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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Two New Books Examine Hillary Clinton's Life; Democrats Back Off Deadlines for Troop Withdrawal

Aired May 27, 2007 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Scrutinizing Hillary. Two new books examine her tumultuous marriage to Bill Clinton, the affairs, Jennifer Flowers, and the rest of her career.
Big news, or old news?

Stalemate or surrender? As the Democrats back off their demand that the president pull out of Iraq, are the media portraying this as a tactical retreat or a cave-in?

We'll ask "Washington Post" columnist, E.J. Dionne, and "New York Times" columnist, David Brooks.

Secret propaganda. Should ABC News have disclosed a covert CIA plan aimed at Iran?

Plus, she started as a sports reporter and is now the only black woman anchor on the network morning shows. A conversation about journalism, race and religion with ABC's Robin Roberts.

She stood by her man during the Jennifer Flowers uproar. She didn't want to stay home and bake cookies.

And ever since then, Hillary Clinton has been the subject of intense media fascination and relentless media scrutiny -- never more so than when she decided to seek the job that her husband held for eight years.

Now she's the subject of two new books -- one by Watergate sleuth, Carl Bernstein, the other by veteran "New York Times" reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta.

The Bernstein book, according to the "Washington Post," says that, while in Arkansas, Hillary personally interviewed at least one woman alleged to have had an affair with Bill Clinton and contemplated divorcing him, and even thought about running for governor out of anger at her husband.

The Gerth-Van Natta book says Hillary's team hired a private investigator to undermine Jennifer Flowers "until she is destroyed."

It also questions whether, as senator, she read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in 2002, before voting to authorize the war.

What should we make of these microscopic examinations of the former first lady's life?

Joining us now to talk about this and a number of other issues, E.J. Dionne, columnist for the "Washington Post" and a professor at Georgetown University; Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of the "Chicago Sun-Times"; and in New York, David Brooks, columnist for the "New York Times."

David Brooks, does all this digging into Hillary Clinton's personal life and her marriage to a formerly philandering president -- which was already getting plenty of media attention -- is that going to now come to the front of the agenda?

DAVID BROOKS, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think it should, actually.

You know, we have this issue in the media where we try to cover fresh news, and this is stuff that's hardly fresh. And frankly, so far, from the "Washington Post" story on Friday, there's no evidence there's any major bombshells.

But the issue is character here and what sort of person Hillary Clinton is. I think she's been a very fine senator.

But all of us have concerns about whether she's self-righteous, whether she's overly ambitious, overly controlling. And that stuff matters to a president.

So, I think it's a legitimate issue, but it involves breaking the normal media code, which is, only cover the freshest and newest material, because this stuff is hardly new.

KURTZ: Overly ambitious -- that certainly wouldn't apply to any other presidential candidate, E.J.

You know, look, a candidate's life is fair game for reporters and biographers. And the Gerth-Van Natta book does deal with her Senate career in some detail.

But why, for 15 years now, has there been such a voracious media appetite for the personal problems of Bill and Hillary?

E.J. DIONNE, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST"; SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Because they're fascinating personal problems, because they are fascinating people.

I actually think this is a great blessing for her, even though she may not be feeling that way this morning, because it's a whole lot better to have this out right now, than to have these books come out before the Iowa caucuses -- assuming she actually competes there -- or the New Hampshire primary.

This stuff was going to come out, of one kind or another. There's going to be -- there are going to be more Hillary books.

I think it allows them to deal with this early on, to take some lumps now, to try to discredit what they can discredit, to answer what they have to answer -- and be done with it before you get into the fall.

So, I think it's better for them to have it now than later.

KURTZ: There is, in fact, another Hillary book by Bay Buchanan, "The Extreme Makeover of Hillary (Rodham) Clinton."

Lynn Sweet, the media clearly are going to eat this up, and I don't have any quarrel with that.

But the spokesman for the Hillary Clinton campaign, Howard Wolfson, says this is just a rehash of old news.

Does he have a point?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, he has a point, but the other point is that Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a lot of money for people who write these books. She is a character.

The flip side of this is that these books wouldn't come out unless there is some kind of consensus out there in the publishing world that there is an unending appetite for information about her.

And everything you just mentioned, which was the highlights in the "Post" story that came out, Howie, those aren't things that can kill a campaign, because if you are predisposed to not like her anyway, that will only confirm what you thought. And there's nothing in there that strikes me as a political deal-killer.

Yes, it's a major distraction, but temporarily.

KURTZ: David Brooks, you said a moment ago that it's important to kind of break the media's conventional habits here and that character matters, and who this person is matters. We would ask that of any potential president.

But when the press keeps pounding on, for example, the issue of Jennifer Flowers and that whole soap opera, I mean, this was Bill Clinton's affair, we now know -- denied at the time, disputed at the time.

So, why does that have to reflect on his wife, who is running for president, when a lot of this is about Bill?

BROOKS: Well, I think there are two things here.

First of all, people want to know the person who is going to be president, or may be president, is a more-or-less normal person and has a more-or-less normal life and a family life.

And I do think the structure of the family life tells us a lot about who that person is -- not that we've had recent presidents with normal family lives. I think we've had very few.

But the second thing is, these books -- and especially the Gerth book -- are filled with stuff about her career, especially how she ran health care, how she's behaved in the Senate. And that stuff really does matter.

Is she overly tight in who she trusts? Is she -- does she demand total loyalty among her staff and, therefore, restrict decisions to a small circle?

These are the subjects these books get into. And some of it is very old, going back to "Hillary-care." But those are absolutely legitimate questions.

And so, people want to know a couple of things. Is she a normal person? Does she have a decent management style that flows out of a normal personality?

And finally, does the country really want a continuation of the last 20 years of Bush-Clinton rule?

All this stuff is covered in these books.

DIONNE: You know, David used the word "normal." And there may be one revelation here that will actually help her.

The notion that she was so mad at her husband for messing around that she almost divorced him -- I think a whole lot of women, and even some men would say, well, good for her. That's a normal reaction to that.

So, who knows how some of these things play out.

KURTZ: Well ...

BROOKS: And I would also say that ...

KURTZ: Go ahead, David.

BROOKS: I would also say that, when I speak to a lot of female voters, they -- one of the main concerns they have is that she actually didn't leave Bill Clinton. And so, they are basing votes on these sorts of decisions.

SWEET: But, look. That goes back to the point here. The main point is that people are incredibly interested in the marriage of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. She knows that.

And I bet she'll come up with -- I don't know what it is, but sometimes they do it -- she does have humor that she could pull out when she needs to. And she did that in this YouTube thing talking about her rock 'n roll song that they're trying to pick in the campaign, where she let herself be funny.

This fascination with the marriage, let her -- what happened with it Howie? All it meant is that she won a big Senate race in New York twice. This is the biggest focus group around -- New York.

Whatever it is, there's no new major facts out there, as we know so far, none that, I mean, at least -- I haven't read the books.

What out here is so different that could change the course of the campaign?

KURTZ: But this notion of normal -- I mean, is it normal to ...

SWEET: I think it's a David Brooks notion.

KURTZ: Is it normal ...

SWEET: What is his normal?

(LAUGHTER)

SWEET: Who -- normal? Where does he come -- David, with all respect, where do you come up with this, using the word "normal" as if there's something abnormal going on?

KURTZ: And let me throw in, David, is it normal for a Republican presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani, to announce on television that he's divorcing his second wife, when she didn't even know about? I mean, you know ...

SWEET: Yes.

KURTZ: ... if we make that the standard, we're only going to have candidates who have, you know, bland, Brady Bunch type lives.

SWEET: And also, everyone who runs for president ...

DIONNE: Maybe that's what Americans like.

SWEET: It's almost by definition a little abnormal and has big egos and big personalities, just to start out with.

DIONNE: But just like the ...

KURTZ: Let's let David respond.

BROOKS: Could I have, yes, a moment of rebuttal?

First of all, people want to have a sense the president shares their values. Now, is that ever going to be a complete sharing? No.

People who run for president are emotional freaks. They're incredible narcissists, and none of them are completely normal. Most of them have no friends.

Nonetheless, I do think they want a sense that the person is someone who they can relate to.

And the Clinton marriage is not what most people would consider the sort of marriage they can relate to.

Now, can she get over it? I personally think she can -- and with humor.

I mean, one of the things I'm struck by in the last few weeks is how Fred Thompson handled the charges that he was extremely promiscuous when he was single. And that came up, and he gave a great line, which was a joke.

He said, "I chased women and women chased me. And when they chased me they usually caught me."

And most people could completely understand that.

KURTZ: Not just that, but he got a girlfriend pregnant in high school. I mean, I just wonder if this is the ground on which the media are going to frame this election, as opposed to some other things.

But I need to move on.

Want to turn now to a controversy involving ABC News and a report on a secret CIA covert operation this week. Let's take a look at that, and a response the following day from Charlie Gibson to criticism of the network for airing that report.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS: A current and former intelligence officials tell ABC News that the CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount what is known as a "black" or covert operation to destabilize the Iranian regime, and that it is now underway.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: ABC News is aware there is a danger of revealing too much in a time of war.

And today, we issued a statement saying, "In the six days since we first contacted the CIA and the White House, at no time did they indicate that broadcasting this report would jeopardize lives or operations on the ground. They had the repeated opportunity to make whatever objection they wanted to regarding our report. They chose not to."

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: E.J. Dionne, let's face it. This is the kind of thing that makes some people feel that the media are unpatriotic.

DIONNE: You know, I was struck reading that story -- I read the text of it -- that this sounded as much like a White House or administration leak as it did something that they didn't want out there.

And as ABC said, they did check. They had six days to say, no, this is going to hurt us.

I have the sense that the administration wanted to say, we are doing something about Iran, but we are not contemplating going to war right now. And that was kind of the subtext of the story.

And the other thing is, I would have been shocked if we hadn't been doing something inside Iran to try to help dissidents or do something like that.

So -- and then, the only people in government that seemed to attack it were Republican presidential candidates.

KURTZ: What troubled me, Lynn Sweet, is that unlike the "New York Times" report on the secret domestic surveillance plan, or the "Washington Post" report on the secret CIA prisons, I don't know that I see anything wrong with this effort.

So, why would ABC have decided to make public something that was covert?

SWEET: They didn't do anything but reveal that this operation was there. I don't think -- I want to defend them on this, because I don't think they went over any line.

Again, I think it's pretty significant, as the network said, that they gave six days for the government to bring fresh information to them, to tell them why not to do it.

Also, it's not unknown for these types of orders to come out.

So, Howie, these things were probably known, I'm told, in Iran anyway. And this is just letting people know what else is going on. And the government has a way of calling, if they want.

KURTZ: David Brooks, a brief thought from you.

BROOKS: My basic view -- I think, Howie, you sort of articulated it -- is, if an issue is controversial, like the NSA wiretaps, then the media is doing its right, watchdog role to expose it.

If it's not controversial and it is covert, I don't see how the public is served by having it published. It's not particularly surprising, but I just don't see how the public is served by this kind of revelation.

KURTZ: Well, that is a good question. Let me get a break here.

When we come back, the Democrats back off a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Are the media portraying this as a big-time defeat for the Democratic Party?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: As the showdown over funding the Iraq war played out in recent months, the media have been saying the Democrats couldn't win, didn't have the votes, would have to back down in the end.

So, when Congress passed legislation this week to fund the war without timetables for withdrawal, the pundits said, "Aha! You see? We told you so."

Others said the Democrats had scored points by ratcheting up the pressure on President Bush.

On the airwaves, the war itself seemed to take a backseat to politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: Democrats will argue that they took a tough stand here. But the reality is that, facing a veto threat, they backed off.

JOHN ROBERTS, HOST, CNN'S AMERICAN MORNING: Could you describe this, John, as anything but a complete cave-in on the part of the Democrats?

JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE.COM: It is a cave-in, John.

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, MSNBC'S "COUNTDOWN": And right up there with the fall of Baghdad itself, you can now add the fall of the Democratic Congress -- agreeing to fund the conflict in Iraq without any timelines for withdrawal ...

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: E.J. Dionne, these words that journalists are tossing around, like "cave-in." Is that a fair assessment of what the Democrats did?

DIONNE: We all know the favorite journalistic headline is, "Democrats in Disarray," which could be slapped on anything.

You know, I think that this whole media view is actually fed, in part, by parts of the party that were angry at the Democrats. I mean, the bloggers -- left-of-center bloggers -- were furious at them.

But I think it is a problem, because it doesn't get at the fact that this issue is going to come up again in the fall. The Democrats gained ground as the year went on.

And there's a basic fact in politics -- they didn't have enough votes. They couldn't override Bush's veto.

They had a tough political calculation. Do you let this drag out, or do you kick it down the road for three months?

KURTZ: David Brooks, did the press go too far here? This is not exactly a huge victory for President Bush.

BROOKS: Yes, the press definitely went too far.

Listen, the Democrats were quite up-front saying, we're going to fund the troops at the end of the day. We're going to -- if we have to cave in, we will cave in.

And the reason they caved in is because of the Constitution. The Constitution gives the president power to wage war and really to manage this thing.

And the Democrats never really had a potential to reverse that. They said that from the beginning. And so, they played out their string, trying to exact some political price and trying to make a few points. But this was hardly a cave-in. It was pretty much inevitable, as they said.

KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, you wrote this week, "Democrats don't deserve all those harsh headlines.

Why?

SWEET: Well, because they don't have a veto-proof Congress. So, going into this, that's the basic point here, Howie.

And there is no calculation that would have brought with dozens of Republicans in the House and Senate to do their work for them, when they didn't want to do it. I think that's the essential mathematics here.

And the interesting point here in this story is that the headlines writers, who we know do not deal in nuance -- that's not what they do, so that's why they ripped them. And they said that, you know, they backed down, they capitulated.

The fact of the matter is, if you had -- if the Democrats had not even done what they did, you wouldn't even have the weaker benchmark language that is in the bill. You wouldn't necessarily have coming back for other bites of the apple in the fall.

Possibly, the Democrats are guilty of raising expectations too much. And that is a ...

KURTZ: Well, that is ...

SWEET: ... a political perception about what ...

KURTZ: That is the thing, is that they held a lot of news conferences. They ratcheted it up.

SWEET: Yes.

KURTZ: This is a great showdown, a great confrontation.

The president was asked about this at a news conference this week. So, I'd like to take a quick look at a question from NBC's David Gregory.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: Can you explain why you believe you're still a credible messenger on the war?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm credible, because I read the intelligence, David.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And so, the question, E.J., is, is this the media refrain in terms of the president, is essentially -- I mean, what -- embedded in that question is the assumption that the president has lost credibility on this war.

DIONNE: Well, I think that's clear. You know, when he said, "I read the intelligence," the first thought that came to my head is, yes, but was that credible intelligence that you were reading?

I mean, the public is very clear. His approval rating is -- the disapproval rating is 61, 62 percent. People have lost faith in the war policy.

And so, I do think he's fighting uphill, which is why -- going back to the earlier discussion -- I think the real test on the war is where are Republicans going to go?

Republicans showed a sign of weakening their support in this round of fighting about the war. I think, if the president stays where he is in terms of public credibility, more Republicans are going to go against him.

SWEET: In terms of the media story, Howie, it's a great lesson, a great victory, in a sense, for the net roots and the online publications and the bloggers, who put tremendous pressure on the presidential candidates, especially Clinton and Obama, to vote no on this supplemental.

KURTZ: And who are unhappy with the Democrats who were supporting this compromise.

David Brooks, if the media focus in the war debate has been on the Democrats, the immigration bill -- and the tentative compromise reached in the Senate -- very much so focus on the Republicans as being ripped apart over this. Many Republicans denouncing this compromise, which the president supports, as amnesty.

Is that a one-sided view, just focusing on Republican divisions?

BROOKS: Well, the Republicans are kind of fascinating. I don't blame us for focusing on them.

There is the furor on the right. I ran into a Republican senator who told me that she'd received -- I think she said in one day -- about 1,500 e-mails against the legislation, and about 35 in favor.

So, there's a lot of anger out there. We know that anger is not representative of the country as a whole. We know that from a "New York Times" survey that came out on Friday.

Nonetheless, that anger is real, and it's within the Republican Party. And it's a pretty spellbinding story.

So, I don't sort of blame us for focusing on that story. It's the big passion out there in the country right now.

KURTZ: It was reported this week, E.J., that a -- last week, actually -- that at a behind-the-scenes Republican strategy session, John McCain -- who happens to be running for president -- used the "f" work in arguing with Senator John Cornyn about the immigration bill. McCain, of course, has been one of the champions of some sort of immigration reform.

And suddenly, there are all these stories about McCain. Is he too angry? Is his temper out of control?

What did you make of that?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I think reporters have certain storylines in their head, looking for an excuse to get them out.

We had -- without mentioning names -- candidates where sex was going to be the storyline, and sure enough, it came out -- or drugs, or drinking.

There's always been this sense John McCain has a great temper. But on the whole, in public, he's held his temper.

And so, when he had this screaming match with Senator Cornyn, it was a perfect time for the press to jump ...

BROOKS: Right.

DIONNE: ... on this story.

And it also shows just what David said -- the passions on this issue are real.

KURTZ: But so what he used a curse word behind closed doors?

My view of this immigration thing, Lynn Sweet, is that, what the press should say is, everyone hates this compromise.

SWEET: Oh, look. Every newspaper is confused.

And as much as I said that there is rigidity on the Iraq thing, there is a lot of information that isn't even getting out there, because of the politics.

But Howard, because I don't see this bill going anywhere, maybe, for the moment, that's OK just to -- rather than getting in the weeds of some of the policy -- just to explain what a remarkable policy that the Democratic leaders brought to Congress at the moment. No one likes it.

KURTZ: You've got -- no one likes ...

BROOKS: Well, that's not quite right, though.

This is a media misnomer, because if you look at the survey, though, when you ask about the individual parts of the bill -- the merit-based immigration versus the family-based, the guest worker program -- it has support of 60 or 70 percent of the American people.

SWEET: We're talking about Congress ... BROOKS: They just don't happen to be the 60 or 70 percent that actually are screaming about this.

KURTZ: We're going to have to -- we're going to have to continue this on another show.

David Brooks, Lynn Sweet, E.J. Dionne, thanks for joining us.

Up next, politicians lecture the media -- can you imagine -- for superficial coverage.

And Rosie objects to the way she's portrayed -- ahead in our "Media Minute."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: During presidential campaigns -- which now means just about all the time -- it's Republican candidates who usually dump on the media.

Remember that slogan of the president's father? Annoy the media, re-elect Bush.

But suddenly, it's Democratic candidates who are criticizing the Fourth Estate.

When Al Gore kicked off his book tour this week and Diane Sawyer kept pressing him on whether he planned to run, the former vice president unloaded on her profession.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, listen to your questions. Is it -- you know, the horse race, the cosmetic parts of this. And, look, that's all understandable and natural.

But while we're focused on, you know, Britney and K-Fed and Anna Nicole Smith, and all this stuff, meanwhile, very quietly, our country has been making some very serious mistakes that could be avoided, if we, the people -- including the news media -- are involved in a full and vigorous discussion of what our choices are.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And Barack Obama had a few things to say about the media culture, as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-ILLINOIS, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We see it in the media culture that sensationalizes the trivial and trivializes the profound, in a 24-hour news network bonanza that never fails to keep us posted on how many days Paris Hilton will spend in jail, but often fails to update us on the continuing genocide in Darfur, or the recovery effort in New Orleans, or the poverty that plagues too many American streets.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, that's just -- the reason he's off-base is -- well, actually, he's right, isn't he.

Reporters used to love looking down on craven, self-serving politicians. Now, it seems, they're looking down on us.

Stone Phillips has co-anchored "DATELINE NBC" from the beginning, but his 15-year run is over.

NBC is dropping Phillips, as the news magazine, which once aired five nights a week, is being relegated to Saturday evenings on the fall schedule.

NBC has been on a cost-cutting drive and recently dropped weekend news anchor, John Seigenthaler. Ann Curry will continue to anchor DATELINE.

Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck yelling at each other on "THE VIEW" -- this time over Iraq -- is not exactly big news.

But this particular eruption provided a glimpse of how Rosie thinks the press is portraying her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROSIE O'DONNELL, TV TALK SHOW HOST, "THE VIEW": Here's how it gets spun in the media.

Rosie -- big, fat, lesbian, loud Rosie -- attacks innocent, pure, Christian Elisabeth. And I'm not doing it.

ELISABETH HASSELBECK, "THE VIEW": No, but ...

O'DONNELL: And I'm not doing it.

(CROSSTALK)

HASSELBECK: But you don't have to! Let me do it!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And to think she's leaving the show.

Coming up in the second half-hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, my sit- down with GOOD MORNING AMERICA's Robin Roberts -- a look at her transition from sports to morning show anchor, and a glimpse of life as the only African-American woman in that chair.

And as we go to break, summer grilling season must be red meat for the media, when at least three leading newspapers run food sections that look like this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) (NEWSBREAK)

KURTZ: Up next on RELIABLE Sources, ABC's Robin Roberts on race, religion and journalism -- an in-depth interview with the MORNING SHOW host.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

She got her start in sports, both as an athlete and as a broadcaster.

But since making the jump to ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA, Robin Roberts has tackled every kind of story -- interviewing movie stars, dancing moms, presidential candidates and their spouses.

She is the only female African-American co-host on the network morning shows.

Roberts has now written a memoir called, "From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By."

I sat down with her on the GMA set in New York.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

KURTZ: Robin Roberts, welcome.

ROBIN ROBERTS, HOST, ABC'S GOOD MORNING AMERICA: Thank you for giving me home set advantage -- home court advantage -- here.

KURTZ: Spoken like a true athlete.

ROBERTS: Yes.

KURTZ: Some weeks ago, you conducted a town hall meeting in Iowa, in which Hillary Clinton talked about health care.

Didn't do great in the ratings. Will you do more of those?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. We've extended invitations to all the top candidates, and we're waiting for them to respond. She was the first one to do that.

We let them also decide what it is they want to discuss. We were a bit surprised that Senator Clinton said, "I want to talk about health care." So ...

KURTZ: Why leave that up to the candidates? Why not decide what you want to discuss?

ROBERTS: Well, we have a play in it, but we want them to be able to have a say in what they want to do, because so many times now -- and you know this -- it's sound bites. It's all sound bites.

And how can a viewer, who's a voter, make a decision, if always you're hearing in sound bites?

So, we want to be able to give them the forum to be able to talk in full sentences -- not so much our questions, but questions from the viewers and what they want to discuss.

KURTZ: You're suggesting that it's hard sometimes to get politicians off their chair (ph)?

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Did I say that? Or did you say that?

KURTZ: Well, I'll endorse that view.

ROBERTS: OK.

KURTZ: You cover, obviously, the Iraq war. It's dragged on for more than four years now, a bloody battle.

Is that a particularly depressing subject at 7 o'clock in the morning, and maybe sometimes programs shy away from doing it every day?

ROBERTS: That's a really fair question, and it's one that we debate, that we go through -- but not just us, I think all the morning shows.

I don't think so. It's because it's what's happening. It's how you go about in covering the story.

It's realizing that there are young people that are watching. It should be up to the parents to also, you know, whether or not their children should be watching a particular program.

But I don't think -- how can you not talk about something that is so much a part of what's going on in the world today, a part of the daily discussion in America?

KURTZ: Some people think there's Iraq fatigue, that there's a depressing sameness to the, you know, a car bomb exploded -- 20, 30, 40, 50 killed.

ROBERTS: People become desensitized, because they see those numbers and it doesn't even register with them anymore, which is just frightening to me. It's just frightening that they -- you know, that it's just commonplace to see that.

But I think that you have to stay on top of the story. We listen to what the viewers and what the public wants.

We do have a say. Of course, you want to be able to, when people look at our program, they have an idea of what we think we're -- what we're passionate about, what we feel should be talked about.

But we're very good about listening to the public. And I think that we don't see that enough. We dictate so much, and what we feel you ought to know. But it's got to be a two-way street.

KURTZ: After 8 o'clock in the morning, on "GOOD MORNING AMERICA," and the other morning shows, I see an awful lot of stories aimed at a certain group.

ROBERTS: Well, women -- could that be women? Is that where you're going? Is that what you're saying?

KURTZ: You know, losing weight, planning a wedding, parenting and all of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

ROBERTS: Well, we tell people, who want to -- who have seen this, and saying, you know, how can I take off this weight and keep it off.

DIANE SAWYER, CO-HOST, ABC'S "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Twenty- eight thousand dollars is the average wedding cost in America.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's amazing.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KURTZ: Does it become more of a women's show in the second hour?

ROBERTS: Well, our research has shown that, more times than not, after 8 o'clock, it tends to be more women that are still at home.

And so, I think if you look at the two hours that we have, you know, the 7 o'clock half-hour, let's get the news. Let's get people informed, things they need to know before they head out the door.

As the morning continues to progress, you know, we tend to then, yes, have fashion, have cooking and have those things.

But I love this, that some of our viewers are insulted by that. They're like, "How dare you think, because I'm a woman, that that's the only thing that I want to see and hear about?"

KURTZ: And what do you say to them?

ROBERTS: I say, well, yes, I say, write in, because sometimes they have more power than we do, because we feel that we, again, that we know what a woman wants and what she really wants to hear.

So I encourage people. If there's something you don't like, something they don't see, that you're doing that they don't like -- how often do you respond?

When you get a letter, when you get an e-mail -- when it's constructive ...

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: ... not just vicious, but it's actually constructive -- you look at that, and you rethink and go, "OK, maybe we should do something differently."

KURTZ: Do you worry that sometimes it gets too fluffy?

ROBERTS: I don't ever -- no, I don't think we get too fluffy.

I mean, there are times, if you notice, that Diane and I -- because you know, we're strong women. OK, we are.

And we know that there are a lot of intelligent women that are watching after 8 o'clock.

And so, I don't ever think we get too fluffy, but I think there are times that we have to just be more aware of the people who are watching. And it's not just people who want to see fashion and lose weight, and things like that.

So it's got to be a little more balanced.

KURTZ: You write in your book that religion is very important to you, personally.

What kind of job do you think the media do covering religion?

ROBERTS: I think we are better at doing that. I think that we're more open about talking about faith and religion. And I think, again, it's because people respond to that.

I was very fearful the first time that I did something talking about my faith. And it was a simple piece about morning routines, things that we do in the morning.

KURTZ: Why fearful?

ROBERTS: Because you don't do that. You don't let -- you're not supposed to -- we're not supposed to talk about faith. We're not supposed to let people -- I bought into that.

KURTZ: Yes.

ROBERTS: And so, we did the piece.

And the producer said, "No, this is very authentic. You're not trying to impress anybody here. This is your authentic self. Let's air this."

And it was a prayer that I say every morning.

That was about seven years ago. I'm telling you the truth. Barely a week has gone by that someone hasn't asked for that prayer.

KURTZ: Still?

ROBERTS: Still. That, you know, that much time later.

But I remember that distinctly. I was, like, oh, I don't know if I should do that. I don't think -- that's just not what you're supposed to do, but have become more comfortable with doing it since.

KURTZ: Talking about how much you reveal of yourself on camera, Hurricane Katrina. You went back to your home town, Pass Christian, Mississippi. The place was devastated, right?

ROBERTS: Yes, 90 percent.

KURTZ: Your family lives there.

You struggled, didn't you, to keep your emotions in check on the air.

ROBERTS: Yes, again, I did.

I was -- it was the morning after. And I remember it like yesterday, even though it's been almost two years.

And I cried like a baby. Didn't mean to. I gave my report, you know. I assessed the situation.

Then Charlie Gibson, my co-anchor at the time, you know, said, "Well, how's your mother?" He made it personal.

He said, "Well, how's your mom? How's your family?" Because I hadn't talked to them until, like, an hour before I went on the air.

KURTZ: Sure.

ROBERTS: I wept. And, yes, I thought, that's it.

Again, you don't show emotion. You're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to remain detached.

People are going to blame you for being too close to the story. How are you going to be able to cover the story, if they see you acting that way?

Just the opposite happened, Howie. People were, like, "Thank you. Somebody who's actually being real."

They're seeing something, they're devastated by it. They knew that was my home.

I explained that I had just talked to my mother, you know, less than an hour before I went on the air, and they were very sympathetic.

I don't think we give the audience enough credit. We, in the media, we, and people who make decisions, we just don't give them credit for being able to make their own decisions, for being able to know what they want to see, what's right with them, instead of us saying ... KURTZ: And to understand that journalists are not automatons and not robots. They have feelings. Sometimes those feelings are going to show.

You spent most of your career in sports.

ROBERTS: Yes.

KURTZ: When you were growing up, were there many black women in sports broadcasting?

ROBERTS: In sportscasting?

I remember Jayne Kennedy. She was the only one, that worked for a time, NFL TODAY with Phyllis George. But that was about -- that was about it.

So I didn't have anybody, really, to model myself after.

KURTZ: When you started doing that, did you have to go through the ritual of interviewing male athletes in the locker room?

ROBERTS: Ah, the old locker room question. Oh, yes.

You know what? My entire time in sports -- hated it, hated going into the locker room, uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable from day one, the last day that I went in.

But I was looking for equal access to the athlete, not equal access into the locker room. I needed to get to the athlete to keep my job. And that's what I wanted equal access to.

But yes, I don't miss -- I don't miss the old locker room that much at all.

KURTZ: You were happy to move on from that?

ROBERTS: No, I'm happy to move on from that.

KURTZ: When you went to work at Atlanta station, WAGA, there was a newspaper article that said that, as a black woman you were a "twofer." Were you offended by that?

ROBERTS: To tell you the truth, I had to call my mom and say, yes, this reporter -- and it was like a really flattering article.

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: You know, and I'm saying, "What's a twofer, Mom?"

And she goes, "You're a double minority."

"I'm a huh?"

"You're black and you're a woman. So, technically, your employer can check off two on the old box." And I was like, "Oh."

But what I became -- my family became angry with me.

The reporter -- again a flattering article -- she refers to me as a twofer, basically saying that I got the job because I'm a black and a woman.

And I kind of went along with her. I'm going, yes, I guess that did help.

And my parents quickly, especially a brother-in-law, said, "You can't help what other people are going to say about you or how they feel about you. But you know how hard you have worked. You know the work you've put into getting in that position."

So, I've never -- I didn't grow up in an environment where we talked about race or we talked about gender. Very aware of it.

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: My father was a Tuskegee Airman, the first black flying air corps in the military. Very aware of it, but never made it an issue.

KURTZ: But did you feel at the time that it did help?

You know, there's always, sometimes, fairly or unfairly, resentment in newsrooms among, say, white journalists did so-and-so. Is that kind of slot reserved for minorities?

So, did it help or not?

ROBERTS: That's a fair question. No, I don't feel it helped at all.

Did it help in my employer having to be ...

KURTZ: Was it an obstacle?

ROBERTS: Did it help in that my employer had to be aware ...

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: ... and had to look?

But I'm telling you, if you can't do the job, you're not going to -- you're not going to keep your job. That's just it.

I don't care who you are, if you're not good at what you do, you're not going to keep your job.

And so, was it an obstacle? Did it help me?

All I knew is that I was working as hard as I could. And I was very thankful and very blessed that I found people who saw something in me, helped me, nurtured me and supported me.

And there are plenty of people also that, you know, I'd send a tape and they're like, you know, get out of here.

Now could I -- was it because I was black? Was it because I was a woman? Or was it, I just wasn't good enough?

You know, bottom line, I didn't get the job.

KURTZ: Can you send us some of those early tapes?

ROBERTS: Oh, Lord! No, no, no, no, no. I don't know you that well.

KURTZ: All right.

(END VIDEO)

KURTZ: When we come back, Robin Roberts on why she was reluctant to leave ESPN, which famous athlete gave her advice, and the unusual lineup of two women fronting a morning show.

More of my interview in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: More now of my interview with GOOD MORNING AMERICA's Robin Roberts in New York.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

KURTZ: When you were at ESPN, you said that you didn't really have any desire to get into the news side of this.

Why was that?

ROBERTS: Because I had just -- in my mind, I always wanted to be an athlete. First and foremost, I wanted to be a pro athlete.

Couldn't do that, and so I wanted to then get into sports journalism. Did that.

KURTZ: Now, sports was in your blood, whether it was playing it or covering it.

ROBERTS: That's it, exactly it. It was in my DNA, part of my DNA. So that's all I thought about.

And then I kept getting opportunities, and it was almost like a reflex -- no.

"You want to ..."

"No."

And then I realized, why am I saying no? Is it just because that's what I've always said?

And then I realized, I looked up and said, you know what? I'm doing sports news.

The trials that we covered -- O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, the steroids scandal -- I got away from the fun and games of why I wanted to be in sports, and realized that I was.

KURTZ: It wasn't just a box score anymore.

ROBERTS: No.

KURTZ: It's all the problems of society ...

ROBERTS: Yes, exactly.

KURTZ: ... as reflected in these leagues, so ...

ROBERTS: Well, look at this. You know, here you have Hank Aaron's record is about to fall. You know, normally that would be such a great story.

But, of course, it's all the scandal with Barry Bonds. Did he take steroids? Did he not?

And something like a home run record, you can't even really thoroughly enjoy anymore.

KURTZ: I guess it was 1999 the first time you filled in for Diane Sawyer ...

ROBERTS: Yes.

KURTZ: ... on GMA, on the set.

Were you nervous?

ROBERTS: My knee was doing like this.

KURTZ: Really?

ROBERTS: My knee was like underneath there, and Charlie had to reach down. And he was like, you know, "You're going to be all right, darling."

In part because Diane Sawyer -- anyone that's going to be working for her at that moment, you know that eyes were going to be on you. So, I really wanted to be able to do a good job in that regard.

But also, I was a little bit out of my comfort zone. You know, I was really young.

Yes, I was a journalist. Yes, I had been covering different events, but there was something different.

And you know, sitting next to Charlie Gibson at the time, I mean, you've got to raise your game. So, I was very thankful that they were very accepting.

I think what we're doing now with young journalists that we see coming up, that we're working with, I'm doing the payback now.

KURTZ: Several years later, 2005, you got the offer of this coveted job, co-hosting "Good Morning America", and you hesitated.

ROBERTS: Yes.

KURTZ: What was there to think about it? Nobody turns down these jobs.

ROBERTS: I know. That's the funny thing.

I didn't realize, Howie -- that's a funny thing -- didn't look behind me and see the line of people, like, "You don't want it? Well, I'll take it."

KURTZ: Yes.

ROBERTS: And it took a friend of mine, Billie Jean King, who basically said, oh, snap out of it, you know. What are you doing? Of course ...

KURTZ: What was the source of your hesitation?

ROBERTS: My source of my hesitation was fear. That's always the source of -- with anyone.

Why don't you do something? Because you fear -- the fear of failure, that you're not going to be able to do it.

I got quiet, and I realized I wasn't afraid. I was afraid of what other people would think. I was afraid that people would tune in and go, "You know, I liked her on ESPN, but, oh, come on. Good Morning? What is she thinking?" You know?

And then when I realized it wasn't my fear, but that, I'm like, what am I doing? Why am I limiting myself?

Why am I -- and that's the one thing I thought with, after awhile with sports. I was limiting myself.

And I never would have had the opportunity to do the stories that I have done -- Hurricane Katrina, going on and on and on -- had I not, you know, ventured outside of my comfort zone.

KURTZ: When we think of morning show anchors, we think of Matt and Meredith, Charlie and Diane.

You and Diane, it's unusual, two women as that kind of combination. Does that change the show?

ROBERTS: We've been doing it for so long with the three of us, and then one would be gone and it was like a combination. You know what Diane and I love the most? No one's really talking about it, the fact that it's not shocking to people, you know, that they see us.

We work together. We're good at what we do. We obviously respect and like each other so much.

I love the fact that there hasn't been slapped across news headlines, you know, "Two women anchoring a morning show for the first time." I think that's a real compliment to the public, again, for not being all, whoa, you have to have a ...

KURTZ: It doesn't have to be a Ken and Barbie setup.

ROBERTS: Yes, that kind of bit.

Well, that we broke the mold with having three co-anchors. And I always wondered, is three a "co," when there Charles, Diane and myself? Is that still "co"? Or is it a tri ...

KURTZ: It's a triumvirate.

ROBERTS: ... or whatever.

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: But I think that we've been very aggressive in changing the look of morning television.

KURTZ: Robin Roberts, thanks very much for letting us sit down with you here at "Good Morning America".

ROBERTS: You're very welcome. Thank you. Come back any time.

(END VIDEO)

KURTZ: Turning now to our e-mail, a lot of you wrote this week about my commentary on whether some of the fringe candidates should be kicked off the stage in the presidential debates. Here is some of what you had to say.

Takahashi from Japan writes, "Many Japanese follow your show. The big debate recently in Japanese circles who are interested in American politics is about the Ron Paul effect. We want to know more about him."

David from Seattle said, "Shame on you for saying that the 'also rans' should not be in the debates. The last time I checked not a single vote or caucus has been held. The only way most of these voices can be heard is with the public forums."

And Thomas from Boulder, Colorado, writes, "Why on earth would you seek to silence voices who don't agree with the so-called 'mainstream' candidates? Another word for mainstream is 'bought and paid for.' So you want the American public only to be able to see the bought and paid for candidates?" Well, even the lesser candidates have to raise money to run for president.

Up next, a presidential campaign marked by extramarital affairs, and a first lady who boycotts her husband's victory suite. So, why haven't we heard about that? Because it's in a place that winks at such things.

The sordid details after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Spouses are a very big deal in presidential politics. It's the American way.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

KURTZ (voice-over): The Hillary campaign sometimes seems to be largely about Bill. The most newsworthy event of John Edwards' campaign has been the cancer battle of his wife, Elizabeth.

Some are questioning whether Rudy Giuliani's third wife, Judith -- his former mistress -- would make a suitable first lady.

But this media focus on marriages barely seems to exist in France.

Take the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy. It's not even clear whether he's going to have a first lady. His wife, Cecilia, is a former model who says she would be bored as a traditional first lady.

Two years ago, Cecilia left her husband -- who was said to be having an affair -- and took up with another Frenchman. "Paris Match" published some photos of the couple.

Then, reports "New York Times" columnist, Maureen Dowd, Sarkozy got angry at his friend, Arnaud Lagardere, who owns "Paris Match," and the magazine's editor was soon fired.

Cecilia returned to Sarkozy. But when he was elected earlier this month, she didn't even show up for his victory speech. She did deign to make an appearance at a rally that night.

What about Sarkozy's opponent, Segolene Royal? She isn't married to the father of her four children, Francois Hollande -- and, in fact, elbowed him aside to run for the Socialist Party nomination.

Of course, the French take such things in stride. When Francois Mitterrand was president, no one got terribly upset when it was revealed he'd had a daughter with his mistress, Anne Pingeot. And when he died a decade ago, his mistress attended the funeral -- along with his widow.

(END VIDEO) KURTZ (on camera): Can you imagine what the American media would do if a candidate's wife ran off with another man and then didn't show up when he won the presidency? Or if a candidate had several children without benefit of marriage?

Would journalists and pundits be able to talk about anything else?

The French had trouble understanding why the Monica Lewinsky affair was such a big deal. I confess that it's hard for me grasp why President Sarkozy's unusual marriage is such a small deal.

But, c'est la vie.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER begins right now.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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