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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Coverage of the Republican Presidential Race Unfair to Candidates?; Super Tuesday Stalemate on the Democratic Side

Aired February 10, 2008 - 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): Last man standing. John McCain, once pronounced dead by the press, all but clinches the Republican nomination as Mitt Romney drops out. Will journalists keep harping on McCain's conservative critics? Did Romney ever get a fair shake from the media?

And Mike Huckabee sweeping the South this week. Why do reporters keep marginalizing this guy?

Super Tuesday stalemate. The pundits all said the race would be over this week. Now they seem to be giving Barack Obama the edge over Hillary Clinton, who's lending millions to her own campaign.

Can anyone really handicap this race?

Plus, the Britney industry. With the pop tart out of the psych ward again, what explains the media's continuing obsession with her sickening soap opera?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: I got an e-mail from Hillary Clinton's campaign at 6:00 last night, informing me that the Obama campaign has long predicted they would win by large margins yesterday's three contests, and he did in Louisiana, Nebraska, and Washington State. Talk about preemptive spin.

And Mike Huckabee, minimized and marginalized by the press again and again, crushed John McCain in the Kansas caucuses yesterday, and won Louisiana as well, though that little to dent the Arizona senator's commanding lead.

But let's go back to earlier this week. If you look at the Super Tuesday results, Hillary Clinton won the big states, from New Jersey to California, but Barack Obama won more states. If you look at the delegate count, they are just about even.

If you look at a new "Newsweek" poll out today, they are essentially tied. If you look at money, Obama has been raising much more in recent weeks.

Even the pundits seem to be divided about the Democratic race.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: Not only is Hillary Clinton not the decisive Democratic front-runner tonight, but there is significance evidence now that her campaign has begun to gasp a bit for oxygen in the form of money.

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC: Hillary Clinton thought she would have the Democratic nomination locked up by now, but right now that race is far from over. She is tied, in effect, with Barack Obama.

GLENN BECK, CNN HEADLINE NEWS: Considering how close the race is between Clinton and Obama, gosh, no clear front-runner seems to be emerging anytime soon.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: This is a meltdown for her, and she lost 13-8 in the states and lost in delegates last night. This is a meltdown.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining me now to talk about the campaign coverage, in New York, Gloria Borger, senior political analyst for CNN; and Dominic Carter, host and senior political reporter for New York 1; and here in the studio, Anne Kornblut, national political reporter for "The Washington Post."

Anne Kornblut, how hard did Hillary Clinton's campaign try to spin the press that she was probably going to lose these contests yesterday and she's probably going to lose in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. on Tuesday? And do they think reporters will just simply discount the outcome if they say in advance, hey, we're going to lose?

ANNE KORNBLUT, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, they have to do something, right? After all the months they spent leading up to Super Tuesday, where they said we're going to win it on Super Tuesday, and then they didn't, this month now is the exact opposite. I've never seen anything like it.

They're in some ways adopting the Rudy Giuliani strategy of earlier on, which didn't work out so well for him, by the way, of saying, look, it's going to be weeks before we win anything, but once we do, it's going to be in March and in April. It's going to be in big states ahead.

Now, that said, she is campaigning in these states. So I wouldn't be surprised if she does do better than they're predicting. But again, you're right, they're predicting failure.

KURTZ: The expectations game.

Dominic Carter, I think the press basically casts Super Tuesday as a split decision on the Democratic side, but with Obama having raised $32 million in the month of January alone, and now with these victories yesterday, I sort of have the impression that some pundits, many pundits, are declaring him the front-runner. But in reality, given or track record this year, who really knows? DOMINIC CARTER, NEW YORK 1: At this point, Howard, no one knows. The one thing we can conclude about Obama, all conventional wisdom is out the window.

This guy's demographics is just -- in terms of his support -- everything is just completely out the windows. It wasn't the Clinton folks that predicted by Super Tuesday, and it's hard to believe that Super Tuesday was just a couple of days ago.

KURTZ: Right.

CARTER: It seems like it was almost a year ago. But...

KURTZ: So, Dominic, let me just break in. If all of the conventional wisdom, the normal rules and measurements that we use are out the window, doesn't that make it difficult for journalists and columnists to do what they do, which is tell you what's going on?

CARTER: It is extremely difficult. And that's why I think at this point, Howard, everyone is starting to hedge their bets in terms of predictions and so on.

Obama is changing everything. He has the Clinton folks on the ropes. And, you know, it was on my show this week when Howard Dean, DNC chair, came on and said, you know, we have got to figure out a way to fix this. And the Democrats find themselves in a dilemma.

KURTZ: Gloria Borger, is the press now believing, saying, suggesting, intimating that Obama has the Hillary Clinton folks on the ropes, as Dominic Carter just said?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think you have both of these campaigns competing for the title of "underdog," because nobody wants to be known as the front-runner...

KURTZ: Why not?

BORGER: ... in this race, because it's a kiss of death. You know? And they don't want to do that. And so they're downplaying expectations.

And just to go back to your earlier point, Howie, just because the Clinton campaign sends us an e-mail saying, well, Obama was expected to win these races, yes, he's put a lot more money into these races, yes, he's advertised more -- a win is a win is a win. He won.

You still can't discount the fact that he's had more success. At a certain point, the metric here is delegates. And we're counting delegates like everyone else, and, by the way, we can't agree on what the exact delegate count is either, because it's so difficult at this point.

KURTZ: Yes, I became a journalist because I wasn't terribly good at math, and clearly no news organization seems to agree. You have got the superdelegates and all the details there. Anne Kornblut, Frank Rich writes in this morning's "New York Times" that the Democratic convention could wind up as a "race-tinged brawl."

Is the race really getting that nasty, or are journalists just sort of salivating at the notion that it could get really ugly?

KORNBLUT: I think it could get a lot uglier. We've certainly seen -- we saw before South Carolina a lot of disagreements between these two campaigns. And there's no question that the animosity on each side is pretty great.

A lot of the talk about who a vice presidential pick would be has been that there wouldn't be a Clinton-Obama ticket, because it's gotten -- feelings have gotten so hard. But all that said, I think there's a lot of room for it to get worse.

On the question of race, the Obama campaign has talked to reporters a great deal about trying to downplay the racial component of this, even as the Clinton campaign tried to drive it up, and some of President Clinton's remarks did so before South Carolina, there's been a lot of great effort -- and now the Clinton campaign is on board with this -- to stop making this about race. We didn't hear a lot, even though the Louisiana results...

KURTZ: Are the media making it about race, or just reporting what happened?

KORNBLUT: I have believed that we have tried very hard to report what has happened, but the campaigns have, nonetheless, encouraged us to try and downplay the racial component even more.

BORGER: But it's hard not -- it's hard not, Howie, to make it about race at some point, when you see Barack Obama, who was, at the beginning of this campaign, not doing as well with African-Americans as Hillary Clinton doing, suddenly after South Carolina and during South Carolina getting 70, 80 percent of the African-American vote. So you have to look at that racial component. And on Hillary Clinton's side, you have to look at women voters, because, of course, those are the voters, particularly older women, that she attracts.

KURTZ: Right.

BORGER: So you have to look at race and gender, because the Democratic Party is split.

KURTZ: The inevitable VP speculation is under way, way early, in my view. And "TIME" magazine has a piece -- if we could put it up -- with the headline, "Why Not Both?" "TIME" did a poll and found that 50 to 60 percent, depending on which order the ticket was in, supported the idea of these two candidates running together.

So, Dominic Carter, what explains this chatter in the media about how Hillary and Obama might make a good ticket together, when it's ridiculously early, because they're both still battling for the top prize? CARTER: Well, I just want to go back for one second, Howard, and point out one frustration that I know for a fact, because I'm getting it directly from them. And let's put it on the table.

The Clinton folks -- and I'll answer your question -- they're very frustrated. Because Obama is an African-American, they feel they can't criticize him for fear of turning off the Democratic base black voters. And then find themselves in a very difficult situation.

But to answer your question, and I raised the same issue to Terry McAuliffe in terms of the two of them on the same ticket. It doesn't help anything in terms of geography, but he pointed out and he was the one that floated the idea -- I didn't raise it, one of her campaign co-chairs -- he pointed out -- and this was an interesting point -- remember Clinton/Gore, two southern Democrats? And they pulled it off.

And so, you know...

KURTZ: Right. But my point is not whether the ticket would work, my point is why the press keeps obsessing on it at this point in the game.

But let me just briefly follow up with you, Dominic. They feel -- you say the Clinton campaign feels it can criticize Obama. I hear Hillary Clinton criticize Obama all the time on his health care plan and so forth.

CARTER: No, no -- but, Howard -- but if you look at -- if you look at what Senator Clinton has been saying, translated here, that Mr. Obama has not been properly vetted -- that's the term that she has been using. The fact of the matter is the Clinton folks are extremely frustrated, and I'm telling you this as a matter of fact.

KURTZ: OK.

CARTER: That they feel that Obama is not tested. And one does have to raise the question -- the Clinton folks may not be able to criticize him in terms of right now, but what's going to happen if he's the Democratic nominee? The Republicans are not going to be afraid to go after him.

KURTZ: Right. Right. Right.

I want to move on, but I just want to put up this spread from "US Weekly," which is all about Hillary Clinton's ugliest outfits, or her bad fashion sense. But she participated in this, and she's making jokes about it.

Does this sort of thing now help her image, Anne Kornblut?

KORNBLUT: Oh, absolutely. Everybody -- a lot of women read these magazines. I like to look at them.

It's a lighthearted side of her wardrobe that she's made fun of. She has -- she always -- she still gets a laugh in campaign speeches, no matter how many times people have heard it, when she talks about having finally found a haircut that works for her...

KURTZ: Right.

KURTZ: ... because everyone knows how -- of course it's a great idea.

KURTZ: I agree with Hillary, there's some -- there's some less than flattering outfits in that picture spread.

All right. Let me turn now to the Republicans.

Super Tuesday was pretty super for McCain, except if you happened to be watching television that night. The Arizona senator won nine states, from New York to California, and even math-challenged journalists should have been able to calculate that he had an almost insurmountable lead for the Republican nomination.

Instead, many of the pundits said he didn't have a great night and seemed obsessed with his conservative critics, as if Rush Limbaugh was also on the ballot.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHIP REID, NBC NEWS: This has been a nerve-racking day for John McCain.

DAVID GERGEN, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: He hasn't won a state in the South other than Florida. He lost all the southern states tonight.

WILLIAM KRISTOL, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: It doesn't look like McCain will put away the race tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A lot of people thought John McCain might wrap up the nomination last night. He did well. He didn't do that well.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS: A good outcome for McCain, but not the -- not the trouncing that he was hoping for, that it would turn into sort of this bandwagon effect.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Gloria Borger, you were doing election night coverage for CNN on Super Tuesday. Why didn't the media give McCain his due? He won the nine states, he took a commanding lead. And constantly you heard about, well, you know, a lot of conservatives don't like him.

BORGER: Well, I think -- I think we gave him his due in the sense that, in the Republican nominating process, there are more winner-take-all states. And so the math for someone like me is a little easier to figure out, and it looks like he's the presumptive nominee.

I think his problem was, and the reason we in the media were not giving him a free pass, was that, if you looked at exit poll after exit poll in state after state, John McCain did not win a majority of the conservative vote. And the clear problem for John McCain going forward, as we saw on Super Tuesday, is that he as got to unify his party, he's got to get conservatives behind him.

And so he's doing a delicate dance right now, trying to win a general election, and trying to let Republicans know that he can actually be their standard bearer. So we were looking at those exit polls saying, gee, McCain is not winning with the most conservative voters in his party, and that's really important for Republicans.

KURTZ: McCain is on two new magazine covers, if we could put that up. "U.S. News" has the rather traditional and neutral headline, "Mac is Back." And "Newsweek," putting McCain on the cover for the second week in a row, "There Will be Blood: Why the Right Hates McCain."

So, Dominic Carter, I have the impression that reporters kind of like John McCain because he gives them so much access, they get to talk to him every day on his bus or his plane, but they like this fight that he's having with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham even more.

CARTER: Well, number one, Howard, he is a likeable guy, but the fact of the matter is, how could we ignore that part of the story? I mean, we have no choice but to cover the fact that conservatives apparently, as evident based on last night, he's having some trouble with conservatives.

And the fact of the matter is, that could point to a big barometer in the general election where McCain could be in serious trouble. And so we have no other choice but to cover that part of the story. You know, I'm sure the McCain folks will say Super Tuesday, he did not receive his fair due, but Republicans last night -- as recent as last night, showed that conservatives are not rallying around McCain. That's the bottom line.

KURTZ: I certainly agree that that's an important part of the story, his problems with his party's right wing, and especially after just getting crushed in Kansas, for example, by Mike Huckabee.

But Anne Kornblut, can we now agree, is it now official, that most journalists and pundits went too far in digging McCain's political grave last summer? See as almost out of the race?

KORNBLUT: There were almost always caveats when we talked about where he was going to be. And all the measures were legitimate.

KURTZ: Yes. The caveats were, like, if hell freezes over, he might win the nomination.

(LAUGHTER)

KORNBLUT: Well, and, look, even the White House, the political operatives, you know, on the Bush team, who are obviously very smart people, and some of them who are still around John McCain said I wouldn't -- if there's any political figure in our party who I wouldn't count out, it's John McCain. But you're right, almost everyone did.

He had run out of money. He was nowhere in the polls. People stopped covering him. So I think he's vindicated.

KURTZ: And that's the point. He ran out of money, and journalists make too much of money in these presidential races, which is why they thought that Mike Huckabee could never do well, because he didn't have any money. When McCain didn't have any money we said he is toast.

When we come back, Mitt Romney drops out and the press kind of kicks him on the way out the door. And Mike Huckabee still winning primaries and caucuses, even though the journalists seem to ignore him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And we did it going against the headwinds of talk radio and the pundits saying that I had simply disappeared, I wasn't even relevant, didn't matter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Mike Huckabee was all but ignored by the media before he won the Iowa caucuses, and more recently treated like a funny party guest who overstayed his welcome. But yesterday he crushed McCain in Kansas, and edged him in Louisiana, with McCain winning the Washington State caucuses by a little more than 200 votes.

Huckabee swept the South, winning five states on Super Tuesday. Still, journalists have depicted him as a sideshow, and they keep pestering him about taking the number two slot.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: I watched your speech last night, and you made reference to the people who had been calling this a two-person race. So let me start by apologizing, because I think I may have been one of those people.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: But you wouldn't do it for the vice presidency?

HUCKABEE: Wouldn't do what?

MATTHEWS: Compromise.

HUCKABEE: Change my position?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HUCKABEE: You know, the thing is, I'm not planning on being the vice president.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: What if he gets the nomination? Would you like to be the vice presidential nominee?

HUCKABEE: I'd really rather be the president. You get that nice house that comes with it and all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Dominic Carter, Huckabee keeps winning primaries and caucuses. Where does the press get off constantly demanding to know whether he would run as McCain's running mate, which is really just a way of saying, will you drop out?

CARTER: Well, Howard, you know, I watched the clips with great interest and noticed that Governor Huckabee didn't deny that he would accept the number two. So perhaps there is some reality in terms of what the media has been reporting.

But to go to your larger point, I do agree with the point that you made earlier. There is too much of a reliance on fundraising in terms of we look at a candidate's viability based on fundraising and polling. But I don't know what else we could use as a guide to how strong a person is.

KURTZ: Well, I mean, clearly people with no money this year, like Huckabee, like McCain, for most of his run, have done well with very little money.

Gloria Borger, Mike Huckabee got 2 percent of the campaign coverage in the week before Super Tuesday, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and he ends up winning five states. And this is even before his wins yesterday.

So, why is it -- it seems to me the journalists consistently underestimate this guy.

BORGER: No, I don't think we underestimate him. I think we understand.

And my colleague John King pointed last night pointed this out, that the math -- any way you do the math, Mike Huckabee is not going to be the Republican presidential nominee. And as I said earlier, the math is easier to do on the Republican side, because it's a little clearer, because more states are winner take all. But Mike Huckabee...

KURTZ: But even if that's the case, how does he deserve 2 percent of the coverage when he clearly is a force to be reckoned with?

BORGER: Well, but here's the thing. There's coverage and there's coverage.

Mike Huckabee is brilliant at getting free media time, going on the late-night talk shows, doing interviews at the drop of a hat with anyone he can, whether it's a Sunday show or a cable show or whatever. Mike Huckabee, it's not that he's not getting out there. Maybe there aren't as many reporters following him around these days because the field seems to be winnowing, but, you know, he is before the American people, and he's made very good advantage of his appearances at debates. I mean, that's what really got him started. He did very well at those presidential debates.

KURTZ: To illustrate your point, Gloria, we're looking at Mike Huckabee on "The Colbert Report"...

BORGER: Right.

KURTZ: ... where he's playing air hockey with Stephen Colbert for Texas, which is one of the pieces on the board. He does know something about television.

But, you know, let me just turn to Anne Kornblut.

You know, I keep hearing this refrain, and we heard this before Iowa -- well, you know, Huckabee's not really going anywhere, so we'll just kind of blow him off and mention (ph) him in stories now. And hasn't that proven to be a mistake?

KORNBLUT: Well, I do think he's gotten a lot more coverage since Iowa, obviously.

KURTZ: Right.

KORNBLUT: And actually, leading up to Iowa, it was pretty clear...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But then he lost a few states and...

KORNBLUT: Lost a few states.

KURTZ: And again...

KORNBLUT: And I think Gloria's point is right. I mean, mathematically, it's almost virtually impossible now for him to get -- actually to get the Republican nomination. And I think we all realize our job is to report what's happened, but also to give a sense of what could conceivably happen in the future.

We're always going to be surprised. But we have to try and give a reasonable estimate of the direction that things are going in.

And the direction does not appear to be going in Huckabee's favor from here on out. But he hasn't been discounted.

We're talking about him now. We saw him a lot yesterday. He's gotten all this great, hilarious -- he's come out of this better -- a lot more people know about him than they did before this began, and that's for sure.

KURTZ: Well, for the record, he won two out of the three contests against front-runner John McCain yesterday.

Let me stick with you, Anne, on this question of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney gets out of the race, surprising most of us on Thursday. And here's some of what was written about the former governor of Massachusetts.

"Boston Globe": "He lacked authenticity." "New York Times": "He failed to overcome doubts about his authenticity." "L.A. Times": "Romney failed the authentic test."

Isn't that a subjective judgment as opposed to a fact?

KORNBLUT: Well, I think it's a concern that we've heard reflected from voters. Sure, it's all subjective, but so are people's opinions and why they try to vote for who they vote for.

I was struck that Romney on -- first of all, on his way out, I think he did get some credit from the press for his graceful exit. But also, on that same day, the main story became not just that Romney drops out, but McCain is now the winner. Sort of in one -- he didn't even have a sort of full day to himself before the storyline changed.

KURTZ: Dominic Carter, I keep thinking of that testy exchange that Romney had with AP reporter Glen Johnson when Johnson was sitting on the floor of that Staples store. And I just have the impression that reporters didn't much like Romney personally, thought he was too perfect, thought he was a flip-flopper, and that this was, to some degree, reflected in the coverage.

CARTER: Well, I think I would agree with you on that point, Howard, that reporters just didn't seem to like this guy.

But back to your original question, I don't think it's subjective in terms of the editorials or the headlines you were just referring to, because we can go from issue to issue, and not just the media, but the candidates in the race, accurately, many will argue, portrayed Mr. Romney as a flip-flopper on issue after issue. I mean, just look back, for example -- what stands in my mind is something that's kind of funny, but when he had said that his father had met Dr. King or worked with Dr. King...

KURTZ: Right, Marshall King (ph).

CARTER: And if you remember that sound bite, the way he tried to do explain that, that's reflective of what's happened to him throughout this campaign.

KURTZ: All right. I've got a half a minute here.

BORGER: You know...

KURTZ: Go ahead, Gloria.

BORGER: Well, I was just going to say, Howie, it's really not about like with reporters, it's about access with reporters. And one handy way to tell that a candidate isn't do so well is that suddenly you get more access to that candidate. They need to reach out.

Hillary Clinton's done it. Mitt Romney did it. But these were two candidates in particular who lived in a cocoon at the beginning of this campaign.

And the more they felt that they were in trouble, the more they reached out to journalists. So that's...

KURTZ: All right.

BORGER: You know, that's really what it's about. It's about us getting to be with them and to get some access.

KURTZ: Well, Romney clearly changed his position...

BORGER: He did.

KURTZ: ... from his days in Massachusetts on key social issues. But you know what? Some other candidates have been known to evolve on the issues as well.

All right. Dominic Carter, Gloria Borger, Anne Kornblut, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

KORNBLUT: Thank you.

KURTZ: Coming up on the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, playing favorites. Does the media's favorable coverage of Barack Obama extend to his wife Michelle?

Plus, parting shot. Mitt Romney says a vote for Hillary or Obama would mean a surrender to terrorism. Why is a comedian the only one to call him on it?

And banking on Britney. She's out of the psych ward again. The big business of covering the pop tart's latest meltdown.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The youngest member of the Clinton family has been slimed. In a discussion of Chelsea Clinton's role in her mother's presidential campaign this week, MSNBC correspondent David Shuster had this to say...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: Chelsea is out there calling up celebrities saying, support my mom. And apparently she's also calling the superdelegates.

Doesn't it seem like Chelsea's sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Pimped out? Excuse me? What an awful choice of words. But when the Clinton campaign cried foul, Shuster stood his ground. That is, until his MSNBC bosses found out about it the next day and apologized to the Hillary camp. Soon afterwards, Shuster said he was sorry as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER: In describing this effort, I used a phrase that was inappropriate. And I apologize to the Clinton family, the Clinton campaign, and all of you who were justifiably offended.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But the Clinton campaign was not mollified. Communications director Howard Wolfson told me the comment was "disgusting" and "beneath contempt," and said Hillary might pull out of a scheduled MSNBC debate in Cleveland which Brian Williams and Tim Russert were to moderate in two weeks.

Shortly after that threat on Friday, MSNBC suspended David Shuster for an undetermined period of time.

Joining me now here in Washington, Michelle Cottle, senior editor of "The New Republic," and Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review."

Michelle Cottle, was this an overreaction by MSNBC? I noticed that the suspension came after that threat by the Hillary Clinton campaign to possibly boycott future debates on that network.

MICHELLE COTTLE, SR. EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, you know, the Clinton campaign is not stupid. They know that they're worth a lot of money to the network. And if they pull out of those debates, it's trouble.

So, I mean, it's a tricky issue when you're talking about anything that's sexist, and especially when you're talking about somebody's child. So, I think, better safe than sorry, they were going to do something like this.

KURTZ: The blogger Ann Althouse had a headline saying this was not that big a deal -- "NBC wimped out over 'pimped out.'"

There are some bloggers out there saying, what's the big deal?

JIM GERAGHTY, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": You know, Howard, I want to thank you having me on the one time I'm going to defend Hillary Clinton and the Clinton family and just say, apparently Shuster graduated from the Don Imus school of tact and diplomacy and sensitivity here.

Look, I guess the big question is, how long is this suspension going to go on? If this is for two days, to tell him, sit in the corner, don't use that word again, try to think before you speak, and don't use sexual connotations when describing Chelsea Clinton, then fine. If this goes on for two weeks or for some sort of lengthy period of time, then I think we may wonder whether -- you know, anybody can say something stupid and have a slip of the tongue and say something they regret.

COTTLE: And this didn't happen in a vacuum. I mean, let's not forget this is MSNBC.

And when, like, EMILY's List and the Clinton campaign went berserk, it's because they've also watched Chris Matthews be really snotty and snarky and sexist about Hillary Clinton. This is also, you know, the network that brings us Joe Scarborough, who I believe is the one who was commenting on Mrs. Fred Thompson working the pole at some point, or am I getting -- am I misremembering that?

KURTZ: He was talking about an exercise routine.

Now, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann did not let his colleague off the hook. Here's what he said the other night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: It was still an utterly inappropriate and indefensible thing to say. The Clintons have every right to be furious, hurt and appalled.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And, by the way, Hillary Clinton has written a letter to NBC News president Steve Capus saying that no temporary suspension or half-hearted apology is sufficient. So they're clearly working this issue.

Let's move on now to the campaign the way Barack Obama is covered.

Michelle Obama -- and this did not get a lot of attention -- was on "Good Morning America" this week. Look what she said when asked -- well, you can hear the question and the answer right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEBORAH ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: Could you see yourself working to support Hillary Clinton so she gets the nomination?

MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF BARACK OBAMA: I'd have to think about that. I would have to think about the policies, her approach, her tone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Imagine the reaction if Hillary Clinton's spouse had said, well, I don't know if I could support Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee.

COTTLE: Well, sure, but he's a former president. I mean, Michelle Obama is somebody's wife. That's all we know her as. I mean, obviously, she's done other things in her professional life, but for the purposes of this campaign she is Mrs. Obama.

KURTZ: But she is a potential first lady who's out there campaigning regularly for her husband.

Is there a reluctance to take her on either for racial reasons or because she's a newcomer to the national scene, or for any other reason?

GERAGHTY: It could very well be. I mean, she's much more of a private citizen than Bill Clinton is.

KURTZ: Sure.

GERAGHTY: But I think the other thing is, if you talk about the lack of coverage for this even, if you're going to -- other than -- if your name isn't David Shuster, if you're going to say something controversial, do it the week of Super Tuesday, where, you know, McCain's getting the nomination, Romney's out, Hillary and Obama are neck and neck. There's a lot of news going on.

Somebody saying, gee, you know, I may not support the person who has been beating my husband around the head and using horrible language and comparing him to Jesse Jackson, doing all these things, you know, I can't say I'd terribly -- I'm going to disagree that much with Michelle Obama. I wouldn't be eager to, you know, endorse someone who just beat the hell out of my spouse.

KURTZ: Well, whether she's right or wrong, you didn't think it was all that newsworthy?

GERAGHTY: I can't blame her, you know, for having that sentiment. She made have just had -- she may have the gaffe of being honest, probably.

KURTZ: A gaffe of being honest. How often have we seen that?

All right. I want to turn now to the Republican race. And, you know, there's been so much coverage off the attacks on John McCain, and even some of it continuing after he did very well on Super Tuesday, from Sean Hannity, from Rush Limbaugh, from Laura Ingraham, and other conservative leaders, conservative pundits, conservative radio talk show hosts.

I interviewed Rush Limbaugh about this question last week and asked him whether it was right for the media to cast a McCain victory as a defeat for Rush Limbaugh since he obviously was suggesting that Mitt Romney was the far superior candidate.

On his radio program, he read what he said to me. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: "My success is not determined by who wins elections." Limbaugh said, "Elected officials come and go. I'm here for as long as I wish to stay." "The media never applies this template to anyone else in the media, not to anyone in cable news, not to any of the endorsements of the major newspapers. Why are 'The New York Times and 'The Washington Post' not asked about the setback they both suffered when George Bush beat both their endorsed candidates in 2000 and 2004?"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So is it a little simplistic for those of us in the press to say, well, Limbaugh is a loser here because McCain is winning?

COTTLE: I actually think he'll be a winner in terms of it will give him something to talk about and complain about for the next four years. As far as, like, getting his policy -- you know, as far as being a king maker of sorts, sure, it makes him look a little bad or a little warn around the edges. But, hey, his ratings should be good if there's a McCain presidency.

KURTZ: But I think we may be falling into the trap of saying, well, these people only have clout if they can influence elections. They're not political leaders. They are people who, to some degree, reflects what their listeners believe -- they're obviously playing to their base -- and who try to have an impact, but also try to educate and maybe move their listeners, to a certain degree.

They're not running for office.

GERAGHTY: Look, Rush would be the first person to tell you his listeners are not numb robots. There's a certain degree of irony to the term "ditto head."

They're looking for a voice who will represent what they -- what they believe, who could be a conservative voice. But they're not saying, Rush, tell me who to vote for.

The other thing I'll notice is that Rush did endorse Romney or say that Romney was the best choice basically like hours before Super Tuesday. You can't help figure the Romney camp was thinking, boy, that would have been nice right before Iowa or right before New Hampshire, or various other times where they really felt they could have used a little boost over the top.

It's one of those things where Rush Limbaugh's audience is about 13 million to 20 million. Sixty-two million Americans voted for George W. Bush.

KURTZ: Right.

GERAGHTY: There are a lot of Republicans out there who don't listen to Rush Limbaugh and who aren't necessarily going to reflect, you know...

KURTZ: Are even his loyal -- are even people like Hannity and Laura Ingraham, who now seems to be making her peace with John McCain, are the going to fall into line now? GERAGHTY: I think if the contrast is John McCain versus Hillary Clinton, in a heartbeat. There's no -- there's no -- no comparison there. I think Ann Coulter will be alone in saying that she'll be jumping on the campaign trail for Hillary.

KURTZ: I was going to say, Ann Coulter seems to be the exception there. We'll see if she's just doing that to call a little attention to herself.

All right.

Mitt Romney drops out this week, makes what I thought was a pretty inflammatory statement. I pick up the papers the next day, and nobody is taking issue with it at all. But there was one person who did. Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": So, if Mitt Romney keeps running for president, the terrorists win. What are you talking -- so anyone who votes for a Democrat is in league with surrender to terror?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Aiding a surrender to terror. I mean, it made it sounds like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are, you know, signing up with Osama bin Laden. Why did that get basically no attention?

COTTLE: Well, it got attention some places. I mean, The New Republic's blog went berserk over it, and I'm sure if you looked at other blogs online, especially kind of ones who are left-leaning, they had a fit over it.

KURTZ: The mainstream newspapers, mainstream TV stations...

COTTLE: But if you're talking about that, he's yesterday news. He's out of here. I mean, when Dick Cheney says something like this, people go berserk, because he matters. Well, right now Mitt Romney doesn't matter anymore.

KURTZ: So we don't care about Mitt Romney anymore?

GERAGHTY: Well, the concession speech -- the news of the day is he's leaving. But I've got to tell you, amongst Republicans, they think that voting for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is voting for weak policies in the war on terror. They think that is -- you know, surrender might be an exaggeration.

KURTZ: Well, that's the thing.

GERAGHTY: It's bad policies.

KURTZ: I mean, if you want to say that they are soft on the terror issue, if you want to say they're not as aggressive, they're going to put us on defense, that all seems within the acceptable bounds of political rhetoric. Aiding a surrender to terrorism?

GERAGHTY: It is a step in the wrong direction. It's one of those things where, you know, is it hyperbole? You're saying you're surprised to see hyperbole in a political speech? In a farewell to conservatives speech? You know.

KURTZ: All right. I've got 15 seconds.

What do you make of all the pundits now rating Romney's chances for 2012?

COTTLE: Well, I mean, that's the suggestion of why he's making these kind of really inflammatory speeches, is they think he's coming back. I like to think he's not ever coming back.

KURTZ: Ladies and Gentlemen, the next campaign has already begun.

Jim Geraghty, Michelle Cottle, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, "Rolling Stone" tries to get an interview with Britney Spears and is told, show me the money. Why is everyone from the paparazzi to the mainstream media -- why can't they kick the habit?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: I don't know about you, but I've lost track of the number of times Britney Spears has gotten into trouble, been photographed without her underwear, gone into rehab, shaved her head, lost custody of her kids, and checked into psychiatric hospitals. But when she checked out of an L.A. psych ward this week, for what I'm told is the second time, some local TV stations actually went live.

The latest to join the tabloid hoards horrors is "Rolling Stone," which is just out with a lengthy piece titled "The Tragedy of Britney Spears." But are the media contributing to that tragedy?

Joining us now in Los Angeles, Vanessa Grigoriadis, who wrote the "Rolling Stone" article, and Ryan Smith, contributor for "OK!" magazine.

Vanessa, you tried to get an interview with Britney, and you wound up dealing with one of her intermediaries, a guy named Klaus (ph).

Tell us what happened.

VANESSA GRIGORIADIS, "ROLLING STONE": Well, through some sort of miscommunication, Klaus (ph) was under the impression that I was going to give him $2 million in order to have an interview and a photo shoot with Britney. And he's just one of the many people around her who is, you know, essentially somebody who realizes that there is somebody who's very valuable to be booked in any way, as a sponsorship, a media interview, a restaurant opening, whatever. Let's take this girl and do something with her.

KURTZ: Well, obviously you didn't cough up the cash, but I understand he asked for pre-approval of the article and something about who was going to take the pictures?

GRIGORIADIS: Sure, yes. No, the people that I was dealing with, I mean, essentially these people are just really naive, they don't understand the way that United States media works at this point, which is like there's no pre-approval over articles. We don't let your friends take pictures for the cover of "Rolling Stone: magazine.

It might be as easy a as that? I don't know. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

KURTZ: So revealing.

Ryan Smith, you were at that infamous photo shoot some months ago when Britney walked out, taking with her thousands of dollars in designer outfits and damaging such things as a $5,000 Versace gown.

Do you regret getting involved with her in the first place?

RYAN SMITH, "OK!" MAGAZINE: No. I mean, I think for the most part, I mean, it certainly opened certainly my eyes more to the whole situation around Britney. I think that before that it was quite easy to sort of look at the way that things were going in her life and not sort of apply any I guess sympathy, for want of a better word, to it.

On the day of that shoot, though, it became very apparent that there were so many people in her life who just really weren't helping her. You know? And I do think that that sort of helped the way she was then covered as time went on.

KURTZ: And "OK!" magazine then chose to write a piece about what it called her meltdown and all the damage that she had caused.

Vanessa, what do you think about the way that "OK!" magazine handled that whole embarrassing mess?

GRIGORIADIS: I think that was great. I mean, I'm all for, you know, the truth here.

And part of the problem with the Britney story has been that the way that it's been covered, it's almost unlike any other tabloid story, because it has just been the moment where new media and blogs and TMZ, and all of these folks out there, we have all been chasing them. Like, the mainstream is really a step behind here.

So anything that we can get that's extra, yes, we've got to run with it, absolutely. It's really a vicious story. KURTZ: Speaking of TMZ, the gossip site and now the television show, you quote Harvey Levin, the head of TMZ, as saying, "We serialize Britney Spears. She's our President Bush."

Ryan Smith, I can see where it was news the first time that Britney went into a psychiatric hospital, but now that it's happened a second time, I mean, basically, who cares? Why do we continue to make this young woman into fodder?

SMITH: Well, we say this -- I mean, we do say this, but we're here discussing it now. The fact is, people are that much more interested.

You know, in the world of celebrity there's often a lot of secrecy. You know, most of the biggest stars, they're protected by a wall of publicists, a team that kind of sanitizes their image.

In Britney, we don't have that. We have it very raw and uncut. And at the moment, her demise is something that's so spectacular and so public that people really cannot keep their eyes off of this. And I do think that, you know, America loves a comeback story. We'd love to see Britney one day get on her feet, and I think that each time she steps closer to seeking that help, we always hope that this is that time she's going to turn it around and, you know, return to being that pop star that we initially knew her as.

KURTZ: Well, maybe some people are rooting for a comeback. I think others are just disgusted. This is a woman who no longer has custody of her kids thanks to court rulings.

Vanessa Grigoriadis, let me read from your "Rolling Stone" piece. You write, "The multibillion-dollar new-media economy rests on her slumped shoulders, with paparazzi agencies estimating that she has comprised up to 20 percent of their coverage for the past year. This mob lurches around town after Britney, descending on her with its notepads and cameras, and passing wild speculation from outlet to outlet."

By writing this piece on everything from her family to her breast implants, haven't you now joined the mob?

GRIGORIADIS: You know, I try to stay a little bit above it, but I don't think there's any other way to cover the story, because you have to be there just to see every morning there is another, like, absolutely absurd rumor that gets passed away with the people who are covering here. I mean, probably, I would estimate like 100, maybe, paparazzi and tabloid editors are on this -- have been on this story for the last year.

They wake up every morning and they have to deal with again another piece of news. And figuring out, is there any truth to it? And with Britney, a lot of times there actually is some truth to it.

KURTZ: Right.

GRIGORIADIS: So it sounds crazy, but they spend the rest of their day doing it.

KURTZ: OK. Got to break in...

GRIGORIADIS: Yes.

KURTZ: ... because I've got 20 seconds left.

Ryan Smith, all of these stories, the Britney Spears story, Heath Ledger's death, which was a legal overdose of prescription drugs, the Natalee Holloway case going on for three years now, are the media just addicted to these soap operas?

SMITH: I think so. I think it's the drama that definitely attaches people to all of this. You know, we're otherwise looking at people who would be so perfect and so inaccessible. And we're seeing kind of seeing a side that, for most of us, is often more dramatic than anybody that we know living in our neighborhoods.

KURTZ: And some would say more sensationalized by the media.

But thank you both very much for joining us, Vanessa and Ryan.

Still to come, Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann finally agree on something, and we have the tape to prove it.

The "Media Minute" straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

When the "Chicago Sun-Times" endorsed Barack Obama and John McCain, Cheryl Reed was outraged.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): The paper's editorial page editor supported the candidate, but says Sun-Times executives completely rewrote the editorials without her knowledge. "That..." Reed said in a memo reported by the rival, "Chicago Tribune," "... severely damages the integrity of the board and makes a mockery of the editorial process."

And with that, she quit.

The Sun-Times publisher, Cyrus Freidheim, said in his own memo that the changes to the endorsements "... deepened and strengthened the messages."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Still, what's the point of hiring an editorial page editor if you don't even consult her when you rewrite the endorsements?

By the way, some other people at the Sun-Times may soon be looking for jobs. The paper, badly damaged by the thievery of its former owner, Conrad Black, has put itself up for sale.

As you may have heard, the Hollywood writers' strike will probably end today as union members vote on a proposal that the leadership has already blessed. I have just two questions. Couldn't this compromise have been worked out before a three and a half month strike? And having been deprived of their favorite shows for all this time, will some viewers simply decide they have better things to do?

Well, not many folks predicted that the New York Giants would ruin the New England Patriots' perfect season in last Sunday's Super Bowl.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): Two of those who did, interestingly enough, almost never agree on anything -- Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly. And neither was shy about touting their forecasting skills in ways that amounted to spiking the ball in the end zone.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: I predicted the Giants would win despite knowing the Patriots have a deeper roster. I did this because the Giants are a team of destiny.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Our number one story -- wow, what a game. Nobody could have predicted that, right? Oh, yes. Who was that guy on that football show six weeks ago?

The official prediction -- more than a week ago, and reiterated here last Friday, Giants, 27-21, based on Eli Manning's ability to create fourth quarter comebacks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Not bad. Not bad. But how did you do on Duper Tuesday, gentlemen?

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

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

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