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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Imus Back on the Radio; Romney Addresses His Faith in Speech

Aired December 9, 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): Comeback kid. Don Imus, back on the radio, says he is setting a new tone after the racist crack that got him fired. Does he deserve a second chance? And with presidential candidates lining up for interviews, can he regain his old clout?

The Mormon question. Mitt Romney holds forth on his faith in the spirit of Jack Kennedy's famous address about his Catholicism. Will the media keep pressing the issue?

What did the president know and when did he know it? That's the journalistic question after the administration says Iran isn't a nuclear threat after all.

Plus, no joke. Why we're stuck in a humorless campaign.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Mitt Romney brings many qualities to the presidential race -- former governor, Olympic savior, multi-millionaire businessman, along with controversy over his change of heart on abortion and other social issues. But at times it seems the press is obsessed with one thing, his religion, as in, can a Mormon really win the White House?

It was the issue that wouldn't die, or that journalists kept alive, and this week Romney felt compelled to address it in a major speech.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let me assure you that no authorities of my church or of any other church, for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. I believe in my Mormon faith. And I endeavor to live by it. My faith...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Some in the media praised the speech. Others quickly dismissed it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: I wish Mitt Romney didn't have to give this speech that he gave earlier today.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: When it comes to the substance, after all these questions about whether Mormonism is a cult, whether Mormonism is somehow part of Christianity, he didn't address any of that.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC: It was just a terrific speech from every standpoint.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the media's handling of this issue and other developments on the campaign trail and at the White House, Gloria Borger, CNN political analyst at CNN; E.J. Dionne, columnist for "The Washington Post" and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book "Sold Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right"; and Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor for "Vanity Fair" and "Atlantic Monthly," and author of the book "God is Not Great; How Religion Poises Everything."

E.J. Dionne, was Romney essentially forced to give this speech because the media kept making an issue of his Mormonism?

E.J. DIONNE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I don't think it was the media. I think it was the polls in Iowa.

KURTZ: Trumpeted by the media, of course.

DIONNE: Right. Well, we will always trumpet polls. That's a sin we always commit. But, you know, once Huckabee passed him in Iowa, according to many of these polls, I think his campaign felt he had a problem.

That's an interesting question, was it really religion that was getting him into trouble, or was it that Huckabee was simply a more appealing person, especially after that nasty YouTube debate? And I thought it was a kind of bifurcated speech that Romney gave. Half of it, I cheered when he said someone's religion should not be held against him or her in running for president.

I would -- if Christopher weren't British, I'd defend his right as an atheist for president and say that shouldn't be a public issue. But the other half...

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, AUTHOR, "GOD IS NOT GREAT": I'm American, but I can't run for president.

DIONNE: I know. You are American, but you were born in Britain. So you're -- but the other half, when he said condemn the religion of secularism, freedom depends upon religion, he was drawing a new dividing line, the religious against the less religious, and that's a problem.

KURTZ: And I want to come back to that point, but first I want to ask Christopher -- you believe the press has been too timid in not pressing Romney about his religion. HITCHENS: Yes.

KURTZ: Indeed, you've even written that he should be asked whether he wears Mormon underwear.

HITCHENS: Well, since all presidential candidates can be asked about it, and, in fact, right now traditionally asked about it, I think it essentially would be discriminating against him not to ask.

But the question I've insisted on since early this year and I've been trying to get it asked is this: Mr. Romney, you were a member of a racist organization until 1978, when you were of age, when you were going to Brigham Young University, the -- they were segregated. The Mormon Church wouldn't admit African-Americans to deaconhood.

What was it like? Do you think it changed in time? Do you think the change was sincere? These are questions we have to have asked.

KURTZ: But did reporters, Gloria Borger, constantly ask Joe Lieberman about being an Orthodox Jew, asking Rudy about being Catholic? It seems to me that Mormonism is singled out.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think it's being singled out. I mean, I think Mitt Romney did not answer questions in this speech, he didn't address his Mormonism head on, which is something that he -- that Jack Kennedy did, by the way, did when he was explaining his Catholicism. I think this was a political speech more than a religious speech.

And I think, by the way, Christopher, if he goes up in the polls, and if it looks like he's getting close to the nomination, I think then you will hear journalists ask those questions.

DIONNE: Could I just go to Christopher's point? Because I think I have agree and half disagree with Christopher.

I think he's absolutely right that the Mormon Church's stand on race is relevant. Why? Because that has a direct influence on public policy.

Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, when he ran for president 40 years ago, was asked about race, and he could push that aside because he was such a strong advocate of civil rights. That's relevant to the public sphere. What kind of underwear he wears is not relevant to the public sphere.

HITCHENS: It's asked of all candidates, nonetheless. It happens to be one of the things we do now, is it boxers or briefs? And now we just add, or is it the Mormon underwear?

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS: Let's drop the underwear factor. I mean, there are other things. The leader of the Mormon Church, the so-called prophet, is supposed to have ultimate authority over any believing member of the church. That's an important constitutional question. From whom do you take your orders?

KURTZ: So, again, I wonder why there are more questions...

HITCHENS: And yes, by the way, Joseph Lieberman, I would make it a real question. He said at one point he wouldn't -- he would have to walk to work on Shabbat -- on Sabbath. I would think that's very relevant. I would say that would make me much less likely to vote for him.

KURTZ: Why, in your view, have journalists...

HITCHENS: Though he did reassure us and say he would press the nuclear button on Sabbath if he had to.

KURTZ: That's reassuring.

HITCHENS: Yes. That made me less likely to vote for him, too.

KURTZ: Why, in your view, have journalists been reluctant to ask these questions? Which I think -- I still think he's being singled out.

HITCHENS: Because it's a phony charge of bigotry that Romney tried on us in a phony way a week before he gave the speech. If you remember, he complained about (INAUDIBLE) New Hampshire and Iowa, which there's every reasons to think his people were behind, that they were planting these questions to give Romney a chance to act hurt, wounded and all martyred.

BORGER: Can I say that lots of journalists are trying to ask these questions to Romney about his religion, but if you look at every interview with Romney, the answers you get are, you have to ask the heads of the Mormon Church. You have to ask the Mormon Church about these things.

I am not a spokesman, as he said in his speech. I'm not a spokesman for the Mormon Church. So you're not getting explanations about his faith from Romney. It's not going anywhere. He's kind of stonewalling.

KURTZ: Well, a lot of people think that Christopher Hitchens was hostile to Mormonism in this piece you wrote for Slate. But in your defense, you also wrote a piece called "Bah, Hanukkah."

So apparently...

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS: Incidentally, if Romney had got up and said, I don't think that I'm here because of a divine plan, I think I'm here because of the laws of biology and evolution, then he'd never hear the end of it.

KURTZ: I need to...

HITCHENS: If he was to make a commonsense remark like that... KURTZ: I need to move on.

HITCHENS: ... he would beat Hillary uphill -- and by the media, too.

KURTZ: I need to move on to another religious candidate. Mike Huckabee was an ordained Baptist minister. And he's on the cover of "Newsweek" out today with the headline "Holy Huckabee!" Let's put that up on the screen.

And, of course, a "Newsweek" poll showing that this former asterisk in the race, at least as portrayed by the media, now has a 37-19 percent lead over Mitt Romney.

BORGER: In Iowa.

KURTZ: In Iowa. Thank you for pointing that out.

Let's take a look at some of the coverage that Huckabee has been getting in recent days.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: He is on fire. I tell you, it's -- he's a rocket ship in terms of this presidential campaign.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: What about the Huckabee express here? This thing is rolling.

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC: With every passing week it looks like Iowa, like the national media, falls deeper in love with Mike Huckabee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: E.J. Dionne, when Huckabee got in this race last January he was basically dismissed by most of the media. NBC and ABC newscasts made brief mentions of his announcements. "CBS Evening News" did not.

Why?

DIONNE: Well, I think because they didn't expect a governor of a small state, Arkansas, from Hope, Arkansas, could ever make it to be president. The media made that mistake -- once upon a time -- exactly. That's why I wrote back in January that I thought Huckabee was a very serious candidate, not because he was from Hope, Arkansas, but I always thought there was an opening in this Republican field, A, for someone who was an Evangelical Christian -- and the reason we are talking about Romney, it's not the press. It's because Evangelicals loom so large in Iowa. But also because he broke in many ways with the recent Republican past.

He's a Christian who talks about poverty, he talks about Wall Street, talks about inequality, talks about education. And I think all of that made him appealing. HITCHENS: And quarantine people who are HIV positive.

DIONNE: Now we're getting...

BORGER: Well, that's the second layer of...

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE: And now that he's being taken seriously, a lot of questions will be asked and should be asked of him.

KURTZ: But before you go ahead, Christopher, let me -- you've hit on the essential point, which is once somebody is taken seriously by the media, which, of course, is always a function of poll numbers, suddenly negative questions begin to be asked.

Let's look at some of that and you can comment on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: In your campaign ads there you emphasize that you are a Christian leader. Why is that qualification relevant to being president?

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Tonight we have a story of Huckabee's apparent role in winning parole for a convicted Arkansas rapist who went freed, went on to commit even worse crimes.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: What responsibility do you have in this horrible tragedy that developed?

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Wolf, my only official action in this was I denied his commutation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So what explains this new tone on behalf of the media?

HITCHENS: Well, that Huckabee's brought it on himself. He hasn't yet been asked -- he should be about his proposal to quarantine those suffering from the HIV virus.

KURTZ: He actually was asked that today on FOX News.

HITCHENS: Oh, well good.

KURTZ: And tried to back away from it, but not very convincingly.

HITCHENS: That's what -- that's how compassionate -- that's how compassionate Christianity makes you, by the way. I remember William Buckley saying that AIDS victims should be tattooed on their rear ends. You remember that?

BORGER: No. HITCHENS: This is something on secularist would ever be cruel enough to say. I'm just making this point in case -- it's very relevant out there.

KURTZ: Do candidates get friendly coverage when they're seen as sort of harmless entertainment?

BORGER: Yes.

KURTZ: Hostile coverage when they're seen as serious contenders?

BORGER: No. I think there's -- what happens in the press is that we kind of build you up, we get you to the top of that mountain. Once you're up there, and you think this is really good, I might actually win, then we start knocking you down, which is exactly what happens, because then we become a little bit more interested in you and then we say, wait a minute, we can't just scratch the surface with this happy warrior, which by the way, is what Huckabee is, and that's what appeals to people about him.

He's not a negative guy. He's not bickering with the other candidates. And so then we start looking at him and his record in Arkansas, and you will see more and more about this, and it's all completely legitimate. This is the presidency.

DIONNE: Do you know -- a lot of this is about money. Political coverage costs a lot of money, and how are people going to decide how to divide resources?

Well, at the beginning of the campaign it looked like Romney and Giuliani were going to be much more serious than Huckabee, so a lot of resources went into exploring them. Suddenly Huckabee's serious, so resources are shifting and people are asking questions about him.

BORGER: It's not just resources. It is the other campaigns who are saying, well, this guy's interesting and we're getting calls.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: It makes sense to do this sort of immediate triage, but we're so often wrong. There is always a candidate who merges who we all write off at the beginning.

Yesterday, Oprah Winfrey -- you've heard of her -- was out in Iowa campaigning for Barack Obama. She's in South Carolina today.

Let's take a brief look at the talk show queen and what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: So much has been said about what my jumping into this arena does or does not bring to the table of politics. I really don't know. I'm going to leave that all up to the pundits.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: Oops.

KURTZ: Is this a huge story? It's gotten live cable coverage.

BORGER: Yes. I mean, I think it is a huge story because Oprah is a huge story. Whatever Oprah does is a huge story. And she's never been involved in politics before.

HITCHENS: And can't say the word "pundit."

BORGER: And can't say the word "pundit."

HITCHENS: Which I like -- I have to say, I like that. She must have seeing the word and not known what it meant.

BORGER: And this was her first political speech. A lot of people think it's a mistake for her, she should stick to her knitting, right?

KURTZ: We've got to go, but anyone think that this is being overplayed at all as a political factor?

HITCHENS: It is a factor.

DIONNE: It's fun. We need to cover things that are fun once in a while.

KURTZ: All right.

HITCHENS: And she's nice.

KURTZ: Well, if it's fun, then we're there. All right.

When we come back, a new intelligence finding on Iran makes the White House press corps go nuclear. Are we getting the straight scoop?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: For months now, President Bush has been warning that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and that World War III could be looming in the background. So when Bush's own intelligence officials concluded this week that Iran hasn't been trying to build a bomb for four years, White House reporters all but demanded that the president explain himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TABASSUM ZAKAHIA, REUTERS: Are you concerned that the United States is losing credibility in the world and now may be seen as the boy who called wolf?

MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC NEWS: How can you say nothing has changed? You may see it this way, but the rest of the world is going to see the lead as the fact that a nuclear weapons program was halted in 2003. DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: When it came to Iran you, said in October, on October 17th, you warned about the prospect of World War III. So can't you be accused of hyping this threat and don't you worry that that undermines U.S. credibility?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, David, I don't want to contradict a reporter such as yourself, but I was made aware of the NIE last week.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Those reporters were all over Bush and spent the rest of the week hammering Dana Perino on this issue. Is that because they feel misled on this issue?

BORGER: I think they feel misled and I think in a way, they're really talking about the president and this whole question of what did he know, as you said in the intro to this, and when did he know it? Or what didn't he know and when didn't he know it?

I think it goes to the heart of the war in Iraq, and a potential war in Iran. And I think they're trying to find out whether they were misled or what the president was told.

KURTZ: Is that a fair question?

HITCHENS: Yes. But given the huge opportunity that Bush has missed, you do have to wonder, because what he could have said is -- note when they turned offer the program, late 2003.

BORGER: And it was also...

HITCHENS: It was our intervention in Iraq...

BORGER: Exactly.

HITCHENS: The same as made Gaddafi give up and the same as allowed to expose the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan. To miss a chance on that must mean that something real weird is going on that they don't want to have to admit.

BORGER: Right.

HITCHENS: I think I know what it might be, which is this strange defector from Iran, Mr. Asgari -- or General Asgari, their former deputy minister of defense who either defected or was kidnapped in Turkey earlier this year. And it could be that they only found out after they got him, but it could be that they kidnapped him and didn't -- they can't boast about how they know.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: The media's (INAUDIBLE) is perfectly captured by the cover of "Time" magazine, which has a picture of Ahmadinejad. And the headline, "Now They Tell Us?" So I think what's fueled this harsh media reaction is the president kept using bellicose rhetoric toward Iran even during those months when his own intelligence officials were finding out that the threat was not what we had all been told.

DIONNE: I think Jim Hoagland nailed it in his column this morning in "The Washington Post" when he said that this event really shows a large shift in power in Washington. Back in 2002-2003, in the leadup to the Iraq war, the White House really had a very heavy hand on the CIA and really pushed them in a particular direction. This was the CIA declaring independence and saying we're not what we were back then, and we're going to tell you stuff even when the president and vice president, Cheney, don't want to hear it.

I also think you are seeing a shift in the press. I think you're seeing a shift in the press where the president got the benefit of the doubt in late '02, early '03. There's no benefit of the doubt. It's quite the reverse now.

HITCHENS: Could not possibly disagree with you more. The CIA has been lobbying and leaking against the regime change policy of the administration from day one.

DIONNE: But they made it public. And this was a very public declaration.

HITCHENS: A very highly politicized agency, indeed, as well as its record -- highly incompetent.

BORGER: So I think the agency wants to prove that it can get it right, and the press wants to prove that it can get it right also.

KURTZ: After clearly having been burned during -- for the Iraq war.

BORGER: Exactly. So they were not there -- we were not there questioning enough on the issue of WMD.

HITCHENS: And the fact that a program can be suspended means that there was one, which means that it may only be on pause. OK?

KURTZ: What about the leak...

HITCHENS: I mean, the president's still quite entitled to say, well, it confirms what we've always thought.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But he hasn't necessarily made that argument.

What about the leak, CNN, "New York Times" and others reporting on this letter from the CIA director, Michael Hayden, about the CIA having destroyed videotapes of harsh interrogation tactics used against two terrorism suspects? Would anyone argue that that story shouldn't have been reported? DIONNE: I think it should have been reported partly because they were under a legal obligation to save that material. We don't know, I think, whether this fell under that legal obligation or not. But we're going to find out.

KURTZ: It's been a media earthquake.

BORGER: Oh, a media earthquake, really. And, you know, the way Washington works, it's no -- it's no coincidence to me that this story was leaked at the same time that Congress is debating a measure and writing a measure that would severely restrict the use of things like waterboarding with political -- with prisoners. And so leaker could come from the Hill.

KURTZ: Leakers often have agendas.

We're out of time.

BORGER: You think? Exactly.

KURTZ: All right.

Gloria Borger, Christopher Hitchens, E.J. Dionne, thanks for joining us this morning.

Up next, talk show host Montel Williams picks on a teenager. An Idaho newspaper digs up more tawdry evidence about Larry Craig. And it may be time to write the obit for NBC's prime-time magazine.

The "Media Minute" just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MOTEL WILLIAMS, TALK SHOW HOST: Well, you know what?

KURTZ (voice over): Montel Williams knows how to throw his weight around. The talk show host abruptly cut off an interview with Courtney Scott, a 17-year-old intern for Georgia's "Savannah Morning News." And when he later saw her, Montel snapped, "Don't look at me like that. Do you know who I am? I'm a big star, and I can look you up, find out where you live and blow you up."

Montel, or at least his office, later sent an apology, but young Courtney, who was on the verge of tears, says she's not sure it really came from him. For now she says she'll stick to watching Oprah.

Another shoe has dropped in the Larry Craig saga. While the senator continues to insist he's not gay, the "Idaho Statesman" this week published four on-the-record accounts by men who say they either had sex with Craig or were propositioned by him. In this audio recording, former prostitute, Mike Jones, whose account of sex with Ted Haggard led to the preacher's downfall, says he came forward about an encounter with Craig after the senator dropped his promise to resign.

MIKE JONES, FMR. PROSTITUTE: He was doing the right thing to resign, but now that he's going to backtrack and renege on that, that's not right, because I knew this guy was a hypocrite.

KURTZ: Statesman reporter Dan Popkey told the Web site Public Eye that he published the story because Craig is still in office and had told NBC's Matt Lauer that he had been wrongly accused. The senator is no longer speaking to the newspaper.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When "Dateline" continues...

Is it curtains for "Dateline"? The NBC news magazine had gone increasingly tabloid with a special emphasis on its "To Catch a Predator" series.

The show dropped anchor Stone Phillips and hasn't been on the air since September. Now NBC has failed to put the program on its schedule for early next year, even though news programs can help fill the gap left by the Hollywood writers' strike.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: "Dateline" will make a brief comeback this week, but it looks like the program will soon be fading to black.

Ahead in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Don Imus is back. But will the old I-Man resurface on his new radio show?

Plus, magazine mess. "The New Republic" and "National Review" back away from controversial military bloggers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Anyone who thought that Don Imus might just move on, forget the Rutgers women, run from the racist and sexist remarks that got him fired eight months ago must have been surprised this week. When the I-Man returned to the airwaves, he spoke about his apology to the basketball players he has once mocked as "ho's."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DON IMUS, FRD-TV WABC RADIO: I haven't talked to anyone and didn't see any point in going on some sort of Larry King tour to offer a bunch of lame excuses for making essentially a reprehensible remark about innocent people who did not deserve to be made fun of.

I will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So is the new "Imus in the Morning" truly a different program, and does he deserve this second shot?

Joining us now in St. Petersburg, Eric Deggans, media critic for "The St. Petersburg Times." And in Springfield, Massachusetts, Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of "Talkers" magazine.

Eric Deggans, you said a few weeks ago on FOX News that Imus hadn't been off the air long enough to be allowed back and hasn't fully apologized for what he did wrong. Whatever happened to the concept of second chance?

ERIC DEGGANS, "ST. PETERSBURG TIMES": Well, what I said back then was mostly that he had not acknowledged what he had done wrong, he hadn't apologized for what he had really done wrong, which was 30 years of racist jokes that were essentially awfully offensive.

What's interesting about his return is that he seems to have made up for all of those ills, but not admitted them. So it's hard to know if he's ever going to repeat them, but he certainly seems to be of the mindset that he's not going to that type of humor, at least while everyone's watching him in the first weeks back.

KURTZ: So have you changed your view? Do you feel now that because of what you heard in these opening days that he does at least deserve a chance to revive his radio show?

DEGGANS: Well, I think all that anyone who criticized Imus wanted him to do was to stop the racist humor. And if he's going to stop it, then that's fine. I mean, that's all anyone really wanted.

I think it would have been better if he could have acknowledged all of the awful things that he said on the radio, but he doesn't seem willing to do that, although he does seem willing to present a show that doesn't include that stuff. At least so far. We'll have to keep an eye on it.

KURTZ: All right. I want to come back to that point.

But, Michael Harrison, what Imus said about the Rutgers women was reprehensible. He uses that word himself. But it seems like some critics will never forgive him.

MICHAEL HARRISON, "TALKERS" MAGAZINE: Well, obviously it will be controversial. I'm not even sure he is a racist. I think he had racial humor, as opposed to racist humor, but we could argue that forever. There is a big difference between the two.

Imus is a satirist, Imus is a talk show host. He's not a political figure, he's not a clergy member, he's not elected to any office. And I'm a firm believer in free speech and the free marketplace of ideas.

Imus has been an equal opportunity offender. His show will be fine without the insults. It's not that he has a history of racist humor, he has a history of insulting innocent people, and that happens to have been his one weakness. The one thing... DEGGANS: I have to say, I disagree. I have to say that if someone wants to say something racist about me, or say something racist about Howard, as Imus did say something racist about Howard, that's no more allowable than if he says it about a private person.

That kind of stereotypical, race-based, ethnic-based humor is awful. And in most parts -- in most parts of radio we've eradicated it. So why is it so hard to say that it's not fine for Imus to do?

KURTZ: All right. Well, let me jump in here, Eric, because you often bring up this example.

This was about nine or 10 years ago when Imus called me a boner- nosed Jew. And I wasn't offended in the sense that I thought it was juvenile satire, as opposed to any trace of anti-Semitism. The man is not an anti-Semite. So it seems that you're more offended about something he said about me than I am.

DEGGANS: Well, what I would say about that is that someone doesn't have to be a bigot to say bigoted things. Someone doesn't have to be a racist to say racist things.

I'm not saying that Imus is the Antichrist. What I'm saying is that there were times when he said things that were very stereotypical. And he's finally been called to account for them.

Now, he won't admit that what he said about you is wrong, he won't admit that what he said about Gwen Ifill is wrong. He won't admit many of these things that he said was wrong. But he went on the air and sort of implied that he's not going to do it anymore.

KURTZ: Well, Michael Harrison, isn't there a difference between -- for example, in his comeback show, Imus said that Hillary Clinton is still Satan and Dick Cheney is still a war criminal. Isn't there a difference about mocking public figures, big targets, people who can take it?

HARRISON: But Howard, that's the point I was making.

KURTZ: Yes.

HARRISON: And to go off on, you know, defining what "racist" and "racial" means will take us nowhere. The fact is he insults people, and if you insult the big and the powerful, that's very different than insulting innocent people who have no power.

And his insult technique and his nastiness, his curmudgeonly attitude, really works well when he aims it against the big and powerful, especially since so many of them have the courage to go on his program. That's a valuable service to the American people.

So the world can get along without him insulting people, but whether he admits it or not, the fact that so many people out there are pointing out Imus' errors, that should be enough for you, Eric. He doesn't have to admit it, he's already been exposed. DEGGANS: Well, I think anybody who has dealt with someone who's done something awful against them, wants them to admit that they've done it so that they know that -- so that they realize the extent to which that they have committed a transgression.

KURTZ: Well, Eric...

DEGGANS: And that's why we're sitting here sort of wondering if he really is going to change what he's doing, because he hasn't fully admitted what he's doing. And what I'll also say is that it's important -- if you're going to insult Dick Cheney, then insult Dick Cheney. Why do you have to talk about whether or not he's -- his ethnicity or his race?

Why can't you talk about the person? If you're going to -- if you have a bone to pick with Howie, then talk about Howie as a person. Why do you have to talk about the fact that he's Jewish? That's what I don't understand.

HARRISON: But what about if he made fun of Dick Cheney for being bald or he made fun of Howard for Howard's having a small nose -- myself, I feel sorry for Howard. But...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRISON: When it's not ethnic and it's not religious? What about just insulting people?

DEGGANS: When there are people in America who have been oppressed for hundreds of years because they're bald, then I'll say maybe we should think about staying away from the bald jokes.

KURTZ: Well, I think some bald people might take issue with that.

But let me ask you, Michael Harrison...

DEGGANS: I'm right in that camp.

KURTZ: Four presidential candidates in the first two days appeared on the show. There was McCain, there was Dodd, there was Huckabee and others. Is that a sign that Imus is regaining his old clout, or will that have to wait until he is distributed more widely?

HARRISON: In my opinion, Howard, Imus has more clout now than he's ever had before.

KURTZ: Really?

HARRISON: He's more famous than ever before. He's in the news now for the entire year of 2007. What he says and what he thinks is newsworthy. And obviously, he's going to have a bigger audience than ever before because all of his fans are going to be back and all these new people are going to check him out who never heard him before -- some of whom will stay. So he will get guests.

KURTZ: But, of course, he is on a small cable channel called RFD, as opposed to MSNBC.

HARRISON: His MSNBC exposure was minor compared to his radio exposure. And that will be the case now. However, I expect that small cable channel that took a chance on Imus to become a big cable channel before long, because look at how much attention they're getting.

KURTZ: All right.

Eric Deggans, one thing that Imus has done is talked about how he finally realizes he needed to diversify his staff. So he's got two black members of the team, as I mentioned. One of them is Karif Foster (ph), who describes herself as a Jewish African-American.

Do you think this is a good step, or is this window dressing.

DEGGANS: Well, the proof is in the pudding. If you look at Howard Stern, for example, he has an African-American woman who is part of his team, his sidekick, and he still manages to crack a lot of jokes that are misogynist and stereotypical.

So it's up to Imus. I mean, he has to decide what's going to come out of his mouth and he has to decide what he's going to allow to come out of the mouths of the people that he works with. So it will be interesting to see.

This week, to me, has all been about advertisers. He's trying to show advertisers that he can play nice enough to stay on the radio and not denigrate their products by being associated with them. So...

KURTZ: Michael Harrison -- OK.

Michael Harrison, I've got 20 seconds. If people don't like Imus they are certainly free to not tune in or turn him off, correct?

HARRISON: Absolutely. Free speech and a large dial with lots of things to listen to. If you don't like it, tune out. If you do like it, you should have the right to hear it.

KURTZ: Well, here is my two cents.

Imus has made mistakes, and he was right to apologize to the Rutgers women and his audience, of course. But Martha Stewart went to jail and she's back on TV.

What people missed in all this focus on the insult humor, some of which went too far, is that there was a small part of the program, what could be kind of a thoughtful and irreverent program. So I think he deserves another shot. I enjoyed going on the program.

He says he's not going to engage in any more racist or sexist humor. And if he does, I suspect some people will call him on it.

Eric Deggans, Michael Harrison, thanks very much for a lively discussion this morning. Just ahead, "The New Republic" and "National Review" backing away from their war bloggers. Did both magazines compromise their credibility?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: "The New Republic" has finally acknowledged this week what critics have been saying for more than four months, that its Baghdad diarists could not be trusted. Editors said they could no longer stand behind the work of Army Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, whose wife had been a researcher at the liberal magazine.

So how did the magazines handle their credibility problems?

Joining us now in New York, Thomas Edsall, political editor of "The Huffington Post." And in Detroit, blogger E.M. Zanotti.

Tom Edsall, you broke this story about W. Thomas Smith and his stories at "National Review" about these hoards of Hezbollah guerillas in Beirut that no one else seemed to see. What (AUDIO GAP).

THOMAS EDSALL, "NATIONAL REVIEW": They were cooperative, and Thomas Smith responded quickly. And it was a story of a difficult kind, so I was kind of careful and went back to them after I'd contacted a whole other set of reporters and experts in the area. But they were quite cooperative.

KURTZ: How did you get on to this in the first place? No one else seemed to notice it.

EDSALL: I was told that there were -- by a source that there were a group of reporters in the Middle East who were very concerned about this guy's reporting. Not just that it was wrong, but that some of his behavior really endangered other reporters, some of what he reported himself doing. And the source gave me a list of e-mails and contacts. I did that, and the whole thing fell from there.

KURTZ: E.M. Zanotti, how do you think "The National Review" handled this whole controversy? The editor of "National Review Online," Kathryn Lopez, was pretty quick to say that some of what W. Thomas Smith had reported was misleading. And he partially backed off by saying that he had not witnessed some of this, that he'd been told some of this by sources.

E.M. ZANOTTI, BLOGGER: I think that they handled it well. I think -- I'm not sure the timeline. I'm sure Tom could probably speak to that better, but they came out very quickly.

They talked about what the problems were and they explained it and apologized fully. And I think everyone in the blogosphere really appreciated that, and it headed off the story.

You know, with "New Republic" it took a little bit longer because they had a much more intense process, whereas "National Review" had a little bit of an easier time because they could connect their reporter directly. And it really headed off a lot of the criticism in the blogosphere.

KURTZ: Tom Edsall, would you agree that "National Review," once you brought this information to the magazine, you know, essentially owned up and cut its losses?

EDSALL: Yes, pretty quickly. But I would -- in defense of "The "New Republic," I would say they had a much more complex case involving a person that they could not communicate with, and a lot of the facts of his story are still unresolved, whereas in the case of the "The National Review," it was quite clear there could not have been 5,000-armed Hezbollah militiamen entering into a Christian neighborhood, otherwise there would have been a minor civil war, if not more.

But in The New Republic's case, I still remain in doubt, or in questioning what took place.

KURTZ: Well, the Army did its own investigation and concluded that what Scott Thomas Beauchamp had written for "The New Republic" was false, and "The New Republic," sure, had difficulties communicating with a guy who was still in the war zone in Iraq.

But E.M. Zanotti, it took Frank Foer, the editor of "The New Republic" four and a half months to acknowledge that he'd lost confidence in this guy even after Beauchamp refused to put out any further statements defending his reporting. So it seemed to some critics like this was really dragged out.

ZANOTTI: I think this is something that the right blogosphere really took seriously from the beginning because it is right in line with their mission. Their priority is really trying to be a check on what they consider the liberal media. And so this story was zeroed in on.

They worked on it from the very beginning. And I think it took so long for "New Republic" to really get the apology out or tell the public they couldn't stand behind the story because they were communicating with somebody who the Army had taken off communication with "New Republic." They were having a difficult time getting in touch with him.

I'm sure a lot of us wish that it had happened quicker, and they probably could have headed off a lot of criticism in the right wing blogosphere if they had done it quicker. But I think I have a hard time, just like Tom, saying that, you know, it couldn't have happened faster, because I wasn't in their shoes, and I know that from the apology that was issued earlier this week, that there was a good explanation for why it took so long.

KURTZ: What's striking here, Tom Edsall -- and you've occasionally written for "The New Republic" -- is that a magazine that suffered through the serial fabrications of Stephen Glass a decade ago basically put its faith in a guy, Beauchamp, an Army private who is not even a journalist, with no journalist experience, but was married to a woman who was then a researcher at the magazine, Elle Reeve (ph). Was that in retrospect a mistake? EDSALL: Frank Foer says it was a mistake, and allowing her to be editor was a mistake. I don't want to beat a dead horse to death, to use a cliche here, but the -- I still would argue that Scott Beauchamp had support from his fellow soldiers, they corroborated some of his stories.

If you're an editor with a magazine, particularly one that's had trouble, you don't want to fall on your sword right away. You want to know what the full truth is. And this was a really messy case. I would argue it is still a messy case.

KURTZ: Some soldiers did corroborate, but they did not do so on the record, which was a problem.

E.M. Zanotti, it really was striking to me that with a few exceptions, as you mentioned, the conservative bloggers just totally went after "The New Republic," would not let up on the pressure.

ZANOTTI: Yes.

KURTZ: But I didn't see all that much coverage or outrage in the conservative blogosphere when it came to the problems at "National Review." So it seems like each side is beating up on their ideological enemies.

ZANOTTI: I think that's probably true, but I think when we're talking about "National Review," it happened so quickly. I mean, we didn't really find out about the controversy until the story was published on "The Huffington Post."

"National Review" responded to it really quickly. And the very few blogs that did take it up -- I think Hot Air, Michelle Malkin, Captain's Quarters, they took it up and they dealt with it in a very serious manner, and, I mean, "National Review" kind of apologized too quickly for the story to really take off.

KURTZ: All right.

Tom Edsall, I've got about 20 seconds.

Was there an ideological aspect to each magazine coming under fire from the other side of the blogosphere?

EDSALL: Actually, I was pretty impressed with the way Michelle Malkin and some others pounced on the "The National Review" and really forced the editor there to issue a second statement, a sort of retraction and a much stronger statement. In fairness, the right in this case was pretty good.

KURTZ: All right. Sometimes people do break with their own team.

Tom Edsall, E.M. Zanotti, thanks for joining us.

ZANOTTI: Thanks, Howard.

KURTZ: Still to come, wake me when it's over. Why the presidential campaign isn't providing any laughs this time around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: There's no point in denying it -- something is missing from the presidential race, something we've all come to take for granted. I mean, how can you have a decent campaign without Leno, Letterman, Conan, Stewart, Colbert and "Saturday Night Live?"

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): The Hollywood writers' strike has sidelined all the comedy programs for more than a month now, and the regular news just isn't as much fun. Think how long it's been since you've heard this sort of thing...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": How badly do I want to be your president? On a scale of one to 10, I'm about a 6.

JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Hillary Clinton appeared on all five Sunday morning news shows determined to showcase her humanity.

I'm joyful!

KURTZ: And there's so much material for the missing masters of comedy.

Rudy's office paying the New York cops to drive Judith Nathan's dog around? Hillary, dredging up Barack Obama's kindergarten record and saying that he secretly plotted a White House run since age 5? Mike Huckabee, the man who lost 110 pounds, saying he drank a different kind of Jesus juice? Fred Thompson's less than taxing campaign schedule?

The biggest beneficiary of the no-comic zone is Hillary Clinton. She's been the butt of 186 jokes on late night TV this year, trouncing her nearest competitor, Rudy, who was ridiculed a mere 72 times.

The biggest topics? Her clothes, her alleged lack of warmth, and her marriage. Hillary must be rooting for the writers to stay on the picket lines until, oh, let's say November 2008.

What are people watching instead? Silly reality shows? Old "Seinfeld" episodes? Jim Lehrer?

"Nightline" beat the endless reruns of both Jay Leno and David Letterman for the first time last week. I mean, with all due respect to Cynthia McFadden, Terry Moran and Martin Bashir, they're just not that funny.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And it's not just the campaigns. There is a national humor deficit right now in insidious condition that requires immediate attention.

Please, big, important Hollywood moguls and fiendishly clever TV writers, get back to the table. Come to an agreement, any agreement. And soon. Otherwise, we're looking at a long, cold, grumpy winter.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

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