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Thompson Announces Presidential Run on 'Tonight Show'; The Bill Clinton Factor

Aired September 9, 2007 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: The Fred factor. Fred Thompson turns to Jay Leno to ease into the presidential race. Then chats up his favorite cable conservative, Sean Hannity. Can the former actor win the nomination, while largely avoiding mainstream journalism?
The Bill factor. The former president's latest media blitz -- will it help Hillary's White House bid?

The Oprah factor. Can the talk show queen boost Barack Obama the way she helped sell books?

Never mind, Larry Craig says he may not quit the Senate after all. Is the press treating him fairly after that bathroom bust?

Plus, network versus network. ABC's Brian Ross on why he's investigating NBC's "Dateline" over the collapse of a sting operation on the collapse of child predators.

When you are someone who wants to become a serious presidential candidate without talking to Brian, Charlie or Katie, without doing "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation" or "Nightline" or the "Newshour" or venturing into "THE SITUATION ROOM," without even officially running at all, how do you finally take the plunge? For Fred Thompson, who has largely avoided the mainstream press since he began his White House flirtation, the answer was not to join the other Republican candidates in a FOX debate in New Hampshire, it was to head to Burbank and plant himself on Jay Leno's couch.


JAY LENO, TALK SHOW HOST: You were here in June and you said then you were testing the water. You've been in the water for a while now. Are you starting to get a little wrinkly?

FRED THOMPSON, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These wrinkles don't come from the water.

LENO: They don't come from the water. All right. What's the temperature? Is it tepid? What's the water tell you?

THOMPSON: Nice and warm.


KURTZ: So it the one-time star of "Law and Order" about to draw far tougher media scrutiny than from he got on "The Tonight Show"?

Joining us now from New York, Gloria Borger columnist for "U.S. News & World Report." Here in Washington, Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for the "New Yorker" magazine. And Amy Holmes, conservative commentator and CNN contributor.

Quick question, brief answer from all of you. Start with Gloria -- Fred Thompson hitting Jay Leno, his soft-ball pitching while the other candidates are slugging it out at that FOX debate. Brilliant move or blunder?

GLORIA BORGER, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Well, I thought it was exactly what he ought to do if he wants to position himself as an outsider. There's plenty of time to get into these debates. We in the media are the only ones who complain that he should have been in the debate. The other candidates complained about it, too. But you know what? Nobody's going to remember that six months from now.

KURTZ: Ryan Lizza, going on Leno?

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: It's smart to do this sort of alternative media strategy. But I do feel like he's maybe paying a price suddenly. He maybe waited a little bit too long. The press was really interested in his candidacy maybe a month and a half, two months ago. And now the press is feeling a little used. We wanted him to jump in this race. We liked that story. But now there's a little bit of a backlash.

KURTZ: You're feeling ignored, dissed, bypassed?

LIZZA: I was speaking on behalf of my political correspondent colleagues, maybe not personally.

BORGER: The poor media. So sad for us.

KURTZ: How did the Leno thing work out?

AMY HOLMES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it's safe to say that the honeymoon with the media with Fred Thompson is over. But we knew that that was going to happen.

KURTZ: It's over already?

HOLMES: It's over already. We knew that was going to happen the minute that he announced his candidacy. I think what the press is overlooking here are the sheer logistics. You're going to make a big splash announcing your presidency. The Republican debate was that week. He was not going to go to the debate and step on his own momentum and his own message by appearing on stage. I think he made the best decision he could.

KURTZ: I just thought he was a little flat on Leno, that he'd have more one-liners prepared. But the day after "The Tonight Show" appearance, the next interview went to FOX News's Sean Hannity. He's had about a half-a-dozen sit downs with Fred Thompson. Let's watch some of the exchange. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Does it concern you, do you have a strategy to bypass the general media to get your message and go directly to the American people?

THOMPSON: Well, both. I mean first place, you can't bypass the media. And I don't want to try to do that. That's a part of the game. I understand that. This is high-stakes stuff.


KURTZ: Gloria Borger, Thompson says he doesn't intend to bypass the media and he did talk to CNN, ABC and half-a-dozen print reporters in recent days. But let's face it, this guy is certainly minimizing contact with the establishment journalists and networks.

BORGER: Well, Howard, did you ever think that his consultants -- and by the way, even though he's positioning himself as an outsider, he does have political consultants, I think his consultants are probably saying to him, let's get started slowly because you may not be ready.

Let's be honest, his initial speeches have been less than impressive. He's got to get used to being out there on the stump. He hasn't even been in the Senate for a long time. So this trajectory is going to be sort of very, very gradual and they know we're going to be analyzing his every move, so they're limiting his contact with us until they really think he's ready for prime-time.

He's ready for Jay Leno. That's a couple of quick one-liners, but he might not be ready for the Sunday shows for example.

KURTZ: I don't think he gets to do an off-Broadway debut. But that's interesting if he's at this late day, trying to ease his way in. Now Ryan Lizza, FOX News disputes the idea it is a conservative network. And Brit Hume and company did a pretty good job on that debate. But when Thompson comes on, he's only interviewed but Sean Hannity, not Alan Colmes, the liberal co-host. Why is that allowed to happen?

LIZZA: No offense to Alan, I'm not sure it would be a whole lot better if Alan was sitting there as well. But why is that allowed to happen? Because they want an exclusive interview with a major candidate. So why not give it to a softer host who will ask him only conservative questions?

Look, it is the primary season. You're only talking to Republicans anyway. So it's obviously logical for Thompson to do that. FOX News might say well this is primary season, we want Republicans to look at this guy, we'll put him with Republican correspondents.

KURTZ: Now Thompson did late in the week talk to ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America." Let's take a look at some of what she asked him. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Does this say anything about you that you have a younger wife, and what about these reports she's running the campaign?

THOMPSON: If some people who got their feelings hurt anonymously now want to go after her, instead of me because they feel like she is a much easier target, there is nothing I can do about that.


KURTZ: The media seem very interested in Jeri Thompson factor, do they not?

HOLMES: They do. I mean, she's an unusual political wife for being younger, being a little bit more glamorous. Definitely a break from the more stayed Laura, sort of older, steady wife. But Diane Sawyer asking a question about the wife? What happened to this sisterhood? Fred Thompson is a serious candidate for president, and we're focusing on his wife?

KURTZ: Wait a minute, Diane Sawyer is hardly alone here. "The New York Times" ran a Sunday piece about whether she was a trophy wife. She's 24 years younger than the former senator.

LIZZA: With that analogy, they shouldn't focus on Bill Clinton in Hillary's campaign. You can't focus on spouses?

HOLMES: Well Hillary is wheeling him out to campaign events, I think we can. He was former president of the United States, by the way.

BORGER: But spouses are important this round. Look at Elizabeth Edwards. You could almost say she's John Edwards running mate. I think spouses are fair game to talk about whether it's Jeri Thompson, Elizabeth Edwards or Bill Clinton.

KURTZ: Gloria, do you think that Fred Thompson is now -- now that he's finally an official candidate, no longer somebody who's testing the waters, is in for a period of fierce media scrutiny, or did that really begin a few weeks ago when we had this sort of flood of stories about his record as a lawmaker and as a lobbyist?

BORGER: I think it's already started. We've already had stories about some of his top staff resigning before the campaign even got under way.

As you said at the outset, the media is a little upset that we've been ignored. So he is going to get even more scrutiny I believe than he would have gotten otherwise if he'd have gotten in a little bit earlier.

I think he's prepared for that, which is why he seems to be heading towards folks whom he thinks are going to be a little friendlier to him, although he did do an interview on CNN. As you said, he did do "Good Morning America." So he's getting ready, because I think they know.

KURTZ: There have even been stories about Thompson's role when he was the minority council to the Senate Watergate committee, leaking information to the Nixon White House. So he's going to get the full treatment.

HOLMES: And his clients when he was a lobbyist, there's stories about that.

LIZZA: It's very legitimate. He spent a long time as a lobbyist running and he's running as a Washington outsider. There's a certain irony, U.S. Senator and long-time Washington lobbyist running as an Washington outsider. So that's going to come back, again and again.

KURTZ: A lot of people who spend a lot of time in the District of Columbia have run as Washington outsider.

Well here is my two cents. Thompson is right when he seemed to concede you can't completely bypass the mainstream media in a presidential campaign. Ross Perot tried it, other people have tried it. People, the voters out there, they want to see you tested. And the mainstream media, for all of their flaws, provide a pretty good proxy for setting up a gauntlet that you have to successfully navigate, whether it's about your personal life, your professional life, your wife.

And my feeling is, OK, we put these candidates on the spot but if you can't deal with Russert, Schieffer, Blitzer, Stephanopoulos, how are you going to lead the war on terror?

Now we talked earlier about the FOX News debate on Wednesday night. Afterwards, Amy Holmes, a lot of pundits and a focus group that the FOX News put together said that John McCain had the best night of all. Now didn't the media write off McCain and say that basically his campaign had imploded and he was toast?

HOLMES: Right. That was big surprise. I think the media loves the rollercoaster ride. They love the build-up and the tear-down. John McCain, he was sort of was due for his turn in the spotlight. I think the August month did him a lot of good on the stump. I think for all of the candidates, when they were up on that stage, you could tell that being out on the stump on August really improved their debate performance. I think that was reflected in media coverage.

KURTZ: Weren't journalists too quick to basically say McCain had no chance?

LIZZA: Maybe. His campaign did implode. He was basically out of money. Ron Paul had more money. By normal barometers we use, money and polls, he wasn't looking so hot. But having said that, he'll go through a boom and bust cycle. He is John McCain, he's a great character. And a lot of people in the press who sort of didn't like the sort of red meat conservative right wing McCain and wanted the old McCain from 2000 who's a truth teller and takes on the Republican establishment, maybe that guy will come back and he'll get another boom cycle.

KURTZ: Gloria, you want to get in on this?

BORGER: Well I think also what helps McCain is that a lot of folks have gone over to Iraq and said that the surge is working. And McCain of course is someone who is a great supporter of the surge. So while he's really suffered because of his support of the Iraq war, he's been very strong on this issue, will continue to be and at least looks consistent and a lot of Republicans don't. I think that's what also helped him in the debate.

KURTZ: And since you brought up the surge, big story in the "New York Times" today, if I can hold this up. The paper says the lengthy examination of President Bush's surge in Iraq says the surge has produced modest security gains, but the headlines say at street level unmet goals in Iraq, statistical gains from troop buildup mask explosive tension in Baghdad.

So Gloria, do you think the media have just had a hard time just making up their minds about how effective this military escalation has been?

BORGER: Yeah, I think so, and it is not the media's fault. It's because everyone seems to disagree whether the glass is half full or the glass is half empty. Depending on where you come from, you might say it's half full, you might say it's half empty. And I think that's what you're going to hear from the Democrats, half empty. Republicans, half full.

KURTZ: It's going to be a huge media story this week, Amy, General Petraeus testifying and everybody debating the state of the war.

HOLMES: Sure, and the anniversary of 9/11. So it's very topical this week to be going through all of these issues.

KURTZ: All right, let me get a break. When we come back, Bill Clinton's latest TV blitz. Are the media still mesmerized by the former president and why is "Newsweek" already looking ahead to a Hillary presidency?


KURTZ: Fred Thompson isn't the only candidate working the softer side of the TV talk circuit. Hillary Clinton has been making the rounds as well.


ELLEN DEGENERES, TALK SHOW HOST: I'm going to ask you a question and first of all, I should preface this, I don't know if you know this, but I am gay.


(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: But the week's biggest media blitz has been mounted by Bill Clinton, who's been plugging his new book on volunteerism along with his wife's candidacy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why do you think when asked on a number of occasions, people simply say they're not sure if they like Hillary Clinton.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well because she's the only person running who for 15 years has been regularly hit by the swift boat tactics of the Republicans.

Some days I get a call from around the country saying, you realize I'm 15 years older than you were when you did this? I said, well, nobody made you run, girl. I like what I hear.


KURTZ: Ryan Lizza, you also wrote about the Clintons this week as a piece on the Democratic race. All of these TV programs are having Bill Clinton on, is it because they're really interested in his book on volunteerism, because of Hillary or because there's still this media fixation on the Clinton marriage.

LIZZA: No, there is a media fixation -- I don't think it's necessarily with the marriage, but there is a media fixation with these very weird situations where a former first lady is running and the former president is out there campaigning for her.

KURTZ: And could be the first gentleman.

LIZZA: And could be the first gentleman. It is a very unique circumstance. I was in New Hampshire with them recently. One of the reporters, they separated at a state fair and they started walking around. One of the reporters said, I'm torn, I don't know which one to follow.

KURTZ: Would you say, Amy Holmes, that the tone of these interviews with Bill Clinton is awfully friendly? In some circles the former president is still a controversial figure.

HOLMES: Certainly, but he does have high favor abilities among the American people. But this Billary strategy, as I'm calling it, is fairly risky. While it does play into Democratic nostalgia for the Clinton presidency, Pew found back in May 2005, that the majority of people would not want to see a Bill Clinton third term. So I think they're wheeling him out for the primary. The Democratic Party still holds him in very high regard. But when it comes to the general, I think you'll see him sort of put behind a potted plant.

KURTZ: You're going to put him in a basement? Gloria Borger, what if you were at the state fair and Hillary went one way, Bill went the other, who would you follow?

BORGER: I don't know, the hot dogs. I'm not quite sure.

KURTZ: Corn dogs.

BORGER: The corn dogs, right. I'm not sure that they're going to wheel him out all the time right now. Because I think the problem is with Bill Clinton is that he's such a rock star that he overshadows Hillary Clinton, particularly with those Democratic primary voters.

So they need him to raise money, they need him to talk about Hillary Clinton. But you know, when both of them are on the stage together, you do need to have him off in a corner sitting on a stool and allow Hillary Clinton to take center stage because she is the one running for the presidency.

So it is a very, very difficult act. So far he's been on his best behavior, I would have to say, and he's done really well.

KURTZ: Now Hillary Clinton, we talked about Fred Thompson skipping some of the tougher TV forums, Hillary Clinton hasn't done a Sunday show in this campaign season.

Can she get by doing "Ellen" and "Letterman," and in a way maybe is it more important for her to show a softer side of her personality?

LIZZA: Yes and also, the last trip I was on with her there was a lot of grumbling among reporters, that on these two-day trips she doesn't build in a press availability. For instance, Obama almost always builds a press availability. So there is starting to be a little bit of pressure on her to be a little bit more accessible to the beat reporters that are covering her.

HOLMES: But remember, this is classic Hillary. Back in 2000 when she was running for Senate, the same grumbling, same rumbling that she wasn't allowing the press to get near her in that Senate campaign and lo and behold, she won. So I think this is going back to the old play book. Her big liability is her unlikability, which of course is addressed.

LIZZA: Well it's funny, I interviewed her recently. I think she shatters a lot of expectations of reporters when you're up close with her. Just like in this "Ellen" segment, she's a warm, likable person. I think her reputation for not being that is maybe her best asset because it is very easy to shatter that reputation.

KURTZ: When she was first lady, as I have written, she was very wary of the press. Didn't give a lot of access then, and there was a lot of tensions between the two sides. So I guess when reporters do get the chance to sit with her, it can be a pleasant surprise.

Gloria Borger, the new cover of "Newsweek" just out this morning, the headline is "How She Would Govern." The piece says Clinton seems astonishingly like the safest money in the 2008 race, even though the polls show just a couple of points between her and Rudy Giuliani in a hypothetical match-up.

What do you make of "Newsweek" already projecting the possibility of a second Clinton presidency?

BORGER: Have we had the primaries yet, Howie? Did I miss that? Or general election?

I think the inevitability of the Hillary Clinton nomination is something we in the media were obsessed with and all talking about until Barack Obama got in the race.

Now Hillary Clinton seems to be handling Barack Obama very well, at least in the polls, in the early primary states. Although he is matching her in fund-raising.

So in a way, it is a natural question to ask how would she govern? Getting back to our previous conversation about Bill Clinton, what would Bill Clinton's role in her administration be? I do think it's kind of an interesting read but I do think it is short of jumping the gun a little bit. Don't you?

KURTZ: Well, does it help her though that the media are helping create this aura of inevitability?

HOLMES: Oh certainly, it helps her momentum. But it's jumping the gun. What we know about Bill Clinton is that he's full of surprises and it's a long time between now and the primaries.

KURTZ: Well I've never seen the media jump the gun before on any story, this is so unusual. Gloria Borger, Amy Holmes, Ryan Lizza, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, Whoopi Goldberg gets into a verbal dog fight while debuting on "The View."

And a British journalist who made fun of our president gets his. We've got the tape in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ: Time for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute." When Rosie O'Donnell left "The View" after a tumultuous year, the lady chat show was expected to calm down.

Whoopi Goldberg, who debuted this week as Rosie's replacement, doesn't have the same fondness for high decibel rants. But the actress doesn't shy away from controversy. She even expressed sympathy for Michael Vick, the quarterback who pled guilty to charges involving illegal dog fighting.


WHOOPI GOLDBERG, THE VIEW: He's from the south. He's from the deep south and dogfighting is allowed.

JOY BEHAR, THE VIEW: That's not dog torturing and dog murdering, though.

GOLDBERG: Unfortunately, it's part of the thing. For a lot of people, dogs are sport. It's not -- so I just thought it was interesting, because it seemed like a light went off in his head when he realized that this was something that the entire country really didn't appreciate, didn't like.


KURTZ: I couldn't disagree more. But at least Whoopi isn't drowning out anyone else.

How far should the media go in spotlighting climate change? The BBC had planned to air a day's worth of programs to highlight concerns about global warping. Not unlike when NBC carried the Live Earth concert sponsored by Al Gore. But in this case, two of the network's top TV news executives objected. With Peter Barron, editor of its "Newsnight" program saying "It is absolutely not the BBC's job to save the planet."

The BBC has now bowed to the criticism, canceling the day of environmental programs.

Some journalists just love shooting from the lip. Take British columnist Piers Morgan, who had a fine time mocking George Bush a few years back when the president slipped off one of those segway scooters. "You'd have to be an idiot to fall off, wouldn't you, Mr. President?" Morgan's paper wrote when he was the editor. "If anyone can make a pig's ear of running a sophisticated self-balancing machine like this, Dubya can."

It is my sad duty to report that Piers Morgan -- well, just watch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Step back. Step backwards. Step back. Step back. Step backwards.

KURTZ: Morgan broke three ribs after falling off the segway. It's always easier to criticize from the sidelines.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, ABC's Brian Ross on the ethical questions swirling around "Dateline" NBC's stings against child predators.

The Larry Craig saga, the story that keeps on giving for journalists at least.

And Katie Couric in Iraq. What did this week's trip tell us about the war -- and her.


KURTZ: Oprah Winfrey staged a big fund-raiser for Barack Obama yesterday. Can she sell a presidential candidate the way she sells books?

That's ahead. But first, here's Betty Nguyen in the CNN Center in Atlanta with a check of the hour's top stories.


KURTZ: Thanks very much, Betty. Up next, "20/20" takes on "Dateline." ABC's Brian Ross on the troubling questions raised by NBC's probe of child predators, including a botched case against 23 men and a prosecutor's suicide.


KURTZ: Welcome back. It has been a highly successful franchise for "Dateline NBC," working with local police on undercover investigations of suspected child predators. After the men are lured by decoys pretending to be teenagers online, they're confronted by correspondent Chris Hansen.


CHRIS HANSEN, HOST, "DATELINE NBC: TO CATCH A PREDATOR" (voice- over): Those that made it in the house met me.

(on camera): Where was this headed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm out of my mind.

HANSEN: The men ranged in age from 23 years old to 63.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm truly sorry.


KURTZ: But now NBC News finds itself under investigation by ABC. On "20/20" Friday night, ABC's Brian Ross questioned a "Dateline" sting in Murphy, Texas, that fell apart last spring with a prosecutor dropping charges against 23 men who were arrested, saying the police working with "Dateline" had badly botched the case.


BRIAN ROSS, ABC CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: The "Dateline" Murphy, Texas, project has come under fire from many in law enforcement and the media as a classic case of what can go wrong, tragically wrong when the news media and the police get just too close.


KURTZ: Should a network news division be taking on one of its rivals? I spoke earlier with Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative reporter, from New York.


KURTZ: Brian Ross, welcome.

ROSS: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: Let's deal right with the elephant in the room. NBC tried to dismiss your story in advance with NBC News President Steve Capus accusing ABC, your network, of engaging in "silly competitiveness." Is that what this is about?

ROSS: I don't think so at all. I think this is a very important issue, certainly from the point of view of law enforcement, how closely should they work with the news media? Should the news media being working hand-in-glove with police, conducting key parts of the investigation for police? I think that's a very important question. I don't think it is silly at all.

KURTZ: Now NBC declined to make anyone available for this program. NBC also declined to speak with you for your "20/20" report. But last year on RELIABLE SOURCES, I talked to Chris Hansen about this "Predator" series, and I asked him about this practice that he has, that we saw a moment ago, where he doesn't initially identify himself as a journalist.

Let's look at his answer.


HANSEN: I do not say exactly who I am when these guys walk in. I launch into the questioning right away to try to get as much information out of these guys as I can. If they ask me, I'm very honest and I tell them.


KURTZ: Would you be comfortable with that approach?

ROSS: Not really, because he leaves the impression, it seems to me in watching the outtakes and the footage of the broadcasts, that he is a police officer. And none of the suspects -- a number of them seem to think he is a police officer, which I think you don't want to do as a reporter.

KURTZ: Now, Brian, you work with law enforcement all the time, cooperate very closely. What is it about these online predator stings? Why is it that you have concluded from your piece that "Dateline" and Chris Hansen are working too closely with the cops?

ROSS: I think the issue becomes when "Dateline" and people hired by "Dateline" initiate the investigation knowing that that will then lead to the law enforcement moving in and making arrests and prosecutions.

I don't think that I am trained, or anybody at ABC News is trained to be a cop. We don't know how to do that. We know how to be reporters. And it is one thing to shed a light on an important issue, as "Dateline" has done, but it is quite another to become involved in actually running the sting, setting up the sting, which the local district attorney in Texas says is what has happened with "Dateline" and the police there.

KURTZ: Now you talked to two former detectives on the case who said that "Dateline" was very involved in the way that the arrests were handled and so forth. What did they tell you?

ROSS: Well, they told us it was all for show, that where the cameras were placed, officers were required to wear cameras to get certain shots, and that that took precedence over the actual proper police procedures.

It became more about getting what "Dateline" needed. And they thought that was over the line. They told us later they were ashamed to be part of it. And they were surprised that they felt that the police chief wanted to get his 15 minutes of fame for himself and for the town, something the chief denies, but that is their strong feeling.

KURTZ: Now I should point out that "Dateline" says that 120 men have been convicted in these past undercover operations aimed at child predators, that this is the first case, this case in Murphy, Texas, to fall apart.

But they also work very closely, NBC does, with this watchdog group called Perverted Justice, which has been reported to receive as much as $100,000 per episode for serving up decoys who lure these men to these places, posing obviously as teenage boys. Would you feel comfortable teaming up with such a group?

ROSS: Well, I think maybe in part to see what they are doing. But when you hire them and they become your agents, and then you are asking them to prepare a case that is going to be given to the police department, it seems to me it is very conflicted and just too cozy. Something about it doesn't strike me as right, and certainly doesn't strike the bosses I work for here at ABC News as something that we would do.

KURTZ: Now the most dramatic part of this case came when a guy named Louis Conradt, an assistant district attorney in a neighboring county in Texas, his house was surrounded on a Sunday afternoon by police. He had been caught up in this sting as well.

Police broke the door down, as you showed in your "20/20" report, and Louis Conradt shot himself to death. You interviewed his sister, Patricia. Let's watch some of that.

You asked her why she was suing NBC. Here was her answer.


ROSS: Reporter (ph) is going to ask for a lot of things, but it is up to the police to say, yes or no.

PATRICIA CONRADT, SISTER OF BILL CONRADT: Well, that when you look at the outtakes, I think you look at who is in charge. It did not seem to be the law enforcement people. And my whole point in pursuing this is that these type of vigilante, out-of-control, reality -- and it is not even reality, yes, it is perverted justice. It wasn't justice.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Now she is understandably distraught, but you know, can a network really be held responsible for the fact that a guy caught up in potentially criminal activity decided to commit suicide?

ROSS: Well, I'm not so sure about that. She is suing NBC. They have the deep pockets. But I think that the issue is raised correctly. What was the extent of NBC's decision-making? Were they involved in pushing the police to make an arrest on a Sunday afternoon when everyone knew who this person was?

He was the assistant district attorney. They knew where he worked. The district attorney involved in this case says, why didn't they arrest him on Monday? They knew the office, they could have gone there and easily done that without the dramatic flair of going to the house, using the SWAT team to bust down the door.

And according to the police officers that we talked to who were part of the sting, it was all done to sort of make it possible, they say, for Chris Hansen to first interview him as he went to church or the store, and then after the interview was completed, the police would come in and make the arrest. And they were very uncomfortable with that arrangement.

KURTZ: Now Chris Hansen offered another possible explanation for the suicide on a follow-up piece on this week's "Dateline." Let's show that.


HANSEN: Was it because of that online chat he had with a decoy pretending to be 13? Was he afraid of being exposed on TV? Although there is no evidence he knew "Dateline" was involved. Or was it something else, something possibly more damning, something like possession of child pornography?


KURTZ: Let me move on to a broader question, Brian Ross, and that is, doesn't "Dateline" deserve some credit for this series, spotlighting the problem of child predators and helping put some of these monsters in jail?

ROSS: Without a doubt, that's exactly what I think good journalists, and there are plenty of them at NBC, including Chris Hansen, that is our job, is to put a spotlight on the problem. And they have done it very well.

But they keep doing it. They keep doing it again and again. I think we get it that there is this problem.

KURTZ: I have got just a few seconds left. Is it healthy for one news organization to investigate the practices of another news organization? Should we see more of that?

ROSS: Well, I don't think it should be a club where we protect each other, if that is the alternative. I think sometimes it is important to take a hard look at issues that are out there and we shouldn't hesitate. I don't think we go out of our ways to go after people who would be considered our competitors, but if the story is important enough, we should.

I did that in looking at the case with Dan Rather and the Bush National Guard papers. That became an important story. And there are times when I think we should do that.

KURTZ: An important story that lots of news organizations looked at as well. Brian Ross, thanks very much for joining us.


KURTZ: And after the break, Katie Couric goes to war and gets some flack in the process for her Iraq trip.

The Oprah factor in presidential politics.

And Larry Craig, is he quitting, is he not quitting? And is his soap opera still news?


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Coming up at the top of the hour on "LATE EDITION," we'll get reaction to Osama bin Laden's latest videotape from the president's homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend.

We'll also look ahead to General Petraeus' report to Congress with two key U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Arlen Specter. All that and a lot more coming up on "LATE EDITION."

Now back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: It has been one year since Katie Couric took over the "CBS Evening News." And its no secret that ratings have been disappointing for the third place broadcast. But the focus shifted this week to Couric's trip to Iraq where she interviewed President Bush on his surprise visit there, and to what viewers learned about the war and the anchor herself.


KATIE COURIC, CBS ANCHOR: The surge was designed to help the Iraqi government move forward.


COURIC: Do you believe there really is tangible evidence worthy of 30,000 additional American troops?

BUSH: Oh, absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Water is everything. You need it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yesterday we didn't have any drop of water. COURIC: You go for days without it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's right.

COURIC: You say that Falluja is a real success story. What turned it around?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, what turned it around was the local population deciding to reject al Qaeda.


KURTZ: Joining us now to assess the Couric trip and talk about the Larry Craig debacle as well, in Seattle, Michael Medved, radio talk show host and co-host of PBS "Sneak Previews"; and in San Francisco, Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of

Michael Medved, was this a worthwhile trip by Katie Couric that provided viewers with a look at complexities of this war?

MICHAEL MEDVED, HOST, PBS "SNEAK PREVIEWS": I think it was. And I think one of the things that showed is that she is addressing a widespread perception by those Americans like myself who are more on the conservative side that she has been a partisan one-sided broadcaster.

I don't believe that this was exactly the sort of cheerleading for the administration that she has been attacked as providing. But what it did show was certainly a more balanced approach than someone would have expected from Katie Couric, given some of the more shrill and partisan reporting with which she has been associated in the past.

KURTZ: And on that point, Joan Walsh, some have criticized Katie Couric for visiting Anbar province with General David Petraeus and saying that some progress was being made in the surge, even though she also questioned whether the overall picture in the rest of the country might well be described as a nightmare.

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: Yes, I was disappointed in Katie Couric, to be honest with you. I disagree with Michael. I don't think she has been shrill. I think the real issue for Katie is coming across as a hard news woman. And I think that this was designed to do that, and I don't think it really worked.

I think that she was perceived, and quite accurately, as lobbing kind of softball questions. She did step outside of her persona at one point and say, well, I am only seeing what the military wants me to see. But you never got the feeling that she was working terribly hard to go beyond that kind of puff piece, drop-in for a few days kind of journalism. So I was disappointed.

KURTZ: Well, I don't know how you can say puff piece. I mean, she talked to Iraqi families, she talked to soldiers, some of whom were not all that positive on the war. But let me ask Michael Medved. Some of the armchair quarterbacks said, well, she was doing this for ratings and this is to distract attention from the one-year anniversary and all of that. But reporting on a war that's not very popular from Iraq is not exactly boffo at the box office these days.

MEDVED: No, it isn't at all. And I don't think that she was doing this for ratings. I think she was doing it for credibility, because Joan is right, the whole issue with Katie Couric is, is she the long-time host of "The Today Show" or is she a serious journalist who can sort of fill the chair that Dan Rather, for better or worse, filled for so many years.

And I actually -- I think that most people who actually took the trouble to watch what she was doing would have come across with some grudging respect, particularly for her attempts at balance. Because she was not simply accepting press releases or doing puff pieces.

Every single time she spoke about the progress she said, but on the other hand, the daily lives of Iraqis may not be that much better. And I actually think she probably helped herself, if not in terms of ratings, in terms of gaining grudging respect even from people who have been skeptical.

WALSH: I have enormous respect for her to go there. I think it was important that she went. But I would say, Michael, the real thing that I saw was a kind of tentative, yes, she had to say the situation is not that much better but she really didn't use the facts that other people were using.

There was a huge debate last week about the GAO report. She didn't really use details of that. She didn't really confront either Petraeus or General Odierno with the kinds of things that you were hearing in Congress. And I thought that was problematic.

MEDVED: But, Joan, with respect, the GAO report is a Washington story. And she was going to Iraq to do Iraqi stories first hand, to do her own reporting.

WALSH: But she can't see everything.

MEDVED: And she did that.

WALSH: She did that, but she can't see everything. So having -- marshaling statistics that are -- you know, come from Iraq but were being discussed in Washington, I think she could have done more of that, but I give her credit.

KURTZ: Joan Walsh, what about this side debate where some detractors said, oh, she shouldn't have gone at all because she is a single mother, what about her two teenage daughters...

WALSH: Oh, lord.

KURTZ: Isn't that her decision her to make?

WALSH: That is absolutely her decision to make. Nobody made a big deal about Bob Woodruff and his family. I think she's damned whatever she does as a single mother. And I'm proud that she went, I think it is great that she went. And I think that's a really unfair, distracting debate. MEDVED: Agreed.

KURTZ: All right.

WALSH: All right. We agree.

KURTZ: All right. We have a rare moment of agreement on that point. So let me move on to the continuing saga of Senator Larry Craig. Now first he pleaded guilty to that bathroom incident at Minnesota -- Minneapolis Airport, which essentially involved sexual solicitation. Then he said he was going to try to dispute the guilty plea.

He announced to the world his intention to resign. Now he says maybe he is not resigning. And this week we heard the voicemail message that he left -- that he thought he was leaving for his lawyer, Billy Martin, but actually ended up on somebody else's voicemail. This is what Larry Craig had to say the day that he was about to make the announcement that he was planning to step down.


SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: We've reshaped my statement a little bit to say it is my intent to resign on September 30. I think it is very important for you to make as bold a statement as you are comfortable with this afternoon, and I would hope you could make it in front of the cameras. I think it would help drive the story that I'm willing to fight.


KURTZ: Michael Medved, the media basically portraying this guy as a flake. Fair or unfair?

MEDVED: It is a bit unfair. But he has called for it himself. His original press conference, when he said about 900 times "I am not gay," was one of the least adept bits of crisis management in the history of senatorial scandals. And that's a long and rank history.

The amazing thing about Larry Craig is I think that the press has gotten the story wrong in one sense. The issue here, what's disgusting here, is not hypocrisy, what is disgusting here is the inherent behavior. The words "U.S. senator" and "bathroom sex" do not fit comfortably together in the same sentence.

And I would just remind people of the Jim McGreevey scandal. Jim McGreevey was somebody who did not have a history affirming family values. He was not a conservative. He was a liberal Democrat. And yet what he did was inherently so disgusting, putting his gay lover on the state payroll, that he of course was hounded, and I think appropriately, just as Larry Craig was hounded and appropriately, not because of his positions on gay-related issues as a senator but because of what he did in the bathroom at the Minneapolis Airport.

KURTZ: McGreevey, of course, the former governor of New Jersey. Joan Walsh, what do you make of the Craig coverage and do you think that some conservative commentators aren't facing up to the problems of closeted gays in the Republican Party like Mark Foley and others?

WALSH: And Ted Haggard in the last election cycle and the Larry Craig story actually started to come out in the '06 election cycle? Yes, I think that some conservatives are not facing up to this. Look, I think that there are Republican voters who are genuine values voters. They abhor homosexuality, they abhor abortion, they don't believe in divorce, they live their lives that way and they are entitled to do that.

I think the disconnect and the hypocrisy comes in when they send some -- not all, some of their representatives to Washington who then form this kind of men's club -- and it tends to be men, who look away from one another's affairs, with men or with women, look away from patronizing prostitutes, in the case of David Vitter or Reverend Ted Haggard with the male prostitute.

I think there is a cynicism and definitely a hypocrisy here among some major Republican leaders who...


KURTZ: Let me turn that around and ask Michael Medved. Do you think that some liberal commentators who preach tolerance about sex are enjoying this Larry Craig story perhaps a little too much?

MEDVED: Oh, absolutely. And you see, the point about all of this is, would it really make a difference in terms of the scandal if Larry Craig had voted differently, for instance, on the federal marriage amendment? Would it have been any more acceptable for somebody to solicit an undercover police officer in the bathroom? The problem with Larry Craig is he didn't do what obviously was the appropriate thing, which was to come clean as soon as he was arrested, not to try to hide it. If he's going to plead guilty, then live with that and say, look, I have a problem.

KURTZ: All right. Let me jump in here.

MEDVED: The entire thing about his "wide stance" in the bathroom was widely discredited.

KURTZ: Good line there. Oprah Winfrey, I want to touch on this before we have to go, held a fund-raiser for Barack Obama yesterday at her 42-acre California estate. Joan Walsh, does Oprah risk tarnishing her very popular brand by appearing to be partisan? I mean, Republicans watch her show, too, right?

WALSH: I think she takes some risk, Howie. But you know, Obama is a singular character at this point. It is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of crusade for Oprah. I think that he has got enough of his own crossover appeal. She has enough crossover appeal that I don't think this is really going to hurt her.

I think she has been up front about it. It's not like she has tried to hide it. In a way it is better for her to come out, tell everybody, I'm supporting this guy, here's why, than write checks and pretend not to be politically engaged. I think she'll be fine. KURTZ: I see. Michael Medved, I've got half a minute. Why should anyone care what a talk show host, even one as rich and popular as Oprah, thinks about campaign?

MEDVED: She is also a magazine publisher. She is a spiritual leader for many Americans. She helped President Bush a great deal in the last campaign when he appeared on her show and did well. I think that it is fine what she's doing because she's not a news anchor, she's not a news reporter, she's a commentator, as I am for a living.

I just appreciate the fact that she is being so up front about this, there's no pretense any more of objectivity. And that's a good thing.

KURTZ: OK. We're out of time. Michael Medved, Joan Walsh, thanks very much for a good discussion.

Still is to come, the newspaper that was once a laughingstock, still kicking at 25.


KURTZ: It was widely mocked a quarter century ago, dismissed as colorful fluff, derided as "McPaper." But as USA Today turns 25 this week, no one is laughing at the nation's biggest circulation newspaper.


KURTZ (voice-over): Founding editor Al Neuharth said the paper would practice the "journalism of hope," and a first day headline about a plane crash proved the point. "Miracle, 327 survive, 55 die." A later headline declared: "We Still Believe in American Dream."

With its short stories, flashy graphics and color weather map, USA Today was fast food journalism, decidedly low on calories. Over the years though the paper got more nutritious, there were longer stories, some even jumped to an inside page, more original reporting, better Washington coverage, and a good feel for TV and pop culture.

And guess what? Other papers starting trimming their stories, buying color presses, beefing up graphics, adding sports coverage, in short looking more like USA Today.

The Gannett paper still has its weaknesses. There is no major network of international bureaus. The opinion pages are bland. Whoever heard of running opposing editorials for every stance you take? And not enough ambitious investigating reporting. USA Today has never won a Pulitzer.

And the scandal three years ago over reporter Jack Kelley, who fabricated stories from around the world, revealed a newsroom contaminated about what outside probers called "a virus of fear," and cost the top editor her job.

Under editor Ken Paulson, despite one case of a reporter fired for plagiarism, the paper has largely restored its tarnished reputation.


USA Today still has room for improvement, but hey, at 25, it is barely out of adolescence. And it has one undeniable distinction. Is there another paper on Earth given out free more often to hotel guests?

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.