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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Crime Stories; Were News Orgs Used to Hype Plot to Bomb JFK Airport?

Aired June 10, 2007 - 10:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Crime stories. As conservative pundits demand a pardon for Scooter Libby, who faces two-and-a-half years behind bars, Paris Hilton mysteriously gets sprung from jail after three days before heading back to the slammer.

Which story do you think is consuming more media oxygen?

Terror talk. Were news organizations used to hype the plot to bomb Kennedy airport when those arrested had no explosives or anything else?

Debatable. Is the press too quick to pick winners and losers in these presidential showdowns? And the candidates pushing back against some of CNN's questions.

Plus, Stray Rod. Why are reporters snooping into Alex Rodriguez's off-the-field affairs?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Deep down, even so-called serious news organizations love to jump on the hot celebrity story of the moment, utterly meaningless thought it may be, so they can milk it for audience share. But what they need is a pretext, a fig leaf, some larger debate that will allow them to dress up the tawdry tale as a matter of major cultural significance.

So, when Paris Hilton was released from jail after serving a mere days of her sentence and confined to her West Hollywood mansion, news executives said almost in unison, all right. On the network newscasts, which normally disdain such doings, Brian Williams initially took a pass on Paris media, but Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric joined the frenzy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: The bar for outrage over celebrity behavior is set pretty high in Hollywood these days. But Paris Hilton's very early release from jail has brought howls of protests and cries of a double standard.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: There are thousands of ailing inmates in prisons who never get out early. So why did she get out? (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Every show around soon dived into the great Paris debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: I mean, are we just so pathetic and so lonely that we have to live through people like Paris Hilton?

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: This is simply unacceptable. The justice system is supposed to be the same for everyone. Obviously it is not.

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: This is what you guys do. And Matt, I don't think you're happy about covering this story. I think you'd rather cover the serious stuff.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: By Friday, when Hilton was sent back to court, just look at what happened when reporters and photographers surrounded her car.

Have we got that?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Treated another way if you're the average Joe. Paris Hilton actually shown a spotlight on this by being treated so extraordinarily specially. The court had to intervene, which meant that the court had to get back involved in a case that it thought it had...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The ride to the L.A. courthouse got the full helicopter treatment. And when the judge ordered her back to jail, the coverage turned from relentless to ridiculous. And even Brian Williams had to join the party on "NBC Nightly News".

Joining us now, Blanquita Cullum, who hosts a radio talk show here in Washington, and Matthew Felling of the CBS News Web site "Public Eye".

When I watch this virtually wall-to-wall coverage for eight or nine hours on Friday, the celebrity experts, the helicopter shots, following her car like it was O.J.'s white Bronco, I said, "I have got to find a new profession."

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: What did you think?

MATTHEW FELLING, "PUBLIC EYE": Well, no. Earlier this week, back on Tuesday, when we were still having the justice debate, don't you remember it was about class warfare back on Tuesday, when it was, oh, she can't -- she can't buy her way out of this jail sentence. And everybody thought, oh, you know what? This is a fable. It's a precautionary tale.

And there is a place for that sort of thing in the news media. But then by Friday, you said it, wall-to-wall coverage. And sometimes you need wall-to-wall coverage for something. You need 9/11 wall to wall.

O.J. even -- I mean, if there is a body count, if there's people's lives at risk, then wall-to-wall coverage. But this was wall to wall, when it really needed just a floor mat, a doormat. And I think it was really depressing.

We've got G8, we've got Iraq. We've got Putin and Bush kind of at odds with each other. And it was -- we hit excessive on Friday. And we're a whole new place now.

KURTZ: Let me also bring in, in Massachusetts, Rachel Maddow, the host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America Radio.

And Rachel, is this, at least on some level, a serious issue about celebrity justice, or is that an excuse for stuffy news organizations to wallow in the great Paris cesspool?

RACHEL MADDOW, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I think that we're wallowing. But I think the most interesting thing about it is that we feel really guilty about wallowing.

The conversation we're having right now is a conversation that is actually a pretty mainstream reaction to the Paris coverage. I think that we feel really guilty about how badly we want to cover celebrities. And so part of what is going on is that we're baying for blood. And we want a human sacrifice here.

That's why people were so upset about her getting out of jail. We ought to draw and corner her, or drop her from a plane without a parachute into Times Square or something and get our collective cultural angst over about this.

KURTZ: That's funny, Blanquita Cullum, because when I was watching the breathless, relentless coverage on the cable networks Thursday and Friday, I didn't detect a whole lot of guilt.

BLANQUITA CULLUM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: No, no. But you know what Paris Hilton is? She's junk food.

OK, we're stressed out. You named all of the things that are going wrong with the world.

OK, there is Iraq, there is the G8, there's all -- we're all kind of like this. Where can we -- what can we watch, what can bring us some relief without making us really crazy that we feel good about? It's junk food? It's like reading the rags. You know?

You can talk about Paris and you don't feel like you're doing anything that's so serious against anybody because you can -- you can slice her, you can dice her, you can say, yes, I'm glad she's in the slammer. But she's not your family. She's not your country. She's not your world.

She's junk food.

KURTZ: But even organization that usually have a high fiber diet, Matthew Felling, felt compelled to join here.

For example, on Thursday, "The New York Times" gave -- this is the day that Paris Hilton was suddenly taken out of jail for three days. One paragraph in "The New York Times". The next day, front page story.

Brian Williams, I mentioned, nothing on "NBC Nightly News" Thursday. Near the top of the newscast on Friday.

So -- and Eugene Robinson of "The Washington Post," a columnist who usually writes about important matters, writes that Paris Hilton's great talent is for celebrity. Paris wins. We're all watching.

But we're all watching because we're putting it on the air.

FELLING: Yes, exactly. And I wonder when we're going to get to the point, the tipping point, where we just think, you know what, enough is enough? And I would like to think that maybe this is story where we finally just throw up our hands and say, you know what? We just made a whole lot -- a whole lot of air time out of nothing.

And I think you were talking about how it was all over the place. And on Friday, we had a new media critic added to the ranks. Tommy Chong was invited by MSNBC...

CULLUM: Oh my god.

KURTZ: Explain who he is.

FELLING: Tommy Chong is a very famous -- very famous for being high throughout most of the '70s.

KURTZ: Cheech and Chong.

FELLING: Yes, exactly.

CULLUM: Cheech and Chong.

FELLING: Cheech and Chong.

They brought him in on MSNBC. Contessa Brewer sat there and said, "Can you believe what is happening to Paris?" And Tommy Chong actually sat back and said, "Who died? Who embezzled money? Why are we talking about this?"

CULLUM: Well...

FELLING: And I thought, when Tommy Chong is the voice of reason, we are down a rabbit hole deep.

CULLUM: ... did you see the article in yesterday's "New York Post" written by Andrea Peyser calling -- saying "Sobbing Slut Finds Star Power Useless"? And it basically says, "For the first time in human history in the state of California, where Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson run free and Britney Spears is permitted to breed, a useless celebutard was told a simple and completely unfamiliar word, 'No'."

So basically, the superior court justice, Michael Sauer, has now turned into Paris Hilton's mother and said the one word that no one ever said to her, "No." You go to jail.

FELLING: I have never heard of celebutard myself.

CULLUM: Well, it's right here. Let me show it to you right here.

KURTZ: Rachel Maddow, I'm not saying this is not a story. There's a lot of interest in Paris Hilton. She did get this jail term. She suddenly got out. There was a fight between the L.A. sheriff and the court system.

But this is, after all, about a 45-day sentence for driving with a suspended license. And yet, we all treated it like it was a constitutional crisis.

MADDOW: The outrage here is not about suspend -- driving with a suspended license. The outrage is not about DUI. The outrage is not about the balance of power between the sheriff department and the superior court.

The outrage here is about a celebrity getting their comeuppance. And I also think it is about how guilty we feel about how much time we spend covering them.

We hate ourselves for the amount of celebrity coverage we all digest. But yet we keep doing it. And we just need to bate for a little blood every now and then to make us ourselves feel better about what we do that we know that is so bad for us.

CULLUM: And Rachel, I just wanted to say, the other thing is also about whether she gets a body cavity search and they take off her hair extensions.

KURTZ: You know, you touched on this earlier, Blanquita. And we see this with Lindsay Lohan going into rehab...

CULLUM: Right.

KURTZ: And Britney and her antics, and so forth.

Is there something out there that we are trying to tap into where people love to hate this airhead heiress, as "The New York Daily News" called her? In other words, these days you can't hate any ethnic group, you can't hate just about anybody, but can you hate Paris Hilton.

CULLUM: Right. Right. You can hate a blonde white chick. OK? You can hate a blonde white chick who is really so self-absorbed and so -- such a vacuous personality that we all can dislike her. We'll watch her fashion sense. We like to see what the girls are doing. We like to see her pose and say, "It's hot."

But we also want to see her get her comeuppance. Because bottom line is, Americans don't like people who are worthless. We like people that have a standard.

KURTZ: And this raises the question, Matthew Felling, as what she is famous for in the first place. I mean, really, she was kind of a seedless (ph) celebrity until that homemade sex tape bounced around the Internet.

FELLING: Yes, talk about body cavity search.

No, but I mean, she was...

CULLUM: Oh my goodness.

FELLING: ... she was famous sort of as a brand name. She was famous for having all this money inherited from daddy and granddaddy, and all these...

(CROSSTALK)

CULLUM: ... the competition.

FELLING: Hey. It's family hour right now.

KURTZ: Somebody hose her down.

(LAUGHTER)

FELLING: But at the end of the day, I mean, it's Paris Hilton. And by the way, did you know her show is premiering tonight? And I think that there is -- I don't know if this is going to really work out well...

CULLUM: What, are we going to hold a candle for her? Are we going to hold a Paris vigil for her?

MADDOW: You know, the opposite of -- the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifferent. And we are anything but indifferent to Paris Hilton.

We are obsessed with her. And it's not just about not loving her. It's not just about thinking she's worthless. We get something out of hating her as a culture.

KURTZ: And lest we be accused of being unfair to Paris Hilton, let me read a statement that was put out while she's behind bars in Los Angeles.

"I was shocked," she says, "to see all of the attention devoted to the amount of time I would spend in jail for what I had done by the media, public and city officials. I would hope going forward that the public and the media will focus on more important things like the men and women serving our country in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world."

CULLUM: Oh, they're enjoying this, too. They're enjoying this, too.

KURTZ: The number of people who think that that was written by her handlers, raise your hand.

CULLUM: Oh, yes, all of us.

KURTZ: All right. Very good.

CULLUM: And the fact of the matter is, I mean, it's not enough that Paris have the statement come out, but then she wanted to call in her appearance at the court. She didn't even want to have to go in and really meet with the real people. She wanted to call in.

MADDOW: Oh, who cares if she thought she could phone in or had to be there? We just want pictures of her. That's all we want. We're desperate to have Paris on TV.

KURTZ: All right. Let's move on to something marginally more important.

The story broke last weekend, federal authorities making four arrests initially in the plot to blow up the fuel tanks at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Bill O'Reilly had this to say on FOX News about "The New York Times" coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: We have a breaking story we want to get to involving a terror plot allegedly targeting a New York City airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An international terror plot designed to unleash unthinkable devastation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The target, the jet fuel supply at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the New York City borough of Queens.

O'REILLY: The motive behind "The Times" playing down JFK is the Giuliani factor. The Republican candidate is getting lots of mileage out of the war on terror, and "The Times" is worried. The paper doesn't like the mayor and understands the war on terror is a weak point for many of the Democratic candidates. The paper favors a Democrat in the White House next time around, any Democrat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Obviously we showed some of the other coverage and then we got to O'Reilly. "The New York Times" did not put this story on page one. Did -- does O'Reilly have a point? Was that underplayed?

FELLING: Well, I think -- well,, first of all, Paris Hilton made the front page of "The New York Times" yesterday. So you're showing the priorities of "The New York Times".

And I think reasonable people can disagree about the JFK plot, because I was talking with some of the correspondents at CBS this weekend. And they said, you know what? After you looked at the press conference, after you looked at the facts, you saw that these guys had no bankroll. The leader was in his 60s. And all of his attendants were in their 50s.

It just didn't fit the normal profile we have of a serious threat. And when I see that clip from NBC saying "unthinkable devastation," you know, if you just advance the story a little bit longer, you realize that there are some fail-safe switches. And you realize that this was a little bit blown out of proportion.

KURTZ: "The New York Times" ombudsman this morning says it was a very good story, but it should have been on the front page. The national editor of "The Times," Suzanne Daley, says, "The plotters had yet to lay out plans. They had no financing, nor did they have any explosives."

So, let me turn it around, Rachel Maddow.

Was this hyped by television? It wasn't anywhere near being able to be carried out.

MADDOW: I think that you saw an interesting divide in the coverage between news outlets that essentially parroted what the Justice Department said, which was the "unthinkable devastation," "next 9/11" line. And then you saw news outlets that actually looked into the feasibility of whether or not this was a real world threat with real world implications, and those outlets played it down. I that is actually the more responsible approach to have taken.

It should also be noted that "The New York Times" didn't have a front page, above-the-fold headline on it. They did have a small below-the-fold headline on the day -- on the front page on the day that O'Reilly says they didn't.

KURTZ: They're saying read the story on the metro front.

Go ahead.

MADDOW: That's exactly right.

CULLUM: Well, the bottom line is it was good news, OK? It may not have had as much funding. They maybe weren't as sophisticated. But the bottom line is, it was good news for people who are concerned that terrorists are going to happen in this country and no one is watching. So, "The New York Times," I think, really should have had it on the front page. KURTZ: All right. Last word.

Blanquita Cullum, Matthew Felling, Rachel Maddow, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

When we come back, Scooter Libby draws a stiff jail term, and conservative pundits demand a Bush pardon. That's not exactly the position they took over President Clinton's Lewinsky testimony, is it?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) *

KURTZ: If we can tear ourselves away from Paris for just a moment, there's another legal case that is arguably a tad more important involving Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.

No sooner had a judge sentenced Scooter Libby to two-and-a-half years for perjury this week in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, then the pundits started debating whether President Bush should pardon him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MORT KONDRACKE, FOX NEWS: Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury. It is a serious offense. I think he should serve some time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My view is that the man lied under oath, according to the jury.

PAT ROBERTSON, MSNBC: What is the justification?

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC: The justification is that two-and-a-half years in prison, a $250,000 fine, 4,000 hours of community service when you have two little kids is disproportionately harsh as a sentence, considering that people lie all the time, including under oath, including the former president, and don't go to jail. I mean, it's just a ridiculous sentence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic"; Amy Holmes, conservative commentator here in Washington; and Jake Tapper, senior national correspondent for ABC News.

Jake Tapper, which do you think has gotten more coverage this week, the former top aide to the vice president of the United States facing two-and-a-half years for perjury in a CIA leak case, or Paris Hilton?

What was that first one you mentioned?

(LAUGHTER)

Obviously, Miss Hilton.

KURTZ: And "World News" -- did Hilton...

Pierre Thomas did an excellent piece where he talked about a similar situation by somebody who was not famous who actually had to go to prison, had to stay in prison because of a medical condition, and died in prison. I mean, it was actually very thought-provoking, and I was proud of the way ABC covered that.

MICHELLE COTTLE, SR. EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": But come on, Howie, have you ever seen Scooter Libby in a micro mini? There's just no comparison. It's not going to happen. I'm sorry.

KURTZ: I have no response to that.

Amy Holmes, some of your fellow conservative commentators have been demanding, as I mentioned, that Bush pardon Libby.

Here is Bill Kristol, editor of "The Weekly Standard".

"For President Bush, loyalty is apparently a one-way street. Decency is something he's for, as long as he doesn't have to take any risks in its behalf. And courage -- well, that's nowhere to be seen."

Decency? The man was convicted of perjury.

AMY HOLMES, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: That's right. And it's sort of -- it's creating a conflict among conservatives, and between law and order versus team loyalty.

But what I think about -- what I think is interesting about this is that it's been set up as a political issue, not a legal issue. Even Paris Hilton is getting more attention for the justice of the sentence that she received. Whereas with Scooter Libby, this is a man, this is his life, 30 months in prison, and when we've already moved on to the pardon phase of the story.

KURTZ: Weren't some of the conservative pundits who are now screaming for a pardon for Libby, during the Clinton impeachment talking endlessly, relentlessly about the rule of law and how important it was that the president had lied to a grand jury about Lewinsky and it wasn't about the sex, it was about the lying?

You see a double standard here?

COTTLE: You're not suggesting there is a double standard in partisan politics, are you?

KURTZ: I'm asking for your enlightened opinion.

COTTLE: Of course there is. That's what it's all about. And the Scooter Libby case has always been highly politicized, because in part it absolutely reflects on the Iraq war issue. And everybody wants to get in there and try and find a new way to dig up what was going on with the administration, and try to bring this all back to kind of what was covered up and the hot topic of Iraq.

TAPPER: And we should say, Howie, also, you're absolutely right. There is tremendous hypocrisy on the right of all the people who called for rule of law during the Clinton impeachment now saying it has no meaning.

But at the same time, there is also a huge Democratic hypocrisy. All the people who were claiming that there was an out-of-control prosecutor in Ken Starr are now saying, hey, what about the rule of law? And it should shock nobody, of course.

KURTZ: Remind us why this case, which has gone on for four years now, has gotten so much attention from the media? Do you think that Libby and what he said to reporters about whether or not he was involved in leaking the name -- remember he was only charged with lying, he wasn't charged with the underlying leak. Do you think that whole thing became kind of a proxy trial for the Bush administration's process of the Iraq war?

TAPPER: Yes, of course. That's exactly right.

I mean, it became, rightly or wrongly, about the administration's case for war, the administration's very, very fierce and ferocious pushback against Ambassador Joe Wilson, who was disputing claims about the uranium in Niger. And it became a way to go after -- even though ultimately people in the press corps I think don't have any disdain necessarily for Scooter Libby personally, I think a lot of people who have met him like him, it became a way to talk about the things that were not true that the administration said leading up to the war.

HOLMES: But I would jump in here, too, and say that this was an inside-the-beltway obsession. And I think the fact that reporters did have a personal relationship with Scooter Libby, that there was this tantalizing prospect of Vice President Cheney, you know, sitting there in the docket being -- getting the Q&A...

KURTZ: And wasn't it an inside-the-beltway obsession because journalists were hauled to testify, because Judith Miller went to jail...

HOLMES: Yes.

KURTZ: ... because, in other words, our fate was tied up in this whole legal procedure?

HOLMES: I believe that, and I believe also that journalists' egos were tied up in this, in the sense that they know the players, they talk to the players, you know, on the phone.

COTTLE: Journalists find nothing so fascinating as ourselves. I mean, this was all about us on some level, and leaks, and whether or not there was going to be protection for sources and things like this. This fundamentally became about the media.

TAPPER: But it also became about the vice president. I think a lot of people suspect that Scooter Libby has become something -- some of the jurors themselves said that Scooter Libby was a fall guy for the administration. And I think there is a large suspicion, unfounded, it turned out, that this was going to lead to some sort of major league election against the vice president.

KURTZ: Well, I don't see how Michelle can be part of such a self-absorbed profession.

We have to get a break.

Up next, some harrowing pictures of Princess Diana draw an emotional protest from her sons.

And George Bush gracing the cover of a most unlikely magazine.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

If there is one hallmark of how the media covered presidential campaigns these days, it would be this: who's up, who's down, who's hot and who's not? We saw this winners and losers mentality again this week, twice, in fact, when CNN hosted the Democratic and Republican debates in New Hampshire. It wasn't so much what the candidates said, but how they said it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: My headline tonight is that this is John McCain's night.

DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC: The big winner? Fred Thompson.

JOSEPHINE HEARN, POLITICO.COM: The loser, I would say, would be Rudy Giuliani.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, CO WEEKLY: I've got to say I think Romney was the loser. I mean, he was barely speaking English tonight.

FRED BARNES, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: John McCain needed a good debate. There have been three now. And this is the one he was really good in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Let me bring back our all-star political panel: Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic"; Amy Holmes, conservative commentator who was with CNN in New Hampshire; and Jake Tapper, senior national correspondent for ABC News.

Jake, you were there in New Hampshire for the Republican debate this week. What is the level of journalistic interest in these debates? ABC's "World News" didn't do a story on it, neither did the other broadcast networks.

TAPPER: "Good Morning America" did it the next morning. I think, you know, that's more of a reflection of the quick media cycle than it is lack of interest. The debate takes place at night. The next morning we cover it on ABC News.

KURTZ: And by 24 hours later?

TAPPER: Yes, we're on to the next thing, unless there is some major development. And there are so many of these debates. And they're not always, let's be honest, the most significant events.

KURTZ: What about the way that they -- what about the post-game talk? We saw some of that. Is it a little silly to say, well, Rudy won -- no, no, McCain won? In other words, reduce it to a kind of a box score approach?

TAPPER: I think when there is no clear winner, yes. It is idiotic.

KURTZ: OK. Don't pull any punches here.

And Michelle Cottle, the substance of what is said at these debates sometimes gets glossed over. For example, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said in this debate this week that Saddam Hussein kicked out the U.N. weapons inspectors before the Iraq war started. Well, that's completely untrue, and yet almost no news organization remarked on that.

COTTLE: Look, these debates are all about, you know -- they're fake events at this point. Nobody is paying attention except the politically obsessed anyway. And what this is an opportunity for these guys to come out, throw red meat to the base, kind of show their stuff in terms of their presentation skills and things like, and then go back and do it again in another couple of weeks.

It's what they're actually coming out -- they're not launching any new policies or any surprising -- you know, they don't have to be that accurate.

KURTZ: Fake events? I mean, after all, most of the country doesn't know very much about most of these candidates. This is a chance for them to talk for two hours about policy.

Why is that not something that we all ought to pay attention to?

HOLMES: Sure, I would have to disagree with that. And in fact, I believe that the Democratic debate got over two million viewers and the Republican debate nearly two million viewers. That is a lot o people, more people than watch, you know, cable news oftentimes.

KURTZ: Unless Paris Hilton is up.

HOLMES: Right. But, you know, I would say, Howie, that there used to be at least this sort of obligatory ritualistic handwringing. Overall, it's a horse race and we're just talking about who is up and who's down in the polls, and this does a disservice to the deliberative process. It seem the media has thrown that out the window and, you know, has said, well, that's all that these debates are worth.

But I would point to Mike Huckabee. Like, finally, by the third debate, the media started noticing that he is witty, he is warm, he's thoughtful. But again, the media has already decided what the story is, which is, and he's a vice-presidential candidate.

KURTZ: I see. He remains in the lower tier.

You want to respond?

COTTLE: You're talking about two million people watching. That is -- that's a lot like what watches cable news. And that is a fraction of what watches "American Idol" or something like that.

The people watching these debates already know about a lot of these candidates. They already are following these on CNN and stuff like this. And what we're talking about is we are still so far out that it's not going to have a big impact.

Mike Huckabee may be getting a lot of interesting press after these debates. And in end, it's just not going to matter when it comes down to it.

KURTZ: I follow this very closely, and I don't know that much about Mike Huckabee's positions and everything, or Sam Brownback's, or Tom Tancredo's, or even Mike Gravel's.

But let's take a look at some of the questions that the CNN moderator, Wolf Blitzer, posed to the candidates this week in New Hampshire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Clinton, do you regret voting to authorize the president to use force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq without actually reading the national intelligence estimate?

Senator Biden, why are you reluctant to say now they were wrong and you were right?

You made, Governor Romney, this decision on abortion, opposing abortion relatively recently. Why should conservatives out there, people who oppose abortion believe you?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And in some instances, some of the candidates pushed back against Blitzer's questions.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Raise your hand if you believe English should be the official language of the United States.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That kind of question...

BLITZER: All right. Hold on.

OBAMA: This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: What did you think of the questions? And what did you think of the way the candidates sometimes challenged the premise of the questions?

TAPPER: The "raise your hand" -- I mean, look, I thought Wolf did an admirable job. It's very difficult to have a debate with 10 candidates on one hand and eight on the other. The main reason is because it's very difficult to get any sort of substantive answer when you're asking for shows of hand, or even if you ask a question and there is only one minute of answer.

COTTLE: If we were serious about wanting to know what these candidates' positions are and things like that, we wouldn't do things like yes or no questions or pose things like, "Would you nuke Iran?" I mean, these are designed specifically to get kind of simplistic answers from these guys.

KURTZ: And, in fact, Hillary Clinton objected to that hypothetical question about dealing with Iran. And I'm not big on hypotheticals either, but they seem to have become a staple of these debates.

COTTLE: Well, absolutely. And the whole point is to get these people to draw imaginary lines in the sand. "I would never do this. I would never do that."

These are not questions or events used to actually get substantive readings on these candidates.

HOLMES: But I would say, you know, when Hillary Clinton was saying, "We're not going to answer hypotheticals," well, that's what a presidential campaign is, the hypothetical possibility that you would be president. So the American public, this person viewing, should -- you know, should get the answer of how you'd do it. But...

COTTLE: But we complain endlessly about how these guys oversimplify things or do partisan kind of polarizing stuff. And then we encourage them to do it. We goad them to take simplistic positions (ph).

HOLMES: But I would...

TAPPER: It's a huge catch-22, because you have two hours of debate which is already just interminable. That's so long for a debate.

The questions that Wolf was asking, and Chris Matthews and Brian Williams and others, and Stephanopoulos will ask, are designed to elicit information in as quick a time as possible.

HOLMES: But some of them...

TAPPER: But if you ask somebody, "What is your health care policy?" you don't want to listen to Tommy Thompson...

HOLMES: Right.

TAPPER: ... or Barack Obama spend 15 minutes outlining a detailed health care policy.

HOLMES: Sure. But I think you would also have to say, though, sometimes the questions are designed really to create conflict.

You saw Wolf, you know, saying to Mitt Romney, you have John McCain on the stage with you, who said X, Y, Z about you. He said, oh, "John McCain is my friend." So they're trying to create...

KURTZ: But isn't that what journalists do?

HOLMES: But it's trying to create those sound...

KURTZ: Trying to draw distinctions?

HOLMES: You create those sound bite moments, those flash point moments.

KURTZ: You're saying it's an effort that's generating false controversy?

HOLMES: Well, sometimes false controversy. Why are the candidates being asked about Scooter Libby? Pardoning Scooter Libby? This has nothing to do with a future president candidate.

TAPPER: Something -- Wolf was quoting something John McCain said -- Wolf was quoting something John McCain said that was very clearly about Mitt Romney and trying to get Mitt Romney to give a response. That's what it was.

(CROSSTALK)

COTTLE: But what he wants to set up is a cat fight on the stage. I mean, that's the whole...

TAPPER: No, the cat fight is there. The cat fight is there. He's trying to make sure that the candidates are honest and open about the cat fight. The fact that Mitt Romney said, well, John's my friend, he campaigned for me twice...

KURTZ: Right.

TAPPER: ... that might be true, but it's also kind of phony. These guys are viciously going at each other.

KURTZ: I'm pro cat fight, particularly if it deals with -- particularly if it deals with a matter of substance.

Now, before the Democratic debate was even over, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, one of the eight candidates on that stage, his people put out a time clock, a graphic -- I think we have it here -- showing the amount of time that -- and this is obviously updated to reflect the final outcome. Dodd got, let's see here, about eight minutes, compared to 16 minutes for Barack Obama and 14 minutes for Hillary Clinton.

So is there some responsibility, Michelle Cottle, on part of the moderators here to make sure that everybody gets the same amount of time?

COTTLE: I actually think there is a more of a responsibility to come up with a better criteria for who gets included. Every time I watch one of these, I'm like, "Why is Mike Gravel there?"

I'm sorry, not everybody needs to be on the stage. And f you're going to be on the stage and the whole point is to elicit information about what kind of president someone should be, you should have a better standard for even who is there to begin with.

KURTZ: Let me jump in. I happen to agree with you on that point, and I've gotten some criticism for it.

On Friday, when there was presumably other news going on -- in fact, there was some very important news. Defense Secretary Gates went to the -- before the cameras, and he announced that General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not be renominated to a second term, essentially because there was going to be such contentious confirmation hearings in the Senate that he would have a very difficult time getting through.

So all the cable networks covered that, and let me show you the deep analysis they brought to it right after it was over.

Let's roll it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONTESSA BREWER, MSNBC: Obviously Peter Pace retiring now at the end of his term. And Michael Mullen will take over. He's the chief of naval operations.

Here is Paris Hilton now, the other big news that we've been following today.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: He will be a very competent -- and there's every reason to believe.

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Barbara, we thank you for that. We're going to talk more about it at the top of the hour.

We do have live some pictures out of California and Paris Hilton that we want to talk about.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And let's ahead and take that live picture.

MARTHA MACCALLUM, FOX NEWS: Jennifer Griffin at the Pentagon with some big news and some personal changes among the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the vice chairman. So we'll continue to keep an eye on that developing story. And we'll take you back now for a bit to (inaudible) 53 coming from KCBS.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, you were all laughing when we played that tape, but isn't the Peter Pace story a pretty big deal? And yet back to Paris.

HOLMES: It is a big deal, but, you know, Howie, I have to admit, I was watching every twist and turn of what was going to happen to Paris Hilton. And I'm sure there is no great reason for it other than it's fun TV.

And with the Pace story, how big of a -- how long of a story is that going to be? Because the new nominee is going to be put forward and we'll be talking about him.

TAPPER: I'm about to become a father for the first time. Michelle says that the scold in me will be handy for that. So let me just -- let me bring it out for one second.

After 9/11, we all said that this was a new media era and we weren't going to cover dimwits like Paris Hilton anymore. And that was no longer going to be media obsession. And clearly, at least at the cable networks, who is making these decisions, that's been forgotten. And that is a shame.

The Peter Pace story is a huge story. The first serious political casualty of the Iraq war. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs not being renominated because Democrats and Republicans on the Hill would subject him to a bitter confirmation fight. The White House saying we're not going to do, that we're not going to subject him, we're not...

KURTZ: And it was blown off. It was blown off.

TAPPER: ... we're not going to fight for him. That's embarrassing.

KURTZ: Let me get a brief response from...

TAPPER: Embarrassing for all journalists.

COTTLE: No, I think that's part of the problem, that we have serious things going on in the world. Everybody is worried about Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. People then desire something as cheap and tawdry as Paris Hilton stories.

TAPPER: I don't even get it. I don't even understand why anybody cares about that story. I'm sorry. I know a lot of people find it interesting. I...

COTTLE: Times are tough. You go with...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Got to blow the whistle here.

Jake Tapper, Michelle Cottle, Amy Holmes, thanks very much for joining us.

For those of you who missed the debates, it's not too late. Tune in at CNN tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

And still to come, are we seeing just a bit too much of the 2008 candidates' wives? My next guest thinks so. Margery Eagan joins us on RELIABLE SOURCES.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It's no great revelation that the spouses of presidential candidates are getting plenty of attention. And not just if your last name is Clinton.

Fred Thompson hasn't even jumped into the race yet and people are buzzing about his wife, Jeri. One of the buzzers this week was MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who was chatting with political analyst Craig Crawford when they had this exchange now posted on YouTube about the former Tennessee senator's wife.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: Have you have seen Fred Thompson's wife?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, yes. You know...

SCARBOROUGH: Do you think -- think she works the pole?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Thompson responded in an interview with FOX's Sean Hannity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRED THOMPSON (R), FMR. U.S. SENATOR: It's another disconnect between the professional politicians and the press in Washington and all that from the American people, who are sick and tired of all that. So it's a badge of honor to get attacked by some of these bozos.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So how much attention should we, the media, lavish on the candidates' wives, and, well, how they look?

Joining us now, Margery Eagan, columnist for "The Boston Harold".

So, Scarborough says this phrase "working the pole". He is talking about some kind of pole dancing exercise.

Are you buying that?

MARGERY EAGAN, "BOSTON HERALD": I think that might have been a little bit over the top. But you have do have to wonder. I mean, I don't think I've seen so much cleavage on the wives of the men who would be president in my life. I mean, is the heating bosom playing among Republican voters in the Bible Belt? Is this kind of a family value? I mean, it's sort of odd. It's a new threshold.

I don't think we've seen any Democrats' cleavage to date. And what's the message these women are saying? I mean, I don't know.

KURTZ: Well, let me interrupt you just to read what you wrote in your "Boston Herald" column this week on that very subject.

EAGAN: Yes.

KURTZ: "Flashed around the country Thursday was yet another full cleavage shot of Fred Thompson's child wife looking almost as well- endowed as Alex Rodriguez's stripper pole-dancer girlfriend. Perhaps Fred's wife "Jeri," yes, with an "i," helps Fred with the AARP, Viagra-ed up men. 'You still got it goin', Fred, you dirty dog.'"

Now, what exactly is the relevance of this to Fred Thompson's fitness to be commander in chief?

EAGAN: Well, his wife is appearing all over the place on his arm. And she's wearing very low-cut dresses. I mean, I've got teenage daughters. We all talk about the message you're sending with the kind of clothes you're wearing.

What is the message these women are sending? Have you ever seen women dressed -- showing so much of their bodies before? I haven't. And so you sort of wonder what's going on.

We talk about -- the Republicans talk a lot about abstinence. So, I don't know. Maybe this is a look but don't touch thing.

I mean, it's just -- as a woman to woman, I think these women are old enough to button up their shirts and their blouses. It's just kind of creepy.

KURTZ: So, is this now part of your campaign 2008 duties, to be the official monitor of the -- I mean, it's hard enough being the spouse of a presidential candidate.

EAGAN: Listen...

KURTZ: And now they have to have their fashion choices subjected to ridicule by the likes of you?

EAGAN: Well, Howard, I think their fashion choices are very strange. These are not teenagers going to the prom.

These are the women who are married to men who want to be president of the United States. We go back to Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy, Laura Bush, Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter. You never saw these women dress this way.

It's very strange, I think. I mean, I don't know. Maybe it's not strange you to. But it's kind of a little odd to me. And you wonder what the message is.

KURTZ: I guess I was not paying quite as close attention.

Let me ask you about Hillary Clinton, because you also wrote a column this week...

EAGAN: Yes.

KURTZ: ... about speculation, including by some of your friends, that Hillary Clinton is using botox.

EAGAN: Right.

KURTZ: "The New York Times" this morning says that's been more or less debunked.

So how can you kind of throw that out there without any evidence?

EAGAN: Well, we were speculating. I was up at the debate last week in New Hampshire. And it was sort of the buzz of the room.

As soon as the debate began, Hillary Clinton came on television. She looked fantastic. And everybody was thinking, oh, my goodness, what has she done? Has she had work done?

As a matter of fact, yesterday I interviewed the makeup artist who's been hired by CNN apparently now because Hillary Clinton looked so spectacular to do all the debates. But, you know, it's kind of a sad thing in the United States of America that women cannot age in the public eye.

Every woman that's on television that is over 40 has had something done. And when Hillary Clinton, who's sort of the primo woman of substance and brains in America, may have had something done, I think -- I think it sort of greases -- it validates those of us who think about this morning, noon and night.

So it seems as though she's not. There was speculation. But she should get this makeup artist every time. And good for CNN for hiring her, because Kriss Cosmetics from Manchester, New Hampshire, by the way, will give her a free plug.

KURTZ: All right. You're saying she looked good.

But let me ask you a somewhat serious question in the moment we have remaining. And that is, does all this matter to voters?

In other words, whether Rudy Giuliani's been married three times, or Jeri Thompson looks good -- obviously, her husband is somewhat older -- or Hillary Clinton looks good, is that judgments that are actually going to go into who somebody might support for president?

EAGAN: Listen, you know -- listen, to be serious for a minute, I think the war in Iraq, immigration policy, global warming, all those things are obviously going to matter. But no one would deny that part of Mitt Romney's ascendancy has to do with he fact that he is a matinee idol looking man.

Looks matter in America. I think Dennis Kucinich will never be president, and part of the reason is his policy and part of the reason is he looks like, you know -- he doesn't look presidential.

KURTZ: All right. Well, there is a picture of his wife. I have got to cut it there.

EAGAN: So to pretend that this kind of thing doesn't matter...

KURTZ: Margery Eagan, thanks for joining us from Boston.

EAGAN: OK. Sure.

KURTZ: In the on-deck circle, A-Rod, the strip club and "The New York Post". Is this the end of privacy for pro athletes?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Say you're a baseball player. All right, a really rich baseball player. OK, a rather cocky New York Yankee with an eye- popping contract worth $252 million.

Now you're spotted in a Toronto nightclub with a woman not your wife. Because your name is Alex Rodriguez, better known as A-Rod, is that news?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): It was to the "New York Post," which ran a screaming headline about Stray-Rod. Then there was a breathless follow-up about Rodriguez's busty blonde gal pal who was spotted with him in other cities being a long-time stripper and "Playboy" bunny wannabe who had jiggled her way through pricey Vegas clubs.

There were stories about curvy friends. And the "Daily News" soon reported that Rodriguez's wife Cynthia had left their Manhattan apartment with two packed suitcases.

Now, sometimes athletes' extramarital affairs unavoidably become public.

Kobe Bryant was cleared of sexually assaulting a hotel employee, but he admitted having what he described as consensual sex.

Magic Johnson had to admit sleeping around after he got AIDS.

But why exactly were A-Rod's exploits fair game?

The inevitable debate about media conduct quickly got under way.

Jeff Jacobs in the "Hartford Courant," "Unless there's some kind of public altercation or something of police import, athletes' off- the-field lives belong to them. It's off the record."

But the "Chicago Tribune's" Teddy Greenstein wrote, "If Rodriguez is indiscreet enough to share his personal life with strip club patrons, why shouldn't Yankee fans who indirectly pay his salary know what he's up to?"

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: I know. I know. We live in the YouTube age. President and politicians are interrogated about their sex lives. Every Hollywood star who goes on a date has to read about it in the celebrity magazines.

And Rodriguez should be smart enough to know that if he flaunts it in strip clubs, that's going to make it into the press. But don't you think that earlier generations of ballplayers did their share of catting around while sportswriters kept their secrets?

Personally, I'm more interested in knowing why the Yankees are having such a lousy season than who Alex Rodriguez is doing in his spare time.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

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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