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Tweeting the Revolution; Interview With Bill Keller

Aired June 21, 2009 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: I have been riveted, like just about everyone else, by the images from Iran, by the massive street protests, by the outpouring of anger against the government. But with the Ahmadinejad regime cracking down on Western journalists, banning television cameras and even note- taking, it is a story that has been singularly difficult for news organizations to cover.

That's why you have been hearing so much this week, maybe too much, in fact, about a Web site that seems to serve as the prime communications channel for the Iranian uprising, as long as you keep it short.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More and more tweets were appearing...


KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": A Twitter revolution...

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: Is this the first true Internet uprising?

(UNKNOWN): Yes. The Iranian government failed in its attempt to contain images out of Iran.

(UNKNOWN): Is Facebook and Twitter actually help fuel the outrage over that outcome?

(UNKNOWN): Those opposing Ahmadinejad will not be silenced.


KURTZ: Is that feel good story being oversold by the same media outlets that are relying on tweets they don't know and pictures they can't vouch for. And how are journalists handling the demands by some confidence that the president Obama's side and more forcefully with the protesters in Iran.

Joining us now in Atlanta, Martin Savidge, former NBC correspondent who now anchors "World Focus" on public television, in Seattle Michael Medved, host of the "Michael Medved Show" on the Salem radio network, and here in Washington, Margaret Carlson, chief political columnist from "Bloomberg News" and Washington editor of "The Week" magazine.

Marty Savidge, we just got word this morning that Iran is ejecting a BBC correspondent, Christiane Amanpour of CNN, David Engel (ph) of NBC, Jim Sciutto of ABC have all had their visas revoked or not extended.

And so in this situation, has Twitter become the CNN of the masses?

SAVIDGE: It's a combination of Internet sources, clearly. Twitter stands out as one of the primary ways that people are getting the message from the street. You have Facebook that's also being used.

We found, as we try to cover this story for "World Focus" that we had to reach to a number of platforms that are not considered traditional for many, many journalists here.

The difficulty, of course, with Twitter is the fact that you are not absolutely certain the person who is communicating is where they say they are.

And also, as you look at all the people who are reporting using these kind of various forms of Internet, they often will say things like, we cannot confirm, this person says or represents, a lot of awkward language for journalists, because this is of course not the way we normally speak.

KURTZ: You have put your finger on it. And Michael Medved, I love Twitter, but with thousands of people turning out stuff, there's also been some misinformation that has been passed along. For example, there was a report about Mousavi, the opposition leader, being placed under house arrest, which turned out not to be true.

MEDVED: I think the problem with the overselling of the Twitter aspects of this story has to do with a natural tendency to emphasize the young versus old, the conflict in Iran. Of course, in Iran, about half the population is below the age of 25. And it's a hugely generational conflict, it would appear, and that of course adds to the drama.

The problem is, that it's not just a conflict between people who know how to do Twitter and Facebook and are Internet-savvy and those who are not. It is in many ways a conflict between the 21st century and the 12th century.

And it's very striking when you hear the stories about Twitter, and then you see the imagery of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad praying in a style that's not normally associated with the 21st century.

KURTZ: A real generational clash.

Margaret Carlson, this does seem to be a shift from the big media to the people. Without Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and these other websites, it seems to me that the Iranian regime could shut down all images of dissent from the country.

CARLSON: They sure could, as they are throwing out reporters.

There's no editor of Twitter or Facebook. Some of the best information is, for instance, at, Andrew Sullivan has gotten hundreds of thousands of hits, because he's gathering it all up and trying to act as an editor, to verify.

And by the way, the pictures don't lie. For the most part, you can't fake the demonstrators in the street...


KURTZ: ... just to act as a filter, because nobody can read thousands and thousands of these 140 character messages.

CARLSON: But a filter to put out information that's more reliable than 100,000, and to aggregate it.

KURTZ: Marty Savidge, I want to come back to the point you were making at the top about putting on information that can't be fully vetted. Let's take a look at how some CNN anchors on this network have talked about that very dilemma.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: We can't independently verify what precisely we are looking at, when it was taken, or under what circumstances.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are not able to independently confirm the claims being made, the representations of the video, correct?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is unverified.


KURTZ: "Can't verify," "can't confirm." These are phrases we don't often hear on news networks, Marty. And so isn't that an awkward situation for CNN and the other news networks?

SAVIDGE: Absolutely it is, because, in some respects, what it turns out is that we are voyeurs when it comes to watching events that are happening in Iran. We are gravely concerned. We are fascinated by what we see.

And the other thing about these particular means of communication that we are getting from the street is that they are extremely personal. You feel it on a very personal level. And the person who is delivering that information to you is delivering at a personal level. They are using their phone, they are using their own camera device.

Often you are seeing a very large development but from a very narrow focus. It's sort of like the embeds there. You see a great deal of activity going on, like we did in the Iraq war. But then the obvious question is, what does it really all mean? Where is the context here? How do I know the big picture? Is this just something happening on that particular block, or is it something that is happening all throughout Tehran or all throughout Iran, for that matter?

And that's the very difficult thing, which is why you need journalists in some form to bring you that context, to bring you that touchstone of, well, here is how it all fits together.

KURTZ: On that question of authenticity, someone, we believe, in the Iranian government has actually started fake Twitter pages. For example, ABC correspondent Jim Sciutto, one of those who had been reporting from Iran, and somebody put up a fake page in which he said that the upper class of Iran was leading the protests. He didn't say it at all. It wasn't his page.

Let's turn now to the coverage of President Obama who has talked about this, one might say, very carefully, very cautiously. Here is what the president had to say the other day about the protests in Iran and the disputed election that gave rise to these massive demonstrations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: It's not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations to be seen as meddling, the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections.


KURTZ: Michael Medved, all kinds of conservative commentators have been criticizing President Obama for not speaking out more forcefully. Columnist Charles Krauthammer says it's a disgrace that he is not more openly siding with the protesters.

Isn't it awfully easy for the armchair warriors to make this criticism when the White House contends that, you know, being more involved, at least reportedly, might make matters worse?

MEDVED: Not only is it easy, but it appears to be correct, and something that was supported by virtually all Democrats in Congress. The Congress of the United States voted a resolution that was much stronger in support of the demonstrators than anything the president had said.

And then after the Congress voted the resolution, I think with the one dissenter, Ron Paul, then right after that, President Obama seemed to intensify his comments.

So if conservatives were so irresponsible and if the danger of the U.S. meddling was so substantial, then it seems to be something that now is bipartisan and that includes the president of the United States.

KURTZ: Margaret, Obama did say yesterday, he called on the regime to stop all the violence and unjust actions against its own people. But still, it seems to me that it's one thing for congressmen to take a position, it's one thing for columnists to take a position. But the president has said he doesn't want to be used as a foil where it would be seen that the opposition is somehow in cahoots with the U.S. government.

CARLSON: Right. He assumes it would be worse.

Twitter has made us all Iranians. But the president operates in realpolitik, which is what are the hazards here of coming out too strongly?

In 2003, President Bush sided with demonstrators in Tehran, and it justified a crackdown on the demonstrators as being a plot of the West against the Iranians. So, you can't do too much.

It is -- imagine if those demonstrators became treasonous against the state, siding with the West, how that would justify even more violence.

He had a path in when the police started beating and tear-gassing and killing some demonstrators to say something. But I think to come in officially on the side of the demonstrators is to ask for -- get a short-term pleasure, but long-term pain. KURTZ: And while you are talking, we're looking at more of these pictures, that one was labeled "amateur video" by CNN.

Martin Savidge, you know, obviously Obama also has to negotiate with the current government as long as it is there about its nuclear program. Does American television, do you believe, provide nuance and context here, or does it kind of boil it down to this partisan sniping about just how forceful the U.S. should be?

SAVIDGE: I think there is sniping that is taking place. I think that many Republicans saw there was an opportunity. Republicans traditionally stand very strong when it comes to matters like this, and they wanted a president who spoke out.

I think there is a line that's been crossed, though, since yesterday, and why the president can speak out more forcefully now.

Of course, there was the concern that somehow he might be used to demonize the opposition, that the opposition was in cahoots with the United States. That's what the hard-liners in Iran would have said.

Now the president has every right to speak out, because we are not talking about a disputed election anymore. We are talking about violence in the street, we are talking about people being killed by their own government.

KURTZ: Exactly.

SAVIDGE: And then on top of that, the president also, though, has to have the long view. We know that one day, somehow, this is all going to be worked out in Iran, and the president must continue to have a relationship with that (inaudible).

KURTZ: That is it. Of course, journalism tends to have a short- term view of today, tomorrow, and perhaps the next day. KURTZ: Let me one more piece of tape here, another interview that the president gave his week with CNBC's John Harwood about the coverage he's been getting and whether it's been excessively favorable, some might say. Let's roll that.


JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC: Media critics would say not only has it not come, but that you have gotten such favorable press either because of bias or because you're good box office.

OBAMA: First of all, I have one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration. And you would be hard pressed if you watched the entire day to -- to find a positive story about me on that front.


KURTZ: Obama, of course, talking about FOX News.

And Michael Medved, should the president be repeatedly complaining? This is not the first time he's mentioned FOX or Hannity -- about one cable news station and the way it covers him?

MEDVED: No, of course not, because in the universe of coverage, in that same interview, the big focus, as you know very well, Howie, was on the president killing a fly, and people describing his superhuman abilities to actually kill the fly and then to pick it up from the floor. And the analysis of that particular -- this is part of the Obama infatuation, which I think has gone extraordinarily far.

KURTZ: And I have to jump in and give Margaret Carlson a chance. Didn't that provide a boost for FOX with a lot of Fox anchors going on and on about this complaint?

CARLSON: It was an asymmetric relationship. He made it symmetric. Neil Cavuto went on a tear. And Neil Cavuto says the president is petty and he, Neil Cavuto, is high-minded and above it all. A president doesn't want to open the door to that.

KURTZ: You can't buy that kind of publicity. All right, Margaret Carlson, Martin Savidge, Michael Medved, thanks for joining us this morning.

When we come back, house call. Diane Sawyer checks in on her White House sit down with President Obama this week with a handpicked audience to talk about health care. Why has the prime time special kicked up so much controversy?

And later, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the "New York Times" on staying quiet while one of his reporters was kidnapped by the Taliban.


KURTZ: As Congress begins to tackle President Obama's health care plan, the White House is again trotting out its salesman in chief. The president will sit down with ABC's Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson for a prime time special devoted to health care this Wednesday night, 10:00 eastern, and to talk to Sawyer the next day about the issue for "Good Morning America."

The event at the White House, which will feature questions from an audience selected by ABC, is already drawing up bits of political flak.

And joining us now by phone from New York to talk about the program is Diane Sawyer. Good morning.

SAWYER: Happy Sunday, Howie.

KURTZ: Thank you very much.

You have the ultimate guest for this special, the president. Why not also include guests from the insurance industry, the hospital industry, the drug companies who also have a stake in this health care battle?

SAWYER: That is exactly who we are including.

We have people from the front lines of the health care dilemma, and they are insurance companies, they are big businesses, they are small businesses, they are physicians, drug companies, they are people who have operated at the state levels, which are some of the laboratories, as we know, which tell us something about health care in America. And, of course, we have patients there, too.

And I think a lot of people haven't understand fully that this is going to be a room full of widely diverse ideas in which people who actually experience the reality of front-line health care are going to get a chance to pose their challenging questions to the president.

KURTZ: As you know, the Republican national chairman Michael Steele has said that ABC is promoting Obama-care, and FOX's Sean Hannity took a shot at this, noting ABC being owned being own by parent company Disney. Let's play a little bit of "Hannity." Let me just play the byte.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: President Obama's love affair with the mainstream media continues. But as we learn more about next week's Mickey Mouse sponsored infomercial, one thing is becoming clear, and that is our headline this Wednesday night, journalism in America is dead.


KURTZ: I'm sure you would like to respond to that.

SAWYER: Oh, Sean. Again, ABC, I'm so proud of ABC. And I hope that there is some recognition for the fact that this network is trying to tackle a serious issue in a serious way, and we are doing something that we would love to see a lot more air time dedicated to.

What is more important than a dialogue about health care? It is not an infomercial. ABC News does not do that. We will be there, and these people in this room are going to be able to ask questions from every single vantage point. And they are going to challenge the president, many of them.

And as I said, this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. It's an American issue. And I don't think Republicans or Democrats can argue that only people on Capitol Hill should be addressing this issue. We should have a great debate about these issues with people on the front lines as well.

KURTZ: It's an interesting sign of our media culture, Diane Sawyer, that this program is being attacked before a single minute has even aired.

But I'm wondering whether you think if some of the critics are, in effect, working the refs, hoping to create a climate where you and Charlie Gibson will feel compelled to somehow be tougher on the president.

SAWYER: I don't know whether they are or not, but our job is to have a serious conversation.

This is not theater. This is too important. And we have to bring the issues and the questions, the strongest questions we can.

And ABC has done town hall forums before. We did one on guns with Bill Clinton and then came back a year later and did another one. And they were extremely vital and robust debates about an important issue in the country.

And we had talked to the Bush administration, which didn't feel I think in many ways it was a forum they felt was best for them. But we also had, since Ted Koppel, felt that the town hall forum, bringing people in who are not on all of our Sunday shows and all of our cable shows all the time, on our morning shows and our evening shows all the time, bringing people in who can bring firsthand experience to bear sometimes creates the most effective and educational forum of all.

KURTZ: I didn't know that ABC had made the offer to the Bush White House.

KURTZ: As you know, health care, a complicated issue dealing with employer mandates and deductibility of company benefits and the government insurance option, not the easiest story for television to tell. In this context, how much do you think you'll be able to pin down the president on the nitty-gritty of his proposal?

SAWYER: We want to get the conversation started. We don't assume that it can be comprehensive. This issue is too big. But we're going to try to lay out with some clarity the big questions, take on as many of them as we can, and hope that it at least begins a national conversation, a conversation in doctor's offices and in families and, obviously, in businesses and companies as well that continues.

KURTZ: President Obama has been doing a lot of network television, as you know, Dianne. There was that two-part prime time special on NBC, "Inside the White House with Brian Williams." He talked to Harry Smith on CBS this morning about being a father for Father's Day.

So at the radio and TV correspondents on Friday night, the president told a joke about who his advisers are in some of these difficult matters. Let's take a look.


OBAMA: A few nights ago I was up tossing and turning trying to figure exactly what to say. Finally, when I couldn't get to sleep, I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought.



KURTZ: Do you think there's a perception the media is on Obama's side and that maybe explains some of the criticism of the upcoming ABC special?

SAWYER: I can't address the overarching perceptions of the media. I know that our network has worked very, very hard to be completely -- completely responsible and fair and serious about big issues. And that was comedy.

KURTZ: That was clearly comedy. I have got half a minute. Do you think, though, that there's a hunger among the networks to put the president on because there is a lot of public interest in Obama and he is good for ratings?

SAWYER: I'm sure -- I'm sure that there are a lot of people out there who feel that that's true.

In this issue, and I keep coming back to it because I don't want to conflate anything here, what is more important for us to talk about than health care? What is more important for us to begin to form democratic responses to, than health care? And that's why we are doing this.

KURTZ: I'm going to withhold judgment until after I see this on Wednesday night. And Diane Sawyer, thanks very much for calling in this morning.

SAWYER: All right, thank you, Howie. Happy Father's Day again.

KURTZ: I appreciate it.


KURTZ: Coming up in the second half of "Reliable Sources," tackling Tehran. "New York Times" editor Bill Keller is here to talk about the dramatic escape of his reporter David Rohde from the clutches of the Taliban, why he asked news organizations to keep quiet on the story, and his own reporting trip to Iraq this past week.

Plus, reality's dark side. Does the pressure of being on a reality show push people over the edge? We will examine an online investigation linking these programs to a string of suicides.


KURTZ: It's been a deadly weekend, as you know, across Iran, as demonstrators clashed with police and pro-government militiamen.

CNN international correspondents Ivan Watson joins us now from Atlanta. And Ivan, the other day you put up some Facebook video from the city of Shiraz that showed police clubbing a woman. And you said on the air it was difficult to confirm.

Isn't it difficult to put these pictures on the air when they are not authenticated by any news organization?

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It's frustrating. And as a journalist, I've never been quite put in this position before where I can't be on the ground, feeling, touching, tasting what's happening. Instead, I'm eight and a half time zones away.

But what can you go when you have such a complete blackout of the media. Our team on the ground in Tehran haven't been allowed to report since last Friday.

KURTZ: Right.

WATSON: And we just heard that the BBC and the other networks, their Tehran bureaus were closed.

KURTZ: Do you think that journalists in covering Iran over the years have put too much focus on Ahmadinejad's bellicose or rather it, as anti-Israel rhetoric, and the nuclear issue, and not enough on the double digit unemployment and the disillusion among young people, some of which may be fueling these protests?

WATSON: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And I think that was a strategy by Ahmadinejad. He liked to create tension and friction. And that would distract people from some of the core issues that I think concern most Iranians.

It's not so much Israel and the holocaust as I need a job. You have a huge, youthful population there, and double digit unemployment and rampant inflation in a country with unbelievable oil wealth.

KURTZ: I think that may help explain the surprise of some of us in the West at the anger fueling these protesters about the disputed election.

Interesting, we talk about twitter and facebook a lot in the coverage here, as you say, partly out of necessity. The opposition candidate, who says the election was stolen, Mir Hossein Mousavi, said on his Facebook page, I just saw this this morning, addressing his followers, obviously, "You are the media, and it is your duty to report and keep the hope alive."

WATSON: Yes, and that's a message that we are hearing from many of the other Iranians. It's incredible how tech savvy this society is. I was just emailing an activist who was inviting me to his Facebook page. He is Tehran and getting knocked around by pro- government militia just yesterday.

And this is one of the ways that the opposition leaders are spreading their messages. And they seem to want these images to stay in the media.

And we have seen the state media also showing some of these demonstrations. They clearly don't want to be left out of this debate.

KURTZ: Interesting. Well, everybody is having to get more creative. Ivan Watson, tanks very much for checking in this morning.

KURTZ: I have known for seven months that "New York Times" correspondent David Rohde had been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the "Times" decided not to go public with that information, asking other news organizations to sit on it as well. My newspaper, "The Washington Post" was among the many that went along. The news broke yesterday when the "Times" confirmed that Rohde and an assistant had managed to climb over a wall and escape. Joining me now to talk about how he talked about dealt with this ordeal is the "Times" executive editor, Bill Keller, who is just back from a reporting trip to Iran. Bill Keller, welcome.

KELLER: Thank you.

KURTZ: How difficult has this been for you personally over the last seven months, not knowing whether David Rohde would make it out alive?

KELLER: Well, it's a huge stress, I think especially on the family, but all of his friends and colleagues. And a lot of responsibility trying to figure out exactly what is the right thing to do. There is a kind of network of friends and acquaintances of people who have been through the experience who advise one another. We are now plugged into that network.

KURTZ: All of your instincts as a news man, through your whole career have been to publish information, to get information. And here you are in the position of suppressing information. That had to be an awkward situation for "The New York Times."

KELLER: Of course, of course. It was an agonizing position that we revisited over and over again. But I also have a responsibility for the people who work for me. I send a lot of people out into dangerous places and their security is also part of my job. KURTZ: And David Rohde who actually was kidnapped once before in Bosnia in 1995 seems to a tendency to go to dangerous places. Was his family comfortable with this approach of keeping it quiet?

KELLER: Yes, his family was actually adamant that we should keep it quiet. And they were participants in the discussion. There were points along the way when we were getting frustrated and we wondered maybe we should shift strategy. But all along, we were told by people who know something about this field that probably the wisest course for David's safety was to keep it quiet.

KURTZ: In other instances, Jill Carroll, the "Christian Science Monitor" reporter who was seized in Iraq, there was a feeling that publicity could help put pressure on the captors. But you decided against that route.

KELLER: That's right. Well, there have also been other cases like Melissa Fung of CBC who was kidnapped in Afghanistan, released shortly before David was kidnapped where they decided to keep it quiet and the "Times" went along. We have consistently abided by the choices that employers make when their employees are kidnapped.

KURTZ: And you were in a position of asking all these other news organizations to sit on this story. Did you think that would work?

KELLER: I had my doubts at points along the way, particularly when Pulitzer day came and everybody knew David was part of our team in Afghanistan and Pakistan last year that won the Pulitzer this year. I thought it might leak out then. But in fact, people were amazingly understanding. I think a lot of them could imagine themselves in the same position.

KURTZ: What about the bloggers? I occasionally saw a blog post referring to the fact that David Rohde had been captured by the Taliban and I said to myself, OK, this is going to leak, someone else is going to pick it up, and then it's going to hit television or the newspapers, but that didn't happen.

KELLER: I had the same worry. We tracked the blogs pretty closely. But the ones that ultimately put things up either agreed to take them down or else they were so obscure and peripheral that they didn't really get critical mass.

KURTZ: You told me when we spoke yesterday that even Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite network was working on a story about Rohde's captivity.

KELLER: That's right.

KURTZ: What happened in that instance?

KELLER: I talked to the managing director of Al Jazeera who agreed to hold the story.

KURTZ: Even now, you are not disclosing many details about who the kidnappers were, what the negotiations were. There was demand for millions of dollars. You have said that nobody paid any ransom in this case. Why, now that he's safe and his assistant is out safe, why not tell the whole story?

KELLER: The one thing that I think you'll find everybody who has been through this agrees on is that the more you talk about who did what, who said what, who advised what, how your thinking evolved along the way, the more you are writing a playbook for the next kidnapping.

KURTZ: So you want to avoid giving any comfort to those who might think seizing journalists is a good idea.

KELLER: I want to protect the other journalists who work for me who are out in dangerous places.

KURTZ: Now you, yourself, spent several days reporting in Iran as this story blew up. It was interesting to me, you quoted some ordinary Iranians, not by name, on why they put up with this repressive regime over the years. You had one writer saying we are like sexually abused children. Weren't some of these people afraid to talk to you?

KELLER: They were afraid to have their names used. There is that level of fear. Although it was interesting, in the days before the election when the feeling was fairly euphoric and there was a sense that they might actually overthrow this regime, the fear went away for awhile. But after the results were announced, the regime made clear that they wanted to enforce them, a lot of the fear came back.

KURTZ: Iran's acting police chief said the other day about interrogating some of these rebels, "We intend to find the link between the plotters and the foreign media." And that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened to reporters who were covering this business. It sounds like a threat to me.

KELLER: It sounds like a threat to me, too. And since then, the threats have only become more explosive. It's a dangerous place to work now.

KURTZ: So many journalists have been essentially kicked out because their visas have not been extended. But in this morning's "New York Times," columnist Roger Cohen has quite a colorful piece about being part of these demonstrations. Can you say how he's able to still be there?

KELLER: He came in with a 14 day visa whereas most of us got 10 day visas. He's lucky enough to still be there legally. I think he runs out Monday.

KURTZ: Now you told "Editor & Publisher" today that you picked up a few bizarre vibes, as you put it, about leaving your editors to report from the field, such as?

KELLER: A couple things that popped up on the blogs saying shouldn't he be busy worrying about the future of the newspaper business instead of actually reporting. I mean, I spent way more than I care to of my time thinking about the future and working on the future of the "Times" business model. But running a newspaper and a Web site is what I do. And to do that well, you have to get out and see what the story is.

KURTZ: Right, you obviously have been a foreign correspondent in places like Moscow and South Africa. So what was the benefit of you being there both for yourself and for "Times" readers.

KELLER: Well, up until the point when I started writing, I would say the benefit was just I was getting educated so I could make better informed choices about what's important and know what questions to ask the correspondents as things were unfolding. Once the place exploded, we have two people there, our Iranian correspondent who lives there and Bobby Worth from our Beirut bureau who were working their tails off writing the lead of the paper every day, exhausted. And at that point, it was either sit in a hotel room and order room service or join the work force.

KURTZ: Clearly, you didn't get much room service because at one point you went off to drive five hours to Iran, the third largest city and file a report from there. You picked up some fascinating details. For example, why did people bring their own pens to the ballot boxes on Election Day?

KELLER: As authoritarian regimes tend to be, it's a very conspiracy minded place. And rumors went out before the election that if you were a Mousavi supporter, your pen would have a disappearing ink. And a lot of people I talked to who had said that they or their relatives had brought their own pens just in case.

KURTZ: So do you look at the story a little differently now than might have happened if you had stayed in Manhattan?

KELLER: Well, I think the story itself has changed rather dramatically in the past 10 days. Yes, for one thing, I am now hooked on it, which is of course one reason reporters like to have editors come visit their stories, because they tend to get under our skin.

KURTZ: Although this would not be a story that would probably have a hard time cracking the front page even if you hadn't gone. I think we are all hooked on it at this point.

KELLER: Yes, but there is a question of attention span and how long are we going to be focused on this?

KURTZ: When this is 10 days old, when this is two weeks old, three weeks old, is it still going to have the prominence it has right now? All right, before you go, I've got half a minute. Last week, I turned on my "Daily Show," and there was a piece about "The New York Times" newsroom. You were in there. You and some of the others were made to rather stiff. Do you have any second thoughts about cooperating with the "Daily Show?"

KELLER: My wife who was trying to buck up my spirits told me I looked only faintly ridiculous. All I can say is I was really glad to be in Tehran where they don't get "Comedy Central." KURTZ: Ah, OK, so you actually enjoyed being on the front lines of an exploding foreign story more so than "Comedy Central?" That's a good note to end on. Bill Keller, thanks very much for stopping by this morning. Glad to have a chance to talk to you.

Up next, dangerous reality. A new investigation links reality shows with a stunningly high suicide rate. Do these programs look for emotionally damaged folks to humiliate?


KURTZ: Reality shows are thriving these days often by putting their participants through all kinds of embarrassing and sometimes humiliating situations. Some folks it seems will do anything to get on TV. But there may be a dark side to this popular genre.


KURTZ (voice-over): An investigation by, a new Hollywood Web site, says at least 11 people who have participated in reality shows have committed suicide and two others have attempted to take their lives. They have been associated with such programs as "Extreme Makeover," "Super Nanny," Wife Swap," and "Celebrity Big Brother."


KURTZ: But is a cause and effect here? Are ruthless producers contributing to the unusually high suicide rate, or are they being unfairly blamed for these personal tragedies? I spoke earlier with three experts.


KURTZ: Joining us now in Los Angeles, Sharon Waxman, the veteran journalist who is the founder and editor of Dr. Charles Sophy, medical director of Los Angeles County Child and Family Services, who also appears on the VH1 reality show "Celebrity Rehab." And in West Palm Beach, David Perel, executive vice president and managing editor of

Sharon Waxman, your report details these 11 suicides. But how much responsibility do the reality shows really bear for these tragedies?

SHARON WAXMAN, FOUNDER & EDITOR, THEWRAP.COM: These are not very tenuous connections. These are all -- we chose people who were -- seemed very clearly tied to their experience on reality shows, such as leaving a note when they died saying, I really couldn't take the pressure of what happened in the wake of this show.

And also they were very close in time or during the period when they were actually on the show. There are a couple of things to bear in mind...

KURTZ: Did more than one or two people leave such a note? WAXMAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean, we're talking an age where we have lots of communications. People talk on Facebook, they leave e-mails. This is not just an obscure time where they just leave a handwritten note and it's tied to their body. These are people who can reach out through all kinds of electronic media and we are able to trace those things. So these are not obscure cases.

KURTZ: Everybody has got a digital...


KURTZ: Let's me turn to David Perel. Did -- you have read this story. Does it convince you that the reality shows bear responsibility or at least partial responsibility for these suicides?

DAVID PEREL, RADARONLINE.COM: It does. I thought it was an excellent article in the sense that it has really got its pulse on a new cultural phenomena. And you know, the thing that really strikes me is there needs to be better screening, better before care. These shows are picking people who have mental disorders and they are exploiting them on TV, a lot of the shows. And I think, you know, that series of articles really brought this problem to life.

KURTZ: On that point, Charles Sophy, I've always wondered why do people go on reality shows and expose themselves. And can that experience exacerbate emotional problems they already have?

CHARLES SOPHY, L.A. COUNTY CHILD & FAMILY SVCS.: Oh, absolutely. I think that people typically start to connect with these kinds of shows because of the voyeuristic effect. They can kind of watch somebody else's life and then start to feel like, wow, I can do that. And then you have somebody then as was said before with an unstable mental state.

And then they get that fragile state place where they blur reality, non-reality, they jump into these shows. And then at the end, they are kind of dropped off and then they're left with this fragile make-up that they have to try to live with. And I -- as you see, most people have a difficult time doing that.

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, let me read from your own reporting some of the names of some of the people who committed suicide. Let's put it up on the screen and I'll ask you a question about that.

We have Cheryl Kosewicz who we see on the upper left. She was on "Pirate Masters." She killed herself two months after her boyfriend committed suicide. Najai Turpin from "The Contender" had been fighting with his girlfriend over their 2-year-old daughter. Melanie Bell who was a producer of an unsold pilot, suffered from depression and anorexia, and Nathan Clutter on the bottom left was on "Paradise Hotel," his uncle told police, he reported, that he had suffered from depression and bipolar disorder.

So my question is, clearly all of these people had pre-existing problems. Is it entirely fair to blame the reality shows for what -- their ultimate decision to take their own lives? WAXMAN: I don't think that it's fair to place the blame, so to speak, on the reality shows. And we didn't do this investigation to assign blame. But I think that we have to really examine what is the fallout and what are the wages of this kind of entertainment that is so inexpensive to produce, that is so popular, and that often preys on people's weaknesses and foibles?

And there's a couple of other points that we should make here. It's not just putting damaged people on TV. Not everybody who goes on reality shows is damaged. But there is something that happens in that process.

So we've got a couple of things. One, people who may be seeking fame who may have issues that they are bringing to the show, A. But there's also something that happens in the chemistry of being on TV, being subject to the public eye. Look at someone like a Susan Boyle, which is what kind of...

KURTZ: Sure.

WAXMAN: I think it's why our series got so much attention. She was somebody who wanted to sing. And she didn't count on what was going to happen to her in that cycle so...

KURTZ: Oh, clearly, it can have a huge impact on your experience. And some people come out of it famous, and some people come out of it with either more problems.

Dr. Sophy, do you think -- do you have the impression that at least on some of these programs, the producers deliberately look for so-called damaged people or people with a lot of emotional baggage?

SOPHY: I think that, as was said by Sharon, there is not a lot of scrutiny that goes in. So you are taking people who may not have a fragile emotional state to begin with, but are joining into this process. And at some point, there is something that happens between the addiction of the attention and the addiction of all of that glamour that they feel get in and then the drop-off.

So if they are not fragile, they get to be fragile, and then you've got an outcome that isn't always good. So it's not using damaged people.

WAXMAN: Can I make one more point? Hang on, Howie. Can I make one more point? Which is that the producers sometimes, sometimes, not every time, but they will goad people into saying things that they later regret. And when they -- because they want drama. So they will heighten tension -- we all know that we call that "Franken-editing," "Franken-biting" process.

It has been written about for a lot of years, where they make situations that aren't very dramatic appear to be dramatic. And they actually create storylines out of the editing process.

But they also goad people to get the tension. Another story that we are working on is the use of alcohol on these sets and how they get people drunk on a lot of the dating shows. We have that story, we are going to be -- we are working on that story to get people to go on the record to talk about it. These are real issues.

KURTZ: OK. We have a no-alcohol policy on this program. David Perel, some of these were rejected candidates. And I don't see how you blame the shows for that. But if what Sharon is saying is right, and it has been written about as kind of an open secret, then how is it that the media haven't provided more scrutiny of these very popular programs? Do they just kind of give them a pass and treat them as entertainment?

PEREL: I think they do give them a pass. And I think that everybody knows there's very little reality on these reality shows. They are scripted. And everybody has to fit into a category. Otherwise, if you have a bunch of mentally stable people, you're going to have boring TV. Nobody is going to watch it.

KURTZ: And in that sense, David -- in that sense, David, is the audience complicit in all of this? They tune in in large numbers, in part, why, to see people be humiliated?

PEREL: I think absolutely. You know, there are certain shows where you watch and you see people make fools of themselves, and you laugh, and it gets big ratings, and it encourages TV, which is a medium that's known to be a copycat medium, to go ahead and produce another show like that.

So I believe that answer is in the pre-screening, and really weeding out the people who do have emotional problems -- severe emotional problems, because video is unforgiving. And once you get these people on TV, you can ruin their lives.

KURTZ: Charles Sophy, you have -- as I mentioned at the top, have been on "Celebrity Rehab." So to some degree aren't you a participant in this sort of genre?

SOPHY: Well, I can tell you, from my own personal experience on "Celebrity Rehab, the integrity that I feel should be there is there 99 percent of the time. The screening tests that are done on all of the contestants or the celebrities before they get accepted onto the show, and then psychiatric evaluation and treatment that they get throughout the show keeps that within a stable boundary and really raises awareness if something is going awry.

So I think that's having...

KURTZ: But not a typical -- I mean, that's a show about medical treatment of celebrities -- or washed up celebrities.

SOPHY: Right, yes.

KURTZ: On an typical program where people are on an island eating worms or whatever, then they are not getting any medical treatment, are they?

SOPHY: They are not getting it, that's absolutely right. They're not getting what they need probably to begin with to know if they're appropriate for that show. And they are not getting the support they need as they unravel during that show.

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, Charles Sophy, and David Perel, thanks very much for joining us.

SOPHY: Thank you.

PEREL: Thank you.

WAXMAN: Thank you.


KURTZ: And after the break, no laughing matter, why David Letterman took so long to apologize to Sarah Palin. If only you would have listened to me, Dave.


KURTZ: I told you last week, he had to apologize. "Dave," I said, "you're in a hole. Stop digging." But did he listen? No.

Finally, this week, David Letterman told Sarah Palin he was sorry.


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": One awkward moment, though, during...


KURTZ: If he had only said she looked like a slutty flight attendant, Letterman probably could have skated. But when the CBS comedian joked about Palin's daughter being "knocked up" at a Yankee game by Alex Rodriguez, whether he meant 18-year-old Bristol or 14- year-old Willow, it really was indefensible.

But most of the media establishment didn't see it that way. Major newspapers ignored the controversy. Hey, journalists like Dave. It's just comedy, they said. Some even said all the buzz would help him beat Conan O'Brien.


JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: I think a joke about Bristol Palin is actually fair game.



(UNKNOWN): She's an adult, and the Palin family should get over the joke.



(UNKNOWN): It was a joke, Sarah, just a joke.


KURTZ: By and large, it was conservatives who said Letterman had unfairly (inaudible) the Alaska governor.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: And that is our headline this Friday night, "Letterman's Shame."



(UNKNOWN): But I think he looks like a jerk.



ELISABETH HASSELBECK: And when I realized that he had the wrong daughter, oh, he's not a jerk; he's just being an ignorant jerk to say something like that.


KURTZ: Letterman belatedly admitted he had gone too far.


LETTERMAN: But the joke, really, in and of itself, can't -- can't be defended. The next day, people are outraged. They're angry at me because they said, how could you make a lousy joke like that about the 14-year-old girl who was at the ball game?

And I had honestly no idea that the 14-year-old girl -- I had no idea that anybody was at the ball game except the governor. And I was told, at the time, that she was there with Rudy Giuliani.

I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed. And my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke.


KURTZ: The plain fact is that Letterman was losing the P.R. war. You can say just about anything about a politician, and, yes, Palin put her family out there during the campaign. But jokes about kids, especially sexual jokes, should be off-limits, period. And I'm glad David Letterman finally realized that. Still to come, harassing Heidi. The annoying MTV pseudo- celebrities who claim they got roughed up on "The Today Show" by Al Roker?


KURTZ: Like me, you may not care all that much about Heidi and Spencer Pratt, or "Speidi," who star on MTV's "The Hills" and recently said, "Get me out of her" to the reality show "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here." But they clearly think a lot of themselves and were rather miffed when NBC's Al Roker interviewed them and, get this, had the temerity to ask some hard questions.


AL ROKER, HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": Are you proud of all of this?

HEIDI PRATT, ACTRESS: It was a very hard situation. I think, when you go to the jungle...

ROKER: No, the answer -- are you proud of this?

H. PRATT Am I proud of what?

ROKER: Of what you -- the way you guys behaved in this program?

H. PRATT: I mean, I'm not ashamed.

ROKER: This behavior -- I mean, this is not going to continue once -- now that you're off the show, is it? I mean, are you going to -- there -- you say "villain;" some people "jerk." I mean...

SPENCER PRATT: Tomato, tomato.


KURTZ: What was Heidi's rather mature reaction?

She said women should stay away from Al Roker. Really. The couple was still fuming when TMZ caught up with them.


S. PRATT: I think it's rough being the weatherman. You know, they're always having to tell people whether it's going to be raining or cloud, and, you know, I felt like he had to take it out on Speidi.

H. PRATT: He was a little angry and aggressive with me. And I don't appreciate that, especially with the morning show. And I pray for him.


KURTZ: Roker said on his Twitter page that maybe their 15 minutes was almost up.

And on "The Today Show," he said they probably weren't used to handling a real question and didn't quite know how to handle it.

Here's my two cents.

Hey, big MTV stars, you want to go on "The Today Show," you can't expect softballs. Enough with the whining.

And John King, imagine if the politicians you interviewed, afterwards, ran to TMZ and said, "Oh, John King was so unfair with me."

KING: I like that. That's a slogan. I think I need to get a bumper sticker, "Enough with the whining." I think that's a -- you could make some money on that, Howie.

KURTZ: I'll make sure I do that.


Back to you, John.

KING: All right. You have a great rest of your Sunday. Happy Father's Day.