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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

'New York Times' McCain Bombshell Sparks Charges of Political Smear

Aired February 24, 2008 - 10:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm very disappointed in "The New York Times."

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Backlash. A "New York Times" bombshell on John McCain's relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman sparks charges of a political smear. Should the paper have cited unnamed sources who believed without firm evidence that the two had a romantic relationship nearly a decade ago? Did the story show the senator cozying up to one of the special interests he crusades against? And why did editor Bill Keller delay the piece until after McCain had all but captured the Republican nomination?

Playing defense. As Barack Obama moves closer to the Democratic nomination, the media jump on charges of plagiarism and his wife's controversial comments about America. Are journalists turning more skeptical towards this political phenomenon?

Plus, Jon Stewart's encore. Will the comic sink or swim at tonight's Oscars? And can the show help heal the wounds of a crippling strike?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: I found myself back in December having to report on a story that "The New York Times" was pursuing but hadn't published. Word had leaked to "The Drudge Report" that the paper was looking into John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist.

I decided to write a short piece because McCain had hired big- time criminal lawyer Bob Bennett to defend hmm and because I confirmed that McCain had called Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, to complain he was being treated unfairly. Well, The Times ran that page one story this week, reporting that back in 1999, McCain's aides were worried about his relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, believing it to be romantic, and warned her to stay away from the Arizona senator.

Both McCain and Iseman denied being anything more than friends. The story also said McCain wrote some letters to federal regulators that would benefit Iseman's clients.

The candidate who is usually quite friendly with reporters sharply criticized The Times, and a top adviser used stronger language.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I do know with some interest that it's "former aides" that this whole story is based on anonymous sources.

CHARLIE BLACK, MCCAIN ADVISER: The journalistic standards aren't those of a third-rate tabloid, and "The New York Times" should be ashamed of themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: As debates raged over these allegations against McCain, many pundits focused on the newspaper's conduct.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: The story in "The New York Times" alleging an improper relationship.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: It's a story about a female lobbyist.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: And now his supporters and others are questioning The Times' journalism and motivation.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: How in good conscience they could have put out there? I mean, there was nothing in there. I mean, it was just a smear job.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC NEWS: "The New York Times" is a great newspaper. It's the gold standard of American journalism. And they've dragged it down into the gutter on a story which we've been told has nothing at all to do with it.

GLENN BECK, CNN'S HEADLINE NEWS: "The New York Times" says, you know, we're not part of this tabloid media, but today's attempted smear of a man like John McCain shows it is worse than most rags.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: What do we know today that we didn't know yesterday? Not a whole lot based on this piece.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And joining us now to talk about The Times and its handling of this sensitive story, in New York, Rachel Sklar, editor of the "Eat the Press" blog at HuffingtonPost.com. Here in Washington, David Frum, columnist for "National Review Online" and a former speechwriter for President Bush. And Frank Sesno, special correspondent for CNN and professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University.

Frank Sesno, everyone seems to agree this "New York Times" piece was seriously flawed. Should it have been published?

FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Should it have been published? Yes, but, I mean, I think that what is troubling to most people and where the attacks came is the sexual innuendo that the piece contains, the use of anonymous sources, and the lack of specifics.

Should "The New York Times" look at whether John McCain is a hypocrite, saying that, you know, special interest money should be kept out and special interests should be kept out from politics and what he's done with special interests? Yes, that's fair game, that's the legitimate part of the story.

KURTZ: But David Frum, was it irresponsible for The Times to suggest that McCain had an affair nine years ago, by the way, based on the suspicions of a couple of ex-staffers?

DAVID FRUM, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": Well, but Frank's comments just shows the box the paper was in. The Times is an institution, hates reporting on sex stories, loves reporting on financial scandal stories. But on the data they had, they didn't have a financial scandal, but they might possibly have a sex story.

That -- at least people believe that that was true, whereas the evidence for the financial angle is completely flimsy. So, if they were going to do what Frank recommended of them, they would have to give up their hands and say, we have no story. So that was the story they had, that they dearly wanted -- that they had the evidence for, and yet institutionally they were inhibited from printing. So...

KURTZ: And somebody who agrees with you in a way is "The New York Times" ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, who writes this morning that the story owed readers more proof of the romantic insinuation than The Times was able to provide.

Rachel Sklar, was there some good reporting here in this piece that got lost because of all the focus on the alleged possible romance?

RACHEL SKLAR, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: Well, sure. Everything that wasn't at the beginning and wasn't alluded to at the end in that little postscript.

KURTZ: It was a great middle.

SKLAR: There was a -- it was a lengthy middle. It was not a clear middle. You might say it was a muddle in the middle, just in the sense that, you know, you started the article and you kept on looking for where the significance of the relationship came into it.

When I was looking -- I was told about the article -- go look at "The New York Times," they put up that story about McCain and the affair with the lobbyist. I mean, that's what I was told.

I got confused. The headline, even, it tipped around everything. You know, trying to figure out, is this the story I'm looking for? Because they don't really seem to say anything.

But that's what -- I mean, that's what Clark Hoyt said, is that is the takeaway of it, that McCain had an improper relationship with a lobbyist, and that -- you know, a female lobbyist, a pretty, much younger female lobbyist. And that became the takeaway. So, yes, but the reporting got lost in the middle.

SESNO: One of the interesting things if you really read this article closely and you read the follow-up articles, even including in your newspaper, "The Washington Post," yes, there are interesting, tantalizing questions about what McCain did and what his connections were. But at the end of the day, it's a sort of, everybody does their job article.

The lobbyist lobbied. The guy who wanted special consideration for his television station argued for special consideration. And McCain wrote to the FCC and said, hey, guys, do something.

KURTZ: Well, on those letters to the FCC, it's interesting, because you might say that these were letters that he wrote asking the commission to make a decision about one of Vicki Iseman's clients. Well, January 6, 2000, "New York Times," "McCain urged FCC action on an issue involving supporter." "Washington Post," "McCain defends FCC letter." In other words, this had previously been reported.

But what about the sources, Frank? Unnamed sources, two of them key sources described as "disillusioned" with McCain, although that was kind of buried toward the end of the piece. How much did that undercut the story?

SESNO: That's the biggest problem I think with the original story. You're tantalized with these anonymous sources.

Halfway through the story you learn they're disillusioned. I don't know what they're disillusioned about. Are they disillusioned about policy? Did they have a fight with John McCain? Did they have a score to settle with John McCain?

Look, "The New York Times" own policy on anonymous sources says the following: "We resist granting anonymity except as a last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable. The information should be of compelling interest, unobtainable by other means. We resist granting anonymity for opinion, speculation or personal attacks."

There are some problems here.

KURTZ: One of the things that drove me crazy here was pundits going on the air and saying, well, why didn't The Times run this story last December, before Republicans began voting in the primaries? They had a responsibility to do that. And others said, "Well, they deliberately held the piece until McCain was essentially the Republican nominee.

None of these people know what was going on in the newsroom, whether the story was ready or more checking need to be done last December.

So, do you buy the notion that it was politically timed?

FRUM: Well, it's still not ready. This was a half-baked cookie they printed.

But it's never going to be ready, because the part of the story they want to print isn't there. The financial angle is not there. The part of the story that maybe is there or maybe isn't -- we don't know -- is the part they didn't want to print and shouldn't have printed.

SKLAR: Well, I don't know about that. I mean, Bill Keller made the point in a subsequent story done by NPR that the story -- they felt it was important to reflect a pattern of behavior, and that it was meant to be a subtle story.

Now, I'm not going to agree with the execution of it, nor with Bill Keller's handling of the situation. His initial response was, the story speaks for itself, which it clearly did not. But I do think there's something to be said for pulling together threats to present an overall picture and putting something in the long-term context.

FRUM: But the pattern -- there isn't a pattern. I mean, if they were to do that, they would have to say, it is often true that McCain has done these various financial favors for people with whom he's had improper personal relationships. There's no pattern.

SESNO: Anybody who suggests...

SKLAR: Pointing to a relationship, pointing to favors done in the context of the relationship -- and importantly, McCain issued a denial, which was later -- which, you know, "Newsweek" uncovered the fact that he had actually in a deposition said that he had been in touch with the Paxson...

FRUM: Sorry, that part of -- that pattern there is just so absurd. The pattern that they are hunting for is a pattern of relationships with women. That's the story they want...

(CROSSTALK)

SKLAR: That is a story -- that is the obfuscation. That that was a long story, and there was a lot in there.

SESNO: I want to defend "The New York Times" here on one point. And I think this is really important. It's absolutely preposterous to suggest that "The New York Times" somehow sat on this story to do more damage to John McCain than it would have been...

SKLAR: Or less, right.

SESNO: Or less. This was actually the best time for John McCain in many ways for a story like this.

KURTZ: And on that point, Frank, I talked to Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, and he got on the phone right away. He was not hiding about this or putting out statements.

And I asked him about this, and he said the following to me: "You can't let the electoral calendar govern your judgment about when to publish stories... We publish a story when it's ready. Ready means we've got the facts nailed down to our satisfaction. We've given the subjects of the story ample time to respond. The story is written in a way that's fair and balanced and has all the context and caveats."

Obviously, David, you disagree that it was ready.

FRUM: No. It's never going to be more ready. But here's maybe the point -- and in fairness to the paper -- they did publish a story, I think three weeks ago, on the front page about Bill Clinton's amazingly reckless financial transactions, where a shadowy mining promoter paid him a $31 million gratuity for help with his business dealings in Kazakhstan. That was on the front page too.

That actually was a pretty good...

SKLAR: How did we start talking about Clinton here?

KURTZ: Right.

FRUM: No. It's to defend -- it's to defend the paper's...

SESNO: And Keller, on their Web site, in defending and explaining how this story was done, said, look, we do this series called "The Long Run," and they take these sort of biographical long pieces on people and how they do business. So they're also defending this by saying this is how McCain does business.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Hold on, Rachel. There was one on-the-record source here, and that was John Weaver, longtime McCain adviser who left in the staff shake-up last summer. He was also quoted by "The Washington Post," which did a similar story without any hint or suggestion about any romantic relationship between McCain and Iseman. And Weaver said on the record that he arranged a meeting, that he actually met -- he didn't say it was him -- but he met with Vicki Iseman back in 1989, told her to stay away from Senator McCain, that this was creating a bad image for a guy who made a career of crusading against lobbyists.

Is that newsworthy in and of itself?

SESNO: Well, it might be. The problem is that John Weaver's quote, you can drive a truck through it. I don't know what it means. He says -- I'm reading from "The New York Times" piece -- added the brief conversation that he had with Iseman was only about "her conduct and what she allegedly had told people, which made its way back to us." He declined to elaborate.

I don't know what he's talking about.

SKLAR: And he denied allegedly telling people things as well, which makes everything clearer.

KURTZ: All right. Let's go to McCain's handling of this, because the piece went online Wednesday night. Thursday morning, 9:00, McCain came out and answered questions at a news conference, and the next day he was a little less anxious to talk about it.

Let's look a little bit from the Thursday and Friday news conferences by Senator McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Did you ever have any meeting with any of your staffers in which they would have intervened to ask you not to see Vicki Iseman or to be concerned about appearances of being too close to a lobbyist?

MCCAIN: No.

QUESTION: No meeting ever occurred?

MCCAIN: No.

QUESTION: No staffer was ever concerned about a possible romantic relationship?

MCCAIN: If they were, they didn't communicate that to me.

QUESTION: Did you ever have such a relationship?

MCCAIN: No.

I don't have any more comment about this issue. I had a press conference yesterday morning, I answered every question. I'm moving on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Did McCain help defuse the story by going out there and answering the questions?

FRUM: Yes, you always do that. That's always -- that's always the right thing to do.

KURTZ: Rachel Sklar, are reporters cutting McCain some slack here? Because, look, let's face it, they like the guy, and he gives them all kinds of access.

I mean, nobody is really questioning now whether there was or wasn't an inappropriate relationship with this lobbyist. They're all questioning The Times' conduct.

SKLAR: Well, I think that they're questioning whether or not there was. And there's a hunger for finding out why The Times seems so sure.

Gabe Sherman of "The New Republic" did the back-story story, and basically indicated that all of the reporters felt that they had the goods on McCain for the story back in December, and it was Keller who sent them back for more reporting. And it sounds like they -- you know, the presumption is that "The New York Times" knows more than it's sharing. Of course, that's just not enough. You know, you print what you have or what is good enough to ground the story. And, you know, we're not in the benefit of the doubt business as journalists.

KURTZ: Right.

And Frank Sesno, here we have the McCain campaign coming out with a fundraising letter against "The New York Times," calling it part of the liberal attack machine, a disgusting and scurrilous hit-and-run smear campaign, which -- and all of that seems to be helping the senator with conservatives.

SESNO: The tried and true strategy of attack the messenger, OK?

KURTZ: But sometimes maybe the messenger deserves to be attacked.

SESNO: Sometimes the messenger does, but the fact of the matter is, is what the McCain campaign wants to do is use this to rally the troops. Gosh, they even got Rush Limbaugh coming to their defense.

KURTZ: Yes.

SKLAR: Sort of.

SESNO: So, in that sense -- sort of, but, you know...

SKLAR: Right.

SESNO: ... I mean, relatively speaking. But, you know, this is what -- and Keller himself from "The New York Times" said, gee, you know, we didn't think we were going to have this kind of response. We ended up being the story.

KURTZ: I think he was a little chasten.

SKLAR: Right. That's very naive.

KURTZ: Well, here is my two cents. Hold on a second.

You know, this was not a smear in the sense that it was a premeditated hit job, but it was a serious journalistic misfire. You simply can't accuse a presidential candidate -- you can suggest, you can't insinuate that such a candidate had an affair based on the suspicions and the suppositions of aides, particularly when the two people involved deny it.

Even liberals are not defending this story. And no matter how you dress it up with all the other niceties, it is a sex story. The Times overreached here, and I'm giving myself the last word.

When we come back, the press has suddenly discovered that lobbyists work in the campaign. Now, that is shocking. Is the senator being singled out for a common practice?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Aside from the suggestions of illicit sex, that "New York Times" piece on John McCain and Vicki Iseman has focused media attention on the Arizona senator's relationship with lobbyists in general. McCain, after al, has fashioned a political identity as a crusader against special interests, prompting this front-page "Washington Post" piece: "The Anti-Lobbyist, Advised by Lobbyists," and a follow-up report on the "CBS Evening News."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NANCY CORDES, CBS NEWS: Within his campaign, however, lobbyists, both current and former, make up much of his inner circle. Rick Davis, campaign manager. The firm he co-founded has represented Verizon, DHL, and Lockheed Martin.

Charlie Black, chief political adviser, a chairman at a lobbying giant with clients such as General Motors and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: David Frum, is this a legitimate issue, considering that McCain does sort of cast himself as the scourge of special interests?

FRUM: Well, it's a legitimate boring issue, and it's not an issue about John McCain. It's an issue about our professional politicos.

I mean, just imagine that you wanted to run a political campaign, and you wanted to get people who were good at it, who had done it before, and you said, I'm not going to hire anyone who's worked for a lobbying firm. You would be hard-pressed to find such people. The problem is, why are such people making their livings in this way, but the candidate is stuck with a bad set of options?

KURTZ: And in fact, Rachel Sklar, the press does seem to be singling out McCain here, but, you know, Mitt Romney got into that argument with Glenn Johnson of the AP about whether lobbyists were involved in his campaign. They all have them at the top. Hillary's top guy, Mark Penn, is the head of the Burson-Marsteller giant PR firm.

So, why the focus on McCain, other than "The New York Times" story that got all this ball rolling?

SKLAR: Well, you know, I mean, you just answered your question.

KURTZ: Didn't mean to do that.

SKLAR: I couldn't help thinking of Mitt Romney and that altercation, of Mitt Romney somewhere kicking himself about the timing of the article and the fact that he was pointing at McCain who had the lobbyists at the time.

I think that -- I think that David is exactly right. You know, it is -- it's more than McCain here. It is endemic to the profession, and it's a question of, you know, if there's impropriety in having these people on campaigns, that's a big problem, because they're everywhere. But if not, then you have to focus on whether or not there's some favor to be found for them by their associations with those candidates. And, you know, that's something you have to prove.

SESNO: Welcome to Washington. That's all I can say.

I was talking to a senator, an outgoing senator yesterday, who was bemoaning the ethics laws that prevent him from talking to other senators for the next two years.

KURTZ: Right.

SESNO: I mean, this is -- Charlie Black was in the previous -- in the early Bush administration, and had ties to the Reagan administrations. A lot of these guys have had jobs in other administrations. It's what they do. They either become columnists or they become lobbyists when they come out.

KURTZ: But you don't have to put them in charge of your campaign.

SESNO: You don't. You don't. But these are the -- you know, look...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: They still are attached to lobbying firms.

SESNO: And that's -- and that becomes incredibly fair grist for every journalistic organization because they should all be looked at.

KURTZ: But David Frum says...

SESNO: What are the potential conflicts of interest?

KURTZ: David Frum says the issue is too boring.

SESNO: It shouldn't be boring, and we shouldn't make it boring. Because who John McCain has working for him, or Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, and who's been paying them and what special interests they're involved in...

(CROSSTALK)

SKLAR: Go with a sexy female who's much younger. That will make the issue a lot more enticing.

(LAUGHTER)

FRUM: Here's what I meant by boring. What is interesting, exciting, something specific to a campaign, some kind of unusual event. This is a boring story, so-called, because it reflects something that is deeply wrong with the culture of Washington. The candidate is the victim of it, he's not the perpetrator.

SKLAR: Well, I do think that Howie is right though in noting that since McCain has passed himself as the anti-lobbyist, you know, no pork barrel spending and that, that it does invite a greater scrutiny.

KURTZ: Rachel, I don't want to interrupt you while you're saying I'm right, but let me throw you a little bit of breaking news.

This morning, Ralph Nader went on "Meet the Press" and announced that he's going to run for president for the third time. This is a guy who in the last election got 0.38 percent of the vote.

How much media attention should he get or will he get in this campaign?

SKLAR: I don't know? As little as possible?

I'm wondering who wants him to run. Where is the demand? Who has been clamoring for Ralph Nader?

This is what I genuinely don't understand. If there is an unmet demand for Ralph Nader, then by all means let's have at it. But his name has been absent, except as a spoiler.

KURTZ: We'll see how many talk shows he appears on this week.

Thank you very much, Rachel Sklar, David Frum, Frank Sesno, for joining us this morning.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Jon Stewart returns to host the Oscars. Will the funnyman get more laughs this time around on tonight's show?

Plus, Barack Obama's a great speaker, but why do the cable networks keep blowing other candidates off the screen to carry his long victory speeches?

And Hillary Clinton gets mad, really mad, over the latest criticism from Obama, but have the media bothered to check the facts?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Something unusual happened in the presidential campaign yesterday. Hillary Clinton got mad, really mad. And for media organizations that thrive on conflict, that was all it took to generate a major story.

The former first lady was objecting to a pair of mailings from Barack Obama's camp that criticized her positions on health care and the NAFTA trade agreement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So, shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public.

I am not going to stand here and see this campaign polluted by the kind of misleading, discredited and false attacks. Enough with the speeches and the big rallies, and then using tactics that are right out of Karl Rove's playbook.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But how were her attacks covered?

Joining us now to talk about this dustup and other aspects of the Democratic race, Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune"; Blanquita Cullum, radio talk show host; and Tom Foreman, CNN correspondent and host of "THIS WEEK IN POLITICS."

I watched all the coverage, I read all the pieces. With the exception of a fairly detailed piece in "The Washington Post," Clarence Page, this was all Hillary attacks, Obama responds, very little effort to figure out whether there was any distortions here by Senator Obama or not.

CLARENCE PAGE, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I suppose that will come later, Howard. I don't know.

But, it's sort of typical of the coverage of this campaign. We're too excited about the drama to worry about the issues. In fact, if you really want to analyze it, you know, was this out of Karl Rove's playbook? No. It was pretty standard fare when it comes to trying to distinguish between the two of them on issues like health care and NAFTA.

But what was really dramatic here, though, Howard, was what a contrast it was to her very conciliatory presentation...

KURTZ: Right.

PAGE: ... at the end of the other night's debate. And why is she now going back to bringing up long knives? That's the real question.

KURTZ: Let me play Barack Obama's response, and I'll ask you a question, Blanquita, on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Unlike some of the attacks that have been leveled about me that have debunked by news organizations, these are accurate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Doesn't the press have a responsibility to cut through the rhetoric and say, yes, these were largely attacks or they were not accurate, and here's how?

BLANQUITA CULLUM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: It would be OK if you had a different race. What you have, a race right now with a guy that America is infatuated with. So there's basically bigger -- there's a bigger infatuation than they really care about the issues that he stands for or they don't.

KURTZ: So that let's us off the hook?

CULLUM: No, it doesn't let you off the hook, but what I'm saying is that the people are not reading that. So, even if the press is covering it, it's kind of getting lost in the mix.

What I find kind of amazing is that Hillary took off the gloves now when she should have taken off the gloves during the debate. And then it would have given her a better platform for the kind of press coverage that you're talking about.

KURTZ: Here are some things, Tom Foreman, that you could have put in with 20 minutes of research. Hillary Clinton's health care plan does call for a mandate, so it does require people who don't want insurance to get it. Whether or not they can afford it, it turns on the question of subsidies.

She has spoken favorably about the NAFTA free trade agreement, which was passed by her husband. And these flyers that prompted her ire have been out for weeks, and her campaign has complained about it.

So, it wasn't something she just found out.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. We have a responsibility to get to those facts, and those facts are easily found.

I think the reason this is only being covered for what it is, is because that's all it is. This isn't really new. What he said about her is accurate. Whether or not she likes it...

KURTZ: I saw very few correspondents say, look, with the possible distinction of this or that, what he said about her was accurate.

PAGE: The story -- they have been arguing over these flyers and those same issues for several weeks.

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: That parts not new. What's new is her shift of tactics.

KURTZ: The networks have been playing her angry sound bites over and over again...

PAGE: Right. That's news. That's news.

KURTZ: ... thereby making it...

CULLUM: But let's take it back again to the end of the debate, where she was rather conciliatory, and she was saying, well, no matter what happens -- and what you're talking about is exactly right, because she's got to come out like, I'm not giving up, I'm still in the fight. I'm going to be mad. KURTZ: Since you brought that up, I'm going to play it for our viewers, and I'm going to follow it with some interviews that Hillary Clinton did the next morning, on the network morning shows, all of them picking up on the nature and tone of her remarks.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: No matter what happens in this context -- and I am honored, I am honed to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored.

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: I whispered as you said that, valedictory. Is that the beginning of the end of your campaign?

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: The question is, are you in a new place about winning? Have you decided that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish even if you don't win the presidency?

CLINTON: Well, I intend to win, obviously.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Did some members of the media go overboard in casting this as Hillary Clinton's swan song?

CULLUM: No, she said -- well, but...

FOREMAN: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

CULLUM: ... again, remember, it's still -- it's still showbiz. And she didn't come out like she was going to take him out in a TKO, she came out trying to be gracious. And people were waiting to see whether she was going to go for the throat on it with Obama.

She couldn't do it because -- you know, I asked the question, "Is America more racist or sexist?" She couldn't come out and try to take the guy down, because it would have said, you know what? She's really the B word.

FOREMAN: Yes, but what people are doing too much at this point in this race, to my mind, is they're reacting too much for the events of the past 48 hours, as if that is the defining characteristic of the campaign. And it's not.

There's an overall pattern here. This is what big-league politics is about these days. One moment you say, let me show you my soft side, let me show you how understanding and good I am, and within 24 hours, let me knock your teeth down the throat just to show that I'm tough. And when your campaign is in trouble, you'll get more of it.

PAGE: Or within the same debate. I don't know if you're going to also run the sound bite...

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: ... of her big booed earlier in the debate when she made that crack about Obama's alleged plagiarism and said, you know, your great (INAUDIBLE) coming out of a Xerox machine, something of that nature. She went a little bit too far. You know, before she had a good applause line, and then she went to the Xerox line, and it was like the audience groaned audibly and booed.

FOREMAN: And you can't say that in front of a mixed audience. You can say that in front of a partisan audience if you're holding a presser, you're speaking to your people, because they'll cheer for you.

PAGE: But my point is, based on -- that I think this goes over badly for her.

CULLUM: You're dealing with a phenomenon. You're dealing with a phenomenon.

You're dealing with a guy who has got the wave now moving in his direction, and all the people are going to try to ride that wave. You know, there's an old adage in Washington -- if it's going to happen, be for it.

Hillary is not on that wave. And so the difference between the 48 hours thing and old-time politics, and everything, we're not dealing with the same thing. We're dealing with a different MO here that's working in this election.

KURTZ: Since you brought up the question of Barack Obama and plagiarism, let me play what some of the pundits had to say about this. This became a big story for, I would say, three or four days. And just for people who haven't been following it, Barack Obama gave a couple of speeches and used some sentences and phrases that were almost identical to those used by the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, who is a friend and supporter of Obama's, and who said he was happy to have Obama use material.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAMMY BRUCE, "THE TAMMY BRUCE SHOW": He is presenting himself as a man of inspirational rhetoric, of inspirational ideas. And when he admits that he borrows ideas or trades ideas with someone else...

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it was stupid. I think he should have gone ahead and credited Deval Patrick.

HOWARD FINEMAN, "NEWSWEEK": Well, this isn't about plagiarism, Keith. It's about looking for any way that is from the Clinton campaign to slow Barack Obama's momentum.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: It's probably not Barack Obama's finest hour. He probably should have said, hey, I made a mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Big story or not, Tom Foreman?

FOREMAN: I think it's a sideline, you know. It ought to be mentioned, but I think what you're seeing here really is -- you mentioned where Hillary Clinton is right now with this whole wave thing. Look, she's not a that far behind.

It's all about momentum. And indeed, this question of trying to stop momentum.

KURTZ: She's 150 delegates behind.

FOREMAN: Yes, 150 delegates behind, but not enough to force it to the superdelegates, where she's leading in the superdelegates. So she's have to get more help there.

But in any event, I don't think it's a big story. I think we should mention it, but the mere fact that somebody has somebody in their campaign from whom they borrowed language, I think that happens absolutely all the time. And there have been echoes in Hillary's speeches of what Bill said years ago.

PAGE: Yes. Well, and also, in the debate the other night, she -- in that wonderful conciliatory finish, she more or less recited lines from John Edwards, actually, as if they were her own. This is a non-story, really. I mean, speakers borrow all the time. It's been a joke for years in civil rights circles, with Dr. King and various others, you know, borrow lines back and forth.

KURTZ: So why did it get so much media attention?

PAGE: Because this is great fodder for talk shows like ours. And, I mean, you just played some great clips from talk shows where they're talking about this.

You know, Howard, you and I have both been to seminars about plagiarism. You know, serious seminars about plagiarism.

KURTZ: Yes.

PAGE: This is not a serious case of plagiarism. This is just line borrowing, and it goes on all the time.

CULLUM: But they're missing big points on Obama. They're missing the fact that he's missed over, I don't know, 100 and something votes in the Senate on critical issues. I mean, things that really count for a guy that was voted by the constituency in Illinois to do the job. People are afraid to really ask the hardball questions to the guy.

PAGE: I bet Republicans will bring that up.

CULLUM: Oh yes.

FOREMAN: Although, as we reported on "THIS WEEK IN POLITICS" last week, John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have all missed substantial number of votes. Has he missed an awful lot? Yes, but it's not like anybody's there every day.

KURTZ: Let me jump in here.

For another take on the CNN debate in Texas on Thursday night between Obama and Hillary Clinton, "Saturday Night Live" was back after the long three-month hiatus caused by the Hollywood writers' strike.

Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Like nearly everyone in the news media, the three of us are totally in the tank for Senator Obama. Now let's meet the candidates.

Just four years ago, Barack Obama was known only as a brilliant, charismatic and universally admired member of the Illinois State Senate. Today he is one of our nation's truly visionary leaders. And soon, knock on wood, the first black president of the United States.

Senator Barack Obama.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: All right. A little comedic exaggeration...

PAGE: A little exaggeration, yes.

KURTZ: But, you know, look, we've talked on this program about whether the press is soft on Obama.

PAGE: I did a column on it this past weekend, and I said, you know, the Clinton campaign has got a point, that she's been on the downside as far as the media tilt. Because every campaign -- every big story has a narrative. And the narrative here has been one of the heroic young challenger against the mighty incumbent-like woman who's running for president.

But it's not just any woman, she's a Clinton. And it's like there is this kind of a narrative where I think a lot of the media coverage doesn't want to be on the wrong side of history after this is over.

CULLUM: So interesting to see, though, how it's also affected Bill Clinton, and how Bill Clinton, who was, you know, the darling of the press, has now lost his footing, and, you know, they've picked their guy that they're going to support. Now, how will the press deal actually towards the end of this campaign when you maybe have McCain and you have Obama? How -- will it stay or will it not?

KURTZ: You know what's another example of this? Just this past Tuesday night, Obama wins Wisconsin. And Hillary Clinton gives her speech. And she's seven minutes into the speech, and Obama comes out and upstages her, and all the cable networks then go to Obama.

She ends up with seven minutes. He got 46 minutes of primetime.

Why? Because he's fun to watch. But it just seemed to me to be unbalanced, and it's not the first time it has happened.

Finally, there was a flap about Michelle Obama's comments, as you well know, whether or not -- she said that this was the first time she was proud of America. And people jumped all over her.

PAGE: Really proud.

KURTZ: Really proud of America. OK.

PAGE: That's a key word here.

KURTZ: One of the people who discussed this on his radio show was Bill O'Reilly. Let me play you what he said.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama, unless there's evidence, hard facts that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how she really feels, that America is a bad country, or a flawed nation, or whatever, then that's legit. We'll track it down.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KURTZ: O'Reilly later apologized -- "I'm sorry if my statement offended anybody. That was not the attention."

PAGE: Poor Bill. You know, he compliments Al Sharpton, and it blows up in his face at Sylvia's restaurant. Remember? And now he's trying to kind of halfway defend Michelle Obama, and it blows up in his face.

KURTZ: Yes, that was my point, he's trying to defend her. But not a good choice of words.

CULLUM: Well, yes, not a good choice of words. But then again, how are the rules on this? You know, now we have a different set of rules. Can we -- can we say words, can we -- do we always have to now be politically sensitive on everything we talk?

PAGE: Of course.

CULLUM: Do we have to be politically sensitive on race, on feminism, on this and that? Or can we really say how we feel?

FOREMAN: We are losing our ability to speak. That's one of the problems.

CULLUM: Right. FOREMAN: Because we're making it so that, whether you're a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, if you simply stumble into the wrong word in a sentence, it becomes explosive. And that is where I think we're irresponsible...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: That's what happened to the Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman, who was suspended for two weeks after making a joke about Tiger Woods that used the word "lynching."

Got to go.

Tom Foreman, Blanquita Cullum...

CULLUM: Thank you.

KURTZ: ... Clarence Page, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, he kills on "The Daily Show," especially now that he's got his writers back. But Jon Stewart's last trip to the Oscars didn't produce any standing ovations. Can he raise his game tonight, or will the stars sit on their hands?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Jon Stewart may be the kind of Comedy Central, but when he hosted the Oscars two years ago, not so much. Stewart got a chilly reception in the hall and less than rave reviews. And it looked like a return engagement would be canceled by the Hollywood writers' strike. But now the walkout is finally over, he Stewart returns to the Kodak Theatre tonight.

He talked about it with ABC's Bill Weir.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON STEWART, HOST, ACADEMY AWARDS: I mean, the main thing is, it's pretty simple, which is, just be funny.

BILL WEIR, ABC NEWS: Did you back and look at the last one?

STEWART: No. I don't watch stuff I've been in.

WEIR: No?

STEWART: I don't care for me.

WEIR: You're not a fan of yours?

STEWART: I find me crass.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, can he help ease some of the bitterness caused by the strike? Joining us now from Los Angeles, Ray Richmond, television critic and entertainment and media correspondent for "The Hollywood Reporter."

Ray, can this be a normal Academy Awards tonight, when Hollywood is just coming off a bitter, crippling three-month strike?

RAY RICHMOND, "THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER": I absolutely think it's going to be the same old Oscars. I mean, you know, a writers' strike can cause some issues here and there as far as, you know, angst. And you know, I've heard of all the trumped-up, oh, my god, it can't be the same thing, Jon Stewart's only got eight or nine days to write the show, it's going to be a pale imitation of itself.

No it's not. It's going to be the Oscars. It's going to be fine. You know, Hollywood does not take a long time to recover.

KURTZ: But I can't help but notice there's been an unusually small amount of pre-game hype, compared to most years, and no "Vanity Fair" party. That was canceled during the strike.

RICHMOND: Yes. Well, you know, it's all right. No "Vanity Fair" party, we're still OK.

The reason you haven't heard the hype, Howard, is because you're in Washington. Trust me, there's plenty of it out here.

You can't get away from it. The Oscars, it seeps into every pore of your being when you're walking the streets in L.A.

And it's sort of like, enough already -- Daniel Day Lewis, Marion Cotillard, all right, we get it. Yes, they're the favorites. Enough. Enough.

Julie Christie, get away from me. You know, it's...

KURTZ: I will take your word on that. And of course, it didn't -- it looked for a while that there wouldn't be an Oscars telecast until the strike was settled. Now...

RICHMOND: Well, they claimed all along there was going to be, of course.

KURTZ: Yes, right.

RICHMOND: They said there is going to be an Oscars. And one way or another, of course, it would have basically been, you know, producer Gilbert Cates dancing in a tu-tu. But beyond that...

KURTZ: Well, Jon Stewart would not have shown up, for example.

Now, when he hosted two years ago, it was a notably chilly reception in that room when he told jokes like, "This is a night you can see all the stars and not have to contribute to the Democratic Party." Now, some critics liked Stewart's performance, others -- well, "The Washington Post" accused him of smug humorlessness, a sad and pale shadow of great hosts gone by.

So why did the academy bring him back?

RICHMOND: See, I accuse Tom Shales of smug humorlessness.

KURTZ: He's "The Washington Post" television critic, of course.

RICHMOND: Yes. So there's -- now, they brought him back because he was good.

Jon Stewart was fine. He did a great job on the show last time. I have no idea why there's this lingering idea of, oh my gosh, he screwed up, he bombed.

Anybody who's a visitor from the East, from New York, is automatically considered an invader in Hollywood's territory. And you have to, you know, kowtow and kiss their ring. Kind of like David Letterman, like Chris Rock, who did legitimately not do as well.

But after a little bit of uneasiness, Jon Stewart did fine last time. And, you know, he is not the beloved figure that Billy Crystal is, but Billy Crystal is almost 60. He's your daddy's Oscars.

If they want to try to get a new generation of Oscar viewers, they can't keep bringing Billy back. So, at least Jon Stewart is the kind of guy they can get young viewers. They already flock to him on "The Daily Show." And, you know, he's already college student tested.

He's only 45. He's the future.

KURTZ: But, so do you think that especially in a year with no blockbuster films, that bringing back Jon Stewart isn't an attempt to get people who are under, say, 50 to watch?

RICHMOND: Yes. Absolutely, it's a little bit of a (INAUDIBLE). But, you know -- but it's still the right move.

I mean, he's still very funny. He's very popular. He did great last time. I continue to be -- I was one of the critics who said he did fine. He started a little slow.

KURTZ: OK. You know, there was a split of opinion on that, but, look, is there a culture clash between the edgy satire that works so well on "The Daily Show" and the glitter and self-importance of the Hollywood elite?

RICHMOND: Yes, there absolutely is. You know, the Hollywood elite are very thin-skinned. And they don't want anybody, you know, raining on your party.

If you're going to be, you have to be really gentle, extra- gentle, like Billy Crystal. So, yes, they want it both ways. They want the edge, but they also want you to play nice. And Jon Stewart doesn't play nice. He wouldn't be the guy he is on "The Daily Show" if he did.

KURTZ: So he tells a joke that you think is funny and I think is funny, and the people in the hall sitting on their hands are looking uncomfortable, I think it affects the way the audience views it.

RICHMOND: Yes, it does affect the way the audience views it. It also affects the way the critics view it.

The fact that people were sitting on their hands also made critics thinks, wow, well, bad reaction, he bombed. No. You know, people -- these people just have to just chill out and have a little sense of humor about themselves.

I mean, and that's the problem. The problem is Hollywood's humorlessness and just utter self-absorption. It's not Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart is trying to grab some of the pretensions around the throat, strangle them, and throw them out the door of the Kodak. And that's what needs to happen.

KURTZ: Now, you sound like a Jon Stewart fan. If he doesn't do so well tonight, are you going to be willing to write that tomorrow?

RICHMOND: Absolutely not. I am so a lackey of his that there's now way -- yes, I will. I would. You have to be honest about this stuff.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: It sounded like you were going to admit to being in the tank there.

RICHMOND: Well, I'm not going to admit it on national TV, but of course I am in the tank.

KURTZ: All right. Well, we won't tell anybody.

Ray Richmond, thanks for joining us with this Oscars preview from Los Angeles. We appreciate it.

RICHMOND: Thanks, Howard.

KURTZ: And I think a few people might be watching tonight to see how he does.

If you've missed any of today's show, you can download our video podcast, available at iTunes or CNN.com/podcast.

Still to come, Chris Cuomo takes a flying leap off a building. "New York" magazine goes the "Playboy" route, with a revealing spread on Lindsay Lohan. And speaking of revealing, meet the FOX News reporter who likes posing in bikinis.

Our "Media Minute" straight ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Now for some quick takes in the news business in our "Media Minute."

Another journalist has been held in contempt of court.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): A federal judge is fining former "USA Today" reporter Toni Locy $500 a day, going up to $5,000 a day, for refusing to name her sources in a lawsuit involving the 2001 anthrax attacks. The suit is being pressed by former Army scientist Stephen Hatfield, who was named as a person of interest by federal authorities, but never charged in the case.

ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: Good morning, Mr. President.

KURTZ: When The Today Show's Ann Curry interviewed President Bush in Africa this week, she was reading some of her questions off a Blackberry. Now, that's a technological step forward.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, Chris. Just scooch off the edge.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh.

KURTZ: Good Morning America's Chris Cuomo bungee jumping from the roof of an Atlantic City casino. Is that really why he got into television?

"New York" magazine running seminude photo spread with Lindsay Lohan dressed up, or not so dressed up, as Marilyn Monroe? Who is craving attention more, Lohan, who recently got out of rehab and is posing as a woman who died from a drug overdose, or the editors of "New York," going the "Playboy" route?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Finally, I would never suggest that FOX News Channel hires female journalists based on their looks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): I'm sure it was just a coincidence that FOX correspondent Courtney Friel posed for some bikini shot for "Maxim" magazine. The pictures made their way to the gossip site Gawker, which says Friel has removed them from her own Web site.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Those pictures aren't hard to find online.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

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

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