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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Blagojevich Picks Obama's Replacement; Media Obsessed With Obama's Physique?; Depressing Holiday Season for America's Newspapers
Aired January 4, 2009 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Race trap? Rod Blagojevich picks a black politician for Barack Obama's Senate seat -- that's right, the one he's charged with auctioning off -- and the media can't get enough of the racial angle. Are journalists falling for the governor's maneuver?
Topless in Hawaii. What explains the media's obsession with the new president's physique, his exercise regimen and his basketball prowess?
Downward spiral. A depressing holiday season for America's newspapers, which are struggling with layoffs, bankruptcies and a growing sense that they're becoming obsolete. Can they find new life on the Web?
KURTZ: We will get to the situation in Israel and the coverage there, where the correspondents are being banned from the Gaza Strip despite the fighting, in a few moments.
But first, it was so sad, so tragic, so morally offensive, that Rod Blagojevich chose to play the race card. That was the tone of much of the coverage this week as the foul-mouthed governor of Illinois who has described a vacant Senate seat as bleeping "golden" tried to hand the bleeping thing to an uninspiring black politician named Roland Burris.
This created a media sensation, as many journalists lamented that Blago, already battling corruption charges, would further taint the process by attempting to appoint an African-American to Barack Obama's old job. But they pound the race issue so incessantly, that you had to wonder whether they weren't secretly thrilled by their New Year's gift.
RICH LOWRY, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Have you, Karl, ever seen a more blatant and naked use of the race card than we saw in that press conference?
RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: To say that race has nothing to do with this story is again just not part of the real world. LARRY ELDER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: You don't have to be a cynic to understand that race was part of what Blagojevich was doing right here.
GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), ILLINOIS: ... Roland Burris.
KURTZ (voice-over): Blagojevich tried to deflect attention from himself -- nice try -- while Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush defined the storyline by using words from the ugly racial past.
BLAGOJEVICH This is about Roland Burris as a United States senator, not about the governor who makes the appointment.
REP. BOBBY RUSH (D), ILLINOIS: I applaud the governor for his decision, and I would ask you not to hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer.
KURTZ: Burris, a former state attorney general, quickly made the television rounds and got hammered.
LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: You certainly knew this Senate seat was radioactive and what the reaction would be.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN: One of the phrases used today described any effort to stop you, the word used, maybe an unfortunate word, was a lynching.
Do you think it is appropriate for that type of racial overtone to be put on this race?
ROLAND BURRIS (D), FMR. ILLINOIS ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, no, no, I have not spoken race at all.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC: Are you saying you are certain the governor has done nothing wrong?
BURRIS: Are you going to try to put words in my mouth?
BRZEZINSKI: No, I'm asking.
BURRIS: Please do. I have not said that.
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this scandal coverage, in Chicago, Carol Marin, political editor and reporter for WMAQ-TV, and a columnist for "The Chicago Sun-Times." And here in Washington, Jonathan Martin, senior political correspondent for Politico, and Michel Martin, host of "Tell Me More" on National Public Radio.
Carol Marin, your rather colorful governor, I should say, put race front and center in this amazing story by trying to name an African-American to Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Are the media sort of buying into this racial narrative by rounding up black reaction from everybody, including Al Sharpton? CAROL MARIN, ANCHOR, WMAQ CHICAGO: No, I don't think so. I think that it's a chicken and egg thing here, Howie. And the fact is that Bobby Rush was there at that news conference to set the stage for that exact discussion.
The larger discussion, I think, though, is Roland Burris. And what was his arrangement with Rod Blagojevich?
It's a fair question. There may have been none, but that question sort of gets lost in the midst of this racial conversation. But it's not irrelevant, and Harry Reid is smack in the middle of it now, too, as it was released by Rod Blagojevich that Reid would have preferred white candidates, as opposed to black sitting congressmen and others. So it's...
KURTZ: I'm going to pick up on that point in just a moment, but I want to ask Michel Martin now.
I just sense a journalistic glee here this week. Oh boy, a new twist in the Blago scandal and a racial controversy to boot.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST, "TELL ME MORE" NPR: Well, first of all, Howie, let me say Happy New Year. And I want to start off by setting off the right tone so I can say it's a ridiculous question.
I don't know if you remember the great "New York Times" columnist Russell Baker, when he was trying to, as a cop (ph) reporter, get information from a police sergeant. And the underling was not giving him the information, and the sergeant overrode him, finally saying, "Tell the kid what he wants." Not telling him doesn't make it unhappen.
The fact of the matter is that this is a whole political mess, race is a part of it. This is Chicago, this is Illinois.
Barack Obama was the only sitting African-American senator. Race was always a part of this conversation. And Rod Blagojevich just upped the ante.
This was always a part of the conversation. Reporters not covering it doesn't make it not true.
KURTZ: Jonathan Martin, you report this morning in Politico that -- in fact, you quote an adviser to Roland Burris.
JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICO: Right.
KURTZ: A guy named Prince Reilly (ph), suggesting that Harry Reid doesn't want an African-American to succeed Barack Obama.
Is that fair to publish that? The guy is essentially calling the Senate majority leader a racist.
J. MARTIN: Well, sure, because he's picking up on a story that Carol mentioned that was in her paper, where Harry Reid called Blago before the governor was arrested, saying that these three African- American gentlemen are not to be considered. And hey, by the way, I prefer these two white women. And so look...
KURTZ: Well, first of all, that story was according -- that "Sun-Times" story was according to sources.
J. MARTIN: In the "Sun-Times."
KURTZ: So we don't know who's doing the spinning there. And Harry Reid, who was on NBC this morning, said that was totally made up. That he didn't rule -- he obviously had a discussion about politics, but didn't rule any candidate...
J. MARTIN: Well, presumably, it was leaked by the Blago folks. But I called Reid's office gave them a chance to respond to that accusation. So certainly was fair there.
Look, Howie, I think that you're sort of right partly here in the sense that a new twist in the story certainly, you know, made us happy in the media. But I'm not sure that it was the racial element. And it was just the fact that there's more fodder here, there's more sort of legs to the story now.
M. MARTIN: But these people -- the Democratic senators made it clear that they didn't want to seat anyone that he appointed...
KURTZ: Anyone of any color.
M. MARTIN: ... because they thought -- of any color -- that he appointed because they thought that he was so tainted that the selection would be clouded by this controversy.
The other thing that I think is difficult about this, it's how reductionist it all is. It's not that Harry Reid suggested that other candidates would be more successful, it's not that they're just any candidate.
Tammy Duckworth is a distinguished public servant, a very brave veteran of the Iraq war who lost two legs in this conflict. She's not just some white woman. She's a very distinguished public servant. And if the argument is that she would have more appeal statewide and would be a better candidate to win statewide, is it because she's white or is it because she's Tammy Duckworth? That's like saying Barack Obama...
KURTZ: But the thing is that we all -- and maybe it's unavoidable, as you said earlier -- but we all seem to be buy into sort of identity politics by suggesting that, you know, it would be an outrage -- some are suggesting.
M. MARTIN: But who is the "we" here? I mean, the head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee was using this to score political points, saying that Harry Reid -- you know, suggesting that there's a double standard, that if a Republican had made the suggestion that these two African-American candidates were not the best candidates statewide, it would be perceived as racist. So this is like a Rubik's Cube here.
KURTZ: Let's go back to Carol Marin.
I want to read something that you wrote this week in the "Sun- Times." In this column, you said, "Let's face it, the nation is mesmerized by us. We're like one of those television specials on National Geographic featuring a newly discovered strange and self- destructive tribe that somehow still endures through the wacky cult of personality exhibited by its leaders."
So, Carol, do you think that the national media have painted a somewhat distorted picture of Chicago as a kind of den of thieves, or gotten it about right?
MARIN: You know, I think they've gotten it about right. And we are -- you know, this is a story that you can distill in simplest terms. This is a cult of personality. This is Rod Blagojevich.
You know, I started counting just "New York Times" articles that mentioned Blagojevich and Obama, and the unfortunate merger is it drags Obama's name into some of this, though he is clearly not implicated, or according to the U.S. attorney is not, with regard to the selling of the Senate seat. But Illinois is this strange sort of Soprano-like story. And it's like road kill -- you can't look at it, but you can't look away.
KURTZ: Well, since you mentioned the president-elect, Carol, I mean, it seems to me that there was a journalistic drumbeat for weeks about whether or not Barack Obama, one of his top deputies, did engage in some kind of inappropriate talk with Rod Blagojevich or his top lieutenants. And then Obama's campaign -- or transition office -- put out that report saying, no, we didn't, and the story just vanished.
So, in retrospect, did the press go a little overboard there on raising questions about Obama without much evidence?
MARIN: Those were totally fair questions. Let's remember, that report was issued right in the middle of Christmas, when it was hardly noticed as well, and he was on vacation.
The press has a legitimate interest in asking, what was the engagement of the Obama campaign with regard to Rod Blagojevich and who they might have wanted, because the president-elect said he was leaving it entirely up to the governor. And at the same time, Rahm Emanuel was having some sort of conversation with Blagojevich and/or chief of staff John Harris about whom Obama might want.
Those are fair game questions, and I think they should be asked.
J. MARTIN: We also don't know, by the way, Howie, what actually was said between the Obama folks and the governor's office, because that account was based upon their memories as far as transcripts, e- mails, et cetera.
KURTZ: Well, we do know one thing, and that is Blagojevich is on tape as saying he's ticked off at the Obama people because they're not offering anything for the Senate seat except appreciation.
J. MARTIN: But we have not seen those transcripts yet released, though.
Wouldn't the coverage here, Michel Martin, look very different if it weren't for the fact, the inescapable fact, that there are zero African-Americans in the United States Senate?
M. MARTIN: Probably, sure. Sure. Probably.
I mean, this is part of the calculation all along. You have to assume -- and, of course, I think as a reporter, trying to assess somebody else's motivation absent their telling you what their motivation is, is always very tricky. But I think it has to be part of Blagojevich's calculation, part of the way he's going to get away with this, as it were, if indeed he does, is that Roland Burris is not an undistinguished gentleman.
He was the first African-American elected statewide in Illinois. And, you know, a lot of people think that he's kind of a blowhard and he's run unsuccessfully for mayor and got his butt (ph) handed to him by Mayor Daley. And so clearly his record as a politician is mixed. But the fact that he's not an undistinguished man, and there is something to it.
KURTZ: Well, just briefly, has the coverage been unfair to Burris, or is it,, you know, he had to anticipate that he was stepping into this mess?
M. MARTIN: I think he would have had to have anticipated that. You'll remember that Congressman Danny Davis says he was also offered the seat...
KURTZ: Right. Another African-American.
M. MARTIN: ... before he was. Another African-American congressman, and he says he turned it down because there's too much cloud over the seat.
MARIN: You know, Howie...
KURTZ: I've got to get a break here, Carol. We'll come back to you.
Because we're going to have more with our panel, but we're also going to check in with CNN's Paula Hancocks on the Israeli/Gaza conflict. She'll be live from the border.
KURTZ: I have really been struck by the fact that the fact that all of us in the news business are covering the war in Gaza around the clock, and yet there are no international correspondents in that war zone. We want to go now to Israel. Paula Hancocks of CNN has been reporting on this for days now. She is near the border.
Paula Hancocks, how much of a disadvantage is it for you and other international correspondents being barred from Gaza by Israeli authorities, despite, I might add, an order this week allowing access by the Israeli Supreme Court?
PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It makes it incredibly difficult. You can't cover a war from the sidelines. You have to be on the ground, seeing what is happening, seeing how the people are coping with it. And for all the international media, it is incredibly frustrating.
Now, this is as close as we can get. We're still about a kilometer from the border itself, and the Israeli military has been coming by on a daily basis and trying to push us back even further. So not only are we not allowed in Gaza, but they're trying to push us back further from the border itself.
So, I mean, just in the past few minutes, we're seeing airstrikes going into Gaza and we can't tell where they're landing. We can't tell if there are civilians being hurt, and it is incredibly frustrating, especially, as you say, that the Foreign Press Association took the Israeli government to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Foreign Press Association and said you have to let journalists in.
That was back on Wednesday. And we're now on Sunday. And still, we're on this side of the border, and there is no sign that they're going to let us in.
KURTZ: Right. And when we do see video of the attacks in Gaza or the after-effects, much of that video, as my understanding, is supplied by Arab media outlets, so it may be very selective. Everybody trying to prove a point here. We're looking at some of that now.
Your point about civilian casualties, Paula Hancocks, I heard interviews yesterday with Palestinian officials on CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere, they were using words like "massacre" and "bloodbath." Obviously, it's in their interest to portray the Israeli incursion in the harshest light. And as you just noted, you have no independent way to check that, or do you have at least limited ways to try to check that?
HANCOCKS: We have a fantastic source in Gaza who is checking as much as he possibly can, but he's one man and he's running around trying to check everything. The death toll, we have to take that from Palestinian medical sources. We have no independent way of being on the ground, going to the hospitals, and finding out exactly how many people have been killed and injured. And certainly, it's not in Israel's interest not to have these kind of facts on the ground, independently confirmed, and broadcast around the world.
KURTZ: You're saying it's not in Israel's interest. Why then do you think that the Israeli authorities are taking such a hard line on keeping you and the rest of the media out?
HANCOCKS: Well, you know, it's a very different war to the war against Hezbollah. There was an incredible amount of access there. We were allowed close to the tanks as they were firing, and it just seems as though Israel has gone from one extreme to the other.
I think one of the reasons Israel has used is because it didn't want to open the border crossing and put its border guards at risk, but we've seen foreign nationals were allowed out. So, in theory, the border guards were there, so the journalists should have been allowed in on the same day. But that didn't happen.
Another reason they've given is they're worried about the security of the journalists. But you don't become a Middle East correspondent if you're worried about your safety and you want a quiet life. It's up to the individual journalist, it's up to the company if you should be inside. It's not the Israeli government's decision to make. And you need independent eyes on the ground to see what is happening in there.
KURTZ: Yes. I'm surprised the lack of access hasn't been more of an issue. If this were a U.S. military incursion and the U.S. tried to ban journalists, I think it would be a front page story, at least here in the states.
I've got about a minute here. What's sometimes lost in the coverage, it seems to me, is the fact that Hamas launched more than 3,000 rockets against Israel in 2008 alone before Hamas declared this cease-fire to be over. And that is certainly a part of the reason for this Israeli action.
Do you think those attacks, even though they weren't as dramatic or as all-consuming as a ground invasion and an aerial bombardment, should have gotten more coverage by the media at the time?
HANCOCKS: Well, they have got a fair bit of coverage, but if you think about it, these rocket attacks have been going on for seven or eight years. So you're never going to have the same intensity of coverage over such a long period of time as you are this kind of airstrikes over the case of eight or nine days.
And certainly, the ability to harm is much greater from the Israeli military side -- it's the most powerful military in the Middle East -- than it is from the rocket attacks. But certainly, we've been down in this area countless times over the years covering the rocket attacks. But of course, as it is spread out over a long period of time, and the casualty figures have been fairly low compared to the hundreds inside Gaza, inevitably, it's not going to have that same intensity.
KURTZ: All right. Paula Hancocks in Israel.
Thank you so much for your insights this morning. Stay safe.
And we are going to return now to domestic politics of a slightly less dramatic variety... (LAUGHTER)
KURTZ: ... prompting a little laughter here on the set.
Let me go back to Chicago and Carol Marin of WMAQ and "The Chicago Sun-Times."
I want to ask you about something that's getting some attention, and that is -- you remember what a big story Sarah Palin was during the campaign. Her teenage daughter Bristol got pregnant. Now Bristol has given birth to a boy.
And "People" magazine has been trying to get a hold of those pictures. "People" won't say whether -- it hasn't ruled out, I should say, being willing to pay for those photos.
Is there anything that bothers you, the spectacle of a national magazine trying to get baby pictures from a woman who's 17 or 18 years old?
MARIN: You know, nothing surprises me anymore. It shouldn't surprise any of us. And ultimately, Bristol Palin has parents and there's a father to that child. Surely, someone is weighing in on the propriety or lack thereof.
But we are a celebrity cult. We are a "People" magazine. And whether it's the specter of Barack Obama walking around in swim trunks or Bristol Palin and her baby, these are all things that absorb us more sometimes than policy. And so the fact of the matter is, Bristol Palin became a public figure whether she wanted to or not by virtue simply of her mother deciding to run for vice president.
KURTZ: Now, this is a Time Warner magazine owned by CNN's parent company.
What message does it send, if indeed money is even being talked about, that her -- that Bristol Palin's baby pictures would be treated like Jamie Lynn Spears baby pictures?.
J. MARTIN: It underscores that the Palins are as much of a celebrity story now as they are a political story. That they sort of made that break, and that this is now about human curiosity more than it's about sort of political speculation.
And there's no question that it sells. I mean -- and people can just sort of traffic, Howie, for any story that has the word "Palin" in it. It is through the roof. People would much rather read more about Sarah Palin and her pregnant daughter than they would about Medicaid reimbursements. And that's just a fact of life.
KURTZ: You know, Bristol Palin put out a statement saying she obviously discourages teen pregnancy. I guess a little late for her to learn the lesson herself. But there was a time in American culture when we would all be sort of disapproving of this, and yet it's almost like it's being celebrated -- oh, let's get the pictures -- despite the fact that it's something that society, I think, should not necessarily condone.
M. MARTIN: Well, I don't know that the fact that people are very curious means that they're approving of it. I mean, I think that everything that everybody said here is true. This is a celebrity- driven culture.
M. MARTIN: And I'm very conflicted about this. On the one hand, Bristol Palin is now 18, which means she's of age, she can make these decisions.
M. MARTIN: She's legally an adult. On the other hand, you know, do we really care? I mean, do we really care? She didn't run for vice president.
KURTZ: Well, "People" magazine cares enough to aggressively pursue this, and possibly a six-figure sum...
M. MARTIN: This is not "The New York Times." I mean, if "The New York Times" wants to start spreading around cash, then I'm going to get worked up about it.
KURTZ: Except that if "People" magazine publishes these photos, every other media outlet on the planet, high-minded or not, I'm sure, will run the pictures as well.
M. MARTIN: But this raises the whole question about, who is it that we're so fascinated by? I mean, I know that there's all this interest on Barack Obama on vacation and so forth, and there's some question about whether people are overdoing it. Well, who should we be interested in, T.I., Plaxico Burress?
KURTZ: Well, since you mentioned that...
M. MARTIN: I mean, I get -- no, for real, I get an e-mail from mothers every week saying that they're so glad that their teenage sons have somebody else to look up to other than, you know, T.I. and Plaxico, and that they're fascinated by everything the does.
KURTZ: We're going to come back to this in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES. You set up my tease.
First of all, with the newspaper business in deep trouble, will we see more shrinkage, more bankruptcies, and even some obituaries this year?
And also Obama from that shirtless vacation snapshot and the obsession with his workout regimen. Why are reporters treating the leader of the free world, the next leader of the free world, like a tabloid celebrity?
KURTZ: When you see a headline about topless photos, you usually assume that some starlet has been photographed, intentionally or otherwise, on an exotic beach without her bikini top, but the media world recently seemed agog that a persistent member of the paparazzi had taken such shots of the president-elect of the United States. That's right, Barack Obama, in Hawaii, in his swim trunks, somehow became big news, which made me wonder, how exactly did the man who will be sworn in 16 days from now become our celebrity-in-chief?
M. MARTIN: Can we see that picture again?
KURTZ: ... what explains the media's breathlessness over Obama in his swim trunks, as if he was some scantily-clad Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears?
M. MARTIN: I think that the media is -- first of all, I don't think it's just the media who's fascinated with Barack Obama; I think people are fascinated with Barack Obama and his family.
KURTZ: We're just catering to the public hunger here?
M. MARTIN: Well, as I was saying before the break to my good friend Jonathan, who was trying to correct me, I was not talking about Terrell Owens, I was talking about the rapper, T.I. I mean, the fact is, this is a celebrity culture. And for a lot of parents, a lot of parents who write to me, they say they're glad to have somebody that their kids can be fascinating by, who's not a rapper, who's not a football star.
So what's so terrible? Explain to me what the problem is.
KURTZ: Carol Marin, in Chicago, it's not just television or tabloid outlets. Here's "The Washington Post" front page piece about his workout regimen. "The sun glinted off chiseled pectorals sculpted during four weightlifting sessions each week, and a body toned by regular treadmill runs and basketball games."
Is it an advantage for Obama that the media are treating him this way, at least for now?
MARIN: Oh, you know, Obama is not a victim here. Obama is managing this. This is a very tightly controlled news operation in the Obama camp.
Reporters -- I just read the last pool report which was produced by one of Jonathan's Politico colleagues. The most you get to see of Obama is him going to and from his workout or to his transition office. Believe me, reporters are dying to ask him more questions. The Middle East is blowing up; we'd love to have him stop and talk. But he isn't and he doesn't. And when he's eating a tuna sandwich in Hawaii and lamenting the coverage, the fact is, he could provide a little bit more grist for the mill if he wanted to talk about it.
These are decisions, and he does get to have a vacation, there's no question about that.
KURTZ: Sure. Sure. Sure.
MARIN: But the fact of the matter is that, if you've ever been at an Obama news conference, where the reporters are pre-selected, called upon, you don't have to bother to raise your hand anymore. There are only three or four questions asked. You understand that at some point, you almost yearn for Sam Donaldson screaming out a question.
M. MARTIN: I have to still ask, what's so different than previous presidents? It seems to me we knew an awful lot about George W. Bush's workout routine. I mean, we knew that he liked to jog. We know that George H. W. Bush liked to go power walking.
M. MARTIN: I mean, this is what we do. I don't see what's so different. And if you think the reporters at these presidential press conferences haven't been previously been pre-selected, then I'm sorry.
KURTZ: Before you jump in, we were showing those pictures of Obama playing golf. For two years during this campaign he was the basketball guy. OK? He was the cool city cat who shot hoops.
We never saw him play golf. Now we're seeing him play what some would say is kind of more of a country club sport. Not an accident, I don't think.
J. MARTIN: Well, it also helps the fact that he's in Hawaii in December, where you can play golf outside.
KURTZ: I didn't even know he played golf.
J. MARTIN: He does play golf, although I think he's going to have a basketball hoop in the White House, too, so I think he's playing hoops still. And I think this is the vacuum effect.
These reporters, Howie, are in Hawaii for a couple of weeks. They are perhaps a little bit guilty about being there, getting paid thousands of dollars to be there. And they're trying to print some copy.
They're feeding the beat, and there's not much, as Carol said, fodder being given. So what do you do? You cover what he's doing. He's playing golf, he's eating a tuna sandwich and having a shaved ice.
KURTZ: But some of this is not being done by the journalists who are with him in Hawaii. He just returned to Chicago this weekend. And some of it is being written by reporters in New York and Washington.
Here's "The Wall Street Journal" on his basketball interests. "Mr. Obama -- whose jump shot earned him the nickname 'Barry O'Bomber' at Hawaii's Punahou School -- has hired a team of cabinet members and aides with serious basketball backgrounds. Many of them are planning for regular court time with the president."
It just seems like, you know, Michel, OK, he's a fascinating figure, he's a new president, but it just seems like there's almost -- we're just lapping this up.
J. MARTIN: Well, when was the last time we had a president who played basketball? I mean, there is an element here -- this guy is new and unique and different. Part of it's racial, part of it's generational. A fascination about -- everything about who this guy is.
Also, the fact is he was elected in November. He's not being sworn in until January 20th, Howie. There's a vacuum there. We've got to try and fill space here. Let's me honest.
M. MARTIN: When was the last time you cleared brush? I mean, I don't clear brush.
KURTZ: Go ahead, Carol.
MARIN: Howie, you know, John Kennedy, I seem to recall a picture of him shirtless on his boat.
KURTZ: Well, a lot of people are comparing the coverage of Obama to the coverage of JFK, which, of course, was in a much simpler era.
KURTZ: Let me ask you, Carol Marin, about the boundaries here, because that picture was taken not by somebody who worked for a news organization, but by one of the paparazzi on the beach in Hawaii. And then there were these other pictures, which most of us haven't shown, which I thought was a horrible invasion of privacy.
It was the memorial service for Obama's grandmother, where they scattered her ashes. None eof the news photographers would cover that.
And so who's setting the standards now? And it seems like it's no longer White House photographers, it's anybody with a camera. MARIN: Well, it's anyone with a camera. It's anyone with Internet access. And the boundaries are a really good question, because the fact is that there are evermore portals for this kind of vision, picture, whatever you want to call it.
And so, yes, we've got to talk to ourselves about these boundaries. But in this competitive landscape, when there are fewer and fewer of the so-called legitimate news outlets, the vaunted "Washington Post" and "New York Times," or at least we're seeing the shrinkage thereof, you know, I think our boundaries and our willingness to maintain boundaries is pretty seriously tested.
KURTZ: At the same time, Jonathan, Obama ditched his press pool, these handful of reporters who follow him around, or are supposed to follow him around. Anyway, he took his daughters to an aquatic center, he left them at the gates of the zoo. He's clearly chafing under the constraints that come with being in this bubble.
Is that a problem for the media?
J. MARTIN: And when he ordered a sandwich and a reporter was actually writing down diligently whether there was a tomato are not on there, Obama turned to the guy and said, you don't have to write all of this down. So, clearly, he's taking some time getting used to the fact that every move that he makes, Howie, is going to be sort of watched and chronicled. That's not an easy thing for any human being, but it's only going to get worse from here.
KURTZ: But, of course, the reason the media do this is not just because we're insatiably curious and because we're pests, but because something might happen...
J. MARTIN: Just in case something happens, you have to have a reporter there, exactly.
KURTZ: Before we go, Michel Martin, "Essence" magazine and "Ebony" now say they're going to have White House correspondents, something they have never done in the history of those magazines.
Is this a new level of racial interest by what we call the black press?
M. MARTIN: Absolutely.
M. MARTIN: And I think that it's just undeniable. I applaud these news outlets for taking this seriously.
I think as you pointed out at the beginning of the program, this has been a terrible season for journalists losing jobs all over the country. And to have these news outlets who -- these papers -- or these magazines, rather -- interested in the substance of what goes on at the White House I think can only introduce this to people who perhaps have not previously been interested in the doings of the national government, except some removed. So I think it's a great thing.
KURTZ: So it might help reach a new audience. It would be a good thing.
M. MARTIN: Reach a new audience of people who might not previously care about Medicaid coverage and things of that sort. So I think it's a great thing.
KURTZ: All right. OK. We'll leave it there.
Michel Martin, Jonathan Martin, and Carol Marin in Chicago, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
Coming up, on the brink. What will the new year hold for a newspaper business that is desperately looking for ways to keep readers, especially younger readers, from abandoning them?
Three top editors, Len Downie, Jim Warren, Phil Bronstein, join us next.
KURTZ: In my first newspaper job in Hackensack, New Jersey, we banged out our stories on manual typewriters, and editors got the duplicates on something called carbon paper. We had no laptops, cell phones, BlackBerrys or blogs, but we did have readers, something the industry has been struggling to hold on to.
This has been a horrible year for the newspaper business, with layoffs and buyouts and cutbacks and sinking revenue and all kinds of dire predictions about the future. So we decided to call in three of the top editors in the business to examine why newspapers are hurting, what can be done about it, and what is the impact on aggressive reporting.
Joining us now in San Francisco, Phil Bronstein, who ran two newspapers for 16 years, first as editor of "The San Francisco Examiner," and then, until last January, the "San Francisco Chronicle." In Chicago, Jim Warren, who until August was managing editor of "The Chicago Tribune." And here in the studio, Leonard Downie, who stepped down in September after 17 years as executive editor of "The Washington Post."
Phil Bronstein, before we get into the Internet or the lousy economy, to what extent are newspapers suffering from self-inflicted wounds caused by years of complacency?
PHIL BRONSTEIN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, whose complacency are we talking about? Are we talking about readers' complacency, Howie? Are we talking about reporters' complacency?
You know, I think there's been a long time, over decades, separation of newsrooms from the public. You know, there's sort of an apocryphal story of the reporter who says, "I can't stake that call from a reader, I'm too busy doing journalism." So it really depends on whose complacency you're talking about.
I think newspapers and newsrooms have been very complacent. And, you know, not to be heretical here, but I think there ought to be some newspapers that probably should shut down just because they're not doing it the right way. They're not paying attention, they're not as connected with readers. I mean, newspapers used to do the things that the Web want to do, which is aggregate content and create community, and I think there's been much less of that going on.
Jim Warren, I wrote a book 15 years ago called "Media Circus" in which I argued the newspapers at that time were too dull, too incremental, too cautious and written too much for insiders.
Would you agree that that has been part of the problem?
JIM WARREN, FMR. MANAGING EDITOR, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": You know, to a certain extent, but it's a big marketplace out there. And the fact that not everybody reads (ph) "The Washington Post" and "New York Times" is not necessarily all that bad.
I mean, for sure, this has not only been, it's arguably been the worst year in the history of the business. Publicly traded newspaper- based companies, their share prices have gone down something like 80 percent. That's far worse than the Standard & Poor's 500 average over the past year.
So you've got a dramatic fall in revenues, dramatic fall in profitability. Some of these companies, like a lot of the Wall Street firms, way, way, way too highly leveraged.
That said, one of the more interesting things out there, one of the more interesting realities, guys, is the fact that if you take the whole universe of readership in some of these communities of a paper like "The Washington Post," combining the print version with the online version, you probably have audiences which have never been bigger than they are today.
Yes, The Post circulation heading a little bit south. But when you add in the number of folks who are looking at your great journalism, that's a pretty impressive figure.
Now, the question is how do you make money, particularly off the Internet? And right now, that is a severe challenge.
KURTZ: Let me ask the former head of "The Washington Post," Len Downie.
Certainly, the Internet has provided a whole new audience for lots of papers, including The Post, but at the same time, the staff has been shrinking because of the financial situation.
Why didn't most newspapers realize earlier what trouble they were headed for? Why didn't the newspaper company create a popular Web site like The Huffington Post or Politico?
LEN DOWNIE, SERVED 17 YEARS AS EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, in fact, "The Washington Post" and "New York Times" and a number of other newspapers have created very popular Web sites. Huffington Post and Politico don't come near us in page views. We have much, much larger audiences, and the top 10 news sites on the Web are dominated by the so-called old media companies, including CNN and NBC and "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times."
So people are reading our journalism in larger numbers than ever before. It's having more impact than ever before. But in terms of the business model, yes, we were way behind, we were complacent.
It was an industry that was a copycat industry where everybody did the same thing all the time. Television is the same way, where you've got the consultants out there telling every television station how to behave all the time.
KURTZ: And everyone was making.
DOWNIE: And everybody was making lots of money.
KURTZ: And so it seemed to be working.
DOWNIE: And the newsrooms got really big. I have to say that for some newsrooms that have contracted, the contraction does not yet hurt that much. For other newsrooms that were already smaller, the contractions hurt quite a bit.
KURTZ: And with all these cutbacks, Phil Bronstein, whether it's the Detroit papers eliminating home delivery several days a week, to your own "San Francisco Chronicle," which has had about 200 or so layoffs and buyouts and sections being cut, are newspapers now gutting the very product they're trying to sell?
BRONSTEIN: Well, I think they're responding to the economic issues. I mean, the reality is, "The Washington Post" -- and not to step into Len Downie's own territory there -- but "The Washington Post" is surviving and maybe even thriving because it's got a business (INAUDIBLE) that I think is more than 50 percent of its business that has nothing to do with journalism.
And I think, so, you get diversified, you might survive. But the news business as we know it is not surviving financially, economically. And so I think, you know, there's a big problem with the newsprint product.
Mark Rosenblum, who you know, our old friend from AP, said the other day, you know, it's not that we don't love Google, but we want to maintain Gutenberg. And the problem is hanging on to that printed version.
Yes, things are going to shrink, newsrooms are going to shrink, sections are going to shrink. But as Jim warren said, you're going to have a bigger audience out there. What are you going to do to attract that audience? By the way, there are also other financial models that are interesting. ProPublica struggling a little bit, but that's privately-funded investigative reporting. Mort Rosenblum is doing something called dispatches.
Let me go to Jim, because I want to pick up the point about the financial models. Tribune is bankrupt. This, of course, is a company that owns "The Chicago Tribune," "Los Angeles Times," "Baltimore Sun," other papers and TV stations.
Now, the tendency has been to blame it on Sam Zell, the Chicago zillionaire who bought it a year ago and loaded it up with $13 billion worth of debt. But weren't there also years of mismanagement that brought the paper to a point where it had to be sold to a Sam Zell?
WARREN: Well, I mean, I think there were probably years of a certain myopia that was industry-wide, particularly the failure to embrace the Internet, particularly the failure to deal with sky-high production costs, particularly the failure to maintain, ridiculously, to me, low pricing levels. I mean, to get a home delivered newspaper in a plastic bag for less than it would cost me to go out to the 7- Eleven I think was a distinct mistake.
I think in the case of Zell, you've got to remember, in fairness, there was essentially a public auction of the company which nobody bid for this company that's got 25 TV stations and about 10 newspapers. So he came in and made the best possible deal that he could.
But when it comes to models from this point on, I mean, I think the two main ones that people are throwing out are the one that Phil alluded to, ProPublica, which people who don't know, is you sort of go to some rich philanthropist and get some money from them and exploit that sort of an NPR model. But the other one, which I think hopefully in a free marketplace can somehow survive, is the one in which you get people to pay for this information.
Len just alluded to all these Web sites which are doing so well, including CNN's. Where does that content generally come from? Most of it comes from newspapers, and they're not paying for it.
They've been ripping newspapers off, and newspapers have sat back and allowed that. And now go oh, my gosh, that's unfair.
KURTZ: Yes. Well, I want to pick that up in a second.
But let me ask you first, Len Downie, as you know, a lot of big papers and big newspaper companies are closing their Washington bureaus, or really gutting them. I mean, you have Newhouse Newspapers, Cox Newspapers. "San Diego Union-Tribune," no more D.C. bureau. The Tribune has combined its bureau with the "L.A. Times." It's now the "L.A. Times" and "Baltimore Sun" and others.
Some people say, well, maybe that makes sense because you had too many reporters in D.C. writing the same stories anyway. What do you think? DOWNIE: Well with the Internet, of course, you can get everybody reporting anywhere in the country. So you can get "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" coverage if your local newspaper no longer covers Washington. But I am concerned that as all newsrooms contract, that the broad number of subjects that need to be covered in Washington won't be covered.
I think we saw that towards the end of this administration, where we all suddenly looked at, well, what happened to (INAUDIBLE) in this administration? What happened to the FDA? Suddenly, we were doing catch-up stories about problems that existed in these agencies.
Now Obama's going to come in, the Obama administration will come in. They're going to reregulate in a lot of areas. They're going to be doing a lot of really new things. And are we going to be there to watch whether they're doing the right new things, whether the changes will benefit the country or not? I worry we're not going to have enough reporters in all those agencies.
KURTZ: Right. Washington journalists not just doing standup in front of the White House.
Phil Bronstein, do we pay too much attention to newspaper layoffs and buyouts at a time when, you know, major banks and other companies are laying off tens of thousands of people? And will the impact on original reporting, the kind that Len Downie just talked about, be as great as we say, or will other media forces, citizen journalists, Web sites be able to pick up this slack?
BRONSTEIN: Well, first of all, you know, I think that even when newsrooms were pretty flush a few years ago, I mean, we were missing the big stories. We missed the first savings and loan collapse, a lot of controversy about the coverage of the original war in Iraq.
I mean, I think that, you know, we've always been missing stories. And maybe that's, to some extent, the complacency that you're talking about.
But I do think -- I'm glad you mentioned citizen journalism. And this has been a taboo subject almost in newsrooms. And the idea of comments on stories that appear on our Web sites have been this afterthought. But the reality is, I think one of the ways that we get our professionalism out there and professional journalism, and maintain it, and perhaps find a business model, is by engaging more with the audience.
So the real question is, what is that pro-Am (ph) relationship?
BRONSTEIN: What kind of relationship are professionals and citizens -- in other words, amateur journalists, if you want to call them that -- what kind of relationship are they going to have that's going to further engage those citizens, those residents, that audience?
KURTZ: OK. I've got to get a break in.
It has to be more of a two-way dialogue. For too many years, newspapers engaged in sort of one-way communication.
When we come back, we'll ask our editors about the coverage of the Gaza conflict and whether it has been fair.
KURTZ: Turning now to coverage of the Mideast conflict.
Len Downie, the Israeli ground assault is in response to 3,000 rocket attacks by Hamas over the past year. Should those rocket attacks, even though they were small in nature, have received more coverage at the time?
DOWNIE: I think, cumulatively, the fact that this has been a constant irritant and threat to people in Israel has been well covered, including the fact that the Israelis talk about it all the time. And in the buildup to this particular conflict right now, there was a lot of discussion about it. I really think we've covered it thoroughly.
KURTZ: Although I would say that a lot of those stories are not on the network newscasts, they're not necessarily on the front page, because, you know, perhaps there were a few casualties at a time.
Phil Bronstein, the American press, I would say, has largely portrayed Israel's offensive as a justified response to the attacks on Hamas. Could that be seen as a pro-Israel tilt?
BRONSTEIN: Well, I think it's going to be seen, Howie, as a pro- Israel tilt. I think the reality is, you know, you asked before the break, has the coverage been fair? The answer, of course, is no, because it depends on whose lens you're looking through.
I think that the -- you know, people who support Hamas will look at our coverage as very pro-Israel in American press coverage, and people who support Israel will look at it as not sympathetic enough to the problem of the rocket attacks. So I think, you know, now one -- you're going to find very few people who say it's fair. I think the big problem, as you alluded to earlier and your reporters noted, is accessibility, because I think the more information you get out there, the better you're doing your job, whether or not it's perceived as fair.
KURTZ: Right. The public is certainly more split. A Rasmussen poll finding that only by 44 to 41 percent does the American public favor this Israeli military action against Gaza.
Jim Warren, since we have no direct access because of Israeli authorities to Gaza, do journalists get manipulated by pictures of wounded children or dead civilians that might be put out by Arab media outlets, even though Israel appears to be trying to minimize civilian casualties?
WARREN: Well, they're only human. And sure, some will be manipulated, even the most cynical ones.
And I'm a little bit wary of using the traditional lead (ph) species of newspaper foreign correspondents as a sole measuring stick here. The issue of accessibility is critical.
In 2002, the Palestinians claimed the Israelis massacred 500 in a town called Jenin. And it wasn't until our correspondent, Chris Spolar (ph), went in there that she found out it wasn't 500, it was about 50. And it definitely took two to tango, which reminds me of a great 1970s Tom Stoppard play on foreign correspondents where he said something to the effect of, people do awful things to one another, and it's worse in place where everybody is kept in the dark.
WARREN: Two critical questions here...
KURTZ: Jim, I've got to cut you off here because we're out of time.
WARREN: Two questions, are we willing to play to have people go to those places where folks do awful things to one another?
KURTZ: Jim Warren gets the last word.
We'll continue the coverage of the war ahead.
That's it for RELIABLE SOURCES.