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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Media Declares Bush a Lame Duck, Says Obama Campaign Faltering; Will Fox Business Network Succeed?

Aired October 21, 2007 - 10:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): A question of relevance. Is the press declaring the president a lame duck? Are journalists writing off Barack Obama as a dead duck? And are they more enamored of this president candidate?

A time to cringe. Larry Craig dissects his bathroom bust with Matt Lauer.

Wall Street war. FOX News takes on CNBC with a new business channel.

Plus, extreme makeover. Do women have to look sexy to make it in TV news?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: A presidential news conference is usually big news, but this week not so much. In fact, while President Bush touched on issues from Turkey and Russia, to housing and children's health insurance, and said Iran must be stopped from getting nuclear weapons to avoid World War III, many journalists jumped on a single word uttered by the president.

It was a word that fit the emerging media narrative that, with 15 months left in his term, Bush is an increasingly marginal figure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And that's why when I tell you I'm going to sprint to the finish, and finish this job strong, that's one way to ensure that I am relevant. It's one way to ensure that I am in the process.

JOE CURL, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": Do you feel as if you're losing leverage and that you're becoming increasingly irrelevant? And what can you do about that...

BUSH: Quite the contrary. I've never felt more engaged.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about coverage of the president and the race to succeed him, Jill Zuckman, national correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune"; Perry Bacon, political reporter for "The Washington Post"; and Julie Mason, White House correspondent for "The Houston Chronicle".

Jill Zuckman, let me play a little tape showing some of the news analysis that followed the president's news conference on Wednesday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: This was the president's declaration that "I am not a lame duck." When he says that he's going to use the veto to show that he is still relevant, that shows you someone that really doesn't have a lot to brag about at this point.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The president is saying he's trying to show that he's relevant, and he won't back down either.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Do journalists believe, except for occasional vetoes and, of course, the war in Iraq, that Bush is now largely irrelevant?

JILL ZUCKMAN, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I think journalists are more interested in the presidential campaign, and they're more interested in some of the fighting that's going on with the new Democratic Congress and their attempts to get things done on Capitol Hill.

KURTZ: Because these are sexier stories?

ZUCKMAN: Sexier stories, and he's fading to the background, because he is a lame duck. He's -- you know, he's going to be leaving. He's not -- nothing he does is for political gain to run for reelection. I mean, it's over for him unless there's a terrorist attack or something really big like that.

KURTZ: We get some quacking right here on the set in the first minute.

Julie Mason, you're stationed at the White House. Is there less for reporters to do, now that Bush isn't the No. 1 newsmaker?

JULIE MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "HOUSTON CHRONICLE": There really is. And part of the problem is that, other than the World War III thing, which you mentioned, we don't hear much new rhetoric from Bush. He doesn't say anything that's new or fresh. It's the same talking points over and over. And just -- he doesn't give journalists much to work with.

KURTZ: Are fewer reporters going on out of town trips with the president?

MASON: Much fewer. I mean, it's a skeleton screw on those charters now.

KURTZ: Perry Bacon, I can just imagine folks out there saying, you know, "You reporters, you never liked Bush, and now you can't wait to push him off the stage." He's still the president. PERRY BACON JR., POLITICAL REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": I think he's still the president. And people wrote a lot of stories about the press conference and we said something (ph) about Iraq, some people are engaged on his words on Iraq and his rhetoric about Iraq. So I think he's still very relevant on that issue.

And this -- the fight they're having with the Congress and the president over funding for children's health care has been covered extensively, as well. So I do not think we've, like, stopped covering him fully at all.

KURTZ: Right. That's where president is playing defense. When it comes to playing offense, I mean, now that the immigration bill went down, there really aren't any major new domestic initiatives for people like you to write about.

BACON: Yes. He hasn't offered a whole lot of us to talk about. Yes, in terms of as you just (ph) mentioned.

KURTZ: Barack Obama -- this is fascinating. We put together some tape showing what various reporters and pundits were saying about the senator from Illinois last December when he was on the verge of running and what's being said more recently. Let's roll.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obama, the rising rock star.

BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: It's about Barack Obama, the rock star.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: His rock star popularity.

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, MSNBC'S "TUCKER CARLSON": Barack Obama, treated like a rock star.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Huge crowds. Literally, they would make a rock star envious.

CARL CAMERON, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: For his part it was a rock star's performance.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the problem he's got is he's too ethereal; he's too cerebral.

CARLSON: Didn't Obama edge himself in by talking all this nonsense about hope?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: No -- no longer a rock star?

ZUCKMAN: Hey, we -- not a single voter has cast a ballot yet. I think everybody is getting a little too focused on, maybe, the current polls and where he is and not remembering what every politician has ever said to you, which is the only poll that matters is on election day.

KURTZ: But it seems that reporters are so frustrated by Obama's rather cool style, that they're practically begging him, "Attack Hillary already so we can have something to write about."

MASON: Right. And he responded. He just hired a rapid response guy who's going to mix it up a little more for him. But it's true. This is a natural trajectory of politics: build them up, tear them down. But it doesn't mean what's been said about Obama is also untrue.

KURTZ: Here's the media indictment: Obama is too cerebral; he doesn't connect; he doesn't feel voters' pain. It sounds an awful lot like editorializing.

BACON: I think if Obama's poll -- and I Jill is right, it's all about the poll numbers. The poll numbers.

I mean, first of all, the covers can have never been as good as it was in December, because you know, once he runs people find things. You have critics and things are different, but the poll numbers are really driving this. He stalled in the polls behind Hillary Clinton. I think that surprised reporters; it surprised his supports. And that's where we are now.

KURTZ: So it's like covering a baseball team. If you're the equivalent of 25 to 30 percentage points down, I guess if you were ten runs down in the game, everybody blames the coach or everybody blames the star player.

ZUCKMAN: Well, you know what? He started off so high. If you come into a campaign and everybody thinks you're God, it's hard to live up to those expectations.

So I think that there have been some voters who have gone to his events and said, "Oh, it wasn't as good as I expected it to be." Well, you know, that's pretty tough if everybody is calling you from a rock star from the very beginning of your campaign.

KURTZ: But what I hear is a sense of disappointment among journalists that he he's not mixing it up more, that he hasn't made it more of a race to this point. We do have to emphasize -- remember President Howard Dean -- that it's early in the process.

And it does seem like -- like journalists are asking like frustrated campaign managers, giving him an awful lot of advice.

MASON: That's very true. We love it when they mix it up, but that's also an important part of a campaign, to see how a candidate responds to negative things being said about them. So that's part of the testing process that journalists want to see.

KURTZ: OK. But now you have a front page story this morning. You went out to Colorado. You basically asked voters what they think of Hillary Clinton.

ZUCKMAN: Right.

KURTZ: Why did you do that story?

ZUCKMAN: Well, because the big issue these days that Senator Edwards has been raising and the Obama campaign has been raising is this question of whether she could get elected in a general election. Whether other voters, not Democrats, but whether independents and Republicans would vote for her.

I went to Colorado. It's a swing state. You have to get -- you have to get voters in the middle in order to win that state, and I think it's still an open question.

KURTZ: Is there a self-fulfilling prophecy here? Where if the press, having abandoned the rock star praise of the early days, is saying Obama is just really not cutting it on the campaign trail; he can't win; Hillary is inevitable, that it becomes harder and harder for him to change that perception?

BACON: It's harder to change the perception. But remember that John Kerry was getting much worse press this time in 2003.

KURTZ: He was declared to be toast.

BACON: Toast. Exactly. So we tend to be wrong here and there. So I think that -- you know, I don't think it's becoming self- fulfilling. If Obama does well in Iowa, which is, like, where voters -- a place where voters tend to ignore what we think, or ignore what the press is going in, I think he'll be fine if he does well in Iowa. I think that's still the case.

KURTZ: Do you -- do any of you hear from the Obama campaign? Are they frustrated by this negative coverage?

BACON: They are very frustrated by the negative coverage. You know, they -- I was talking to them. And there have been two pieces in "The Post" they were critical of. And they are very frustrated by that.

KURTZ: There was a front page headline that said, "Does Obama's message match the moment?" The implicit answer was, well, obviously not or we wouldn't be doing that.

MASON: If you have to ask, the answer is no.

KURTZ: All right. Now there's one other person who seems to be throwing his hat partially in the ring and getting some favorable attention, and that is the star of Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE COLBERT REPORT": Nearly 15 minutes of soul searching, I have heard the call. Nation, I shall seek the office of the president of the United States! I am doing it!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Colbert says he's going to run in both parties as a favorite son in his native South Carolina.

OK. So you have a choice. You can go to South Carolina. You can cover Mitt Romney, John Edwards or Stephen Colbert.

ZUCKMAN: Well, I think everybody is going to cover Stephen Colbert to a certain extent, because it's going to be fun. But I think there's a real -- I think there's a real serious implication for what he's doing, which is especially on the Republican side.

When so many voters don't seem to be happy with any of the candidates, he could wind up being the protest vote and drawing enough votes that it affects the rest of the election.

KURTZ: One of the guests on "Meet the Press" this morning was Stephen Colbert...

ZUCKMAN: Stephen Colbert.

KURTZ: ... him being interviewed by Tim Russert. And it kind of goes to my point, which is regardless of how many protest votes he does or does not get, he could -- in fact he already is drawing precious media coverage away from a lot of these second tier candidates who would love to be on "Meet the Press" and programs like that.

MASON: He is -- but I think that he doesn't necessarily steal too many votes away from the other candidates. I think he brings new voters into the process, you know, the -- the sort of white, beer drinking college student who are his fan base. I don't see serious voters actually going for Colbert.

KURTZ: But you do see some 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-old beer drinkers going for Colbert?

MASON: That's his audience. God bless those kids. They should be voting.

KURTZ: I interviewed Colbert about his candidacy this week, and I asked him, "So now, are you going to be giving up your show as a result?"

And he said, "Do you think I'm a fool?"

But, you know, he actually -- he is kind of a hero on the left for -- over the skewering, the comedic skewering of President Bush last year at the White House correspondents' dinner. A lot of people thought he stuck it to the president in a way that other Democrats are not.

BACON: People think he's sort of a truth teller. He talks about "truthiness", and that's a thing that appeals to him. I'm actually curious if, like, Hillary Clinton won the first three states and it was in South Carolina and it was clear she was winning, I would be curious how many votes Colbert would get at that point. Sort of protest votes: I don't like Hillary. She's winning. Actually I'd be curious whether -- to see if that -- what would happen at that point.

KURTZ: So all of you are taking him a little bit seriously. You're not just saying this is a joke. You think that he could be at least a minor factor in the race?

MASON: Well, kind of both. I think he could be a minor factor. I don't -- I don't know that it's necessarily appropriate. He may not be a newscaster, but he is part of the media business, and it raises a lot of questions about what he's doing.

KURTZ: Including whether or not promoting himself on his show will be considered a corporate contribution. We'll see if that ends up derailing the Colbert band wagon.

Julie Mason, Jill Zuckman, Perry Bacon, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Rupert Murdoch's new financial channel takes on CNBC. How exactly is The Naked Cowboy a business story?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Rupert Murdoch doesn't do things in a small way. First he bought the "Wall Street Journal", and this week he launched the FOX Business Network, which is taking aim at the established leader, CNBC.

FOX has been touting this spin-off channel as a breezier, more entertaining, more populist look at financial news. And well, on day one, anchor Alexis Glick found an overlooked business story, interviewing the Naked Cowboy, a guy who stands in Times Square wearing little more than a guitar. And that set the tone for the week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A man from Oregon is $9,000 richer today. Thad Starr grew a 1,524-pound pumpkin.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now what's the line you're supposed to use at this point?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually how about this? Let's saddle up, because it's time for the first round!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Google, you know, there was this study out or this article out that's saying the top terms that are Googled across the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is fascinating!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's really funny. "Sex", of course. Everybody Googles the term -- the word "sex".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've never Googled the word "sex." UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, you're an expert; you don't need to find out anything. But anyway, the -- these are the countries where the term "sex" was Googled most.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm so excited you two are together. This is so much fun! Right?

How come I don't have this job? You get to move the morning show to a bar.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: So does the new Murdoch venture have a shot at succeeding? Joining us now, Ali Velshi, CNN's senior business correspondent and the host of "YOUR MONEY". And in Chicago, Phil Rosenthal, television critic for the "Chicago Tribune".

So, Ali Velshi, from what you've seen so far, what do you make of FOX Business Network?

ALI VELSHI, HOST, "YOUR MONEY": Exactly what you showed us. It's fun; it's interesting; it's breezy; it's light. I'm not entirely sure that's what we need right now. We lost 500-and-some-odd points on the Dow last week. The housing crisis is deepening.

It's neat to be populist, and I think there's something really healthy about that for guys like us who talk in tickers but I don't know that that's meeting the needs of the viewer that they're trying to get.

KURTZ: So most of the -- some of the anchors from FOX News Channel, like Neil Cavuto, also have programs or appearances on the new business network.

Joe Nosare (ph) in "The New York Times" yesterday says this new network is relentlessly, incorrigibly, unapologetically upbeat. What's your take?

PHIL ROSENTHAL, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I think it is. I think they're trying to find -- they're going for the big middle. If CNBC's big claim in terms of marketing itself is that it's going for the CEOs, the executive suites, I think the FOX Business Network is not ruling those viewers out, but it's also going for the nation as a whole.

You know, and until Nielsen gets around to more adequately measuring out of home viewing, that's going to make a dent in the ratings when they finally do get measured in about six months.

KURTZ: Phil, CNBC has a lot of stars: Maria Bartiromo, Jim Cramer. FOX, you know, it's a more unknown lineup, although the new network did just hire Liz Claman, who had been a long-time anchor at CNBC.

How important is it to have recognizable personalities? ROSENTHAL: Well, I think they'll make recognizable personalities. I think -- I think what will happen is, you know, if Roger Ailes's game plan for FOX News is a sort of blueprint for what he's going to try to do here, I think you're going to see, you know, the heart of the lineup be about shows, not necessarily about the news that comes into those shows.

And so it's going to make personalities. I think you're going to see these people who may have low profile now, the profile will grow.

KURTZ: Now FOX starts out with a significant disadvantage, only going to be in 30 million homes, compared to say 90 million for CNBC and other major cable networks.

But the argument that the executives are making -- and by the way, we invited someone from FOX to appear, and they declined to make someone available -- we'll take the jargon out of business news. It won't just be about which stocks are moving. We'll aim more at the middle class and not just CEOs and rich investors.

VELSHI: And I think that's really laudable. We should take the jargon out. They remind you of it, by the way, every few minutes on FOX business news.

You know, they use, as Joe Nosare (ph) said in his article, they use real company names as opposed to tickers. They explain things. And I really think there are some key moments in the last week where they did that.

The bottom line is the features are interesting to draw people in, but if you're not a business news consumer normally, what you need is an understanding of what I'm supposed to do about this housing crisis? Do I invest? Do I sell? What do I do with my 401(k)s? What do I do with my pension? What is happening in this world that is going to save me money, stop me from losing money or making money?

And I haven't seen enough of that. I've seen a lot of stuff that makes you sit there and say, "That's interesting. That cowboy is not wearing nothing much more than a guitar."

I've been in business news a long time. Never occurred to me once to interview The Naked Cowboy in Times Square, and it's not going to.

KURTZ: You just aren't thinking big enough.

VELSHI: Apparently not.

KURTZ: Phil Rosenthal, what about that point? Is there enough, at least from what you've seen so far -- and look, it's obviously a bit unfair to judge after one week -- but is there enough substantial financial and business information to satisfy junkies?

ROSENTHAL: I think there will be. I think this week -- part of this week was to sort of set itself apart. And I think -- so you saw a lot of things that you may not see down the road. I mean, the reason you go out and probably do The Naked Cowboy, the reason that you do an item early on on the first day outside the headquarters of CNBC and talk about peacock hunting, a reference to NBC-Universal which owns it, I think is to get on YouTube and to get people talking about you.

I think, you know, they also this week, though, Liz Claman did an interview with Warren Buffet that wound up -- CNBC had to quote it. So I think -- I think if you look at something like that, I think it's a work in progress.

But I think don't overlook the fact that I think a lot of the first week stuff is about marketing itself, too. Because they are only in 30 million homes.

KURTZ: Having a business channel is hard. CNNfn folded three years ago. And the audience is small. CNBC, average audience, 260,000, but they all make a lot of money. Advertisers love that.

VELSHI: Exactly. Bloomberg's audience is even more profitable than CNBC. So you want that audience, but you've got to figure out we are in a bit of a time of crisis right now. We're in an election mode. We do have rough markets. Even though they're high, they're volatile. And we've got this housing crisis.

There are very specific questions that viewers keep asking us over and over again: what do I do? Should the government get involved? Are we heading into a recession? Where does oil go next? We need to concentrate on that.

And while we need to make it accessible, "we," the larger business media, it doesn't -- fun might not be the right answer. We can make it enjoyable but accessible and understandable is what really -- is what we need.

KURTZ: Phil Rosenthal, I've got about half a minute. Roger Ailes, the FOX News chairman, is the guy who invented the modern day CNBC in the mid-'90s. He put Maria Bartiromo on the stock exchange floor. He created such programs as "Squawk Box". So would it be a mistake to bet your mutual fund against Ailes succeeding?

ROSENFELD: I think it is a mistake to vote ever again against Roger Ailes. He's had his failures or things that didn't quite boom, but you know, he -- when it comes to everything he does, he has a real keen understanding of the American public, and he knows where this fits in.

More importantly, I think it would be a mistake to bet against Rupert Murdoch in this case. He's made a $5 billion investment in Dow Jones. I don't think that's just a play for this channel. I think that's a play to help -- I think the two work together. I think the FOX Business Network can help Dow Jones.

KURTZ: OK.

ROSENFELD: And I think you'll see international expansion. KURTZ: All right, Phil Rosenthal, you got the last word. Ali Velshi, thanks for stopping by in person here.

Up next, Congress weighs special protection for reporters but not most bloggers. Imagine a right-wing plot against Air America.

And a late night comic gets punted from "Monday Night Football". Our "Media Minute" straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Topping our "Media Minute" today, after 30 years of attempts, the House this week passed a federal shield law to protect reporters from having to testify about their confidential sources in most instances.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): Not only that, the bipartisan vote was 398- 21, enough to easily overcome the veto threatened by President Bush.

In a compromise, the bill would not apply in cases involving leaks of important classified information, or to people who don't earn a significant part of their income as journalists, which would exclude many bloggers.

A Senate committee has passed a similar measure, but it's not clear whether the full Senate will act this year.

Some disturbing news about Air America radio host Randi Rhodes hit the Internet the other day. It began, "Randi Rhodes was mugged on Sunday night on 39th Street and Park Avenue nearby her Manhattan apartment while walking her dog, Simon."

Air America host Jon Elliott said Rhodes was, quote, "beaten up pretty badly" and asked, "Is this an attempt by the right-wing hate machine to silence one of our own?"

Never mind. An Air America statement hours later said that Rhodes had simply fallen down. Jon Elliott apologized for jumping to conclusions. You think?

Jimmy Kimmel has been stiff-armed by "Monday Night Football". ABC's late night comic rushed into dangerous territory on the sports cast with a few jokes about the former co-host, ex-quarterback Joe Theismann, saying he lost a gig because of battles with sidekick Tony Kornheiser.

And, quote, "I'd also like to welcome Joe Theismann, watching from his living room with steam coming from his ears."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: A "Monday Night Football" producer calls Kimmel's remarks classless, disappointing and cheap and said he won't be invited back.

Hey, what's wrong with a little comedy? Why else would you invite Jimmy Kimmel?

And talk about playing hardball, Yankees manager Joe Torre turned down a one-year contract offer from owner George Steinbrenner the other day. Do you think tabloids maybe -- just maybe -- are taking sides? Here's the "Daily News" heading: "Four series wins, the playoffs every year, now you dis me. So George, take this job and shove it!"

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Matt Lauer goes toe-to-toe with Larry Craig. Ellen DeGeneres gets all emotional about a dog, and television can't get enough.

Plus, the growing pressure on female anchors and reporters to either look good or look for another job.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Matt Lauer sat down with Larry Craig this week to talk about that bathroom bust. Was he tough enough on the senator? We'll tackle that in a moment.

But first T.J. Holmes in the CNN center in Atlanta with a look at the hour's top stories -- T.J.

HOLMES: All right, Howard. Thank you so much.

Now in the news, the Santa Ana winds are back and fueling wildfires in Southern California right now. Students and staff at Malibu's Pepperdine University are gearing up for possible evacuations. Evacuations are happening at some neighborhoods around Malibu.

Also, two people dead after a collision between a barge and a yacht in waters off New York's Coney Island. Two others were rescued. Rescue boats and New York police helicopters and divers responded after the U.S. Coast Guard received an emergency call last night.

And to Louisiana now. Votes are in, the outcome historic. Yesterday Louisiana voters elected that state's first non-white governor since Reconstruction. It was 36-year-old Republican Bobby Jindal. He's the son of Indian immigrants. He's the first Indian- American elected governor there.

He's also the country's youngest governor. Or he will be, when he's sworn coming up in January.

Just a few of the headlines for you there. Now, hand it back over to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES. It's all yours, sir.

KURTZ: Thank you, T.J.

Larry Craig says he's still not gay, but does he deserve a network platform to keep reminding us?

Plus, Ellen DeGeneres and her horribly sad doggy dilemma. Does America care or does television just enjoy replaying her meltdown? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: KURTZ: Welcome back.

Larry Craig, it is clear, does not want to get off the stage. Now, you might think it's embarrassing, if you're a United States senator, to have to talk about what you did in an airport's men's room, why you pleaded guilty, why you said you were going to resign your Senate seat, why you decided not to resign, why you shouldn't have pleaded guilty, why you didn't tell your wife, and how you're not gay.

And "Today Show's" Matt Lauer admitted it was embarrassing for him to have to ask the Idaho Republican some of those questions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, NBC'S "THE TODAY SHOW": Were you aware at all, Senator, of the reputation of that specific bathroom?

SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: Well, I certainly am now.

LAUER: So you didn't call a lawyer. You didn't tell a friend. You didn't tell a minister or a priest. You told nobody.

In some way are you pleading guilty to soliciting gay sex?

Are you technically not a homosexual? Is it possible you're bisexual?

CRAIG: It's no to both.

LAUER: You can resign, Senator. And you know what? It would probably go away.

SUZANNE THOMPSON, LARRY CRAIG'S WIFE: It wouldn't be the same.

CRAIG: And, Matt, that's the easy way out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the Craig interview and some other media controversies, here in Washington, John Aravosis, who blogs at AmericaBlog.com. And in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the "San Francisco Chronicle".

All right, John Aravosis, how did Matt Lauer handle that difficult subject?

JOHN ARAVOSIS, AMERICABLOG.COM: He handled it as best as he could to some degree, only because the wife is sitting there with you. And I think a lot of these guys -- you know, we saw with Ted Haggard, the minister, last year that had gone with a prostitute or whatever it was. He had the kids sitting in the back seat of the car when he was getting interviewed. I think it's very difficult to ask the hard questions when the wife is there. Having said that, Craig said he was out in public and wanted to answer the hard questions. Lauer should have asked them, even though it was uncomfortable.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, the danger, of course, of Matt Lauer in that situation is coming across as too overbearing.

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Yes. I liked the interview. I mean, Larry Craig had been beaten up for six weeks, and this was his chance to tell his side of the story.

Longer I've been in the business, the more I see that, if you ask tough questions in a non-confrontational manner -- and he did ask some tough questions -- you get a better answer.

This is Larry Craig's moment to say what he had to say.

Now I wish Matt Lauer had talked more about, "Why did you plead guilty? What happens if senators get do-overs?" Some of the legal issues with this.

But in terms of the "are you gay?" that was pretty interesting, I thought.

KURTZ: But you think that he didn't go far enough in some areas?

SAUNDERS: Yes. I think he didn't go far enough in some areas.

But you know, the thing that I really liked about the interview is -- the interesting thing about the Larry Craig story is, it didn't go further than a lot of us thought it would. Once this story broke, I thought names would come out.

Remember the "Idaho Statesman" had investigated this story for weeks and nothing ever came of it? They didn't -- they didn't nail the story, which is why they didn't run it, until -- until the senator pleaded guilty.

And so when you watch this hour you sort of get a real "what-if?" What if he had decided that he wasn't going to plead guilty? What would we all be talking about now?

KURTZ: Are the media now bored with the Larry Craig story?

ARAVOSIS: Not yet. In the last week they haven't been bored, obviously. I mean, I think what keeps it a story isn't just the fact that he's staying in office, but the fact is that he's become kind of a laughingstock, whether it's true or not, whether there weren't any names or not. You're right, there are no names, although with anonymous sex, there usually aren't names.

But nonetheless, he could be totally innocent. He's become the laughingstock for the Republican Party. He's become, you know, yet another sexual albatross around their necks. And in Washington, when you become the story in a bad way, you can't really stick around. And it's gone on for too long, I think. KURTZ: Does it bother you, as a gay blogger, to extent to which he has become this national punchline, people making fun of what he allegedly did, which he now denies?

ARAVOSIS: It doesn't bother me in the sense that he's a very anti-gay, religious right, whatever you want to call it, Republican senator, so that his -- his own hypocrisy is being exposed, if in fact, he is gay. And that doesn't bother me, because I think the hypocrisies should come out.

Having said that, do I want Larry Craig to be at the next pride parade as the gay icon? No. I don't think that's probably a very good thing.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, why does Larry Craig deserve an hour of network air time to essentially repeat the denials he's made several -- on several occasions?

SAUNDERS: Well, I think people just want to hear what he had to say.

But again, I mean -- and I wish Matt Lauer had asked him, "Well, you said you were going to resign. You didn't. You went back -- and if you're going to go back on your word on that, then why are we supposed to believe you today? You know, you said you weren't guilty..."

ARAVOSIS: And asked him why he's not leaving. I mean, as far as it being that harmful to the Republican Party. You know, why aren't you leaving? In Washington you leave when you become such a problem for the party.

KURTZ: Well, he did raise the question of whether or not this would all go away if the senator would do what he said he was going to do and step down.

Here's my two cents. You know, this is a tough interview for Matt Lauer, and here's why. I don't think there are 100 people in America who believe what Larry Craig is saying, that it was just an accident that his hand went under the divider and just an accident that his foot touched the undercover cop's foot and that he really shouldn't have pleaded guilty.

And so in that situation you can't, as a journalist, say, "Well, Senator, obviously you're not being straight with me."

So what you have to do is ask questions that make it clear to the audience that perhaps he's not being completely straight.

All right. Valerie Plame, this is a big TV week for the -- the former CIA operative who was outed by Bush administration officials. She is on "60 Minutes" tonight in an interview with Katie Couric. She's on "The Today Show" tomorrow morning with Meredith Vieira. She's on "LARRY KING LIVE" tomorrow night.

Here is an advance clip from the "60 Minutes" interview in which Katie Couric asks Valerie Plame about a secret intelligence plan against Iran that came out in the press.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS ANCHOR: Were you surprised to read about Operation Merlin in the press?

VALERIE PLAME, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: Indeed. Um-hmm.

COURIC: Is that problematic for the CIA?

PLAME: Leaks are always bad news.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: John Aravosis, let me read something from Valerie Plame's book. She writes, "It was the Pentagon Papers or Watergate turned on its head. These reporters were allowing themselves to be exploited by the administration and were obstructing the investigation."

What do you make of that?

ARAVOSIS: Well, I tend to side with Valerie Plame. So I make it of it as she's correct just in the sense that we did have a lot of reporters in town who knew the story, who knew who had leaked, et cetera, who hadn't leaked.

Yet, they were reporting the news, saying, "The White House today denies that so and so leaked." But they knew from the person directly that the person was basically giving the story, or didn't give the story.

I just -- I think you get in a very weird situation as a reporter when you know something off the record, which is totally fair. You have to have things off the record and on the record, otherwise sources won't talk to you.

But what do you do when you know the truth for real; yet, you're reporting to the public, "So and so says no?" But you know it's true. I'm not sure what you do.

KURTZ: That's precisely the point, Debra Saunders. And by the way, the reporters who were covering it as a political story, they didn't necessarily know what even their colleagues in the same newsroom knew.

ARAVOSIS: But some of the reporters did, though, who did report.

KURTZ: Well, I didn't know. But look, they were -- these reporters who didn't testify and ultimately were forced to testify -- in one case Judith Miller went to jail -- they were keeping a promise, maybe an ill-considered promise, but a promise to confidential sources that "we'll protect you."

SAUNDERS: Yes. And somehow -- you know, it's funny, when Valerie Plame says that leaks are always bad news, I guess her husband shouldn't have been talking to Nick Kristof from the "New York Times". KURTZ: Yes, and that's a good point. Let me just take a second to explain. Before Joe Wilson, the former ambassador, decided to go public with his criticism about the Bush administration's hunt for WMDs, he talked to Nick Kristof of the "New York Times" without having his name being used. He was just being identified as a former ambassador, so he was getting that same protection that she would now wave away.

ARAVOSIS: But there is a difference between leaks being bad. And right, she shouldn't have made the statement that leaks are bad news. Our town, our business in journalism, works with leaks. We know that.

Some leaks are actual threats to national security such as -- oh, I don't know -- outing a CIA agent because you've got a vendetta against her. You don't destroy a CIA.

I worked in the government. I had a security clearance. The one thing I knew was, CIA agents, you didn't talk about who they were; you didn't talk about what they told you. Everybody in this town knows you don't out CIA agents. It's a serious thing.

I mean, that gets into the whole other issue, but it is a serious problem.

SAUNDERS: You know, it is a serious thing. And the Bushies were incredibly immature to decide -- by the way, she was not outed as part of a vendetta. It was gossip. We know where this came from, from Richard Armitage. He was gossiping about the fact that this guy went to Niger because of his wife.

Now, if they had been more mature, they would have thought about the consequences, and they should not have done what they did.

But this whole "leaks are always bad" that Valerie Plame is talking about, let's just remember how this all started. It started from a leak from people who were out to discredit George Bush.

And of course, we have this double standard where it is OK for people to leak on that side, but when the Bushies do it, there's something nefarious about it.

ARAVOSIS: Well, it started with George Bush's 16 famous words that we had nuclear weapons being built in Iraq, because they were coming from Niger or whatever it was. I mean, we can get into that issue.

KURTZ: I thought we heard the end of this story, but obviously, with Valerie Plame's book coming out, all those TV interviews lined up, we'll be arguing about this for a little while longer.

All right. Ellen DeGeneres, you know, has this breakdown on her show. And it gets covered, to my amazement not just on cable, but on the morning shows, on the evening news. Let's look at what she said and check out some of the coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELLEN DEGENERES, TALK SHOW HOST: Those people went and took that dog out of their home and took it away from those kids. And I feel totally responsible for it. And I'm so sorry! And I'm begging them to give that dog back to that family.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, ANCHOR, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS": In an unusual public meltdown over a subject near to the hearts of a whole lot of us: the love of a dog.

DIANE SAWYER, CO-HOST, ABC'S "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Still seems there's got to be some rational compromise here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Little puppies and little girls and -- well, you would think.

LAUER: I was watching that yesterday by accident, and I was just -- I was glued to the thing.

DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC: I don't get why Ellen is so emotional about this. I understand why so many of us are attached to our pets, but this dog is not in danger.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: All right, John. We're talking about one dog.

ARAVOSIS: We're finally talking about the dog, Howie!

KURTZ: One dog. Ellen admits she was wrong. She adopted the dog. She gave it to a family. Why is this getting so much media attention?

ARAVOSIS: OK. It is an interesting celebrity story. All of the coverage that you just showed I would say was fine, other than "NBC Nightly News". I don't think this kind of a story deserves to be treated as a serious, you know, political story or whatever.

For the morning shows, it's great. It's the puppy caught in the -- or kitty caught in the tree story, so to speak, that everybody wants to hear about.

But I worry that celebrity news is creeping into serious news and that we've sort of crossed over from "Entertainment Tonight" into the same kind of stories being on "NBC Nightly News". That's a problem.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, this was a pre-taped show by Ellen DeGeneres.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEGENERES: Those people who took that dog out of their home...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: OK. We're hearing Ellen talk about it some more. So they liberally decided to leave that in. They could have cut it out. So was this a ratings ploy, maybe?

SAUNDERS: I don't know. I mean, I think it's a big story, because it looks like another movie star meltdown. And when a woman cries on television, that's a story. You get a puppy, that makes it more of a story.

You know, I have to tell you, I wonder about people, when stars decide that people are more interested in their personal lives than being entertained -- and she is an entertainer -- you know, it seems like there is sort of this curve and you start to go down when you think that people really want to hear all your problems.

KURTZ: All right.

SAUNDERS: It just seems a little abusive to me.

KURTZ: Thank you.

SAUNDERS: The people...

KURTZ: Thank you for not getting too emotional during this segment. I've got to take a break.

Up next, they want to be judged as journalists, of course. But a new article says female anchors and reporters are under growing pressure to look sexy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour on "LATE EDITION", Congresswoman Jane Harman and Congressman Peter Hoekstra, they weigh in on U.S. tensions with Iran.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh discusses Turkey's possible troop incursion into Iraq.

And World Bank president Robert Zoellick shares his take on the U.S. and global economy.

All that, a lot more on LATE EDITION. Now back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: Thanks, Wolf.

It is a subject much debated in private but rarely in public. Do women have to be good looking to make it in television news? Do they have to undergo extensive makeovers, and join the parade of fake blondes to remain competitive?

In the new issue of "Elle" magazine, Maggie Bullock writes, "Consider industry race horses like Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Ann Curry, Campbell Brown, Paula Zahn and Meredith Vieira. A seasoned, impressive bunch, to be sure, and not an Ugly Betty among them. TV anchors face an amplified version of a dilemma shared by most modern thinking women: how to craft an image that is at once authoritative and attractive."

Joining our discussion now to help us take on this thorny subject, Carol Costello, Washington-based correspondent for CNN's "THE SITUATION ROOM". And she's in New York this morning.

All right, girlfriend. Let's put it out on the table. Is this the kind of pressure to look young, to look good, look sexy that women in TV news inevitably face?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK, I have felt pressure to be attractive on the news, but there is a difference being attractive on the air and using your sexuality to sell the news.

And I think that many women in the news business right now have drank the Kool-Aid and said, "You know what? I can't beat them, so why not just join them?" And they're overtly using their sexuality to sell the news. And I think that's hurting women in the business overall.

KURTZ: How exactly do they do that?

COSTELLO: Short skirts. Crossing and uncrossing their legs. Glossy lipstick. I mean, you look at some on the air, and I'm talking nationwide, and they're dressing more like they're going out to a disco instead of, like, delivering important news of the day to educate the public. And I think that's wrong.

KURTZ: But now of course, they are trying to make it in a very tough, competitive marketplace. You know, is it a coincidence that so many female anchors are making themselves blonde, and many of them are tall and thin and look like models? I mean, who's hiring these women? Right?

COSTELLO: Yes, OK. Men are hiring them. And yes, men do put pressure on women in news to look attractive.

But when you look at the women who have the most successful shows on television, they aren't necessarily beautiful. Are they? I mean, Nancy Grace is very successful, but she doesn't use her sexuality to sell her show. She uses what's up here. She uses her shtick.

If you look Greta Van Susteren on FOX, who has a very successful show, she certainly doesn't use her sexuality to sell what she's got.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, let's take Katie Couric as an example, you know, an experienced interviewer, former Pentagon reporter. And yet, she gets picked apart by some critics about her hair, her wardrobe, and her social life in a way that Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson said they don't have to worry about.

SAUNDERS: The dirty little secret of being a woman on television, people will tell me, if I was good or bad on this show, based on how I looked. What I said won't even matter. And this goes back to -- remember Christine Craft, who got fired because she was too old, too ugly and not deferential to men? So I don't think anything's changed for women in television. They've got to have a certain kind of look.

And now we're trying to get news women to be younger and sexier. And it's only getting worse. And of course we have this technology that can do everything to anti-age you. So getting older is, I think, really tough for women in TV.

KURTZ: Carol Costello, have you had that reaction, where somebody has seen you and, rather than focusing on the report that you did, it was more about how you were wearing your hair or what -- what dress you were wearing that day?

COSTELLO: Absolutely -- I absolutely have fought that through my career. People write in all the time about what my hair looks like.

But you know what? I'm a really good reporter, and I prove that every day in "THE SITUATION ROOM". And I don't feel that my career has been defined by the way I look.

I think that there are some women who buy into that. But there are others who say, "You know what? I'm going to create a niche for myself, and I'm going to prove myself in other ways. I'm not going to just sit there and depend on the way I look to be successful in the news business."

Now I do agree that it's hard to get older in the news business for women. And it may not be as hard for men. But I think they battle that, as well.

KURTZ: John Aravosis, what about men? Men get older. Some of them get overweight. Are they not subjected to the same type of pressure?

ARAVOSIS: I think men get some of the same pressure but not as much. I mean, even -- Howie, I was on CNN last week. And the first thing a friend told me was, "You looked like you had a good tan. It looked good on you."

I'm always getting comments about this shirt or that shirt. I think, however, women get it a lot more. It's society's own prejudice. You know, the older guy is the sexy affair you have or whatever in a movie. The older woman, not so much.

So you've got the -- in contrast, I agree with what Carol is saying, but I think part of the problem is a lot of these women are probably trying to sell their sex because they're afraid they're not going to get the job if they don't.

Now the thing is, I'm curious, what do you think? Do you think -- do you feel pressure as a guy to be beautiful, Howie?

KURTZ: That's pressure that I haven't really had to deal with. Again, I'm not a prime-time anchor. Carol, former ABC correspondent Judy Miller was quoted as saying the following, that an image consultant had told her during her network career, "You've got to stop wearing those turtlenecks. You've got to start showing some cleavage." Is this what goes on in the back rooms?

COSTELLO: Yes, that is. I have been told so many times through my career to get this tooth fixed. I have one crooked tooth. See?

KURTZ: I never noticed.

COSTELLO: I've been pressured -- I know. But I have been pressured to get that tooth fixed. And I have been pressured to wear my hair certain ways, and I've been pressured to dress certain ways. But I haven't done it. I think that there's a choice that you make.

And Judy had a long and respected career. And I think that's great. And she certainly didn't give in to the pressure. I mean...

SAUNDERS: Judy had a long and successful career. I mean, she's such a great journalist and she's at an age where -- you said "had", not "has".

KURTZ: She's now teaching at the University of Southern California.

Carol Costello, 20 seconds. Do you find it insulting that you feel like you're being graded this way, despite your obvious journalistic credentials?

COSTELLO: Yes, I do feel insulted. You know, I feel insulted by all these web sites who say they talk about the news business, yet they have a hottie list. And somehow they have to rank women according to their hotness in the news business. I really don't get things like that. And that, to me, is offensive.

KURTZ: All right. I think the only person who needs to be on the hottie list is John Aravosis. Thanks for joining us. Debra Saunders, Carol Costello.

Still to come, a retired general attacks the Bush administration and the media. Guess which half of the story didn't get reported?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: If you've ever had the impression you're not getting the full story from the media, raise your hand. Well, here's one case where you're right.

A retired general did an about-face last week and ripped the Iraq war effort, clearly an important story. Here's how it was covered.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILLIAMS: Retired Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez turned on the Bush administration, accusing it of a failure in Iraq. HOLMES: Scathing criticism of the war in Iraq, and it comes from a former commander of coalition forces. Retired General Ricardo Sanchez calls the war "a nightmare with no end in sight."

KURTZ (voice-over): "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" also played up Sanchez's speech, leading with his description of the war as "a nightmare with no end in sight".

But there was a major chunk of Sanchez's address to the group, Military Reporters and Editors, that most news organizations ignored, except for one paragraph at the end of the "Post" story.

LT. GEN. RICARDO SANCHEZ (RET.), U.S. ARMY: The speculative and often uninformed initial reporting that characterizes our media appears to be rapidly becoming the standard in the industry.

Over the course of this war, tactically insignificant events have become strategic defeats for our country because of the tremendous power and impact of the media. And by extension, you individually, the journalists.

KURTZ: There was one news outlet that did play up the general's assault on coverage of the war: FOX News.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Wow. Now the general, I believe, is talking about liberal media outlets like "The New York Times" and NBC News, both of which trumpeted the general's criticism of the Bush war plan but ignored his media attack.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Now I don't agree with Sanchez's critique at all. In fact, I think the media's tough-minded reporting in 2005 and 2006 helped persuade the public that the war was not going well at a time when the administration and Sanchez, while still in uniform, assured us that progress was being made.

And if the general now wants to blast the coverage of Iraq as irresponsible, that's his right, though I think he owes us specific examples of these terrible stories, rather than just rhetorical bomb shells.

But for a journalist to only cover half that speech just gives ammunition to those who think we're in the bunker when it comes to criticism.

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

"LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.

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