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Coverage of John Warner's Statement on Iraq; Did CBS Exploit Children?

Aired August 26, 2007 - 10:00   ET


SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: First, redeployment, hopefully the troops will get home by Christmas.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Jumping ship. Is John Warner's call for withdrawing troops from Iraq the bombshell the media are making it out to be or more ammunition for an anti-war agenda?

And why are journalists dismissing President Bush's comparison of Iraq and Vietnam?

Child abuse? Did CBS exploit kids and even flout the law to stage a ratings grabbing reality show?

Swept away.


KURTZ: Well, we had a little tape problem there.

The pronouncements of a single senator don't usually warrant the breaking news banners, top-of-the-newscasts play, or front-page newspaper stories, especially when he is 80 years old and in the minority party. But when the man is Virginia Republican John Warner and the subject is Iraq, journalists pay attention. And what he had to say matched a prevailing press consensus that Iraq is a mess.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Tonight, the Senate's leading Republican voice on the war in Iraq calls for a major change in policy.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Well, if George W. Bush has lost John Warner, how big is this, Tim?

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: In a word, very big.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, COLUMNIST: Warner is exactly -- you're wrong if he threatens a troop withdrawal.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm sorry, but with all respect to Senator Warner, he is absolutely kidding himself if withdrawing 5,000 troops is going to send any kind of a message. DAVID SCHUSTER, MSNBC: This is a guy who has a lot of respect on both sides of the aisle. And that's why it is such a devastating blow politically for the White House.


KURTZ: So did the Warner pronouncement deserve this kind of coverage?

Joining us now here in Washington, Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "TIME" magazine; Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic". And in New York, John Fund, columnist for "The Wall Street Journal's"

Karen Tumulty, did John Warner calling for a partial withdrawal from Iraq deserve the kind of big-time play that news organizations gave it?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: You know, I don't think it did. I think that because of the enormous respect that he is -- he is held to in his own party, because the fact that he sort of represents the consensus opinion of Republicans in the Senate, it was an indication of how isolated George Bush has become on Iraq, not only from most public opinion, but from his own party.

However, what Senator Warner actually called for was really not a major development. It's relatively small numbers of troop deployments. And more importantly, he's asking the White House to do it. He still opposes the big question, which is Congress setting any kind of timetable.

KURTZ: He is leaving it up to the president. And he is saying perhaps as few as 5,000 troops could come out as a symbolic action.

So, John Fund, did the handling of this story reflect the fact that most journalists probably agree with him and many think that the war is now a lost cause?

JOHN FUND, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM: I think in part. Notice that Senator Warner wasn't giving any interviews. He made his position clear, but he's not doing the Sunday shows. He's not coming out in very strong way about this.

KURTZ: Actually, John Warner is on "Meet the Press" this morning. So he's giving at least one interview. But go ahead.

FUND: But with the exception of that, he wasn't really out on this issue.

If he had called for 50,000 troops to be withdrawn, I think that would have been a big story. Notice at the same time, Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington State, was also in Iraq and he came back and said, I voted against the war, but we cannot withdraw now because of the chaos it would create.

KURTZ: And you're saying that got much less coverage. Michelle Cottle, coverage here very different from a year and a half ago, when Jack Murtha, the Democratic congressman and ex-marine called for withdrawal. I remember Scott McClellan at the White House calling -- saying that he was part of the Michael Moore wing of the Democratic Party.

So how much has the media climate changed on this question of pulling out of Iraq?

MICHELLE COTTLE, SR. EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, I mean, I'm sure that it has to some extent followed the course of how badly everybody thinks things are going in Iraq, but, I mean, right there you're talking about it. He's a Democrat.

I mean, the party -- the basic story line of this has been the Democrats are holding fast against the war and most of the Republicans are still kind of backing Bush. And you have one or two picked off along the way. But, of course, when one of the most respected senators on this issue come out and says this, it's going to be a huge deal, because when it come down to media stories a lot of the time, it's not so much the news, as the fight, the battle between -- the political battle, specifically, over this.

KURTZ: And without Republicans there's no chance of Congress actually forcing any kind of pullout.

Karen Tumulty, give me a roadmap here.

On Tuesday, President Bush said he was frustrated with Nouri al- Maliki. On Wednesday, he said that the Iraqi prime minister was a good man. On Thursday, the administration's own NIE, national intelligence estimate, said that the al-Maliki government is paralyzed and can't take advantage of any U.S. military progress.

So how do journalists make sense of just what the policy is toward Maliki?

TUMULTY: Well, I think that -- I think journalists very, very clearly drew the contrast between the statements from one day to the next. And I think that the second statement, the expression of support for Maliki, came in the middle of a story that was also dominated by the fact that president was suddenly comparing the Iraq War to the Vietnam War after refusing, after insisting that that was not a valid comparison for years.

KURTZ: And since you brought that up, we have some tape we want to play first of the president being asked in a 2004 press conference about this historical analogy and then what he had to say earlier this week.

Let's watch.


QUESTION: How do you answer the Vietnam comparison?

BUSH: Yes. I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy is -- sends the wrong message to our troops.

Some can argue our withdraw from Vietnam carried no price for American credibility.


KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, hasn't the White House spent years criticizing liberal pundits for daring to compare Iraq to the Vietnam quagmire?

COTTLE: Absolutely. They all along have talked about how irresponsible it is for liberals to compare this to Vietnam, and there's no difference and all this. So I'm not sure kind of how they justify this.

I mean, I'm sure that he has some reason in his head why this is consistent. But if you're asking reporters and even the public to follow those fine nuances, forget it. It's just not going to happen.

KURTZ: John Fund, the question that many journalists asked and many historians who were quoted in news accounts asked is, is Bush saying that we shouldn't have pulled out of Vietnam? That more American soldiers should have died in that conflict?

FUND: Well, this is a very sensitive subject with the media and government. Ever since Peter Braestrup's book came out saying that the Tet Offensive was a military failure for the communists but it turned out that it was reported such that support for Americans' presence in Vietnam fell dramatically in the public mind, this has been very controversy.

I think Bush is trying to have it both ways. But he has a valid point.

Remember what happened after we left Vietnam. There was chaos. There was a collapse of the government. A million people died in Cambodia. Tens of thousands of people died in Vietnam.

We lost a lot of people who had counted on us, that had trusted us. And we didn't take them out with us.

That part of Bush's statement, I think, is something that we have to debate. Even if Vietnam is a painful memory, we have to understand, if we pull out of Iraq our troubles don't end. Our responsibility begins.

KURTZ: But, of course, as journalists pointed out, the U.S. didn't pull out of Vietnam, you know, abruptly. This was a gradual withdrawal. President Nixon...


FUND: Congress decided not to fund extra supplies for the South Vietnamese army. It was a conscious decision...

KURTZ: Yes. Oh, absolutely. But this followed several years of President Nixon's policy of Vietnamization, which is pulling out American forces.

COTTLE: But Howie, right here we're seeing what's going to happen. Does President Bush really want people picking apart the Vietnam War in any way in relation to Iraq? I just can't imagine that that's good for him.

KURTZ: I was surprised that he opened that door.

Now let me turn to the coverage of the war overall, because there was a study this week by the Project for Excellence in Journalism which said that in the second quarter of 2007 on -- we're talking about newspapers, radio, TV -- 22 percent of -- I'm sorry, 22 percent in the first quarter of the year of the time on newspapers and TV devoted to the war. Fifteen percent in the second quarter.

And here you see on the screen the breakdown of the cable networks devoted to the war. CNN, 18 percent. MSNBC, 15 percent. FOX News, 8 percent.

Now on Thursday, the day that John Warner late in the day made his call for at least a partial, symbolic withdrawal from Iraq, big news in most places. It got exactly one mention in primetime on FOX News during a news cut-in.

Instead, here is what was going on on FOX that evening.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: There's no excuse for local officials to not help the feds track down bad guys.

In the "Thursdays With Geraldo" segment tonight, the Phil Spector trial is wrapping up.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Edwards is also picking a fight with his favorite target, Ann Coulter, calling her a she-devil.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: Good evening, Allan.

And tonight, breaking news from Hollywood. Lindsay Lohan is going to jail.


KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, is FOX liberally playing down the war?

COTTLE: Well, you know, I'm sure that the argument could be made that FOX is happier when the war is going well or whatever. But I think just more broadly, a lot of this has to do with the political battle, was what was so hot about the war going up to the election. And the Republicans took a beating, and so now what you're seeing is -- you know, it's depressing war.

War news is depressing. Lindsay Lohan is hot. It's sexy. It's -- you know, now that the political battles aren't quite as -- aren't quite as big a deal, or everybody kind of assume that things are going in a certain direction, you know, it's...

KURTZ: My sense is that all the networks are suffering from Iraq fatigue.

TUMULTY: I think so. And I think the same study suggested that a lot of that air time is now being taken up by the presidential race.

And you can argue that horse race coverage of a presidential race is probably not the best use of air time either. But the fact is, most Americans have decided what they think about this war. The public has made up its mind.

KURTZ: But soldiers are still fighting and dying.

TUMULTY: That's right. That's right. But I think that in some ways, the more important coverage of the war is coming not in sort of the tradition media, but in the blogs, in the advertising campaigns that we're seeing kicking up right now. And interestingly enough, it's being waged on the op-ed pages.

KURTZ: But John Fund, for FOX not to devote a single segment to Warner's somewhat politically important announcement that day just surprised me.

FUND: Especially in August, because there's not much news.

KURTZ: Except for Lindsay Lohan. There is news for you.

FUND: But, you know, let's look at this perspective of the troops. A lot of them can actually get U.S. coverage by satellite.

My nephew Michael is over there with the 7th Marines. What they notice is, when wars in Iraq are going badly, the news coverage goes up dramatically. When the American troops are doing well, news coverage drops.

That is not a good psychological message for our troops. Frankly, they think that the Americans tend to ignore them when news is going well and when they're doing their job.

KURTZ: Although, I will say that there have been some stories saying that the military aspects of the surge are...


FUND: But the overall coverage is less.

KURTZ: All right. Well, we can't dispute that because the numbers show it.

John Fund, Michelle Cottle, Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

When we come back, covering the president in Crawford, Texas. Sound exciting? We'll give you the inside story on what really goes on. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: There's no more glamorous job than covering the president, right? You travel around the world with the commander in chief and even go on vacation with him. But when President Bush goes to his ranch, White House correspondents also find themselves in Crawford in August, where, as it turns out, they have a lot of time on their hands, as we see in this report by ABC's John Hendren.


JOHN HENDREN, REPORTER, ABC: The glamorous offices of the traveling press corps are here at Crawford Middle School. We do live shots behind the school.

The U.S. government is moving against the Revolutionary Guard.

(voice over): It's a bucolic setting if you don't move the camera.

Journalists find creative ways to while await hours.

(on camera): And what do you do between stories?

HANS NICHOLS, BLOOMBERG: Write poetry. You know, short form anti-ku (ph).

HENDREN (voice over): We break up the day by eating. And eating. And eating.

JIM RUTENBERG, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" I do gain weight here. I'm actually getting married in a couple of weeks. And so it's a bit of a challenge. We also -- once we're off deadline, some of us drink a lot of beer.


KURTZ: Joining us now live from Crawford, CNN's Ed Henry and ABC's John Hendren.

John Hendren, this is your first time in Crawford covering the president of the United States. Were you expecting a little more excitement?

HENDREN: ... with basketball hoops above me. And I kind of thought we would see the president once in a while, which hasn't happened on this trip except whether we've been on the road.

KURTZ: Ed Henry, why do CNN and other news organizations spend a lot of money to have reporters camp out in Crawford when there is not a lot going on?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's a very good question, but the simple answer is that you never know when a major international story is going to break out. As you know, on Friday there were a lot of rumors down in Miami, it was reported by local affiliates there that Fidel Castro had potentially died, and the Cuban government eventually denied it and said he was still in what they called fine health.

At a moment's notice, this beat can change very quickly. And it may look like we're standing around sometimes, but you'll remember there was a morning in September 2001 when the White House press corps was following the president in Florida on a -- what seemed like a very routine day where he was reading to some schoolchildren. That was 9/11, and all of a sudden the whole world changed.

KURTZ: Obviously news can break out at any moment. And I guess you do have to be there.

But John Hendren, while you're there and there's not much going on, do journalists try to generate some stories just to justify their existence?

HENDREN: Absolutely. And that's what this piece was.

I mean, we did this for the Web just so that I could have something to occupy my time. And being here new with fresh eyes, you know, it was an opportunity to just give people an idea of what goes on here.

And, you know, I've got to tell you, we've been searching for the news. As Ed points out, things can break out.

You have got the Castro story. You've had a lot of Iraq news. And we get to that as soon as we can. But, you know, meanwhile, there is a lot of down time because we have to be here. And, you know, you might as well look for something entertaining to do.

KURTZ: I once went to Sea Island, Georgia, with Jimmy Carter, and there was nothing going on. I got an interview with his spokesman, Jody Powell, and made up a story about a senior administration official saying this and that.

And that reminds me, Ed Henry, Dwight Eisenhower used to go on these golfing vacations, and his press secretary, Jim Hagerty, would churn out these statements and announcements to make it look like Ike was actually doing something.

Does the White House try to create some news while the president is clearing brush, or whatever he does down there?

HENRY: Interestingly, they don't really. I mean, they pretty much are frank about saying he's fishing, he's clearing brush. Not trying to say that he's doing very much.

But I will point out that at the beginning of the day, the president still gets his normal intelligence briefings through secure video conference facilities that he has on his ranch. Just as he would have at the White House.

And I think also it's important to point out that reporters all around the world right now, specifically in the United States, of course, are not doing a heck of a lot either. I mean, let's face it, "The Washington Post" newsroom, I gather, is not quite as busy in August as it is in September or October.

KURTZ: But the paper still comes out every day. And television...

HENRY: It does. And CNN...

KURTZ: ... doesn't go off the air either.

HENRY: That's right, 24 hours a day.

KURTZ: Talk about vacation spots, I mean, President Reagan used to go to his ranch in Santa Barbara, and George Herbert Walker Bush had the Kennebunkport retreat. And Bill Clinton did have a vacation home, but he spent a lot of time in Martha's Vineyard.

So, there you are in Crawford. What is there to do in Crawford when you're not working?

HENRY: I actually think -- I want to stand up for Waco and Crawford, because it's really the city of Waco nearby, Baylor University. Crawford is very, very small, and that's where we're standing now.

We spend most of our time in Waco. And it's actually not a bad place at all. It's actually a very nice place. And I think unfortunately in recent years there's been this -- because everyone compares it to Santa Barbara, Kennebunkport, Martha's Vineyard, people have been talking Texas down.

It's actually quite a nice place. Covering the president is the first time I've ever been in Texas in recent years. And it's quite nice.

And I also want to point out -- a quick plug for CNN -- on Thursday we did some enterprise reporting and did a story about a Republican lobbying firm back in Washington that is lobbying against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Made a little bit of news on CNN on Thursday and Friday.

And so, sure, there are times when we're sitting around, there is not much going on. But we're also still enterprising stories. And we still break some news.

KURTZ: Sure.

And John Hendren, that's part of the point of being wherever the president is. You may not see him and they may not be making much news, but you have access to the White House spokesman and White House officials, I guess, if anyone is working on an important story.

HENDREN: And that's really the big benefit of being here. I've got to tell you, when I did that piece, a lot of my colleagues said, oh, great, you're telling everybody that we're not doing anything. And I want to emphasize that the point is there's a lot of down time here. But when we do work, it's -- you know, it's going hard and heavy.

KURTZ: Right.

HENDREN: But you do get great access to the White House staff and, you know, when things happen to the president.

KURTZ: All right.

John Hendren and Ed Henry working hard in the heat of Crawford.

Thanks for joining us this morning.

Up next, a Paris magazine buffs up the French president and a scandalous revelation about the hottest D.C. journalist.

Our "Media Minute" just ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute".


KURTZ (voice over): Lisa Nowak, the former astronaut, or "astro- nut" as the tabloids have dubbed her, faced reporters for the first time Friday after a pretrial hearing about her alleged plot to attack and kidnap rival Colleen Shipman over the affections of a third astronaut. And Nowak fired a rocket at the media.

LISA NOWAK, FMR. ASTRONAUT: I've been both shocked and overwhelmed at the media coverage. I've been dismayed at incidents like those who filmed the contents of my house to publish on the Web, the invasion of my street with a solid mass of vehicles and reporters for nearly a week, while insulting my neighbors with rude interview attempts and trashing their lawns, knocking on doors at 4:00 in the morning.


KURTZ: I'm not going to defend any of that, but memo to Lisa Nowak: If you don't want tabloid coverage, as you put it, maybe it's not a good idea to have an affair, drive 900 miles with diapers, a steel mallet and a knife, track down your romantic rival, trick her into lowering her car window, and assault her with pepper spray, and then going into seclusion. Maybe that's why the press is after you.

If you think only American magazines use digital photography to make their cover stars look sexier, ah, monsieur, madam, what naivete.


KURTZ (voice over): "Paris Match" performed the touch-up job on none other than French president Nicolas Sarkozy, removing some rolls of flesh around his waist that Americans would call love handles. The magazine had no comment on this unethical move exposed by the weekly, "L'Express".

Meanwhile, which sleazy tabloid published these shirtless photos of Russian president Vladimir Putin looking rather studly on a boat trip? None. It's the Kremlin's official Web site that posted the pictures of the half-dressed leader.


KURTZ: And Hillary Clinton thinks our press is obsessed with a little skin?

There they go again. The Washington press corps embroiling yet another devastating scandal.


KURTZ (voice over): The Web site FishbowlDC conducted an online poll for the city's hottest media types. And the winners were writer Kriston Capps and Washingtonian editor Catherine Andrews. But it turns out they won because of bots, software programs that automatically generated thousands of votes for them.

The winners say they didn't authorize this electronic ballot- stuffing. But they're not exactly disavowing it.

Some people, like Hillary Clinton's spokesman, did it the old- fashioned way, e-mailing all their friends in an effort to win the hottest title.


KURTZ: And last week we talked to Lauren Jones, a swimsuit model who took the news desk at the CBS affiliate in Tyler, Texas, while the FOX network did the shooting for a reality series.


LAUREN JONES, SWIMSUIT MODEL: Don't even know what to pack. I have a sequined bikini. How do you think that would look doing the news?


KURTZ: She didn't exactly blow us away or the viewers, apparently. FOX has canceled "Anchorwoman" after exactly one episode.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, a CBS reality show featuring 40 kids in New Mexico raises questions about whether the network violated child labor laws and put its young participants in danger.

Plus, hurricane hype. Are TV networks going overboard in covering big storms?


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Reality shows thrive on controversy. But CBS may have gotten more than it bargained for with "Kid Nation". The network rounded up 40 children aged 8 to 15, shipped them to New Mexico and had them fend for themselves, largely unsupervised, for more than a month. That meant pulling ox carts and hauling water, and it meant some injuries, with several children swallowing bleach and one getting burned on the face while cooking.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kids can do just as much as adults can do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm feeling, like, really stressed and really worried. It's just been really stressful and tough. I guess I'm just going to have to keep pushing.


KURTZ: Now one parent of a 12-year-old participant has filed a complaint, and it turns out New Mexico authorities didn't know about the program and they're now raising questions about whether CBS violated the state's child labor laws.


CARLOS CASTANEDA, NEW MEXICO DEPT. OF LABOR: If you classify the production as an actual production and not a summer camp, several New Mexico child labor laws were violated.


KURTZ: Joining us now from Tampa, Eric Deggans, media critic for "The "St. Petersburg Times". In New York, Rachael Sklar, media editor of And here in Washington, Mary Katharine Ham, managing editor of

Rachel Sklar, isn't this whole exercise, kids as young as 8 years old, rather revolting?

RACHEL SKLAR, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: I find it totally revolting. I was stunned when I found out. The thing that I found most shocking actually was the fact that the kids are not allowed to have contact with their parents for -- were not allowed to have contact with their parents for 40 days.

I was a counselor at summer camp for so many years. And these kids are from 8 to 15. All of them need to have contact with their parents. So, I mean, I can't believe that this thing got green- lighted, frankly.

KURTZ: Rachel bringing her summer camp experience to this discussion.

SKLAR: It's very important, Howie.

KURTZ: Sorry.

Mary Katharine Ham, now the parents agreed.


KURTZ: They signed contracts saying the kids could participate. They're paid $5,000 each.

HAM: Right.

KURTZ: Get to participate. Get to compete for an even bigger prize.

I'm kind of wondering what the parents were thinking. Is this a manifestation of everyone wants to be on TV?

HAM: I'm not sure it necessarily is, because a lot of these parents are not Hollywood parents. They were folks from all over the country. They have seemingly very sensible, smart children in some of these clips. And I'm going to be more laid back about it.

I think that they should have classified it as a summer camp. New Mexico has a law under which they could have been exempted from the child labor laws because Boy Scout camps and this kind of thing are, because hiking all day in the Grand Canyon and making campfires can be considered labor.

I think they should have gone for that. They were silly in not doing that, and they caused themselves some trouble. But all in all, I don't think the kids are going through anything that they don't go through at a summer camp or an Outward Bound or something very harsh and outdoor like that.

KURTZ: Right.

SKLAR: We went to different camps.

KURTZ: Different camps.

Now, CBS declined to make anyone available for this program. In a statement, the network said that the kids were well cared for, that no child labor laws were violated, and that the network has done anything wrong.

Eric Deggans, is this where reality shows are headed toward, more and more outrageous stunts?

ERIC DEGGANS, "ST. PETERSBURG TIMES": Well, the formula for reality is always to sort of violate norms and sort of push boundaries. And I think FOX saw, for example, when they did "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" the one place you can't push is marriage. And I think CBS is going to find the one place you can't push is the treatment of children and the safety of children.

This idea that you would take children and put them in a reality TV environment normally reserved for adults who are fully aware of the choices they're making, that's where CBS ran into trouble. And I think they're going to find and are continuing pushback on this series.

KURTZ: And on that point, Rachel Sklar, the fact that CBS didn't notify New Mexico authorities about this taping and turned away inspectors on three different occasions, that seems to suggest that the network knew it had something to hide.

SKLAR: Well, CBS obviously has very, very good lawyers. Their contract has been revealed. It was pretty airtight and provided for not being liable for medical care, the quality of medical care to the children, and whether or not they got sexually transmitted diseases.

So, yes, I mean, the whole thing does seem very sketchy. And about the summer camp issue, I think that New Mexico has evaluated the program and seen that it didn't actually qualify for the summer camp carveout.

So I think that, yes, I mean, New Mexico is looking into it. The problem is that New Mexico's, I guess, child labor laws were signed into law two days after the production started filming. So there was sort of a gray area about whether or not they actually apply.

KURTZ: Mary Katharine Ham, don't even TV networks need to abide by state law?

HAM: They do. Of course they need to abide by the law, and I think they will get in trouble over this particular incident.

KURTZ: But you're not particularly upset about this whole thing?

HAM: I'm not particularly upset about it.

KURTZ: You're planning to watch?

HAM: I feel like a lot of these -- specifically, one parent is speaking out saying that her kid had a great time. They learned about trade. They do some hard work. They...

SKLAR: Is that the kid that got splattered with grease or the kid who drank the bleach?

HAM: No, ma'am. No, ma'am, it wasn't, darling. But listen, here's the thing, you go to camp, you take on risks. These parents signed contracts knowing what they were getting into, and miner incidents happened for which the children were treated promptly. And I'm just not -- I can't get all that upset about it. I think it's a lot of hype.

KURTZ: Well, here's by two cents.

I think that these reality shows are now engaged in a race to the bottom. You know, eating worms and other forms of humiliation are no longer enough. So you have to come up with more crazy stunts to try to get people to watch.

We should draw the line at kids. This is sheer exploitation.

There is going to be a backlash about this, as Eric Deggans suggested. And I hope this thing never gets on the air.

All right. Let's turn now to presidential politics.

Specifically, there is a new arena attracting a lot of attention, and that is Comedy Central's "Daily Show," where Barack Obama this week was Jon Stewart's guest.

Let's watch.


JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Do you feel like you're stuck in a narrative now and the narrative is Hillary Clinton is unlikable but knows what she's doing, Obama is inexperienced but brings change, and that narrative, no matter what you do, because it's easily categorized, the media or everyone else will just slip whatever happens into those two narratives.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's what's happening right now. They will probably find something new later to talk about. You know...

STEWART: Could you tell us what that will be?

OBAMA: We don't know yet. Whatever sells papers.


KURTZ: Whatever sells papers.

Eric Deggans, how important is Jon Stewart to the presidential campaign?

DEGGANS: Well, I know that a lot of people who cover media want to think that he's important. He has a lock and a window into a type of younger consumer that I'm sure that the candidates want to reach. But I think the problem is that oftentimes, those younger consumers don't vote.

We've seen other candidates have success reaching out to younger people, particularly online, but those didn't really translate into votes. So I think it's more about, frankly, impressing the media. If you go on "The Daily Show" and do well, then to the pundits you look like someone who can take a joke and someone who is hip.

KURTZ: Impressing the media very important. Not to be underestimated, particularly in this media-centric age.

Mary Katharine Ham, does Jon Stewart give Democrats an easier time? He wasn't exactly pressing Obama on the war there.

HAM: No, he was not. I mean, it's a fact of life. I think you do have to go on "The Daily Show" to show you have a sense of humor. Unfortunately, for Republicans, that means going on and usually getting hammered a little bit harder. For Democrats, that means going on and hearing, Obama, how does it feel to be the messiah of American politics? I mean...

KURTZ: Although John McCain has been the most frequent guest at that level. He's been on "The Daily Show" 10 times. And he's a Republican.

HAM: Well, and he's -- and he's a bit of an exception as a Republican because he's quite the media darling. So it's a little bit of a different situation.

SKLAR: I've got to jump in here and say that I saw the Mike Huckabee interview on "The Daily Show". It was quite some time ago, and Mike Huckabee came across as extremely winning and very personable.

I mean, Jon Stewart is good to his guests. He's very good to his guests.

He sets them up. You know, he knows what he's talking about. He asks them good questions. He sets up jokes. He makes them look good. So it works to go on that show.

KURTZ: One of the points, Rachael Sklar...

SKLAR: Sure.

KURTZ: ... that Jon Stewart raised had to do with not just the narrative of Obama's campaign, but remarks by his wife Michelle, in which she said, "If you can't run your own house, you can't run the White House." And Stewart pointed out that Drudge had a big headline, "Michelle Obama Slamming Hillary Clinton," when, in fact, if you look at it in context, she wasn't talking about Hillary at all. She was talking about sort of her own family trying to deal with the pressures of a presidential run.

SKLAR: I couldn't agree more. In fact, I've been amazed seeing, you know, "Michelle Obama Slams Hillary?" across -- you know, displayed across (INAUDIBLE) on the cablers (ph).

It was such an innocuous remark. And as I have said before, I mean, Hillary Clinton has a strong and happy marriage that has lasted many, many years. And a fine young daughter, and her husband stands behind her and claps and supports her.

So, I mean, I don't know, who was that shot at? Which candidate?

KURTZ: You wanted to say something?

HAM: Oh, no. I think a strong, happy marriage for the Clintons is a line worthy of "The Daily Show". Very funny.

I think that we're in politics. We know what Michelle Obama meant. I disagree...

SKLAR: I absolutely disagree. I absolutely disagree.

HAM: I understand that. But she said, take care of your own house, which to me is an accusation of somebody.

KURTZ: I just...

DEGGANS: One thing...


DEGGANS: If I could break in and point out that I think "The Daily Show" actually has its own narratives. And one of the things that "The Daily Show" has been very aggressive about is talking about the failures of the war and the failures of this administration.

So, whenever a candidate goes on that seems to be somewhat supportive of the war, I think they do take some hits. But Democrats take hits for being disorganized and for being ineffectual because that is another narrative on "The Daily Show".

KURTZ: All right.

DEGGANS: So I don't know how fair it is to say that they have narratives that favor one party over the another.

KURTZ: Let me turn now to the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. It's becoming increasingly popular.

It's basically a database put together by users. And "The New York Times" had a story a few days ago saying that companies were editing the entries, perhaps to make them more to their own liking.

For example, someone using a "New York Times" computer went to a page involving President Bush and used the word "jerk" 12 times. Another case, there was references to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the word "pianist," which she is, which changed to penis.

And a "Washington Post" person using their computers changed the owner of a local competing newspaper, "The Washington Examiner," to Charles Manson.

Rachel Sklar, how could this have any credibility if people can just go in and change whatever they want?

SKLAR: Well, I think that presupposes that you're assuming that Wikipedia is 100 percent credible. I think when you go to Wikipedia, you know -- you ought to know what it's about and that it is capable of being edited by the community.

And that's one of the things that makes it legitimate in the sense that they have just swarms of citizen editors who go on every entry to make sure that it is, you know, "fair and balanced". But that's a segue into the fact that that FOX was editing a whole lot of entries. And I think that when you're talking about news organizations getting in there to edit entries in a way that does not promote veracity, but maybe obfuscates what the facts are or tries to spin them, then you're getting into a gray area.

KURTZ: OK. We're short on time.

You can also delete anything negative about yourself, Mary Katharine Ham.

HAM: Yes, you can. I think Rachel's right, you do have to make sure you know what you're getting when you go to Wikipedia. The longer an entry is there, the more likely that it's going to be -- that it's going to be accurate. I think it's great that we have transparency now and we can see who is making these changes.

KURTZ: Yes, but it's not that easy. It takes people with some computer know-how.

Eric Deggans, I have got about 10 seconds for a closing comment.

DEGGANS: I think this is part of the ethic of the Internet. Anonymity when you make changes, anonymity when you're involved.

We did a story where we found lots of people in state government also changed things. Lots of people are changing things on Wikipedia.


DEGGANS: So surf with caution.

KURTZ: There should be digital fingerprints.

Eric Deggans, Rachel Sklar, Mary Katharine Ham, thanks for joining us.

Still ahead, covering hurricanes. Are the TV networks getting carried away by the wind, the rain, and the ratings?


KURTZ: If you own a television set and turned it on this past week, there is one thing you know for sure -- a big hurricane started in the Caribbean and made its way to Mexico. Hurricane Dean was no Katrina, but you could feel swept away by the deluge of TV reports.


SAM CHAMPION, ABC NEWS: Dangerous and deadly Hurricane Dean actually made landfall connection on the Yucatan Peninsula at about 3:30 in the morning Central Time.

AL ROKER, NBC NEWS: The latest on the storm right now is that it is moving west-northwest about 20 miles per hour.

DAVE PRICE, CBS NEWS: This will be a record setter. Of course, it's the ninth storm and the third most intense to make landfall.

HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN: The wind seems to be just getting stronger and stronger. The roar is like that of a jet engine.


KURTZ: They all look so wet.

Joining us now from Dallas, CNN's Ed Lavandera, who covered Hurricane Dean, as well as Katrina. And in Chicago, Phil Rosenthal, media columnist for "The Chicago Tribune".

Phil Rosenthal, when we see reporters and anchors standing out there in these driving rainstorms, totally soaked, whipped by the wind, what does that add to our understanding of these hurricanes?

PHIL ROSENTHAL, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Almost nothing. I mean, really, I hate to say this, but you've seen one hurricane, you've seen them all. And all that really changes is the color of the rain gear and the kind of trees in the background that are bending at a 45- degree angle.

KURTZ: You're not saying -- you're not saying they shouldn't be covered, of course?

ROSENTHAL: No. I think -- I think they should be. But I think the idea of sending a reporter out into the rain, you know, makes about as much sense as standing in the rain without an umbrella.

KURTZ: Ed Lavandera, as a veteran of some of these storms, do you feel a little silly standing out there getting soaked? Or is this kind of a public service?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes. I think it is at some point.

You know, it's one of those things where you're essentially holding people's hands as you're going through this. And, you know, you try to provide them as much information as you possibly can.

You do feel a little bit silly. And I'll be honest with you, I think my goal kind of going into any hurricane that I cover is to make sure I don't end up on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" or "The Tonight Show" in some goofy clip. You know, I consider that a pretty big success.

KURTZ: You're setting a high bar for yourself there.

LAVANDERA: Well, yes.

KURTZ: Now, Phil Rosenthal, what is it about TV and bad weather? I mean, on the local stations, you see this, with their Doppler radar and their team coverage when there's two inches of snow. And nationally, when there is a hurricane, you see the network morning shows devoting a lot of attention, and cable channels like CNN covering almost around the clock.

ROSENTHAL: Well, everybody talks about the weather and everybody's affected by it. And it is a story. What I think is interesting is if you look in the past few years, you know, at one point weather was where they stuck in the humor in the newscast. Now, it's almost the most serious thing in the world, and sports, which used to be treated as if it were, you know, of biblical importance, is now where they stick the one-liners and the jokes and the gag video. It's...

KURTZ: So you're saying...

ROSENTHAL: It's an interesting transition.

KURTZ: You're saying weather is serious business, and it also is a way of getting people to watch?

ROSENTHAL: Yes, it is, absolutely. I think one of the problems, as I say, with the hurricane shot and being out in the storm, is it's a bit of a cliche. It's like sending the person out in front of the courthouse 10 hours after the verdict. It's something we come to see, and it really is the stuff of "The Daily Show."

KURTZ: Right. If it's after the verdict, you're saying I'm standing here live on a street where news was made a little while ago.

Ed Lavandera, Hurricane Dean did a lot of damage. But in the end, nine people were killed. I'm wondering whether there is a danger that the kind of constant coverage that we saw this week, for example, makes these storms seem worse than they actually are.

LAVANDERA: Well, you know, what I have found when you're out there is that hurricanes are completely different beasts than, for example, if you cover a tornado. Hurricanes are, you know, couple of hundred miles wide in many cases. So there is a lot of variation between where -- if you're 20 miles away from the eye of the hurricane, it might have been a piece of cake to have withstood. There is a lot of variation within the width of a storm.

And after having walked through many people's homes over the last almost 10 years that I've been doing this, you know, when you walk through people's homes and it's destroyed, it is their Katrina. It may not be the worst storm ever, but if your home -- if it was the only home destroyed in a storm, it was your Katrina.

And when I go out there and when we report on these stories, it may be cliche to a lot of people, but it's not cliche to the people who are affected at that very moment. And I think those are the people we're serving.

KURTZ: And was there a moment during your coverage of Hurricane Dean when you had one of these depressing moments to see the kind of devastation that was wreaked upon someone's life?

LAVANDERA: The day after the hit that we took, we were driving back to Mexico City. It was about a seven-hour drive through the mountains. And you're driving through the villages, and it's impossible to broadcast live. I would never do it. It's just a danger to the people that we work with, but these are the people who withstood these storms, up high in the mountains, in very poor neighborhoods. And a couple of places we saw where the roads had completely been wiped away, and everyone was out cleaning the streets.

And even though when you are reporting live and you're kind of trapped in that moment of what's going on and getting, you know, looking silly, getting pounded in the face with rain, out there, there are people actually fighting to get through it. And, you know, those are the people that you don't necessarily see the very moment it's happening, because at this level, it is still impossible to get. I would never stand on the side of a Mexican mountain with a satellite truck and all of our gear and put our people at risk. And those are the people having to fight this.

ROSENTHAL: You know, and I'm not disputing the idea of putting, you know, the after effects of a natural disaster. I'm saying that when you're telling people, get out of the rain, come indoors, seek shelter, to be standing out there is just -- it's absolutely unnecessary.

KURTZ: Phil Rosenthal, we're days away now from the second anniversary of Katrina, which of course devastated Louisiana and Mississippi. Does some of what we're seeing now in hurricane coverage reflect a post-Katrina mindset? In other words, because a hurricane might become another Katrina, we cover it more intensively than we might have a few years ago?

ROSENTHAL: I would say that, but you know, hurricanes were always covered fairly intensively even before Katrina. I think, you know, I think it probably puts more of a spin on it, and certainly around Katrina it does. But I'm not sure it wasn't always a big deal. I mean, Dan Rather was covering hurricanes.

KURTZ: That's true, back in 1963. That was his first big story.

Ed Lavandera, I have got about half a minute. Do you think Katrina is a factor in the way hurricanes are covered today, or it is about the drama, which after all, does tend to generate ratings, particularly on stations that are on 24 hours doing news?

LAVANDERA: Well, I think, especially, you know, the organizations that I've been around in covering these hurricanes, I think there has always been an intensity to do it. Because I mean, the bottom line is, people watch this stuff, and they watch the weather, I think, rather intensely.

I think obviously Katrina raised the stakes, because it's not just -- the storm might not have been that bad, but you never know what's going to happen in the aftermath.

KURTZ: Absolutely. Ed Lavandera, looking very dry this morning, and Phil Rosenthal in Chicago, thanks for joining us.

Still to come, Michael Vick is the latest to join the star athletes hall of shame. How did sports writers become the new police reporters?


KURTZ: I used to fantasize about being a sportswriter -- going to games, chatting with the stars, covering all those touchdowns and home runs and three-pointers. These days, though, you're more likely to be writing about Michael Vick, and what a disgusting case. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback, who was already making millions of dollars, pleaded guilty this week to dogfighting charges and was suspended by the NFL. Was this his idea of fun? Hanging, torturing and electrocuting dogs on his own property, killing them with his bare hands?


KURTZ (voice-over): There goes his Nike endorsement deal, his Reebok jersey, his trading cards, as Vick most likely goes to jail.

But Michael Vick is all too typical of what sports coverage has become. Once, journalists built up these gifted athletes into larger- than-life figures, but these days, too many of them seem arrogant and out of control. Sports coverage has come to resemble police reporting.

Just go through the hall of shame. NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleading guilty to gambling.

KOBE BRYANT: I love my wife...

KURTZ: Kobe Bryant was acquitted of sexual assault charges, so all he did was humiliate his wife with a young hotel employee.

Linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction in a murder case.

Latrell Sprewell, who choked his coach. Pete Rose, banned from baseball for gambling. And then there are the accused steroid users -- Barry Bonds, the new home run king; Mark McGwire; Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi. The Tour de France practically collapsing amid doping charges.

And the list goes on, back to Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson.


KURTZ: Now, somewhere beyond this sea of negative headlines lies the game, the thing we loved as kids, the reason sportswriters are drawn to the craft. But maybe all that dates to a more innocent time, before baseball and hockey lost seasons over stupid strikes, before some athletes chose greed and drugs and cheating and killing animals, before media myths were so easily punctured.

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. "Late Edition" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.