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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Koppel in China; Bill Clinton and the Media; Election Tactics
Aired July 6, 2008 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Waging war. McCain gets strafed by Wes Clark over his Vietnam service. Obama still battling rumors about his patriotism and his religion.
Are the media referees blowing the whistle on unfair tactics?
And a single phone call feeds the media's fixation with Bill Clinton.
Excellent adventure. Ted Koppel on his journey to China and his take on American politics.
Turning the tables. Wolf Blitzer on 10 years of Sunday morning interviews.
Plus, Bill Gates gets a sweet media sendoff without giving his job.
KURTZ: I would have bet a sizeable sum of money that of all the possible attacks against John McCain, the Democrats would not have gone after his Vietnam War record, which, of course, includes his capture and torture in Hanoi. Well, I was wrong.
And I was reasonably certain that by now the media would set the record straight on these scurrilous rumors that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, or in the latest crazy iteration, a gay Muslim. But plenty of people are telling reporters they still believe it.
Which leads me to this question: Do journalists have the will and the ability to police unfair attacks and deep-six the garbage?
The latest round began this week when retired General Wes Clark appeared on "Face the Nation" and opened rhetorical fire on McCain's war record.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. WESLEY CLARK, U.S. ARMY (RET.): He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, I don't know if whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not.
BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, "FACE THE NATION": I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean... CLARK: Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: That was all it took for the pundits to make yet another presidential campaign about a war that ended more than three decades ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: A respected military leader dissing, some might say swift-boating, John McCain's military record.
JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Of course they intended for Wesley Clark and these other folks to say -- and they intended for Barack Obama then to say, hey, I had nothing to do with it.
TARA WALL, "WASHINGTON TIMES": General Clark owes Senator McCain an apology. And for, at the very least, using poor choice of words.
KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: That was an outrageous comment by General Clark, who knows better than this. Shame on him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So what is the media's role when these bullets start flying?
Joining us now, David Corn, Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" magazine; Chris Cillizza, who blogs at washingtonpost.com; and Amy Holmes, CNN political analyst and contributor.
So, Wes Clark shoots from the lip, he has actually said this before. And it dominates the news for days, even after Barack Obama disavows it. Why did this become such a big story?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, "THE WASHINGTON POST": You know, because I think the media, and to a certain extent, political operatives, are always fighting the last campaign. And in the last campaign the defining image was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad, this idea that the reason John Kerry was nominated, that he had this strong military record, that he was not -- he was someone who could say, we need to change course in Iraq with credibility, was attacked at the core of that campaign, was shaken by these attacks.
So I think it reminds people, though I think people who say that it's the same thing are probably exaggerating quite a bit. But it reminds people of that storyline. And again, we're always re-litigating what happened in the last campaign.
KURTZ: Now, Wes Clark then proceeded to go on a bunch of other television shows, and to say that he wasn't back off of his comments, but it wasn't a big deal. Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBIN ROBERTS, CO-HOST, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": General Clark, do you feel like that you owe Senator McCain an apology?
CLARK: Well, Robin, I want to say first that Senator Obama had nothing to do with this.
Well, you know, I think if you had seen the whole question and the whole interview in context, I think there is no issue with this.
It's also a little bit about the nature of American politics today that a comment like this could be taken out of context the way it was and create such a hullabaloo.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Except that he keeps repeating it.
Is this a game, Amy Holmes, where the media seize on a surrogate's comment and pretend or act as if the campaign had orchestrated it?
AMY HOLMES, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's a really good question. And "The Washington Post" had an editorial, "The Silly Surrogate Season," saying why are we attacking these people? Because they are surrogates. And I think the press has a responsibility to get down to the matter, how much did Wesley Clark coordinate with the Obama campaign?
Is this a high road/low road strategy to attack John McCain? And Wesley Clark did say after that Sunday appearance -- and with all due respect, it made national news because it was on national television. This is Wesley Clark, you know, a very respected general...
HOLMES: ... telling, trying to use his credibility to attack John McCain. But the press has a responsibility to get down to how closely was Obama and Clark coordinating?
KURTZ: Sure, it made national news. But it went on to day three and four and five. And by the way, the Obama campaign did say to me, among others, that they certainly did not tell General Clark to say that.
DAVID CORN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, MOTHER JONES: Well, it made national news because national media loves nothing better than a cat fight. And the McCain camp saw an opportunity to make it a cat fight. Over and over again this week, the headline was that Wesley Clark attacks John McCain's military record in Vietnam.
I've read this, I don't think it's an attack on his military record. In the same comments he said he was a hero to me. You don't call someone a hero if you're attacking them. But he was making the argument, whether true or not, and this is what we can evaluate, whether his military service and what happened to him as a POW has any bearing on whether he should be president or not. Now people can argue that point, but it wasn't a criticism of what he did in Vietnam the way the Swift Boat people criticized and actually called Kerry a fraud for what he did. So I think the media has actually misportrayed this in a pretty fundamental way.
CILLIZZA: I just -- I always feel like I should be the defender of the media here. And I will do so. I will play my role valiantly.
HOLMES: It's a lonely role.
CILLIZZA: Look, this -- any media story is like a fire, in my opinion. You give it more oxygen, the fire grows. What Obama's campaign would have liked Wesley Clark to do is go on a nice, long July 4th vacation.
CILLIZZA: And he kept going out there.
CILLIZZA: He kept going back through it. He kept re-litigating it. Now that gives oxygen...
CORN: But he thought he was wrong initially.
HOLMES: But I think that's an important...
CORN: In that way he was trying to fight back. And it's hard to do that.
HOLMES: An important point, though, is he kept doing it after he spoke with the Obama campaign. After that Sunday appearance, he spoke with that campaign and then went back on the morning shows.
KURTZ: All right. Let me turn the question to this: What is it about Vietnam -- we've been through this with Dan Quayle, with Bill Clinton, with George Bush in whether he went AWOL, with John Kerry and Swift Boat -- that seems to push the buttons of baby boomer journalists?
HOLMES: Because this is the baby boomer war. And this is a whole generation of people and politicians...
KURTZ: And it was 35 years ago.
HOLMES: ... and voters who went through this experience to decide who is going -- you know, who has military leadership and who does not.
CORN: And you know, if Mitt Romney had become the Republican nominee, we would not be talking about Vietnam in a political context, maybe never, ever again. But with John McCain, part of what he is doing is trying to present himself, his qualifications, and his war service, if you look at some of the ads, and his campaign has had a whole internal dynamic about how much to talk about Vietnam and not.
KURTZ: Right. CORN: So with him, it's part of the baggage or the aspects.
HOLMES: Part of his story.
KURTZ: Now all of this overshadowed, to some extent, a speech that Senator Obama gave on patriotism. Let's take a brief look at some of what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At certain times over the last 16 months, I've found for the first time my patriotism challenged, at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears and doubts about who I am and what I stand for.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this. The media have reported hundreds of times that Obama is a Christian, that he's not a Muslim and all of that. And it doesn't seem to matter to some people when you go out and interview -- do interviews and polls and so forth. Why is that?
CILLIZZA: Because I think people have a tendency to believe whatever reinforces their -- what they want to believe. I mean, look, I have written any number of times, "The Washington Post" has written number of times, every nation media organization, print, radio, this guy is not a Muslim, this guy was not educated in a Muslim school, this guy has never been a Muslim.
It doesn't matter because what we're dealing with, Howard, and I think this is important, is it's a viral age, and so when we right a story and we put it on the Internet, we're combating 20 e-mails that someone may have gotten that allege that Barack Obama is a Muslim.
And it's a lot harder to prove -- to disprove something than it is to prove something, especially when it reinforces what people are already looking for. They're already skeptical about Barack Obama.
CORN: And they're already skeptical about the media. You know, we had, you know, a lot of '60s and '70s, the conservative activists saying the media was too liberal, in the '80s and '90s we had a lot of liberal activists saying that the media wasn't tough enough on -- say, for instance, on George Bush and WMD case.
So there's a lot of, you know, skepticism about the media. And so if you get five e-mails from a relative, you may find that as credible.
You know, it was interesting how the Obama campaign handles this, because the big issue has been with political campaigns in the past...
KURTZ: Do you talk about these things at all?
CORN: ... do you talk about this? You know, about two weeks ago, when this rumor came up and Michelle Obama had said -- you know, talked about "whitey" at a conference with Louis Farrakhan, I was talking to Obama people. And I said, oh, "Well, simple question. Has she ever been at a conference with Louis Farrakhan?"
And they said no. I said, "Can I report that?" They said, "No, this is off the record. We don't want to talk about it."
CORN: But then a day or two later, they put up a Web site call fightthesmears.com which they finally decided they're going to go get in front of this.
KURTZ: Let me ask you this somewhat uncomfortable question. Are the media afraid to say that at least for some of Obama's detractors, that this is kind of code for not trusting a black man who grew up in Indonesia?
HOLMES: I don't know -- I wouldn't say that. I think that the media has been very active in promoting the storyline, that if you criticize Barack Obama, it's because you have a problem. And is America ready for a black president?
But I would also say that these rumors gained traction because the public doesn't know Barack Obama, that he doesn't have a well-known life story, so that these kinds of rumors can really take hold.
KURTZ: So you think that the media, the "liberal media," are trying to...
HOLMES: Sure, look at the big "Newsweek" cover piece that, you know, was saying that these lines of attack must be coming from some, you know, disreputable source.
KURTZ: So you're saying, are trying to put legitimate criticism of Barack Obama and his record off -- out of bounds as being, you know, borderline racist?
HOLMES: Well, I think certainly the warning has been put out there.
KURTZ: All right. A brief -- I want to get this one last thing in, a brief comment from each of you.
After the Hillary and Barack event in New Hampshire was just treated like the landing on the moon, we had this 20-minutes-long call between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and the media just went crazy analyzing this from every angle. Why?
CILLIZZA: The most anticipated 20-minute phone call that we all knew was going to happen at some point. Anyway, I think because the media is fascinated still by Bill Clinton, that he is this enigmatic figure. And if anything, he has added to his legend, both good and bad, during his wife's presidential campaign.
People are still trying to understand how he sees himself, how he interacts with Barack Obama. And David is right, the point he made before, the media does love cat fights. KURTZ: Bill Clinton can't win. If he had spoken to Obama earlier, before his wife held that event, before Hillary Clinton held that event, he would have been accused of upstaging her.
HOLMES: Right. And well, we have to also remember, Bill Clinton is a two-term president. He is, you know, the former leader of the Democratic Party. And let's face it, Bill Clinton in telephone calls has always been very fascinating.
KURTZ: The "London Telegraph" reported, according to unnamed Democratic sources, that Bill Clinton supposedly, allegedly and reputedly had told some Democrat that he was still ticked off at Obama, "Obama can kiss my ass." And then I heard this repeated on chat shows and on blogs.
CORN: Well, because it was on the Internet.
KURTZ: So it must be true?
CORN: It must be true.
CILLIZZA: It must be true, yes.
CORN: I mean, part of this -- you know, you talked about the fire metaphor earlier, Chris. To me, the media is often like -- you know, like the fire brigade. Like, there's a fire there, run over there. No, the fire is over there, run over there. It can never do anything at five, it's always zero or 10.
And with Bill Clinton, you know, it continues this sort of soap-opera- ification of politics. We care more about the personalities. We're not talking about Afghanistan as much this week, even though it seems to be getting worse, but Bill Clinton, how he feels about something, is more important.
KURTZ: All right. Well, we'll continue this soap opera in a moment.
When we come back, John McCain goes to South America, and the media seem to yawn.
KURTZ: It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that John McCain's trip to Colombia and Mexico this week got no news coverage, but it barely existed on television except for FOX News and ABC, which had correspondents along.
So McCain goes to Colombia, and the biggest story, of course, ends up being the dramatic rescue of the hostages, which McCain didn't have any part of. Why was there so little media interest in this trip?
CILLIZZA: I think because right after he won the nomination he made -- won the nomination in a de facto sense, he hasn't yet. He made a trip, a foreign trip, that was broadly covered, that most major news organizations had a part of this. He was sort of presenting himself as the diplomat, as the person ready to be president. Mexico and Colombia, over July 4th weekend with Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, seems more like a -- you know, a fun trip with friends as opposed to a serious trip -- you know, a serious diplomatic trip.
CORN: What's your idea of fun.? I don't know if that's my idea of fun.
KURTZ: Maybe so, but CNN and MSNBC did not have reporters on this trip. I guarantee you that when Barack Obama goes to Europe and the Middle East this month, not only will the reporters be along, but it will get huge coverage.
Why the imbalance?
HOLMES: Well, I think that's true. But I also think that the McCain campaign going there didn't have, you know, a very clear strategic interest in terms of the presidential campaign. It was more like a...
KURTZ: Well, wait, he wanted to talk about free trade...
HOLMES: ... a Senate fact-finding mission than it looked like...
KURTZ: And he wanted to talk about free trade and the war on drugs. And of course, he wanted to show himself in a commander-in-chief role.
HOLMES: Sure. He did. But I think there was a very telling quote by Charlie Black, when asked like, you know, what does this have to do with running for president? He said, well, because McCain wanted to go. So we go where he is...
CILLIZZA: Right. We go where he wants us to go.
HOLMES: We go where he wants to go. So I think the press, when they couldn't see sort of a horse race angle to this, didn't see why they should send people down.
KURTZ: Let me play some sound for you, David Corn, because one correspondent who did go was ABC's David Wright, and on the plane, I guess it was -- you often have access to McCain on these trips -- he asked the Arizona senator a question relating back to what we were discussing before, which was about really Wes Clark criticizing, or at least critiquing his military record.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID WRIGHT, ABC CORRESPONDENT: In what ways did your experience in Vietnam prepare you for the presidency?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, please.
WRIGHT (voice over): McCain grew visibly upset. He had to take a few minutes to compose himself before he answered.
MCCAIN: I learned to love this country when I was deprived of it. (END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now that was played on MSNBC and on another cable network. This is an example of McCain's temper.
CORN: I'm with McCain on this one.
CORN: I think they should have asked him, hey, you supported NAFTA. Since NAFTA, real wages have gone down in Mexico and impoverished farmers have flooded Mexico City. Was it a good deal?
I mean, the mainstream press -- a lot of the press -- I don't want to use the mainstream press in a pejorative way. Just international news doesn't get as much attention. Political reporters don't care as much about international issues. They care more about the horse race and with the things they know about best.
And so when McCain goes to Colombia and Mexico, and it's a great instance to talk about NAFTA and the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico, which is happening now, those are the questions they should put to him, and those deserve some front page attention.
KURTZ: Well, I've seen people in newsrooms get a lot madder than McCain supposedly got from that question.
But you know, what made front page news about John McCain this week? Not the trip certainly. "The New York Times," "Washington Post," front page, Steve Schmidt, already a top strategist, is going to be taking over day-to-day control of the campaign. Why is that such a big deal?
CILLIZZA: I think because we -- the mainstream press does get criticized, rightly, I think, in some regards, for covering the process too much. I always use my parents as an example. My mom doesn't know who Steve Schmidt is. And she also didn't know who Rick Davis was. So I don't -- it's not going to impact her vote who is on the top of the campaign.
I think this story merited the coverage that it got, however, because it was clear that McCain's campaign over the last few months had really struggled to find any kind of cohesive message. This trip to Mexico and Colombia being an example.
I think Amy has it right, there was no strategic reason to do it. This was a way to say, he is changing things. He is trying -- he is recognizing that, yes, the campaign to date has not been good.
KURTZ: All right. Here's what's really happening. Journalists love shake-up stories, and they've been writing for weeks that the McCain campaign is confused and not doing very well. This validates their criticism. They've got to keep it there.
CILLIZZA: No comment.
HOLMES: It also validates their power.
Amy Holmes, David Corn, Chris Cillizza, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Ted Koppel weighs in on his upcoming four-part series on China. How did he get that kind of access. And whether "The New York Times" should have published classified information about the hunt for bin Laden.
Plus, Wolf Blitzer has spent a decade grilling guests on Sunday morning. We'll turn the tables as we pay a visit to the "LATE EDITION" set.
And as we go to break, what exactly is Rush Limbaugh getting for signing a new eight-year contract? For some radio hosts, at least, talk isn't cheap.
KURTZ: During his quarter century at "Nightline," Ted Koppel reported from around the world. But he never had the opportunity to spend months on a series about a single country.
That changed when he signed on with the Discovery Channel, and we'll get to see the results beginning Wednesday night at 10:00 p.m., a four-night, four-part series on China, perhaps the world's most important country that remains something of a mystery to many Americans.
It's called "The People's Republic of Capitalism."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TED KOPPEL, FORMER HOST, "NIGHTLINE": Here in China, people work for very low pay.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Do you guys get high pay?
KOPPEL: Yes. We get high pay, yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): How much?
KOPPEL: Too much. Maybe you should be a television reporter.
How much extra did they pay you for working the Lunar New Year?
"Three times our salary," he says.
Is your wife happy about that or would she rather have had you off for the holiday?
"When she sees the money," he says, "she'll be very happy." (END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And Ted Koppel joins me now.
You can do just about anything at Discovery. Why did you decide to devote so many months of your life to this single country, China?
KOPPEL: Well, it's interesting. We were having an editorial meeting, and one of our producers, John Alexander (ph), said, you know something? We keep trying to split the difference between what we used to do at "Nightline" and what the folks at Discovery do. Why don't we just do an in-depth focus on one country?
And we said, like what, for example? And he said China. And as soon as he said it, it seemed like a natural.
Now, John ended up going over there, and he was going to spend the entire nine months that we were producing the series living in Chongqing, and tragically he died. He got an infection and it affected his heart. And he was 26 years old. So we have dedicated this series to his memory.
KURTZ: Among other things, you found that many -- as we know, many Americans have lost their jobs because U.S. companies have shifted production to low-wage -- I mean, really low-wage factories and other outfits in China. But you also found that it's more complicated than that.
KOPPEL: Well, it is infinitely more complicated because, for example, I think most Americans are left with the impression that the Chinese are making money hand over fist and poor old America is getting taken for a ride.
It is true that many American workers have lost their jobs because they have been outsourced to China. But the American companies that have outsourced those jobs over there are doing just fine. In fact, some of our biggest companies, Howie, like Ford or General Motors, are making big money in China even as they're hemorrhaging money here in the United States.
KURTZ: You had a fascinating exchange with a woman who was deputy director of foreign -- the Foreign Trade Commission in the city of Chongqing, in which you talked about -- well, I'll show it to the viewers in a moment -- whether or not political dissent is covered, is accessible to journalists.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KOPPEL: We have demonstrations in the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Yes.
KOPPEL: I know what people are demonstrating for. Here it seems to be a secret. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, we feel -- we feel it's demonstration why you then can go there and to see.
KOPPEL: No, you can't go there.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No...
KOPPEL: No, the police won't let you go there.
KOPPEL: The police will not let the cameras come.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am not so seriously (ph) working this field (ph).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So did you face certain obstacles? Were certain things off- limits to you there?
KOPPEL: First of all, I have to say, that lady's name is Li Shirong (ph). Absolutely wonderful, charming lady. And I feel just a little bit bad that I put her in that awkward position. But there weren't that many officials available to us who would talk, let alone who speak good English, as Li Shirong (ph) does.
She felt embarrassed by that, because, as she correctly points out, things are better in China than they were. And I know that to be the case. I've been covering China for 40 years now. And things are infinitely better than they were, for example, during the Cultural Revolution.
But is it a country that is moving in inexorably toward democracy? I can't say that I've seen any great signs of that.
KURTZ: And in fact, you've reported that during a protest that you did cover, that the authorities started rounding up people who had been part of it.
KOPPEL: Well, I'm not sure which protest you're talking about. There was one tiny little protest of a man and I assume his wife. And they were just kneeling in front of one of the court buildings, the court of appeals, the supreme court of Chongqing.
And eventually they were escorted up into the building. And when we called later on, there was no record of any demonstration having taken place, you know, nor was anyone able to tell us what the demonstration was about or how the thing had been resolved.
KURTZ: Last weekend there was a riot in southwestern China. Thousands of people who were angry about the alleged cover-up of a rape and murder of a teenaged age, set fire to a government building and police cars.
Does this sort of thing happen more often than we believe? And why isn't it covered more, if not in China -- well, we know why it's not covered in China -- why is it not covered more internationally?
KOPPEL: It is covered -- it is -- it happens almost constantly. The Chinese government somewhat paradoxically puts out the statistics. And their statistics for last year, for -- well, actually, the year before, for 2006, showed that there were 87,000 demonstrations.
But not only is the Chinese media prevented from covering them, so is the international media. If you happen to cover a demonstration, it's purely because you happen to be in the right -- or from the Chinese government's point of view, the wrong place at the right time.
KURTZ: But there is a broader question here, which is, why I, as a relatively informed consumer, don't learn more from the American media about this huge and important country. You went to Chongqing, 13 million people live there. I'm not familiar with Chongqing. It's never written about.
Foreign -- international news in this country seems mainly to be about wars, natural disasters, political intrigue, and Nicolas Sarkozy's supermodel wife.
KOPPEL: And what's wrong with that?
KURTZ: Well, isn't there a space -- shouldn't there be...
KOPPEL: Yes -- no.
KURTZ: ... space for other things?
KOPPEL: Of course there is. And that's why we did this four-part series. The fact of the matter is that I think Americans are going to be far more affected than influenced over these next few years by what happens in China than they will be Madame Sarkozy's -- whatever it is she's doing these days.
KURTZ: So where is the appetite or the responsibility of American broadcast networks to bring us more news from countries like China?
KOPPEL: Well, you used the right two words. There is a responsibility. There isn't much appetite.
Let me just give you one quick example, Howard. The Chinese are putting 25,000 new cars a day on the road, nine million new cars a year. In another 10 or 15 years, they will have more cars on the road than we do.
Now, one of the biggest stories in America this summer is the fact that gasoline prices have shot up to $4, $4.25, $4.50 a gallon. Imagine for a moment what is going to happen when the Chinese have as many cars on the road as we do.
KURTZ: And, of course, from television's point of view, the problem with a story like that is there are no dramatic pictures, even though it's going to affect all of us on this planet.
I want to ask you about a "New York Times" story this week, Ted Koppel, revealing that administration infighting has blocked a classified plan -- it's called Operation Cannonball -- for U.S. Special Forces to capture or kill al Qaeda leaders in the mountainous regions of Pakistan.
I've already heard some conservative commentators this was a terrible thing for "The New York Times" to do. How does a newspaper reveal this classified information that could hurt our efforts to get bin Laden?
What's your view?
KOPPEL: My view is always to publish or broadcast unless someone within the administration can make a really compelling case. And in my 50 years in the business, that has happened to me only once.
KURTZ: To you personally.
KOPPEL: To me personally, where a sufficiently compelling case was made. I mean, look, the fact that there are special operations men, and maybe some women, for all I know, in that region, is hardly to going to come as news to al Qaeda or to any of the -- any of our enemies in that part of the world.
The fact that there is an operation to try and capture or kill Osama bin Laden is something that was announced at the very earliest date by none less than the president himself. So where is the shock? Where is the secret?
KURTZ: Can't let you go without talking a little politics. You've covered a number of presidential campaigns.
Have you ever seen a presidential candidate get the kind of upbeat coverage over a long period of time that Barack Obama gets?
KOPPEL: Well, upbeat and sleazy at times too. And I think that has been true of all of the candidates. I mean, I think Hillary...
KURTZ: Define sleazy.
KOPPEL: Define sleazy? Below the belt. I mean, the kind of charges that are almost impossible to rebut. I think you had in your newspaper earlier this week, "The Washington Post," a really excellent piece on how some of the material that migrates via the Internet into millions of homes across the world.
KURTZ: These anonymous e-mails saying that he is secretly a Muslim and all of that.
KOPPEL: Exactly, exactly. So while I think it is true that within the mainstream media he has been getting a fairly good ride, that too has come in waves.
After that famous "Saturday Night Live" routine in which they mock the press for being overly positive to Barack Obama, during the weeks that followed I think the press was a great deal tougher on him than they were on Hillary Clinton. KURTZ: Sure, because journalists were embarrassed at being mocked by a bunch of late-night comedians.
KURTZ: But that...
KOPPEL: And I think that kind of -- I mean, we have a long time before early November. And I suspect that there will be others who will mock the media for being overly positive to what Barack Obama and maybe not positive enough toward John McCain. I think you'll see some fluctuation in the coverage.
KURTZ: All right. Now you, rather famously, left the 1996 Republican Convention early because you felt like not much news was being made. It was all very orchestrated.
This year, given the intense interest in this campaign, would you be interested if you were still at ABC in going to the conventions?
KOPPEL: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I think we're going to go anyway. I'd hate to miss it. I think this is going to be a great convention.
KURTZ: You're just going to buy your own ticket and get on a plane?
KOPPEL: Well, no, no. It's not that extreme, Howie. I'll find someone else to buy the ticket.
KURTZ: All right. There is an opening at "Meet the Press" after Tom Brokaw gets...
KOPPEL: Is that right?
KURTZ: ... gets finished filling in for the rest of this campaign. You are known as a half-decent interviewer. Any interest in that job?
KOPPEL: Let me put it this way, Howie: A, nobody has asked; B, if somebody were to ask, I would, first of all, sit down with my wife and two or three of my closest friends and advisers to talk about it; and C, as much as I love you and as distinguished and lovable as you are, you're not in that posse.
So I -- at this stage it's beside the point.
KURTZ: Folks, he's not ruling it out.
Ted Koppel, thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, you know I often get stopped on the street and asked, "What is Wolf Blitzer really like?" Well, Wolf has been asking questions on Sunday morning for 10 years now. We'll see how he is at answering them in a moment.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Wolf Blitzer has become a familiar face to CNN viewers, even more so since he began anchoring the three-hour "SITUATION ROOM" every weekday. In fact, he is so high profile, that he has been made fun of on "Saturday Night Live," a true mark of having arrived.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... as a counterweight to American power. But this week, the British prime minister, whose Labour Party has seen its approval ratings plummet to their lowest level in 10 years, has announced a plan to begin phasing out British troops.
(END VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
KURTZ: But many of his most important interviews have taken place on "LATE EDITION," the Sunday show he took over 10 years ago.
Now, my bookers had to work overtime to get Blitzer, who only agreed to an interview if I went to his place, which is down the hall.
I spoke to him earlier on the "LATE EDITION" set.
KURTZ: Now, you started out as a Middle East correspondent, as many people know. You were later a White House correspondent.
Did you always want to anchor? Was that a big life ambition?
BLITZER: No. It was never an ambition. It just sort of fell into place.
TV was never really an ambition that I had. I was a print reporter. I worked for a wire service, Reuters. I worked for daily newspapers. I wrote a couple books.
And, you know, I started getting invited to be a guest, an analyst on some of the TV shows, especially CNN. And then I remember one day the Washington bureau chief said, "You want to be on TV?" And I said maybe.
I didn't know anything about it. I had to learn it. But I went to the Pentagon and I learned it very quickly, because that was in 1990, right before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The Pentagon is preoccupied with the very real possibility of a war in the Gulf.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I guess you passed the audition.
BLITZER: I had no choice. I remember before then I was very worried, I was concerned that I really didn't have those skills to make me a good television reporter, but, you know, they were very patient at CNN. They were willing to work with me.
KURTZ: Now, in terms of starting "LATE EDITION" 10 years ago, you've had this parade of politicians and political operatives on the show week after week. How aggressive can you be in questioning them? Obviously, they come in, they know what they want to say, they've got their script, and you don't just want to give them the floor to say whatever they want.
BLITZER: Right. You have to ask the tough questions, fair, polite, as I am. But you have to listen to what they're saying, because sometimes they don't want to answer the question that you've asked and they'll very smoothly, very professionally, as all good politicians can do, they'll change the subject.
And you have to listen and then you go back and say, "That's interesting, but hold on, you didn't answer the question. What about this?"
And they may still not want to answer the question, and then you press them politely, but forcefully. And then the third time, my attitude is, I'll put out you're not answering the question, we will move on, because I'm not there to harangue the guests, but I will let the audience know that the guest isn't willing to answer the question.
KURTZ: Is it different if you're interviewing a president, let's say President Bush? A little more reluctance to interrupt perhaps?
BLITZER: Yes. It's always, you know, easier -- if I'm interviewing Howie Kurtz, I can interrupt and we can go back...
KURTZ: But don't interrupt too much.
BLITZER: Not too much.
KURTZ: Yes. That would really tick me off.
BLITZER: But if you're with a president or a prime minister or a king or a queen, you know, you have to be a little bit more respectful.
KURTZ: Now, I had not realized until recently that when you interviewed Al Gore back in the 2000 campaign, that the famous phrase that has always been affixed to him about inventing the Internet came in an interview with you. Was there some sort of trick question that you drew this out of him?
BLITZER: No, it was a simple question: What makes you different than his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey? And I wanted him to give me some examples why he thought he'd be better to be the Democratic nominee than Senator Bradley.
And then at some point he started talking about, "I took the initiative to create," -- I don't remember the exact phrase, "to create the Internet." But it never dawned on me that that would be exploded and to certain degree misreported on what he said.
He never said, "I invented the Internet," although that headline was so damaging to him as a result of that interview.
KURTZ: So you think the media kind of twisted the meaning of his words?
BLITZER: Yes. Yes. Because if you look precisely at what he said, he was very precise. And as you know, Al Gore is a very precise guy. When he was a member of Congress he did take the initiative in passing legislation that eventually resulted...
KURTZ: Yes, but all that got lost.
BLITZER: ... in a lot of other people creating the Internet, not necessarily him. But all of it, as you correctly point out, was lost, because the headline was, "I Invented the Internet." And that really hurt him a lot.
KURTZ: As you know, Wolf, the media have continued to be criticized to this day for their performance during the run-up to the Iraq War. You had an interview with Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security adviser, in which she said, talking about Saddam Hussein, "We don't want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud."
Looking back, do you think you and others pressed White House and administration and Pentagon officials hard enough about the case they were making to go to war in Iraq?
BLITZER: I think we pressed. We certainly had alternative voices. I can't tell you how many times I interviewed Hans Blix, the director- general of the weapons -- the chief weapons inspector, or Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who totally disagreed with the U.S. government's assessment about WMD in Iraq.
And we had a lot of other opponents, you know, of the war raising certainly serious questions. Look, as you know, journalism is the first draft of history. Could we have done a better job? We can always do a better job.
Should we have done a better job? We always should do a better job, especially when it comes to a war, when a lot of blood and treasure is at stake.
KURTZ: But didn't "LATE EDITION" and every other Sunday show, and really every television show and every newspaper front page, serve as a platform for the Bush administration to make a case that we now know was fatally flawed?
BLITZER: Yes. The answer is yes. We did allow the president of the United States, the vice president of the United States, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to come on our show and make the case for war.
But let me reverse the question. Should we not let them come on the show and allow them to say what they believe to be, you know, U.S. intelligence estimates? We do want to get skepticism, we do want to get other voices... KURTZ: Of course. But I think there wasn't as much air time devoted to people who were all-out critics of the war.
BLITZER: On that you're right.
Word on the street is you're a pretty big basketball fan.
KURTZ: How big?
BLITZER: Well, I'm not very tall, so unfortunately...
KURTZ: I didn't say you were a pretty good basketball player.
BLITZER: Yes. I would have liked to have played basketball. I had a few little problems. Couldn't dribble that well. Shooting was not my strength.
But I have season tickets for the Wizards, love professional basketball, go to G.W. games, George Washington University. Love college basketball.
It moves. It's a fast-paced kind of game.
KURTZ: Kind of like this interview.
KURTZ: What is it like -- what was it like to go one-on-one with Michael Jordan?
BLITZER: It was great because then he was no longer playing. But I started asking him questions about making a comeback at that town hall meeting that we were doing, and, you know, I could see in his answers he was starting to think about it. And then a few months later when he announced he was going to make a comeback, I of course took credit for that decision because I pressed him hard -- I'm just joking.
KURTZ: Well, you should take credit..
BLITZER: But there is no doubt that it was always exciting interviewing someone like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal, for that matter. Any of these great basketball stars. If you're a big basketball fan, you like that.
KURTZ: Well, it's one of the benefits of having a front row seat, not just interviewing politicians.
Wolf Blitzer, thanks for letting us stop by on the "LATE EDITION" set.
BLITZER: My pleasure.
(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: And stick around. LATE EDITION's 10th anniversary show coming up after us at the top of the hour.
Up next, Bill Gates supposedly retiring. A look at how the Microsoft boss orchestrated some awfully favorable coverage without really deleting his role at the company.
KURTZ: NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller hit one into the rough by mocking Rocco Mediate, the Italian-American who narrowly lost a championship to Tiger Woods, saying: "He looks like the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool," and "guys with the name 'Rocco' don't get on the trophy, do they?"
Miller has apologized but insist his cracks had nothing to do with Rocco's ethnicity.
Right. Miller apparently suffering from club-in-mouth disease.
Well, Bill Gates has accomplished an enormous amount in his career. But his greatest achievement while we were all hunched over our laptops, may have been his image makeover.
KURTZ (voice-over): That phrase, of course, more associated with celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Madonna than wealthy business executives. But Gates has pulled it off as well. He persuaded major media outlets to run pieces on his "retirement from Microsoft," even though he is simply giving up his day-to-day role, but remains chairman of the software giant.
He got a big front page sendoff from "The New York Times." "And what a career it has been. Mr. Gates has been an animating force behind the personal computer revolution, helping to build a huge global industry and engineer a blockbuster products like Windows and Office."
Tom Brokaw flew to Redmond for "NBC Nightly News" and asked Gates if he ever imagined building a corporate behemoth when he started out.
BILL GATES, FMR. CEO, MICROSOFT: But even in those days, we wrote that it was our goal to put a computer on every desk and in every home running our software. And so in fact the ambition level from the very beginning was pretty incredible. And people thought it was crazy. Now -- now they don't.
KURTZ: Gates had a lovable image when he was the teenage math whiz writing computer code in a garage with his pal Paul Allen. But by middle age, Gates was seen as something of a predator, Microsoft as a ruthless competitor that its detractors called evil.
The Justice Department sued Microsoft for anti-competitive conduct in the late '90s, a federal judge ruling that its bundling of software with the Windows operating system was intended to crush such rivals as Apple and Netscape. The case was later settled on appeal. Microsoft is now viewed as more benign, in part because of the rise of Google and Steve Jobs' iPod success. And the humorless CEO who battled the government showed he can laugh at himself with this video about what he would do in retirement.
GATES: Dude, wasn't that the craziest riff you ever heard?
BONO, U2: I know, but I can't replace The Edge because you got a high score on "Guitar Hero," Bill
GATES: Maybe we could make sort of a regular thing, like you, me, the news.
JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": A co-anchor kind of a situation, it's a great idea. I've got to tell you, it's a great idea.
GATES: I'm sure you're starting to think about who would be your best running mate.
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not sure politics is really for you.
KURTZ: But the biggest change in Gates' image comes not from video or P.R. tricks, but from his growing involvement in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The charitable organization which has assets of $38 billion is trying to find a malaria vaccine and funding education programs around the world. And that will become Gates' full-time occupation.
KURTZ: Being the world's richest man can lead to a very mixed media portrayal. But a wealthy man giving away much of his fortune gets very different coverage. And if Bill Gates, who is just 52, is successful at that, he won't need to massage the press to leave a lasting legacy.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.