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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Coverage of Spitzer's Resignation Examined

Aired March 16, 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): The press and the prostitute. As New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigns over a sex scandal, has the coverage turned salacious? More about hookers than hypocrisy? Psychoanalyzing Spitzer's wife Silda, and obsessing on this high- priced call girl.

Looking the other way? Has the press been slow to cover the incendiary racially-charged comments by Barack Obama's pastor?

Grim anniversary. As the Iraq war nears the five-year mark, why has it all but vanished from the media's radar screen?

Plus, entering the blowhard zone, going toe to toe with Stephen Colbert on his home court.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Less than an hour after "The New York Times" reported the stunning news on Monday that Eliot Spitzer had been linked to a prostitution ring, Fox News reported that the New York governor had been indicted and would resign "within moments." Fox's unnamed sources were wrong, as anchor Shepard Smith soon acknowledged, but the story exploded across the media landscape, in part because the Democratic governor had once prosecuted prosecution rings, and in part because the whole thing just seemed so sleazy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELIZABETH VARGAS, ABC NEWS: It was nothing short of a political earthquake today when it was revealed that Spitzer himself was linked to a federal investigation into a prostitution ring.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Law enforcement officials say Spitzer was caught last month on a federal wiretap, arranging to meet with a high-priced prostitute in Washington, D.C.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Why do politicians think they can hide this kind of stuff from the public and get away with it?

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: These clients like the governor were paying $5,000 an hour or more with time with these prostitutes.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Spitzer was elected to enforce the law. He can't be violating it at the same time. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The tabloids had a field day with such headlines as ""Ho No!" and "Hooked!" And journalists wanted to know just what was Spitzer -- or "Client 9," as FBI investigators called him -- getting for $4,300 a visit? And what did the call girl called Kristen have to say?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIC SHAWN, FOX NEWS: Also saying that Client Number 9 wanted some unsafe things, but she says, "Listen, dude, do you really want sex?"

JASON CARROLL, CNN: Kristen replied, "I have a way of dealing with that. I'd be like, 'Listen, dude, do you really want the sex?'"

BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS: She responded, "I have a way of dealing with that. I'd be like, 'Listen dude, do you really want the sex?'"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Forty-eight hours after the story broke, Spitzer resigned.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ELIOT SPITZER (D), NEW YORK: I'm deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And it was "The New York Times" that tracked down Kristen, whose name is actually Ashley Dupre, and soon her MySpace pictures were everywhere.

Joining us now to talk about the way this scandal unfolded in the media, Marcia Kramer, investigative and political reporter for WCBS in New York. In Albany, Fred Dicker, state editor at "The New York Post." And here in Washington, Matthew Felling, media critic and a host for National Public Radio.

Marcia Kramer, "The New York Times" broke this story online Monday afternoon. Did you and other reporters have any inkling that Eliot Spitzer was engaging in some extracurricular activities?

MARCIA KRAMER, INVESTIGATIVE & POLITICAL REPORTER, WCBS: Well, in fact, the Friday before it broke, I actually got a tip about it and had to call the governor's office, feeling sort of like a fool, because I was calling to say, is this Mr. Moralistic governor involved in a prostitution ring? They did deny it, but still, it was just an amazing thing to even contemplate, that Eliot Spitzer, who had been, you know, the moral voice of Albany, was suddenly involved in something so sleazy.

KURTZ: That's an uncomfortable phone call to make. Fred Dicker, this is such a seamy story, tailor-made for "The New York Post," and yet your paper initially was quoting "The New York Times," and the Times got the first pictures of Kristen. Bit of a role reversal there?

FREDERIC DICKER, "NEW YORK POST": Well, to some degree. I think some reporters were joking that when The Post has to quote "The New York Times" on a sex story, what does it say about journalism?

Let me note, Howard, it seems tailor-made for your show as well, because you're leading off with it. This was an extraordinary story, it still hasn't fully sunk in. It was an extraordinary story for everybody, whether it was the financial press because of Spitzer's background as the sheriff of Wall Street, as well as for mainstream newspapers across the board.

KURTZ: An absolutely extraordinary story. No debate about that, Fred Dicker.

Matthew Felling, "The New York Times" got some flack a few weeks ago for writing that story on John McCain and the female lobbyist without much evidence. Here, Times reporters learned from law enforcement sources that the bust of this Emperors Club, this high- class hooking ring, involved a certainly "Client 9."

Was this just good police reporting by the Times?

MATTHEW FELLING, NPR: It was good police reporting, it was good following up. It was good -- it was diligent reporting, because Jill Abramson said that she was over at "The New York Times" office all weekend long.

KURTZ: She's the managing editor.

FELLING: She's the managing editor. She was there in charge of -- because Keller had gone to Paris to talk with the IHT or something. I think that they made sure that all the I's were dotted, all the Ts were crossed, and then they went forward with this story on Monday afternoon by posting it online as their scoop.

KURTZ: Marcia Kramer, everybody...

DICKER: Howie, can I make an observation about that?

KURTZ: OK.

Everyone is now dumping on Eliot Spitzer, Marcia Kramer, as a half-crazed, obnoxious, confrontational bully, and had problems with his governorship even before the scandal, but when he was prosecuting these big Wall Street firms as state attorney general, the press, many believe, kind of built him up into this historic figure.

So were those earlier stories perhaps overdone?

KRAMER: Well, remember -- I think that some of those stories were overdone, but remember, John Whitehead actually had an editorial where he said that he was a bully and he had gone beyond his prosecutorial power. I think that, you know -- you know, he was doing this while he was the attorney general. This case goes back as much as eight years.

And I think that, you know, psychologists are going to have a field day, you know, talking about the good Eliot Spitzer and the dark side of Eliot Spitzer, and what was really going one. On the one side of his mouth he was talking prostitution, really bad, got to get the Wall Street people, got to get this, and on the other side he had this secret life as someone who was a frequent customer of prostitutes. I mean, it's an amazing story.

KURTZ: And there's no question that he did accomplish a good deal in going after some of the Wall Street excesses, but at the same time did harass some people.

Fred Dicker, you write in "The New York Post" this week, "I knew he was a fraud and a hypocrite from the day he swaggered into the capitol." But you say that "the largely fawning press corps was unable to see it."

While were you able to see this and your colleagues were not?

DICKER: Well, maybe because of the time I've spent in Albany. I can compare him to other governors. It may also be that I was willing to see it, where a lot of reporters, there's no question about it, were enamored with his liberal politics, his money, his swagger, and they thought, Howard, that it was a good thing for a governor to whack around the leaders of the New York State legislature.

A lot of journalists and others I don't think fully people appreciate that the legislature here in New York is a co-equal branch of government that serves as a check on the executive and deserves respect. This governor never showed respect to other power forces in the state, centers of power that are endowed with the legal authority to look at what he was doing. He treated them with contempt. He treated a lot of people with contempt, and that became pretty clear to me early on.

KURTZ: But at the same time, Fred, that you say you knew he was a fraud and a hypocrite, "The New York Observer" three years ago wrote that you, Fred Dicker, emerged as one of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's key boosters as he prepared to run for governor.

DICKER: Well, I was prepared to throw that overboard, wasn't I, Howard, when I saw a new side of him?

Look, I mean, early on I was reporting -- as some others were, too, but I think we led the way -- I broke the story on the "F'in" steamroller comment, where he's describing himself to a leader of the legislature as somebody who's going to roll over everybody. I think it's fair to say The Post and I led the way on the Troopergate scandal, which to this day is still under investigation, extremely serious misuse of the state police to try to destroy a political enemy. Spitzer apologizes, says he won't do it again. Then we broke the story a month later that he was trying to use the Internal Revenue Service to try to destroy the very same person he had use the state police against.

KURTZ: All right.

DICKER: So we had a long string of disclosures I don't think that others had.

KURTZ: Matthew Felling, this guy was in "TIME" magazine 2002 "Crusader of the Year," Wall Street's top cop. He was a media darling.

FELLING: Well, he was -- and I'm glad that he brought up the "F'in" steamroller so that I didn't have to bring it up. But I think that what he did, his victories were above the fold. His victories were against the Wall Street barons and against all the prostitution rings.

And the details, these details that really took away from his halo served as under the fold sort of things that only people who really follow Albany, only people who really New York politics, were on track with. And I think that America knew the heroic, the crusader, the "TIME" magazine version, but I think the people inside New York -- and I -- I mean, you have to take a look at this story and think, it's got hypocrisy, it's got sex and power, and it also has Gotham in New York City. And the fact that it was in New York City made it explode bigger than most...

KURTZ: Right. Well, my point is that when things are going well for a politician, being a steamroller -- expletive deleted -- can be portrayed in a positive light. But when things are not going well, not so much.

As I've watched television coverage this week, I have seen an awful lot of women who at least used to apply the world's oldest profession. Let's take a look at some of these interviews.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TERRY MORAN, ABC NEWS: Why? What makes a man like Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, with everything to lose, risk everything and do this?

HEIDI FLEISS, FMR. MADAM: It's not him. Its every man. And it's gone on since the beginning of time.

AL ROKER, NBC NEWS: Natalie, in your experience, how much of your clientele did you get from men who were actually married?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'd say it was about 50-50.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Did you think, Tracy, what you were doing was wrong?

TRACY QUAN, FMR. SEX WORKER: No. No. I'm talking not more so much about morality, but the whole sort of private/public thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Marcia Kramer, hasn't the story taken a salacious term since everyone on TV, including WCBS, started putting on all these prostitutes and pimps? What, we didn't know there were call girl rings before this?

KRAMER: Well, I think that they put them on because it was an attempt to explain what was a very salacious story and try to get to the bottom of it. I don't -- you know, once the name "Kristen" came out, and we knew who it was, I think there was some attempt to explain to the viewers how somebody like Eliot Spitzer, Mr. Morality, could somehow find himself involved in a prostitution ring. And so it was an attempt to explain sort of the unexplainable, you know.

KURTZ: Fred Dicker, your newspaper on Friday has a topless Ashley Dupre on the cover. I imagine that might have sold a few extra copies. Inside there were several more pictures that are close to pornographic. So no one's even mentioning Spitzer anymore. It's all Ashley.

DICKER: Well, I thought they were very attractive pictures myself, Howard. I didn't think they were pornographic at all. And the topless picture really was covered over I think if you look at it.

KURTZ: We're looking at it right now.

DICKER: These were remarkable pictures. Yes, good. I mean, I'm sure you'll see they're not topless. She's covered up.

But these were pictures of great public interest, there's no question about it. And I dare say we did have some extra visits to our Web site, because we had extra pictures there.

And look, as Marcia was saying, there's a degree of irrationality here, a challenge to the mind. How could somebody like Eliot Spitzer do something like this? That everybody shares, and everybody wants to know as much as possible about Kristen and the story, and I think everything and anything is fair game, including putting hookers on TV, because it is a legitimate question. Why would someone who had achieved so much like Eliot Spitzer risk so much going to a hooker?

KURTZ: Right.

Very briefly, Matthew Felling, the reaction in the TV newsroom was, this was so tawdry, so tragic. How many segments can we get out of it?

FELLING: Exactly. I think one side of the coin you might have, let's explain this story. But on the other side, there's also a lot of exploitation going on. Let's try and figure out as many excuses as we can get, let's try to take as many bites of this apple as we possibly can to get prostitutes, to get johns, and to get sex workers, and McGreevey's wife on, and milk this segment for as much as possible. KURTZ: Yes. The former governor, Jim McGreevey. His wife was -- ex-wife, excuse me -- was everywhere.

Look, the media love to cover sex stories, but sometimes we feel like we have to wrap it in a cellophane of seriousness.

Marcia Kramer, I've got a few seconds left. David Paterson tomorrow, the lieutenant governor, takes the first oath of office. He'll be the first black governor of New York, the first blind governor in American history. Is he likely to get a bit of a media honeymoon given the circumstances of his essential (ph)?

KRAMER: Well, I think for sure, he'll get a bit of a honeymoon. But, you know, if you take a look at the front page of "The New York Times" today, the honeymoon may be over. They're talking about some of the more liberal pieces of legislation that he's put forth, including non-citizens to vote and telling cops that they can't shoot to kill, so I think the honeymoon is sort of starting to be over.

I mean, people want to see him do well. It's a tragic situation. He is an accidental governor thrust into the spotlight.

KURTZ: Right.

KRAMER: And I think that he'll have a bit of a honeymoon, but it's not going to be as long as you think it might be.

KURTZ: It looks pretty brief to me. He hasn't even taken office yet.

All right. Marcia Kramer, Fred Dicker, Matthew Felling, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, how did everyone on TV become an expert on Eliot Spitzer's unhappy looking wife. Novelist Erica Jong, who knows a thing or two about sex, joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Since much of the Spitzer scandal resolves around sex, we decided to call in an expert. Erica Jong first made waves in the 1970s with her sexually explicit novel "Fear of Flying." She's the author of more than a dozen book and a contributor to The Huffington Post.

She joins us now from New York.

Everyone on TV is blathering about Eliot Spitzer's wife Silda, why didn't she dump him, how could she stand by him at these news conferences? Does anyone really know what they're talking about here?

ERICA JONG, AUTHOR: I think they have absolutely no idea. And I'm actually horrified by people judging other people's marriages on TV. It makes me absolutely crazy. I think we know nothing about Silda and Eliot and their marriage, and I think that their marriage should be private. KURTZ: Well, at the risk of making you even more crazy, Erica, let me just play a few of the people who have been the psychotherapists and psychologists who have been talking about this on the tube.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. DAVID EIGEN, PSYCHOLOGIST: The family hasn't been honest. Probably the wife knows that things weren't working, but she's been going, I enjoy my lifestyle.

DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: When the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings sexually, personally, to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like her hero, he's very susceptible to the charm of some other woman.

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC: I do know this, and I'm happy to judge it. You drag your wife out there, and you're a pig.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So why should we listen to any of these people, all of whom have never met Eliot Spitzer or Silda Spitzer?

JONG: Well, I'm particularly horrified by Laura Schlessinger, who is blaming the woman for what's going on. Clearly, Eliot Spitzer had some sort of sex addiction problem. He didn't have a super ego that was developed as it should have been.

He had been doing this for eight years, and he thought he would continue to get away with it. He had worked out a system of going down to Washington, to the Mayflower Hotel, of all places, a place crawling with politicians and journalists, and he was seeing prostitutes at the Mayflower Hotel. He must have been insane to do that, or there was a lacuna where his conscious should be and he thought the rules that apply to other people didn't apply to him.

Maybe the guy is bipolar. I'm not a shrink. I'm a lowly novelist and poet. But I will say that all these shrinks who are going on TV and talking about Eliot Spitzer should be disbarred, or whatever they do to shrinks.

They should have their licenses taken away. An ethical shrink does not go on TV and psychoanalyze people she or he has not met. So I'm horrified by this.

KURTZ: Well, or they could be disbarred from the airwaves, except that we need a constant parade of guests in order to talk about the story and keep it going.

JONG: In order to have the media circus, which you have written about.

KURTZ: Exactly. JONG: This has nothing to do with the reality of Silda's life, Eliot's life, or their children's lives. And, in fact, as a mother and grandmother, I am appalled that people are parading this. If they really feel sympathy for this family, they ought to realize those three teenage girls should be the first -- the very first priority for Silda at this moment.

KURTZ: Let me come back to the media behavior, because you in your memoir acknowledged sleeping with a married man. This is not exactly unheard of. Is the press a little bit too shocked that this sort of thing goes on?

JONG: No. They want -- they want a story they can run with.

They want to be able to put a sad-looking tattooed girl -- that is the saddest girl I've ever seen. Her face is so full of sadness.

She has so many tattoos. We don't know what her name is. She's Kristen, she's Alexandra, she's Dupre, she's Youmans.

Here is a very sad young woman of 22 being splashed all over the tabloid press, so it's not very nice to her, it's not very nice to Eliot Spitzer's children's, it's not very nice to his wife. It's just an attempt to sell tabloid papers.

KURTZ: Although I note that Ashley Dupre is making a lot of money already. More than 300,000 people have downloaded her song.

JONG: You cannot make enough money for make up becoming the punch line of a joke.

KURTZ: Well, that is true. She's the punch line of every late- night comic.

I've got just a few seconds here. The blogosphere is kind of abuzz with the notion that this was a political hit on Eliot Spitzer.

What do you make...

JONG: I think it was a political hit, although all the evidence is not in. If you read everything on the blogosphere from the right, from the left, as I do, you see that people could not have been happy to have the first Democratic governor in four decades come to Albany. People could not have been happy -- remember what he was testifying about in Washington.

KURTZ: Right.

JONG: He was testifying about subprime mortgages and banks like Countrywide that were sucking in poor black people and giving them mortgages they could not afford.

KURTZ: The man had his share of enemies, but he also obviously...

JONG: He had a lot enemies. And more than that, Howie -- and this is important...

KURTZ: Just briefly.

JONG: The Republicans are really good at smearing.

KURTZ: Yes, but of course the person whose self-destructive behavior led to his downfall was, of course, Eliot Spitzer.

JONG: Sure. But...

KURTZ: Erica Jong, got to go.

JONG: Thanks.

KURTZ: Thank you so much for joining us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It's been clear for some time that Barack Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, is a controversial guy. But I didn't realize just how inflammatory and racially divisive the reverend could be until this week, when Fox News and ABC obtained videos of some of Wright's sermons. In one case here we've bleeped his use of the N- word.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Fox News has obtained portions of Reverend Wright's sermons that are anti-American, to say the least. Viewer warning -- some offensive material coming up.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST: Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people! Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

The government lied. The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.

And they will not only attack you if you try to point out what's going on in white America, U.S. of KKKA.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Wright also said that white America got a wakeup call after 9/11.

Obama tried to dismiss the controversy with a tepid statement, but on Friday night he made the rounds of the cable networks to criticize, but not disavow, his longtime friend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Do you repudiate the man? Do you repudiate the comments? Do you repudiate both? SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, I would not repudiate the man. I would describe it as a member of your family who does -- says something that you really disagree with.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: I mean, uncles are blood relatives who you're kind of stuck with at family gatherings even when they say outrageous things.

OBAMA: As I said, Anderson, if I had heard any of these statements, I probably would have walked out, and I probably would have told Reverend Wright that they were wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the coverage of race in the campaign, in New York, Deroy Murdock, syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and a contributing editor for "National Review Online." Here in Washington, Ed Schultz, host of the nationally syndicated radio program "The Ed Schultz Show." And CNN senior political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Gloria, I thought Anderson Cooper did a good job of interviewing Obama on Friday not, but on Thursday -- and you were on the set at the time -- he said, well, we have to cover this, but it just feels completely off track. And he also was apologizing for it.

Isn't this a legitimate story?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it is a legitimate story. I think it became a legitimate story when these sermons -- somebody went out -- talk about great investigative journalism, as you were saying -- somebody went out and bought the DVD.

I think it becomes a legitimate story given the environment of identity politics now in which we're operating. And the fact that Gerri Ferraro made some comments that people though were incendiary about Barack Obama, and now you have the Reverend Wright. And I think Obama was probably a little late in getting out there and disavowing these statements.

KURTZ: Well, let's look at the media behavior, Ed Schultz.

Fox News made a big deal about this on Thursday. CNN and MSNBC did it on some programs. On Friday, there was nothing in "The Washington Post," nothing in the "L.A. Times," nothing in "USA Today." "The New York Times" did an item. Some of them have now caught up.

Isn't that the liberal media at work?

ED SCHULTZ, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, the story is going to go on because conservative talk radio in America is not going to let this story die. So there's still plenty of time for "the mainstream media" to do the full vetting process of this.

KURTZ: What about liberal talk radio? Aren't you talking about it on your show?

SCHULTZ: Well, it looks like it could be the soft underbelly of the Barack Obama campaign. If he was in attendance at any of these sermons, it's going to be a problem for him. But so far it doesn't look like the story has resonated too much across the country, because just last night in the conventions in Iowa and California, he picked up another 16 delegates.

KURTZ: All right.

Deroy Murdock, McCain -- John McCain has a pastor who's endorsed him, Rod Parsley, who has criticized Islam as a false religion. Not much media attention there. So in the case of Obama and Jeremiah Wright, do you think there's a certain media reluctance here either to criticize Obama or to go after a black minister?

DEROY MURDOCK, SCRIPPS-HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: I think there might have been some reluctance for the following reason -- we've seen rumors on the Internet, and all sort of chatter and gossip and so on, wondering whether or not Barack Obama is a Muslim, and was he perhaps trained in a madrassa when he grew up in Indonesia. And that's been discredited. Those are not true.

And there may have been some hesitance get into this story thinking, well, if we're not going to talk about his false Muslim background, maybe we should stay away completely from the whole question of what goes on in his church, what sort of religious faith is he involved in. As these videotapes have come out, as these comments have come out and been so completely incendiary -- the term "radical cleric" comes to mind -- it really came to the point where this no longer could be ignored, and I think the story will continue.

Obama, I think, has done a pretty good job on trying to get on top of this, writing something for The Huffington Post, going out on these TV interviews. But as long as that tape's around, they can play it over and over again, and not just the words, but seeing this man waving his hands around and looking kind of wound up I think keeps the story going.

KURTZ: Right. Had there not been videotape, even if we had the transcripts, I don't think the story would be as big as it's turning out to be.

But now, Ed Schultz, this is not just the guy who happens to be the pastor of Obama's church in Chicago. I mean, this is a guy who presided at the wedding of Michelle and Barack Obama, baptized their daughters, a longtime friend, so that does naturally make journalists wonder, well, how much of this did Obama know and why has he been close to this guy?

SCHULTZ: How could he be in that church for 20 years and not at least have a sense of some of the sermons that he's given. If he was in attendance of some of those sermons, it's going to be a problem. That's the next angle, and that's where I think the media is going to go. In the meantime, Obama, I think, played the media well, didn't let it get to a Swift Boat situation. He went out on all the networks on Friday, and he has an innate ability to kind of reduce the tension in the room. That's the attractiveness of this guy. But I do think it's not totally over.

KURTZ: Let me ask you this question, Gloria, because we'll talk about this in a moment with Geraldine Ferraro as well. How much should journalists hold a presidential candidate accountable for ugly comments that are made by surrogates and supporters? There's been a whole string of these incidents, and most of them have been pretty big stories.

BORGER: Well, I think the answer to that is, honestly, it depends. I mean, I agree that now journalists are going to go out and find out when Barack Obama attended that church, what he was listening to at the time.

If incendiary comments like the one you just showed were said in sermons while he was there, if he did not object to them, what does that tell you about what Barack Obama believes? And it could say, gee, is Barack Obama as so-called unpatriotic as the Reverend Wright, and that could become a big issue in a presidential campaign.

KURTZ: So that makes the question, Deroy Murdock, you know, the old journalistic standby -- what did he know and when did he know it?

MURDOCK: That's a really serious question. If he attended this church for 20 years, did he just go at Christmas and Easter, or was he going there every Sunday? And depending on how often he went, did he actually hear these sorts of things? Did he talk with his pastor about this to try to dissuade him from using this sort of language?

I think the reason that the racial -- going back to the Ferraro incident, the reason that these racial statements keep becoming newsworthy, isn't because journalists are hyping it up. It's because you have so many surrogates, particularly on team Clinton, who have been injecting these racial and religious questions going back to Bill Clinton, of course, in South Carolina, her chairman in New Hampshire who made some statements that some people considered racially insensitive.

And so team Clinton seems to be playing the race card over and over and over as one card after another after another falls down on to the (INAUDIBLE). And I think that's why these things remain newsworthy.

NGUYEN: Well, let me get to that. First let me mention that Barack Obama was playing another kind of -- engaging in other damage control on Friday.

He spent three hours talking to reporters at the "Chicago Tribune" and the "Chicago Sun-Times" about his past involvement with the indicted fundraiser Tony Rezko, and acknowledging that Rezko had contributed much more to his -- all of his campaigns, $250,00, in fact, than Obama had previously acknowledged. OK. We've touched on Geraldine Ferraro. The press has been all over her for remarks about -- saying that Obama would not be where he is today if in fact he was not black.

She told the "Daily Breeze" of Torrance, California, that quote. Here's the quote -- "If he was a white man he wouldn't be in this position."

Hillary Clinton's reaction was rather tepid, saying she disagreed with Ferraro's regrettable comments. Ferraro resigned as a campaign adviser a day later. And the former congresswoman went on the airwaves, and she did not back down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALDINE FERRARO (D), FMR. VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And it hurts. It really hurts. And that's the thing. I'm sorry that people think I'm racist, because I'm just not.

My comments have been so taken out of context and have been spun by the Obama campaign as racist, that, you know, it's doing precisely what they don't want done.

ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: You're saying they're playing the race card, and not the Hillary campaign.

FERRARO: Absolutely. And I tell you, if anybody was going to apologize, they should apologize to me for calling me a racist.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Gloria, is it fair for the press to be all over Ferraro over this?

BORGER: Yes.

KURTZ: She says she's owed an apology.

BORGER: Well, Hillary Clinton's campaign was all over Gerri Ferraro. And if you want to compare the Ferraro thing to the Wright thing, the interesting thing to me is that the Hillary Clinton campaign has clearly backed off on saying anything about the Reverend Wright, because they don't need to stir the pot. They know the media is stirring the pot.

The Obama campaign jumped on the Gerri Ferraro thing and stirred -- and stirred that one up. And I think, you know, as I was saying earlier, what we're getting into is this question of identity politics and racial politics that is going to be there with us if Barack Obama becomes the nominee.

KURTZ: Geraldine Ferraro is famous for one thing. She was Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984. The first woman to be a vice presidential nominee. Now she's just a former congresswoman and a Fox News commentator. So, are the media just kind of loving this because it gives us a chance to talk about both political crossfire and the sensitive subject of race?

SCHULTZ: She wouldn't stop talking about it. She did interview after interview after interview. I mean, she helped the story evolve to where it was right there.

And I think most people were offended and people in the media were surprised that she actually came to the conclusion that Barack Obama was lucky. He was lucky to be on the Harvard Law Review? He was lucky to have his dad leave him at the age of 2 years old?

What was she talking about? And I think she lost a lot of credibility, and because of the context of it is why the Clinton camp so quickly got away from it.

KURTZ: Deroy Murdock, whether Ferraro's comments were offensive or not -- and Obama obviously has been running as a kind of a post- racial candidate -- isn't it true that the media are playing the race card here by making this such a huge deal?

MURDOCK: Well, you know, Barack Obama's book is called "The Audacity of Hope." I think this really is the audacity of Ferraro.

Not only does she make these statements, but of course she wasn't contrite about them. And then she turned around and said that the Obama campaign is racializing this. And she said they're attacking me because I'm white. So I thought that was a rather audacious thing to say.

Again, I don't think it's the media making a big deal about this. I think we're merely reporting and commenting on these statements that keep coming out, much more so from the Clinton side than the Obama side.

We've seen it over and over again. Over and over again, it's part of the pattern. I think that's what -- rather than saying, oh, this is an isolated incident, let's not focus on this, it's again part of a pattern that's gone all the way back to Iowa and New Hampshire. It's a huge part of this campaign 2008.

KURTZ: No shortage...

MURDOCK: And every time one of these things is said, it just becomes another piece in that puzzle.

KURTZ: No shortage of fodder for us in the media.

Deroy Murdock, Ed Schultz...

MURDOCK: Thank you.

KURTZ: ... Gloria Borger, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Up next, Iraq five years later. The war is still raging. Americans still dying. So why does the coverage keep dwindling?

We'll go overseas to talk with ABC's Bill Weir and CNN's Arwa Damon about the reasons why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: A quick note. Erica Jong said earlier in the program that Eliot Spitzer was the first Democratic governor in 40 years. She must obviously have meant 14 years, since Mario Cuomo was in the state house in Albany.

Remember when Iraq was constantly on the front pages and at the top of the network newscasts? Well, with the five-year anniversary of the war approaching this week, consider this -- last year, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the media devoted 23 percent of their news space to the war. This year so far the figure has plummeted to 3.2 percent.

Joining us now to talk about the coverage, in Baghdad, Bill Weir, co-anchor for "Good Morning America Weekend" on ABC. And in Jakarta, Indonesia, CNN's Awa Damon.

Bill Weir, you're there in Iraq for the fifth anniversary of the war. John McCain is there as well, a campaign trip, although he's not talking about the campaign.

Isn't the fact that the networks are making a big deal about this anniversary kind of underscore how much the level of coverage has declined?

BILL WEIR, ABC NEWS: Absolutely. No -- you know, we love anniversaries, as human beings and mostly as network journalists. But you know what? This story at this point, for many of us, we'll take whatever we can get.

It's become so expensive and perceptively so dangerous to come over here. And as you mentioned there, you know, the bureau chief here in Baghdad used to put together a packet of daily news coverage, print coverage. It was the size of a small phone book a couple years ago. Now it's a single page.

And any story that lasts five years has a short -- you know, gets into the American attention span right there. But yes, we're here for the anniversary, but that does not mean it is the (ph) story of our time.

KURTZ: Right.

Now, the anniversary has landed the Iraq war on the cover of "Newsweek." There were some front page stories today in various newspapers -- if we could put that "Newsweek" cover up.

Arwa Damon, do you find it harder when you are in Iraq -- you were there until recently -- to get war stories or Iraq stories on the air, especially in the middle a presidential campaign here in the states? ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the presidential campaign is obviously going to be the top story, especially in the states. And I think what we're seeing right now is the coverage coming out of Iraq isn't so much about those casualty numbers. The numbers of dead and wounded used to really overshadow all of the other reporting.

So, while a lot of our stories aren't in the A block, they're not in the top tier, we are still able to get out the more human interest stories, really dig beyond what the numbers and the violence was, and try to get to the core of the Iraqi people, try to put out the kinds of stories about who they are, how has this war directly impacted them. And I think in some ways those are the even more important stories to tell.

I mean, this war is far from being over. There's still 150,000 soldiers, there are thousands of Americans that have died in the last five years, tens of thousands of Iraqis. And this still does remain a very important issue. And I think that's where our job becomes even more important.

KURTZ: Right.

DAMON: Because we can't let this story die. So no matter how hard it is sometimes to get the pieces on air, we still have to keep trying.

KURTZ: Bill Weir, a new Pew Research poll says that 48 percent of Americans believe the war effort is going very or fairly well. The number has not been that high in some time. And some Republicans are saying, well, you know, the media are playing down Iraq right now because the surge has had modest success and it has been a -- something that has worked for President Bush.

WEIR: You know, that's an interesting idea. I will say that the thing is it's so complex, Howie.

You come here -- this week they found the body of an assassinated archbishop, the severed fingers of kidnapped American contractors were sent to the U.S. military here. Five soldiers blown up, about 20 civilians. But at the same time, I went out on a couple patrols and it's unbelievable.

You've got Sunnis and Shiites manning the same checkpoints. You've got captains, sergeants in these combat platoons, guys who were here during the invasion, who are going out and having tea with the local mullahs, and taking off their body armor and their helmets.

It's unprecedented the success they're having in some quarters, but which story is going to get the headline, the severed fingers or the guy having tea?

KURTZ: Exactly.

Arwa Damon, do you have the sense that Americans are just tired of this war, and when the surge came along and the violence went down, and the spectacular bombings went down, although they do still occasionally take place, but that that gave the media the reason or maybe even the excuse to cut back on the coverage?

DAMON: Well, look, it's no big secret that pretty much everybody is tired of this war. The U.S. public is, the soldiers are, and the Iraqis themselves are obviously as well. And it's not lost on the Iraqis either that this really has become a war that nobody wants to hear about and really nobody wants to deal with. And they're very aware of this, and they do tend to feel abandoned by the global community.

And it's understandable, to a certainly degree, but again, I go back to the point of that's where our jobs are so important, to try to keep this story alive, to try to look for the types of stories that can kind of build that cross-cultural bridge to generate understanding and compassion for the what the Iraqi people are going through. Because, again, this war is going to be going on for quite some time now.

KURTZ: No question.

DAMON: And it's very complex, as we just heard. And there are a lot of different factors that really need to come together for Iraq to continue.

KURTZ: Bill Weir, I've got about half a minute. You and other reporters parachute in there for a few days because of the anniversary. How much can you really assess about the state of the war?

WEIR: Hey, you know what? It's a challenge, but we hit the ground and go out as many times as we can. You know, neighborhoods, rural areas, talk to as many people -- ambassadors, generals, soldiers, Iraqis. And that's what you try to do. I'm proud of what we did on "GMA" this weekend though.

KURTZ: All right. Well, happy to see you there. Stay safe.

Bill Weir, Arwa Damon, thank you very much for joining us.

Arwa has more on Iraq tonight with CNN Special Investigations Unit on "Deadly Ground: The Women of Iraq," tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Still to come, Stephen Colbert was finally man enough to accept my challenge to get in the ring.

Check it out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": My guest Howard Kurtz is the media critic for "The Washington Post." I'll ask him what he thinks about what I'm asking him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It was two years ago that Stephen Colbert, a fake journalist, had the nerve to go after me, the real thing, on his Comedy Central show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLBERT: Listen here, Kurtz, while I was knee deep in death gumbo, you sat in your $700 ergonomic office chair with your media critique tweezers picking the nits off the rest of us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So I called him out, challenged that loudmouth to go one on one. This week he finally capitulated and immediately assailed my integrity. What a setup.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLBERT: Now, you're a member of the media, but yet you are also a media critic. Isn't that the fox watching the hen house?

KURTZ: I'm sort of like the internal affairs cop, Stephen. I know all the things that can go wrong in journalism because I've been in the business.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Then he asked me about coverage of the campaign, setting an obvious trap that I was not about to fall into.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLBERT: You're one of those guys how believes that Barack Obama was getting a free ride from the press, correct?

KURTZ: The fact is that Barack Obama -- you know, sometimes they ought to hose these reporters and pundits down. And then what happened is, a couple weeks ago, "Saturday Night Live" started making fun of us, us journalists, that we were in the tank for Obama. And now the coverage has gotten a little bit tougher.

COLBERT: Do you really think that late-night comedy shows should have any influence on what goes on in politics?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Next Colbert offered his own analysis of reporters' behavior that was so convoluted, it left me a little dizzy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLBERT: Maybe they were just bored with Hillary, because she was a story they already new. Barack Obama was the new story, but then he became the old new story, and not treating her well became the new, new story. And the press not only got to talk about her, but talk about themselves, which is their favorite subject.

KURTZ: Chris Matthews said he got a thrill running up his leg whenever Obama gave a speech. We don't know how high that went.

COLBERT: That thrill is what you call the hardball.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Well, I showed that guy a few things.

Colbert, you have met your match. Maybe you learned something about journalism.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us against next Sunday morning for another critical look at the media.

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