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State of the Union: Reliable Sources

Aired March 22, 2009 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, John. Before we let you go, you were at the Gridiron dinner last night, that black-tie Washington ritual. President Obama was not there. I understand Joe Biden was funny. But was there a sense of disappointment? Are people ticked off that the president didn't show up?

JOHN KING, HOST: Well, it's a white-tie affair, actually.

KURTZ: Sorry.

KING: Can you imagine me in white tie and tails? How would you make of that?

There were some people who were unhappy -- ticked off's a strong word -- but there were people unhappy the president didn't make it in his first year in office. He was up at Camp David with his daughters and his wife, saying it's their spring break from school. He didn't want to be there.

It was a fun event. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke for the Republicans, said maybe Obama wasn't not there because, to use a Hollywood term, he's just not into you, to the reporters. And Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan, was the Democratic speaker, in addition to Vice President Biden, and she was joking that Sarah Palin, in her view, had set the cause of hot governors back. So it was a fun night, Howie.

KURTZ: "Just not that into you"? Ouch. All right. We'll talk to you later, John.

KURTZ: Ahead, we'll examine the president's late-night appearance with Jay Leno and whether the media have been speaking deliberately stoking the outrage over those big AIG bonuses.

But first, there was some chatter before Barack Obama took office that maybe he would conduct a YouTube presidency, using his own digital channels and blowing off much of the mainstream media. Well, that was dead wrong.

Obama's first interview after the election was with Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes." There were also sit-downs with Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," syndicated columnists, regional reporters, Hispanic journalists, black journalists. And tonight, after stopping off to see Jay Leno, the president's second such interview in four months will air on "60 Minutes." One topic, cracking down on bonuses and big salaries on Wall Street. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE KROFT, "60 MINUTES": Now I think there are a lot of people that say, look, we're not going to be able to keep our best people. They are not going to stay and work here for $250,000 a year when they can go work for a hedge fund, if they can find one that's still working.

OBAMA: If you go to North Dakota, or you go to Iowa, or you go to Arkansas, where folks would be thrilled to be making $75,000 a year, without a bonus, then I think they would get a sense of why people are frustrated.


KURTZ: Joining us now from New York to talk about his latest interview with the president is CBS's Steve Kroft.

KROFT: Good morning, Howie.

KURTZ: Now Steve, you interviewed Obama during the campaign. You got the first interview after the election. Now this one.

How did Steve Kroft become the go-to guy for the Obama White House? KROFT: Well, I think it started off when he began his campaign back in Springfield a couple of years ago. And we went out there to do a story on him, and we just kind of kept in touch.

KURTZ: Unlike the...

KROFT: And also, I think I do want to say the Fresno -- one of the Fresno papers did a story a couple of weeks ago about "60 Minutes" now becoming sort of the premier political platform. I mean, we have a very, very big audience, much bigger than any other news audience in the country. And it's a good place for them to show.

KURTZ: So it's not just your charming personality, in other words?

KROFT: I don't want to claim total credit for it.

KURTZ: Unlike the first time, the post-election interview you did with President Barack Obama, the president has been very much on the defensive this past week. Did you feel the need to be more aggressive on topics like the economy and AIG, for example?

KROFT: Yes, I think we asked him a lot of hard questions. But I have to say that I found him probably more relaxed this week than at any other time that I had interviewed him.

We pushed him hard on AIG. We talked a lot about the cultural wars between -- that's broken now between Wall Street and Main Street, two constituencies that he needs to try and get his financial package through, and asked him some tough questions there. Also tough questions on Afghanistan, which is -- we spent a lot of time talking about Afghanistan. KURTZ: You're sitting there in the Oval Office with the leader of the free world, not a candidate anymore. Is there some pressure that you feel to be polite, not to interrupt, for example?

KROFT: Absolutely. I think that interviews with presidents are different than almost anything else. They're sort of the long bastion of civility between the press and reporters, particularly when you're in the Oval Office.

You're not supposed to wag your finger at him, and you're not supposed to get -- it's supposed to be civil. And so you always try and keep that in mind.

And what we tried to do is to engage him in a conversation. We started off -- I talked to my producers, Frank DeVaughn (ph) and Mike Redutsky (ph), and as always, they produced a list of question, each of them for the president. I prepared my own list. And we had like 120 questions, which we had to narrow it down to about 30, and didn't get to ask all of those.

So you have to be very selective. And the key to what we do is to try and engage them in a conversation, to get them to talk about subjects in a way that they aren't necessarily asked about during the daily news conferences or press appearances. And so we try and draw him out.

And I think in that regard, we were very successful. I think you get a very good picture of how he's approaching his job and where his head is 60 days into his presidency.

KURTZ: Now, one of the things you asked about that's making some headlines this morning was Vice President Cheney, who was on "STATE OF THE UNION" last Sunday, was asked by John King about Barack Obama's presidency. And Cheney pointed out, the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison, or the plans to close it, I should say, and said that he believes that President Obama is making America less safe.

You asked Barack Obama about that, and the president said, "How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under these Cheney philosophy?" Obama said, "It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is great advertisement for anti-American sentiment."

Were you surprised that he went back at Cheney as hard as he did?

KROFT: I guess I was a little bit surprised. I thought there were going to be two responses. I think that either the first response was going to be, "I don't want to talk about Dick Cheney, it's Dick Cheney," or he was going to tee off on him, which he decided to do very, very aggressively. So I was a little surprised.

KURTZ: Now, you had an extraordinarily 90 minutes with the president for this interview. Obviously you have to edit it for tonight's broadcast.

Were you expecting to have that much time? KROFT: Well, it was broken down into -- we had an hour sitting in the Oval Office, and then we got a little tour of the grounds. And we talked to him about some other things about how he approached the job, what the biggest surprises were, what were the toughest decisions he's had to make, how he organizes his time, how people handle him, life inside the bubble. Those sorts of things. So that was an additional -- that was the additional half-hour.

KURTZ: Inevitably, people are going to say -- and I haven't seen the whole transcript, obviously -- why didn't you press him on health care? Why didn't you ask about Russia? Why didn't you ask about cap and trade? But as you were saying, you have to boil down, even with 90 minutes, you have got to boil down what you're going to ask the president.

KROFT: Exactly. And I think the challenge is always -- you know, there are two sort of variations of news. There's news in the literal sense of the word, which is what "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" and "CBS Evening News" covers every day, where you're looking for something that is absolutely, positively brand new. And then there's what Don Hewitt used to call "News to me," and we're always looking for the "News to me."

We've got a 16 million audience, and not all of them are completely read in to everything that's going on. So we're looking for more general answers and, as I said, try and draw them out and give them -- give people a sense of what's going through people's minds and who they are, and what they are thinking about, and whether they are telling the truth or lying.

KURTZ: Now, as I mentioned, you had this 90 minutes of a chance to both walk and talk with President Obama. "60 Minutes," the name of the show, tells us you've only got an hour, minus commercials, of course. Should CBS put the whole, unedited interview online so people can see what was left on the cutting room floor?

KROFT: I think that -- I don't know whether they are planning to do that. I think we'll probably put some of it online. You know, we used to have an arrangement with Yahoo! in which we put a lot of extra material online. I don't know whether we'll make it available on the CBS Web site or not. There's certainly no reason not to.

KURTZ: All right. We'll let you go, Steve Kroft. But let me just ask you, have you finished editing the piece? Clearly, you did this interview in the Oval Office late Friday. Not much time for a "60 Minutes" piece.

KROFT: Well, it's a two-part story. So -- two segments. So they are still physically editing the tape and tweaking it. And we may do some more of that after the final screening at 11:00. So -- but hopefully we'll have outputted it to the studio by 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon.

KURTZ: All right. Well, we'll look forward to seeing it at 7:00 Eastern tonight, unless some of the NCAA playoff game is running a little late. Steve Kroft, thanks very much for joining us from New York.

KROFT: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: When we come back, up in arms over AIG. The bailed-out insurance agent hands out hundreds of millions in bonuses, but did journalists go too far in handing out the populist pitchforks?

And later, up late with Obama. The president visits "The Tonight Show." Is joking with Jay a good use of his time?

And look for the new RELIABLE SOURCES page on Facebook. You can become a fan, get an early look at some of the topics and guests we'll be featuring on Sunday mornings. And you can throw your in two cents along the way.


KURTZ: Are you angry about those AIG bonuses? Do you want to throw something at the television every time we mention it? Of course you do. Haven't you heard? The whole country is angry.

Among the first to say he was ticked but that he couldn't do anything about it was White House economic adviser Larry Summers last Sunday. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE SUMMERS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: We're not a country where contracts just get abrogated willy-nilly.

KURTZ (voice-over): The next day, the administration did a 180, with the president saying he would try -- try to do something about the $165 million in bonuses.

OBAMA: How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?

KURTZ: Well, he used the "O" word, but he didn't sound all that mad. It wasn't until later in the week that Obama ratcheted it up with the press corps.

OBAMA: I don't want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry. I'm angry.

KURTZ: What changed? Well, maybe the rabid 24-hour media coverage and headlines like these. The cable networks started running graphics that said "AIG Outrage" and "AIG, Argh!" And most of the pundits were just plain steamed.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: You and I pay them $170 billion. They pay now $165 million in bonuses to the idiots who sank the company.

(UNKNOWN): I would be for an exemplary hanging or two.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN: The people running it have run it into the ground, and we are on the hook, us taxpayers, for hundreds of billions of dollars with these clowns and we are supposed to pay bonuses to these people?


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the bonus-bashing coverage, John Aravosis, editor of; Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review"; and CNN's National Political Correspondent Jessica Yellin.

Jim Geraghty, this is a legitimate story. It deserves a lot of coverage. Isn't some of this political outrage driven by around-the- clock media cauldron of emotion?

JIM GERAGHTY, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": There was a certain (ph) life sketch at the beginning of this economic crisis in which they had a guy just screaming at the television, "Fix it!" I don't understand the problem, but just fix it. And that's where we've been for about six months now.

The AIG bonuses are the first part of the story that everybody can understand. A bunch of guys who either didn't do their job very well, or completely screwed up completely, are getting a whole lot of money -- argh! It's something easier to understand, easy to get angry about. Let's not worry about the details. We'll take care of that later.

KURTZ: John Aravosis, from reading your blog, I can tell that you're pretty mad about this. But do you think that some of the media to keep this story going every 24-hour cycle is a bit manufactured?

JOHN ARAVOSIS, AMERICABLOG.COM: No, only because I think the media works, but also the way the American public works, is by metaphor in the sense that you look for the dying woman, you know, ruined by her insurance company, to take the larger story and investigate it, like people like Jessica Yellin, who's here today with ABC (sic) does, to look at the story and say, what's going on with the insurance companies? And I think that's what people are doing here. They are looking at the AIG story as a metaphor for, what -- is the system not running right on Wall Street, and do we need to fix it? And people think we do.

KURTZ: It's a microcosm of sorts.


KURTZ: All right.

KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, we saw Larry Summers say, sorry, the government can't do anything about this. That lasted less than 24 hours.

Wasn't it the media firestorm that forced the administration to change its position?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as a reflection of what was going on with the public. The public was furious. KURTZ: Was the public furious? I mean, if you stopped 10 people on the street, would nine of them say, boy, I am really mad?

YELLIN: Frankly, yes. We get -- sometimes we make fun of them, but these iReports at CNN with people call in with their own reports.

ARAVOSIS: Setting things afire.

YELLIN: Right.

KURTZ: But people who have stronger emotions would be more likely to call in, obviously, than people who don't really care about it.

YELLIN: Correct. That's true. And we put the info out there and it gets people excited. But here's finally an entry point for all of us to start covering a massive story that everyone should be caring about. And now we have a way, a hook, to get people engaged.

KURTZ: But in doing that, Jim Geraghty, the media, it seems to me, abandoned any effort at neutrality. We showed you some of those headlines. It was "AIG Outrage" or "Bonus Rage" or something like that. There is another side here. I don't necessarily agree with it, but there is a side that says, this will be bad for business, this will abrogate contracts, this will make people leave their jobs who are talented and get us out of this mess. That was reported, but it was totally subsumed by this tsunami.

GERAGHTY: I am of the perspective that we have giant reserve warehouses of outrage that can be spread around for a wide variety of places. However, these 400 or so executives, they're a very convenient, easy one, especially now that Barney Frank is determining that the security threat to them is not sufficient to prevent the names from coming out. Because we know Congress doesn't leak out any names or anything like that.

Look, AIG is telling people, don't ever tell anyone you work for AIG. Don't wear anything that has "AIG" on it.

KURTZ: So is that a result of this -- the intensity of the media coverage that these people maybe are even worried about?

GERAGHTY: I think so. When you villainize someone to the point where you're basically, you know -- I'm surprised to see Charles Krauthammer saying, OK, poor, poor, poor AIG executives, you did nothing wrong.


YELLIN: American taxpayers are funding this. We need to know where this money is going. The lack of transparency in all of this is astounding.

And Howie, can I read you one thing? This is where I do think that the media is falling down. This was in "The New York Times" yesterday. I think that the media needs to be doing a better job of explaining to America what's going on.

Do you understand this sentence -- "Goldman began to mark down the value of a the super senior collateralized debt obligations that were underlying credit default swap agreements with AIG." It's English. I don't get it.

KURTZ: To me, an equal outrage is the fact that Goldman Sachs, and even some European banks, got bailout money that went to AIG, that then went to the customers they've insured.

But look, $165 million in bonuses, that is a lot of money. But it is a rounding error compared to the $170 billion that AIG has gotten from the taxpayers. So it seems to me it's kind of like Bernie Madoff, a despicable crook who has now gone to jail. The media wants scapegoats here.

ARAVOSIS: The media wants scapegoats as if they caught a goat. I mean, however the expression goes. The points is, I think this is a larger metaphor of what is going on at AIG and what's going on, on Wall Street. You better believe as well that I think AIG and the rest of Wall Street, they're going to be damn careful in the future of what they do with this federal money after what they just went through.

And the media has, by the way, regarding what you got into a second ago, the media has reported on the fact every day that these employees are all going to walk if we hold them accountable. What hasn't been said, frankly, in the articles is, where are they going to walk to?

KURTZ: Where are they going to go in the shrinking financial sector?

ARAVOSIS: So, if anything, it hasn't been fair investigating enough of the allegations these guys are making.

KURTZ: Well, here's something that came out in the reporting this week here on CNN. Senator Chris Dodd originally telling a CNN producer -- we're going to show this to you -- that he doesn't know how that provision got into the conference committee report that basically exempted the AIG bonuses because they were negotiated last year. And then he began to change his story.

Let's roll that tape.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, I just want to get at the fact...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... that you're saying you had nothing to do with that...

DODD: Absolutely not.



DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If I could just follow up, just on this point, you were very adamant yesterday, very adamant that you didn't know how this change got in there. And now you are saying that your staff did work with the administration.

DODD: Well, going back and looking -- and obviously I apologize. The alternative was losing, in my view, the entire section on executive excessive compensation. Given the choice, this is not an uncommon occurrence here. I agreed to a modification in the legislation, reluctantly.


KURTZ: Dana Bash with Chris Dodd. Jim Geraghty, did CNN nail Senator Dodd for lying?

GERAGHTY: They did. And well done, CNN.

I mean, it's not that hard to catch Chris Dodd in a lie, but nonetheless, this was a fantastic one in which it really was a scene from "Casablanca" -- I'm shocked to see that this language in the amendment that I sponsored. You know, even by the standards of politicians, it's a fairly lame excuse.

YELLIN: Well, he can't admit what most senators can't admit, which is that 90 percent of the work is done by staff and they don't even know what's going into these bills half the time.

KURTZ: Despite the amount of money at stake. And, of course, Senator Dodd and others have gotten contributions from AIG.

All right. Come back to this sort of scapegoat argument, because we had some conservative pundits -- I mean, the thing here is that both liberals and conservatives are equally ticked off I think about the bonuses. We had some conservative commentators like Sean Hannity saying Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, should be fired. And then within about a day or two, I would see stories that would say, "Tim Geithner: Can He Survive?"

So, again, are we stepping out of the reporting role, into the role of trying to nail some of these officials?

ARAVOSIS: I think what is interesting in this case with Geithner is you see a lot of liberal critics as well. And Paul Begala, this morning on CNN, compared Geithner to Rumsfeld going into the war. And not in a good way. The fact that you have so many liberals bringing up the fact that they're not sure that Geithner should have been there to start with and that he should remain -- Sean Hannity is irrelevant. I mean, he's like Rush Limbaugh.

KURTZ: But he's not irrelevant. ARAVOSIS: Of course he's going to criticize. I know, but my point is, Sean Hannity and the right will always say those things. They don't create the news. What's created the news is the fact that liberals have also joined in. That's newsworthy and that's interesting.

KURTZ: That's created a critical mass, in your view?

ARAVOSIS: It's getting to a critical mass. I don't think it's a critical mass yet, but it's certainly created a news story, I think.

KURTZ: Do journalists -- look, we need a new story every day, right? Do journalists thrive on this blame game -- will so-and-so survive, whether it's Geithner or somebody else -- because it's a better narrative than what you just read to "The New York Times." You know, how we scrub toxic assets from the balance sheets of banks, which is frankly hard to understand.

YELLIN: I have to disagree with you today, Howie. I usually like to agree with you...


YELLIN: ... but today, I'll tell you, the White House says yes. The White House says exactly what you're saying -- you guys are upset with tick-tocks, you're obsessed with assigning blame, move on. America needs to care about bigger issues. This is exactly what we should be doing, following this taxpayer money, demanding more accountability, asking what they are doing, and demanding that they be more forthright with us and not say we just have to honor contracts when the experts in the field say...


KURTZ: But should we be saying, is Tim Geithner's job safe?

YELLIN: That is not because we are coming up with that at home, in the morning, and decide to make that news. That's because our sources are saying to us, we're worried about Geithner, we don't know what's going on. It's coming from various places that we can't always say forthrightly.

GERAGHTY: I'm just going to be the one guy who comes out and says, Tim Geithner cannot leave the Treasury Department. Because if he leaves, there will be no one left to answer the phones.


KURTZ: Right. And President Obama, in that "60 Minutes" interview that's airing tonight, says that he won't not Geithner quit. He's going to say, sorry, buddy, you've still got the job.

Look, here's my two cents on this.

These bonuses, clearly, have touched a kind of nerve. It was like when Citigroup tried to buy that $50 million corporate jet. These companies crashed the economy through reckless conduct, and they still seem to be playing by the old rules in handing out these big bonuses. But the media, which one lionized many of these CEOs, by the way, have totally whipped up this frenzy, almost like a pitchfork- wielding mob.

Yes, we should reflect the anger out there. Yes, we should be aggressive. Yes, we should report on this. But I don't think it's our job to lead the mob.

And that's troubling me a little bit.

The RELIABLE SOURCES Candor Award goes to Politico's Josh Gerstein, who wrote a piece this weekend calling himself a dunderhead, because he read the bonus provision, the one that Chris Dodd putt in. And he gave it half a sentence in the story, and that half a sentence was cut out of the print edition of Politico because I guess it just wasn't interesting enough.

All right.

Jessica Yellin, John Aravosis, Jim Geraghty, thanks very much for stopping by this morning.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, presidential schmoozing. Barack Obama hits Jay Leno's couch and talks college hoops with the ESPN. A slam-dunk or a tone-deaf detour with the economy in tatters?

And then, politics and paparazzi. TMZ has invaded Washington. We'll talk to one congressman who was blindsided by the gossip show.

Plus, fight night, why getting angry, especially at somebody famous, is a sure-fire way to grab the media's attention.

And in the next hour, the academic odd couple. What is Newt Gingrich doing lecturing at a class taught by James Carville? John King heads to New Orleans to find out.


KING: I'm John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. One of President Barack Obama's top economic advisers says it's critical the government get toxic assets off the books of failing banks. Earlier this morning on STATE OF THE UNION, Christina Romer told CNN those bad assets are keeping banks from lending and scaring off private investors. The treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is expected to detail the administration's toxic asset plan as early as Monday.

Pakistan's fire chief justice was reinstated today in an official ceremony in Islamabad. The flag-raising ceremony came after Pakistan's president gave in to opposition demand. The grassroots movement in support of the justice triggered a political crisis and threatened to destabilize the government. Turkey's prime minister says he's not ruling out allowing U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq across Turkish territory. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Prime Minister Erdogan says he's receptive to the idea, but so far the United States has not asked for permission.

That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

Now, though, let's go back to Howie and his RELIABLE SOURCES.

Hey, Howie.

KURTZ: Hi, John.

You know, Barack Obama holding his second primetime news conference on Tuesday. I'm a little surprised that all the broadcast networks are taking it again. I mean, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did not fare that well when they wanted to go on in prime time.

KING: It's an interesting test for our business, because the broadcast networks will tell you they are doing that because there are so many big issues in play. It's important for the American people to hear from their president. But Howie, you and I both know Barack Obama also generates ratings. He proved that on the Leno show this past week, and so there will be a lot of questions asked about, is this is a double standard with the new president?

KURTZ: And you've set me up for our next topic. We'll talk to you later, John.

Late-night comedy shows have become a standard pit stop for presidential candidates. Leno, Letterman, "The Daily Show," Colbert, they've all played host to the White House wannabes.


KURTZ (voice-over): Bill Clinton started it by playing the sax on "Arsenio Hall." John Kerry granted one of the final TV interviews of his campaign to Jon Steward. And John McCain made the spectacular mistake of blowing off a date with David Letterman and had to scramble back for a makeup interview.

But once in the Oval Office, presidents usually seek more traditional television forums, which is why it was a bit of a stunner this week when President Obama showed up on "The Tonight Show."

OBAMA: I do think in Washington, it's a little bit like "American Idol," except everybody is Simon Cowell.


I know what would make me feel good. Shouldn't somebody go to jail?


OBAMA: Here's the dirty little secret, though. Most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal.


KURTZ: So, was hanging with Jay a wise move when the president is under such heavy political pressure over the economy and AIG?

Joining us now here in Washington, Mark Leibovich, reporter for "The New York Times"; Julie Mason, White House correspondent for "The Washington Examiner"; and in New York, Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at and is the author of the new book "What Would Google Do?"

Mark Leibovich, no sitting president has ever done this late- night comedy thing before. Is Obama kind of rewriting the media rules here?

MARK LEIBOVICH, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think he absolutely is, and it's clearly a forum he's very comfortable with. It's clearly one that he nailed many times in the campaign. And comes from, frankly, a generation that sort of has a couched sensibility when it comes to talking about fairly serious things. He's obviously steeped in pop culture and... KURTZ: He didn't make that many jokes, but of course he did make the one joke about comparing his own bowling ability to the Special Olympics.

LEIBOVICH: To the Special Olympics.

KURTZ: I've had half the people tell me that was outrageously insensitive on his part, and the other half saying, look, it was an inadvertent slipup, obviously he didn't mean any insult. Is it more than a one-day story?

LEIBOVICH: I don't think it was.

LEIBOVICH: I mean, I think he apologized. They got out ahead of it pretty quickly.

I mean, I think, you know, again, Obama does -- what I think he's demonstrated this week, especially, is that he can actually -- he actually does let his guard down a little bit more easily than people thought he did during the campaign. So in a sense, I mean, that sort of -- that pushes the story forward.

KURTZ: And that's a risk you take.

Jeff Jarvis, let's look at it from Leno's perspective. He's had presidential candidates on before. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced for governor on his show.

This is very different. How did Jay handle it?

JEFF JARVIS, BUZZMACHINE.COM: The old TV critic in me comes out, Howie. I'm afraid Jay can make anything even this boring.

KURTZ: Boring? JARVIS: I wish that -- yes, I think so. I think that if Obama had picked a little more challenging platform like Stewart, or even Colbert, or certainly Letterman, you would have had more of a back- and-forth. You had Leno saying, so, that Geithner, he's a pretty smart guy, huh? Well, not if he took that job he's not.

KURTZ: Now, Julie Mason, I don't think that the late-night comedy shows were dying to have President Bush on. Obama is kind of a ratings magnet. And in fact, Leno nearly tripled his ratings during that appearance on Thursday night.

JULIE MASON, "WASHINGTON EXAMINER": It's true. And the irony is that President Bush was a lot funnier than President Obama. I mean, Obama went on there, he talked about tax policy. And people want to talk about how great he was. I thought he was a little boring.

KURTZ: But if he had kidded around too much...

MASON: Oh, that would have been terrible, right.

KURTZ: ... wouldn't people like you be saying, at a time...

MASON: It's an outrage.

KURTZ: ... when the economy is in such deep trouble, he's doing one-liners. He's doing schtick.

MASON: Right. It's a no-win situation. But I did think he was a little dull.

I will say that I think it was inevitable that a sitting president would end up on late night. I mean, that's the way the culture is heading.

KURTZ: Well, maybe it's inevitable that they'll end up doing late night and they'll (inaudible) off the Sunday shows, which of course it's hard to get when somebody's in the Oval Office.

So another unorthodox move by the president this past week was going on ESPN, inviting ESPN's Andy Katz to the Oval Office, to talk about college hoops. Take a look at a little bit of that.


OBAMA: I hate to say, this because my brother-in-law is in the Pac-10 right now, but Pac-10 has been looking pretty weak this year. I watched the highlights on ESPN. I can't be staying up until 2:00 in the morning. I've got work to do.


KURTZ: He's got work to do. And some bloggers are saying, he should be doing that work and not handicapping the NCAA.

LEIBOVICH: Well, he's obviously multitasking. Well, he would say he's multitasking. I will say this, as a viewer, as a consumer of the media, I thought this was a fascinating bit of television, because it showed me that he has encyclopedic knowledge of some of this college basketball.

KURTZ: He's really into it.

LEIBOVICH: He is really into it. And frankly, I knew that he was into it, but I didn't know the degree to which he was. So I thought it was interesting to see him in that forum.

Now, if he weren't doing Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes" tonight, I mean, maybe you would say, he's ducking the important stuff. But I think it's pretty clear that he's engaged on other weighty matters.

KURTZ: He did tick off the coach of Duke, who was not picked for the Final Four.

Julie Mason, AIG, health care, the economy, I mean, these are really serious times, huge challenges for the administration. A little unusual for him to be doing Final Four picks?

MASON: Well, he's using his personal appeal to help sell his agenda on these other issues. And I think that's part of what we're seeing right now, this blitz, going on Leno, ESPN. He's reminding people, hey, you like me. Because when you look at the polls, his personal approval ratings are very high, but his support for his initiatives are not that good.

KURTZ: And that's the point, Jeff Jarvis. Does this enable Obama to connect with ordinary people, basketball fans and others, who were not that riveted by the details of the fiscal 2010 budget?

JARVIS: Exactly. I think the point is, you go to where the people are. That's what our Internet age brings you, is the idea that you don't just wait for people to come to us. And so for the president to go there, whether it's on YouTube or ESPN, or anywhere else, it kind of humanizes him more, puts more channels of communication, and that can only be good.

KURTZ: Mark Leibovich, you wrote a piece in "The New York Times" this week about every shred of gossip, seemingly, about the White House is now news for somebody -- bloggers, online sites, even newspapers. Here are some examples -- White House staff singing "Happy Birthday to Assistant Press Secretary Nick Shapiro; Peter Orszag, the budget director, likes Diet Coke. And this was in "The Washington Examiner," Rahm Emanuel getting some cash out of the ATM at a Safeway.

So my question to you is why? Why is this news?

LEIBOVICH: You know, I can't answer that. But I will say this, that there has always been an appetite for, shall we say, trivial bits of information about an administration. The difference now is there are a lot more outlets to convey them, whether it's Twitter, whether it's a blog, whether it's the millions -- well, not millions, but there are many, many more gossip columnists in Washington than there were, say, 10 years ago. And frankly, the fact that Peter Orszag drinks Diet Coke, winding up in "The Wall Street Journal," maybe does say something about where the media is these days.

KURTZ: What about the front page of "The New York Times" yesterday putting the picture of Michelle Obama's vegetable garden? I mean, they have such a riot out of planting some fruits and vegetables.

LEIBOVICH: Yes, they have. They do. And also, you know, in fairness to "The New York Times," I think they had a front-page story two weeks ago on the graying of the president's hair. So, you know, I don't think that "The New York Times" or "The Wall Street Journal" or "The Washington Post" or anyone is above this. But I do think, you know, again, it is a complement to a lot of serious news that I think we're trying to cover also.

KURTZ: When you, Julie Mason, were blogging from the White House -- and you're more of a straight reporter now -- I mean, did you find yourself scrounging for these tidbits?

MASON: Yes. People are so interested in this stuff. But I have to agree with Mark, Howie, is that it's not coming at the expense of serious news. Serious news is still being covered. There's just so many more places to get news -- blogs, Twitter -- and there are so many more people covering the White House, so of course there's going to be a rush to get these little tidbits. I actually felt anxious the other day because I didn't know that Caroline Kennedy was seen leaving the West Wing with her roller bag. You know, it's these kinds of things that are being covered. It makes you a little stressed out.

KURTZ: So, in other words, I can make fun of it, but you think that people actually glom on to this stuff...

MASON: I know that they do. I know that they do.

KURTZ: ... silly as it sometimes appears?

MASON: Yes. That's what people talk about.

KURTZ: Well, Jeff Jarvis, I mean, you're the Internet expert here. Do we have so many bloggers and outlets now chasing so -- there's such a limited supply of news, that we've kind of descended into this utter triviality?

JARVIS: Well, everybody's famous on Twitter now, I guess. We all have our fans and followers.

You know, it's -- I think it's just part of where we are and where we've always been. We like a little bit of fame and celebrity. We also like to humanize people. "People" magazine wanted to see the stars eating breakfast at their tables to say, wow, they eat breakfast too. An instinct that's been around for a long time.

KURTZ: So it's the "US Weekly" approach to Washington journalism, these important officials, and they're just like? JARVIS: Right, even though they aren't.

KURTZ: Even though they aren't, but we have to pretend that they are.

JARVIS: Right.

KURTZ: I wanted to touch on one other thing with you, and that is Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, now, she interviewed Sarah Palin during the campaign when Palin was the VP nominee. And a few weeks ago -- and we played it on this program -- Greta interviewed Bristol Palin, who recently had a baby, of course, the governor's daughter.

"The Washington Post" reported this week that Van Susteren's husband has been informally advising Palin -- not a paid consultant or anything -- and she says that, you know what? He met Palin through me, I didn't get the interview through him. And he's helped women in both political parties.

Should this have been disclosed?

LEIBOVICH: Maybe. I mean, John Coale, who's been around, like you said, both parties for a long time -- and he was a very, very big fund-raiser for John Kerry four years ago, or now five years ago. He was a big Hillary Clinton supporter last year. I mean, again, you'd have to look at Greta Van Susteren's history with John Kerry or Hillary Clinton. I mean, I think maybe it should have been disclosed, but I also think that it's a very slippery slope, and I think that there are a lot of gray areas in which a lot of people in the media, frankly, have spouses who are in politics. Especially in Washington.

KURTZ: And some of them have now gone to work -- some of the spouses have now gone to work for the Obama administration, creating a sticky situation.

MASON: Right.

LEIBOVICH: Or the journalists themselves.

KURTZ: Right.

Before we go, Jeff Jarvis, you've got your new book out, "What Would Google Do?" And you make the argument -- and I've only got about half a minute here -- that newspapers, struggling newspapers, should not be viewing Google as an enemy, but in fact should be viewing it as a positive development in aggregating their contact.

JARVIS: Google is the new newsstand. It sends them traffic. And Google, really, I think, is a model for them, if that they can become platforms and networks for much larger echo systems of news rather than trying to own everything, maybe that's the secret to their future survival.

KURTZ: All right. Jarvis, we'll look for you on Twitter, Facebook, and just about everywhere else.

Jeff Jarvis, Julie Mason, Mark Leibovich, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, ambush interviews. The gossip gang at TMZ invades Capitol Hill. We'll talk to one congressman who was taken by surprise.

Now, here's some drive-by journalism -- TMZ catching Senator Richard Burr in his 1974 VW thing.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, as in burr, I'm driving a freaking convertible in a D.C. snowstorm.


KURTZ: TMZ, the gossip site and television show, is famous or infamous for chasing after the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. But now TMZ, which is owned by CNN's parent company, has found a new sport -- chasing after congressmen. That's right, the Hollywood hustlers are conducting ambush interviews right here inside the beltway, accosting unsuspecting lawmakers with questions ranging from provocative to inane.

So is this what passes for news these days? I spoke earlier with one member of Congress who was stalked by TMZ.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Aaron Schock, welcome.


KURTZ: Let's start by showing America what happened when you were walking to the Capitol for a vote and practically accosted by this guy with a camera.

Let's roll it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's Republican Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois. And wow, he's got really great bone structure, doesn't he? Strong chin, nice hair, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How is the nightlife in DC?

SCHOCK: I haven't been out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just too much work?

SCHOCK: That's right. All work, no play.



KURTZ: Did you think, is this person crazy?

SCHOCK: I didn't know what was going on. I'm on my way to the floor for a vote, I'm talking to a constituent literally on my cell phone and there is some guy with a Handycam in street clothes walking next to me and so I didn't know what to expect.

KURTZ: It didn't seem like he was from CBS News?

SCHOCK: No, not exactly.

KURTZ: How did this play in Peoria. What was the reaction back home to this paparazzi moment?

SCHOCK: You know, I was actually surprised by how many text messages, e-mails, phone calls I got from stay at home moms that were watching the show. People that log onto their Web site I guess regularly and check out the news on TMZ.

KURTZ: Why do you think there was such a reaction?

SCHOCK: Well, I think in many respects, people who watch TMZ or different mediums don't expect to see their congressman on such a show. And so they're used to seeing the Britney Spears or the movie star. But to see their hometown congressman on a show like this kind of raises their interest and gets them a little excited.

KURTZ: There was another encounter, up close and personal encounter, a couple weeks later. Let's play a little bit of that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who would you say has better abs, you or President Obama?

SCHOCK: I don't know. We'll have to match up sometime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you know Abe Lincoln also had great abs?

SCHOCK: Did he really? I learn something new every time I watch TMZ.


KURTZ: And there you're just pandering.

How did you become known for your abs?

SCHOCK: Don't ask me. I think it's in reference to the president going topless, if you will, in Hawaii and people making comments about him and he's from my home state and they tried to make the comparison I guess.

KURTZ: Do you want to take off your jacket and roll up your sleeves and maybe we could give something that TMZ could pick up? SCHOCK: I won't do that.

KURTZ: All right.

You're on the Transportation Committee. You're in the Government Reform Committee. You voted the other day to have - impose that 90 percent tax on those that took the infamous AIG bonuses. Wouldn't you rather be known for these kinds of issues, for your work on these committees?

SCHOCK: Well, I'm doing my part to get that message out and talk through the traditional media about those issues. But I also think some of these alternative forums are important because it gives non- traditional voters engaged. If they're learning about me on TMZ or some of these other blogs, and YouTube videos, then they are recognizing my face and my name so that when I am out on CNN or the other networks talking about issues, they're going to maybe stop from clicking the channel and listen to what I have to say.

KURTZ: But doesn't this in some way trivialize you as a member of Congress? Wow, he is so hot. They are going to see you, they are going to think of your latest vote in the House of Representatives or are they going to think of you as the guy with the abs? Which we haven't seen, by the way.

SCHOCK: Well, I guess there's worse things they could saying about you. But I think in many cases President Obama has shown that there is an important part of being a good public servant and an effective policy maker is getting the American people behind you and getting them to pay attention to what you're saying.

KURTZ: He went on Leno this week. You went on Stephen Colbert. So, you're 27 years old. You're a member of the minority party. So you're not necessarily a magnet for news cameras.

So is it anything that gets you on TV helps you politically and perhaps otherwise?

SCHOCK: Well, in the minority, we're not going to legislate ourselves back to the majority. So we're going to have to communicate our way back to the majority.


SCHOCK: And that's part of it.

KURTZ: And communicating through TMZ or Stephen Colbert is a good vehicle for an esteemed representative?

SCHOCK: Well, as you can tell, I didn't agree to the interviews and wasn't sitting down in a set-up environment. But I think it is important for someone in my position to roll with it and use it to my advantage and the advantage of my constituents. And a means to communicate.

KURTZ: So you didn't ask for this, but if TMZ comes after you again, you might have a few good one-liners?

SCHOCK: One of the disadvantages of being in public service is you can't control what people say about you and you're always living in a fishbowl.

KURTZ: That part is absolutely true.

Aaron Schock, thanks very much for joining us.

SCHOCK: Thanks for having me on.


KURTZ: And, by the way, RELIABLE SOURCES is now portable. You can download our video podcast at, or look for us on iTunes.

After the break, anger management. TV personalities keep getting really, really mad at each other. I mean kiss my backside mad. Or are they just playing to the cameras?


KURTZ: The economy may be crumbling, newspapers may be folding, and two wars may be raging. But there's still one sure-fire way to get media attention -- pick a fight.


KURTZ (voice-over): Rush Limbaugh knew he could dominate the news by taking on the new president. And sure enough, he did.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: What is so strange about being honest and saying, I want Barack Obama to fail? Why would I want that to succeed?

KURTZ: Back when Keith Olbermann's show was a blip in the ratings, he started beating up on Bill O'Reilly, and Bill O'Reilly doesn't let too many programs go by before taking a hard swing at NBC.

OLBERMANN: Thus, is it now my honor to name Bill O'Reilly, who singularly declared "Mission Accomplished" on the war on terror, as the inaugural worst person in the world -- of the week.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: NBC News, that's hate all day long over there. OK? That's a dangerous operation. I mean, MSNBC is ridiculous and down the drain.

KURTZ: Meghan McCain, the senator's daughter, bought herself some attention with a "Daily Beast" column attacking the always pugnacious Ann Coulter as offensive and insulting. That brought a sharp response from conservative radio Laura Ingraham, who imitated the young blogger in a valley girl voice.

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: OK. I was really hoping that I was going to get that role in the "Real World," but then I realized that, well, they don't like plus-size models.


Now, you may recall that Meghan was supposed to appear on this program last Sunday, but decided that she was all talked out. Well, the next day she miraculously found her voice, went on "The View," and responded to Ingraham.

MEGHAN MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN'S DAUGHTER: I'm a political writer on a blog, and all of a sudden, I'm too fat to write? That's what I feel like right now, I'm like, kiss my fat (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

KURTZ (on camera): And Meghan, since you canceled on me at the last minute, you can -- well, I'm not going to go there.

JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Please welcome to the program Jim Cramer!

KURTZ (voice-over): When it comes to a big, fat juicy feud, it's hard to beat what Jon Stewart started by picking on John Cramer and CNBC.

STEWART: I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it's not a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) game. And when I watch that, I get -- I can't tell you how angry that makes me.

KURTZ: And when we talked about the showdown on RELIABLE SOURCES last week, the video quickly went viral. Dozens of Web sites picking it up. Not because of my brilliant insights, but because of Tucker Carlson, who once found himself on the receiving end of a tough lecture on "CROSSFIRE."

TUCKER CARLSON, FMR. HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I do think you're more fun on your show . Just my opinion.


STEWART: You want an interesting note? You're as big a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) on your show as you are on any show.

KURTZ: Now Carlson got a chance to hit back hard at his least favorite comedian.

CARLSON: The press sucks up to him like I've never seen any -- it's like Oprah. All the kids watch Jon Stewart. He's brilliant. I would like to see somebody have the stones to come out and say Jon Stewart is kind of a pompous jerk, actually.


KURTZ: Now, there's nothing wrong with a little passion on television. But sometimes I worry that with all the fighting and feuding going on, the news, at least on some television shows, gets drowned out by the bellowing and the bombast. So I'm not going to pick a fight with anybody for some time to come. Not even with Meghan McCain. Still to come, a Fox News anchor picks a fight of her own with Britney Spears. And Britney zings here back.

Our "Media Minute" straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Minute."

I happened to be on Don Imus' radio show this week just after he made the announcement that he has stage two prostate cancer.


KURTZ (voice-over): But Imus was his irrepressible self, bragging that he hadn't even told his PR guy, who was frantically e- mailing him for a bus. We wish Imus a speedy recovery.

More bad news from the newspaper business this week. Just weeks after Denver's "Rocky Mountain News" closed its doors, Hearst shut down the "Seattle Post-Intelligencer," the city's oldest business, leaving the region with just one newspaper, "The Seattle Times."

The PI whose famous rooftop globe is a local landmark will live on as a Web site, but all but 20 people in the newsroom are losing their jobs. You have got to ask at this point, which paper will be next?

(on camera): Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly recently chided Britney Spears for ostensibly inserting a hidden X-rated lyric into a new song. And Britney seems to have clawed her back with a music video featuring an anchor who looks strikingly familiar.

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS: The title line, really just the "F" word spelled out in disguise. And now comes to a music video.


KELLY: If you seek Amy. It doesn't make any sense, does it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Doesn't make any sense, does it?

KELLY: We have invited Britney Spears to be on this program. Showdown.


KURTZ: Now, without fear of contradiction, I can call it a cat fight.

And Britney, you're welcome to come on this program -- yea, right -- to talk about Megyn Kelly.

Let's bring back John King.

And John, we learned this week that President Obama, days before taking office, signed a contract that will bring him $250,000 to reissue his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," for a special school edition. And we learned that George W. Bush has signed a book deal reported to be worth some $7 million.

I heard all these pundits come on and say, no way, the president is too unpopular, George Bush will have to wait to do a book. It looks like those verdicts were a tad premature.

KING: And the president is working on his book, we are told. Dick Cheney as well. But look, Howie, he was the president of the United States on 9/11. He was the president of the United States who had the controversial decision to invade Iraq. He left the economy in a troubled state for President Obama. Of course we would want to care. Whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, a journalist, you want to hear his side of the story, whether you agree or disagree.

So I hope the president's writing quickly. I'm looking forward to it.

KURTZ: I'm sure that book will make news.

We're turning things back over to you this Sunday morning, John.

KING: Have a great day, Howie.