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Inauguration Coverage; Rise of the Blogs

Aired January 23, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Hail to the chief. Television pulls out the stops for President Bush's inaugural extravaganza. But has there been too much coverage of the pomp, the parties and the expensive wardrobes? And does the press corps, usually at odds with the White House, go totally soft on this one predictable day? Sally Quinn joins us our discussion.

Bloggers hit the bit time. Whether the target is Dan Rather, Fox News or "The New York Times," Internet commentators are having an impact. But are these online oracles providing balance, or bloviation, or just pushing a partisan agenda? We'll ask Andrew Sullivan, Dan Kennedy, and the Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the big blowout Washington party known as the presidential inauguration.

The network sent their A-list stars: Charlie and Diane, Matt and Katie, Brian for the first time, and Dan for the last.

The centerpiece, of course, was analyzing President Bush's speech to kick off his second term, but there were also hours and hours of coverage of the festivities: the balls, the gowns, the entertainment, the limos and the luxuries.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it is a special day when we celebrate the continuity of government.

KATIE COURIC, NBC'S "TODAY SHOW": Many of us forget what's in the speeches, because a lot of us are focused on what the first lady is wearing.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, MSNBC'S "HARDBALL": How about a price tag on that dress. What do you figure?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, there is no price tag on that dress. But it's...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not backwards, is it? I mean, because it's elegant. It's fitting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't think of anything tougher to do, knowing you have hundreds of cameras trained on you, and suddenly, you're supposed to be spontaneous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With each dance, though, he's warming up to it.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this quadrennial ritual, Sally Quinn, an author and "Washington Post" feature writer and long- time denizen of the D.C. cocktail circuit; and "Newsweek" correspondent Melinda Henneberger.


Sally Quinn, President Bush and his supporters deserve a big day to celebrate their victory, and the speech was important, but what accounts for this utter media fascination with the pomp and the parties and the new limo and who wore what dress that seemed to go on endlessly?

SALLY QUINN, "WASHINGTON POST": Don't you think that media fascination is what they think the public wants? I mean, after all the media -- people in the media are -- it's a business, and they have to give the public, their readers and their viewers, what they think they want.

KURTZ: So viewers are just clamoring for these details about the ball?

QUINN: I think that if they weren't and if the ratings went down and people didn't sell newspapers and magazines, we wouldn't give it so much coverage.

KURTZ: Television driven by ratings. There's a new concept.

Melinda Henneberger, I can't say how many networks I saw covering the story of the $5,000 hotel suites here in Washington this past week. I learned that at Ritz-Carlton, for example, for that amount of money, you got rose petals on your bed in the shape of a "W." A bit much?

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, "NEWSWEEK": Perhaps so, but I think it's a story. It's perfectly harmless to cover that sort of thing. I like to hear about the dresses, too. And I think it's appropriate that we take at least a couple of days to have this kind of respectful coverage at the moment of the inauguration.

KURTZ: But is there some kind of deep journalistic desire to recreate Camelot for a day? QUINN: Well, I had an editor once who said that people want to read about kings and queens. And I think that's absolutely true. I mean, that's why movie magazines are so successful, and television shows about super stars. People want to read about celebrities.

And this is -- this is our little way of having our own monarchy without having it.

KURTZ: But I can hear viewers out there saying right now, "But hold on. The press isn't supposed to treat these people as royalty."

QUINN: Well, I don't think we treat them as royalty. I think we cover -- the pomp and the circumstance is all engineered by them, not by us. We're simply covering...

KURTZ: But a lot of it, as you know, is staged for the cameras.

QUINN: Of course it is.

KURTZ: Because we're going to bring it into many American homes.

QUINN: Exactly. And I mean, of course it's a never-ending cycle. It's what comes first, the chicken and the egg. But the fact is that people want to see it. The American people love kings and queens just as much as the Brits do and just as much as everybody else does.

KURTZ: A dirty little secret.

HENNEBERGER: Maybe more.

QUINN: Maybe more, because we don't have them. They want to see the president and the first lady. The president and the first lady know that that's what the public wants and demands. They give it to them.

We know that we're going to get the ratings and we're going to sell papers by doing it. So everybody's happy in the end.

KURTZ: Here's what I don't get. Since the election, there have been a fair number of aggressive stories about the mess in Iraq and the president's policy there, about the president's Social Security plan and whether Social Security really is in crisis and whether his numbers add up, and whether we can afford to do what he wants. Followed by this big swoon about the inaugural balls and the new dog. Did I forget to mention the new dog? A lot of stories on that.


KURTZ: So what accounts for this shift in tone? Is it temporary? Is it a time out from the partisan wars?

HENNEBERGER: I guess I see less of a shift in tone than I would like to. As I said, I think this is an appropriate moment for very respectful coverage. But I think overall, I'd like to see a little less of that the rest of the time. I don't think...

KURTZ: You're saying the press is too respectful of President Bush, even when he's not partying and celebrating his election?

HENNEBERGER: That's my impression, actually. Yes, I think that...

KURTZ: Why is that?

HENNEBERGER: ... over -- I don't know. I think it's several things. I think that there's something to the idea that because most reporters and producers are -- do tend to be more liberal, we might be bending over backwards to show that we're being fair to the president.

KURTZ: Or responding to critics who say there's liberal bias in media?

HENNEBERGER: Absolutely. I think also the fact that there has been such message discipline, such little access, it's affected the coverage. I think that's worked really well for them.

KURTZ: Speaking of little access, the reporters who covered the ball, some of them had to get escorted by these official minders. Otherwise they might -- somebody who was celebrating the president's reelection might go off message.

QUINN: This is not -- this was not the people's inaugural, in the sense that you couldn't even get near the parade unless you had a special ticket or a special pass or whatever.

But I -- I mean, my feeling is that even though I think there is a lot of pomp and circumstance and that the public wants that, my -- I think that it was probably inappropriate to have spent so much money on these balls, nine inaugural balls, this particular time, when we're in a war in Iraq and when we've had so many people dying in the tsunami, when they were trying to raise money for relief funds and all that.

KURTZ: It was $40 million of privately raised money, and what's wrong with celebrating if we also are contributing to the tsunami? And sure we're in a war, but does that mean that -- you think the whole thing should have been toned down?

QUINN: Yes, I do. And I don't -- $40 million -- first of all, it wasn't $40 million. There were a lot more than $40 million. And certainly, the security, which is not being privately raised, was enormous, the most incredible security I've ever seen. Fifteen million dollars from Washington, D.C., that was earmarked for homeland security. So...

KURTZ: The city was not happy about it.

QUINN: I think that it's sort of over the top when you have to do that kind of security, then finally, it becomes a different kind of event. And it just seems to me that we -- we could have gone back to the idea of having one inaugural ball with the president and his family, close friends, and the people who did the most for the campaign. Televise the whole thing and have everybody enjoy that.

I mean, in a way it would have been more exclusive and probably much grander to have something that was smaller.

KURTZ: Only one inaugural ball? That sounds sacrilegious coming from Sally Quinn.

QUINN: I know. I know. It's a horrible thought.

KURTZ: Melinda Henneberger, picking up on your point about the coverage. Unlike Bill Clinton, for example, George W. Bush has been relatively inaccessible to the press. Doesn't do many interviews. Doesn't hold many news conferences.

Suddenly in the last two weeks, for example, all the networks had their White House correspondents got interviews with the president...


KURTZ: ... and it's been followed with a round of interviews in major newspapers. And he sat down with Barbara Walters. Was there a sense of gratitude among journalists to finally have some access, temporary as it might be, to the president?

HENNEBERGER: I don't think gratitude is the hallmark of our press corps.

KURTZ: Well, a lot of these interviews were not exactly an inquisition.

HENNEBERGER: No, but again, I think that's more about the moment that we're in right now.

KURTZ: "The Washington Post," you recently wrote -- you recently criticized the Bushes for what you called a lack of social contact. You talked about how they have a few dinners and don't invite many outsiders over. And they don't go out to restaurants.

Are you and other journalists miffed that you're not getting invitations you might have gotten in previous administrations?

QUINN: I'm just in a rage all the time. I'm dying to go to the White House.

I -- this is not about me. This is about trying to reach out to people who the president doesn't necessarily ever hear or see, to try to learn something, to try to meet people who have different opinions and different points of view, to try to reach out to the opposition, to his adversaries.

I -- I just...

KURTZ: You say he's isolated himself? QUINN: He is so isolated. I mean, everybody says the White House is a bubble. And it is a bubble. And you get more and more isolated as you stay in the White House.

And you -- and you don't know what other people are thinking and saying and talking about. You don't get any input from different sources and different positions and different opinions. And I think that's a real problem.

And the only way you can do that is to get out in the streets and meet people and talk to people. And the point I was trying to make was that -- that the president has eschewed this kind of entertaining and not having people to the White House who are a sort of diverse group in the community.

But then suddenly spending all this money to -- to just celebrate his inauguration with people who are already supporting him and already agree with him.

KURTZ: Journalists do get to go to the White House Christmas party. But you only get to talk to the president for about five seconds during those picture-taking ceremonies.

So do you think that Sally has a point about...?

HENNEBERGER: Yes. I think the president has indicated on a number of occasions that that's the way he likes it, that he, you know, doesn't read the papers, doesn't really follow coverage, feels more comfortable getting all his information from people he trusts personally. And you know, picks people, surrounds himself by people who are rewarded for loyalty.

I don't sense a great hunger for a diversity of opinion, so yes, which might serve him well.

KURTZ: I hope you both get invited over in the second term. Maybe we'll see a new policy. Melinda Henneberger, Sally Quinn, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, the influence and impact of bloggers. We'll talk to three of the most popular online writers, Andrew Sullivan, Ana Marie Cox and Dan Kennedy, to find out what they offer that the mainstream media doesn't.



A couple of years ago, most Americans didn't know what a blog was. Today there are tens of thousands of these weblogs, most of them one-man or woman operations, fueled by an uncontrollable desire to hold forth on politics, entertainment, sports, sex.

I sat down recently with three of the top practitioners, Andrew Sullivan, who dishes daily at, Ana Marie Cox, better known as the Wonkette, and Dan Kennedy of "The Boston Phoenix." I started by asking Kennedy whether bloggers are claiming too much credit on stories like the CBS debacle over President Bush's National Guard record.


DAN KENNEDY, "THE BOSTON PHOENIX": Oh, sure. Absolutely. I mean, blogging's a fascinating phenomenon. But you know, reports that there is something like five million plus blogs out there. Well, how many of them really matter? Perhaps more than a dozen, but certainly less than 100.

Now, when you get into the world of the bloggers in Dan Rather's retirement, I mean, I actually think Andrew Sullivan got it exactly right in "Time" magazine, when he suggested that the bloggers perhaps helped contribute to Dan Rather's early retirement.

But you know, at the same time that there were bloggers proving that the -- that the CBS documents were false, in fact, there were some very impressive blogs out there that were attempting to show that they were genuine. It really took the...

KURTZ: Lots of opinions on all -- you know, you get every possible range of human opinion. But I want to ask Ana Marie Cox, is it possible that bloggers, now that they're kind of the flavor of the month, are getting too self-congratulatory?

ANA MARIE COX, WONKETTE.COM: Oh, yes. The bloggers (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I think PowerLine is perhaps a good example of that. I think that they feel that they've led a revolution. But I don't know where they're leading it. If it's just to have a nation of fact checkers, that's not an incredibly valuable resource.

And in fact, when it comes to the Bush National Guard document story, it's sort of the best and worst case scenario for how blogs work, in that best case scenario, you have the hive-mind of the blogosphere, using lots of little different pieces of information to prove or disprove a story. Which is great.

But they made the whole story about -- the worst-case scenario, they made the entire story about the documents. And it came to be a debate about media bias and not a debate about what President Bush was doing during those years.

KURTZ: Here's the dinosaur media criticism, you know. You have no editor. You have no checks and balances. You can say whatever you want, whether you're wrong, whether you're right. There is nobody there to blow the whistle on you, except perhaps other blogs, because they're always getting in fights. Fair comment or not?

ANDREW SULLIVAN, ANDREWSULLIVAN.COM: Yes. But it's also true of every other newspaper and magazine. We weren't the...

KURTZ: When you write for "The New Republic," an editor reads it first and says, "Well, Andrew, you can't support this." SULLIVAN: Yes, and sometimes the editor doesn't notice something that's really bad. And sometimes "The New York Times" runs Jayson Blair story after story. There is no fail-safe mechanism for being -- for not having errors.

And even in big media, the readers and viewers are often the best corrective to what you're doing. Everybody makes mistakes.

Look, we are as transparent as "The New York Times" was 100 years ago. And the only way anybody gets a reputation is by getting a reputation for being good and being error-free.

KURTZ: Is it liberating to be able to write whatever you want on, as opposed to writing for a magazine, where you've got to deal with editors and fact checkers and other annoying things?

COX: Yes, it's very liberating. And the thing is, I mean, Andrew's right. There's no fail-safe for any kind of journalism.

However, what people like about blogs is also what their downfall is, right? I mean, that's what you're saying. The immediacy, the fact that you can say anything you want, leads to making mistakes, leads to having errors.

KURTZ: It also leads to more emotion.


SULLIVAN: Both you and I have had really difficult relationships with media that wanted to put us into certain straitjackets, which we don't fit in, whether it is liberal, conservative or whatever, we've lost our jobs at other places...

COX: Yes.

SULLIVAN: ... and so we've found this place where we can't possibly be fired, except by our readers, which of course is a wonderful liberating...

KURTZ: So it's really employment insurance.

Dan Kennedy, do you find when you write daily on MediaLog that, you know, you're less careful and you will say things off the top of your head that you wouldn't dream of saying in something that was committed to the cold, hard reality of print?

KENNEDY: Well, first of all, I mean, I'm blogging for my newspaper's Web site. So although I do post without any editing, I am at least having some sort of an ongoing conservation with my editors as to what direction MediaLog ought to go in.

I do think that the hardest problem I face, and I think this is true of a lot of people, is that clearly the standards for blogging are somewhat different than they are for mainstream journalism. But there's kind of this ongoing attempt to grope our way toward what that difference is. I mean, for those of us who blog and who also work in more traditional media, you don't want to do anything on your blog that makes you less -- credible when you -- when you go to your other job.

So I think that's kind of an ongoing...

KURTZ: Let me -- let me grope my way into this question for Andrew Sullivan.

SULLIVAN: Grope away.

COX: I knew we'd get into my territory eventually.

KURTZ: OK. Double entendre unintended.

I see a lot of thinking out loud on blogs. In your case, you're a conservative. You supported George Bush in 2000.


KURTZ: You're a strong supporter of the war in Iraq. And yet, you went through this sort of public soul searching and eventually supported John Kerry.


KURTZ: What role did -- excuse this double entendre -- what role did the blog play in your coming out politically?

SULLIVAN: It played an amazingly important role, in the sense that the thing about a blog that you write daily is that a journalist or another who can retreat behind the walls of an institution or doesn't have to write something for a month. When you are thinking out loud in real time, all your innards are spewed for everybody to see. It's an ugly, not very pretty process.

You make mistakes. You change your mind. And mind you, that's kind of interesting. It's a kind of new way this medium can allow people to see the inner workings of people's minds and souls and ideas.

And with any luck, what the blog allows you to do is to show a person who can't be fit into a category but who can express himself openly or herself openly.

And so I've made a fool of myself a few times, but I think people over -- over time think, "Well, maybe this guy's worth reading on a long-term basis."

KURTZ: All right.

When we come back, bloggers and sex. How can you resist a tease like that?


KURTZ: Welcome back.

More now of my discussion with three top bloggers about whether anything goes on the Internet.

Ana Marie Cox, one of your big Wonkette scoops this year was about Jessica Cutler. Washingtonianne was her name. She was a Capitol Hill staffer who had an anonymous blog about all the people she was having sex with, both in the office and outside the office. And after you wrote about her, she got fired.

Any second thoughts about that whole incident?

COX: She got fired and she got a $300,000 book deal. So it's hard for me to really feel like I ruined her life.

KURTZ: She should be thanking you.


KURTZ: What about speculating about the identity of some of the married lovers she was writing about?

COX: Well...

KURTZ: Where do you draw the line about invading people's privacy?

COX: Well, as I said before, I'd like to have that needlepoint on a pillow that it's OK to ruin someone's day but not their life.

And as for speculating about who -- the identity of who her paramours were, a little bit was just thinking out loud, like Andrew does about his political endorsements. This was using information that she had made publicly available on her blog about chiefs of staff, and just doing a Google search for those pictures, and trying to decide, "Do these people look like they would have to pay for sex?"

KURTZ: Your sex life has been attacked by various blogs. Do you get a lot of hate mail about being gay, writing about gay issues and all of that?

SULLIVAN: Oh, my God, yes.

KURTZ: How do you deal with it?

SULLIVAN: You learn to deal with it. I mean, inevitably, there's going to be a lot of nasty stuff coming at you, some of it really hateful. And it happens to me on a daily basis.

But it's not really about you, you realize. It's just about them and their insecurities, or their spasms (ph). And every now and again, they have a point. And if it's about something you've written, as opposed to something they imagined that you might have done.

But you know, privacy is over on the Internet. Anybody -- the outing campaign, for example, of various Republicans staffers and so on has been done on the Internet in a way it could never have been done before. And the truth is...

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but not necessarily picked up by the mainstream media.

SULLIVAN: No. So what you've got is this new zone in which stuff is kind of known but not really legit. In other words, it's no longer just gossip or media. There's this intermediate space where anything goes.

I try to avoid, as a rule, ever mentioning details of people's private lives. But that's just me.

KURTZ: Back to your favorite subject, here's "The New York Times" magazine writing about various blogs where people talk about their romantic lives.

"Click on Justin Hold's (ph) sexual biography. It includes a cumulative tally of various romantic partners, spring 1992 to present."

Is that kind of thing now what we've come to expect? In other words, you date somebody, you might read about it the next day?

COX: Only if I wanted my husband to find out about it, I guess.

KURTZ: I didn't mean you personally.

COX: I do think that, again, the immediacy of the blogosphere leads people to do that kind of personal self-revelation. Whether or not that's actually interesting to someone kind of depends on the skill of the writer.

We were talking about Andrew spilling his lovely guts on the table. The reason why people read that is not for the simple gut spilling, which is unattractive usually. It's because Andrew can write about that in a way that is more than just a mess on the table. It is a process that he's going through; he's a clever writer.

I don't necessarily want to read about sort of bare sex facts. Right? What you want to read about...

KURTZ: So writing still counts.

SULLIVAN: Sometimes you can't avoid it. For example, I've been writing for five years. I have a boyfriend. There are moments when I just -- when I'm talking about my life where it's obvious he's a part of it. So what do I do? Do I out him? Do I make -- put his life on?

I try to keep it very -- I call him "the boyfriend." He has no name. I don't divulge anything about him. But...

KURTZ: I think we should have him on next week to give the other side.

My conversation with three bloggers about the challenges of online life. Up next, CBS' head honcho throws a curveball about the future of the "Evening News." That's next.


KURTZ: Finally, just as we're all feverishly speculating about who will be Dan Rather's successor, along comes CBS President Les Moonves with word that it may be, well, several people. "No more voice of God single anchor," Moonves says. No more, "that's the way it is." Maybe a new format for "The Evening News." Maybe even Jon Stewart making fun of the broadcast itself? We'll see how far Moonves goes and who he can get to play.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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