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State of the Union: Reliable Sources

Aired April 26, 2009 - 10:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Time now as always to turn over to my partner Howard Kurtz and his "Reliable Sources". As I do so, Howie, a couple headlines here that show you the coverage of this swine flu that the administration is dealing with and the world is dealing with. Here is the "San Diego Union-Tribune". "Swine flu outbreak gets more worrisome," pretty straightforward there. Excuse me one second as I switch this over to the New York tabloid approach to this. "The New York Post". "Pig Flu Panic". You have a big and a thermometer and you have some other eye candy up here that I won't talk about.

KURTZ: All right.

Well, John, it's a serious and troubling story, "New York Post" treatment aside. But look, there are about a dozen confirmed cases in the U.S. at this point. I hope we don't turn this into the next bird flu or Legionnaires' disease, trumpeting it so much that we scare people.

KING: Amen to that.

KURTZ: Thank you, John.

And now ahead, RELIABLE SOURCES goes to the movies, as John King mentioned. Plus, my strange encounter with gossip blogger Perez Hilton.

But first, torture has always been an emotional and contentious issue for the media. Some journalists have rebelled against the legalistic language, enhanced interrogation techniques that the Bush administration used to mute what one seemed unthinkable for Americans to carry out. But when President Obama put an end to such hotly- disputed methods as waterboarding, the issues seemed ready to fade, especially when Rahm Emanuel told ABC's George Stephanopoulos last Sunday that Bush officials would not be targets for law enforcement.


RAHM EMANUEL, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: He believes that people, in good faith, were operating with the guidance they were provided. They shouldn't be prosecuted...

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: But what about those who devised policy?

EMANUEL: Yes, but those who devised policy, he believes that they should not be prosecuted either.

KURTZ (voice-over): But soon, the president was saying something very different.

OBAMA: With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws. And I don't want to prejudge that.

KURTZ: That touched off a spate of reports on the Obama administration shifting gears and a fervent debate on the fairness of the potential investigations.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Today, the president reversed course and opened the door to prosecuting those who wrote the memos authorizing harsh interrogations.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: Presto chango. As unambiguous a flip- flop...


KURTZ: I guess the tape froze there.

All right. Now, joining us to talk about the torture coverage and, in a few moments, the coming explosion of 100-day evaluations, Chris Cillizza, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post"; Dan Lothian, White House correspondent for CNN; David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, now the founder and editor of; and in San Francisco, Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of

Chris Cillizza, coverage this week says total flip-flop, 180, U- turn by the president. How do you deal with it when the White House says, no, no, no, we haven't changed our position at all?

CILLIZZA: Well, it's always hard, because no administration, no politician wants to say, well, I said one thing and now I'm saying something different. They don't like that idea. But then you can go back and say, well, it appears as though this position is changing.

I think what's hard about this is not actually from a journalistic perspective. It's much more from the Obama administration's perspective.

What all politicians tapes hate are process stories, where the American public can see how the sausage is being made, how decisions are being made. They want to present it as, we've debated this and here it is, here's the decision, and let's move on. The problem with it is it's been going back and forth, back and forth, behind the scenes.

KURTZ: And did the White House, Dan Lothian, make this a bigger story by appearing to slam the door and then crack it open a bit?

LOTHIAN: I definitely think that they did. I mean, they added more legs to the story. It's certainly an important story that would have gone on for quite some time.

KURTZ: Sure.

LOTHIAN: But, by sort of not admitting that there was clearly a shift here -- and the issue is that you have the videotape. It's not even like someone said something and...

KURTZ: In a secret meeting.

LOTHIAN: In a secret meeting somewhere. There is a videotape. You can lay out the timeline, but at no time this week would the White House say, yes, the timeline's there, we made a mistake or we shifted course. They wouldn't admit to that.

KURTZ: David Frum, in your view, has the coverage been hostile to the Bush-era interrogation techniques and supportive of the idea that we ought to go after the people who are responsible?

FRUM: I wouldn't say that. I think the coverage has not -- where it has failed it has not conveyed just how radically unprecedented what the president has proposed is. It just has never happened that we have had prosecutions after the fact, or even the consideration of prosecutions after the fact, of individuals concerning things they did in the course of their official duty.

One more thing. People need to understand that in Washington, the process is the punishment. Even if the president eventually decides, no, we're not going to do this, we're not going to break course and do something new, we'll shut it down, the very fact that people have been exposed to the uncertainty implies huge legal costs. It implies interruption of people's careers, and this is new ground.

And I think that is the thing that needs to be conveyed above all else. We're in unchartered territory.

KURTZ: Being investigated is an ordeal, as we learned during Whitewater and so many other investigations.

Joan Walsh, let me turn the question around. Is the coverage in the past week sympathetic to the idea of holding Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld accountable for what happened? And isn't that what the left wants?

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: Well, no. I think the coverage has not been sympathetic to that idea. I think the coverage has pooh-poohed that idea and actually taken David Frum's point of view quite seriously, that this would be some sort of partisan witch hunt. And really, Howie, this is a complicated situation, but I don't believe that Obama himself flip-flopped.

Surely, we saw what Rahm said last Sunday, but the president himself has been relatively silent. He did say he'd prefer to look forward.

But what no one is saying today is, it's not his decision. It is not his decision. It's Eric Holder's decision. He has to get out of the way and let Eric Holder decide. This is not a political issue.

KURTZ: Yes, but the attorney general works for the president, and the president sets the tone about...

WALSH: The president sets the tone, but he doesn't make the decision. You know, how quickly do we forget Watergate?

I was a kid, but Nixon was constantly interfering with his Justice Department to the point where Elliot Richardson quit. We cannot have a situation -- and Obama very carefully recognized that with his so-called flip-flop this week by saying he's not going to prejudge it. It's not for him to prejudge.

KURTZ: Well, I would argue it's not a so-called flip-flop, because we have the videotape to show, at least the way they changed the emphasis.

WALSH: That was wrong.

KURTZ: Let me go now to that passion that surrounds this. Here's videotape of Fox anchor Shepard Smith. And this is not something that aired on Fox. It's an online program, so we have to do the bleeping here. But let's roll that.


SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS: We are America! I don't give a rat's (EXPLETIVE DELETED) if it helps!


SMITH: We are America! We do not (EXPLETIVE DELETED) torture!


KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, journalists and Americans, I think, have such a visceral reaction hearing about, for example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed being waterboarded 183 times. And it can be kind of hard to remain objective. This is not your typical how many -- how should we design health care kind of issue.

CILLIZZA: Right. We're not debating reconciliation in the budget process. It's sort of not...


CILLIZZA: I do think, and I'll point out, Howie, I think it's the -- I don't think it's wrong, first of all, to have some ambiguity in terms of the coverage. A lot of people reject the "he said/she said" kind of ambiguity in terms of the coverage. A lot of people reject the kind of "he said/she said" kind of ambiguity in journalism.

I actually think this is a story where the "he said/she said "or "he said/he said" actually serves a purpose, because people on both sides of this both feel passionately and have intellectual arguments that make sense. Look at the "Washington Post"/ABC News poll this morning.

On question after question, first of all, President Obama very popular. But on torture, the American public deeply divided on this. So, I actually think we in the media do our people, readers, a service by saying this is an issue where people are very divided, passion's on both sides.

KURTZ: But just in terms of the language, Dan Lothian, I mean, what we're talking about here, waterboarding, which is near drowning or simulated drowning, face-slapping, putting somebody in a box with an insect. Can it be almost Orwellian for us to adopt the preferred language of the Bush administration, which is these were just enhanced interrogation techniques?

LOTHIAN: I think it can. And you know, this is not the end of it, because we know that these video -- rather, more pictures are going to be coming out in the future, next month.


LOTHIAN: And so this is something that will continue to live in the news cycle, and the American public will be confronted with. And they don't like it. I mean, they simply don't like it.

KURTZ: Let me go back to Joan Walsh, and then I'll get you, David.

You were critical of "The New York Times" as one example of the newspaper's coverage for using phrases like "Critics say this crossed the line of torture." This morning, the ombudsman of the paper says they were big debates in The Times to upgrade the description of these techniques from harsh to brutal.

WALSH: You know, I couldn't disagree more with my friend Chris. This is not a "he said/she said" situation. This is torture. Torture is illegal.

We don't sit here, Howie, and say he said murder is illegal, but she said, well, sometimes murder's not so bad. These are clear matters of law.

Ronald Reagan signed the 1988 U.N. Convention Against Torture where we committed ourselves to prosecuting people who torture. It's the law. It's super clear. It's not a partisan witch hunt or a "she said/he said" situation.

KURTZ: David Frum.

FRUM: It's not super clear, because the key piece of information people need, most people need to make a decision, is missing. Look, there's a hard core of civil libertarians who will say, I don't care whether this contributed to the defense of the country. Forget it, we won't do it, even if it means Americans die. And then there are some people who say, I support the president no matter what.

But most people want to know, did this contribute to the nation's safety? If so, we'll come to one judgment. If it was wasteful, as it's sometimes alleged, and achieved nothing, then we all condemn it. That's the thing we need to know, and that's the thing we don't know. That's the missing piece in all the reportage.


WALSH: No, it's illegal, whether it works or not. It's illegal whether it works or not, David.

FRUM: Well, as I said, there's a small minority who would feel like Joan does.

WALSH: Oh, really?

FRUM: Most people want to know, did it -- and that is the missing or the contradicted piece. We don't have a clear answer to that question.

WALSH: It doesn't matter.

CILLIZZA: Howie, I just want to...

KURTZ: Chris.

CILLIZZA: Joan, just real quickly, I just want to point out, in our poll that came our this morning, 49 percent of people said no torture under any circumstances; 48 percent, in some special circumstances, depending on the information.

That's not my opinion.


WALSH: But Chris, the point is it's illegal. In what instance does it matter that 80 percent of Americans would like to murder Dick Cheney? Does that -- would that make it legal? It's not a matter of opinion. It's law.

KURTZ: I've got to bring it back to the media coverage. I want to talk about Dick Cheney, who's emerging, really, as the strongest or loudest voice of the opposition against the Obama administration.

Here's what he had to say on this subject, followed by some comments by MSNBC's Ed Schultz.


FORMER VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: They didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort. And there are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified.



ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: I think that Dick Cheney wants this country to get hit again for political gain.


KURTZ: Is that come over the line, Dick Cheney wants people to die, to make a political point?

LOTHIAN: I mean, that's not a comment I would have made, you know. But certainly, you know, going back to the former point, I think that if there is a case that's made that this information prevented another 9/11, I think you'd have a different reaction. There would clearly be a different reaction.

KURTZ: I like Ed Schultz. He's been on this program. But to say Dick Cheney wants America to get hit again, what do you think about that?

FRUM: Well, it's obviously repulsive and foolish and untrue thing to say. And we have incentives, unfortunately, in our cable industry for people to say that, say things like that.

But I actually have to say, I'm more upset watching Dick Cheney, because I say, as a supporter of this administration, where was the defense of this administration when it could have done some good? That during the time that the administration was in power, during the time when it had to mobilize or face the collapse of public opinion, the administration would never lower itself to give convincing explanations of its actions to people.

Now, after the fact, when it's too late, now the vice president is available. He should have been available before.

KURTZ: Joan, I've got 20 seconds for a last thought from you.

WALSH: You know, I think he was available some of the time, David. If these memos exist, release them. I really question whether they exist. I don't know that they can prove that they prevented any attacks. I agree that Ed's comment was over the line.

KURTZ: Well, we will find out, and we will find out as well when those photos are released, which, of course, are going to make this more of a television story.

When we come back, making the grade. As journalists and pundits start handing out those 100-day report cards for the president, someone's got to say it, isn't it absurdly early to be doing this?

And with STATE OF THE UNION celebrating its over 100-day anniversary, throughout the hour, we'll be giving you a look back at some memorable moments from RELIABLE SOURCES.

Here's one.


TUCKER CARLSON, COMMENTATOR: Jon Stewart, let's be honest, this was a partisan attack. He went after Cramer the moment Cramer criticized Obama's budget. That was the mortal sin. That's what kicked off this entire feud. The press sucks up to him like I've never seen any -- it's like Oprah! Jon Stewart? All the kids watch Jon Stewart. He's brilliant.

I would like somebody to have the stones to come out and say, Jon Stewart's actually kind of a pompous jerk, actually.



KURTZ: It's day 97 of the Obama presidency, so we're deep into the season of 100-day evaluations.

And Chris Cillizza, you're not above the fray here. "The Washington Post" is putting out a special section on Wednesday.

Isn't this overkill at such an early stage of an administration?

CILLIZZA: It probably is. I do think we wind up in journalism creating somewhat false hurdles in false -- in order to have a segment by which we judge people.

I don't think that it is unfair to say, what has Barack Obama done? You could make it 99 days or 106 days. I don't think the idea is terrible. I think the idea that in 100 days, he's either a success or a failure, if you look back historically, that's not necessarily been the case.

Everybody points to FDR. There have been a lot of presidents who seemed like successes the first 100 days and (INAUDIBLE).

KURTZ: Right.

But Dan Lothian, with networks, including this one, running promos for the 100th day, hasn't it become kind of a marketing device for the media?

LOTHIAN: Well, it may be, but, you know, the White House as well has been talking of the 100 days.

KURTZ: They don't have any choice!

LOTHIAN: Well, true. They're...

KURTZ: Everybody's got to do the pieces. They've got to respond, and they are responding.

LOTHIAN: They are responding. And you know, at this point, if we're going to use the analogy of the 100-day report card, they aren't saying that they made the honor roll, but clearly, it's not a report card that they feel that they'd be embarrassed to take it home to mom and dad.

You know, they're pointing out, we have some successes. They're saying that the president has already, you know, done the timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, he's don the stimulus plan. So they're pointing out some of the successes that they've had.

KURTZ: They, of course, are enumerating what they can.

Joan Walsh, I want to put up a poll and then ask you a question on the other side.

This is the Pew research Center. People were asked, "Which network has been too critical of Obama?"

Twenty-nine percent said Fox News. CNN, 11 percent. MSNBC, 8 percent. And the broadcast networks in single digits.

OK. "Which network has been too easy?" if we can move that ahead.

Sixteen percent for CNN and MSNBC as being too easy on Obama. The broadcast networks about the same. Fox News, 5 percent.

My question to you is, Fox aside, it seems like Obama is still getting pretty good coverage, pretty positive coverage overall, and that's being reflected in these 100-day pieces.

WALSH: Yes, I think that's true. I mean, you know, the Obama administration is trying to call it a Hallmark holiday. So Howie, your card's in the mail. You'll get it on Wednesday.

But overall, it's really a process story. He can't have changed that much in 100 days. And what I think the positive coverage is reflecting is a lot of energy on a lot of different fronts, a lot of campaign promises kept in the early days. And the media likes that sort of story.

KURTZ: David Frum, the "TIME" magazine cover this week, if we could put that up on the screen, Joe Klein calling Obama's debut the most impressive start for any president since FDR. "Newsweek," Jonathan Alter, a columnist for that magazine, says Obama has put more points on the board than any president since FDR.

Does it tell you something that these are both liberal columnists who are given this platform?

FRUM: Well, when I was asked in the beginning of the administration about press coverage, I predicted that at 100 days, it would subside from the rapturous to the merely worshipful, and it's impressive to see that the press has managed to sustain the rapture for a hundred days.

Here's the thing that people forget about the 100 days. The phrase does not originate with FDR. It originates with Napoleon Bonaparte. A hundred days was the period from Napoleon's escape from Elba to the Battle of Waterloo and the restoration of the Bourbons. In other words, it commemorates overarching hubris ending in total disaster.

KURTZ: Now, are you making an analogy here to the current 100 days? (LAUGHTER)

FRUM: I am going to reach.

The reason it's a false marker for this administration is President Obama is doing a series of things where he himself would probable acknowledge. Their benefits come early. The Keynesian stimulus does jolt life into the economy.

KURTZ: The pain comes later.

FRUM: The cost, the inflation, the attack on the dollar, all of those come later. And one of the things that people need to understand is they are signing up today for purchases where the massive bill is going to be coming to you not within a hundred days, not within 1,000 days.

KURTZ: So all this may look very different, say, a year from now.

Let me go on, because I want to play some videotape, something that was aired on ABC's "World News," on "NBC Nightly News," on the "CBS Evening News."

Let's roll it.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Well, first of all, I'd wake my husband up, if it were at night, and I'd tell him, hey, buddy, you're the president. Get down to the Oval Office and call some leaders.

Oh, my dog. Oh, the dog. Oh, he is a crazy dog. You know, he loves to chew on people's feet.


KURTZ: Michelle Obama talking to children at Take Your Kids to Work Day.

Look, she's funny, she's charming. How can some harmless remarks like that be on all three nightly newscasts?

CILLIZZA: Well, I think it had to do more, frankly, with the dog, than it did with Michelle Obama. I mean, the dog is -- you know...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People like dog stories.

CILLIZZA: I'd be writing about policy on "The Fix," on my blog, and -- not policy, but the politics of policy, and people in the comments section would say, "When is the dog coming to the White House?" It's a priorities issue.

KURTZ: But Bo aside, Dan Lothian, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush never got coverage like this. Let's face it, the media are swooning over Michelle Obama.

True or false?

LOTHIAN: I think she's getting a lot of favorable coverage, because certainly, she's a different kind of first lady. First African-American in the White House, so everyone wants to see, what is she going to do that's different from the other first ladies? And she's getting that kind of attention.

KURTZ: Joan Walsh, a brief comment from you?

WALSH: I think it's little bit because of the horrible coverage she got over the summer, where she was this angry, loudmouth black nationalist that people were afraid of. And then they got to know the real Michelle, and it was like, where did that story come from? She's charming, she's smart, she's funny, she's warm. Yes, I see nothing wrong with the coverage.

KURTZ: And apparently, she has a lot of pretty clothes.

All right.

Joan Walsh, David Frum, Dan Lothian, and Chris Cillizza, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, at the movies. Journalism goes Hollywood in a pair of new films, but are Russell Crowe and Robert Downey Jr. convincing as ink-stain wretches? We'll ask the two newspaper guys who helped make the films, and Ben Mankiewicz of "At the Movies."

Plus, pressing Perez. Was the gossip blogger out of bounds by ripping Miss California over her opposition to same-sex marriage?

And picture imperfect. That shirtless Obama pic makes a comeback, but not without some alterations.

And speaking of pictures, in our noon hour, a Sunday morning exclusive. John King talks with Pete Souza, the chief White House photographer, about capturing the president's first 100 days with some never-before-seen photos.


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

The White House will update Americans on how it's dealing with the swine flu. There are 11 confirmed cases in the United States, none fatal. In Mexico, at least 20 people have died from the virus.

Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano will outline the government's response here in the United States. That briefing, 12:30 p.m. Eastern. We'll bring it to you live, right here on CNN.

Pakistani security forces have launched an offensive against Taliban militants in an area covered by a government-backed peace deal. It's next to the violence-plagued Swat Valley. The military says scores of militants have been killed. Pakistan's interior minister says Taliban fighters in Swat must disarm or face action.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, on an unannounced trip. She says the Lebanese people ought to be able to participate in open and free elections without outside interference. The visit comes ahead of a June vote that could put the militant group Hezbollah in power.

That and more, ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

I'm going to turn things back over to Howie Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES, if Howie's not twittering his 100-day update somewhere.

KURTZ: No, but I did go on Twitter and asked people whether they thought we, in the news business, were doing a little too much of this 100-day evaluations, and here are some responses, John.

John Michalak says, "Not in a sound bite, fast-food culture, it isn't. If you remember, most were passing judgment, good or bad, in the first week."

Tigger761: "There has been 100-day coverage since day 30, though. You media types are awfully impatient."

Kedrock: "Too much, too soon on the 100 days. It makes it seem even more like the media wants to make the news rather than report it."

And Schillingfan: "Not too much. An awful lot has happened in the first 100 days. Would be nice to see comparison of campaign promises to actions."

So, a lot of opinions out there, John King. And we'll talk to you a little later.

Hollywood has always had something of a love-hate affair with the newspaper business. Reporters can be angels or devils, depending on who's making the film.


KURTZ (voice-over): In the 1920s, they were lovable rogues in Chicago in the front page.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE, "THE FRONT PAGE": Just because you want to fill your lying papers with a lot of dirty scandal, you've got to torture him and make a tramp out of me.

KURTZ: In the 1970s, Woodward and Bernstein were the Watergate heroes in "All the President's Men."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN": Just follow the money. KURTZ: In the 1990s, CBS initially caved on Mike Wallace's tobacco industry expose in "The Insider."

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER, "THE INSIDER": You're saying that Brown and Williamson manipulates and adjusts the nicotine fix not by artificially adding nicotine, but by enhancing the effective nicotine.

KURTZ: Now a pair of new films deals with 21st-century journalism. In "State of Play," Russell Crowe plays an ethically- compromised Washington newspaper reporter who becomes entangled in a murder mystery.

RACHEL MCADAMS, "STATE OF PLAY": Did we just break the law?

RUSSELL CROWE, "STATE OF PLAY": Nope. That's what you call damn fine reporting.

BEN AFFLECK, "STATE OF PLAY": You're just seeking the truth. That's all. You're a truth-seeker. That's all.

You can't help it. It's who you are.

You're such a hypocrite. You're not interested in me. Me coming here was all about you and getting your story.

KURTZ: And in "The Soloist," Robert Downey Jr. plays "LA Times" columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote about a homeless musician, befriended the man, and got caught up in his schizophrenic life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "THE SOLOIST": Are you out of your mind?

ROBERT DOWNEY, JR., "THE SOLOIST": I'm going to write a column. It's a gift.

I'm the closest thing to family he has.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about these cinematic portrayals, from Philadelphia, Steve Lopez of the "Los Angeles Times," whose columns led to the movie "The Soloist" based on the real story. From Los Angeles, Ben Mankiewicz, weekend host of Turner Classic Movies and co-host of "At the Movies." And in Austin, R.B. Brenner, a metro editor at "The Washington Post" who served as a consultant to "State of Play" and Russell Crowe.

Ben Mankiewicz, after being portrayed as heroes back in the Watergate era, and later as kind of unethical and maybe a little creepy, how do journalists come off in these new films such as "State of Play"?

BEN MANKIEWICZ, CO-HOST, "AT THE MOVIES": I think they come off pretty well in "State of Play." Particularly, I like the contrast between Russell Crowe as sort of the -- you know, the crusty veteran reporter who might take three or four days to get a story finished, while his editor is sort of beaten down, trying to get him to try to get the story out quickly, while Rachel McAdams, you know, is a blogger and she's posting four or five, six times a day.

I think there's a nice contrast there. But in the end, I think both of them come off fairly well. Obviously, Crowe has some ethical ambiguous areas, but basically I think they come off pretty well.

KURTZ: Which we will get to in a moment.

Steve Lopez, you wrote the original column about this homeless man playing the violin, Nathaniel Ayers.

KURTZ: And you didn't think it was anything other than a routine column. Somehow it became a book and a movie.

What happened?

STEVE LOPEZ, AUTHOR, "THE SOLOIST": It took a while to get that first column. It took five or six visits, and then I wrote the first one, and readers donated new violins and a couple of cellos. And I had to watch out for him out there. I was afraid he was going to be mugged for them.

So that brought me on what has now been a four-year odyssey, trying to help him out. And you know, about six months into it, I decided to do the book, and then it became a movie. And here we are.

KURTZ: And is he now a news subject, a source, or a friend?

LOPEZ: He is all of the above, I think. It's -- I've never had a -- I've never had my hands on a story like this. I'm a hit-and-run columnist, on to the next subject before anybody realizes you didn't really know what you were talking about on the last one.

This time I've learned a lot from him. And we have a continuing relationship.

KURTZ: I think you've defined daily journalism.

On to the next subject.

R.B. Brenner, you found yourself in Beverly Hills giving advice to Russell Crowe about such situations as, whether journalists share crime photos with a police source. Was that whole experience a little intimidating at first?

R.B. BRENNER, METRO EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: Completely intimidating. I used the word "surreal." But what I found was that some of the techniques that you learn over a long career as a reporter and editor really help you, because you've learned certain ways to kind of break the ice, even with people who are pretty intimidating.

KURTZ: Ben Mankiewicz, you were a reporter before you got into the movie criticism racket.


KURTZ: At a time when there is so much skepticism and suspicion of the media, don't filmmakers pretty much have to portray journalists as somewhat compromised figures in a struggling business, whether it's Russell Crowe or whether it is "The Soloist" where the -- whether it's "The Soloist."

MANKIEWICZ: Well, I think, first of all, Hollywood has always portrayed journalists that way. I mean, "All the President's Men" actually may be sort of the exception. But you look back on, you know, either "Sweet Smell of Success" or "Ace in the Hole," you know, we can go back 50, 60 years and find sort of a healthy skepticism of journalists.

And it's a very easy target, always been an easy target to suggest that they're, you know, not in it for the greater good, not in it to reveal the truth, but in it to advance their own career or sell papers, or sell commercials, if they happen to be a television journalist. So I don't really think it's anything new, although certainly in the last 20 years, Americans' opinions of journalists, sadly, has come significantly down, and that's disappointing.

KURTZ: And something that I think is just self-inflicted.

And, of course, Robert Downey Jr. was the name I was trying to come up with who plays Steve Lopez in "The Soloist."

And Steve, you're a little younger in the movie. You're divorced. What did it feel like to see this makeover, this cinematic version of yourself?

LOPEZ: I was pretty happy with that. I would hate to have seen my personal life up there on the screen. And you know, Howie, Robert Downey saves the world in "Ironman," maybe he can save the newspaper industry in "The Soloist."

KURTZ: Well, see, since you mention that, in your book, you originally wrote about the layoffs and cutbacks at the "LA Times," which, of course, is the financial squeeze that so many newspapers are in these days. That got cut out of the book, but it was kind of brought back in the movie.

Do you think it's an important element of what went on between you and Nathaniel Ayers?

LOPEZ: Oh yes, I didn't cut it out of the book. I scaled it back a little bit. But it is an important part of the movie, and the movie begins with the paper -- you know, when I watch the movie -- and I've seen it several times now -- it's bittersweet.

It's a celebration and a lament. With the papers rolling off the presses and some kid throwing it off a truck, and it lands on your driveway, and there it is, this public square conversation that we all have, that part of it is great. But toward the end of the movie, yes, the desks around me are emptying out, and that's the sad reality today.

KURTZ: Yes. Capture it on the big screen. R.B. Brenner, you were fighting against certain scenes in this movie. For example, in "State of Play," you did not like -- you objected to the idea of a reporter secretly or surreptitiously taping a subject.

What was the reaction of Russell Crowe and the directors of the film to your, shall we say, ethical guidance?

BRENNER: Well, I had two challenges. One was the movie was coming from a source material of a British miniseries where -- so they were trying to be true to that. But at the same time, the mores and values that were portrayed in the miniseries would have gotten you fired immediately at "The Washington Post."

So what I tried to do was not to get into big arguments, but just very clearly state the facts of, here is the way American journalism works. Here are the rules. That there's legal issues, but more importantly, there are ethical issues.

And the thing that I respected about Russell and Kevin Macdonald, the director, is they were open-minded. They didn't always agree with me. Sometimes they were even skeptical of things I said. But they listened.

KURTZ: But ultimately, they did not cut that scene in which the journalist is doing the secret taping.

BRENNER: Right. The best I could do was get them to make clear, through Rachel McAdams' character, that there were questions of legality. But as I said in the piece I wrote for The Post, in Hollywood, I think, in the end, plot is going to win out every time.

KURTZ: Yes. If it seems suspenseful -- well, that's an interesting question, about how much you have to be tethered to reality. I'll pick that up in a second.

But let me survey the cinematic landscape with you, Ben Mankiewicz. Does the portrayal of a Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Woodward and Bernstein, or Christopher Plummer playing Mike Wallace in "The Insider," or now Robert Downey Jr. and Russell Crowe, does it affect, even though many of these are fictional stories, some are loosely based on facts, does it affect the public perception of the news business?

MANKIEWICZ: Well, I think it must. I mean, you know, basically we -- you know, we -- in the public, we sort of -- we believe essentially what we're told and what we see. And I suspect a lot more people, sadly, see these movies -- although I want people to see these movies, much more people see these movies than read daily papers.

So that is the perception. And for a while, it was great, because when everybody thought that every journalist was like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, that was wonderful. And if they all thought that they were like Christopher Plummer in "The Insider," that would be wonderful too. But as you see more... KURTZ: What about R.B. Brenner's point that the most important thing -- because after all, they're trying to sell movies, sell tickets, get the overseas rights -- is a great plot, and if that doesn't bear much reality to what would actually happen in the newsroom, so be it? MANKIEWICZ: Yes. I mean, that's -- and that's unfortunate, but that's simply the way movies are going to be. And I -- you know, if you talk to lawyers and doctors, and when they see television shows or movies about lawyers and doctors, they object to it the same way that journalists are going to object to the way they're portrayed in movies.

KURTZ: I have heard about that.

Steve Lopez, this film, which, of course, is based on you and your experience with Nathaniel Ayers, did it seem to you to stick pretty closely to the facts? Or were there -- is there invented dialogue and scenes that never happened?

LOPEZ: No, it's very true to the facts. And I told them, I told Robert Downey, I told the director, Joe Wright, and the producer, I don't care if you don't get my personal life just right. But what I'd like to see is that you're true to the essence of this friendship. I think there is a powerful message.

And it's one that took a lot of resources. I wasn't the only one writing about these issues. We had reporters covering Skid Row. We had editorials. The "LA Times" hosted a public forum.

It's the kind of thing that the paper could do when it is at its strength and, you know, we're all concerned about what might happen when those resources are diminished.

KURTZ: And has Nathaniel Ayers made any money from the sale of these film rights?

LOPEZ: Oh, yes, he has.

KURTZ: So he is no longer homeless?

LOPEZ: Oh, the story details how it took me a year to get him into an apartment.

KURTZ: Right.

LOPEZ: Howie, he has been in that apartment, the same apartment, every night for three years. We got to concerts regularly at the LA Philharmonic. We've got buddies who are members of the orchestra. And he has got a little music studio.

No, he has advanced quite remarkably in the last four years.

KURTZ: Definitely a happy ending on that score.

R.B. Brenner, these movie stars, like Russell Crowe, of course, they live in the public spotlight. Do you think that his own dealings with the press, with gossip columnists, with paparazzi, influenced his attitude in playing a reporter?

BRENNER: Yes. I think we had several conversations that he has had very bad experiences with sort of the paparazzi side of journalism. And I just explained to him that I couldn't relate to that world and that I would have to accept everything he told me, and I would probably hate it myself.

But that's not the world I know at The Washington Post. And so I think he was able to sort of have a split brain about it.

KURTZ: And very briefly, how big was your part in "State of Play"?

BRENNER: I'm on for all of 16 seconds. So if there's an Oscar category for best cameo by an amateur for 16 seconds, I'm a shoo-in.

KURTZ: Well, this could be a new career for you in case the newspaper business goes down.

All right. R.B. Brenner, Steve Lopez, Ben Mankiewicz, thanks very much for joining us.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

BRENNER: Thank you.

MANKIEWICZ: Thank you.


KURTZ: Sixteen seconds in a movie, that's big time.

Up next, the blogger versus the beauty queen. Does Perez Hilton have any regrets after tripping up Miss California with a question on gay marriage? And does that have any place in a beauty pageant?


KURTZ: My interest in the Miss USA contest is usually slightly above The Law of the Sea Treaty. But a blogger somehow managed to turn this year's beauty pageant into an ideologically-charged controversy.

Perez Hilton, a gay Hollywood gossip columnist, was a judge in the contest. Miss California, Carrie Prejean, was one of the finalists. And while the other beauty queens got softball questions, Hilton pressed the hot button.


HILTON: Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?

CARRIE PREJEAN, MISS CALIFORNIA: Well, I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what? In my country and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.


KURTZ: Prejean lost the competition, and Perez and at least one other judge have admitted they lowered here score because of her gay marriage answer. Prejean hit the talk circuit saying she had been robbed of the crown.


PREJEAN: I was standing there and, you know, I was ready for my question. And when I heard it from him, I knew at that moment after I had answered the question, I knew that I was not going to win because of my answer.

MATT LAUER, NBC: Because you had spoken from your heart.

PREJEAN: Because I had spoken from my heart, from my beliefs, and for my God.


KURTZ: Hilton cranked up the volume even more with his video response.


HILTON: Now, let me explain to you, she lost not because she doesn't believe in gay marriage. Miss California lost because she's a dumb (EXPLETIVE DELETED). OK?


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: What did you think when he went on this rant and actually lost the B-word? I mean, I can't think of anything more vicious, more mean, more insulting, more degrading, just because you have a different opinion.

PREJEAN: You know, I forgive him. I know that he's angry for whatever reason. I know there must be a bigger issue going on in his life.


KURTZ: What does Perez Hilton have to say about all this? I spoke to him earlier through skype from his home computer in Los Angeles.


KURTZ: Perez Hilton, welcome.

HILTON: Thank you.

KURTZ: Nice to see your computer image.

All right. Let's start with this: Why throw the B-word at Carrie Prejean? Didn't that drag this whole thing into the gutter? HILTON: Well, I don't know if you've read my Web site before, Howard, but...

KURTZ: Sure.

HILTON: ... I use the B-word all the time.

KURTZ: But you used it on television.

HILTON: Well, the video that I made was not made for TV, it was made for my Web site. And that's just the language that I communicate in.

I was very angry. And it's almost insulting to me that people expect me not to be outraged when I'm told I'm a second-class citizen and shouldn't deserve the same rights that heterosexuals get.

KURTZ: All right. Let's come back to that question, which, of course, kicked this all off at the pageant.

You support gay marriage, obviously. Carrie Prejean said, rather diplomatically, in my view, that she doesn't. And then you cut her score.

Is there only one politically acceptable answer in a beauty pageant?

HILTON: I think that Miss USA should represent all Americans. And the answer that she gave instantly was alienating to millions of people, and offensive to many, many, including myself.

So I didn't have issue with her disagreeing with me about gay marriage. My issue was that she did not answer the question as well as she could have.

KURTZ: But you know that, you know, whether you like it or not, a significant portion of the country opposes gay marriage. In fact, President Obama opposes gay marriage. Should all of the people who have that position -- all of the women, I should say -- be disqualified from beauty pageants?

HILTON: Well, you mention President Obama, but when he says that, he says he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. However, he also says that he believes gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

If Miss California had said the same thing, then I wouldn't have had an issue with her answer, because it would have been inclusive. And it wouldn't have caused this wedge and divided the way that it did.

KURTZ: Carrie Prejean has now become something of a heroine on the right. She has been on with Hannity, she has been on with Neil Cavuto. So in a way, you have given her a bigger platform than she would have had if she had won the pageant. HILTON: And vice versa. I thank her. I thank her, because if she had not answered my question the way that she had, we wouldn't have spent almost an entire week having the discourse that we've had about gay marriage, which is a very important one.

Right now, the state of New York is deciding if they want to treat all of their residents as equals and legalize same-sex marriage. In my home state of California, the Supreme Court is deciding if they want to repeal Proposition 8.

It is a vital conversation to be had. And I'm thankful that in my own way, I was able to bring that conversation back into the forefront of the national dialogue.

KURTZ: All right. So you portray this as helping to spark a genuine debate about gay marriage, which has now been adopted by four states, either by legislature or by the courts. But it has also been a conversation about Perez Hilton.

Surely, it has crossed your mind that by asking that question, and doing interviews and making videos and keeping it alive, that you're attracting a lot of (INAUDIBLE) to your gossip site. HILTON: Well, I really am being genuine when I say I'm doing this not for me, but I'm doing this for equality. I'm doing this for what I think is right and just and fair. And I'm speaking out because I have a voice, and I'm going to use it.

KURTZ: Well, going back to the B-word, you said you were angry. You felt insulted by her position. But, you know, Carrie, in an interview, says that she forgives you, but she feels like you must have some larger issue here than just the answer that she happened to give at the Miss USA contest.

HILTON: Oh, absolutely. I 100 percent agree with her.

My larger issue is that I'm tired of being treated as a second- class citizen in America. Civil marriage is not religious marriage. And there are over 1,000 rights, privileges, and protections that come along with civil marriage.


KURTZ: Fine, but then your -- then your anger and your emotions should be directed toward the politicians and the judges who make these laws, not necessarily at one beauty pageant contestant, who happens to have an individual view that you don't agree with.

HILTON: Well, she used the national platform of the Miss USA competition to spew what I think is hate.

KURTZ: You asked her the question.

HILTON: When she thinks I'm not equal...

KURTZ: You asked her the question. She had to answer it. You were the one who injected this. HILTON: Correct. She answered it, and I'm happy that she answered it with her convictions. In my opinion, as a judge, I judged her as not answering it as well as she could have, because, like I said before, the next Miss USA should have given an answer that represented all Americans and wasn't divisive or perceived as offensive.

KURTZ: All right. Perez Hilton, appreciate your sharing your views on this important topic with us. I didn't think I'd ever be discussing the Miss USA Pageant, but you have brought it into the limelight, as you said.

Thanks very much.

HILTON: I appreciate your time


KURTZ: And after the break, the shirtless president again? The "Washingtonian" brings back that Obama beach photo, but it may not look exactly the way you remember.


KURTZ: When I saw the new cover of "Washingtonian" magazine, I thought, Barack Obama, shirtless in swim trunks? Really? Haven't we, the media, already been there, done that?


KURTZ (voice-over): There he is in one of those paparazzi shots taken during his Hawaiian vacation back in December. He is one, just one, of 26 reasons to love living in D.C. "Our new neighbor is hot."

All right, it's kind of tacky to exploit the president of the United States as if he were some kind of buff movie star, but those pictures have been out there for months, and the magazine is clearly having some fun. And yet, there is something rather fishy going on here.

The "Washingtonian" changed Obama's swim trunks from black to red. And the beach? Gone, replaced by a black background.

The editors apparently even photoshopped the president's skin. As "The Huffington Post" put it, "On the Washingtonian's cover, the sun striking Obama's chest makes him appear more golden, almost glistening."

The magazine once gave Ronald Reagan the muscleman treatment, but that, unlike the Obama cover, was an obvious spoof.

Now, this is, I'm sorry to say, blatantly unethical. "TIME" magazine sparked an uproar in the '90s when it intentionally darkened O.J. Simpson's skin. "Sports Illustrated" recently airbrushed a tattoo from the back of racecar driver Danica Patrick.

If the president doesn't glisten in real life, he shouldn't glisten in a doctored photo.


KURTZ: Now, the magazine's publisher, Cathy Merrill Williams, denies any tinkering with Obama's skin, and called my earlier criticism ridiculous, telling the AP, "We are a lifestyle magazine doing a feature article. Is he going to tell 'Vogue' they shouldn't airbrush Heidi Klum?"

Well, that's fine for Heidi Klum, who actually doesn't need much airbrushing. But journalists have no business altering news photos that readers have every reason to believe are real, unless they're in some other business and care more about magazine sales than credibility.

As we go to break, we'll look again at the last 100 days of the STATE OF THE UNION. Here's a look back.


KURTZ: If you, as a critic, are upset about, for example, MSNBC's pro-Obama bias, Chris Matthews' "thrill up the leg" and all of that, what about all the softball interviews that Sean Hannity did with John McCain and Sarah Palin?

BERNIE GOLDBERG, COMMENTATOR: It's not what they say on commentary shows, although what Chris Matthews talked about, a thrill running up his leg, that's not commentary. That's a man crush.


KURTZ: "The New York Times" won five Pulitzer Prizes this week, one for uncovering the prostitution scandal that led to Eliot Spitzer's downfall. But one of the most surprising awards for local reporting went to the "East Valley Tribune" of Mesa, Arizona. The problem is, the paper had already laid off Paul Giblin, one of the reporters who won the prize.

But that pales compared to the saga of Todd Smith, reporter for the suburban journals unit of the "ST. Louis Post-Dispatch."

Last year, he was covering a city council meeting when a gunman stormed in and killed five people, including two police officers, before turning the gun on himself. Smith was shot in the hand and immediately used his other hand to call his newspaper.

Last week, the Missouri paper laid off Todd Smith. He told me he was shocked to be let go after having taken a bullet in the line of duty. So much for loyalty being a two-way street.

And John King, times are tough in the newspaper business, but this one really got to me.

KING: You know, we're in the words business, and that one just leaves you speechless. It is tough in the newspaper business. Here in town, when I travel the country, you see it all the time. But you would think guys who win the prizes by doing the heroic work would keep their jobs.

KURTZ: You would think.

KING: You would think.

Howie, thanks very much. We'll see you next week.