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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Journalists and War Reporting; Michael Moore and CNN; 2008 Campaign; Political Hypocrisy
Aired July 15, 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 (voice over): Challenging the war. As media accounts are filled with bad news for Bush on Iraq, on al Qaeda, on dwindling Republican support for the president, have journalists openly turned against this war?
Bikini journalism. A Chicago TV reporter fired for visiting a man whose wife disappeared during a divorce battle. In a bathing suit, no less. Is that any way to develop a source?
The senator and the madam. Why did "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt expose Republican David Vitter for dialing the D.C. madam's escort service? We'll ask him.
Televised smackdown. Michael Moore takes on Wolf Blitzer and Sanjay Gupta.
Plus, how did the 2008 campaign degenerate into a media debate over trophy wives?
KURTZ: Journalists won't admit this, but they do, most of them, at least, keep one eye on the opinion polls, careful not to get too far out ahead of public sentiment. When the country was largely behind President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, the media, with some exceptions, treaded lightly in questioning the evidence or giving attention to antiwar voices.
Now that the public has turned sharply against the Iraq conflict, the mood in the White House press room has also change, as was on display Thursday in the president's news conference.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HELEN THOMAS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS: Two million Iraqis had fled this country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead.
Don't you understand? We brought the al Qaeda into Iraq.
MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC NEWS: Are you willing to keep the surge going, no matter what General Petraeus says, if there is no substantial Iraqi political progress by September? DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: Why shouldn't people conclude that you are either stubborn, in denial, but certainly not realistic about the strategy that you have pursued?
WENDELL GOLER, FOX NEWS: Why should the American people feel you have the vision for victory in Iraq, sir?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Bush stood his ground, saying failure was not an option in Iraq, and deflecting a barrage of negative questions that suggested that he is out of touch with reality.
Joining us now to talk about this and other issues, Chris Cillizza, political blogger and reporter for washingtonpost.com; Ed Henry, CNN's White House correspondent; and Jill Zuckman, national correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune".
A quick question, a quick answer from each of you.
You saw those questions. There were more that we didn't show. Can anyone here deny -- we'll start with you, Chris -- that journalists are now deeply skeptical of this war, perhaps even in opposition?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, POLITICAL BLOGGER, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: No. I don't know about opposition, but skeptical, yes. And, of course, there is -- you learn the lessons from the past.
I think many journalists, though they would not tell you this publicly, are aware of the fact that they fell they did not do the proper checks of the intelligence we were getting through the media in the run-up to the war. And so of course, your natural tendency is to make sure that you're now very skeptical.
It's a hard line though to walk between skepticism and outright contempt. It's not our job to be contemptuous of this president. It is our job to be questioning of him.
JILL ZUCKMAN, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE': And just as -- just as the public has learned more and more about the war and essentially turned against it, reporters have also learned a lot of those same things. And that's informed their questions that they ask the White House.
ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And also -- I mean, White House spokesman Tony Snow for the last week to 10 days has been insisting that the Republican opposition to the war is not growing. And that's not true.
It's just obvious publicly and privately what's going on with Republicans. That's not credible. And that is also fueling some of this skepticism.
So I don't think it's opposition to the war. It's skepticism about the answers we're getting to a lot of these questions. KURTZ: At the same time, I saw one mention, ABC's Jake Tapper, who was questioning Senator Harry Reid on this point about whether a U.S. withdrawal would plunge Iraq into some kind of bloody chaos. The media focus right now is all about the domestic politics, isn't it?
CILLIZZA: It absolutely is. And I think that's because -- I mean, you're right, everyone -- our journalism does not exist without -- in the world of polling. Of course everyone pays attention to polling.
One of the things that people are paying attention to is, as Ed pointed out, this is no longer a Republican versus a Democratic issue, whether in the Senate or in the American public at large. There is -- there is 30, 35 percent of the American public supportive still of this war.
I think journalists feel a responsibility to say President Bush is simply not right. This is not just a, well, Democrats are saying this or Republicans are saying. We're talking about huge majorities now in opposition.
HENRY: It's not just about a domestic political situation, too. I would challenge that. The fact is, it's also about the facts on the ground in Iraq and how the administration is saying how things are going in Iraq.
Look at the benchmarks report that came out this week. I mean, the president for weeks, for months has been saying that benchmarks for the Iraqi government aren't important. Now the report comes out and it doesn't have a good report card for the Iraqi government. And they're saying, well, give us more time.
These benchmarks were supposed to be important by the administration themselves.
KURTZ: The benchmarks report, there was another report on the growing resurgence of al Qaeda, there was a Bob Woodward story about CIA Director Michael Hayden having told the president last November that the Iraqi government simply could not govern. And this was a reversal.
But all of this, all of these stories that filled the newspapers and the airwaves, is there a piling on effect at this point?
ZUCKMAN: Well, it's just this is the way we've -- we're learning this stuff. It's not -- I mean, it may seem like piling on, but if you learn something important like Michael Hayden telling the president one thing and the president saying it's another, well, you can't just walk away and ignore that. That's important to know.
KURTZ: Here's Bill Kristol, editor of "The Weekly Standard," writing in this morning's "Washington Post".
He says he'll expose himself to ridicule by saying that Bush's presidency "... will probably be a successful one, and as far as the war, we now seem to be on course for a successful outcome."
I don't think anybody in the press believes that, do you?
ZUCKMAN: I don't think anybody in the press really believes that.
HENRY: I don't think a lot of Republican senators believe that.
CILLIZZA: Yes. I was just going to say, I mean, we've seen Senator Domenici, Senator Lugar, Senator Warner -- these are not -- these are not squishy moderates. These are folks who have long backgrounds in studying this issue. I mean, this is not...
KURTZ: Although they have not yet gotten to the point of voting for any kind of timetable withdrawal.
Let me move on, because there is another prominent politician here in town who has been hurt by his support for the war, and that, of course, is John McCain. This week he saw two of his top aides, including his long-time strategist, John Weaver, leave. He is virtually out of money.
Jill Zuckman, you were up in New Hampshire with McCain this week and you wrote that the media has a McCain death watch on.
What did you mean by that?
ZUCKMAN: Well, on Friday, Senator McCain made his first public campaign appearance since the news broke that he was virtually out of money, that his two top campaign officials had left. And I don't think I've ever seen so many national political reporters in one place at this point in the cycle.
They were all there. And the questions were, you know, "Is there any way you're going to get out of the campaign?" And he wasn't going to play along with that. You k now, he was very insistent that he is running.
CILLIZZA: The danger for Senator McCain is this perception idea. Is he and his new campaign team are saying, well, we're moving on. You know, staff is staff and we've got a whole new team in place.
KURTZ: And you're not buying that?
CILLIZZA: Well, the problem is, is that every single question he got after this Iraq speech was -- if it was about Iraq at all, it was, hasn't Iraq -- "Isn't Iraq the reason your campaign is doing so badly?"
So there is a narrative out there...
HENRY: Sure. And certainly the media can take criticism for setting unrealistic expectations and pressing McCain, "Are you going to get out?" But also, when you look at Chris Cillizza's front page story in "The Washington Post" yesterday about the McCain implosion, it got into how McCain's own staff had these plans to raise two, three times as much as they did. They set the expectations themselves that he was going to be the frontrunner.
KURTZ: Hold on. Hold on.
It was all of you guys in the press who told all of us four or five months ago, McCain is the frontrunner. He is the guy to beat. You -- the press sets the expectations.
ZUCKMAN: No, but Senator McCain's own campaign fashioned him as a frontrunner candidate. They went out and hired people all over the country. They put out e-mails every single day saying so and so is the county chair for McCain in whatever state all over the country. And then they didn't deliver the frontrunner money.
CILLIZZA: And I was just going to say, as much as they talk about, well, we'll let the media decide who the frontrunner is, we're not going to get into that, they use frontrunner status to recruit donors, certainly, to raise money. They move national polling around. So it's -- you know, it gives them...
HENRY: But -- and having said all that, though, I think we'd all agree McCain is not finished despite any expectations now that people are trying to set. He's not finished.
KURTZ: This is an interesting point. You're saying he's not finished. I don't think that we should be writing obituaries.
And yet, when a candidate goes out and campaigns and every single question, according to your account, is about essentially, "How you are ever going to recover?" the press sends the message that he is finished.
HENRY: Well, if you were once the frontrunner and now you have $250,000 in the bank, you do have to answer questions about whether your candidacy is viable.
ZUCKMAN: But I don't think reporters are going to ask him this every single day for the rest of the year. I think that's the story this week.
KURTZ: Well, we'll see. We'll see.
ZUCKMAN: And it wasn't the questions he was getting from the voters when he was in Claremont, New Hampshire, yesterday.
KURTZ: Always a different -- voters, they want you professional journalists to ask.
One other controversy I want to get to, Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, saying this week -- I guess several days ago -- that he had a gut feeling, a gut feeling that the U.S. might face a terror attack this summer.
Let's look at some of the coverage of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC: His gut feeling means my gut is churning.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Don't these people think about the implications of what they're saying before they open their mouth?
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: That gut feeling could make a lot of people nervous.
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: His gut feeling. How about my gut feeling that Mr. Chertoff said this so that the lead story on the newscast on ABC would not be Iraq or Alberto Gonzalez or that "USA Today" poll, but that it would be this, you know, gut feeling of his?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: What's your gut feeling about the coverage?
CILLIZZA: The problem is, is that we've had -- ever since they put into place these homeland security coded things, you've had Democrats sort of quietly agitating that, frankly, this has the potential to be very political. That, oh, all of a sudden the code jumps up when we're near an election.
Now, it's very hard to prove, but things like a gut feeling, as opposed to one that is followed up on, he said, well, it's nothing specific, it's just when I feel things happen more in the summer, it lends to that narrative which is, is politics being played here? And it's a hard line for us in the media, because how do you get at whether this is legitimate or this is -- has an element of politics to it?
ZUCKMAN: And here Congress is in the middle of this debate. Could it not be that he was trying to influence it in some way? And I just have to add, he made those comments to the "Chicago Tribune's" editorial board.
KURTZ: An exclusive.
HENRY: Well, certainly -- and you're right, there is skepticism about the comments. And people have to ask tough questions. But we can't lose sight of the fact that there could be a terror attack on American soil.
And if he is having some gut feeling, obviously we need to check that out. We have to be vigilant, we have to figure out whether there is a legitimate threat against the United States. And I think the media does have to be careful to take that leap to assume, well, there is politics here.
Maybe. But we're not -- we have no evidence that this is being used in a political way. So you've got to be careful about it.
KURTZ: On the one hand, you have to report what the Homeland Security secretary says. And on the other hand, if you -- if you blanket it all the time, you do run the risk of scaring people when, by Chertoff's own admission, there is no specific and credible threat.
Is that a problem?
CILLIZZA: It's a balance. I mean, it's what we talked about with keeping the president and this administration accountable on the war, is you can't be over the line. But you also can't swallow what they're saying hook, line and sinker. I mean, I think it's a very delicate balance.
HENRY: The own Bush administration report this week saying that al Qaeda is reconstituted, their strength is growing. There is some debate about whether they're stronger than they were in '01.
CILLIZZA: The bin Laden video.
HENRY: The bin Laden video is out.
These are all various signs out there that while there is a -- you run the risk of scaring the American public if you over-cover it, on the other hand, you better not under-cover it either.
ZUCKMAN: You also run the risk that Americans just are going to start tuning it out. You can't keep them at that high terror alert all the time.
KURTZ: Well, in fairness, I'm not sure that Chertoff and what he said to your newspaper's editorial board intended this to be a week-long story about his gut. But that's the way it turned out.
Ed Henry, Chris Cillizza, thanks very much for joining us.
Jill Zuckman, stick around.
When we come back, the salacious tale that has riveted Chicago. A TV reporter caught in her bikini at the home of a man who is at the center of a investigation about his wife's disappearance.
That's after the break.
KURTZ: Amy Jacobson was a high profile reporter for the NBC station in Chicago until this week. The WMAQ correspondent was fired after footage surfaced of her in a bikini. Jacobson was covering the case of Craig Stebic, whose wife disappeared more than two months ago in the middle of a bitter divorce in which she was trying to evict him from their home.
Jacobson showed up at his home for some swimming and rival station WBBM obtained footage of the visit. Jacobson did seem to get too close to a figure in a potential crime case, but she says she her two children with her. After WMAQ dumped her, she had this to say in a radio interview.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
AMY JACOBSON, REPORTER: I can't apologize enough. And, you know, I have gotten supportive e-mails and I've got, you know, e-mails from people that are horrified to think I was having some, you know, improper relationship. Nothing improper happened.
SPIKE O'DELL, WGN: Had you not been in a swimming suit, had you been out there in your work clothes or a casual outfit, would it be a story today?
O'DELL: Not at all?
O'DELL: So the bathing suit put it over the top?
JACOBSON: That's how I feel, yes.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining me from Chicago, Steve Rhodes, founder of "The Beachwood Reporter," an online Chicago news and cultural review.
Steve Rhodes, Amy Jacobson says nothing questionable was going on. She was there with her kids and she was working the story.
Should WMAQ have fired her?
STEVE RHODES, FOUNDER, "THE BEACHWOOD REPORTER": Absolutely. I mean, she crossed about three bright lines of basic journalism ethics.
I mean, she got too close to the family of a news subject, for one. She was also feeding information to the police which show -- you know, we have reporters even recently going to jail to avoid just that, turning over the contents of their interviews and such to the police. And she inserted her children into the story by bringing them to the home of a murder suspect and a potential crime scene.
So as Geraldo Rivera, that great paragon of journalism ethics said, it was a no-brainer to me.
KURTZ: Well, Jacobson says -- we just heard it from the radio interview, this wouldn't have been a big deal if she didn't happen to be wearing that bikini.
What do you think?
RHODES: Well, I mean, the bikini made the video post on the Internet a pretty hot item. But that doesn't change the fact that she got too close to the sources and got too close to the police.
And as far as her bosses were concerned, this was just one in a string of incidents in which she had been reprimanded for in the past. So that probably also had something to do with it.
KURTZ: Jill Zuckman, from "The Chicago Tribune," clearly wearing a bathing suit is not the usual attire when you go to interview somebody. And clearly she made a mistake. The question is, was it a mistake that was so serious that she should lose her job? ZUCKMAN: Well, I think that -- I have to agree with her, it wasn't so much that she was in a bathing suit, but if she hadn't been caught on videotape in a very casual situation with a murder suspect, I think she would still have her job today. I think there would have been a quiet discussion in the newsroom, and that would be that. But because it became so public and everybody got to see that video over and over again, I think the station felt they had to deal with it in a forthright manner.
KURTZ: She basically became radioactive.
Steve Rhodes, you mentioned this point which we just found out from "The Chicago Tribune," actually, on Friday, that Amy Jacobson acknowledges that she on more than one occasion briefed the police on what she was finding out about Craig Stebic, who, by the way, has been named a person of interest in this investigation, did not tell her bosses about this. They were concerned that she was too close to the cops. But she says this is a common practice, you give news to get news.
RHODES: Yes. Well, I mean, it's a common practice by kind of the hacks who populate our industry, quite unfortunately. It's kind of an old school thing to do, but that doesn't make it right, and it's certainly not something that everybody reporter does.
It puts her in a terrible position. Even if Craig Stebic turns out -- he very well could be innocent, of course. And now she's acting as an arm of the police department, almost like a -- like she's been deputized.
And so she's not doing anyone any favors. She's too close to the police. She's too close to the family. And it doesn't do him any good in terms of his presumption of innocence, either.
Amy Jacobson did not respond to our invitation to appear on this program, and WMAQ officials would not give us any news either, beyond a prepared statement.
Your newspaper has a columnist named Eric Zorn. He wrote the following -- he said, "Jacobson deserves the benefit the doubt. She was simply a reporter working on a hotly competitive story who leapt at the surprise chance to spend time with an elusive source."
ZUCKMAN: I don't think there is any question that she's a very aggressive reporter and was trying to get close to the family to learn more about what happened to the disappeared wife. I just think that's -- that's very clear. But, you know, were it not for the fact that there are video cameras all over the place these days, I think she just got hung out to dry.
KURTZ: Steve Rhodes, what about WBVN, which is the CBS station in town airing this footage which somehow obtained about a reporter for the NBC station in town?
RHODES: Yes. Well they've come under a lot of flack, a real backlash against them. But I really don't have any problem with what they did.
The fact that this resulted in the firing of a well-known TV personality here I think validates its newsworthiness. And I almost find it refreshing that the media is breaking their kind of gentleman's agreement about reporting on other media. The media shouldn't be the one institution we have that goes without scrutiny.
KURTZ: Well, I don't think there should be such a gentleman's agreement. It's a big business, an important business, an influential business.
KURTZ: And we ought to report on what others are doing.
I have got 10 seconds here for an answer.
Does Amy Jacobson now have a future in Chicago television?
RHODES: She may at the FOX station.
KURTZ: All right.
She says she made a horrible misjudgment. And I agree with that.
Steve Rhodes, Jill Zuckman, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
Up next, Miss New Jersey's Facebook photos hit network television. And Madonna the prima donna, ahead in our "Media Minute".
KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute".
We talked last week about the hugely popular Web site Facebook and how members can post embarrassing pictures that they think will remain private because people can restrict access to their pages. Well, Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo, found out that's a shaky assumption after someone sent her Facebook shots to officials at the beauty pageant.
"The New York Daily News" ran some hard-partying pictures, but Polumbo says they aren't of her. Oops. Instead, she revealed the actual racy shots on "The Today Show".
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AMY POLUMBO, MISS NEW JERSEY: This is a picture of my boyfriend and I. And he's being very silly and immature, but he is also very intelligent. And this was meant to be private. It was not accessible to the general public.
MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": Although you did post it in a Facebook account.
LAUER: And it shows him, you know, playfully, I guess you would say, biting your breast.
LAUER: This is taken in the limousine.
POLUMBO: These are the worst pictures.
LAUER: Right. And this is you in a limousine with two guys.
POLUMBO: Yes. They're my best friends.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I wonder how many young people are now furiously deleting some of their Facebook photos. On the Internet, there's really no such thing as private.
Conrad Black, one of the world's biggest media moguls, is now a convicted felon. The Canadian businessman whose holdings included "The Chicago Sun-Times," Canada's "National Post," London's "Telegraph" and "The Jerusalem Post" was found guilty Friday of obstruction of justice and mail fraud in a scheme to enrich himself at shareholders' expense.
Black and other executives were convicted of stealing millions of dollars from their company, Hollinger International. Black was acquitted of 10 other charges but faces 35 years in prison.
Well, move over Angelina Jolie. Another big star is trying to dictate the terms of her encounters with the press.
When Madonna talked to journalists at a Live Earth concert last weekend, according to London's "Daily Mirror," her handlers warned them, eye contact must be maintained at all times, never look down to check notes, all questions must be memorized or the interview will be terminated.
Can you imagine? Is the material girl really so easily spooked, or she just used to getting her way?
Coming up in the seconds half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Michael Moore is supposed to be promoting his new movie on health care, but instead he's berating the media, including CNN, over Iraq.
And "Hustler" magazine outs a United States senator over his calls to the D.C. madam. We'll ask Larry Flynt why he's digging into the sex lives of politicians.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome back.
An unsolicited statement by Louisiana senator David Vitter arrived at The Associated Press on Monday night. The Republican said he committed a serious sin and had sought forgiveness from god and his wife. The sudden confession came a few hours after "Hustler" magazine told Vitter's office that his number was found in the phone records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the D.C. madam who is now contesting prostitution-related charges.
Commentators were quick to debate the latest sexual outing campaign by "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt, with MSBNC's Keith Olbermann digging up some old footage of Vitter talking about morality.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), LOUISIANA: I think it's very appropriate and well overdue that we focus here in the Senate on nurturing, upholding, preserving, protecting such a fundamental social institution as traditional marriage.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But Tucker Carlson questioned the methods used against Vitter.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC: If you don't agree that kids ought to be taught abstinence-only education, and that stem-cell research ought to be legal, or that abortion ought to be banned, or that gay marriage ought not to be allowed, why don't you argue against it? Instead, you're taking a short cut and just trashing the guy's personal life. What a sleazy short cut that is.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining me now, Arianna Huffington, founder of huffingtonpost.com, and Mary Katharine Ham, managing editor of townhall.com.
Arianna Huffington, is there anything about what Larry Flynt did to David Vitter that makes you uncomfortable? I mean, other than his wife, who should care that he went to an escort service?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, FOUNDER, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: Well, I actually do not generally like private lives getting into the public domain. The difference with Vitter is that he has taken such a strong stand on marriage. You know, he has made so many speeches against same-sex marriage and the grounds that marriage is such as sacred institution.
He has made statements about abstinence, saying being abstinent and being faithful during your marriage is the best recipe for a healthy life. So he has actually himself made all that the cornerstone of who he is as a political leader. And therefore, he has exposed himself now as a fraud.
KURTZ: Some liberals seem to be cheering this on. Yes, Republican hypocrisy exposed.
Aren't they supposed to be more tolerant about private sexual matters? MARY KATHARINE HAM, BLOGGER, MANAGING EDITOR, TOWNHALL.COM: Well, you would think. I'm not going to make any excuses for David Vitter. He ran around on his wife. I hope that -- I'm glad to hear she forgave him and they're working things out.
He will wait to see what the people of Louisiana think of that. But I do also think if this is a hypocrisy question, then we can talk about how the Live Earth concerts for environmental lefties created more carbon than they could ever expect to limit, and how lefties often show up for environmental events in their private jets and their big SUVs.
So, hypocrisy goes on both sides, including the fact that liberals who celebrate, you know, these private lives also outgave Republicans for the crime of being gay. So I think, you know, they need to think about that seriously.
KURTZ: Well, a handful of people outgave...
HAM: Right, it is the far left.
KURTZ: I mean, it's not fair of you to say liberals...
HAM: No, no, no. Exactly. It is the far left.
HUFFINGTON: And also, again, it's all -- when it comes to hypocrisy and making a big deal out of private morality when you're own private morality does not match it, that's really the issue is here.
KURTZ: OK. So let's fip it around. What if a conservative publisher decided to retaliate by exposing Democrats' extramarital affairs? I mean, couldn't this spiral out of control?
HUFFINGTON: Well, it depends on whether those particular Democrats had made fidelity and the sanctity of marriage a big issue. If not, I don't think public life should be part of the public domain. I have written a lot about that. I think it will destroy our political discourse even more.
KURTZ: So if you talk about morality and you don't live up to those high standards, you're fair game. But if you don't talk about morality...
HUFFINGTON: You're not fair game.
KURTZ: ... you can do whatever you want? Really?
HUFFINGTON: That's what I think. I mean, yes, it's between you and your partner. It's not about your constituents. It's not about the press.
HAM: It's a bit convenient that if you don't happen to subscribe to any particular morals in that area, that you can just run around and do whatever you want to. You still have to answer to the voters. And I think Democrats should be held to a standard as well.
HUFFINGTON: It's not whether you subscribe to it. It's whether you make it the cornerstone of who you are as a political leader.
HAM: Well, in that case, we're free to go after the environmentalists who -- like Al Gore, who uses three times...
KURTZ: Let's keep the focus on personal conduct. And since Larry Flynt, who publishes a magazine filled with naked women is leading this crusade again, does the press roll over for Flynt in portraying him as a First Amendment champion?
HAM: Well, you know, Larry Flynt is sort of a sideshow. I mean, he -- he is obviously going to go after Republicans for the reason that Arianna mentioned.
And I believe he was on Cavuto on FOX a month ago, and Cavuto asked him specifically, "Will you go after Democrats?" He was like, well -- he should mention them if he's going to go after Vitter to this extent, I think.
HUFFINGTON: Remember what is interesting here is it was Larry Flynt again who came up with Bob Livingston's extramarital problems which led to Livingston resigning and David Vitter being elected to his seat...
KURTZ: This is back in 1999.
HUFFINGTON: Yes, back in 1999. And then I happened to see Larry Flynt after that. And you know what was interesting? That there was more to be revealed about Bob Livingston, which he did not go on to reveal because he had left public life and he felt therefore it doesn't have to -- he didn't have to go there.
KURTZ: Right. He never (INAUDIBLE).
I want to turn now to the always controversial Michael Moore, who has been making the TV rounds promoting his movie "Sicko," which is a cinematic assault on the health care system.
Moore has been using this platform to sound off on another subject, the war, as we see here in these interviews with ABC's Chris Cuomo and CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER: My point is, is that -- is that had ABC News, NBC News, CBS News been more aggressive in confronting the government with what they were telling us back in 2003 about Iraq, you might have prevented this war. You, this network, the other networks. Those 3,500 soldiers that are dead today may not have had to die had our news media done its job.
(END VIDEO CLIP) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MOORE: We're in the fifth year of this war because you and CNN, Dr. Gupta, you didn't do your jobs back then. And now here we are in this mess.
You didn't do the job for us with the war. You're not doing it with this issue. And I just -- I just wonder when the American people are going to turn off their TV sets and quit listening to this stuff.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Sanjay Gupta did an excellent job covering that war. He was with the Navy's medical doctors. And he went in and risked his life, and he actually started to perform some neurosurgery on the scene. It was...
MOORE: You have to ask the questions.
BLITZER: It was -- look...
MOORE: Why are we here? That's the question. Why are we here in this war? Where is the weapons of mass destruction?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Mary Katharine Ham, the media did a poor job of the war. Everyone in the news business admits that. But Moore is acting like journalists could have single-handedly prevented Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
What do you make of that?
HAM: Well, I mean, I disagree with your fundamental thing, which is that I think the press corps was actually equally petulant, if unproductive, as we were running up to the war. I looked up some old press...
HAM: Yes. I mean, what you were speaking about earlier with them sort of going after the president. So I think -- I thin it's equal.
I was looking at old -- at old transcripts, and we've got, "Would you tell us on the record why the president wants to bomb the Iraqi people?" So I think -- this was Helen Thomas.
HUFFINGTON: Well, that is laughable.
KURTZ: Helen Thomas is a columnist.
HAM: It was March of 2003.
HUFFINGTON: If you go through any transcript in the lead-up to the war, the media basically became stenographers to power. And Michael Moore is actually right about that.
But also, Howie, you know, there is still a very significant issue here in the way that Sanjay Gupta ran that three-minute fact-checking segment.
KURTZ: I'm going to get to that in a second. But I want to get your thoughts on the war.
Does Michael Moore personalize this intentionally, going after Wolf Blitzer, going after Chris Cuomo, because he knows that we'll all pay attention to that and it will be replayed again and again?
HUFFINGTON: You know, Michael Moore is making a very valid point about the war. The media have a huge responsibility. "The New York Times" has a huge responsibility with the front page stories about aluminum tubes that never existed.
The media asking questions of the president that were basically so reverential in the lead-up to the war has a huge responsibility. I'm very glad Michael is pointing that out.
KURTZ: What I found strange -- and we'll get to your point now -- is that Moore criticized Sanjay Gupta of CNN for being embedded with a military unit as if being embedded meant that somehow you've become a cheerleader. In fact some of the best reporting, most realistic reporting, came out of reporters who risked their lives, by the way, to be embedded.
But what happened was that Sanjay Gupta ran a three or four-minute piece critiquing "Sicko". And he made one serious mistake about the per capita health spending in Cuba. But mostly it went on there in their on-air confrontations. They quarreled about whose statistics were more up to date.
What did you think about that?
HAM: Well, I mean, Michael Moore is a sort of self-involved publicist. He did do this because he knows everyone will pay attention.
He thought the iPhone release was designed to stop his buzz. I mean, this is how...
KURTZ: He did?
HAM: ... focused on -- he said that.
HUFFINGTON: I don't know where you get that from.
HAM: This is how focused -- this is how focused on himself he is.
So I think that Sanjay's report was fairly fair. He said he made a mistake. But Michael Moore got to respond at length in a way that none of his subjects in his movies who he repeatedly manipulatively and incorrectly represents ever get to do unedited.
KURTZ: CNN has given him some air time.
HUFFINGTON: Howie, you cannot do a three-minute fact-checking piece and have errors in it. You know? You immediately lose your credibility. And that's what happened with Sanjay Gupta.
It wasn't just the fact that repeatedly -- and after, our editor, Roy Sikov (ph), had this story on "The Huffington Post" that there had been e-mails sent to Sanjay Gupta still in advance of airing this three-minute fact-checking report and they did not correct them.
KURTZ: Yes. They were e-mails. It was Michael Moore saying here are the statistics that I believe are correct. And basically, they're squabbling over whose statistics are more up to date.
But let me just read you something that we just saw on Michael Moore's Web site. Because he loves to pick these fights. The guy is a publicity genius.
This is an open letter to CNN. "I bet you thought I was just going to quietly away. Well, think again. I'm about to become your worst nightmare, because I ain't ever going away until you set the record straight."
So he loves this.
HAM: It's all about Michael.
HUFFINGTON: But Howie, why don't you stay with the facts here?
It wasn't just the fact that for 10 days CNN kept running that screen graph saying $25 per capita health care cost in Cuba. It was also the fact that Sanjay Gupta said that Michael Moore is fudging the facts, when it was simply, as we said, using different data by how much it costs us in America to provide health care per person.
Michael Moore was using the health and human services data. That is not exactly something obscure. So fudging the facts is not what was going on.
And the final thing is, when Sanjay Gupta said on "LARRY KING LIVE" that the source he used from Vanderbilt University had no other affiliation except Vanderbilt University, absolutely untrue. He is linked to many HMOs and has given medical contributions to Republicans
HAM: Well, the bottom line, Michael Moore doesn't really have a foot to stand on -- a leg to stand on when he is criticizing CNN about fudging facts.
His first documentary, "Roger & Me," which led to his fame, was predicated on the fact that he was not allowed to talk to Roger, the CEO of GM. In fact, in a recent documentary manufacturing dissent, the two documentarians found that he did interview Roger two times and never included that footage or the fact. So it's all predicated on a lie.
KURTZ: I want to move on to one other point. But Moore did not respond in those televised interviews. And CNN certainly gave him plenty of air time to say what he wanted...
HAM: Right. KURTZ: ... about waiting times and other drawbacks of government-run health care systems in places like Canada.
You wrote on "The Huffington Post" just a couple of days ago that the media dutifully reported Bush's spin on this report on Iraqi benchmarks, which he says were mixed. But most of the stories I read said that the Iraq government has failed in most of the important benchmarks and made only slight progress in others.
So why do you make this charge that the media are rolling over again?
HUFFINGTON: Well, you know, just good and look at commentary after commentary that begins with the words "The benchmark report is a mixed bag." It's not a mixed bag.
I wrote on "The Huffington Post" that to say it's a mixed bag is like saying that we take your child for a check and the doctor says your child has shiny hair and a brain tumor. And you go away and you say this was a mixed bag of a report. That is how the media reported it. And that's not fair.
HAM: I mean, in just the last week, MSNBC did an investigation that found that Democrats give to -- I mean, journalists give to Democrats at a rate of 9 to 1, which is -- makes them...
KURTZ: What does it have to do with this...
HAM: It has to do with the fact that at this point if you can say that somehow magically journalists have become conservative and somehow obsequious to the president is just ridiculous. And I don't think they were in 2003 either.
HUFFINGTON: This does not have to with being conservative or liberal. It has to do with following the conventional wisdom.
KURTZ: All right. I've got to blow the whistle. Journalists shouldn't give to any contributions to anybody, by the way.
Mary Katharine Ham, Arianna Huffington, nice to you have on the set this morning.
After the break, "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt on why he disclosed the senator's dealings with the D.C. madam and why he's digging up this dirt.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: At the height of the Clinton impeachment, Larry Flynt offered big bucks for evidence of sexual misconduct by politicians, and he scored. Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston, who was about to become House speaker, resigned after the "Hustler" publisher said he had evidence of Livingston's extramarital affairs.
Now Flynt is at it again, revealing this week that the man who won Livingston's seat, Senator David Vitter, was making calls to the D.C. madam. I spoke to Flynt earlier from Los Angeles.
KURTZ: Larry Flynt, welcome.
LARRY FLYNT, "HUSTLER" PUBLISHER: Glad to be here.
KURTZ: Why have you taken it upon yourself again to expose the sex lives of prominent politicians?
FLYNT: If I don't do it, who is going to do it? You know, I'm -- I'm a minnow in that stream of the mainstream media. So if I don't do it, who is going to do it?
KURTZ: But what do you gain by revealing that David Vitter, the Louisiana senator, called the D.C. madam's escort service? You're not opposed to prostitution, are you?
FLYNT: No, I'm not. But I'll bet he is. If you look at his voting record in the Senate and the positions he's taken on the sanctity of marriage and abstinence and all of that, he's a -- he's a clone of Bush as far as I am concerned.
KURTZ: I've heard you talk about hypocrisy in terms of your mission to expose some of these sexual activities by people of different philosophies. But doesn't that mean really that you're targeting conservative Republicans and giving liberal Democrats a pass?
FLYNT: No. That's not true. We're not interested in exposing anyone's sex life. But if someone takes a public position contrary to the way they live their private lives, as far as I am concerned, they are fair game.
KURTZ: So if one of your editors at "Hustler" magazine came to you and said, "We've been going through the D.C. madam's phone records and we found another prominent guy and he's a Democratic senator," would you make that information public?
FLYNT: Absolutely we would make it public. I don't want to because I've been a lifelong Democrat myself. But I would.
KURTZ: But why would you make it public involving a Democrat if that Democrat has not taken a stand on family values and the sanctity of marriage?
FLYNT: Because I think that's ethically the proper thing to do, because when we really try to expose these people, you know, we're primarily doing it because of their voting habits, their work with lobbyists, their overall corruption problems. You know, people go to Washington with a lot of great intentions, and by the time they get to getting money shoved in their pockets, you know, it's a hopeless situation.
KURTZ: Now, you've offered a million-dollar reward to anyone who can show that he or she had sex with a member of Congress or a top official. This is pretty sleazy stuff.
Are you embarrassed at all to be down in the gutter like this?
FLYNT: I don't care what anybody thinks about me. I told Tucker Carlson earlier in the week when he referred to me as a slimeball for breaking up Vitter's marriage, I said, "Yeah, that's right, I'm a slimeball and you still can't dance."
KURTZ: Well, not to many people I interview on the show who don't object to being called a slimeball. But, you know, you and "Hustler" magazine haven't been in the news for a while. Could this have anything to do with trying to get some publicity for Larry Flynt?
FLYNT: "Hustler" happens to be the most successful men's magazine in America right now. And we have 18 foreign editions as well. So we do -- we do very well. But of course when I run an ad in "The Post" and if we're lucky to snag a couple of big ones, I get a bump in circulation which covers my costs, so it's all part of doing business.
KURTZ: Now, you mentioned Senator Vitter's marriage. Now, he put out a statement saying that he had sought forgiveness from his wife, his family and from God, so I don't know what's going to happen there. But do you hope as a result of this information that you made public that Senator Vitter resigns? Would you consider that a victory?
FLYNT: No. Those guys are beyond redemption. You know, his wife said she was no Hillary Clinton, she was more like a Lorena Bobbitt.
KURTZ: Lorena Bobbitt, yes. Well, I guess we'll have to see whether he gets the Lorena Bobbitt treatment.
Let me ask you one last question, Larry. We've got about half a minute.
You were looking into similar information on other prominent Washington politicians. Is this a crusade that you're going to continue to pursue?
FLYNT: No, it's not a crusade, it just happens to be the most successful year that we've had. Even larger than Clinton's impeachment. And it's -- I can't believe, you know, some of the stuff we've got, because you've got to follow your leads.
The last thing I could ever do is publish something that wasn't true, because it'd kill me. And I know that. So I function at a higher standard than mainstream media.
KURTZ: Well, it's good to hear at least that you're being careful.
Larry Flynt, thanks very much for joining us from Los Angeles.
FLYNT: OK. Thank you.
KURTZ: And a reminder. In the unfortunate case you miss an edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, you can download our video podcast available on iTunes and at CNN.com/podcast.
Still to come, the White House wannabe and his so-called trophy wife. Don't the media have anything better to do?
KURTZ: Fred Thompson isn't even in the presidential race yet, the last time I checked, and media folks are already carrying on about his wife.
KURTZ (voice over): That would be his very attractive, 24 years younger than he is wife Jeri. And how that happened is a classic case of the media food chain in action.
Some weeks ago, Joe Scarborough said on his MSNBC show what lots of people were whispering around.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: Have you have seen Fred Thompson's wife?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes. You know...
SCARBOROUGH: Do you think she works the pole?
KURTZ: Next up, the "Boston Herald's" Margery Eagan wrote a column on cleavage on the campaign trail and discussed Jeri Thompson in a light segment on this program.
The buzz soon made its way to "The New York Times," which asked last weekend, "Is America ready for a president with a trophy wife?"
Notice the use of that eye-catching phrase that suggests Jeri Thompson is just eye candy. Never mind that she's a former Senate aide and Republican Party spokeswoman. "The Times" is more interested in how her "youthfulness, permanent tan and bleach-blonde hair" present a contract to the 64-year-old man she's married to.
The next day "The Today Show" staged a full-blown debate on the subject.
ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: But first, so-called trophy wives. That's the label being given to the spouse of former senator Fred Thompson.
GLORIA ALLRED, ATTORNEY: Well, Ann, absolutely. It is sexist to call a woman a trophy wife. What kind of a trophy is she?
Is she a trophy that was won in a hunt? Is she a trophy that was won in the spoils of war or in a sports competion? Is she a prize?
No. She is a human being.
KURTZ: Now, a little gossip never killed anyone, and it would be odd to have a 60-something president with two toddlers. But isn't there something a little disturbing in debating the physical attributes of Fred Thompson's wife when we know so little about the policy positions of Fred Thompson, the all but certain presidential candidate?
I'm just saying.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.
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