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FRONTLINE Show #1503
Air Date: October 22, 1996

Why America Hates the Press

JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Issue one_
ANNOUNCER: _American hates the press.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Do liberals rule the press?
ANNOUNCER: They're arrogant_
1st JOURNALIST: Superficial, snarling and yapping_
ANNOUNCER: _overpaid_
2nd JOURNALIST: Millionaire journalists_
HOWARD KURTZ, Media Critic, "The Washington Post," Author, "Hot Air": A real scandal, I think_
ANNOUNCER: _and out of touch.
BOB WOODWARD: We pour garbage on people.
ANNOUNCER: And the press knows it.
ANDREA MITCHELL: I think we are really unpopular.
4th JOURNALIST: _So out of it_
TOM BROKAW:_it seems like a big game.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, the Washington press corps looks in the mirror.
TOM BROKAW: Well, I have sinned myself in the past.
ANNOUNCER: "Why America Hates the Press."
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Bye-bye!
STEPHEN TALBOT: On Sunday Washington, D.C., worships two gods. One of them is politics.
1st ANNOUNCER: From Washington, Crossfire Sunday.
2nd ANNOUNCER: This is Meet the Press.
3rd ANNOUNCER: From the nation's capital, The McLaughlin Group.
4th ANNOUNCER: _This Week With David Brinkley.
STEPHEN TALBOT: The churches of this secular religion are the weekend political talk shows and their high priests are the pundits of the Washington press corps.
GEORGE WILL, ABC News: ["This Week With David Brinkley"] _and there's no excuse for him having a learning curve that does not curve.
COKIE ROBERTS, ABC News: ["This Week With David Brinkley"] _and I'm not even talking about negative ads_
BILL PRESS, CNN: ["Crossfire"] America's in a cultural sewer and the '60s liberals are responsible.
STEPHEN TALBOT: This is how Washington talks to itself and, to an outsider like me, the sheer number and variety of these programs is astounding.
MARK SHIELDS, CNN: ["Capital Gang"] Welcome to Capital Gang. I'm Mark Shields.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Each weekend in Washington there are at least 18 of these political talk shows.
ANNOUNCER: From NBC News in Washington, this is Meet the Press.
STEPHEN TALBOT: They range from the sedate high church of a Meet the Press_
TIM RUSSERT, NBC News: ["Meet the Press"] And according to a new poll, Bob Dole is down 21 points.
STEPHEN TALBOT: _to the noisy tent shows like The McLaughlin Group.
PANELISTS: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Oh! Oh!
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: Oh! A true Clinton convert!
ELEANOR CLIFT, "Newsweek": _the right thing to do for generations_
ELEANOR CLIFT: _to come, to protect_
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: _justifies the means!
ELEANOR CLIFT: _to protect_
JAMES FALLOWS, Author, "Breaking the News": The world would be better off and America would be a happier country if there were no Crossfire and no Capital Gang and no McLaughlin Group.
STEPHEN TALBOT: But now there's a heretic in this church, journalist James Fallows.
JAMES FALLOWS: These take a limited resource and asset _ that is, skilled journalists _ and demean and cheapen them by having them do things they shouldn't do.
SAM DONALDSON, ABC News: ["This Week With David Brinkley"]I think we're going to have to push him out of there and I really believe, if we have to push him out of there, we ought to kill him!
COKIE ROBERTS: Well, is that_ how do you plan to do that?
SAM DONALDSON: By any means necessary.
JAMES FALLOWS: They take something which, again, has its own intrinsic preciousness _ that is, ideas about politics and real issues _ and cheapen them.
GEORGE WILL: ["This Week With David Brinkley"] Pericles couldn't ad lib and this is not Pericles, this is Bob Dole.
JAMES FALLOWS: That is something I would like to see done away with.
STEPHEN TALBOT: In a provocative book, Fallows argues that the Sunday talk shows are just a symptom of the problem, that the Washington press corps has grown too rich, too famous and too incestuous, hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Americans. And that, says Fallows, is why America now hates the press.
JAMES FALLOWS: I wrote it because I felt that people in my business were at a kind of crisis point. You do have historically low levels of public trust and esteem for us. You have market pressure. You know, you go to a newspaper convention and people are saying, "Why is everybody not reading our product anymore?" You have people recognizing that_ that feeling uncomfortable 10 or 20 years after they got into the business about what they're actually doing day by day.
So it seemed to me like this was an institution that has reached a certain critical point and I wanted to try to make my case both to people inside and outside about what was wrong.
STEPHEN TALBOT: The Washington press corps greeted Fallows's critique with a mixture of derision and shame. Most of all, his broadside has forced his colleagues to look closely in the mirror.
[interviewing] Do you believe the polls that say Americans dislike us in the media so much?
DAVID BRODER, "The Washington Post": Yes, and I think that's_ I have no reason to doubt it. It's what I hear every time we go out door-knocking. People think that we are part of the establishment and therefore part of the problem.
STEPHEN TALBOT: When a media army descended on the Republican convention in San Diego, an elite force of Washington celebrity journalists led the way.
MORTON KONDRACKE: We could set up a little show for you right here in the lobby. [crosstalk]
FRED BARNES: I don't know. I don't do this for free.
STEPHEN TALBOT: At press headquarters in the main hotel, The McLaughlin Group commanded center stage. Fred Barnes posed obligingly for star-struck convention delegates.
JAMES FALLOWS: For reporters, it's like high school reunion. You know, it's all your old friends. It's where you are treated as a god-like figure. You know, people on the convention floor may not recognize some junior Senator from Indiana, but they recognize Sam Donaldson.
1st CONVENTION DELEGATE: Nice to see you. I listen to you every Sunday.
Hi. You've got the lens cap on.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Conservatives may complain about liberals in the media, but they still wanted a snapshot of Sam and a chance to gush over correspondents like NBC's Andrea Mitchell.
2nd CONVENTION DELEGATE: I just want to say you're doing a terrific job. You're just_ I'm a big fan. I watch you all the time back home.
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC: Do you want my autograph? I've been wanting to give an autograph.
2nd CONVENTION DELEGATE: I would love your autograph.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Cranky Bob Novak of The Capital Gang could barely shake his female fans.
3rd CONVENTION DELEGATE: I've got a picture of you hanging on the wall, but I want to take another.
BOB NOVAK: Okay. Thank you.
CLARENCE PAGE, "Chicago Tribune,": We've entered the pop culture, so many of us in so many ways, and there's a sense on the part of the public that we're no longer little Johnny or Jenny down the street who works for the newspaper now, but now we are these removed VIPs or celebrities who are_ who are part of this Washington elite or part of this New York or L.A. or Hollywood elite.
DELEGATES: [chanting] Jump, Sam, jump! Jump, Sam, jump! Jump, Sam, jump!
STEPHEN TALBOT: In a revealing moment one evening, the convention the suddenly turned on Sam Donaldson.
DELEGATES: [chanting] Jump, Sam, jump! Jump, Sam, jump! Jump, Sam, jump!
4th CONVENTION DELEGATE: I think they're saying, "Drop dead, Sam Donaldson."
GENEVA OVERHOLSER, Ombudsman, "The Washington Post": I've often found that that kind of adulation breeds its opposite immediately and you have all these people thinking, "Well, who the hell are they in the press to be such stars?" And, you know, on the one hand, well, people are creating the stars and so they must like it and, on the other hand, people feel, legitimately, "This guy's just a journalist," you know? "Why is he such a celebrity?" And I think it contributes to the resentment.
DELEGATES: [chanting] Push Sam off! Push Sam off! Push Sam off!
5th CONVENTION DELEGATE: End our misery!
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think we should work against that seductive lure of becoming the story. We're not the story. Sam Donaldson is not the story. I mean, he's obviously something other than just a journalist. He's become a celebrity. And I realize it's sort of like whistling in the wind to, you know, pronounce against that. Plus it probably sounds like sour grapes. But I don't think it's healthy for journalism.
HOWARD KURTZ, Media Critic, "The Washington Post,": Television has changed not just politics, but it's 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 The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or The Washington Post now want to have their own talk shows. They want to 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 up of opinions.
FRED BARNES: ["The McLaughlin Group"] I'll tell you how the abortion issue's going to work this fall. It's going to help Republicans because there is one thing that President Clinton has done on the abortion issue by vetoing the ban on partial-birth abortions_
FRED BARNES: _when babies who could live outside the womb have their brains sucked out!
FRED BARNES: And Bob Dole's going to make that_
FRED BARNES: _a big issue!
ELEANOR CLIFT: That is interfering with how a doctor aborts a fetus and_
FRED BARNES: You're darn right it is!
ELEANOR CLIFT: _a fetus is_
FRED BARNES, Panelist, "The McLaughlin Group": When I first started, I thought the ultimate, the greatest thing that could happen to me, if I were totally triumphant in my career, would be to do something like cover the Senate for The New York Times or The Washington Post or the House maybe. The White House_ you know, that would be the pinnacle, writing for a newspaper, and that's what you do. And that was all you would do.
Well, this entirely different field has opened up, really, in the '80s, where you can be_ you can work for a magazine or a newspaper and you can appear on a television show, whether it's Washington Week in Review or The McLaughlin Group or Capital Gang or Capital Gang Sunday. I mean, there are plenty of them.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] The media and the Dole fall_ we're not through with this yet, Morton!
STEPHEN TALBOT: In the 1980s John McLaughlin reinvented the political talk show and inspired a gaggle of imitators. McLaughlin, once a Jesuit priest, had worked in the Nixon White House, defending the president during the Vietnam war and Watergate. By the time Reagan became president, McLaughlin had left the priesthood and saw a new role for himself.
HOWARD KURTZ: 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.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] On an Olympic scale of 0 to 10, 0 being a bellyflop and 10 being a triple-gainer with no splash _ placid water! _ what would you assign to Bob Dole in his choice of Jack Kemp?
FRED BARNES: Nine point five.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: Nine point five? Eleanor?
ELEANOR CLIFT: Oh, 8.9_ a little wobbly on the landing.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think James Wolcott in The New Yorker had a parody about, you know, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how does Hitler match up against Stalin?" You know, "Stalin having a good week this time." And it's preposterous when you try to measure any real events, which journalists are supposed to be doing.
You know, suppose William Shirer reporting from Nazi Germany, saying, "Well," you know, "Goebbels had a good week this week." You know, "Goebbels very effectively got across his case and held off Himmler in a power struggle and he's really looking confident now and he's answering these criticisms, but a kind of weak week for Hitler." And, you know, as soon as anything matters, you think, "This is preposterous. This is the way morons talk." And yet this the way that more and more you're paid to talk.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Question: What's the political impact of the Morris imbroglio? Clarence Page.
CLARENCE PAGE: Well, John, I think you ought to give Dick Morris a break. Maybe he was only trying to move her from Welfare to work, but_
, Panelist, "The McLaughlin Group": I'm biased, but I got to say that I think there's a certain elitism involved in that view that, "Well, that McLaughlin Group, now, they're too noisy and they're too brief. They're too concise. I don't listen to that. I listen to that Washington Week in Review," you know? Well, you know, the choices are there.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Have you ever done The McLaughlin Group?
BOB WOODWARD, "The Washington Post": No, never have.
BOB WOODWARD: Because that's not serious, because that is_ I mean, that's not a blurred line, that's over in the entertainment-comedy category.
HOWARD KURTZ: Some of the people who do this are pretty candid about the fact that they are playing sitcom characters. In other words, they are not like this when they write for newspapers and magazines. They are reasoned. They are nuanced. 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 six or seven seconds.
AL HUNT: ["The Capital Gang"] Well, I'm sorry you're in the tank to Pat Robertson, but you're absolutely_ [crosstalk] You're absolutely wrong. [crosstalk] Well, you are. Pat Robertson is a hate monger.
ROBERT NOVAK: If you can prove that he's anti-Semitic, I will apologize_
AL HUNT: I have read his book_
ROBERT NOVAK: _on this show.
AL HUNT: _and you have not. [crosstalk]
ROBERT NOVAK: I have read the book. I've read the whole book. There's nothing anti-Semitic in it.
AL HUNT: Then you don't know anti-Semitism.
MARK SHIELDS: This is Mark Shields saying good night for the Capital Gang.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, "Vanity Fair": These shows are all pre-rehearsed and they're all fixed. The questions are known in advance by the participants. The topics are decided in advance. The answers to the questions are very often known in advance. The share-out of time is determined in advance. There's usually a conference call a couple of days before you go on and everyone talks about what we're going to do this week.
JOHN ROBERTS: [on the phone] Chris Hitchens? John Roberts of The McLaughlin Group.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Hitchens let us listen in on the preparations for his appearance on The McLaughlin Group, always billed as an "unrehearsed" program.
JOHN ROBERTS: [on the phone] I wanted to tell you first we're going to tape tomorrow at WRC. The four issues are_ the first one is on the Saudi Arabia bombing and the question going into that is, "Why wasn't the Pentagon ready?"
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Question: Why wasn't the Pentagon ready? Michael Barone? [sp?]
JOHN ROBERTS: [on the phone] Issue two is on Richard Lamm's announcement to run for the Reform Party nomination and the question is how seriously should the Lamm candidacy be taken?
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Question: How seriously should we take the Lamm candidacy?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: The bleating of the Lamm not at all, but there was one reason I think Perot acted so fast. Mr. Lamm is in favor of letting the oldsters die off, if not actually of stepping on their oxygen lines. I want to know what did happen to General Stockdale? And shouldn't Perot_
And that's what makes it so farcical, that the audience gets the impression of a no-holds-barred food fight when, in fact, the reverse is the case. It's probably_ outside professional wrestling, there is nothing more completely, deliberatedly phony than the way that the Washington television round tables are manipulated.
MICHAEL BARONE: ["The McLaughlin Group"] The fact is that the Times is becoming increasingly a biased, left paper.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Oh, come on! [crosstalk]
MICHAEL BARONE: _except the editorial page. [crosstalk]
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: Is this coming to a head? Is it coming to a head in this election year? In other words, the liberals are getting very agitated.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Not as agitated as the conservatives! I mean_
JACK GERMOND, Panelist, "The McLaughlin Group": I think there's an awful lot of trash on television. I contribute to it, to some degree, by being on McLaughlin.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Did he look scary? He didn't look scary, did he?
JACK GERMOND: Oh, not to me, but I know he's an old pussycat, you know?
People ask me, "Why do you do that terrible show?" And I say, "Because it put my daughter through college and medical school." I don't make any bones about it. I wouldn't do it for nothing. But it's not my main_ it's two hours a week. It's not_ it's not my_ it's not who I am. It's not my living.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Jack Germond wasn't always a T.V. pundit. He's a print guy, a classic ink-stained wretch who's covered every presidential campaign since 1964. He was one of the original "boys on the bus" and, at the age of 68, he's still at it.
JACK GERMOND: Reporting is fun and reporting politics is only discouraging in the sense that the quality of campaigns is so bad most of the time. And the candidates not most of the time, but a lot of the time are such clunkers. But it's still_ it's a fun way to make a living.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Germond writes for The Baltimore Sun and in between T.V. appearances he still works his beat, cajoling information out of party activists or debriefing a county commissioner.
JACK GERMOND: You don't become a reporter to change the world. You become a reporter because you get paid to satisfy your curiosity about things. If I were a better horse player, I'd become a handicapper full-time, but I'm not.
DAVID BRODER: Jack and others like him are really good, serious journalists when they're working in a serious journalistic medium and they regard the kind of food-fight show as_ "That's_ that's not what I do." But the public sees them in that forum and they lend their legitimacy to that kind of a forum, which I think is bad for the business.
JACK GERMOND: I don't_ you know, I just don't feel tainted by it. It doesn't_ it's not important to me. If other people give it a lot of weight, that's not my fault. That's sort of a cop-out, I guess, but I have to rationalize it somehow, don't I?
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Next week: the run-up to the Democratic convention! Bye-bye!
STEPHEN TALBOT: The McLaughlin Group and the other talk shows weren't just in San Diego to do their broadcasts. They were also moonlighting on the lecture circuit.
ROBERT NOVAK: I honestly believe that God put the Republican Party on earth to cut taxes.
STEPHEN TALBOT: The Capital Gang, for example, made a guest appearance at the San Diego City Club. The spectacle of these once-anonymous print reporters cashing in on their T.V. celebrity has come under intense scrutiny. On this day, for one hour's work, The Capital Gang made $20,000.
ELEANOR CLIFT: Bob's people are getting richer, so I do not know_ I mean, the concentration of wealth in this country is so much greater than it was, so I don't know what you're complaining about.
ROBERT NOVAK: Because the rich are not getting rich enough and certainly the middle_ [crosstalk]
AL HUNT: You now have the quote of the day~! The quote of the day. The rich are not getting_ I just want everybody to remember that!
HOWARD KURTZ, Author "Hot Air": 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 personalities is they can then go out and speak to corporations and lobbying groups for sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for a single speech, more than some Americans make in a year.
TOM BROKAW: Well, I have sinned myself in the past. I think I was the one who coined the phrase "white-collar crime." When I first arrived in Washington and was asked to be a part of all that, you know, I just couldn't believe it. There was so much easy money available and I did take advantage of it for a couple of years, and then my conscience began to bother me and my wife and I decided jointly that the thing to do would be to have a foundation and have all the money go into a foundation. I've even stopped that now. I just have it go directly to a charity of choice of some kind. I do think that it's a real problem. I just don't think it's appropriate for a journalist to have that much money coming in from, in effect, selling themselves to an interest that probably has some connection to Washington in some way or another.
JACK GERMOND: I do go and take a fee to speak to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Footwear Industries of America. And am I going to be soft on groceries and footwear? I doubt it. Am I ever going to write about them? No. But do the people from these groups ever call me to try to lobby their interests on a bill in Washington? No. Most of them are sophisticated enough to know that wouldn't work. And I don't have any interest in that stuff anyway. I mean, I don't do that many of these. I do 10 or 12 a year. But sometimes more. For years I could do a lot more. I can't_ don't have time because I'm covering the campaign. But the_ the_ I'm_ you know, I didn't just get off the turnip truck. I know when a situation might be controversial or might be compromising and I'm too smart to do that and that's true of most of us. We're not going to_ we're not going to go into the tank. Now, perhaps if I got a $50,000 fee, it'd be different. Who knows?
DAVID BRODER: I mean, what bothers me is the notion that journalists believe, or some journalists believe, that they can have their cake and eat it too, that you can have all of the special privileges, access and extraordinary freedom that you have because you are a journalist operating in a society which protects journalism to a greater degree than any other country in the world, and at the same time you can be a policy advocate. You can be a public performer on the lecture circuit or television. I think that's greedy.
STEPHEN TALBOT: The celebrity lecture circuit is big business, with the stars on display in glossy catalogs. There's Jack Germond. He makes at least $5,000 a speech, like his McLaughlin colleagues, Michael Barone and Clarence Page. Network correspondents make even more. A star like Sam Donaldson commands $30,000. Trade associations have been booking media celebrities for years, no one more actively than lobbyist Robert Boege.
ROBERT BOEGE, American Society of Association Executives: Well, to be very blunt, there is_ we want the attraction. The name draw of the speaker is very important to us. As I said, there probably is an information and access which is perceived to the corridors of power, but also we want a personality.
STEPHEN TALBOT: One of the most popular personalities on the lecture circuit is ABC commentator Cokie Roberts, who sometimes appears jointly with her husband, Steve, a former New York Times reporter who became the chief political writer at U.S. News & World Report.
Cokie is a child of the Beltway. Both her parents were members of Congress and her brother is a powerful Washington lobbyist.
NATIONAL PRESS CLUB HOST: To say Cokie was born to the job is no hyperbole. Cokie has been analyzing Congress since House Speaker Sam Rayburn bounced her on his knee. If time permits, we'll ask if David Brinkley does the same thing.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Roberts first came to national attention covering Congress for NPR. She was a trailblazer for women journalists, making room for them among the boys on the bus. Since moving to ABC, she has become one of the most famous reporters in Washington.
COKIE ROBERTS: ["This Week With David Brinkley"] Netanyahu is sort of bobbing and weaving on this, too, because he wants to say, "We're a strong state. We have a thriving economy," which it does, "and we are ready to wean ourselves from American aid." But of course, the minute he said that, everybody said, "Fine!" And he said, "But I don't mean now. I mean down the road, maybe in, you know"_ [crosstalk]
JAMES WARREN, "Chicago Tribune": I ended up writing a lot about Cokie Roberts not intentionally, but just because a lot of things came my way and it was clear that, at the time I was writing, that she was one of the more aggressive moonlighters and really cashing in on what, essentially, is an amazing wheel of fortune in Washington for an elite group of journalists.
COKIE ROBERTS: [American Hospital Association speech] In some ways, we've talked an enormous amount about this subject and_
STEPHEN TALBOT: Roberts has been criticized, in particular, for speaking to groups who have important business in Washington. In the middle of the health care debate, for example, she appeared before a hospital lobbying group. Her fee was reportedly $30,000.
DAVID BRODER: I don't want to deal with Cokie specifically, but there is_ it's clear that some journalists now are in a market category where the amount of money that they can make on extracurricular activities raises, in my mind, exactly_ and, clearly, in the public's mind, exactly the same kind of conflict-of-interest questions that we are constantly raising with people in public life.
FRED BARNES, "The Weekly Standard": I don't know about Cokie and Steve, who are both excellent journalists, but I don't believe that's ever happened to me and I have spoken to tobacco people, but_ and many other groups and I'll speak to them again. It just_ I mean, I write about politics_ presidential campaigns, policy in Washington, the White House. That other stuff I don't think intrudes at all and if it does, I'm sorry, but I haven't had anybody ever point out to me where that's happened.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Are there cases where an association says, "Hey," you know, "get me Sam Donaldson and maybe we'll get a little better coverage of our business, a little fairer treatment from ABC"?
ROBERT BOEGE: Oh, absolutely. It will_ I don't think that it's_ it's seen as raising the association's profile. It's a real accomplishment to_ it's not an endorsement, as it were, but to be seen as having arrived, to have top journalistic talent at your convention is very important.
JAMES FALLOWS, Author, "Breaking the Rules": I'm sure there is no reporter who does a sort of obvious tit for tat. You know, "I will get this big speech and I will write something good about cigarettes from now on." But the reason these industries put on these events, the reason they pay the money _ at least, they told me when I interviewed them _ is they think there is some kind of subtle immunization, that if somebody has sat down with you, they had a nice dinner or they played golf, you know, gave their spouse a nice time, and also you sent them away with $30,000 or $40,000, you don't think they're going to explicitly carry your water in the future, but you think they're going to pause before doing you in. They're going to think, "Oh, gee. I know old Joe down there at the tobacco lobby. Maybe I should call him and see what he has to say."
JAMES WARREN: Somebody beckoned me to a Washington street corner, says, "Boy, I've got a good one for you." And he passed on to me an internal Philip Morris flyer indicating that Cokie Roberts was to speak at a private Philip Morris executive gathering in, I think, Palm Beach, Florida. And it was something I checked out and it was absolutely true. And then, when I called ABC, their response was that Cokie Roberts didn't know what they were talking about. This had to be a mistake. It was her husband, Steve Roberts, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, who had been invited. Well, I sort of did double take, called Philip Morris back and, in a response that one knows, by dealing with American corporations, had gone through a long chain of command, the response that came back to me a day later was unequivocally that Cokie Roberts had been invited and called at the last minute to say that she was ill and her husband went in her place and took Philip Morris's money.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Cokie and Steve Roberts declined to speak to FRONTLINE about their lecture fees and potential conflicts of interest.
JAMES WARREN: What for me was the most amazing part of it was that the Roberts household was being enriched substantially by a tobacco company at the same time that tobacco company had a huge libel lawsuit on against a particular ABC program, a news magazine that I think subsequently went out of business, called Day One, an outright conflict.
STEPHEN TALBOT: ABC finally realized it had a problem. It wasn't just Cokie Roberts. George Will, Sam Donaldson, many other correspondents were taking large speaker fees from lobbying groups.
HOWARD KURTZ: Sam Donaldson, who is one of the hardest-working reporters around, doesn't see anything wrong with making a $30,000 speech _ it's $30,000 for about an hour's worth of work _ to an insurance group, even though the program he works for, PrimeTime Live, exposes that kind of thing when Congressmen take junkets with the same insurance group.
STEPHEN TALBOT: To avoid these potential and embarrassing conflicts of interest, ABC imposed a new policy banning speeches to lobbying groups by its reporters. The ABC correspondents howled in protest.
RICHARD WALD, Vice President, ABC News: This has cost our correspondents a lot of money. We have the best group of articulate, intelligent, forthright people and they are much in demand and this has been a change in their lives.
STEPHEN TALBOT: How difficult is it for you, a vice president of ABC, to, for instance, go to someone like Sam Donaldson and say, "Sam, don't do this. Don't speak to this group"?
RICHARD WALD: Well, I have a nice, warm, human feeling that I don't want to take money away from folks who can make it easily, but it's wrong. And if it's wrong, they shouldn't do it. And if they shouldn't do it, I tell them they shouldn't do it.
COKIE ROBERTS: [Washington Press Club speech] My view on that is that you play by whatever the rules are. And at ABC, at the moment, the rules are that you don't talk to any of those groups and we don't. We talk to non-profits. We're very noble.
JAMES FALLOWS: We should look askance at people in my business when they seem to be doing things mainly for the money. Everybody does things partly for the money. That's how the business world works. But when there are things that you wouldn't dream of doing, except that a lobby's going to pay you $30,000 for it, again, it's time to think, why are you in this business? Maybe you should be in some other, more explicitly money-making business where that is the main point.
STEPHEN TALBOT: At the Republican convention the media threw itself an elaborate and very expensive party catered by some of California's most exclusive gourmet restaurants. Let's just say if you came looking for beer and hot dogs you'd have been disappointed.
WAITER: Sparkling wine from California?
1st PARTYGOER: Oh, thank you.
2nd PARTYGOER: It's wonderful! The lobster.
CHEF: I have salmon or I have ahi tuna.
3rd PARTYGOER: Anything but salmon.
STEPHEN TALBOT: It was a wonderful party, but it was also a disturbing portrait of the wealth and celebrity that now surround not only the elite reporters, but the entire press corps.
PETER JENNINGS, ABC News: Where is your restaurant?
RESTAURATEUR: In the Los Angeles area.
STEPHEN TALBOT: It was only a generation ago that reporters were mostly working-class, sons of cops and plumbers. Today they are more likely children of doctors and lawyers, full-fledged members of America's elite professional class.
HOWARD KURTZ: It's certainly true that the more the journalists have become part of the affluent upper middle class, they have started to identify more with the elite in our society, rather than the people who plunk down their quarters at the newsstand for newspapers. I think that's a real problem. I mean, I'm not, certainly, going to object to journalists making a decent living, but to the extent that we grow out of touch with the people who we supposedly are reporting for, that really can be a problem. You saw this most vividly during the "Nannygate" episode, Zoe Baird's nomination to be attorney general.
FRED BARNES: When Zoe Baird was nominated for attorney general and this thing about the nanny came up that she hadn't paid the taxes on, I thought, "Big deal." You know, I mean, they're all_ many, many people in Washington and other big cities, they have nannies and they're perhaps illegal aliens and they don't pay their Social Security or they don't pay their taxes and so this is going to be no problem. Well, there was fury outside the Beltway, all over the country, that myself, as a journalist, I had no idea was there. And I think most others felt the same way as I did. We just completely misjudged that and that's a result of being in this cocoon inside the Beltway.
STEPHEN TALBOT: One of the highlights of the Washington social season each year is the White House correspondents dinner.
AUTOGRAPH SEEKER: Would you do a cover of Time for me, Mr. Gingrich?
STEPHEN TALBOT: In May the press corps invited the town's leading political figures to a black-tie bash. Even Hollywood turns out for this one.
FAN: I love your work.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think any institution has its sort of tribal meeting rituals where you go and have a good time every few months or once a year. I think that while it's enjoyable to go to these things a few times, as I have been, I think most people who are not in the news business would be somewhat scandalized or horrified if they saw what was going on here because apart from the normal spectacle of a great, big, well-lubricated banquet, you have people in the press who allegedly are telling us in the public how to think about public affairs kissing up, number one, to the news sources they're reporting on, because there's a great, big game ritual where you try to bag the biggest trophy, whether it's George Stephanopoulos or some Supreme Court justice, to sit at your table. Second, there's an unbelievable kissing up to the Hollywood luminaries, who also come, too.
AL FRANKEN: By the way, there are a lot of parties thrown tonight by different media organizations both before and after this event and the Atlantic Monthly has asked me to do them a little favor. Evidently, no one has RSVP'd to their after-dinner cocktail party honoring James Fallows. So if you don't mind, if you'd just shout a "Yes" or "No." Cokie?
STEPHEN TALBOT: Although the guest of honor has a notoriously bad relationship with the White House press and rarely holds a press conference these days, he showed up on this occasion to flatter reporters with insider jokes.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: Even though I was late, my staff kept me apprised of the evening and this is what happened before I got here. At 6:02, a van pulls up to the front door. All five members of The McLaughlin Group emerge, without a referee, bickering loudly. The topic: Is it Kondracke's turn to sit up front on the way home?
HOWARD KURTZ: These black-tie media political dinners are kind of a tribal ritual in Washington that let's 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 and that journalists who once were society's outsiders, who you were more likely to find a reporter with a fedora sitting at the corner bar, having a beer, 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.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: At 6:25 Andrea Mitchell arrives on the arm of Alan Greenspan. Greenspan pays the coatroom attendant $1 and mentions that last year it only cost 75 cents.
HOWARD KURTZ: And that's one of the reasons, I think, that we have lost our edge in this profession is that we now, many of us, are part of this game. Rather than identifying more with the plumbers out there, we identify with the policy makers and the politicians.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: At 7:15 Joe Klein introduces the entire Newsweek table to his imaginary friend, whom he identifies as "Anonymous."
DAVID BRODER: A few years ago Ann Richards, when she was governor of Texas, was the Gridiron speaker and she came to the lectern, looks out over this audience, all, you know, white-tie, tails, gowns and so on, and said in that wonderful Texas drawl of hers, "So this is what you all do on Saturday night up here. I can't imagine why anybody thinks you're out of touch."
STEPHEN TALBOT: What do you think of those dinners? Do you ever attend them?
BOB WOODWARD: I used to. I don't go anymore.
BOB WOODWARD: I mean, I think they're boring and the narcissism is almost terminal and the sense of self-inflation and importance is not healthy.
STEPHEN TALBOT: More than 20 years ago Bob Woodward set the standard for what a Washington reporter should be when he and Carl Bernstein cracked the Watergate case. Today he is a man contemptuous of his colleagues who pontificate on the Sunday talk shows and pad their pockets on the lecture circuit.
[interviewing] Do you think that the Washington press corps has gotten out of touch with, you know, what Pat Buchanan might call "the common man"? I mean, are we reporting now too much on the same class?
BOB WOODWARD: I think that's really a good point and Clinton makes that point in my book, that he believes that the Washington press corps and the press corps has_ is so out of touch that it is absolutely inconceivable that reporters will understand the issues that people are really dealing with in their lives and Clinton feels a profound alienation from the Washington culture here and I happen to agree with him.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Woodward may feel alienated, but he is an integral part of the Washington culture. In a series of insider books _ eight consecutive best-sellers _ he has become the preeminent chronicler of official Washington. But most reviewers saw in his latest, The Choice, evidence that even Woodward has finally lost his edge. The New York Times, for example, said the book had no vision, no ideas, just lots of inside baseball embroidered with a filigree of insider gossip.
And that insider gossip is exactly what attracted attention.
MARK SHIELDS: ["The McLaughlin Group"] Welcome back. The most startling revelation of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's new book: Hillary Rodham Clinton had conversations with Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt under the guidance of spiritual adviser Jean Houston.
LARRY KING: ["Larry King Live"] Did you expect, Bob, that the pull-out, the lead, the beginning story would be Eleanor Roosevelt?
BOB WOODWARD: And Hillary Clinton.
CLARENCE PAGE: You've got to have a book out during the campaign now and your book has to be different from everybody else's book, so you've got to have something different. You've got to have a scoop. And so Bob Woodward, excellent reporter that he is, goes out there and tries to find something about the Clintons nobody else knew before and the biggest story is the story about the seances and all that.
BOB WOODWARD: ["Larry King Live"] No one who has read it thinks that I'm beating up on her or criticizing her. It tells_
LARRY KING: Were you surprised that her critics, though, have used it to beat up on her?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, they would use anything.
CLARENCE PAGE: I suspect that, in a matter of months, this will be a forgotten story. I just don't see it as having that great a gravity or a weight.
BOB WOODWARD: It's 12 pages in a 440-page book and there is such a fascination _ rightly so, in my view _ with Hillary Clinton that something like this, that is true and carefully reported, is going to get attention and, in fact, it should get attention because it shows that Mrs. Clinton has lost. She's in pain.
STEPHEN TALBOT: But Woodward actively promoted his book focusing on those 12 pages about Mrs. Clinton. And this Sunday issue of The Washington Post may have set a new standard for shameless self-promotion. The entire top of the front page was devoted to Woodward's book_ a lengthy excerpt, about Mrs. Clinton again, and the lead news story.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I wrote a column in which I quoted mostly readers, and I got many, many, many phone calls and letters from people saying, "What"_ I mean, "Why is this all there was that day?" and "What is the news story here?" and "Aren't you guys awfully incestuous?" And I quoted them and there were some quite eloquent readers and at the end I said, "I think we asked for this," because I do. I don't think that this was a journalistically valid thing to do.
I don't have a great taste for celebrityhood in journalism and I really believe that it ought to be news that pushes a story to the top of the front page of the Sunday newspaper and not celebrityhood.
STEPHEN TALBOT: One of the first journalists to openly criticize the Washington press corps was writer Mark Hertsgaard.
MARK HERTSGAARD, Author, "On Bended Knee": I think Bob Woodward is a very sad example of what happens to reporters who are seduced by the blandishments of the palace court society known as "official Washington." Here's a guy who made history with Carl Bernstein_ made history. Very few journalists ever do that. And now you look and it's 25 years later and he's basically become a stenographer to power.
BOB WOODWARD: People like to describe and pigeonhole and say, well, I'm a Washington insider and so forth. You know, that's_ that's quite silly. What does an "insider" mean? I try to talk to the people I write about. Sometimes they'll talk to me, sometimes they won't.
MARK HERTSGAARD: He says_ if you ask him "What is journalism about?" he says it's about "the truth." I think that his truth, though, is a very narrow vision of things. Why? Because it is told in the words and from the perspective of the power wielders and with no view from outside the walls. And that's really, I think, in a nutshell, the problem with so much of the coverage in Washington is that the habits of mind that inform it, the sympathies that inform it are all with the people at the top and not with the people outside the palace.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: The biggest joke, I think, in Washington is the idea that the press has an adversarial relationship to the city it covers and to the class of politicians and bureaucrats that it covers when, in fact it is so far from their adversary, it's a component of their life. It's a vicarious member of the same club.
The adversarial definition is part of the self-flattery, the self-adoration with which the press conceives of its role and justifies its role to the public who, of course, would like to think that there was a watchdog instead of a lapdog in Washington. They aren't so lucky.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Inside the club it's getting hard to tell anymore who's the reporter and who's the politician. These days they sometimes just spin together in Washington's revolving door.
FRED BARNES: I used to worry about borderlines. Now the lines, they're not even blurred, they're gone. The lines are gone. I mean, people pop in and out of administrations all the time. Jim Fallows, speech writer for Jimmy Carter, then national correspondent for the Atlantic. I mean, it just_ I didn't like it at first, but it's a phenomenon of our time, of the '80s and '90s, that people are going to work in politics and go into journalism and they're going to pop back and forth.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Tim Russert, for example, was an aide to New York governor Mario Cuomo before becoming NBC's Washington bureau chief.
TIM RUSSERT, NBC News: I do think there are some very legitimate concerns about the revolving door. I think you're allowed one turn and I have made my career of journalism. People from both sides of the aisle have attested to my objectivity. I think there are a lot of hybrids, however. Jesse Jackson is on CNN. John Sununu is on CNN. Those are people who are still active in partisan politics and yet they're also involved in "the media."
JAMES FALLOWS: My own view is_ I view it as an actively good thing for reporters to have worked once in their life somewhere else. This may be a self-serving view, since I once worked in politics, but there are things you learn first-hand by working in politics, in business, in sports, in the military that you can't learn second-hand and it gives you a reservoir of things to draw on.
The reason why I think, for most people, it's bad to do it more than once is you become sort of untrustworthy in either role. When you're in politics, people think you're storing up information to tell later. When you're outside, they think you're currying favor to get a job again.
GEORGE WILL: ["This Week With David Brinkley"] No, I don't think Bob Dole's a mean person. I think he's an undisciplined person and_
STEPHEN TALBOT: The most notorious case of media cross-dressing involved ABC commentator George Will.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: George Will helped to prep Ronald Reagan for a presidential debate with papers that had been stolen in a black propaganda operation from Jimmy Carter's campaign. Having helped in that scene prep, he then went on the air as an objective commentator later that night to say that he thought Reagan, viewing it objectively, dispassionately, fair-mindedly, even-handedly and so on, had done best in the debate, rating the horse that he'd been secretly training. Paid no price for it.
STEPHEN TALBOT: More than anyone, political analyst David Gergen seems stuck in the revolving door.
DAVID GERGEN: ["The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer"] Bob, you decided to call this book The Choice, the choice that voters must make this November_
STEPHEN TALBOT: After working for presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, Gergen began writing for U.S. News & World Report and appearing on MacNeil/Lehrer. Then he returned to politics as a Clinton adviser and now he's back in the media.
HOWARD KURTZ: 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.
STEPHEN TALBOT: How do you see yourself? Are you a presidential adviser? Are you a media specialist? A journalist? How do you think of yourself?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, I_ I think_ I think we're all going to find in our lives that, over a course of a career, that one wears different hats and one has different roles. I have, over the past quarter century, worked for four presidents and I'm proud of that. But once you're in journalism, I think you have a different boss. Your boss is your public and you're trying to be as honest with them as you can be. You can bring the best perspective. Now, are we_ do I_ you bring biases once you've worked for a president? Yeah, I do think you bring some biases to bear.
JACK GERMOND: I am very uncomfortable with the revolving door, as it's called. When I came along in the newspaper business, the understanding was that you can sell your virginity only once. If you once did this, you could never go back to covering politics.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, you know, in Camino Real by Tennessee Williams, Williams has the_ there's_ there's a whore in that play who goes and every full moon bays at the moon, becomes a virgin. So, you know, maybe it's possible more than once.
DAVID BRODER: The cynicism about our political system is much deeper now than I can recall. This is now just sort of endemic. If you are in politics, you are, by virtue of that fact, a subject of distrust. And if you are part of the press, they also figure that you're playing some angle of your own or that you're in bed with that sort of closed group_ the insiders. And this is a country that is very suspicious of insiders.
STEPHEN TALBOT: The question, of course, is whether all this media self-criticism will lead to any meaningful change. But this fall there was an unexpected twist. U.S. News & World Report, a bastion of the media establishment, hired James Fallows as its new editor. The heretic was now inside the cathedral.
JAMES FALLOWS: Part of the reason I was excited by the chance to work at U.S. News was the obligation to put into practice things that I have been just shooting off my mouth about and writing about for a long time.
STEPHEN TALBOT: His biggest challenge will be refocusing the magazine's political coverage from inside baseball to issues that matter outside the Beltway.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think news about the outside world, news about politics, news about religion, news about school should be things that people can use. It should give them a sense not just of being bystanders of big political cat fights, but ways that they can make use of the information we give them.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Meanwhile, Fallows is overturning the established order. He fired political reporter Steve Roberts, a prominent insider and unrepentant moonlighter on the lecture circuit.
[interviewing] Is that why you fired Steve Roberts?
JAMES FALLOWS: No. No. I have nothing personal against him. He's worked very hard for this magazine. I did think, however, there were just fundamental differences in the approaches to political journalism the two of us took and it seemed to me just prolonging the agony to pretend that we could work these things out.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Fallows wants to phase out the big lecture fees, the buck-raking for which many U.S. News reporters are notorious.
JAMES FALLOWS: We'll start a policy in 1997 of routine public disclosure in the magazine of outside lecture income of our staff members and I think this will have a certain chastening effect on what people do.
STEPHEN TALBOT: What about David Gergen? He's really the epitome of the revolving door. Is that a problem for you here?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that if David were presenting himself now as a straight, normal journalist, if he were national editor of The Washington Post right now or national editor of U.S. News, that might be a problem, having somebody who had been so recently and also so frequently in the government. That's not the role he plays. He plays the role of sharing with the owner, Mort Zuckerman, the task of writing the editorial for the magazine. I think that's perfectly appropriate.
STEPHEN TALBOT: Now that he's on the inside, Fallows must be asking himself can his magazine really reform the way Washington covers politics?
JAMES FALLOWS: I may be fooling myself. You may come back and lampoon me three years from now, but I think the reality is a lot of people in this business have been realizing over the last couple of years that we need to change our ways. And the good thing about the press is that we are a resilient institution and what a magazine or paper or broadcast does each day is what its component people decide to do that day. You know, we can make our broadcast different, our magazine different, so I think there's room for rebound in this part of American life.
STEPHEN TALBOT: To the Washington press corps, there is no more inviting target than a reformer who must now make good on his reforms and they're all watching Jim Fallows. History, of course, offers another warning. For every heretic who led a reformation, there were thousands who just went up in flames.
ANNOUNCER: Next time on FRONTLINE_ It's Washington's nightmare scenario: Russia's bomb-grade nuclear material smuggled into the hands of terrorists. Can it be stopped or is it already too late? "Loose Nukes," a FRONTLINE investigation.
Now it's time for your comments about our program examining Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.
BARBARA CORBETT: [Denver, CO] Dear FRONTLINE: Shame on PBS for giving us a two-hour special on Clinton and Dole, but could allocate no time for Perot. Barbara Corbett, Denver, Colorado.
PETER FEICHTMEIR: [Seattle, WA] Dear FRONTLINE: I found your most recent program, "The Choice," to be excessively one-sided in favor of Bob Dole. This program cannot be considered a documentary any more than one should consider Oliver Stone's Nixon accurate and complete. Peter Feichtmeir, Seattle, Washington.
AL MANICA: [Houston, TX] Dear FRONTLINE: I have never witnessed such a blatant example of biased reporting in my life. The way in which you literally and figuratively painted Mr. Clinton in a positive light and, in contrast, portrayed Mr. Dole as a dark and mistrusting individual was next to criminal. Al Manica, Houston, Texas.
JOHN R. MYERS: [Springdale, OH] Dear FRONTLINE: Your program showed the vast differences in these two men for a period of approximately 100 minutes. I was impressed. Then, in the last 10 minutes, you boldly announced that both men are actually very much alike under their exterior. Wow! Journalism certainly ain't like science and engineering. John R. Myers, Springdale, Ohio.
THOMAS ROBISCHON: [Culver City, CA] Dear FRONTLINE: I cannot tell you how moved I was by the manner in which Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were opened up, in the most decent way, for us to see and understand. It all came down to how alike these two men are and how utterly human. Thomas Robischon, Culver City, California.
ANNOUNCER: Let us know what you think about tonight's program by fax [(617) 254-0243], by e-mail, [FRONTLINE@pbs.org], or by the U.S. mail. [Dear FRONTLINE, 125 Western Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts, 02134]

Why America
Hates the Press

Stephen Talbot

Stephen Talbot

Wendy Wank

Holly Ziemer

Mark Shapiro
Robert Buechler
William Kistner

Cynthia Rogers

Peter Pearce

John Murphy
Paul Rusnak
Teigh Thompson
Bob Silverthorn

Sam Dorman

Steve Audette

Jim Sullivan




Tim Mangini

M.G. Rabinow

Steve Audette
Shady Hartshorne

Andrea Davis

Mark Steele
Dan Lesiw
Doug Martin

Dennis O'Reilly

The Caption Center

Jim Bracciale

Richard Byrne

Diane Hebert
Tess Oliver

Eileen Walsh

Tracy Loskoski

Wayne Parrish

Lee Ann Donner

Min Lee

Anne del Castillo

Robert O'Connell
Valerie E. Opara

Janel G.Ranney

Robin Parmelee

Kai Fujita

Marrie Campbell

Sharon Tiller

Michael Sullivan

David Fanning

A FRONTLINE coproduction with the
Center for Investigative Reporting

© 1996

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