said: this is not a problem, this is no big deal, everybody does it. When the public got it, they had a very different view of it, and in about eight days, Zoe Baird's nomination was history. So the more that journalists identify with the powerful or the policy makers or the politicians, the less, I think, we are able to do our job and the more that we are resented as being part of the new insiders.

ST: Political coverage used to be very different. In the old days, Jack Germond, one of the original boys on the bus, had this club. You'd come over to his house if you were a potential candidate for president, you'd have a couple of drinks, it was all off the record, and you would talk with David Broder and Jules Whitcover, and they were basically like a screening committee, does this guy have what it takes to go. In '92, you have Bill Clinton, who nobody knows, doing the end run around all these media, and what is he on? Arsenio Hall, Larry King...

HK: MTV.

ST: ...Is that now the way politics are going to be, or is it just a one-shot fluke with a governor from Arkansas?

HK: No, I think the media landscape has permanently changed with all of these alternative shows¤whether it's Larry King, whether it's MTV, whether it's radio talk shows¤any politician who wants to even dream about running for the White House has got to be able to work that circuit in order to communicate with all those millions of people out there who don't watch C-SPAN and don't watch "Face the Nation," who aren't political junkies. So I think it is now part of what you need to do to run for political office. It's also true on the state and local level. I was never all that comfortable with the old system, where a handful of grizzled, old political reporters were kind of cozy with the people running for president, doing a lot of things off the record. It never got shared with the rest of us. I am not sure that is such a healthy system. But now, those days are history because all the cameras are following you around and you can, as Ross Perot did in '92, go from television studio to television studio, and make your case with Larry and Katie and Tom, and all the other folks without ever actually going out and having press conferences or rallies or dealing with the people who were sitting there with pens and notebooks.

ST: Well, Germond says he wouldn't mind the smoke-filled room coming back, because he says he would know everyone in that room.

HK: Well, newspaper people, in particular, are nostalgic for the old, smoke-filled rooms because that is where we got to operate. We told you what went on behind the scenes, you had no other way of knowing it. Now, any citizen out there can watch the speech, him or herself on C-SPAN. They don't have to take my word for it. They don't have to take an NBC nightly news' 20 second summary of what Bill Clinton or Bob Dole says. They can watch the unexpurgated version, they can probably get the text on the internet. They can listen to the candidates for half an hour on their local radio talk show. All those are probably good things because it shifts the power away from a handful of kind of arrogant journalists who know all the insiders, to the folks out there who, if they want to take the trouble, can get a lot more of the raw information of politics and consume it and make their own opinions.

ST: Washington as "Our Town," the sort of insider clubiness of it.....Is there a sense in which that is true or is that just the wrong way of looking at it?

HK: This is an incredibly inbred and incestuous political community in which everybody talks to the same 17 people and arrives at the same conventional wisdom. And often it's spectacularly wrong. I mean, when Bob Dole announced that he was going to resign from the Senate to pursue his presidential campaign, all the columnists and pundits and people who mouth off for a living decided that this was just a brilliant, dramatic move that was absolutely going to jump-start his campaign. Well guess what? Most people out there didn't care. It didn't make much difference to them that the 35 year veteran of Capital Hill was now relinquishing the title. And so sometimes, there is a really disconnect between what I think of as the Washington echo chamber and what most Americans actually think. Not least, because most Americans are not breathlessly following every twist and turn of political maneuvering and legislative maneuvering here inside the Beltway --the way that people here, who are paid to follow it, uh, would like to imagine.

ST: You mention the phrase the echo chamber, you've used that before. Tell me if it's possible to break out.

HK: It's very, very difficult to break through the media static at today's deafening levels. Here is how it works. Bob Dole gives a speech. Well, the newspapers reporters report it the next day, and maybe they say it wasn't a very impressive speech. Then come the radio talk show hosts, and they come on the air and they say, "now that was really a pretty bad speech." Then by the weekend ,the talk shows come on. Crossfire, McLaughlin, and Meet the Press and Brinkley and all the talking heads come on and say, "that was just an awful speech. Horrible! the worst he's ever given." And by the time that Monday morning roles around and Newsweek and Time and US News are on the stand, it is no longer an opinion, it is an electronic fact that Dole has just embarrassed himself by giving this terrible speech. Well, maybe the speech wasn't all that bad. But these things take on a life of their own through the constant repetition, through this sort of 24-hour-a-day punditry that we in this Capital now sort of inflict on the rest of the country. And sometimes that punditry is right, sometimes it's wrong. But more often it's besides the point, because people out there aren't paying attention to every jot and tittle of the political wars the way that people here do.

ST: Has the media gone too far in covering the private lives and foibles of politicians?

HK: The media in the last 10 years, certainly since the Gary Hart business has decided that just about anything in your private life is fair game. And we've come up with a convenient rationale, a kind of a fig leave, which is the character issue. We're entitled to know about, you know, all the bedroom activities of any candidate because this tells us something about his character. Well, that's really a convenient excuse, I think, for a lot of news organizations to rush into print or on the air with salacious stories that, after all, are pretty interesting and are going to draw an audience, but may or may not have much to do with somebody's fitness for public office. And because in today's sort of CNN, C-SPAN, multi-media world, an allegation about an affair, or something of a sexual nature, can ricochet around the globe in a blink of a news cycle, this now happens much faster than it used to decades ago.

ST: What, what's this mean for politics?

HK: Well, it means that politicians now often have to be on the defensive about any charge¤no matter how unsubstantiated, no matter how personal, no matter how ludicrous¤because somebody, somewhere is going to put that charge into play. It might be a radio talk show in Saint Louis, it might be a television station in Los Angeles, it might be somebody with a Web Site on the internet, but these things have a way of then getting picked up by the so-called responsible media, who haven't checked it out, who don't know whether it is true, but who simply, in a competitive world, want to report a headline that somebody else decided was worth, putting into play. And so, that makes the practice¤not just of politics or the public policy¤very difficult because there is so much of this stuff now flying out there that hasn't really been fully checked out by anybody, but can just can just circle the globe at a remarkable pace.

ST: Have we now crossed this threshold line into sort of professional tabloidization of the media?

HK: Well, there is this sort of tabloid swamp out there that we have all, to varying degrees, been sucked into. You've got programs, tabloid TV shows, tabloid supermarket papers, that thrive on this stuff. They'd love to find the next Heidi Fleis or Lorena Bobbitt story or Gennifer Flowers or Donna Rice. And because so much of news today ricochets from the supermarket tabloid to the New York Times, from the National Inquirer to Newsweek to the Washington Post, there's almost no way of stopping or shutting it off. You can say, "Well, I'm not going to play. I'm not going to follow those stories." But if an allegation is made about, say, President Clinton and by the troopers in Arkansas, about what he did in those days, and suddenly he's been asked about it at a White House news conference being heard live on CNN, it's then awfully difficult for any newspaper to say, "We are just going to ignore this." And so, the lowest common denominator¤the tabloid fare¤now seems to have infected just about everybody in the news business, almost kind of like a virus. I don't see that changing any time soon.

ST: I would agree with that and, yet, on the other side I can see the Washington Post is still doing multi-part series on the Republican Revolution; the New York Times will do big take-outs on health care; the Los Angeles Times will do investigative reporting; NPR is there to turn to; there are more political periodicals than ever. I mean, in some ways, it seems like there is better journalism than ever around if you go and search it out.

HK: There is an awful lot of high-quality journalism out there being committed every day. But what tends to attract the most attention and what is certainly the easiest to put on television and television talk shows is the low-calorie stuff. It's the stuff about Kato Kaelin or Lorena Bobbitt or Heidi Fleiss. It's simpler, it's titillating. So the other problem is, my newspaper, or any other newspaper, can write all the 12-part series we want on the problems of health care in America today. Getting people to read it, however, is another challenge. And getting it to be picked up by the electronic media¤which is how stories become national in this country -- is even more challenging. Television, in particular, likes stories with dramatic pictures, a simple story line, something that can be boiled down to a two-minute report. And one of the things I think that journalism has really failed at is not just reporting complicated stories, but reporting them in a way that people can understand, that people can relate to their lives. And I think that health care, in particular, is an example of an area where we failed to do that.

ST: OK, I want to ask you a little bit about personal experiences now. Not only are you a media critic for the Washington Post, but you have more than dabbled in the media. I mean, you do these TV talk shows, or have done them. What have your experiences on those been like, and how do you come down on whether you should continue to do that?

HK: Well, it's all part of my secret plan to infiltrate the television world so I can see how it is actually done. By and large, I find television pretty frustrating because you always have to boil down any insight or thought or fact that you want to communicate into sort of a clever, seven-second sound bite. That's what the medium demands. It doesn't really allow much time for a two-part answer or for a lot of caveat. And it's a wonderful way to communicate with a wider audience, which is one of the reasons I do it, but it can be awfully frustrating if you care about the substance of your subject matter, because you know that you just don't have time to give the full story. You know that producers are deathly afraid that if you dabble in too much complexity, that people are going to reach for that remote control. So it is a medium that thrives on speed, on brevity, on keeping it simple, on keeping it clever. And the danger is that I, like anyone else, sitting before the camera, the temptation is to just sort of be glib and just sort of make things over-simplified because that's what television likes. And I try to resist that temptation, not always successfully.

ST: Was there a moment when you came back and thought, "Oh my God, I can't believe I said that on TV!"

HK: I've probably said my share of stupid things on television, but more often I felt like I only gave a quarter of an answer because I didn't have time to complete the sentence because someone interrupted me. Or what the program wanted was for me to argue with somebody else. I mean, the most interesting experience I have is when bookers call you up and they say, "Are you willing to come on this show and say that President Clinton's position on X is just terrible?" I say, "No, I think it has some redeeming qualities." "Well, are you willing to say it's wonderful." "Well, no I have some reservations about it." "Well, we'll get back to you." Because what, what a lot of these shows want is for you to say black or white, A or B. One person says this guy is blue, one person says this guy is green. And I find that really frustrating. I think that's what's wrong with television today. But if you want to be on TV, sometimes you come under a bit of pressure to play that game.

ST: A couple of very specific questions. Paul Taylor, who used to work here at the Post,, he has now got this campaign for free time, free-air time, you've written about it some. What do you think of that proposal?

HK: I think¤although a lot of people laughed when Paul Taylor left the Washington Post and said this proposal would go nowhere¤that he's really tapped into something. Because the notion of giving the politicians, even if it's a couple of minutes a night, a chance to communicate directly with the American public is not only a good idea in terms of the way that politics works, but it gets the journalists off the stage, however briefly, so that everything that they say doesn't have to be interpreted by what we say. I mean, one of the things that is the inevitable bi-product of this sort of all-talk, all-the-time world, is that we, the journalists, are constantly spinning and interpreting and pontificating and sounding off about what we think is important about what the politicians did. It seems to me that the networks, with all the time they have available and all the money they make, could probably afford to donate just a few minutes a night once every four years in a presidential season to let the politicians speak without us sticking the parochial microphones in their faces and coming on afterwards to say what it really meant. So to the extent that it provides more unfiltered communication, I think it has the potential, at least, to kind of change the quality of the debate.

ST: What about the weekend talk shows? Does it bother you that reporters come on and basically pontificate on these, uh, these Sunday morning talk shows?

HK: Well, I mean, if the market wants to pay a celebrity interviewer like Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters a huge sum of money because lots of people will watch what they do, I think that's the free market at work. If people want to go on Sunday morning shows and, not only be famous, but to pose as experts on every subject under the sun...I mean have you noticed these people? They know what to do in Bosnia, they know how to balance the budget. There is nothing that they don't have an opinion on. And I think that someone will admit¤off camera, of course¤that there's a certain amount of consumer fraud involved in that. Nobody's an expert on everything. And yet the conventions of television almost demand that you have an opinion on every subject and that it has to be a dramatic opinion. Uh, it has to be an opinion that will not cause people to go reaching for their remote controls, it has to be an entertaining opinion. Um, and that, I think, is the thing that has changed the nature of journalism: we not only now offer our opinions around the clock, but we are experts on everything under the sun and we can predict what's gonna happen next week. It's truly remarkable.

ST: These days in politics, it seems to me that in a way, Letterman and Leno, what

they say in their routine may be more important than what's on the front page of

the Washington Post. Or is that an exaggeration?

HK: Yes, A lot us at mainstream news organizations tend to forget that people like Jay Leno and David Letterman are reaching a lot more Americans than we are, and that even though they do it in a funny way, they really have an impact. It is no accident that when Bob Dole unofficially wants to start his campaign, he goes on the Letterman show and reads the Top 10 List. Arlen Spector, when he was running for president went on the Howard Stern show. Anybody who's got a microphone and an audience is now a forum for people running for public office. And I think that the ability to be funny, to be wild, a wild and crazy guy, to go on Imus, as both Clinton and Dole do, probably doesn't tell us very much about whether somebody is going to be a good president, but it almost seems like a prerequisite these days to play the talk show game. Because if you're not entertaining, if you're not funny, then you're not a good guest. And if you're not a good guest, people don't want to have you on. I mean, Ross Perot proved that politics could be entertaining in 1992. And one of the reasons that politicians keep flocking to be on the Imus show, even though some people have him to push the batteries of good taste, is because he's got a big audience and because by joking around with him, they can show that they're not just stuffed shirts, that they have a sense of humor, that they really are human beings that you could feel comfortable with. And so there's a serious political effort here to work the circuit, whether it's Letterman or Larry King or Howard Stern.

ST: OK, now that's the upside for a politician. But isn't the downside that you have no heros left. I mean, if you know what kind of underwear the president is wearing, how can you be FDR or even John Kennedy?

HK: Well, it's probably true that because politicians these days are so overexposed or so willing to go on any program and talk about anything, including their underwear, that the mystique is gone. That there couldn't be an FDR today or a John Kennedy. Because those politicians didn't have to have their speeches recorded on C-SPAN. Because they didn't have to be surrounded by the media mob, because they didn't have to be funny on the Letterman show. So the distance between us and them has really been kind of eviscerated by this talk show world that demands that these folks be accessible all the time, be funny, be entertaining, be more like one of us. There's a political benefit in that, but you give up something up as well.

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

star struck | venality and the vanities | talkback | interviews | reactions | what's to be done? | a reporter who quit | polling america's views | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS