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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Brian Williams Hosts "SNL"; Coverage of Hillary Clinton's Debate Performance
Aired November 4, 2007 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Live from New York, it's Brian Williams? What was the NBC anchor doing hosting a late-night comedy show? Will this transform his serious image? And the most pressing question of all -- was he funny?
Piling on. The media were demanding a Democratic brawl and they got one. Was Tim Russert playing "gotcha" with Hillary Clinton? Are journalists overplaying her evasiveness? And are they buying the line that the big, bad men were ganging up on a woman?
Blog wars. As major media outlets cover the campaign 'round the clock, the spin wars move online. Who's using whom?
Plus, television tirade. An angry Heather Mills denounces the press coverage of her divorce from Paul McCartney, but is she the one causing a hard day's night?
KURTZ: In all my years covering politics I'm not sure I've ever seen journalists push candidates into a fight quite like this. The press was clearly bored with Hillary as the dominant frontrunner. The pundits urged, begged, practically demanded that Barack Obama attack Senator Clinton. Just listen to this.
Newsweek's Howard Fineman, "Obama should argue that Clinton is too polarizing, that she cannot win a general election." New Republic's Michael Crowley, "The problem here may be that Obama remains reluctant to really go after Hillary's character, to portray her as unethical and dishonest."
And then there was Chris Matthews on Obama.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: He's not really a contender anymore. He has to get in the ring tonight. If he doesn't, he will stay where he is right now, dropping in the teens.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about all this, here in Washington, Roger Simon, chief political columnist for Politico.com; Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter for TownHall.com; and Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."
All right, Roger Simon, time to come clean. The press wanted this fight, egged on this fight, and is milking this fight for all it's worth.
ROGER SIMON, POLITICO.COM: Well, I think it doesn't matter whether we wanted it or not. The fact is these debates only look like stage productions. They're not really supposed to be stage productions. And what Tim Russert and Brian Williams' job was, was to get these candidates out of their game and to answer some questions that didn't come out of their playbook. And they succeeded in that.
KURTZ: But in terms of all the pre-game punditry, Clarence Page -- and I read some of it there -- when did it become our role as journalists to demand that one candidate attack another? And Obama seemed to buy into this. He gave that interview at "The New York Times" saying he was going to be more aggressive.
CLARENCE PAGE, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Howard, let's get serious. It's not just journalists saying Obama had to get in there. The public was saying it. Democrats were saying it especially, because we know he's been 20 points behind Hillary Clinton for weeks now. Edwards has been about 10 points behind him.
How are you going to move those numbers if you don't confront directly the lead horse in the race? And that was Hillary Clinton and still is. The public will decide of whether or not this was effective, but the fact was that Obama's own people were saying it and, of course, he has this challenge now to do it in a way that he can still maintain his dignity as Barack Obama.
KURTZ: The politics of hope.
PAGE: That's right.
KURTZ: Amanda Carpenter, all these stories now about Hillary Clinton being deliberately vague and refusing to offer specifics, where were these stories before this particular debate?
AMANDA CARPENTER, TOWNHALL.COM: Well, I think they've been looming around. I mean, for example, a number of people have been asking Hillary Clinton, "How are you going to solve the Social Security crisis?" And they never got an answer for it. And some people said, well, how come they didn't ask Obama this, these hard- hitting questions? It's because he's answered it. He said he's going to raise taxes.
And so, you know, when she gets asked this in a debate, it's trying to pin her down to find out exactly what she's going to do.
KURTZ: Well, I think you are letting the journalists off a little easy. I mean, they were just salivating for this kind of fight. But let's take a look at the MSNBC debate in Philadelphia this week and some of the questions that Tim Russert in particular posed to the former first lady.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TIM RUSSERT, MODERATOR: You stand behind the word "doubletalk"?
JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do.
RUSSERT: Senator Clinton?
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I think that anyone who's looked at my record of 35 years fighting for women and children and people who feel invisible and left out in this country knows my record.
RUSSERT: Do you, the New York senator, Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license? You told the New Hampshire paper it made a lot of sense. Do you support his plan?
CLINTON: You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays "gotcha".
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: All right, Roger, let's read from your review. "The worst performance of the entire campaign by Hillary Clinton. She dodged and weaved, parsed and stonewalled."
I read other people who were at the same debate, presumably, who said, yes, she had some stumbles, but overall she handled herself pretty well. You were pretty negative.
SIMON: They were wrong.
KURTZ: Thank you for clearing that up.
SIMON: It was a bad performance by Hillary Clinton. Clearly her worst. She has almost always had excellent performances.
I think I rated her the winner of every previous debate. And, in fact, just yesterday she admitted, campaigning in Iowa, that it was not a great night for her.
I mean, I think she could do hardly anything else but admit what we all saw. And what we also saw was not her fellow candidates ganging up on her. The only questions that drew blood were questions from the journalists on stage. They were questions about Social Security, they were questions about driver's licenses for illegal aliens. And they were questions about the release of documents from the Clinton library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
That's what got to her, not the other candidates.
KURTZ: Well, let me put up on the screen a cartoon from "The New York Daily News" that shows what we all portrayed as a very battered Hillary Clinton.
Clarence Page, OK, let's say Roger is right.
PAGE: Clarence Page.
KURTZ: Clarence Page. Clarence Page.
PAGE: A common mistake.
KURTZ: Let's assume that Roger was right and this was not a good debate by Hillary Clinton. But are the media now piling on her because they are just sick of the Hillary is inevitable story line?
PAGE: No. I think that this is -- these are legitimate issues. And everybody up there got hard questions. And, you know, she should be prepared for issues like the -- like driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, as big a hot issue that it is.
And you know, she's been running her campaign as if she's already got the Democratic nomination and she's running against the Republicans. This is how moderate she's been. That's why so many people on the left in the party have been saying, hey, you know, pin her down on this, make her accountable on this.
And it's the sort of thing that I think is kind of hard to complain about a game that you tried so hard to get into. And that's what Hillary Clinton's people are doing right now, is they say, hey, stop being so tough on our candidate.
KURTZ: But now the latest spin is that -- and there were some Clinton advisers who were quoted without being named as telling -- for example, one told "The Washington Post" it was six guys against her. And then she went to her alma mater, Wellesley, and talked about going into the all boys club of presidential politics. And now some of them are saying, boy, she's really just acting like a girl and she's playing the gender card and so forth.
Is that a fair critique?
CARPENTER: I mean, I think this is an answer that frustrates the media. As we saw in the debate, first she tried to blame "gotcha "questions on the media, Tim Russert. She would dodge answers and blame Republicans. And now she is playing this as kind of an excuse. And this is frustrating to the media because it's just another way she is trying to evade and not answer the hard questions.
KURTZ: But we do have some videotape of a network anchor admitting now for the first time that the way in which the candidates were put on the stage was designed to highlight Hillary Clinton.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC: This arrangement was all determined by the drawing of lots except for Senator Clinton, who we're deliberately placing in the center since all of us in the media want her to be the nominee.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: All right. That was some "Saturday Night Live," I admit.
SIMON: That was fiction. Wasn't it, Howard?
KURTZ: I think so. I don't think we're really getting the inner Brian Williams there.
Let's talk about the questioning. I mean, Tim Russert is really getting hit by some of these liberal bloggers. The statistic came out 14 out of the 26 questions that he posed to any candidate went to Hillary Clinton.
Is that a bit unbalanced?
SIMON: She's the frontrunner.
SIMON: She's supposed to get the questions. She's supposed to get the tough questions. There is a reason she's frontrunner.
"Let's explore how good she is." That's a legitimate journalists attack to take. I think he did an excellent job, especially when most of the telling points are made on the follow-up questions, which is all -- been missing from these debates.
The YouTube debates, for instance, are fascinating, they're great entertainment, but they don't allow for follow-ups. And that's why you need journalists on the stage, at least in part, asking follow-up questions.
KURTZ: But, you know, I could make the argument if Russert is going into his "Meet the Press" mode and say, you said this in 1999, and now you said this and you said this last week, shouldn't he do that at least among the leading candidates, as opposed to mostly against one candidate?
PAGE: Well, let's take, for example, Social Security. Very important issue, Howard. And, you know, we know Edwards' and Obama's positions better than we know Hillary Clinton's positions. She's danced around exactly how she's going to deal with keeping Social Security solvent, other than to say, I'll appoint a commission.
Well, hey, you know, get her on the record for that. And that was what happened. And I think the same can be said for the other issues.
You know, issues are important. They do matter. And I thought in this debate you really had a contrast drawn between the candidates.
KURTZ: You know, all right, issues are important. But the biggest single problem that Hillary Clinton created for herself was on the question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants in New York State, Governor Eliot Spitzer's program, or proposal. But Obama and John Edwards sort of agree with that too. So all of the coverage, it seems to me, was not about was she right or not right on this. It was about, you know, how she performed. Did she fudge? Did she seem to want to have it both ways?
CARPENTER: Well, there might have been a higher expectation for her because this is a federal issue in her home state. And the fact that she couldn't answer that very clearly and forthrightly right away, was an issue. But, you know, she can't say where she really is on this.
I mean, her lead adviser on immigration is on a former president for the National Council of La Raza. That will not play well in a general election. So I think that's with your see Hillary Clinton literally calculating on stage and going through her thoughts. And, you know, then you've got that...
PAGE: How many chances has she held up her hand and jumped back in there again to say, I only halfway meant what I just said?
SIMON: This was a self-inflicted wound. You can make a reasonable case for giving drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. You can make a reasonable case for not doing so. What you can't do is make both cases...
KURTZ: In the space of two minutes.
SIMON: ... in the space of two minutes.
SIMON: That's what she did. She did it by herself. She looked what she's not supposed to look like, which is political. And people didn't like it.
KURTZ: And it's not entirely true that Tim Russert didn't ask any other tough questions. He did ask Dennis Kucinich about a UFO.
Now, I personally am crushed about one development this week, and that is South Carolina Democrats refusing to put Stephen Colbert on the ballot. Here was his reaction.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": It's all for the best. I mean, I'm so busy with my book tour and my show and hanging out with all those friends that I have. Plus, I have time -- I have time to eat all these free, delicious Doritos.
Why? Why don't you want me in your race? Fine, it's your loss, Democrats!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Will the campaign be more boring now? PAGE: No question about it. I thought who was relieved though, was John Edwards. I mean, he had some real competition in his home state there.
KURTZ: Stephen Colbert was a serious threat to John Edwards?
CARPENTER: I don't know about that, but it was entertaining. And I am a little sad it's over.
KURTZ: I personally am very depressed about this.
Thank you very much this morning, Roger Simon, Clarence Page, Amanda.
Appreciate your being here.
When we come back, political reporters now blog around the clock. And the presidential campaigns are spinning them almost by the hour. We'll look at the new cyber wars.
KURTZ: Once upon a time, newspaper reporters had one deadline a day. Magazine writers one deadline a week. But now many of them are blogging -- and who isn't these days?
The presidential campaigns are trying to use them virtually around the clock. Just look at these blogs from "TIME," CNN, NBC, "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," "Chicago Tribune," USA Today," "Wall Street Journal," and others. Are they the new battleground for campaign coverage?
Joining us now in New York, Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University who blogs at PressThink.org. And here in Washington, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun- Times," who also blogs for the paper.
Lynn Sweet, the other day I looked up your site. It said "Sweet Blog Scoop: Bill Clinton hit Chicago Tuesday for Hillary."
Now, where would you possibly get information like that?
LYNN SWEET, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, I'm always swimming in the ocean. And there's lots of information out there. There is a tsunami of news coming out about all these candidates, Howie.
KURTZ: And how closely do the campaigns follow your blog, for example?
SWEET: I think I'm on the RSS feeds of the campaigns that I write about all the time, because I do hear from them when there's something...
KURTZ: In other words, feeds that automatically let them know what you're writing at any time.
SWEET: Yes. Or however they do it technically, but, yes, they're listening, they're reading, they're watching, yes.
KURTZ: Jay Rosen, you know, individual bloggers get most of the media attention, but is it a good thing for newspapers and magazines and networks to have these constantly updated political blogs?
JAY ROSEN, PRESSTHINK.ORG: Well, it makes sure that they're part of a conversation that's going on, on the live Web. The Web isn't simply another printing press. It's a constant flow of information. And I'm not surprised at all that the major newspapers and magazines have decided they want in on this, and it's loosening them up in a lot of ways.
KURTZ: Loosing them up in terms of tone?
ROSEN: In terms of tone, also what they go with and when. It used to be that there was a daily deadline and everything sort of revolved around that. And now it's much more of a flow. There are a lot more players in the flow. And it's possible for journalists to strike up a different attitude than they took, when they were simply producing one story a day.
SWEET: Howie, the issue here in the mainstream reported blogs -- and that's what mine is, it's -- because I work for a mainstream newspaper -- the point here isn't attitude, the point is it is getting more news out faster than ever before. That's the dynamic here, and part of it is because you have these inventions that let you post all the time.
The broadband access card was not invented in 2004, along with mainstream blogs. So we have the technical ability. If you go out on the campaign trail now, Howie, you're going to see reporters who are posting constantly moments after things happen.
SWEET: It's not so much attitude, it's just getting more news out faster.
KURTZ: But when I write on my blog for "The Washington Post," I mean, I feel a lot looser, I feel able to be funnier or more personal in a way that you can't be in a news story.
Don't you have the same feeling?
SWEET: Sure. Sometimes it is more informal, but it's not like we're writing in lower case -- you know, BYA or something, or whatever, some abbreviations. It is still proper pronunciation. This is not just a riff. These are whole sentences, complete thoughts. And yes, if there's a little more attitude, sure, it's there. But sometimes in print you're seeing this anyway.
KURTZ: I'm sure your spelling is as good as always.
Jay Rosen, you and The Huffington Post have teamed up to produce an election project called Off the Bus, which is staffed essentially by volunteers. What do they provide that the mainstream media do not? ROSEN: Well, they're not traveling around with the campaigns, they don't look at it from inside the political process. They're mostly real Americans. And the way in which the campaign comes in to their lives is their starting point.
They're not trying to get inside the thinking of the strategists in the campaign. They're much more interested in where it intersects with their life. And I think this is what's been missing in a lot of political journalism over the decades, is that it does have this kind of insular quality where the campaign is about winning the campaign. And by going to outsiders, people who have a stake in politics, have views, have interests, we're hoping to break some of that cycle.
And that's what we've been trying to do, as well as take advantage of the fact that the Internet, lots of people can be involved in a production of news at one time. So we've tried to go out and send volunteers to Obama's rallies to find out how they're actually working on the ground, and be a lot of places at once.
KURTZ: Let me get Lynn in.
Because I see you shaking your head.
SWEET: Well, I mean, and I'm a big fan of Off the Bus project at Huffington Post. And I appreciate what they're trying to do. But it's not -- if we're talking about still blogging, what they're still doing and what they still have to end up doing is reporting.
Everybody always had their own way of approaching a beat or a topic, Howie. Certainly you do in what you cover. So it's -- reporting is reporting, and that's the point on these blogs.
KURTZ: But on that point, when you are writing these blog items from the road, doesn't it leave you less time for reporting and writing for your newspaper work?
SWEET: It's all the same now. It's all part of what the newspaper work is. And I work so much anyway, I don't know. At some point in the day I always work on, you know, five to seven or eight things at one time. And at some point in the day I just think, which of these things is the best to appear in the print edition?
KURTZ: So it's kind of....
SWEET: And then I just, you know, dress that up a little bit and put that in.
KURTZ: Jay Rosen, when your Off the Bus project was announced, it was revealed that it would be run by or headed by two former aides, one to John Kerry and one to Howard Dean. And I noticed a posting the other day -- I went on to see what was there -- John Wilson, who's written a favorable book about Barack Obama, wrote about the media coverage of Senator Obama and he said that the idea in the media of Obama as inexperienced was not merely unproven, but the opposite of the truth.
So, in some ways this looks like it's left of the bus, kind of a liberal critique.
ROSEN: I'm sorry. I didn't quite understand your question, Howard. I'm sorry.
KURTZ: My question is, if you have a project that's run by two people who worked in Democratic campaigns...
KURTZ: ... and you have people who -- how many of the people who write for this have a point of view, and how much is that point of view on the liberal side?
ROSEN: Oh. Well, we haven't tried to say that we are coming from the mountain top. We haven't said we have professionals who work at a distance from politics. We haven't made the claim that Off the Bus is an objective, sort of cathedral of political news. It's news by people who have an interest, a stake in the election, who are part of it, and who disclose that and make it pretty obvious in what they write.
KURTZ: All right.
ROSEN: So we're not trying to compete with the professional reporter at a detached distance from politics.
KURTZ: Right. You're in a different zone.
Jay Rosen, Lynn Sweet, thanks very much for stopping by this morning. We appreciate it.
Up next, done deal. The I-man will be back behind a microphone.
Hillary is accused of being missing in action, but there's a little problem with that story.
And was Bill O'Reilly's producer stalking Rosie O'Donnell?
Our "Media Minute" straight ahead.
KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute."
DON IMUS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Please welcome to the "Imus in the Morning" program...
KURTZ (voice over): It's official. Don Imus will be back on the air December 3rd.
As we told you what happened weeks ago, Imus has signed a radio deal with Citadel Broadcasting, which owns WABC in New York, for a salary "The Wall Street Journal" pegs at around $5 million.
The I-man was fired last spring by CBS Radio and MSNBC over that racial slur against the Rutgers women's basketball team, for which he repeatedly apologized. The question now is, how many other radio stations will pick up the syndicated show?
Hillary Clinton's had a tough week made tougher by a story in "The Hill" newspaper that accused her of skipping a Senate committee hearing on the proposed nuclear waste dump at Nevada's Yucca Mountain that she had called for herself. And it quoted from Republican Senator James Inhofe as criticizing her. But it turns out Clinton was there. There are pictures to prove it. And Inhofe's quotes were taken from a press release back in July.
"Hill" editor Hugo Gurdon told me he regrets the mistake because, especially because it negates the story entirely.
KURTZ: Now, I've criticized some of the wackier things that Rosie O'Donnell has said, particularly her 9/11 conspiracy theory. But Bill O'Reilly is really on her case.
ROSIE O'DONNELL, FMR. TALK SHOW HOST: Bill wants...
KURTZ: When Rosie was out signing copies of her new book, she had an unexpected visitor from "The Factor."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm with Bill O'Reilly.
O'DONNELL: What do you mean, you're with him?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I work for bill. He wants to know why you won't come on the show. It seemed like you had such a good time last time you were on. You're always invited.
O'DONNELL: Bill. Is your name Bill or Jesse (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is for Bill O'Reilly.
O'DONNELL: Is that what you do, you go around to book signings?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. We want to meet you. We want you to come on the show...
O'DONNELL: He knows how to find me, the guy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We told you 100 times. O'DONNELL: I don't want you to call me. If Bill wants me, he should phone me himself. He's a big boy. He's a grownup.
KURTZ (voice over): Why would the FOX anchor send a producer to confront an entertainer?
BILL O'REILLY, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": We wanted to tell the woman that this kind of propaganda is hurtful to those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and damaging to America's image abroad.
Now, "Talking Points" regrets any imposition on Ms. O'Donnell's time, but she does have a responsibility to her country to be honest and stop providing comfort -- comfort -- to terrorists and others who would harm Americans, including her own family.
KURTZ: It was a no-lose proposition for O'Reilly, who was guaranteed some provocative footage no matter how Rosie reacted. It was also something of a stunt.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, live from New York. Brian Williams makes the leap from serious anchor to "Saturday Night Live" front man. Will it change nightly news?
KURTZ: During the week he's all business, a serious, sober, somewhat formal anchor who greets his nightly news correspondents by saying, "Good evening."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Good evening.
The stock market suffered a big fall today because of the ominous signs out there of trouble for some big financial firms.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But last night, Brian Williams stepped out of his usual role and showed us that he could be a wild and crazy guy.
Well, sort of.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: I know my own negatives. I've seen the internal NBC research. I've read the viewer mail.
I know I'm often seen as a stiff, a guy who is always in anchorman mode. But tonight -- tonight that all changes. You're going to see a whole new Brian Williams because here tonight, I'm going to relax, have fun, be spontaneous and, most important, stay loose.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So was this a rare opportunity to let his hair down or conduct unbecoming a network anchor?
Joining us now in New York, Rachel Sklar, editor of the "Eat the Press" blog on HuffingtonPost.com. Here in Washington, Terry Smith, correspondent for PBS. And Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia and author of the new book "A More Perfect Constitution."
Rachel Sklar, here is the argument against Brian Williams' appearance. Walter Cronkite would never have gone on a comedy show. And how can we ever take Williams seriously again?
RACHEL SKLAR, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: I mean, well, first of all, Walter Cronkite was on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." He did a cameo on that.
SKLAR: So, that argument aside, I don't understand how on earth what Brian Williams does at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night has anything to do with what he says between 6:30 and 7:00 on the nightly news. I mean, I just have no idea of what the difference is. And I, for one, as a viewer am not confused by his presence on "Saturday Night Live".
KURTZ: But Terry Smith, you do have an image that you project when you are a television person.
TERENCE SMITH, PBS: Oh, you do, Howie.
KURTZ: Yes. And I try to keep mine very serious, of course.
So do you see any blurring of the line here between news and entertainment?
SMITH: No, I really think people can make the distinction between the Brian Williams that plays it straight on the weeknights and the Brian Williams who plays it for laughs on "Saturday Night Live". There is nothing new about it. Anchormen and television correspondents have appeared in movies. Howie Kurtz on "K Street".
There's history here. I don't think it diminishes his reputation at all. And in fact, in some ways, because he was very good, it may have enhanced it.
KURTZ: "K Street," of course, was an HBO show that should have gotten a much longer run than it did, despite my 30 seconds on it.
SMITH: Of course.
KURTZ: But Larry Sabato, you have some concerns about whether an anchor should do this kind of thing.
LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Yes. Look, I think it was a venial sin, rather than a mortal sin. However, I think it blurred the line between entertainment and news. And frankly, often when I'm watching the evening news shows anymore, I'm not sure whether I'm watching the news or watching "Entertainment Tonight".
You know, he had Bono on "Saturday Night Live" last night. Well, he had a long segment interviewing Bono on the evening news, "NBC Nightly News".
SKLAR: ... was quite different.
SABATO: Oh, no. I'm sorry. There is too much of a blurring of the line, and I do think it reduces respect for them.
Does it matter a great deal? I don't know that it does anymore.
KURTZ: But if it creates a gravitas problem, Larry Sabato, for a network anchor, what about this guy, presidential candidate?
Have we got that tape?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just wanted to let the American people know that, live from New York, it's Saturday night!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: OK for Obama?
SABATO: Hey, Howie, since when has a candidate ever displayed dignity? They pander for a living, so I don't have any problems with a candidate doing it. But yes, I expect a little bit more from a serious anchor person.
And I disagree about Walter Cronkite. When he went to Vietnam and told us that the government was lying to us, he had the gravitas and the respect for us to believe him.
KURTZ: Rachel Sklar, Brian Williams turned down an offer to do this last season. He had qualms about how it would affect his image. And Jeff Zucker, who is the chief executive at NBC, was a big fan of this idea, pushed him to do it.
And my question to you is, let's say it had been Katie Couric. Let's say "Saturday Night Live" was on CBS and Katie Couric was the guest host. Would she have gotten a lot more terrible press than Mr. Williams?
SKLAR: She may have. But -- and I think she probably would have generally. But you have got to remember that there's some context here.
Again, I must have to -- I totally disagree that there is a gravitas problem. I don't have any problem with Katie Couric delivering the "CBS Evening News," even on "The Today Show" she once dressed up and SpongeBob SquarePants. That's not a problem for me. I can separate the two.
I think that, you know, Brian Williams works on "30 Rock" with these people. There is obviously a relationship there. That's been well documented in all the news articles leading up to this point.
So I think that that's a context thing, and as well it may have been seen as more of a ratings ploy if Katie were to do it because there has been -- you know, there has been so much fussing with that show and trying to find new ways to find appeal. But that's all hypothetical.
KURTZ: Terry, you...
SMITH: No, I don't think it would be a ratings ploy. I think there is a double standard, and I think if Katie Couric did it she'd be roasted.
KURTZ: Double standard because?
SMITH: Double standard because going in there are already questions, or questions have been raised about her gravitas and seriousness in this role. I don't share them, but they have been raised. And this would only contribute to that. On the other hand, Diane Sawyer could probably do it without any loss of gravitas.
KURTZ: All right.
Well, for those of you who didn't get to stay up late last night, let's show you a little bit more of Brian Williams in character.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
WILLIAMS: Me and some of the guys on 114 ladder, we're going around the borough, mostly schools, mostly children, talking to people about fire safety preparedness.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any advise for the teachers?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know what? You can go to hell and you can lose 10 pounds and you're gay!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What?
WILLIAMS: As a part of my daily ritual, I like to find time to watch footage of my favorite news anchor of all time.
The master at work.
(END VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
SMITH: You know, there was only one place where he came close to the edge. In another skit, where he's prepping the debate participants, he says, "Now we all know that the press has already anointed Hillary the Democratic candidate."
KURTZ: "We all want her to win." He said that earlier.
SMITH: "We all want her to win." So, I mean, you know, you're getting close, Brian.
It's a joke, of course. And everybody will take it as a joke, I believe.
SKLAR: I agree with that.
SABATO: I would add one other thing though. Tim Russert -- and I like Tim Russert, he's very, very good. But he said this is a great honor for NBC News, for Brian Williams to host "Saturday Night Live". No, an Emmy is an honor, the Pulitzer, the Nobel. Those are honors.
SKLAR: That's a statement of opinion, I think.
SABATO: This is a gig. This is a gig. You know? And I don't think it's...
SKLAR: "Saturday Night Live" is an institution.
SABATO: ... deserving of any admiration on our part.
KURTZ: Go ahead, Rachel.
SKLAR: I just think "Saturday Night Live" is an institution. It is -- you know, I watched it growing up. I think it is an honor to be asked. And I think it's a nice thing.
It's a different sort of honor. It doesn't really speak to, you know, the degree of journalism that he's practiced. And I think that -- I will say that the one place that I did think that it came a little close to the edge was it could be read as an implicit endorsement of Obama to have had him on that show.
Now, again, I personally think that that -- you know, I see it as a comedy show and I see it as a great opportunity to sort of have biting satire. But I do think that that could be read and will be read as an implicit endorsement there.
SMITH: It does sort of contribute to the celebrity halo around journalists, particularly television journalists.
KURTZ: Aren't television anchors already celebrities?
SMITH: Of course they are. And what Brian Williams demonstrated last night is he's not only sometimes an actor, but a good actor. There is a bit of ham in any television anchorman. And it came out last night.
KURTZ: But that's an interesting point, because I don't have any problem with what he did. And I think people understand what "Saturday Night Live" is, and you are playing a part. But there is a question about whether or not he needs to loosen up. He poked fun at himself on nightly news...
KURTZ: ... whether he's a little too stiff. I mean, could this be a first step in that direction, or do you think that that shouldn't even be discussed, whether -- how he should be on his show?
SMITH: I don't think it should be discussed. I mean, if he's going to loosen up, it's through his blog and other things that do show the human side to him. But it did last night. And that helped him.
KURTZ: Don't viewers want to see an anchor's personality, as opposed to somebody delivering the news from Mount Olympus?
SABATO: Well, I don't care what they want. I prefer the stiff. And I'm going to vote for the stiff.
I like him precisely as he comes across, which is a serious journalist. And I think last night was very unserious. I don't think it will have long-term implications. I sure hope he doesn't do it again, or do it frequently.
KURTZ: Rachel, I'm waiting for you to jump in on these...
SKLAR: Well, you know what? I'm just thinking that this whole conversation is moot, because I think it was last March, he engaged in I think -- I think he burped the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner. And if this conversation didn't happen after that, I think the whole gravitas conversation is moot at this point. A little late.
KURTZ: I wish we had that videotape to show.
But do you think that this question of how you present yourself, whether it's in a comedy show or a newscast -- Brian Williams told me that he didn't think that going on "SNL" was going to have any effect at all on whether new or particularly younger viewers might tune in to NBC nightly news. But why do it otherwise?
SKLAR: Why do it otherwise? I mean, he expressed it I think in your article. It's just sort of something, a chance that he wanted to take something he'd always wanted to do.
Why -- there is a whole lot of different reasons, and if you're asking me if there is a possibility that he'll get younger viewers or be exposed to a younger demographic through this, that seems, you know, absolutely, you know, possible. Whether or not it will make younger viewers go to his Web site or to the nightly news at 6:30, or even to the webcast, that's another thing entirely.
KURTZ: OK. SMITH: Not a chance. Not a chance. It's not going to bring younger viewers in, but it makes him a little more human, a little more approachable, even when he does his day job or evening job.
KURTZ: A very human Terry Smith, Larry Sabato and Rachel Sklar.
Thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, the breakdown of a Beatle bride.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HEATHER MILLS, EX-WIFE OF PAUL MCCARTNEY: They say I'm a fantasist, a liar, a gold digger, a whore.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Heather Mills says she's been unfairly roughed up by the British press. We'll ask a journalist who knows her about those charges.
KURTZ: She began with British television, then took her tale of woe to the American morning shows. Heather Mills wants the world to know just not how upset she is with her estranged husband Paul McCartney, but how furious she is with the press for what she sees as unfair coverage of their divorce.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: What got you to this point? What got to you what seems like the breaking point?
MILLS: Four thousand-plus articles, a lot of them front page of complete lies and rubbish. And I've been unable to respond to them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, why do you think you're the subject of so much bad press?
MILLS: Because I married an icon and I left an icon.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Answer this. The people who look up and say, this is just more pressure she's trying to put on Paul McCartney here. This is -- this whole thing yesterday was just trying to put more pressure on him.
MILLS: Listen, I have -- pressure to do what? Pressure to do what? The press should have to be brought accountable to do fair and just and real journalism.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But is the recent contestant on "Dancing with the Stars" responsible, at least in part, for the avalanche of bad press?
Joining us now from Los Angeles is Jane Velez-Mitchell, investigative reporter and author of the book "Secrets Can Be Murder."
Jane, you are a friendly acquaintance of Heather Mills. These emotional TV appearances have widely been described as a meltdown. Why would she take this war against Paul McCartney on to the airwaves?
JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Well, I think she has to do something. She has been vilified. She has been the subject of a hate campaign.
You know, tabloid journalists are a very cynical bunch, and they don't believe anybody could be as idealistic and as passionate about causes as Heather Mills actually is. So they ascribe all sorts of negative motivations for what she's doing. The fact is, I have met her, I've worked with her on public service announcements for animal causes. We know she has done so much to eliminate landmines from thousands and thousands of acres, saving people's lives. And yet, none of that is ever discussed.
All they focus in on is, oh, she was a whore. I mean, what a horrible thing to say about somebody who lost a leg in a terrible accident, and instead of going into self-pity, uses that trauma to turn the world into a better place by getting prosthetic devices for thousands of people, clearing landmines and then working to end animal abuse. They never discuss her good works. They are absolutely waging a hate campaign against this woman and I applaud her for speaking up.
KURTZ: Let me jump in. I mean, look, there was a lot of sympathy for Heather Mills because of her injury, because of her charity work. And now, in the midst of this terrible divorce, she has gotten all this negative publicity.
Could it be related to the fact that she is constantly out there making charges while Paul McCartney has largely remained silent?
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, I have to say that both of these individuals, Heather and Paul, are heroes of mine. They both do incredible work for wonderful causes around the world.
Divorce is a messy business. We all know that. But the media, the tabloid media -- and I distinguish the mainstream media -- especially the tabloid media in Britain, has really gone after her. I think it is more than just that she was with a Beatle. But they did the same thing to Yoko, let's remember.
It is because she is a woman who is a rugged individualist, who does not fit easy categories. And that is something that is very threatening to society in general. And it's reflected in the tabloid coverage.
KURTZ: All right.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: You know, we like to put women in little boxes, either they're airheads or they're intellectuals. And she is a fashion model who became an activist. And that's a little too complicated to deal with. KURTZ: Well, speaking of the London tabloids, here's a columnist for "The Daily Mail," Amanda Platell, and she wrote, "No one who watched her can now be in any doubt about the extent of her self- delusion. I am among those who criticized her. I did it because her behavior over the separation has been by turns exasperating, dishonest and vindictive beyond belief."
"From the beginning to end of this sorry saga, it has been impossible to believe anything she has said." And she cites some examples.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, I'd like to see some of those examples, because she has not particularly attacked Paul, except to say, "I wish that Paul would defend me more from the media."
She has said that Paul is an excellent father. And she has, I think, conducted herself as best you can when you -- try being chased by the tabloid media in Britain for just one day, and you will feel like you are under siege. And the fact that she feels suicidal to me is understandable.
KURTZ: All right. I think I'll pass on trying to do that. It doesn't sound like that much fun.
KURTZ: One example cited was Heather Mills threatened to sue certain writers who reported that her marriage was in trouble a few weeks before they did separate. But, no, not everybody is against her.
Terrence Blacker (ph), a columnist for "The Independent," wrote that "Heather Mills is right. An ugly form of public bullying is taking place."
But my question is this -- look, there is a divorce going on, often these things are not pretty. If you mount the kind of media campaign during the divorce that Heather Mills has, not just with these images, but she's been quoted extensively, people conclude, fairly or unfairly, that it's about money, that she's trying to get some of McCartney's billion-dollar fortune.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Right. Well, the irony is that I think what I have heard from sources is that one of the sources of their discontent was that she wanted him to give away more of his money. And he's always extraordinarily generous. But that's the kind of passionate, perhaps naive idealist, that she is.
And I think if she's guilty of one thing, it's naivete. I think that she really goes out there thinking, if I just have my heart in the right place everything is going to be OK. And we live in a very cynical world where people who have that attitude can be cut down.
You know, if you get too far ahead of the herd, watch out. They will come and attack you. And I think that's what happened to Heather Mills.
KURTZ: But, you know, even if she is entirely right -- and I've got about half a minute here -- she came across, you know, just me watching as a viewer, and not having followed every twist and turn, as a very angry and emotional person. If you were advising her, wouldn't you say -- ask her to tone it down a little bit?
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Yes. I think that she kind of let it all hang out, and that's the kind of person she is. She's not about secrecy and appearances. And the downside of being brutally honest is about causes and about everything else that's inconvenient for everybody else to hear, is that you will show what you're really going through, and that's sloppy and messy.
KURTZ: All right.
Jane Velez-Mitchell with a spirited defense here this morning.
Thanks for joining us from L.A.
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Thank you, Howie.
KURTZ: Still to come, now that FEMA has staged a fake news conference, why stop there? Could the agency take things to the next level?
KURTZ: Remember that bogus FEMA news conference with the agency's own employees impersonating reporters? Well, now FEMA has come up with a new and improved plan, as we see in this exclusive tape obtained by RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ (voice over): Welcome to The Flack Report sponsored by the good folks at FEMA. I'm Francis T. Flack, and let's get you caught up on the news.
Remember the California wildfires? The Federal Emergency Management Agency is basking in worldwide praise for our -- for its sterling performance. We asked FEMA's number two official, Harvey Johnson, to rate the government's record in this latest crisis.
HARVEY JOHNSON FEMA: I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far.
KURTZ: In other news, much of the country may have moved on from Hurricane Katrina, but one federal agency has not. FEMA has agreed to spend another $1 billion on rental assistance for 120,000 people still left homeless by the storm. A federal judge who called the application process Kafkaesque clearly doesn't know his Russian literature since Franz Kafka never got to live in a government- subsidized trailer.
Deputy administrator Harvey Johnson...
JOHNSON: I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far.
KURTZ: Now the war in Iraq.
Based on FEMA's track record in this country, our sources say the agency is considering opening a Baghdad bureau to support the war effort. Iraqis who were left homeless will get the same first class assistance as the victims of Katrina.
Leading Democrats expressed skepticism at the move, saying, well, who really cares what they say? Why don't they give innovative bureaucrats a chance to accomplish something instead of engaging in partisan politics?
For all us here at The Flack Report, I can only say, heck of a job.
Thanks for watching the newscast, where we stay on message no matter what.
KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
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