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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Obama Wins Big in South Carolina; Bill Clinton Scolds Journalists
Aired January 27, 2008 - 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): Race talk. Barack Obama stuns the media establishment with a much bigger South Carolina victory than anyone expected. Are the pundits minimizing his win by fixating on racial voting patterns? Has the press policed the distortions in the Hillary/Obama slugfest?
And Bill Clinton scolding journalists for focusing on political sniping. Does he have a point?
California casualty. Another "L.A. Times" editor is fired after refusing the Tribune Company's demand to cut the newsroom budget. We'll ask him what happened.
Plus, he denounces President Bush and FOX News night after night. How did he become a liberal hero, and is his network deliberately moving to the left? A conversation with Keith Olbermann.
KURTZ: The polls were wrong again, just as they were in New Hampshire. Everyone in the media expected Barack Obama to win yesterday's South Carolina primary, but almost no one expected the big, huge, sweeping victory that he pulled off. Yet another serious stumble for the poll-addicted media.
And there was an unseemly rush by some anchors and pundits to cast the results in racial terms. An approach that seemed almost to minimize the Illinois' senator's big night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NORAH O'DONNELL, MSNBC: It was a landslide for Barack Obama among black voters.
AMY HOLMES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The Clinton were trying to make it seem as if the black vote for Barack Obama is less significant.
RICH LOWRY, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: That bite we showed from Clinton just a bit earlier when he said, wow, isn't it too bad that people are voting on the basis of race and gender, the subtext of that is the black guy is getting the black vote.
TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: How will Barack Obama be perceived -- as the candidate who can put together a coalition or the black candidate?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the coverage of this increasingly polarized Democratic campaign, in Columbia, South Carolina, CNN's Jessica Yellin; Jim Axelrod, CBS' chief White House correspondent. In New York, Jonathan Capehart, editorial writer for "The Washington Post." And here in Washington, Mary Katharine Ham, blogger and managing editor of townhall.com.
Jim Axelrod, the media were just pounding away last night about Barack Obama winning 78 percent of the black vote, 24 percent of the white vote. It seemed almost to explain away the importance of Obama winning in this state, where just a few weeks ago Hillary Clinton was leading.
JIM AXELROD, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, CBS NEWS: You know, Howard, race is such a unique topic and context for any kind of discussion to unfold in this country. But I don't know how you're supposed to report what happened in South Carolina without pointing out that 53 percent of the Democratic voters yesterday were African- American.
It's up from four years ago, but it is the only state so far and probably the only that we'll see all the way in the run-up to February 5th with such a significant portion of African-American representation in the voting bloc. So, if that's not the headline out of South Carolina yesterday, I'm not sure what is.
KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, as I mentioned, everybody expecting him to win the South Carolina primary, but clearly the media missed the magnitude of this wave that rode him to victory over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. I think, again, looking at those polls, and forgetting that people make up their minds late and they often break in one direction or another.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The media did get this wrong to a certain extent, especially when you look at the ratio of white votes he got here -- 20 percent, as opposed to polls that showed him getting 10 percent going in. But that's sort of the nature of what we do. We're chasing them around all day, and sometimes in a rush to get things on in this 24-hour news cycle, we do miss the big picture.
KURTZ: Jonathan Capehart, you know, in covering elections in big cities, for example, it's just considered to be par for the course, that the Irish candidate or the Jewish candidate gets strong support from those ethnic groups, a black candidate gets strong African- American support. And then the question is, how much can that candidate get in terms of white support, enough to win the election?
So, why is this being portrayed as remarkable in the case of Obama in South Carolina, and even as something of a setback?
JONATHAN CAPEHART, EDITORIAL WRITER, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think it's being considered remarkable, one, because his -- the vote turnout was huge. He got an enormous percentage of the African- American vote, and he got a bigger-than-expected white vote.
I think Jim is absolutely right. There's no way you can look or cover the South Carolina primary without race being a part of the discussion. We have to remember also to put this vote into context.
South Carolina moved up its primary, precisely because it wanted to be a counterbalance for Iowa and New Hampshire, two overwhelmingly white states. And the Democratic Party felt it important that there be a more diverse state to really flesh out the selections for - voters.
So this was a great victory for Barack Obama in terms of -- in terms of black vote, but also in terms of the number of white votes he got. And I hope that our colleagues in the media will start focusing on more intently the context that these votes are cast.
KURTZ: In fact, Mary Katharine Ham, Barack Obama got half the white voters under 30. Didn't do as well, obviously, with older voters.
MARY KATHARINE HAM, TOWNHALL.COM: He's very big with college kids, with young voters, with new voters, which is why he's a threat both in the primary and in the general election.
I agree with these guys, you cannot talk about South Carolina without talking about the black vote. It's a 30 percent black state, it's 50 percent black voters came to the polls. And we have to remember, too, that the reason we're talking about race is partly because Bill Clinton keeps talking about race, and some Clinton surrogates keep talking about it. He was calling -- yesterday, he was saying that Obama was Jesse Jackson .
Well, Jesse Jackson won a couple times, so...
KURTZ: Well, he noted, without anybody needing to bring it up, that Jesse Jackson had won South Carolina primaries in the past.
KURTZ: And, of course, we need to know the racial makeup of the vote, but it just seems to me there was sort of a minimizing effect here as 24 percent of white votes for a black candidate in a three-way field is not bad.
But, you know, this was a remarkable week that really began with the CNN debate on Monday in Myrtle Beach. After sitting through so many of these tepid debates, to watch the two candidates go at it -- John Edwards was kind of lost in the shouting back and forth.
Let's look at some of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Now, let's talk about Ronald Reagan. What you just repeated here today is patently -- wait. No, Hillary. SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Barack, I did not -- I did not...
OBAMA: You just spoke -- you just spoke for two minutes.
CLINTON: ... I did not say anything about Ronald Reagan. You said two things.
OBAMA: You just spoke...
CLINTON: You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan. Then you talked about...
OBAMA: Hillary, I'm talking...
CLINTON: ... the ideas of the Republicans.
OBAMA: You just...
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Senator...
CLINTON: I didn't talk about Ronald Reagan.
OBAMA: Hillary, we just had the tape. You just said that I complicated the Republican ideas. That is not true.
What I said -- and I will provide you with the quote. What I said was that Ronald Reagan with us a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to. Because while I was working on those streets, watches those folks see their jobs shipped overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart.
CLINTON: I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.
OBAMA: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Jim Axelrod, if you were in the television business, those kinds of incendiary sound bites are a blessing, aren't they?
AXELROD: Yes, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet if you're in the television business, but I think what it points out, Howie, is this dynamic where Barack Obama sort of -- by almost every poll, every measure in every poll, is seen as the candidate of change. She's seen as the candidate of experience. And it is such a fine line between change and experience not morphing into tomorrow and yesterday.
The Obama campaign prefers to see those kinds of exchanges out there, because in their minds, that underscores the argument they're making, that Hillary Clinton, when she comes bare knuckles, and she comes in, that it's an old school of politics, and that the Obama campaign is trying to say, you know, enough. I can say that the Republicans had an idea without -- without me saying that I'm a big supporter of Ronald Reagan.
Their gambit is that the American people, the Democratic portion of the American people voting now, are now able and capable of making that distinction, and that it makes Hillary Clinton sound old school, if you will. And people no longer want to take every class in the old school.
KURTZ: On the role of the media, Jessica Yellin, it seemed to me there was a lot of fact-checking here, much more than usual, after that debate about what Obama actually did say about Ronald Reagan and the Republicans having been the party of ideas. But he certainly didn't embrace those ideas.
CNN, "Washington Post," "New York Times," ABC all did fact- checking stories. Is that because -- why do you think there was such a focus on what Obama had said about Ronald Reagan?
YELLIN: Well, for a number of reasons. One is because there is some truth to the Clinton campaign's claim that the media has not plumbed Obama's record and looked as closely at some of those missed votes, and the entirety of his body of work until now. And I think some of this is a reaction to that. The media is listening to what they're saying, and trying to do it, to some extent.
And I think also that this is all about finally recognizing and seeing in public what we as reporters have been seeing for some time behind closed doors, that while these candidates have been talking, you know, lofty tones and talking about uplift and hope and change in public view, for months now reporters have been getting spun by these campaigns -- the Obama campaign, as much as the Clinton campaign -- with endless conference calls and e-mails informing us of what the other guy is doing wrong. This nastiness we're seeing breaking into public view right now has been going on for quite some time.
KURTZ: All right.
YELLIN: So it's not new to us.
HAM: Well, you know, I think that Hillary does come off a little nasty in these exchanges. I think Obama comes off better, but the fact is that he has to fight -- that he has to fight back. He has...
KURTZ: I don't want to get into the politics.
Did the media accurately report that Hillary and Bill Clinton had misrepresented what Obama said about Ronald Reagan? Was that accurate or not?
HAM: Well, I think they did. I thought -- I was surprised to see as much fact-checking as I did, because I think that's something people would let slide in the past. It was a fudge, but it wasn't -- it was sort of standard campaign stuff. I think the media, to some extent -- Hillary's an easy bad guy and Obama is an easy good guy. So I think to some extent they're looking to help that guy out. KURTZ: Jonathan.
CAPEHEART: Hey, Howard, I think part of the problem I've had with some of the media coverage of the debate of the Ronald Reagan line and of the whole LBJ/MLK dustup the previous week is that, while there's a lot of fact-checking going on, and that's terrific, I think the media needs to be much better about timelining this stuff. Remember, it was Barack Obama who took the very first -- the very first shot at Hillary Clinton with that Wal-Mart remark, which then led her to talk about Rezko. I think it's very important for the media to make that apparent.
KURTZ: There's no question -- there's no question that he threw the first punch. And I've been surprised that it took Hillary bringing up Tony Rezko -- this is the indicted Illinois fundraiser who did a land deal at one point with Barack Obama. For journalists to start asking questions about him -- this was a story, you know...
KURTZ: ... eight, nine, 10 months ago, but it hadn't come back.
I've got to move on, because I want to play that moment when Bill Clinton just completely and totally went off on the press. Jessica Yellin prompted it with a question about Dick Harpootlian. He's the former South Carolina Democratic chairman. He had criticized Bill Clinton for allegedly injecting race into the campaign, likening him to the GOP -- the late GOP hatchet man, Lee Atwater.
Let's look at the former president's response.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're asking me about this, and you sat through this whole meeting. Not one single, solitary soul asked about any of this, and they never do. They're feeding you this because they know this is what you want to cover, that this is what you live for.
But this hurts the people of South Carolina, because the people of South Carolina come to these meetings and are asking questions about what they care about, and what they care about is not going to the in the news coverage tonight, because you don't care about it. What you care about is this, and the Obama people know that. So they just spin you up on this and you happily go along.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, is this what you live for?
YELLIN: No, I do not live to hurt the people of South Carolina, Howie. And I'll tell you something else. He was actually not correct. A fact check there, he had been asked about race at that very same event that I questioned him at, so -- and at several events during that day. So Bill Clinton not quite telling the full truth there. KURTZ: But, Jim Axelrod, doesn't Bill Clinton have a point in that journalists often act as fight promoters? You go up to somebody and say, look, somebody said something really nasty about you, do you want to respond, sir? Do you want to respond? And we love it when they go back and forth.
YELLIN: Absolutely. Conflict...
AXELROD: You know what? No. I don't think that Bill Clinton has a point in any of this week, not with Jessica, not when he went off on the television reporter in San Francisco. I don't think he has a point.
He is out there with one purpose, which is to sort of get these phrases, these ideas into the mainstream political conversation. If you listen to him when he goes off on the reporter in San Francisco, he's talking about the Nevada caucuses and what he thought was a disproportionate value for those at-large precincts. If you listen to what he's saying to Jessica, he's trying to make this point again about shifting the conversation.
Listen, things are going on in South Carolina, but everybody in the country who's interested in this race is watching things unfold. And Bill Clinton is not talking to the voters of South Carolina, he's trying to make a larger point which gets at the root of Barack Obama's candidacy.
KURTZ: Right. All right. Let me...
AXELROD: So, no, I actually disagree. I thought Jessica did exactly what she should be doing.
KURTZ: A brief comment from Mary Katharine Ham.
HAM: Well, I think Clinton has a duality. You know, he's the charming guy, he's the nice guy, but he's also a guy who's prone to eruptions and some falsehoods.
You know, he's like The Incredible Hulk, except he turns sort of purple and blotchy instead of green. But, you know, I think he's sort of a victim of the -- or not a victim, but he's getting used to the 24-hour news cycle. When he was president, he was not subjected to quite as much scrutiny, and I think he got a lot of passes, and now he's mad he's not getting them anymore.
KURTZ: Jonathan Capehart, just briefly...
KURTZ: Go ahead. Go ahead, Jonathan.
CAPEHEART: Howard, I wasn't saying anything. I think that might be Jim trying to get in.
But I would like to say that Jim is half right. I think President Clinton had a point, and I think it's the point that Jessica was making earlier, which is both campaigns are spinning reporters nonstop, constantly, and that's been going on behind the scenes. And we saw it erupt on stage at the debate and we saw it erupt in front of Jessica when the president said what he said to her.
KURTZ: You know, the media take on this was that the former president really was rattling Barack Obama, took him off his game, got him off his message. Now that Obama has won that state so big, I think they'll -- the conventional wisdom will congeal. We will say this was all a big backlash against Bill Clinton.
We've got to go to break. More RELIABLE SOURCES in a moment.
KURTZ: Jim Axelrod, in Columbia, South Carolina, I want to pick up with you this argument about Bill Clinton's role in the South Carolina Democratic primary.
Of course he was trying to play the attack dog role for his wife and get out any negative message he could against Barack Obama, but you don't think he has any point whatsoever that journalists would rather cover political sniping between a former president and a presidential candidate, as opposed to, you know, doing another piece comparing their health care plans?
AXELROD: I think you minimize it, Howard, by calling it political sniping. I think there's a context that story is unfolding in.
Bill Clinton is out here with a very specific purpose. He is raising questions about Barack Obama, trying to get beyond the rhetoric to the reality, in the words of the Clinton campaign, while Hillary Clinton is making speeches about the economy. So Bill Clinton becomes very much a central focus.
What I found interesting though, was that after all this started to blow up, and I tried to ask the former president a couple of questions at an event, his press people were try to go keep the media away from him after all of this, as if a former president of the United States didn't want to answer any more questions about this. So, listen, as I've been saying to people all week, there's no surprise here that the Clintons are going to play this a certain way.
The question is, how is Barack Obama going to answer it? So I think in this sense, covering the back-and-forth is very informative in terms of what it reveals not only about the Clintons, but about Barack Obama.
KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, this morning's "New York Times," there's an op-ed piece by Caroline Kennedy, endorsing Obama and saying that he would be the kind of president that her father was.
Is this going to get a big media ride because she's a Kennedy, frankly?
YELLIN: It will get a huge ride inside what we call Beltway High School, all those -- the (INAUDIBLE) who occupy all of our positions.
I don't know how much it circulates out into the bigger picture, into real voters out here in South Carolina. But to the extent that the media cares about this, it gives him a boost of support from not just somebody who cares about his message, but somebody who's really a part of the establishment, something that Hillary Clinton has been winning all along.
And it could also be a psychological blow to Senator Clinton and her campaign. And you can't discount the effect of that on their morale.
KURTZ: Jonathan Capeheart, let's talk about the Republican race for a minute, as John McCain and Mitt Romney battle it out, most recently over comments on Iraq, going into Tuesday's Florida primary. Something happened this week that got very little media attention, and that is Fred Thompson dropped out.
Do you remember the months when all of the pundits went on television and wrote op-ed pieces saying this guy was going to get in and he was going to shake up the race and he was going to catapult in the first year and he was going to be a formidable opponent? What happened to that?
CAPEHEART: Well, I think the media didn't really seem to cotton to the Republican field as it was, and so they were looking to Fred Thompson to be, you know, the great hope of the Republican race. And once he got into the race, you know, he didn't give the media what it wanted, which was dynamism, and also ideas.
If you don't have either of those, the media -- why would the media want to cover you? And just because, you know, you might be lackluster on the campaign trail, doesn't mean the media wouldn't want to pay attention to you. I mean, here in New York a few years back, a terrific fellow named Richard Kahn ran for governor. He was nowhere in the polls, but when he dropped out of the race it was noteworthy, because he was lauded as the person who had the best ideas of the people running for the Democratic nomination. You couldn't say that about Fred Thompson.
KURTZ: All right.
HAM: Well, I think, you know, obviously it wasn't just the media who was not -- who didn't cotton to the Republican field. It was Republican voters, to a large extent. And that's why he had such great numbers when he first jumped in.
KURTZ: Is it because he was a TV star? Is it because of "Law & Order" that we all that he was...
HAM: No. I think it was because there were serious problems with McCain among base conservatives.
KURTZ: There was a void. There was a void. HAM: Mitt they were not sure about. There was a void. He was supposed to fill it. But once he got there, he was not quite as big as we all imagined.
And I'm not sure that he wanted it. I don't buy that he's lazy. I think that maybe he thought he was going to go into a technology- based blog, sort of buzz campaign, and ended up having to do retail. But I think what he shows, you've got to do Iowa and New Hampshire to stay in the storyline.
KURTZ: He certainly didn't have an overtaxing campaign schedule.
He is now gone. We'll focus on the remaining candidates.
Jessica Yellin, Jim Axelrod, Jonathan Capehart, Mary Katharine Ham, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, an exclusive interview with former "L.A. Times" editor Jim O'Shea, speaking out for the first time since his corporate forces fired him for refusing further cuts in the newsroom budget.
Plus, an A-list actor turns up dead in a New York apartment. Are reporters too anxious to play the role of coroner for Heath Ledger?
Also, our conversation with Keith Olbermann on whether he's playing to a liberal audience at MSNBC, and why he keeps feuding with Bill O'Reilly.
KURTZ: Keith Olbermann is a man of many opinions. And increasingly, those seem to be liberal opinions.
The host of MSNBC's "Countdown" has been drawing praise, criticism, and ratings with his thundering on-air editorials called "Special Comments," almost all of which eviscerate President Bush and the Republicans.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": You can fool some of the people all the time, can't you, Mr. Bush? You are playing us.
And as for the most immediate victims of the president's perfidy and shameless manipulation, those troops yesterday, sweating, literally, as he spoke at Al-Asad Air Base, tonight again sweating, figuratively, in the valley of the shadow of death. This country cannot run the risk of what you still can do to this country in the next 500 days, not while you, sir, are playing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Olbermann has just published these "Special Comments" in a book called "Truth and Consequences."
I spoke to him earlier in New York.
KURTZ: Keith Olbermann, welcome.
OLBERMANN: A pleasure to be here, sir.
KURTZ: You've been co-anchoring MSNBC's news coverage on primary nights. Is there a collision of roles between being a neutral anchor and the very opinionated guy we see on "Countdown?"
OLBERMANN: I don't think there's that much of a collision. I think if you're smart enough to know when to do one and do the other, there shouldn't be a problem.
In areas that I thought might be particularly sensitive -- for instance, if for some reason the president of the United States wanted to come on and make a statement during our coverage of the Republican primary, I would step aside for that interview. I would not take advantage of that situation, you know, and shout nasty things about him.
We've had Rudy Giuliani...
KURTZ: You'd get good ratings if you did that.
OLBERMANN: Well, yes, but -- OK, but -- but that, to me, is a secondary point there. There is some personal responsibility. You have to say, no, I don't think I should be here.
More practically, we had Rudy Giuliani on twice, and he was the subject of one of my comments, and I didn't think it was appropriate for me to -- you know, to be part of that interview, so I literally recused myself in each case and let Chris Matthews do the entire interview, which I don't think that hurts anybody. I think it just gives you that -- that little amount of wiggle room that you need in these scenarios.
The question of whether or not somebody like me should be involved in the actual anchoring of coverage like that is posed, I think, wonderfully by people who don't notice that their guys at FOX, who are fully invested in one candidate -- I saw Sean Hannity on the other air the other night doing the South Carolina Republican primary. No -- you know, no appreciation, no warning, no statement of the irony, even no possible suggestion that there might be a conflict.
If you recognize that some people might perceive it's a conflict, and you state that, you've probably done enough.
KURTZ: You write in your book, "I'm frequently accused of being a liberal or a flack for the Democratic Party. And it's true that the vast majority of my commentary over these past few years has targeted Republicans."
Does that create a perception problem for you? OLBERMANN: Perception problem? Yes. So obviously it must.
I don't think it -- I don't think anybody who's watched those broadcasts would say, well, you know, this is what we expected from a guy who said this about the Republicans. We didn't get -- democracy did not come to an end, for instance, when Matthews and I co-hosted the coverage of the election last year.
It was -- it was -- let me see. I know about two terms to use and describe it. It was fair and balanced, I think.
KURTZ: Some people look at prime time -- Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Dan Abrams -- and they think that MSNBC is consciously moving to the left, alternative to FOX News.
OLBERMANN: No. If you -- if you look at the left, the reaction at the left, particularly with Matthews, I don't think anybody's going to argue that point. I always like to point out when it is suggested that I'm a flaming liberal, that in 1998 I was never accused of that when we did 218 consecutive shows about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Nobody considered me a liberal.
KURTZ: But you weren't pro-impeachment.
OLBERMANN: I was -- I was neither. I was pretty much -- that was the problem with the show, was that, you know, here's where absolute neutrality and journalistic balance works against fairness, because here's a story that certainly, if there's no news in a story for two weeks, if there are no actual developments, how is it that you keep putting a show on just about that one topic every night and call it news? So this was -- this was -- my objection, that was more journalistic than it was left or right, but I don't think we have -- we deliberately went in this way.
As late as 2005, I was told by the then president of the network, "I don't need you to be the left wing response to FOX News." Anything that happened, anything that happens, is, I think, organic.
I think it sprung up from the fact that, you know, if you're going to be -- serve one of journalism's principal tenets, if you're going to be contrary, if you're going to be questioning whoever is in charge, if you're going to say power may be abusing its own power, it tends to be politically to the opposite level of whoever's in charge. And that has been primarily the right wing for the last several years.
KURTZ: But you almost never have conservatives on your show other than Pat Buchanan, of course, from MSNBC. And I've always wondered about that, wondered how people aren't dispirited.
OLBERMANN: I don't like those fistfight things. Early on in the show -- and this was particularly true in 1998 -- every time you had a liberal or neutral person, you had to have a conservative on with them. And it devolved into the thing that really personally made me want to leave the news business. In fact, I did in 1998.
We had the chairmen of the DNC and the RNC on. I talked to them personally by phone before the interview and said, "Look, I don't want you answering each other. I will give you a balanced opportunity. You'll get an issue, we do a five-minute interview, each of you will have two and a half minutes. I swear."
"You will each start one set of response..."
OLBERMANN: "I'm going to play this down the middle. Just don't jump in and scream at each other."
I asked one question, they went for five minutes. And I never got a word in. And we never came back to the second part of the interview. I said, "They're finished."
And I pretty much felt like I was too. I just -- I can't -- there's almost nothing that ever comes out of those interviews other than arguments, heat, and ratings. And I don't want to go through that again, and I think the success of "Countdown" suggests the audience doesn't want that.
KURTZ: Do you think that your denunciations of the president is one of the factors -- certainly not the only one -- that has contributed to the popularity of your show? And to some extent, are you reaching to the converted people who don't like George Bush and would root for what you say?
OLBERMANN: I can only judge that based on reactions that I get from that, which we see sometimes show up in terms of the ratings. That's the easiest way.
But the personal ones -- when this started, the first one I did was the end of August of 2006. And the reactions I started to get in those first six or eight "Special Comments" through the end of 2006, around the election time, were people coming up and saying, "I didn't know there was anybody on television allowed to say that. This is exactly how I felt. In fact, let me tell you something else."
And then they would go on. And another point that had been particularly bugging them for a period of years.
There was a sense, I think, and a palpable one. And this is where structurally you can almost look at that experience of FOX News and where they come from. And you can see how these things developed.
That, and particularly the conservative talk radio that preceded FOX News, succeeded because there was a huge amount of this country -- people in this country who believed their voices were never being heard, that they had no saying in the media, that there was no echo. Whether or not that was true, whether or not their positions were correct, is one thing. KURTZ: And that's how you now feel about your willingness to take on the president in very stark and passionate terms?
KURTZ: Let me ask you -- we have a couple of minutes left.
A couple of years ago, you started poking Bill O'Reilly in the eye. And I thought, well, this is a clever way you get some attention, the guy who dominates his ratings...
OLBERMANN: It wasn't the point of it either, by the way.
KURTZ: Well, let me come back to that.
Now hardly a night goes by without an O'Reilly segment, an O'Reilly item (ph), O'Reilly as the worst person in the world on your show.
Are you obsessed with the guy?
OLBERMANN: No. I just -- it's -- I promise every week to myself that I'm going to, you know, sort of back off. And then he does something so outrageous, so offensive, that I feel obligated to do something about it.
KURTZ: And you feel like you should, if not tone it down, then reduce the frequency? It's become so personal.
OLBERMANN: Well, but I do -- but I feel that way about everything in the show. My -- people ask me for advice on how to write. And I always say, "Never use the same word twice."
Well, think about that. Obviously, you can't. You can't go a second without using the same word twice. But I would like to extend that to broadcasting.
I'd love not to do the same segment twice. So everything that is repeated in the show -- you know, I want to be creative and original at all times -- the viewers really not only enjoy this segment, but expect it, because there is a sense that if you do not answer in any way, shape or form, or put on the record somewhere that O'Reilly has just denied that there are 200,000 homeless vets, if you don't do it somehow, the lie will go into the record books.
KURTZ: But you could ignore him. He's on another network.
OLBERMANN: Indeed. But the reason that he has such sway and swathe -- cut such a wide swathe in this business, and why so many people try to emulate him, and why he believed that -- you know, if somebody called up and said something not nice to him on his show, he could call the police on them, was because nobody did say anything. Nobody came out and said, hey, this guy's making it up as he goes along.
KURTZ: Well, he would certainly dispute that. We can take that -- we can get into the details another time.
OLBERMANN: Yes. Go right ahead.
KURTZ: If Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is elected the next president of the United States, would your role change? Would the role of "Countdown" change?
OLBERMANN: Other than the fact that we'd have, like, the presidential seal of approval at the beginning of the broadcast? No, I don't think so.
Seriously, the show would necessarily change, I think. But maybe not as much as people expect. Several of the "Special Comments" have taken the Democrats, especially the ones in Congress -- if that's where they are right now -- to task for caving in...
KURTZ: For not ending the war.
OLBERMANN: For not ending the war. For, in other ways, collaborating with that agenda. That could very easily continue. I mean, again, no one in 1998 accused me of being liberal when we came out every night for 218 shows and talked about Bill Clinton negatively.
KURTZ: But in a sense, the Bush administration has been very, very good for Keith Olbermann.
OLBERMANN: Honestly, no. I'm an American citizen. I think this has been a disastrous presidential administration.
I would have given what I have in terms of broadcasting success and the nature of this newscast. I would have easily said -- if I was given a choice of this or some responsible presidency in the last four years or eight years, I would have taken the responsible presidency.
KURTZ: Keith Olbermann, thanks very much for sitting down with us here in New York.
OLBERMANN: A pleasure.
KURTZ: Up next, the media play the speculation game as rumors swirl around the strange death of actor Heath Ledger.
And later, the former editor of the "L.A. Times" on why he got fired this week.
KURTZ: The news was sudden and stunning -- a 28-year-old actor found dead in his New York apartment, surrounded by pills. So it was natural that the media would jump on the sad tale involving "Brokeback Mountain" star Heath Ledger, but exactly what happened and why it might have happened prompted plenty of speculation on the and airwaves, some of it based on no facts at all.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JULIA ALLISON, "STAR" MAGAZINE: You don't know exactly what it is that happened. It could have been drug-related. You don't know. I mean, he could have been going through a depression or any sort of thing.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: According to police sources, he was surrounded by a bunch of pills. Mr. Ledger reportedly had a history of substance abuse.
JARED SHAPIRO, FOX NEWS: Heath Ledger did have sort of a history known amongst journalists and reporters as someone who liked to go to bars and sort of live a dark life.
NANCY GRACE, HEADLINE NEWS: Was the cause of death a drug overdose or foul play?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: On Friday, "The New York Post" reported that the heat was on Mary-Kate Olsen, saying that police planned to grill Ledger's pint- size paramour about frantic phone calls she received from the masseuse who found the actor dead in his bed. Hour later, New York's Daily News quoted a top police spokesman as saying the detectives had no interest in talking to Mary-Kate.
Joining us now to talk about the coverage, media commentator Matthew Felling.
We don't know what happened to Heath Ledger. Why all the speculation and theorizing, some of which clear has been wrong?
MATTHEW FELLING, MEDIA COMMENTATOR: You know what? It wasn't just the speculation. Speculation I've grown accustomed to over the years with regards to the media.
We had the sniper in a white van around here in D.C. That was speculation.
What we had this week was insinuation. It was that Bill O'Reilly, just the tone of his voice when he said "surrounded by pills," you know, with a raised eyebrow. And everybody was saying, you know what?
KURTZ: But that's a fact. Police did confirm that there were prescription pills...
FELLING: Well, the tone in his voice, where everybody was saying, and there was a rolled-up $20 bill, and we all know what that means. I mean, it was the speculation, plus the fact that this was a guy that everybody was fascinated by, and there were a couple of details that, if you wanted to portray them as questionable, or in the drug overdose subplot possibility, it definitely lent itself to it. But we do not know, and the toxicology results are not even in yet. KURTZ: Why would "The New York Post" drawing Mary-Kate Olsen into it, for a cheap (INAUDIBLE)?
FELLING: Well, why did the masseuse call up Mary-Kate Olsen before they called -- before the masseuse called 911? I mean, that's a question. And the police also said, we're not going to speculate why that would have happened, but there was -- that was another bit of misinformation right away, when people said that he was crashing at Mary-Kate Olsen's place. And it just turned out that she was a contact through the masseuse, or something like that. And Mary-Kate was brought into this just because she was the first person called, and that's the only association that she has with the case that we know so far.
KURTZ: Doesn't it look like journalists are just feasting on tragedy here?
FELLING: Not only are they feasting on tragedy, but they're also letting the bloggers dictate the pace of what they are doing. We had people camping out waiting for the body bag. And I can't imagine that that would have happened years ago where we just had, you know, a little bit more restraint.
And if there's one cardinal rule when it comes to covering a tragedy like this, it is that the news media is never the conduit where the family finds out, and Heath Ledger's family in Australia had to turn on the news and find out the news. That is the one thing -- that's the one bare threshold that we should at least try to have some respect for.
KURTZ: Just absolutely awful.
Now, FOX anchor John Gibson, on his radio show, called Heath Ledger a weirdo with a serious drug problem. He was making fun. He picked up on the line from the movie, "I wish I knew how to quit you," and said, "Well, he found out how to quit you."
And then Gibson addressed the criticism on FOX.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN GIBSON, FOX NEWS: I have received comments regarding remarks I made on my radio show the other night after the shocking death of Heath Ledger. I'm sorry that some took my comments as anti- gay and insensitive. I'm aware that Ledger has a family and many fans who were grief-stricken by his sudden death.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: My problem is, this is a young father who had just died.
FELLING: Yes, a young father who had just died. And the fact that Gibson would actually use that old cliched, "I apologize if anybody was offended," well, what he said on his radio show was pretty -- pretty darn offensive. And the fact just because you play a gay cowboy in a movie, now you're being lumped into the whole gay rights cause?
I think that John Gibson just took it way too far and he just made FOX and his own name dragged through the mud even worse in this week.
KURTZ: You talk about bloggers setting the pace here. Why? Why do national news organizations have to follow the lead of entertainment bloggers on a story like this?
FELLING: Well, it just has to do with the fact that we have TMZ.com, which has its own TV show. We have all these people...
KURTZ: Which breaks a lot of news.
FELLING: ... who are -- well, it breaks a lot of news, but it also makes a couple mistakes every now and then. We had a Lance Ito tape saying that O.J. was guilty back in September. It turned out not to be Lance Ito and turned out that it was completely made up.
But the news -- the mainstream, traditional news, whatever word you want to use, they see radaronline.com in their rearview mirror coming up, and they though, well, we've got to get ahead of this story, took, even if it means following Jack Nicholson in a publicity store in Britain saying, "I warned him about playing the joker."
It almost seems like this is the new Anna Nicole Smith story for people who are bored with the presidential campaign.
KURTZ: Matthew Felling, thank you for joining us.
Still to come, a RELIABLE SOURCES exclusive -- Jim O'Shea on why the Tribune Company fired him this week as editor of the "Los Angeles Times," and why he thinks endless budget cutting is suicidal.
KURTZ: Dean Baquet was a highly-regarded, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the "Los Angeles Times" until he was fired 15 months ago for refusing to make deep cutbacks in the newsroom budget. The parent company, Tribune, sent veteran editor Jim O'Shea out from Chicago to replace him. This week, O'Shea was fired in a battle over budget cuts, a company approach he denounced as "asinine" in a farewell note to his staff.
Was he being unrealistic, as the paper's publisher contends?
Jim O'Shea joins us now from Los Angeles.
Jim O'Shea, the newsroom budget of the "L.A. Times," about $120 million. You wanted an increase of about $3 million. Your publisher, David Hiller, wanted a 1 percent cut, a little more than $1 million.
It seems like pretty small potatoes to lose your job over. JIM O'SHEA, FMR. EDITOR, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, Howie, I think anybody who really knows those numbers and has worked with those numbers knows that what was at stake here was far more than just a 1 percent cut. And the real disagreement between David Hiller and I wasn't over just a simple budget. It was over more profound and, I think, more important issues involving the future of the "L.A. Times" and the future, really, of journalism.
I'm very much against this current approach of just cutting budgets. It's not working. We've been cutting budgets for years. The "L.A. Times" has gone from a paper with a staff of 1,200 down into the 800s, and its fortunes are still challenged.
KURTZ: Right, but let me just jump in.
O'SHEA: I believe that...
KURTZ: Let me just jump in...
O'SHEA: Yes, sure.
KURTZ: ... because David Hiller, who declined our invitation to appear on this program, says that you drew a regrettable and unnecessary line in the sand by making this the flash point, this particular budget battle about whether you would stay or leave the "L.A. Times."
O'SHEA: I -- that's not -- I did not draw an unfortunate line in the sand. I took a stand about the future of the paper and what I believed to be a crucial issue in the future of journalism.
I think you have to invest in journalism. If we continue to cut and diminish newspapers, it's not going to work. What you really need to do is invest in journalism, and I did that here.
I invested a small amount of resources in the new fashion section, and it more than generated the revenues needed to pay for the costs and to help pay for the costs in other things, like covering the war or covering the election. This was not over one budget.
This was a -- this was a dispute between David and I over far more profound issues, and he decided that he wanted an editor that was more in line with his line of thinking, which called for a smaller and smaller staff for the "L.A. Times." I don't think that's going to solve our problems.
KURTZ: Now, you were the Tribune loyalist who was sent out to patch things up after Dean Baquet's firing. You were the company man. You've worked for the Tribune Company since the late 1970s.
O'SHEA: Well, I don't -- you know, I do think -- think there comes a point in every person's career and life where you really decide, OK, where I do I take a stand? What is enough? And I just came to that point. And I am -- I've been with the Tribune a long time. And believe me, I've cut a lot of budgets. And I'm not some, you know, starry-eyed Pollyanna running around thinking the industry doesn't have trouble. I just think we need to change our approach.
I think we need to invest in journalism. Let's try that for once. Let's see what happens when you invest in a paper and you make it better, and people then -- advertisers and readers come to you instead of fleeing you.
KURTZ: Does the Tribune Company, which last month was taken over by Sam Zell, a real estate financier -- do you think, bottom line, this company cares about quality journalism in Los Angeles? Because there have been these cuts over years. Other people say, well, the cuts are needed for newspapers to survive in a difficult revenue environment.
O'SHEA: Well, I think that there is an issue about the quality of journalism. You know, I was with the Tribune Company for a long time. And it's never been a company that I thought didn't care about quality journalism.
But, you know, these challenges are forcing people to make decisions. And sometimes they make the wrong decisions. And if you can sit there -- if you keep making the wrong decisions -- look, this isn't working. The approach that they're taking is not working.
And I think that -- when I was here, as I came here 14 months ago under very, very different and challenging circumstances, and I did make -- I had success -- I created an interactive newsroom, I created revenue from fashion coverage, I turned around a magazine that was losing money, and we were one of a few papers where the circulation was rising -- I think I had a better approach.
Jim, we have about 20 seconds.
Do you wish you had not taken the job? Do you think that that was a mistake in retrospect?
O'SHEA: No, it was an honor and privilege to be the editor of the "Los Angeles Times." It's an honor and a privilege to be an editor of any paper. And it was a great -- I really enjoyed it, and I wanted to stay, but things just didn't work out.
KURTZ: All right.
Well, Jim O'Shea, we appreciate your getting up early this morning to talk to us about your tenure at the paper.
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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