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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING

State of the Union: Reliable Sources

Aired April 19, 2009 - 10:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Time as we do at this hour every Sunday to turn things over to my partner, Howard Kurtz, and his RELIABLE SOURCES. And Howie, as I do so, I just want to share the "Star Tribute" Sunday headline from Minneapolis.

"Iran Gives American Journalist 8 Years in Prison." Roxana Saberi pictured here, and her father on our air this morning, saying he's worried she's getting sicker and more frail in prison.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: A really troubling case, John. And the idea that espionage is involved here I think is ludicrous. It was a closed trial. Not a shred of evidence about espionage has been made public.

This is a freelancer who worked for NPR, ABC, the BBC. And it's clear, I think, that she's become kind of a pawn in the maneuvering between Washington and Tehran.

Thanks very much, John.

KING: No doubt about it. Thank you, How.

KURTZ: We'll talk to you later.

It was a classic case of media subjectivity, of night-and-day decisions about what's important and what's ephemeral. For Fox News, this week's TEA party tax protests were a huge story. For CNN, a rather modest story. And for MSNBC, a great story to make fun of.

The broadcast networks and major newspapers all but ignored the fervor surrounding the April 15th demonstrations until they actually happened.

Fox started its live shots in the morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS: You can join the TEA party action from your home if you go to foxnation.com.

GRIFF JENKINS, FOX NEWS: Hey, Jamie, welcome to Tax Day TEA party in D.C.

KURTZ (voice-over): Talk radio hosts also riled up the troops.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: They're out there snarling. "It was created by Fox News. It's a right-wing plot! This all Limbaugh's doing."

KURTZ: Soon, some Fox anchors and contributors seemed to be headlining the events. LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Regardless of whether the media covers this or not, I think that people are beginning to wake up.

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: America is sick and tired of being sick and tired of lies and corruption and flushing our country down the toilet for their power -- for the donkey or for the elephant.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: America has a message tonight for the White House -- 15,000 to 20,000 strong here in Atlanta. Leave our children and grandchildren's money alone.

KURTZ: And MSNBC, meanwhile, much of the chatter was about Fox's coverage and whether Rupert Murdoch's network had gone overboard.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Despite relentless promotion like that, Fox is claiming teabag neutrality, claiming equal time for equal protests, assuming people will forget their dismissive coverage of the massive antiwar rallies of 2003.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: So, who got the coverage right? Who went overboard? And why was the mainstream media so late to the party?

Joining us now, Amanda Carpenter, writes the "Hot Button" column for "The Washington Times"; Ana Marie Cox, national correspondent for Air America Radio; and Frank Sesno, professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University and managing editor of the "Planet Forward," which we'll talk about later in the program.

Amanda Carpenter, is there any doubt that Fox pushed and promoted these parties, and deployed some of its hosts as star attractions?

CARPENTER: Sure, but I would argue that the personalities promoting the events, really recruiting people to go, there's no doubt where they stand on the ideological spectrum. People like Glenn Beck, you know he's a conservative, so they were promoting the event.

But, you know, there's people that disagree with them. And I think that's a legitimate concern, but you have to look at what the news coverage was on it if you want to evaluate that.

KURTZ: I agree we should make that distinction.

Ana Marie Cox, did Fox go a little bit over the line? But were -- at the same time, let me ask you, did the rest of the mainstream media, were they too dismissive of this of some kind of Fox production with a little grassroots element?

COX: I don't think you could talk about them without talking about Fox, because Fox did play such a huge role in promoting them. And I don't think they went a little over the line. I mean, I think during the day side coverage, you would see 90- second basically infomercials for these rallies. But I also want to say that they were -- it's not as though they wouldn't have happened without Fox.

There was a real genuine groundswell of support. I think the number that Nate Silver settled on at 538.com was about 600,000 people nationwide, which is a huge number.

KURTZ: Right.

COX: And so, I think there's -- so there's two different things here. There's something about a grassroots movement, and then there's something about -- I think irresponsible journalism on the side of Fox.

KURTZ: Well, a huge number that -- and let yet these events were largely ignored until April 15th by "The New York Times," by "The Washington Post," by the network newscasts.

Frank Sesno, I want to play for you a clip of one Fox anchor. This is Cody Willard. He's an anchor on the Fox Business Network. And here's what he had to say at one of these TEA party protests.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CODY WILLARD, FOX BUSINESS NETWORK: Now that you're paying for the $800 billion Republican/Democrat fascist stimulus package that's coming out this time, guys, when are we going to wake up and start fighting the fascism that seems to be permeating this country?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESNO: Well, what do you say? I mean, that's not what a reporter or a journalist is supposed to be doing. That's fine for a commentator, I suppose, maybe it's fine for a columnist, though even that kind of language really pushes the envelope in a big way.

The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code says any reporter, any journalist, should be making clear the distinction between opinion and news. And I think that line was crossed...

KURTZ: Well, do you agree with Amanda that it is fine for the Sean Hannitys and Glenn Becks of the world to, in effect, be promoting these protests because everybody knows they're ardent conservatives?

SESNO: It's fine from a First Amendment point of view. They've got that right. It's not fine from a journalistic point of view.

KURTZ: Why not?

SESNO: Because that's not our job. Our job is not to use our podium and our platform and our television camera to tell people what they should be thinking and doing. Our job should be to tell them what's happening out there and then they decide what to do.

KURTZ: You disagree with that?

CARPENTER: You know, this is -- I disagree with using words like "fascism" on the Fox Business Network, but we are entering a period, I think Ana Marie would agree -- I mean, we both cover things, we both have perspectives. I think this is becoming more acceptable in journalism as long as you're up front about it first.

SESNO: But does your coverage and your perspective give you the license and the right to say, OK, everybody, my perspective is right so, so show up to the protests? Is that what you do?

CARPENTER: That's not what -- no.

COX: But that is what they did on the Fox Network.

SESNO: That's right.

COX: I mean, I think that you do not do that personally. I like to think that I don't do that kind of thing. But the line got crossed when, again, during the daytime programming and also in ads that Fox Network would promote these things.

SESNO: And Glenn Beck said, "I'll be there."

COX: If it was just Glenn Beck saying he would be there, or if it were just Sean Hannity saying he'd be there, that would be one thing. But to say, like, enjoy our TEA party and using inflammatory language -- sorry.

KURTZ: Let me jump in, because I want to play more sound. We also want to take a look at CNN's coverage here as correspondent Susan Roesgen covering one of the Chicago protests.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What is this supposed to mean? What do you mean by that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I mean, he's a fascist. The pirates...

ROESGEN: Wait. Why do you say he's a fascist? He's the president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is a fascist.

ROESGEN: Do you realize how offensive that is? It's anti- government, anti-CNN, since this is highly promoted by the right-wing conservative network, Fox.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Did Susan Roesgen come off as biased there?

CARPENTER: Well, there's a number of problems with this.

The first part that I think is problematic -- I mean, you can go to any one of these protests, you're going to find a guy like that, no matter who the president, whether it's Bush -- I mean, went I went to antiwar things there was -- you had on sticks (ph) and things that I can't repeat here that were commonly said. That clip got picked up widely in conservative circles, not because of the interview she did with the guy calling Obama a fascist, but with the confrontation that she got involved with, with the man holding a toddler.

He said things that we can't air because he got so angry. And she was throwing Obama talking points at him, saying, why don't you know what the president's essentially going to do for you?

KURTZ: She was debating him.

SESNO: She was debating him, which is a problem. On the other hand -- and I've been there, OK? You're on live television, you have somebody who's throwing, you know, firebombs at the camera, and you cannot just let that go unchallenged.

Words like "fascist" are very serious words. And your responsibility as a journalist, it seems to me, to be out there, is to challenge that and draw that person out. It doesn't mean getting into a debating contest with him. And maybe she stepped over the line with that, but that's an important thing to call people out on.

COX: Well, she did step over the line on that. And also, what's unfortunate about that clip is she didn't ask him and challenge him about the definition of fascism.

SESNO: That's right.

COX: But she actually just sort of said, no, he's not.

SESNO: That's right.

COX: Whereas asking him for the definition, asking for, well, why do you think he's a fascist and sort of trying to get -- you know, because that is a perspective, that maybe it was more than just one or two people. I have to say, at the D.C. protest, the word "fascism" got thrown around a lot.

CARPENTER: Well, at any big protest you're going to get against a president -- I mean, we saw it against Bush. So why would you interview that guy?

KURTZ: But then in her closing remarks, Susan Roesgen sounded dismissive to me of the whole protest.

SESNO: That's right.

KURTZ: And it was just because of the right-wing network Fox and so forth.

All right. MSNBC, as I mentioned at the top, seemed to delight in making fun of this whole TEA party Tax Day business. And we have a clip here of one guest on MSNBC, Ana Marie Cox.

Let's roll that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) COX: It is true that teabaggers are grossly underrepresented in Congress. I'm trying to work on that personally, but, you know, one can only do so much. I think David Vitter really is the right spokesman for the movement though.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: All right. Now, tea-bagging is sexual slang, the definition of which we are not going to go into on this program.

And you took some heat for a series of jokes about that sort of thing. Do you think in retrospect that you went a little far on that?

COX: I don't think I went far. I mean, I think that we all talk about we have different roles as journalists and commentators, and I always approach things from a humorous and risque point of view when possible. And also, this is something that we made very clear in the beginning, since the setup of that interview, which is the organizers themselves use "teabag" as a verb quite a bit, and it was unfortunate that they did not apparently have access to the Google to find out what that means.

KURTZ: But a number of MSNBC hosts did a lot of sexual double entendres, and that sounded, to my ear, to be very dismissive of the fact there were people with legitimate grievances who wanted to protest.

CARPENTER: I believe when you cover any subject, whether you disagree with it or not, you owe your subject a certain amount of respect. I did not think using that word was respectful. I thought it was offensive, it was a sexual insult used to disparage the people that supported these TEA parties. And I think it was very inappropriate to use on primetime television.

SESNO: And I think we've got a lot to worry about here. Whether we're dismissing it from the left or pumping it up from the right, the question is whether we're going to back here one, two, three years from now apologizing to the audience the way we have apologized with the banking collapse and with the coverage of the Iraq War, that the right questions, the toughest questions, weren't asked and the media didn't take this stuff seriously, because we are putting this country in deep, deep debt. That's worth looking at.

KURTZ: A quick question for you about the role of the host, because you've been a host, obviously, here on CNN.

SESNO: Yes.

KURTZ: Janeane Garofalo, the actress and activist, was on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC program, and she dismissed the protest with these words: "This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. This is nothing but a bunch of tea-bagging red necks."

Now, she can say whatever she wants, but Olbermann didn't challenge her at all.

SESNO: Should be challenged. I mean, again -- but it depends what the show is. All right? I mean, Keith Olbermann is Keith Olbermann. I mean, he's going to approach this the way he should.

KURTZ: Everybody is racist?

SESNO: No.

KURTZ: Everybody hates Obama because he's black...

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: No. Of course not. Of course not.

And of course it's not true that everybody who is at these TEA parties is there at the behest of Fox News. There are really serious issues. Your kids, my kids, you know, we're all going to be paying...

KURTZ: Before we go, I want to get to another issue, the rollout of a major political figure this week at the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a Portuguese Water Dog right here named Karma.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: In "THE SITUATION ROOM," Dottie (ph) is walking in with Maggie.

JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Here it is, your moment of Zen.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: We've got some breaking or barking news for you. President Obama's been dogged, I guess you could say, by reporters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The press has been panting after this story for a long time.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Our Carol Costello is on leash details.

KURTZ: Joining us now to sink our teeth into the handling of this story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Who writes that guy's material?

(LAUGHTER)

All right. Ana Marie Cox, look, everyone loves dog stories, but did the media and the White House press corps just kind of roll over and...

COX: Oh, no. No. I'm going to place a moratorium on dog puns. But I think that this is actually a case -- it's related to what we were talking about before, which has to do with, what is the tone of -- what is the entirety of the coverage?

I mean, I think it's one thing if the White House press corps did nothing but cover the puppy. That would be bad, but there was a fair amount of attention paid to other things this week. I mean, you know, he did go to Trinidad and Tobago, and I think there were people that went along on that.

The puppy -- but, you know, when I would travel right after the inauguration and tell people what I do, strangers, the thing they would ask me about is the puppy. So, I think that there's sort of a demand for it.

KURTZ: Your thought on Bo?

CARPENTER: There's a human interest story. I think it's reached media saturation, but people want to know what the first family is up to. I don't have a problem with it, but the Rush Limbaugh ads that he recorded for the Humane Society I think was the most interesting part of the story.

SESNO: We still talk about Camelot and all the style. We still talk about Reagan and all the style. This is style, this is a human interest thing. Why not? Go for it.

The puppy will become a real dog and we'll grow out of it all.

KURTZ: Well, last Sunday, I talked about "The Washington Post" putting it on the front page, and I said we'd get the most hits, and of course it got the most hits.

Frank Sesno, Amanda Carpenter, Ana Marie Cox, thanks very much for stopping by this morning. When we come back, citizen journalism. Does video from ordinary folks really have a place in television reporting?

Frank Sesno, actually, stick around. We'll talk about your new project in a moment.

And remember our Facebook page on RELIABLE SOURCES, where you'll get an early look at guests and topics, and you can give us your two cents.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Everyone talks about using the Internet to get ordinary folks involved in journalism, but often that means gimmicks, like asking viewers, "What would you ask the president?" But on PBS this week, Frank Sesno actually used citizen videos posted online to question various guests, including White House environmental czar Carol Browner.

The program is called "Planet Forward."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I, my friend, am an iceberg. My kind is melting.

(MUSIC)

SESNO: What were you trying to get across in that? And you're the Bangladeshi boy there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Statistics that I read say by the end of the century, 30 million Bangladeshi will be -- climate refugees is the term that's used.

SESNO: If nothing is done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If nothing is done. So I guess my question would be, there is a movement within the Obama administration to do something, definitely. So how realistic is it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And Frank Sesno, you've been in TV news a long time. You can get an interview with Carol Browner. Why do you want to go out and collect these videos?

SESNO: Because I think that citizens can take us some place other than just by posing through their questions that they pose, but maybe raise issues and take us into answers that they live or that they research. And that's what we were trying to do there, and then bring those citizens together with the decision-makers and let them press the decision-makers for some of those answers.

KURTZ: What, if anything, surprised you about the content or the quality of these videos?

SESNO: What surprised me is the range and the imagination. That video that you saw was put together by five students -- a Bangladeshi young man, Farhan (ph), a woman from Colombia, a woman from Romania, and two American students. And they conceived it, they animated it, they wrote it.

We had videos from other students that were rap videos. One young man wrote a sonnet. We were taken in a lab, we were taken in a taxicab.

It gets it out there in the most genuine way. So I would say what surprised me most was the imagination and the range that we got.

KURTZ: But in terms of opening up the dialogue, doesn't this sort of limit it to those who have certain filmmaking skills?

SESNO: Perhaps. But, you know, those filmmaking skills now are widely disseminated -- you can do it with a $200 flip camera. And so, some of the videos that we saw were very produced and polished like that one, and others were people speaking right into the camera. We solicited some people, too. I mean, like a good op-ed page of "The Washington Post," "The New York Times," some of those videos came across the transom to us. Some of those were things that we had requested.

KURTZ: You got about how many?

SESNO: Well, right now on the site there are about 120 videos that are posted.

KURTZ: Will you do this again for PBS, or does it depend on the reaction to this initial program?

SESNO: It depends. This one was a pilot. This one was meant to sort of test the waters -- is there a genuine exchange that can take place here, what can we make of it? And the world on public television, as you know, Howie, is not only do you have to have a viable program, but you have to raise the money for it. So that's another test.

KURTZ: Do you think the whole trend towards citizen questions and iReports here, for example, on CNN, is real or is it pretty much window dressing? We all want to give the appearance that we're including the general public in what had been the cloistered world of newsgathering?

SESNO: I think it's both. I think some of it is gimmickry and some of it is merely an adaptation of something that's been around far long time, which is the phone-in radio show or the -- you know, the caller-driven guest segment.

And so, some of these video elements are just an adaptation of that. But I think that beyond that, they demonstrate that there is a role and we now accept the role. There's no rose garden, walled garden anymore that's just the domain of a you or a me. And the norm is becoming letting people in. And if you don't let them in, they'll get in any way through blogs.

I mean, Dan Rather was brought down through citizen blogs. OK? We know that.

KURTZ: Right. You no longer have to own a printing press or a television studio to make your voice heard.

SESNO: That's right. That's right. And you can Skype now. So if you've got a new computer, you flip it open, you talk into it, and you're on "Oprah."

So it's a question of how people are being brought in. And what I was trying to do with this is, you know, can we move just beyond the question, and can we have answers and real value added to the conversation as well?

KURTZ: Right. Well, Oprah, on Friday, twittered for the first time, so it's even working in the other direction, as well.

SESNO: I've been tweeting, I've been digging. I've been doing all those things.

KURTZ: All right. Frank Sesno...

SESNO: So are you.

KURTZ: ... thanks for stopping by.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, talking back. Radio and cable commentator Michael Smerconish gives us an exclusive fist look at a book that reveals the backstage manipulation at some programs and how he ticked off David Gregory.

Also, the endless recount. Al Franken's not exactly boring, but journalists don't seem to care all that much that an appeals court just declared him the winner of the Minnesota Senate race.

Plus, pirate potshots. The Navy may have rescued Captain Richard Phillips, but some pundits are still criticizing President Obama. Huh?

And at noon Eastern, John King one-on-one with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: I'm John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

Iran's president says a jailed U.S. journalist should be allowed a full defense when she appeals her spying conviction. Roxana Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison after a one-day trial that was closed to the public.

CNN talked to her father just this morning. He says she's become extremely frail in prison.

A remembrance ceremony this morning in Oklahoma City marking the 14th anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Just moments ago, 168 seconds of silence held to remember the people killed in what was at the time the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil.

The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, is responding to recent comments by former Vice President Dick Cheney. He says the U.S. is less safe under President Obama. In an appearance right here on STATE OF THE UNION this morning, Secretary Napolitano refuted Cheney's claim, saying every day the Obama administration is intent on securing the U.S.

That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

For now, though, let's turn it back to Howie Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES.

Hey, Howie.

KURTZ: Hey, John. Well, before you go, I wanted to talk to you about this week's announcement by John Madden, which you, of course, know as a football fan, that he is stepping down, hanging it up at the age of 73. This guy is not just a sports broadcaster, he's a cottage industry with video games and all of that.

And I'm wondering if you think that the graphics that he used, the telestrator, where he mapped plays with the Xs and Os, maybe sort of changed the way that television does these things, and perhaps led ultimately to your Magic Wall there.

KING: I don't know if it led to the technology of the Magic Wall, Howie -- and I'm going to walk this way and take you over to it as we go -- but I hear John Madden's voice all the time in my house. Why? Because Noah King has those Madden football games.

But you're right; John Madden went down and said the play was down here, and he did the Xs and he did the Os and he did all that, and this is what we get. And you know what? We like it.

KURTZ: I like your Xs and Os.

Well, I'll miss hearing his voice, but you'll still hear it in your household because he'll still make money off those video games.

KING: Many times, Howie.

KURTZ: Thanks very much, John. He's been called an awful, greedy, shameless ratings hog who traded his soul for socialism, and that was by two of his listeners. Michael Smerconish is a nationally syndicated radio host and MSNBC contributor who antagonized his conservative audience by declaring his support for Barack Obama. What's more, he doesn't like the way he's sometimes pigeonholed by cable news.

Smerconish reveals what goes on backstage in broadcasting in his new book, "Morning Drive: Things I wish I knew Before I Started Talking." He joins us now from Philadelphia.

All right. Michael Smerconish, appreciate your coming on.

When you decided last year -- and you're a Republican, you worked in the first Bush administration, President Bush 41 -- that you were going to back Barack Obama, at least in the primaries, you were filling in on Glenn Beck's radio show and you right in the book that you hesitated to declare your support for Obama.

Why was that?

SMERCONISH: Well, because I was on his watch. I mean, he had given me the courtesy of allowing me to guest host his nationally syndicated radio program, and it was just at the time, Howard, when Hillary was still doing battle with Barack, the Pennsylvania primary was looming. And I was making my views known in Philadelphia to my listeners and I thought, jeez, why not? Why should I hold back? This is how I feel about the race. And as you well know, I point out in the book Glenn has always been very good to me, but I was never again asked to come back and host the radio program.

KURTZ: You were persona non grata.

Now, you also went on MSNBC's "Hardball" to talk about your support for Obama in the presidential race, and then you got a note from David Gregory, who at the time was hosting another show on that cable network, "Race for the White House." And he was rather disappointed.

What happened there?

SMERCONISH: In that circumstance, I had appeared, as I continue to, on a variety of MSNBC programs. I've had a relationship with Chris Matthews for years, and I had been appearing both regularly on "Hardball" and on David's program. David let it be known that he had wished I had come forth on his program and not on "Hardball" to make clear how I viewed the presidential race.

KURTZ: And you were then canceled for an appearance on Gregory's program?

SMERCONISH: I didn't come back on that program until after David had given up the program and David Shuster was the host. And when David Shuster came back as the host, all of a sudden, my invitations were more forthcoming.

KURTZ: Have so wait for a new host.

SMERCONISH: Yes.

KURTZ: Now, you write in this book, "Morning Drive" -- got it right here -- that the state of talk radio right now is a shame. You say that airing different sides of an issue isn't being fair or covering your bases, it's waffling.

Does that bother you as somebody who makes your living in this industry, the fact that you would say, look, I'm conservative on some issues, I'm a Republican, but I like Barack Obama? You got kind of hammered by many of your audience members.

SMERCONISH: Well, many times I'm a man without a constituency. And what I argue in the book is that the individuals that I see who are in view of a world that is all liberal or all conservative, all Democrat or all Republican, are only those who are in the world of talk radio or television punditry, because, Howard, when I'm out in my normal life, gassing up my car, grocery shopping, going to a back-to- school night, I meet people who don't see everything one way or another.

And yet, in the television and talk radio world, that's the view that is perpetuated. And sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I just don't think that it's accurate. I mean, what properly should you call me?

I'm someone who's tolerant of torture. I think that we need to profile, relative to the war on terror. Yet, I don't care about two guys hooking up.

I think we ought to legalize pot and prostitution. And I'm for stem-cell research and pro-choice. And yet, I'm the one, I guess because of my haircut, who gets labeled as some right-wing extremist.

KURTZ: Well, we'll try not to make this interview torture, even though you're tolerant of it. Let's talk about cable news and the way the booking process works. This was just fascinating to me.

You have e-mails in this book from a producer who works for Neil Cavuto and his Fox News program. And let me put it up on the screen and share this with our viewers.

The first e-mail, this was last April, just about a year ago.

"Wanted to see if you're available today at 4:05 for Neil's show today. The topic is on Obama and his cockiness. We're looking for someone who will say, yes, he's cocky and his cockiness will hurt him."

And I love your rather brief response. You wrote back, "Thanks for the clarity. I am not your man."

OK. Then you get a second e-mail from this same Fox producer. And it says, "What about a debate off the top on the show on whether or not Hillary is trustworthy? We have someone who says she is and we're looking for someone who says she isn't."

Now, how common is that in cable news, that you only get to appear if you're willing to take a predetermined, precooked, prepackaged position?

SMERCONISH: Well, I think it's very common. It's exactly what I was just describing.

I mean, it's this mentality that says that only good television is television which pits one individual against another and there's a fight that ensues. I just don't believe that.

I mean, what's wrong with a host taking a contrarian point of view in a respectful way? I think the viewers get all that they need. But you're right, in that circumstance -- and I raised it just as one clear example -- my invitation was predicated on my willingness to say that Barack Obama was cocky or that Hillary was untrustworthy. And I was unwilling in that circumstance to say either.

Look, I've said a lot of ridiculous things on television over the years, I'm sure, but like it or not, they are my view. And that's always the way that I've tried to approach this.

KURTZ: Let's make some distinctions here, because my producers sometimes call up potential guests and try to get a general sense on where they stand on something, not because they want them to say something, but because we don't want to put on, say, three people on a segment who all think President Obama walks on water. But isn't there a difference between that, you know, feeling out a guest's general view on a topic, and this notion of, are you willing to say this, are you willing to say that Hillary's untrustworthy?

And you well know, and I think for some guests who want to be on television who have more than you do, or don't have the platform that you do, that they kind of think, well, I better go along here or otherwise I'm not going to get booked. I'll say what they want.

Do you think that happens?

SMERCONISH: I think that it does happen. I don't think that the scenario that you've described is as bad as that which I described in the book.

How about when a producer says into my earpiece, take it up a couple of notches? You know, bring the heat? Because that has happened, as well. But, you know, there are different gradations of what I'm describing.

How about being booked on Larry King's show, and after I go through the full pre-interview, which happened last spring, and I write about this, in the final discussion the producer said to me, "Well we'll be calling you conservative radio host and John McCain supporter." And I said, "Well, I'm not supporting McCain and, frankly, I'm not that much of a conservative." And then a whole negotiation then ensued, because they were flummoxed as to how to introduce me.

They just didn't know. And I wasn't sure I'd be on the show. In the end, I was.

KURTZ: There were three different attempts in your book to start a show at CNN. But every time you were negotiating somebody, they either left the network or got fired, or something. It's kind of interesting reading.

But this is a fascinating point, because you think that too much of television still has the old "Crossfire" mentality -- somebody's from the left, somebody's from the right -- when, in fact, issues are complicated and people have more nuanced opinions. But why is it that cable, in particular, and maybe radio does this as well, seems wedded to the food fight, to the you and he just mix it up?

SMERCONISH: Yes. You know, you mentioned "Crossfire." I think "SNL."

I think it's more, "Jane, you ignorant slut" kind of stuff that plays itself out in the talk world and in the political world. Maybe it's because no one has tried. Maybe it's because no one has taken the approach.

You know, the jury is out on me. I've just gotten nationally syndicated. This is the approach that I take on a day-to-day basis. Let's see if it work, because it's hard.

I mean, it's hard for me to break out of the mold. People tune into a radio program where I'm surrounded by syndicated talent, where all they're going to hear is Barack Obama get trashed all day long. And then along I come, hopefully trying to present both sides, but taking views.

I mean, Howard, you know I'm not afraid to take views on issues. They just tend to be a mixed bag. So hopefully I'll be able to prove that you can do this.

KURTZ: Well, we'll see. We'll keep an eye on it.

We thank you for stopping by this morning.

Michael Smerconish. "Morning Drive" is the book.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

KURTZ: After the break, Blago may be facing a criminal trial, but he's still trying to get on an NBC reality show. We are not making this up.

And some other political doings, including why Eliot Spitzer is on the cover of the new "Newsweek" magazine.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Journalists usually love the drama of high-stakes recounts. The ultimate thriller, of course, was Bush versus Gore, the 36-day showdown in Florida just over eight years ago. But the Minnesota Senate race, which has dragged on far longer than that, isn't exactly creating media excitement, even with the involvement of former "Saturday Night Live" funnyman Al Franken.

When a three-judge panel ruled this week that Franken had won the race by a mere 312 votes and the former incumbent, Norm Coleman, promised to appeal, that did spark some talk on the airwaves.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Based upon that overwhelming weight of the evidence, it seems to have fallen on Franken's side.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: I'm exhausted watching this thing. It's beginning to look like the a "Three Stooges" movie.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: When are the Republicans going to give up the ghost on this?

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC: Yes.

SCARBOROUGH: Seriously, Norm, I like you. You lost. OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, why isn't the Minnesota recount grabbing more journalistic attention?

Joining us now to talk about that and the never-ending Blago extravaganza, Jonathan Martin, senior political reporter for Politico.com, and Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief at "The Chicago Sun-Times."

So, Jonathan, why isn't there a daily media drumbeat about why Al Franken hasn't been seated by the Senate yet?

JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO.COM: This is kind of the insider political story. The clip that you showed, shows like "Hardball," for example, what folks here in Washington want. And I think one state's recount doesn't have the same compelling narrative that a presidential race would have.

Also, Franken has been very, very quiet. If he was out there doing the rounds, Howie, of these shows, he is the central player here and it would get more buzz.

KURTZ: Right. I mean, you have all these possible jokes. And Franken says, I got enough votes, and doggone it, people like me. But the fact that he has kept such a low profile -- he talked to "The New York Times" the other day -- do you think that's why this story is on the back burner?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Oh, absolutely. Just think -- right now, the funny senator from Minnesota is Amy Klobuchar, who is, by the way, very, very witty. I've heard her do her schtick.

Franken knows that the press wants nothing more than to have him go out and do some schtick, and he knows that that's the wrong image. It's better for him and actually Coleman right now to have no news. They haven't done a lot to generate it. They did talk to "The New York Times" this week, and even that, they only parceled out a few dabbles of news.

KURTZ: I mean, the Roland Burris appointment in Illinois got much more attention until Roland Burris stopped talking to the press.

You said we would keep covering the story, but he really has kind of shut that down as well.

SWEET: Well, he has a big fund-raiser today, so I think we're going to resurrect a little bit of that.

KURTZ: All right.

Let's move on to -- you know, I wake up this morning and I see the cover of the "Newsweek" magazine -- if we could put that up on the screen. The former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, there he is.

"Confessions of Eliot Spitzer." "How could I?" he asks. And let me read you a couple quotes from this piece.

The former governor says -- this is, of course, talking about his dalliance with various high-priced call girls -- "We succumb to temptations that we know are wrong and foolish. And when we do it, in hindsight we say, 'How could I have?' This was the result of tension and release that builds up."

And so I'm thinking, has "Newsweek" now become Spitzer's partner in image rehab? I mean, first he wrote for Slate, and then "Newsweek" -- he wrote a column for "Newsweek." These are all owned by The Washington Post Company. And now he gets this somewhat sympathetic cover story.

MARTIN: Well, look, I think "Newsweek" has an interest, obviously, in what is a fascinating story. Look, the comeback, whether it's politics, sports, life in general, is always fascinating for readers, and therefore it's interesting for news organizations. But certainly Eliot Spitzer, by cooperating, probably was expecting to have something short of a hatchet job.

KURTZ: By playing along with this and -- I mean, it seemed that, you know, he did the Slate column, and he talked to Matt Lauer on "The Today Show," now "Newsweek." Will the rest of the media go along with, you know, kind of welcoming him back into the club now that he's finally talked about his sex scandal?

SWEET: Howie, I think so. I mean, this looks like an orchestrated comeback.

I don't know if he had professional press people dole this out. This is the making of a strategic placement and strategic comeback.

You don't just get a cover of "Newsweek" and give that kind of interview. He went running -- the reporter went running in the park with him. OK, that's a lot of access, and I must say that you don't even -- the treatment, as you said, was very sympathetic, there were no hard questions. Actually, you don't eve know in that piece exactly how he's earning a living right now, if I recall it correctly.

MARTIN: But he's never going to rid himself of this scandal completely.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: Look, 10 years after Monica Lewinsky, we're still hearing jokes about Bill Clinton and his sex life. So...

SWEET: But not as much. And I think that's what they're counting on, that in politics, you get second and third chances. So he's beginning it, but in terms of how the media is handling it, this is what is...

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: But outside of New York, Eliot Spitzer, I think, for a long time is going to be known not for being governor or for Wall Street crackdowns, but for his sex life.

KURTZ: But is there a media ritual of humiliation here that you have to go through? Because, look, he was a state attorney general who went after big Wall Street companies before this became, you know, a burning national issue as to how they crashed the economy. He wants to talk about that. He doesn't want to talk about being client number nine, but it's almost like we won't give him the platform unless he does.

SWEET: Absolutely, because, frankly, with the economic mess we have, he's probably more -- what he has to say is more useful than whether or not he's remorseful. But the better story, of course, is the personal saga of redemption and comeback on that.

Do you think if his publicist or whoever's handling him had called and said, Howie, we would like to offer his views so he could talk about the views on...

MARTIN: Derivatives.

KURTZ: Yes -- get lost.

SWEET: ... derivatives, or systemic financial regulation reform -- hello? You know, you wouldn't have gotten the cover (ph) treatment on that.

KURTZ: That's a good point.

Now, you talked about second and third acts. I think Blago, the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was, of course, ousted by the Illinois legislature, has got to be on his third or fourth by now. He's been arraigned, he's facing a criminal trial. And what does he want to do? He wants to go on an NBC reality show.

Let's roll some tape of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: This is not a joke. Could disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich actually end up on a reality show in the jungle of Costa Rica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Just do infomercials.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN: Right. OK. You know, maybe...

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: The show has no connection to NBC News, MSNBC, MSNBC.com, or our local news department in Chicago. In fact, I'm going to go wash my hands during the next commercial.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: I thought facing a criminal trial, he might stop doing schtick with the media, but apparently I was wrong.

SWEET: Well, if you think you're innocent, you act innocent. And what grander way could there be?

KURTZ: So go down to Costa Rica on this show "Get Me Out of Here, I'm a Celebrity," and wrestle pythons?

MARTIN: He has legal fees to pay, Howie.

SWEET: Well, it is not super clear right now what happens if he gets the money. Some people on that show donate it to charity. I sent a message to his PR people, who are extraordinarily good at, you know, marketing all this stuff, this morning. I don't have the answer for you right now exactly, but the point here is this jury pool has seen a man who is acting as if he has done nothing wrong.

And also, this is a way for him to stay in play. He has a book coming out. This could be a very good chapter in a book, if nothing else.

KURTZ: And what is NBC thinking? Why do they want to put -- I mean, this guy was disgraced. He is accused of selling Barack Obama's Senate seat. And he's going to be a contestant in this silly show?

MARTIN: Well, they're probably looking back the past three months and wondering, gosh, how did the governor of one state get so much attention? The hair, the buzz, the last name. Maybe this guy's worth selling. So...

KURTZ: All right.

One more governor who has attracted some attention would be the Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry. He spoke at one of those TEA parties. He talked about Texas, which, as you know, was once a country.

And let's roll what he actually had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: We've got a great union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: You have a great union, there's no reason to dissolve it, but.

Now, did the press just kind of jump on this as if he's advocating secession from the rest of the United States?

MARTIN: What should be noted, in the first paragraph of any story about Governor Perry's comments are three words: Kay Bailey Hutchison. Governor Perry is being primaried next year by the longtime GOP senator here in Washington. He's got a tough race on his hands.

He's vying for the conservative base in the Texas GOP. That's what this is aimed at. KURTZ: But leaving aside the political considerations, the governor didn't say I think we should take a serious look at Texas seceding, but I've seen all these segments on television saying, is that exactly what he's doing? And I wonder if we're just kind of pumping it up because it's a fun political story.

SWEET: Yes and yes.

KURTZ: OK.

SWEET: Yes, it's a fun story. It's simple, it's not complex. And because it's Texas, which actually was one state that was a republic for one time -- and for TV reporters, you could go stand in front of the Alamo for your standup. You know, that's ready.

So, there are certain kinds of stories like redemption, like secession, that are almost irrepressible. I don't know what would have to happen in the world -- secession, sex, redemption. OK? These are story lines that are just almost magnetic for certain kinds of journalists.

KURTZ: But -- 20 seconds. Every reporter who's written about this or commented on it knows that the governor didn't really say let's secede. He was just kind of musing about the possibility.

MARTIN: Right. But even the fact that he didn't knock it down and offered the smallest bit of daylight, I think created the opening for reporters to probably go a little bit too far.

SWEET: And also because it's Texas. Can you imagine if the governor from Rhode Island or Vermont said -- well, maybe Vermont.

KURTZ: But you're right about the Alamo standups. All right.

Lynn Sweet, Jonathan Martin, thanks for joining us this morning.

RELIABLE SOURCES is now portable. You can download our video podcast, CNN.com/podcast, or look for us on iTunes.

After the break, pirates rattled. President Obama sure silenced his critics when Navy SEALs rescued that captured ship captain. Or did he?

Why there's no pleasing some pundits, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: From the moment that Somali pirates seized that American ship, conservative pundits openly doubted that President Obama was up to the challenge, which raises an intriguing question. What do you say when your chief political adversary is successful?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): As an untested Democrat who never served in the military, Obama faced some skepticism about his commander in chief credentials. Would he botch things like Jimmy Carter, whose attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran failed, or Bill Clinton, who faced a military debacle in Somalia? Fox's Glenn Beck said the administration might try to charm the pirates.

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: Have you heard this one? The U.S. Navy is now looking to the FBI for advice on how to free an American cargo ship captain. Now they're sending over a hostage negotiator -- yes, I hope we're bringing them some hot cocoa 00 over to the Somali pirates!

KURTZ: Last Sunday, of course, Navy snipers freed Captain Richard Phillips by killing the three Somali thugs who were holding him on a lifeboat, each with a single shot. Obama had given shoot to kill orders if the Navy decided the captain's life was in danger.

MATTHEWS: But with three pirates dead, a fourth in U.S. custody, and the captain safe, Obama has won an early and important victory tonight.

KURTZ: Now some critics on the right had to get creative. The problem with the rescue was it took too long.

Jeff Emanuel at Pajamas Media; "What should have been a standoff lasting only hours became an embarrassing, four-day-and-counting standoff."

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... the rescue of Captain Phillips.

KURTZ: Another problem, Obama didn't sound off while he and the military were quietly planning the rescue mission.

RON CHRISTIE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think the American people wanted their president to say we're looking at this situation, we're very concerned about what's going on, we've reached out to the family, our hearts and prayers are with the family. But by saying nothing, I think it makes him look almost a little politically opportunistic to wait and see which way the winds are going to blow.

KURTZ: Wow.

But some Obama critics weren't buying the griping.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: On the right, some bloggers are saying President Obama is encouraging piracy because he didn't act fast enough in rescuing Captain Phillips. Absurd.

KURTZ: An hour later, though, a new conservative complaint. Obama was somehow boasting.

HANNITY: Now that Captain Richard Phillips has been successfully rescued, the president has decided to step in front of the spotlight and even take some credit for authorizing the mission.

KURTZ: But Bernie Goldberg -- yes, the guy who says the media are having a big, slobbering love affair with Obama -- wasn't buying.

BERNARD GOLDBERG, AUTHOR, "A SLOBBERING LOVE AFFAIR": Do you remember when liberals wouldn't give George Bush credit for anything? If he came up with a cure for cancer, they wouldn't have given him credit for that.

And I'm sorry, Sean. I see that on the right now. We have to stop going out of our way to find fault with every single thing he does.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Let's face it, some of these critics wouldn't credit Obama if he had put a knife between his teeth and rescued the captain himself. And the truth is, the real heroes are here are in the Navy, Captain Phillips included. But the media would have hammered Obama if something had gone tragically wrong, so he's earned some positive headlines and the carping pundits should move on to some other outrage.

Ahead in our noon hour, New York Governor David Paterson wants his state to be the next to legalize same-sex marriage. John King will give the governor this week's last word.

But coming up next, singing sensation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN BOYLE, "BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT" CONTESTANT (singing): I dreamed a dream in time gone by

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Why the American media has absolutely swooned over an unfashionable British woman with a captivating voice.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Susan Boyle, a Scottish woman who lives with her cat and has no job and no boyfriend, hardly seems like a TV star, but her appearance on a show called "Britain's Got Talent" was so unexpected, so real, so uplifting, that it became a YouTube sensation. And the American media couldn't get enough.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): The judges were scoffing until Boyle began to sing.

BOYLE (singing): I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You didn't expect that, did you? Did you?

AMANDA HOLDEN, JUDGE: We were all being very cynical, and I think that's the biggest wake-up call ever.

PIERS MORGAN, JUDGE: No one is laughing now. That was stunning.

KURTZ: A rare moment of good news for the evening newscasts and everyone else.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Finally tonight, a star is born. A most unlikely star.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The video's been viewed online by over 2.5 million people in just the last 72 hours.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: Guaranteed to make you smile, a 47-year- old woman fulfilling her dream.

BARBARA WALTERS, "THE VIEW": I mean, we're all sitting here with tears in our eyes.

KURTZ: Then came the interviews, first on CBS' "Early Show."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just checked. It's now more than 11 million hits on YouTube. How is that for unbelievable?

BOYLE: Breathtaking. Unbelievable. Awesome. Whatever you want to see.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And it's now up to 20 million views on YouTube. And I've talked to several women who say they burst into tears watching this dowdy duckling turn into a swan.

John King, moving from YouTube to Twitter, I know you're a Twitter holdout, but Ashton Kutcher this week challenged CNN -- he threw down the gauntlet -- who could get to one million followers on that Web site first. Kutcher won.

Some people said, you know, should CNN be engaged in this kind of silly competition. Do you have any problem with it?

KING: As we're covering the news, no. It's good to have a full portfolio.

I'm on Twitter. I did break down this past week, Howie, and joined Facebook. I haven't even uploaded a photo yet. I'm still a Luddite. But I did join Facebook. Twitter is still a little bit beyond my reach.

KURTZ: Well, I'm not sure it was a fair competition, because Kutcher had Demi Moore. We've got Wolf Blitzer. And look -- so it's a lot of fun. But as a result, Ashton Kutcher donated $100,000 to an anti-malaria charity, so some good came of the competition.

All right, John. We turn things back over to you.

KING: Howie, thank you very much, and have a great Sunday.

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