CBS's Smith on Media: 'We're Not Exactly Watchdogs Here'

On Wednesday’s CBS "Early Show," co-host Harry Smith discussed a question being asked of Chelsea Clinton about Monica Lewinsky on the campaign trail with Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn, who was baffled by the media’s refusal to ask Chelsea tough questions: "Frankly, in all of my years of journalism, I have never seen the press lie down like this before. This is -- this is not what the American public thinks of as the critical and sort of -- killing, marauding, press corps – " Smith responded by admitting that: "Yeah, we're not exactly -- we're not exactly watchdogs here." [Audio available here]

Those comments were sparked by Smith asking Quinn: "As a press, though, we have basically, you know, said, 'okay, if those are the rules, you know, that's fine.' Have we sort of -- you know, have we laid down?"

Prior to talking to Quinn, Smith interviewed the Butler University college student, Evan Strange, who asked Chelsea the question at a campaign forum on campus. Strange, as it turns out, is a Clinton supporter:

I mean, I'm surprisingly, I'm a supporter of Hillary. I'm a Hillary -- I love Hillary, and I mean, when I talk to my friends and I tell them that, one of their constant, you know, questions to me is, you know, what makes her such a strong leader, and they always bring up, you know, that scandal, and it's not something that, you know, I asked to cause trouble. It was to show those people, you know, what makes Hillary so strong, and it was basically an opportunity for Chelsea, you know, to show all the doubters, you know, how strong Hillary is. And look at her record and not –

NewsBusters.org - Media Research CenterSmith also talked to student Brock Benefiel, editor of the college newspaper, who defended Chelsea:

Well, I think the mood of the room was that everyone was shocked. It kind of was very interesting her response and the question itself. As far as the appropriateness of the question, it's not something I would have asked. I don't know, you know it's -- I guess it's up to Chelsea whether it's really appropriate or not, but the question definitely, I thought, kind of strayed from the issues that were being discussed earlier in the forum.

Smith began his discussion with Quinn by wondering: "Should Chelsea Clinton be off limits?" Quinn responded with a definite no: "As to whether she should be off limits, she's an adult, and she's campaigning for her parents, so she should not be off limits, and I think that anyone has the right to ask someone who's campaigning anything. You don't have to answer it, but you certainly should be prepared to -- to be asked these questions."

Smith concluded by wondering if this was a "distraction" from other issues and Quinn replied by criticizing Chelsea’s handling of the situation:

QUINN: ...frankly, if I had been Chelsea Clinton, I think that she had a certain edge to her voice yesterday. I might well have said, 'you know, I really don't talk about that, and I'm sorry, but I just don't want to discuss that,' rather than say 'it's none of your business,' because, ultimately, if somebody's running for president -

SMITH: It's everybody's business.

QUINN: It ends up being -- it's everybody's business.

Smith then went to Dave Price for a check of weather, but even Price had some media criticism: "It's interesting, also I think in the case of Chelsea Clinton, there's a little bit of a freeze frame here. People remember Chelsea Clinton as this 12-year-old in the White House, and, you know, the press corps maybe hasn't evolved to the point where they say this is a 30-year-old woman on the campaign trail, and let's press her on it."

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:14AM TEASER:

HARRY SMITH: And in our next half hour, Chelsea Clinton campaigning for her mother, refuses to answer a question about Monica Lewinsky. We'll talk about that, too.

7:25AM TEASER:

SMITH: Coming up in our next half hour, should Chelsea Clinton be off limits to reporters while campaigning for her mother?

RODRIGUEZ: We'll debate that straight ahead on "The Early Show" on CBS.

7:30AM TEASER:

SMITH: Back when Chelsea Clinton was first daughter, her parents worked very hard to make sure she stayed out of the lime-light, but now she is out campaigning for her mother. Coming up, should reporters be allowed to ask her tough questions, or should any questions be off limits?

7:31AM SEGMENT:

HARRY SMITH: Now more on Chelsea Clinton, a constant presence in Hillary Clinton's campaign, she's made it clear she will not take questions from reporters, but take a look at her response when a college student asked a question she didn't like.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, Chelsea Clinton.

SMITH: In her latest pitch to potential voters, Chelsea Clinton has been on a whirlwind tour of college campuses, where students, never journalists, ask the questions.

CHELSEA CLINTON: I'll answer as many questions as I can today.

SMITH: But yesterday, one student asked if Hillary Clinton's credibility was tarnished during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a question Chelsea refused to answer.

CLINTON: Wow. You're the first person, actually, that's ever asked me that question in the, I don't know, maybe 70 college campuses that I have now been to, and I do not think that's any of your business.

SMITH: This isn't the first time a Chelsea Clinton campaign event has made headlines. Last year, she turned down a 9-year-old Scholastic News reporter saying, "I'm sorry, I don't talk to the press, and that applies to you, unfortunately, even though I think you're cute." And just last month Clinton asked CBS News Correspondent Kelly Wallace to stop the cameras from rolling. We are joined by Evan Strange, who asked the question yesterday, and Brock Benefiel, an editor and reporter for Butler University student newspaper. Good morning to you both.

EVAN STRANGE: Good morning. Thanks for having us.

BROCK BENEFIEL: Good morning

SMITH: Evan, let me ask you, why did you ask that question?

STRANGE: Well, first I want to actually say what the question actually was. What I basically asked, I asked for Chelsea's opinion on the criticism of her mother that, you know, how she handled the Lewinsky scandal may have been a sign of weakness and she may not be a strong enough candidate to be, you know, the President of the United States, and the reason why I asked it is because, I mean, I'm surprisingly, I'm a supporter of Hillary. I'm a Hillary -- I love Hillary, and I mean, when I talk to my friends and I tell them that, one of their constant, you know, questions to me is, you know, what makes her such a strong leader, and they always bring up, you know, that scandal, and it's not something that, you know, I asked to cause trouble. It was to show those people, you know, what makes Hillary so strong, and it was basically an opportunity for Chelsea, you know, to show all the doubters, you know, how strong Hillary is. And look at her record and not --

SMITH: So you were trying to give her an opportunity then. How surprised were you by her response?

STRANGE: I mean, I was very surprised. I mean, there -- I can see where she would get a little defensive because of the question, and, you know, just hearing Lewinsky over and over and over again. I mean, I can see where she would react that way, but, I mean, I would have liked to hear her say something about, you know, her record or something else like that instead of just, you know, dismissing the question.

SMITH: Yeah. Brock, you're one of the editors of the student newspaper. You were there. What was the mood in the room, and did you think the question felt or seemed out of line to you?

BROCK: Well, I think the mood of the room was that everyone was shocked. It kind of was very interesting her response and the question itself. As far as the appropriateness of the question, it's not something I would have asked. I don't know, you know it's -- I guess it's up to Chelsea whether it's really appropriate or not, but the question definitely, I thought, kind of strayed from the issues that were being discussed earlier in the forum.

SMITH: Yeah, it seemed pretty serious. Does this create a distraction? Because so many people, serious people, about the campaign, want it to be about issues. Is this an issue, or is this just another, as I would call it, a roadside distraction?

BROCK: Oh, I think it is a distraction, and it's unfortunate, because, you know, yesterday was such a good opportunity to meet Chelsea and here at Butler University we had a wonderful exchange of ideas and, you know, we talked a lot about policies. So, it's unfortunate that it is a distraction, but I think it's the way it's going to be covered.

SMITH: Yeah. Brock, Evan, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. Do appreciate it.

STRANGE: Thank you.

BENEFIEL: Thank you.

SMITH: Joining us to talk more about Chelsea Clinton and questions from reporters is Sally Quinn from The Washington Post. Good morning, Sally.

SALLY QUINN: Hi. How are you?

SMITH: Should -- should Chelsea Clinton be off limits? I mean, so many of us have tried to ask her or roll a camera while even approaching her and 'turn it off or I'm not going to talk to you.'

QUINN: Well, first of all, let me say that I think that what happened yesterday is Bill Clinton's legacy, and it really is heart-breaking that this -- his daughter at this age, almost 30, is going to be confronted with this question for the rest of her life, and I'm sure that she has anticipated, even though no one has ever asked it of her before.

SMITH: Sure.

QUINN: And I'm sure that she had a response ready for it. As to whether she should be off limits, she's an adult, and she's campaigning for her parents, so she should not be off limits, and I think that anyone has the right to ask someone who's campaigning anything. You don't have to answer it, but you certainly should be prepared to -- to be asked these questions.

SMITH: Yeah. As a press, though, we have basically, you know, said, 'okay, if those are the rules, you know, that's fine.' Have we sort of -- you know, have we laid down?

QUINN: Well, Harry, I don't understand why the press is being suckered like this, frankly. I mean, there are all these cameras, and they say turn off the cameras, and what happens if everybody gets together and just says 'we're not turning off the cameras' ? And so, 'if you don't want to be on the campaign trail, fine, but we're going to cover you.' I don't understand why the press is allowing this to happen when they wouldn't for -- I mean, you mentioned earlier Caroline Kennedy, and she's now campaigning for Barack Obama, and people may ask her a question or not ask her a question. She can answer or not answer it, but I don't think that if she said off go the cameras, that they would go off. So I do think this is a little strange. Frankly, in all of my years of journalism, I have never seen the press lie down like this before. This is -- this is not what the American public thinks of as the critical and sort of -- killing, marauding, press corps --

SMITH: Yeah, we're not exactly -- we're not exactly watchdogs here.

QUINN: No.

SMITH: Very quickly, I asked the kids is this a distraction or is this real? Is this -- because this campaign has gone on so long, we're in this -- in this netherzone waiting for Pennsylvania to happen, so we're -- we're obsessed with this as opposed to what's really happening with the subprime – subprime crisis and foreclosure and everything else.

QUINN: Well, you know, as we all know, ultimately the subprime mortgage crisis is not why people are going to vote for a candidate. It's going to be their gut instinct and their gut reaction to a candidate. And whether people like Hillary Clinton, whether they think she's strong or weak depending on how she responded to her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky is going to be a factor in that, and frankly, if I had been Chelsea Clinton, I think that she had a certain edge to her voice yesterday. I might well have said, 'you know, I really don't talk about that, and I'm sorry, but I just don't want to discuss that,' rather than say 'it's none of your business,' because, ultimately, if somebody's running for president --

SMITH: It's everybody's business.

QUINN: It ends up being -- it's everybody's business.

SMITH: There you go. Sally Quinn, great to see you. Thank you so much.

QUINN: Thanks.

SMITH: Alright. Dave is here. Hello, Dave.

DAVE PRICE: Very interesting conversation, huh?

RODRIGUEZ: You know, it reminds me, I was on the bus with John McCain and his family down in Florida, and Meghan McCain, his daughter, we did an interview with her. After she finished she begged me not to use it and I said why? She said she's terrified to say something that will hurt her father. They're terrified to say something that will tarnish their parent's image.

DAVE PRICE: It's interesting, also I think in the case of Chelsea Clinton, there's a little bit of a freeze frame here. People remember Chelsea Clinton as this 12-year-old in the White House, and, you know, the press corps maybe hasn't evolved to the point where they say this is a 30-year-old woman on the campaign trail, and let's press her on it. Very interesting stuff though, thought provoking, and you know what, all coming from the journalists and question askers on a college campus.

SMITH: There you go.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC