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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Aired May 3, 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: And, Howie, as we do so on this Sunday, we always look at the front pages of the newspapers. The New York Times, very interesting and an informative front page today. But the story might soon be about what's up here, $4 it is for the Sunday New York Times, and, Howie, it looks like it may be raising the newsstand prices to deal with all of the financial pressures.
KURTZ: That's what the Financial Times is reporting, John, and The Times would go from $1.50 to $2 during the week, which I would still say is a bargain considering that people don't think anything of spending $4 on a Frappuccino.
But, you know, Warren Buffett, the investment guru, who owns The Buffalo News and a chunk of The Washington Post Company, said yesterday that newspapers are just facing unending losses, and he wouldn't buy them now at any price. So clearly, we're looking at a smaller newspaper business that is struggling for survival.
KING: It's a very tough time. Take it away, Howie.
KURTZ: Thank you very much, John King.
Ahead, we'll examine whether the media's flu coverage is fueling public fear. And look at some of the thorny issues surrounding Elizabeth Edwards' new book over her pain -- on her pain over her husband's affair.
But first, when someone jumps from Coke to Pepsi, from the Yankees to the Red Sox, we often call that person a turncoat. But when Arlen Specter stunned Washington by saying he was defecting to the Democrats, the reporting didn't really focus on whether he had betrayed his longtime party. Look, there's no secret here, the Pennsylvania senator flatly admitted he was unlikely to win a Republican primary next year. But journalists immediately jumped to the tactical questions. How much would this help President Obama's party and how badly would it damage the GOP?
ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC: This is a party that is shrinking so badly in terms of moderate Republicans. The Northeast, no longer any moderate Republicans.
RICK SANCHEZ, CNN: President Obama now a hair's breadth away from having a blank check, free rein, essentially, to enact legislation without really having to listen to the opposition. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sure, it's about his own political survival, but it also means something more -- more power for the president and the Democratic Party.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's an earthquake for the Democratic Party, just game changing. And for Specter, it's a little bit opportunism, a little bit principle.
KURTZ (voice-over): A little bit of opportunism for a man who was elected with Ronald Reagan? It was left to the pundits on the left, as well as the right, to challenge Specter's motives.
GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: I'm so shocked. I thought he was a Democrat. Who knew he was a Republican?
ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: He's doing this for political expediency to save his career.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: And that is our headline this Tuesday night, day number 99 of socialism across America -- "Benedict Arlen."
KURTZ: So, are news organizations giving the newest Democratic senator something of a pass?
Joining us now here in the studio, Dana Milbank, who writes the "Washington Sketch" column for "The Washington Post"; Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine; and in Los Angeles, political analyst Amy Holmes.
Dana Milbank, how come most of the reporting, not the punditry, was there almost no examination where there was a fairly sordid thing for Arlen Specter to do?
MILBANK: Well, I think people assumed in the first place that it was an opportunistic thing to do, and that's what we generally assume our politicians to do in first place, so nobody would be surprised by that. So I think...
KURTZ: You think there's a built-in assumption that he will do whatever it is...
MILBANK: Of course. He's a politician. He's not going to follow principle. He's going to follow opportunity.
And we're all so wrapped up in the process of this, of who's got 60 votes or whatnot? I was actually in a swine flu hearing that Specter was supposed to be the ranking Republican on, dealing with, you know, potentially the deaths of millions, and then Arlen Specter walks in and it's a circus, and the whole thing's over.
LIZZA: H1N1, by the way.
KURTZ: Don't you think that the media have given him something of a pass for this flip after, what, 35 years as a Republican? LIZZA: Yes, here's what happens. I think a lot of straight news reporters sometimes feel constrained about making sort of moral judgments, or judgments on the merits. And so, they moved immediately to the tactical question, which is much safer ground if you're a straight newsman.
But, look, just by the clips you showed, our media deals with this complexity quite easily. We've got all kinds of opinionated pundits out there that made the same points. So, I'm not sure -- if you're the average viewer out there watching this, or reading the paper, just because you got it from the opinion page, rather than straight news page, you still learned that it was opportunistic.
KURTZ: But Amy Holmes, you worked in the Senate for the Republicans. Do you think that there is this same reluctance to interject opinion among the news reporters when a Republican defects to the Democrats, or as opposed to a Democrat suddenly deciding he or she wants to be part of the GOP?
HOLMES: You know, I think that's true. And let's look at Evan Bayh.
He was opposed to the stimulus. He even wrote an op-ed for "The Wall Street Journal." And yet, you didn't really see the media saying wither the moderate Democrats, the Democratic Party sweeping out those moderate voices.
We have Democrats that are opposing Card Check for moderate reasons. And yet, again, the story is not about the party. But I think there's another phenomenon at work.
And Howie, you and I have talked about this a lot, and this is the smarty pants sort of inside the beltway motivation of a lot of reporters to, you know, seem as if they're looking into the crystal ball or able to predict the future. I would say, in the media's defense on this story, that unlike Jim Jeffords, when he switched to become an Independent, we didn't see quite the same level of adulation. Jim Jeffords, you know, made the cover of "TIME" magazine, "Person of the Week," he was a man of great courage. I think Arlen Specter made that story a little bit harder for himself since he announced this was entirely for his own political personal survival.
KURTZ: Right. Jeffords, of course, flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats when he switched in 2001 and became an Independent.
Let's, out of fairness, hear what Senator Specter had to say about his feelings about his former party, the Republican Party.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, D-PA.: As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: All right. Let's go to our smarty-pants correspondents here.
Dana, the GOP not exactly a growth stock these days, but with all the analyses about the Republicans being in trouble, is this a bit of a premature dancing on the grave?
MILBANK: I think there's some of that. You know, when our "Washington Post" poll came out and said there were only 21 percent of the American public is willing to identify themselves as Republicans right now -- in fact, I think all those people you see on TV wearing the masks are not worried about the flu. They're, in fact, Republicans who are hiding.
So, yes, there is a lot of that going on. But it happens the other way. When the party is out of power, when they're down in the polls, the media pile on. It's going to happen either way.
KURTZ: Wasn't it just four years ago, after Bush was reelected, that some of the media geniuses were saying Republicans seem to have a permanent lock on the White House?
LIZZA: Oh, absolutely. Things are never as bad as they seem and they're never as good as they seem, and it's the press' job to exaggerate that.
MILBANK: Simplify and exaggerate.
KURTZ: We just can't help ourselves? LIZZA: We can't help ourselves. And people forget it's -- the hardest thing for the daily media to do, and especially TV, is to look into the future. And what usually happens is we project -- we look at what's happening right now, and we project that, you know, in a straight line into the future.
You know, the person actually who was pretty smart on this was Obama. He said, look, I'm not going to overreach now because we have 60 votes in the Senate. You know, he realizes that things are -- that the worm turns and that Republicans will be back in power some day.
KURTZ: Is it fair, Amy Holmes, for the press to examine and scrutinize what seems to be the incredibly shrinking Republican Party?
HOLMES: Well, certainly it's a political story. This is politics. That's what the political press does. And I don't blame them necessarily for looking into the future, what does this mean in terms of the way the Senate is going to be run.
I might say to Ryan that President Obama might be saying he's not overreaching because he already has. A $700 billion stimulus package and so on, and budget and so forth. But yes, I think the media, there is a place for it to try to put these things into context. What does this mean in terms of passing legislation? But on the other hand, let events unfold.
We know Tom Ridge is already making noises about potentially challenging Arlen Specter. So, getting back to that story, whither the moderate Republicans, one is already coming forward and talking about his potential run in Pennsylvania.
MILBANK: There's something potentially self-fulfilling about this coverage, because if you're a Republican thinking about running for office, and you see that your party is in such miserable shape, even Republicans saying it, that discourages people from running, which creates a bit of a vicious cycle. So it will be harder for them to dig out because of the coverage.
LIZZA: I don't want to leave without pointing out the coverage not wrong. Wither the moderate Republicans, that is true. There aren't very many moderate Republicans left, especially in the Northeast.
KURTZ: Especially the Northeast. Right.
LIZZA: So it's not a manufactured story by any stretch.
KURTZ: All right.
Let me turn now to the retirement of Justice David Souter.
On Friday, at the White House -- this is a day after NPR broke the story of Souter planning to leave the bench -- Robert Gibbs was briefing, and he just couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't confirm what everybody already knew, that Souter was gone. And then a better news source walked in. Let's watch that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Hey. I'm tired of screwing this thing up. There's a job to do, you've got to do it yourself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The president confirmed that Souter had called him and said he was, in fact, going to step down. And then, already under way was a whole lot of media speculation about who's going to get that seat.
Let's roll that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBERG, ABC NEWS: Speculation centers on women -- highly regarded federal Judge Diane Wood; former Harvard Law School dean and solicitor general Elena Kagan; and federal appeals court Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS: Speculation centering today around appellate court judges Sonia Sotomayor, Diane Pamela Wood, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan. JOE JOHNS, CNN: Elena Kagan, former dean of Harvard Law School, stands out. She's now solicitor general.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: But she's never been a judge.
JEFF GREENFIELD, CBS NEWS: This is one of those picks that you're going to be hearing name after name between now and the time that Obama makes a selection.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: None of these stories, Dana Milbank say, well, these people have been mentioned as potential nominees.
Who does the mentioning?
MILBANK: We do the mentioning, and we did it earlier. I mean, it's not just that the speculation began this week. They were doing this during the campaign with all the potential -- if McCain is elected, these are the people we'll get. If Obama, these are the people.
The truth is it often is none of the above, just as happened with the previous nominees...
KURTZ: I was about to get to that. By the way, Russell Baker, the great "New York Times" columnist, used to talk about the great mention. Of course I think that was really journalists.
The day that Sandra Day O'Connor said she was stepping down from the Supreme Court on CNN -- and this was true with every network, every newspaper -- here is a list of people that were talked about: Alberto Gonzales, Michael Luttig, Harvie Wilkinson, Emilio Garza and Sam Alito, who did get a later appointment. And, of course, President Bush stunned the world by announcing Harriet Miers of the White House was his choice.
So, what do you make of this? Is there any penalty for wrong about this?
LIZZA: No, there's no penalty for being wrong because almost nobody remembers. But there's some method to this; right? There's an assumption that it will be a woman because there's only one woman on the court. OK.
Then you look at the potential women out there and you go to the appellate court. Well, there aren't that many women, and there aren't that many women who are in their 40s or early 50s, so we're making a couple of presumptions here.
One, he wants a woman. Two, he wants a young woman. Three, he'll take someone from the appellate court. And that's how you get some of those names. KURTZ: So you're saying it's speculation...
LIZZA: So there's some science.
KURTZ: ... but it's not irrational speculation.
KURTZ: I would say it's more art than science.
Amy Holmes, there already has been some stories about conservatives gearing up to oppose Obama's choice. Are these stories premature in light of the inconvenient fact that we don't have a nominee yet?
HOLMES: They may be, but it also may be helpful to President Obama to raise these trial balloons.
When President Bush announced Harriet Miers, to everyone's amazement and to some bewilderment, he got a lot of pushback from conservatives, of all people. So, for Barack Obama to kind of test some of the -- or for him to sort of see what the reaction is to some of these names -- but, you know, another media angle to this story that hasn't been covered at all is that Justice Souter said there would not be cameras in the courtroom over his dead body. He's only leaving professionally.
But will this change the way that we cover the Supreme Court? Will there be a push by the media to get some cameras in there? That's something I'd throw into the mix.
KURTZ: I'd sure like to see that, but I don't see it coming, at least in this century.
Let me get a break here.
When we come back, grading on a curve. Did journalists act like self-important teachers trying to hang a letter on the president's first 100 days?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Swine flu.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Swine flu.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Swine flu.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Swine flu.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Pandemic problem. Is the nonstop swine flu coverage delivering an unhealthy dose of fear? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
KURTZ: By the time the 100th day had arrived, it seemed the media had done the story to death. But that didn't stop news organizations from doing the special sections and the special segments and the special programs on President Obama's presidency. In some cases, handing out letter grades, literally.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We've got a B. We've got an A.
STEVE HAYES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I am sorry. I am the skunk at the garden party.
BLITZER: Don't be sorry.
HAYES: I will give him a D.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: I's been the most extraordinary first 100 days since FDR, and tonight we're going to look at what President Obama has gotten done.
BECK: President Obama turns 100 days old. Oh, goodie.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Ryan Lizza, what explains the media totally going overboard on this artificial benchmark and inflicting this on the American public?
LIZZA: Yes, it's true. And you know, look, you just showed some of the silliest versions of the 100...
KURTZ: We had 500 other clips to pick from.
LIZZA: Look, being a TV pundit isn't the most dignified thing to do, and they made it even less dignified with the cards and the grades.
Now, there are some -- there's one defense you can mount on the 100-day coverage. It did produce some good journalism.
You know, often we talk about how the news media doesn't look beyond what's happening that day. At the very least, a lot of the print journalism took a broad-brush look at Obama, a lot of deep reporting, stories about major decisions he made, and I think that was very useful. So it's useful to have a marker that sort of looks back over the history of the administration and looks at how far -- how they got to where we are now.
KURTZ: All right. After thinking it over, I'm going to give that answer a C.
KURTZ: Let me go to Amy Holmes.
The Center for Media and Public Affairs came out with a study of the first 50 days, actually, and said that not only did Obama get better coverage than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, he got more coverage than both of those previous presidents combined, 28 hours on the network newscasts.
Do journalists still have a crush on Obama?
HOLMES: I would say so. And another interesting finding is that Michelle Obama, on the cover of all these magazines, actually has sort of been a mixed success. The editors thought by putting her on there, that magazines would fly off the stands, but they made, I think, a little bit too optimistic of a judgment.
Getting back to this 100 days, you know, the question to me here is, how long will the media keep indulging this? That when Obama says, now I'm going to do 200 days retrospective, 300 days, six months? At what point, then, will the media say enough with the manufactured news events, let's talk about news events that matter.
Like, for example, I mean, it seems pretty esoteric, but coming up against a legislative recess, a lot of work gets done, a lot of pressure is put on senators to pass legislation. Those are the kinds of deadlines that actually matter.
But I would argue, Dana Milbank, that at times the press has been fairly tough on Obama, certainly harder on him than during the campaign.
MILBANK: Certainly. I mean, that part was inevitable. I think the statistics don't lie in that they...
KURTZ: Once you become president, you've got to make decisions.
MILBANK: Yes. But, I mean, the coverage has been generally favorable.
I don't think this is an ideological thing. This is a fact that the president is sitting there at 60 percent, maybe 70 percent approval in the polls. I mean, it's just an artifact of that.
KURTZ: Frank Rich writes in this morning's "New York Times" that journalism is in trouble -- no secret there -- and that Obama has become a reliable story because he moves product. People are very interested in this president.
MILBANK: We have been known to write occasionally about the organic vegetables in his garden or the Portuguese Water Dog. I mention this only to increase the ratings on your show right now, Howie.
KURTZ: I'm sure the people meters all just shot up.
And Michelle Obama and her first 100 days, it seems to be a never-ending source of fascination as well, at least for journalists. LIZZA: Yes. Look, it's not -- just because Bush or some previous president didn't garner as much coverage as Michelle and Barack Obama did doesn't tell you anything about press bias one way or another.
KURTZ: Are you kidding?
LIZZA: No. It's a different story. They may be more intrinsically interesting than the former president (AUDIO GAP).
KURTZ: Barack and Michelle Obama went out -- I'll get to you in a second.
They went out to dinner last night at a fancy Georgetown restaurant called Citron (ph). Are there items on that?
Go ahead, Amy.
LIZZA: A wonderful restaurant.
HOLMES: I was going to say, you know, with this coverage, one of the little-known facts -- "The Washington Times" reported this last week -- is that, actually, at this point in his presidency, Barack Obama is the fourth least popular of the past five presidents. You wouldn't know that from the press coverage, and you wouldn't know that George Bush in -- you know, at this point in his presidency in 2001, after having had the recount, not even winning the popular vote, in fact had higher Gallup approvals than Barack Obama does right now.
KURTZ: Although his numbers, we have to say, are pretty good.
HOLMES: They're pretty good, but comparatively. You're asking comparatively, how does the press treat these politicians different, and they do.
KURTZ: OK. Fair enough.
The president held a press conference on the 100th day. I'm sure it was a complete coincidence. And the question that got the most attention came from Jeff Zeleny of "The New York Times."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFF ZELENY, "NEW YORK TIMES": During these first 100 days, what has surprised you most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving you in the office, humbled you the most, and troubled you the most?
OBAMA: Now, let me write this down.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: That got a lot of mockery. Was it a silly question or a good question? MILBANK: I thought he was silly when he asked it, but the answer was terribly good. I think it gave us some of the best coverage out of that whole thing at all.
And, you know, the whole notion of this 100 days, Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, famous, he called it a "Hallmark holiday." Well, Mother's Day is a Hallmark holiday, but you're at your own peril if you don't acknowledge your mother on that day. And I think that it served everybody's interests very well, the president's and the press.
KURTZ: Zeleny said that he wanted to get the president to be a little bit more reflective and to watch him think in real time, which I think that question did.
Last point to you, Ryan. Fox broadcasting didn't take the press conference. They aired a program called "Lie to Me," which won the night by a million viewers.
So, did Fox make the right decision?
LIZZA: From a strictly financial point of view, I suppose. But I noticed that their correspondent didn't get a question. And I wouldn't be shocked the two things were linked.
KURTZ: All right. Well, the audience was down 29 percent from the last primetime press conference to this time. So, the question is whether the novelty is wearing off.
Ryan Lizza, Dana Milbank, Amy Holmes, in Los Angeles, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, scary stuff. Are the media behaving badly with saturation coverage of the new flu virus?
ABC's Dr. Tim Johnson joins our discussion.
Plus, breaking her silence. Elizabeth Edwards says she threw up after learning of her husband's affair.
Lisa Bloom joins us to talk about a new book by the former senator's wife.
Plus, with friends like these, why powerful politicians may be exactly what struggling newspapers don't need.
And in our next hour, John King talks with CNN's Jeffrey Toobin and others on the stakes involved in naming a replacement for Justice David Souter.
KING: I'm John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. The number of swine flu cases is climbing. The World Health Organization now says there are 787 confirmed cases in 17 countries. The increase is the result of testing on previously collected samples in Mexico, not because of any new infections. There are 161 cases of the H1N1 flu virus here in the United States.
Jack Kemp, a former Republican congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate, died Saturday after a battle with cancer. Former President George Bush said Kemp will be remembered for his significant contributions to the Reagan revolution and his steadfast dedication to conservative principles. Jack Kemp was 73. The second ranking Republican in the House says his party can learn from President Obama. In an interview we aired just last hour, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor praised the president's use of new technology like social networking sites to reach young voters. Cantor was among those taking part in a listening tour yesterday in a bid to revive the GOP's image.
That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.
Time now, though, to turn things back over to Howie Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: Hey, John.
You know, network anchors generally strive to keep their opinions out of the news, but when that Air Force One fly-over scared the hell out of thousands of New Yorkers in that absurd photo-op, Brian Williams felt compelled to speak out.
Let's roll that tape.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: I think from the distance of Washington, it was hard to tell just what it did to people in lower Manhattan. If they ever released the 9/11 calls, you'll hear it, people taking it upon themselves to evacuate buildings, spill into the streets. It was just enormously klutzy and ill conceived.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: John, I don't think that screw-up got enough attention outside New York.
KING: I think you might be right on that play. It was a screw- up.
The White House says it is investigating, and there are a lot of people who say the head of the White House Military Office might be in danger of losing his job. It not only cost a lot of money, Howie, but it scared a lot of people.
KURTZ: Three hundred thousand dollars, to be precise. Thanks very much, John. We'll talk to you later.
It has become inescapable on the airwaves, not to mention on front pages across the country. When it comes to swine flu, cable news is a fever pitch -- hour after hour of updates and medical reports and news conferences and more updates. Night after night, the network newscasts lead with the flu outbreak.
What remains unclear, despite the tsunami of coverage, is how dangerous the outbreak really is, at least in the United States. That hasn't slowed things down one iota.
When it comes to the flu saga, television has been bitten by the bug.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: On tonight's broadcast, outbreak. Swine flu jumps across six states, including what could be a major problem in New York schools, while public health officials predict there will be deaths.
COURIC: The world is moving closer to a full-scale pandemic.
GIBSON: We, in covering and reporting on this story, are not immune to it.
(voice-over): Our senior staff buzzed through a good portion of a bottle of hand sanitizer today.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: When it gets inside a human body, it breeds, it kills. And right now the virus is spreading.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... and is potentially very terrifying.
LARRY KING, CNN: Is anybody safe from this ticking time bomb?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, is all this media attention justified given the uncertainties involved?
Joining us now from Portland, Maine, Dr. Timothy Johnson, medical editor for ABC News. In Atlanta, Elizabeth Cohen, CNN senior medical correspondent. And here in Washington, Mark Feldstein, professor of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.
Dr. Tim Johnson, as this coverage goes on day after day, hour after hour, the inevitable question becomes, are the media overreacting?
JOHNSON: And the answer is, in the initial stages, absolutely. I've been through so many of these crises, and there's a predictable pattern.
Initially, all the exerts -- in this case, government, public health people -- come out and talk about the worst-case scenario, as they should. The press dutifully reports it, often taking excerpts from the press conferences, and the public hears all these worst-case scenario messages and goes into survival mode and believes the worst.
But after a few days, we start to settle down, be a little more rational, put more context to it. But initially, it's a pattern almost set in stone.
KURTZ: It's interesting you talk about being a little more rational. Let's look at some of the newspaper headlines on this, Mark Feldstein, day after day. We see -- there we go -- "Hog Wild." That really jumps out from "The New York Post." And "Newsweek," just out this morning, "Fear & The Flu," cover stories.
So, when I see all this wallowing, and I see on-screen headlines like "Outbreak of Fear," I wonder, is this overkill?
FELDSTEIN: Well, I think it is. And I don't think, with all due respect to Dr. Tim Johnson, that it's just the media transcribing like stenographers what officials say. The media have a vested interest, an economic vested interest, in promoting the fear. They don't want to get too carried away because they lose credibility, but...
KURTZ: An economic vested interest?
FELDSTEIN: An economic vested interest.
KURTZ: You're saying they are merchandising this tragedy?
FELDSTEIN: It's a commodity. When I was a correspondent at CNN, a top news executive here -- no longer here -- said, "Why do people watch us?" They watch out of fear, and we have to play to that. And if you look at cable news numbers, they're basically very steady until there's a crisis, and then it jumps.
KURTZ: Elizabeth Cohen, I know you've tried to be careful. You have talked, for example, about how 36,000 people die every year, in an average year from flu-related causes. But television, you'd have to say right now, has the volume cranked up pretty high.
COHEN: You know, I'm not so sure that that's true. I think if you listen carefully to what people say like me have said, or to what Dr. Sanjay Gupta has said, we are always trying to put it into some context. And as you said, talk about how many people die from the seasonal flu. Or any time the word "pandemic" came up, I emphasized, this is not a pandemic.
A pandemic is worldwide disease with enormous numbers of deaths and illness. That's right from the WHO Web site. This is not a pandemic.
COHEN: So we were constantly trying to put it into some context and to sort of let people know, this is a bug that none of us has immunity to, but all we're seeing at this point is mild disease and one death of a Mexican child across the border to visit his relatives here. KURTZ: But Tim Johnson, the sheer volume of coverage, I think, sends a very different message. For example, on ABC's "World News," there were 13 stories in the first four days this week, you know, on everything from Mexico, to the CDC, to the travel market, to the stock market, to the schools closing. Then you come on and Charlie Gibson says to you, OK, how dangerous is this? And there really is no definitive answer, right?
JOHNSON: There's no definitive answer, but, for example, Wednesday night was the turning point for us and many others when the World Health Organization upped it to Level 5, and the head of the organization, at her press conference, said this is now a threat to the entire planet. And Charlie asked me on the evening news that night, "Isn't that a little over the top?" And I said, "Yes, it is."
This is not a threat to every citizen on the planet. In fact, if you look at the 1918 epidemic, the worst one ever by far, the vast majority of people on this planet did not get the flu. So that's why I say, initially, I think, we sort of are passive, but we start catching on, we get more information, and so, as Elizabeth said, I think do we become much more rational.
KURTZ: These medical correspondents saying that in a way, they're trying to talk down the story.
FELDSTEIN: And absolutely, there's been some excellent news coverage this that's been nuanced and that's been restrained. But it's not so much the words of what the individual correspondents say as it is the marketing of it -- The "Outbreak of Fear" headlines, the scary music, the leading of it.
And if we ask these two correspondents how much air time have they gotten since the story broke, compared to how much they get normally, I'm sure they would tell us they've gotten a lot more. And if you look at the 30,000 new flu deaths that occur every year from seasonal flu in the U.S. and compare that to the zero deaths of Americans that have taken place far, I think you'll see it's really been disproportionate.
KURTZ: Do you think, Elizabeth Cohen, that government officials who want to show that they're on top of this crisis feed into this, because you have all these CDC briefings, and Janet Napolitano briefings, and then CNN and the other cable networks cove them live, and that kind of keeps the drumbeat going and it seems like there's a great urgency here?
COHEN: Well, I think some of what you're seeing happen is that it's easy for us now, a week after this outbreak began, approximately, to sort of look back and say, hey, not a single American died. But you have to remember, when this began, there were reports of many, many dying in Mexico, and those numbers were then sort of lowered down. But again, this is a virus that none of us has immunity to, and public health experts need to react responsibly, they need to let people know.
So if, God forbid, there had been a large number of deaths over the past week, we would all be saying the opposite, Howie. We'd be saying, well, gosh, why didn't the CDC do more? So I think you have to remember that the CDC and other public health officials are operating in a -- you know, in a world of uncertainty.
KURTZ: Well, speaking of reacting responsibly, one thing that got a lot of attention this week was when Vice President Biden the other day went on NBC's "Today Show" and was asked about swine flu by Matt Lauer.
Here's some of what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico. It's that you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft.
That's me. I would not be at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Tim Johnson, Matt Lauer made a rare fumble there because he didn't follow up. He just moved on to another subject.
Is it the role of journalists so say, excuse me, Mr. Vice President, but you don't seem to know what you're talking about?
JOHNSON: Well, that's exactly what I did see on "World News" Thursday night. Charlie played that clip and then asked me to react, and I said, if I can remember, the problem was the vice president looked like he knew what he was talking about when he didn't. And therefore, it led to a lot of corrections. Ironically, there was so much reaction to it correcting him, that I think we got a lot of good information out that day because he had made that big boo-boo.
KURTZ: I don't think that was the plan, however. I don't think that was the strategy. There was an interesting moment... JOHNSON: I'm sure it was not the plan.
KURTZ: An interesting moment at the White House briefing, where ABC's Jake Tapper was asking Robert Gibbs about what Biden had said. Let's play a little bit of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: Representatives of the travel industry have accused the vice president of coming close to fear mongering because of his comments. And I'm wondering if you wanted to clarify or corrector or apologize for the remarks that he made?
ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I think what the vice president meant to say...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Once you hear those words, "what he meant to say," you know they're in trouble.
Mark, but I didn't see a lot of stories as you might have if, let's say, Dan Quayle had been the vice president, saying, is Biden hurting the administration with his off-the-cuff remarks. Did we go a little easy on the vice president?
FELDSTEIN: That's an interesting question. I don't know. I mean, there was a pretty funny cartoon I saw that had Biden saying, "Run for your life," and the press spokesman saying, "What he meant to say is jogging is good for your health."
KURTZ: Elizabeth, maybe this plays to your earlier point about it becomes easier to assess as the days go on, but there was a front- page story in the "Los Angeles Times" saying that the consensus of scientists found what's now called the H1N1 virus, because the pig industry, the pork industry didn't like swine flu, is that it may not even do as much damage as the run of the mill flu outbreaks that occur each winter without much fanfare.
If that is true, then it's not much of a story in the end, is it?
COHEN: Well, I think it's -- to me -- you know, I have a Masters degree in public health and studied epidemiology, and so to me, this is really fascinating, to see what happens when a brand-new virus gets sort of let out into the population. What does it do? What happens? Does it mutate. There are all sorts of interesting questions here.
I still think it is an important story to tell. And I think another important story to tell is, yes, that probably Americans don't pay enough attention to seasonal flu. People don't go out and get their flu shots in the numbers that they're supposed to because we've all just become so accustomed to it...
KURTZ: Right. COHEN: ... that, to us, it's sort of like no big deal even though it kills 36,000 people.
KURTZ: Well, my two cents is this: that we may look back on this as a textbook case of media hype, of shouting "Fire!" based on some embers. And maybe like SARS, or bird flu, not a single American has died. And I hope it's the case that it turns out to be overblown, but it could be an embarrassment in which the media are accused of scaring people.
A final thought from you, Dr. Tim Johnson. You say you've been through a lot of these crises. Do you think I'm right, that we may look back and say, gee, we kind of went too far there?
JOHNSON: We may, but we can't say that for sure. I thought one of the best lines was from one of the scientists who said, "Predicting what's going to happen with this over the next year is like predicting a batting average in the first week of the season." We're not there yet to predict.
KURTZ: All right. It always pays to be cautious.
Dr. Timothy Johnson, Elizabeth Cohen from CNN, Mark Feldstein, thanks very much for talking our way through this, this morning.
At the top of the our, John King will be sorting out the swine flu facts and taking some of your phone calls with new Health and Human services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as well as Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, and the head of the CDC, Richard Besser.
After the break, tawdry tale. It turns out Elizabeth Edwards new far more about her husband's affair than she had let on. Lisa Bloom weighs in on the revelations in a forthcoming book.
KURTZ: That's next.
KURTZ: Elizabeth Edwards has always seemed the epitome of a loyal political wife. When her cancer returned months after her husband launched his second presidential campaign, she stood by her man.
COURIC: Here you're staring at possible death.
ELIZABETH EDWARDS, JOHN EDWARDS' WIFE: Aren't we all, though?
COURIC: And you're thinking, I don't want to deprive the country of having my husband lead it.
EDWARDS: That would be my legacy, wouldn't it, Katie?
KURTZ (voice-over): But John Edwards, we later learn from the "National Enquirer," had been having an affair with a former campaign aide named Rielle Hunter, who became pregnant. The former senator finally dropped his denials and blamed his infidelity on his rapid rise in national politics.
JOHN EDWARDS (D), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... all of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want, you're invincible, and there will be no consequences.
KURTZ: Now, Elizabeth Edwards says in a forthcoming book that she threw up when her husband admitted the affair. According to New York's "Daily News," Elizabeth says she knew about the affair during the campaign, but that her husband initially lied and said he had strayed only once.
Joining us now from New York to talk about this is Lisa Bloom, an anchor for "In Session" on truTV, which is part of CNN's parent company, and a CNN analyst.
Lisa, Elizabeth Edwards clearly the victim here of her husband's awful behavior. No question. But by putting this in her book and opening up her private life, is she exploiting the situation, as well? LISA BLOOM, CNN ANALYST: Well, she may be. Let's keep in mind that John and Elizabeth Edwards are both currently unemployed, and the way to sell a celebrity book is to make it be a tell-all book and include lots of new, intimate revelations. That's what you have to do to get a book sold in this current environment.
But, having said that, I applaud Elizabeth Edwards because she has rejected that ridiculous "stand by your man" mentality that we saw with, for example, Silda Spitzer, standing by her husband Eliot Spitzer at the press conference, as he publicly humiliates her, Dina McGreevey, standing by Jim McGreevey when he publicly humiliated her at the press conference. You'll notice Elizabeth Edwards did not do that, and now she has written her own book, really blasting him for his bad behavior. So I applaud what she's doing.
KURTZ: Well, hold on. Hold on. She stood by her man when it counted. During the campaign, we now know for the fist time that she knew about the affair, that she was her husband's enabler and she was, in effect, part of the cover-up of projecting an image of a happy marriage.
BLOOM: You know, I never liked the word "enabler." It's this kind of therapy speak that's drifted into our language.
What she wants to do in her private life I think is her own business. If she wants to remain married or divorce him, that's her business.
What she does publicly is legitimate subject for criticism. So, the fact that she did not reveal his affair, I don't think that's her job to do. She didn't lie about it publicly. She kept quiet about it. I think that's her choice.
But now for her to say that she was physically sick -- and by the way, she didn't think that he should have continued to run for president -- that's really blasting the man that she's still married to. I think it shows that she's her own woman, she's speaking out regardless of what he probably wants her to do right now, and I say good for her.
KURTZ: Since you bring up this point, and there's no such psychobabble about Hillary and Bill's marriage, I mean, if Elizabeth Edwards came on your program to promote this book, would you turn to her and say, "Why are you still married to this guy?"
BLOOM: I probably would, because she's written a book about it, so she's made it be a public issue. If she hadn't done that, I probably...
KURTZ: She's opened the door, as the lawyers say.
BLOOM: Yes, and she's profiting from it financially. So she's writing a very personal book about her marriage and her choices.
And you know, most women love Elizabeth Edwards, and we salute her because she is resilient, and that's the title of her book. She's been through cancer, she's been through the death of a child.
I suspect that John Edwards did not ask him to sit next to her at the interview where he revealed the affair. And that if he did, she said, "Are you crazy? Absolutely not."
I'm sure that he didn't vet the book. I'm sure he didn't go over the book. She's going to say what she's going to say. So, sure, she's opened the door. I'd ask her all those questions.
KURTZ: Yes. Well, you know, of course John Edwards admitted the affair on "Nightline" only after the story had been broken by the "National Enquirer," and after he had repeatedly denied having any affair with this ex-campaign named Rielle Hunter.
Do you think that the book coming out and all the publicity that will surround it will spark new media attention for the one unresolved mystery here, which Elizabeth Edwards apparently doesn't address in the book, and that is, is John Edwards the father of Rielle Hunter's baby?
BLOOM: Yes, and I don't know what the answer to that is. You know, a lot of people think that he is he is the daddy of the baby.
She also in the book, I understand, never uses the words "Rielle Hunter," does not name her husband's mistress, does not talk about the baby. I don't know if attorneys made her do that, or she chose to do that of her own accord.
I know that she blasts Rielle Hunter, calls her pathetic. I think that's a little bit sad. It shows that she's human, but, you know, the real wrongdoer here is John Edwards. I wonder how much she attacks him in the book, because she's still married to him, Howie.
KURTZ: Yes, that's the amazing thing here. And I would like to read it as well. Of course, it hasn't hit bookstores yet.
In retrospect, and it's always easier in hindsight, were the mainstream media too hesitant to jump on this sleazy story when it was just the "National Enquirer" out there saying it, no one wanted to touch it, because journalists were saying, well, we don't have any first-hand evidence, and there was sort of this code of silence about what Edwards was alleged to have done?
BLOOM: You know, I think it's a touchy subject. I would like to see people's private lives actually be private.
On the other hand, when you're running for president, if you're having an affair, you're cheating our your wife, who's a cancer victim, and your best defense is, well, she was in remission at the time I had the affair, I mean, please. It's a colossal failure of judgment. I think it was a legitimate story, but until there's some real evidence to back it up, I'd like to see the media not be sniffing around for these kinds of things and focusing on more important stories.
KURTZ: Elizabeth Edwards writes in the book, if we can put the graphic up -- she asked herself, "How had I failed as a wife? I now felt thoroughly and publicly humiliated."
Well, you raise an interesting question, because I've even gotten some online reaction -- and we said we're going to talk about this -- people say, "Why do you care about this? Why can't we just move on? It's their private lives."
But he was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004. He did run for president last year. He might have won the nomination. And of course now his wife has brought this back into the media spotlight.
BLOOM: Yes, absolutely. It's an issue of judgment, Howie.
I really don't care what people do in their private lives if they're private citizens, but if you're running for president, let's be honest, everything is open to scrutiny. And if you have such poor judgment that you're going to be cheating on your wife during the campaign, when every media outlet in the world is watching you, frankly, you're not qualified to be president.
And that's what Elizabeth Edwards essentially said to him, according to advanced reports, when she said, you should withdraw if this is what happened. She's the one who had good judgment here, not him.
KURTZ: Well, if he had followed her judgment, maybe they would have avoided that is all, because probably there wouldn't have been the intense scrutiny of a guy who wasn't running for president, what he was doing.
BLOOM: I think that's true.
KURTZ: But all right.
Lisa Bloom, thanks very much for joining us this morning to talk about this.
BLOOM: Thanks, Howie.
KURTZ: Up next, pressuring newspapers. With "The Boston Globe" struggling for survival, are John Kerry and other politicians doing more harm than good by getting involved?
KURTZ: Newspapers need all the help they can get these days. That's not exactly a news flash. But some of their well-intentioned friends ought to back off.
KURTZ (voice-over): The latest circulation figures are ugly. "New York Post" down 20 percent. "San Francisco Chronicle" and "Miami Herald" down 16 percent. "USA Today" and the bankrupt "Chicago Tribune" down 7.5 percent. "The Boston Globe" down nearly 14 percent.
The Globe, now losing $85 million a year, is facing a shutdown threat from its owner, The New York Times Company, if its unions don't make major concessions. John Kerry is holding a subcommittee hearing this week to examine the industry's problems and look for ways to keep newspapers alive.
Now Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and every member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation but one, have sent a letter asking for a meeting with Times company chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. It says, "We urge you to treat the Globe fairly and to work together on a solution to this immediate crisis that preserves the newspaper for the future."
(on camera): That, unfortunately, amounts to pressure from the very politicians covered by the Globe. Of course they want to rescue the paper, but they shouldn't be leaning on a corporate executive whose subsidiary is bleeding red ink.
The one congressman who refused to sign, Stephen Lynch, called it a conflict of interest.
(voice-over): Sulzberger is getting heat from the right, as well. In the course of criticizing The Times for a cartoon on terror interrogation featuring the Statue of Liberty holding a whip, Bush aide-turned-Fox-News-pundit Karl Rove gloated about the company's troubles, calling The Times by a nickname he despises.
KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I thought "Pinch" Sulzberger was right to worry about why he had to sell his building and his stock is in the toilet, and I'm glad it is. He is an elitist snob who thinks he knows better than the rest of America and has views that are distinctly outside the mainstream of what America is all about.
KURTZ: Guess what? As the publisher, Sulzberger doesn't run the newsroom.
Could Rove's slam have anything to do with The Times editorials that once pounded him for politicizing every aspect of the White House and his role in the outing of the CIA's Valerie Plame?
KURTZ: Now, The Times will limp along, but its deadline for keeping or closing "The Boston Globe," which was extended over the weekend, is midnight tonight.
As much as I want The Globe to survive, I don't think members of Congress should gang up on Sulzberger or try to help the industry. This isn't like bailing out GM or Chrysler or AIG. Newspapers have to make it on their own, without government help, or they aren't worth saving.
Now, you can join us on Facebook, our RELIABLE SOURCES page. You can get an early look there at the topics and guests we'll be bringing you each Sunday, and you can give your two cents.
When we come back, we'll bring you some of those comments, including why some of you are fed up with the media's performance during President Obama's first 100 days.
KURTZ: With all the hoopla over the first 100 days, as we talked about earlier, I put the question on our Facebook page. "What grade," I asked, "would you give the media for covering President Obama's tenure so far?"
Kathy Steele Haddax wrote, "As much as I enjoy the cable news channels... I do think the 24-hour coverage leads to trivial news reporting and the constant bantering."
Larry Kelly: "I'd give the media an 'A' for adoring.
Sharline Ardeo (ph): "The media took too much energy focusing on the wrong thing... the handshake in Trinidad, Michelle's clothing, Michelle's awesome arms, the puppy, Meghan McCain's fight with some chatterboxes and then became one herself."
Rich Frost: "The media should quit worrying about how the public grades them and cover the news. That doesn't mean the same bunch of talking heads blabbering about what happened during the day like we see every day on the cable networks."
Justin McCarthy: "I would give Jake Tapper of ABC an A for both his tough yet fair approach. MSNBC gets an F for basically acting as the Obama administration's press office."
Jim Beard: "F. Style over substance... process over policy... handshakes, dogs, laughter on '60 Minutes' ad nauseum."
And John King, not a lot of glowing reviews for our business. I guess people have had enough of the 100 days.
KING: Well, if they can grade us, that means they're watching us. And you know what? We would be smart to listen. We're not going to agree with all the critics, but we learn from listening to everybody, the sources we cover and the people who watch us.
KURTZ: Feedback is a good and healthy thing.
KING: Amen to that, Howie. Have a great Sunday.
KURTZ: Thank you.