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DeLay Blames Liberal Media; Sportswriter Mitch Albom Suspended

Aired April 17, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Lashing out. Tom DeLay blames the liberal media for a drumbeat of stories challenging his ethics. Is the press hounding the House majority leader or just holding him accountable?

Air ball. Sportswriter Mitch Albom suspended for writing about a basketball game that hadn't happened yet. Did the best-selling author commit a minor flub or a journalistic felony? Tony Kornheiser and John Feinstein square off.

Plus, the kid who landed the big Britney interview.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, Tom DeLay in the harsh media spotlight.

Ahead, Tom DeLay in the harsh media spotlight, but first we turn our critical lens on a celebrity sportswriter in trouble.


KURTZ (voice-over): Mitch Albom is a multimedia phenomenon. He hosts two radio shows for ABC. He's a contributor to ESPN. His book, "Tuesdays with Morrie," spent nearly four years on the "New York Times" best seller list, and turned into a TV movie. And "Five People You Meet in Heaven" was also a major best-seller. Oh, and Albom also writes a column for "The Detroit Free Press," where he is now under investigation.

On Friday, April 1st, the day before the final four playoff game between Michigan State and North Carolina, Albom wrote a column for Sunday about the game as if it had already taken place. He focused on two Michigan State alums now in the NBA -- Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves, rooting in the stands. Except they never made it to the game.

Albom apologized in a follow-up column, saying that he had been wrong. "You can't write that something happened that didn't." But the newspaper suspended him, with publisher Carole Leigh Hutton telling readers that not only was Albom wrong to write the column, but "The Free Press" was wrong to publish it.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: We decided to bat it around with two of the country's leading sportswriters.

And joining us now, Tony Kornheiser, "Washington Post" columnist, radio host and co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption." And best- selling author John Feinstein, who also does commentary for National Public Radio and whose latest book is "Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery."

Tony Kornheiser, you're a friend of Mitch Albom's, aren't you?


KURTZ: Are you willing to tell your friend he screwed up?

KORNHEISER: Well, I think that he knows he screwed up, in the sense that what he wrote did not turn out to be true. But I don't think there was any malice in it.

KURTZ: Not turned out to be true. He wrote "they sat in the stands in their Michigan State clothing and rooted on their alma mater."

KORNHEISER: I understand. Right, I understand. When they ask somebody on Friday to write a column for Sunday about something that happens on Saturday, there's got to be a better back-stop method than that. But I don't think his intent was to defraud people.

The people he talked to, the Michigan State players, have not said he didn't talk to them, have not said that they were misquoted. I mean, yes, it is a mistake, but I don't think he has to be killed over the mistake. And he is being killed by the people in journalism who like to eat their young.

KURTZ: Well, "Philadelphia Inquirer" says this is sports journalism's own steroids mess. How serious a mistake is this?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Well, I don't think it's a steroids mess, and I agree with Tony that I don't think there was malice involved. That having been said, this isn't a misdemeanor. This isn't a speeding ticket, journalistically speaking. He did, in fact, make something up. It could not have happened.

And the excuse that he had a Friday night deadline, he knew he had a Friday night deadline when he wrote the column. He easily could have said that they said they're going to the game. They're planning to go to the game. They're looking forward to the game because of all these things he wrote about without writing that he saw something that didn't happen.


KURTZ: exciting?

FEINSTEIN: It's better writing. It is better writing. KORNHEISER: But that's not fair. It's not because it's not as exciting. It's because everything led him to believe that, indeed, that is exactly what would happen.


KURTZ: If the players had shown up at the game, then it would have been all right. But he's writing it in advance.

KORNHEISER: Right. When you are asked to write in advance like that, I think that's mistake No. 1, to write on Friday for Sunday about an event that didn't happen yet. But I think there is some shared responsibility here. Mitch -- I think Mitch's major crime, as I read these stories, is that he's rich, famous and successful, and a lot of people want to bring him down. An editor has to say, when the column is handed in on Friday, "Whoa, hold it. This didn't exactly happen yet." There has to be a backstop.

FEINSTEIN: I'm sorry. I'm sorry, you can't blame it on the editor.

KURTZ: On the other hand...

KORNHEISER: I'm not blaming it on him.

FEINSTEIN: No, you said, "An editor has to." That's blaming it on the editor, just as in his first apology, which I thought was the second part of the problem, Mitch tried to throw the editors under the bus with him.

You've got to realize the climate those editors are working in. This is a newspaper where the managing editor killed a review of his last book because it was negative. Now if know the managing editor's done that, and you're some copy editor, you're not going to Mitch Albom...

KURTZ: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. The "Free Press" is investigating this matter. Mitch Albom has been suspended. And they're clearly going to look at the editors who let this go...

FEINSTEIN: And they have to.

KURTZ: Why would -- why should they escape scrutiny?

FEINSTEIN: No, they shouldn't escape scrutiny, but I'm saying you go to the top editor, because it's the top editor who set the climate. The managing editor, when she killed -- when she killed...

KORNHEISER: This is not about climate. This is not about global warming. This is about the fact that something was put in the paper that did not, in fact, happen.


KORNHEISER: And the editors who let it go are at least partially responsible. FEINSTEIN: Right. Let me ask you a question...

KORNHEISER: And Mitch has said, this is a mistake that I made and I should not have done that.

FEINSTEIN: Let me ask you a question. When you write a really good column, OK, do people come up to you and say...

KORNHEISER: Which happens often, I might say.

FEINSTEIN: Which happens very often. Do people come up and say, "Hey, that was great editing" and you say, "Yes, the editors, they were great"? No, you take the credit, as you should. So when you screw something up, you need to take the blame, too.

KORNHEISER: And he did take the blame. I'm suggesting...

FEINSTEIN: Not in that first apology.

KORNHEISER: I'm suggesting in this thing that it's not simply Mitch Albom, but all of the criticisms that you read about Mitch Albom...

KURTZ: Let me get back in here.

KORNHEISER: ... and again, they accuse him of being rich and famous, which he is.

KURTZ: You're also a multimedia guy.


KURTZ: ESPN, radio show. You write books. When...

KORNHEISER: I don't write books. I have collections. I collect books and recycle them. I write columns again (ph).

KURTZ: Now there's an honest answer. But isn't there a temptation, when you're doing your newspaper writing, because you have all these other commitments, to -- to report less, to phone it in?

KORNHEISER: See, I think this is the interesting aspect of it, because when you read all the negative stuff about Mitch Albom, people go to great lengths to say the following: "He was the most scrupulous guy that I ever knew. He was always accurate. He was a stickler to be correct." And I've covered with him, and I think that's true.

And then they say, "But" -- then comes "Tuesdays with Morrie." Then comes "The Five People You Meet in Heaven." Then comes the radio show. As if he suddenly got lazy.

I don't think he got lazy. I don't think the tendency is to get, necessarily, get lazy like that and cut corners. I don't see that in other people, and I don't -- I have not seen it and had not seen it in Mitch. KURTZ: You -- he talks about rich and famous. But if he wasn't rich and famous and a best-selling author and a nationally known name, and he was a sports writer who'd been there for two or three years, would he have been fired over this?

FEINSTEIN: I think this is an isolated incident. It will be...


FEINSTEIN: ... he might get fired, if he's not rich and famous. He certainly would get suspended. I think that, yes, it's getting the scrutiny that it's getting because he's rich and famous. There's no question. And that's bad for all of us in journalism.

Having said that, the fact is that you simply can't walk away from something like this without saying, "I'm guilty." Even if you did make a mistake.

KORNHEISER: Absolutely, and there are a lot of things that people report that are wrong. What do you say?

FEINSTEIN: Factually wrong.



FEINSTEIN: Factual mistakes. And I said, "Yes, I made the mistake." Absolutely right. That is different than simply saying -- than writing something on Friday about an event on Saturday.


KORNHEISER: There was no major intent to defraud. He's lumped in with people like Jayson Blair.

FEINSTEIN: That's unfair.

KORNHEISER: Jack Kelley, is that the right name? People like that. And what they did was try to craft a career based on fiction.

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely.

KORNHEISER: He was not doing that.

KURTZ: You're saying that he -- you're saying that Mitch Albom actually conducted these interviews with two players who...

KORNHEISER: And there's no reason to believe he didn't.

KURTZ: But, you know, we've all...

FEINSTEIN: He said that he did.

KURTZ: We've all written stories in advance in the newspaper business. You say, "In a speech scheduled to be given today," meaning tomorrow when you write it.

FEINSTEIN: Correct. Right, yes.

KURTZ: A program scheduled to be broadcast. But you check back to make sure it's happened.

Now, Albom, you know, then made the reader think that he was there.

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Describing their clothing. So it's a little bit more...

KORNHEISER: Well, it's very possible that he could have said, "What are you going to wear? Where are you going to sit?" And that this whole thing was planned out. Because what it appears to be is they talked to him at great length. Clearly, the mistake is he did not identify that they were, in fact, there, and nobody pressed -- apparently, nobody pressed him on it. And that's what got in the paper.

But what I'm reading is that he needs to be fired, which I completely disagree with...


KORNHEISER: ... because there was no intent to defraud or build your own career on this.

FEINSTEIN: The only way he should be fired is if in the investigation they find this was a pattern and not an isolated incident.

KORNHEISER: Which I don't think...

FEINSTEIN: I hope it doesn't happen, too.

KURTZ: All right. A little curveball here. Washington Nationals bringing baseball back to the Beltway for the first time in 34 years. Now the "Washington Post" had a story the other day, saying that Bob Novak and Paul Begala and Mort Kondracke and other media big shots used their connections to get better seats for their season tickets. So how are your seats?

FEINSTEIN: I don't have the season tickets.

KORNHEISER: I don't have -- when I went to the opening game, I wandered around like a Bedouin in the desert. I had no seat, and I took any empty seat that was available. And when I got kicked out, I moved to another seat.

KURTZ: Now the local media has gone crazy over this. There's the "Washington Post," front page, "Baseball Capital," sports section, "A Triumphant Return." Television all over it. Are we seeing a little bit of homerism in the D.C. media?


KURTZ: Is that OK?

KORNHEISER: It's been -- yes, it's been 34 years since there was a team in the nation's capital. The crime is that it wasn't here for this long. And there is boosterism and homerism, and I think we can live with it for the first week or so.

FEINSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. It is a big story. I mean, 34 years without a baseball team. It's a joke that it was gone for this long. And actually, I read all the stories in this morning's "Washington Post," and I thought every one of them was a legit story.

KORNHEISER: And by the way, in the anticipation of that, "USA Today," which claims to be the national newspaper, right, had it as an A-1 piece. So people, not just locally...

KURTZ: Well, the question is not the volume of coverage, but whether or not there will be some critical coverage as the season wears on.

KORNHEISER: If they -- if they go about 15 and 45, I should hope there'd be some critical coverage.

KURTZ: All right. We're going to get out on that note. Tony Kornheiser, John Feinstein, thanks very much for joining us.

By the way, we asked Mitch Albom for his side of the story, but he declined.

And this footnote: A similar problem surfaced this week at the "Boston Globe," which admitted it had published a piece about a Canadian seal hunt that had not yet taken place. The story Wednesday by freelance reporter Barbara Stewart, who's been dropped by the paper, said that hunters in 300 boats began shooting baby seals off Newfoundland, turning the water red. But it was "The Globe's" reputation that was bloodied, because the hunt wound up being postponed by bad weather. "The Globe," which ran a correction Friday, said its editor should have asked more questions. Stewart tells me she was guilty of unbelievable carelessness, but not malicious fabrication.

Up next, Tom DeLay versus the press.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The media are turning up the heat on Tom DeLay. "The Washington Post, "New York Times" and others have reported on trips financed by lobbyists and their clients, associates under indictment, and the congressman's wife and daughter on his political payroll. Now, television news has turned its spotlight on the House majority leader, as was clear on all the Sunday talk shows this morning.




SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSISSIPPI: No, it's not abuse of power.

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, "FACE THE NATION": Would it be better for him to call a news conference?

TIM RUSSERT, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": Tom DeLay has no interest at this time in stepping aside?


KURTZ: DeLay says he's done nothing wrong and is blaming the liberal media, but he won't give reporters much of a chance to question him on camera, as we saw in this footage from "NBC Nightly News."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Democrats say you're abusing power. How do you respond?

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY LEADER: Democrats' agenda.


KURTZ: Joining me now, "National Review Online" editor-at-large, Jonah Goldberg. And Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic." Welcome.

Michelle Cottle, you're not a Tom DeLay fan. In fact, you wrote that he's "an arrogant, power-mad goon." But After "The New York Times" wrote that story on the front page about his wife and daughter making a half million dollars on his various political payrolls, you said "it was a whole lot of ink wasted on nothing." Why?

MICHELLE COTTLE, NEW REPUBLIC: Well, this specific story was played on the front page talking about, you know, political groups paid his family money. It sounded like it was going to be like another detailed scandal of something wrong. This is done all the time. This is a culture of Washington story. If you want to have specific discussions about what DeLay has done wrong, it should not be something that you'll also going to have to wheel out all of these other people to talk about, because this is -- it's not unethical, it's not illegal. It may surprise people who have never heard about what goes on in Washington, but this is not a DeLay issue.

KURTZ: Is the press going after DeLay for ideological reasons?

JONAH GOLDBERG, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: Let's put it -- the press is definitely going after DeLay...


GOLDBERG: ... which doesn't necessarily mean that it's purely for ideological reasons. It could be for all sorts of reasons. I think this is one of these classic Washington stories where all stories are true, even the ones that contradict each other. Some Democrats don't want Tom DeLay removed, because they think he's a great symbol, like Newt Gingrich was in the '90s. Other Democrats think he is too effective. Tom DeLay thinks it's just the liberal media out to get him. I think the liberal media is out to get him, but I also think he's -- that there is a real stench coming off of Tom DeLay. I mean, there's just a lot of different things going on at once.

COTTLE: The journalists, when they smell blood in the water, especially with a politician who has thus far proven so teflon-coated, they go after them.

KURTZ: And that was also true when Jim Wright, a Democrat, was speaker in the House, a lot of press frenzy there, and it eventually toppled him in 1939. But DeLay is also very tight with a lobbyist here in Washington, Jack Abramoff, who is under investigation, who helped fund some of these foreign junkets for Congressman DeLay through his clients. So you would expect reporters to be digging into that, true?

COTTLE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is not to say that there isn't plenty to go after DeLay about. I think there are many things that are better. I mean, this whole mess going to in Texas about whether members of his state PAC broke laws on fund-raising. I mean, that's something that could actually really come back to bite him, if he was really involved deeply. These fund-raising junkets, you know, what he knew and when he knew it. You know, these are issues that are unethical, possibly illegal.

My objection to "The Times" story was, it was just something that Washington does.

KURTZ: That doesn't necessarily make it right, but quite common. But when DeLay talks to -- as he said to CNN, "another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me." Is he contributing in any way by not allowing cameras into his briefings, not answering the questions, not going on any television show to defend himself?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think one of the interesting things about Tom DeLay is that he's the first Republican conservative leader in a long time, love him or hate him, who really doesn't care about "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times," in a way that I think drives "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" to distraction at points. And I think he understands where his bread is buttered, where his base is, and it only helps him when "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" go after him.

I think 10 years ago, 20 years ago, having these two papers go after him, it would have destroyed him. I'm not sure that's the case anymore.

KURTZ: But it's not entirely true that he doesn't care about these papers, because he did give one interview this week, and that was to "The Washington Times," when he picked on your favorite "New York Times" story, called it "activist journalism."

And then he had this to say. Let's put it up on the screen. "Somebody ought to look at the organizations and ask 'The New York Times,' 'The Washington Post,' 'The L.A. Times,' 'Time,' 'Newsweek,' AP, why they're spending all these resources. Are they collaborating with all these organization that are funded by George Soros?" I love the ominous sound of that, collaborating. But somebody ought to look at these organizations, and what does he have in mind? A special prosecutor?

COTTLE: No, what he wants is the public to hear him say this is a liberal media attack. They're coordinating with Democrats. This isn't about me. And you know, over the last few years, there's a lot of people who like to believe that whenever an organization like "The New York Times" or CNN or whatever goes after a Republican, it's all because of political bias.

GOLDBERG: Well, as Michelle's own piece kind of points out, the lack of substance of these attacks from "The Post" and "The Times" tend to feed that kind of storyline.

COTTLE: That's only -- that is...

KURTZ: Are you saying lack of substance?

COTTLE: Absolutely not. What I'm saying is "The New York Times" piece about that one particular issue, his wife and his daughter being on the payroll -- I mean, that's true. It's just not really a scandal. My objection is...

KURTZ: I guess it's one of those things.

COTTLE: ... there are so many better things to go after him on that you don't need to kind of fabricate a scandal.

KURTZ: That makes it overkill, in your view.

COTTLE: Exactly. Yeah. And you set yourself up to have DeLay then go, it's all the liberal media out to get me.

GOLDBERG: If it is something that was reported two years ago, and that is not a scandal, is not news, and yet they play it up as news, why wouldn't Tom DeLay, as just a matter of politics, say these guys are trying to get me on something that has no merit?

KURTZ: Just as a matter of substance, some of these trips, these foreign trips are old, but we did not know that the groups that said they paid for it, that the money actually came from other groups that were represented back then.

GOLDBERG: You know, I don't like the trips, and I think the most damaging editorial, damaging journalism so far was from "The Wall Street Journal," which came from a conservative perspective and basically said that smell you're getting from Tom DeLay is the smell of a guy who has basically bought into a lot of this K Street stuff. And that's a good criticism. KURTZ: "An unsavory whiff" was the exact phrase. So doesn't "The Wall Street Journal" by itself, ripping DeLay, you know, discredit this argument that it's just the liberal media?

COTTLE: Well, I think if you look at the charges at all on most of this stuff and see, you know, his hometown paper, I'm sure is going to get into this a whole lot. I'm sure FOX News is eventually going to have to get into this a great deal, and certainly DeLay is not going to criticize them. But for the people who are just listening to him, who really want something to latch on to, you're talking about an emotional gut reaction. Forget the facts of kind of what's out there.

KURTZ: Well, we have some breaking news here. It's no longer just "The Washington Post" and "New York Times" and the Sunday morning shows. Tom DeLay now being talked about on late night, including last night on "Saturday Night Live." Let's take a brief look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the last several weeks, I've been the target of a smear campaign by the Democratic Party and the left-wing media. And why? Partly because I did all the things they accuse me of.

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": It was so nice down in Washington to see that Tom DeLay was accepting cash in the park.


KURTZ: Just more left-wing hackery from the media elite?

GOLDBERG: No, no, no, I mean, and I think this is -- I think this -- the Democrats love this, and this is one of the reasons why I think the Democrats and the media are somehow -- are in some ways at cross purposes. You know, the journalistic press corps in Washington are a lot like werewolves. Every full moon, they must feed. And they've decided they're going to feed on Tom DeLay. Meanwhile, the Democrats would love to keep this guy -- a lot of Democrats would love to keep this guy in there, if this kind of late-night comedy keeps up, because it tarnishes the whole party.

KURTZ: I've heard journalists called a lot of things. Werewolves is a new one on me.

Michelle Cottle, Bob Novak reported this week that an editor for "The New York Times" op-ed page called former Republican Congressman Bob Livingston to ask him to write a piece about Tom DeLay, but when it soon became clear that he was only interested in a piece that might criticize DeLay or call for him to resign. Is that unfair for an opinion page to do?

COTTLE: That's what opinion pages do. They fish for different sides of the story. I mean, that's what chat shows do. I mean, the idea that this is unusual is Novak being intentionally obtuse. I mean, you don't want everybody on the page saying predictable things, so you look for somebody from, say, Tom DeLay's side who will come out and say something negative.

KURTZ: I see. All right, well, I think this subject is not going to go away, but we're going to go away for now. Michelle Cottle, Jonah Goldberg, thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, Sean Hannity's secret advice caught on audiotape.


KURTZ: FOX's Sean Hannity had two of Terri Schiavo's former nurses on his show a few weeks ago, and it turns out their appearance wasn't totally unscripted. According to an audiotape obtained by radio host Harry Shearer, Hannity coached the two women during a break about how to answer questions from his liberal co-host, Alan Colmes.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": No matter what the question.


HANNITY: I'm not here to deal -- I'm here to tell you what I saw. That's it.


HANNITY: I'm here to tell you what I saw. I'm not going to be distracted by silliness. That's it. Just dismiss it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Distracted by silly?

HANNITY: Silliness.


HANNITY: How's that? Does that help you?


KURTZ: How silly of us to believe that Hannity would never do such a thing.

In other media news, any celebrity journalist, make that almost any journalist would kill for an interview with Britney Spears, but 10-year-old Veronica Hughes (ph) scored the big scoop. She found out what hotel the pop star was staying it, then slipped a note under the door, asking for an interview for her school paper.

Spears called back and told Veronica to ask any question she wanted, but the fledgling cub reporter lost her chance to break the earth-shattering news of Britney's pregnancy. Why? She didn't even ask. Veronica told "Access Hollywood" that question would have been rude.

Apparently, she still needs to learn some tricks of the trade from her mother, a former top editor at "Star" magazine.

When we come back, why fake news will have to get a little more real.


KURTZ: The Federal Communications Commission ruled this week that television stations airing those prepackaged video news releases must disclose their origin, whether they're from the Bush administration or corporations, or some other outside source. Any station that has ever run one of these bogus reports without identification, or worse, with an intro from its own anchor, should be ashamed that a government agency had to order them not to deceive their viewers. What we do, however flawed and imperfect, is journalism. What they do, politicians and businessmen pushing a point of view, is propaganda.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

"LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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