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Interview With Michael Mullen; Reliable Sources

Aired July 5, 2009 - 10:00   ET


KING: I'm John King and this is our STATE OF THE UNION report for this Sunday, July 5th. Just as U.S. troops pull back from their most dangerous operations in Iraq cities, President Obama orders a major new military offensive in Afghanistan. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen is here to map out the latest in both wars and to discuss the risk of escalating the fight against the Taliban.

More than a week after his death, the saga of singer Michael Jackson is still dominating the headlines. Is it time for the media to pull back? Howard Kurtz and top reporters dissect coverage of the Jackson drama.

And Sarah Palin decides to step down as Alaska's governor. Donna Brazile, Ed Rollins and Bill Bennett are here to talk about her political future, the economy and much more. That's all ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.


KING: U.S. marines in Afghanistan are in the early days of perhaps the riskiest military operation since President Obama became commander in chief 167 days ago. The push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan is the first major test of the president's new Afghan war strategy. So far, one marine has been killed, several others wounded in the offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, an opium rich area critical to the Taliban. The escalation in Afghanistan comes just as the United States looks to shrink its footprint in Iraq, meeting with some trepidation, last week's June 30th deadline to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

Here to help us with those challenges and more is America's highest ranking military officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen. Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION, Admiral. I want to thank you for starting at the magic wall so you can take us up close. And let's begin in Afghanistan. I want you to feel free to step up to the map wall and show us exactly where these marines are fighting and as you do, sir, explain who is the enemy here. Is it just the Taliban or a mix of Taliban or al Qaeda?

MULLEN: Good morning, John, it's good to be with you. Well, as you indicated, we've recently put in about 10,000 additional marines into Afghanistan, and most of them are in the south.

And as it shows here on the map and this is the capital of Kabul, down here in Helmand is where they're really focused. And I'll take you up close down into Helmand where the fighting is really going on. MULLEN: And you can see specifically in this area of Garmsir, as well as Khan Neshin, which is where the Marines are engaged. But what cuts through there is this river, that Helmand River that -- the whole river valley. And this is really the most concentrated area for opium growing, and we expect significant combat challenges with respect to the Taliban, who have been there. And we haven't been able to both clear -- defeat them and then clear the area. And it's this extra footprint of Marines I think that will allow us to not just secure the area for the Afghan people, but also hold it so that we can develop it and start to move in the right direction economically and from a governance perspective.

KING: In terms of resistance -- sir, I'm sorry for interrupting -- but in terms of the resistance the Marines have faced in the early days, is it what you expected? Or are you concerned that the Taliban are melting into the countryside, if you will, and hiding because they know you're there?

MULLEN: Well, I think generally it's what we expected. There has been some of that.

There's actually been some pretty tough fighting as well. All of that really ties into the expectations that we have.

This has been a Taliban stronghold for a significant period of time. It's grown over the last two or three years. And so what the Marines are there for is to really concentrate on that, clear that area -- I'm sorry, defeat the Taliban that's there, clear it, and then hold it so that, again, we can start to build.

And we think it's going to be a pretty tough fight for, you know, a fair amount of time. You know, weeks to months, certainly, at least.

KING: Weeks to months.

And as you push in that area, one of the concerns, sir, I know you have is that if you look to the south, you see Pakistan. And even in "The Washington Post" this morning, you know, an officer quoted as saying that the Pakistanis on that side of the border do not seem to be cooperating, at least to the point that he would expect.

You recently, in a military briefing, called Pakistan the safe haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban. How concerned are you that even if you are successful as you want to be in the Helmand Province, if they simply melt across the border into Pakistan, what then? MULLEN: Well, I think that's a fair assessment of the concerns. We've worked this pretty hard with both the Afghan military leadership, as well as the Pakistani military leadership.

And, in fact, the Pakistan military has moved out aggressively in the last couple of months, had some successes, and expressed concerns that our interaction with the Taliban now, down here in the south, is going to push more insurgents towards -- into Pakistan. And so from the standpoint of both understanding what the possibilities are and the preparations, I think we're in pretty good shape. We've actually had several meetings, trilateral meetings of the military leadership in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but we recognize there is going to be tension and we're going to have to work our way through that.

KING: And you talked about this could be weeks or months for this fight. I want your assessment of the broader picture in Afghanistan in the context of what I would call potentially mixed signals on troop levels in Afghanistan in the past week.

General Jones was quoted in a McClatchy newspaper article as saying, "The troops that are there are the troops the mission is going to get." And sir, you were quoted in "The Washington Post" as saying that if General McChrystal says he needs more, you will go to the president and say, "Mr. President, we need to send more."

Are you concerned at all that there's a mixed message in terms of what it will take in Afghanistan?

MULLEN: Well, I think General Jones and I and the president are all on the same page in terms of what we have to do now. President Obama has committed these troops, they're arriving as we speak, and will through the rest of this year.

General McChrystal, who is the new military leader in Afghanistan, is going through a 60-day assessment. His guidance from me and from Secretary Gates is make your assessment, come back and tell us what you need. Make sure that every troop we've got there is somebody that we absolutely have to have, and then based on your assessment, we'll look at future requirements. And all of us are on the same page with respect to that view and his intent.

KING: I'm going to ask you one last question on Afghanistan, sir.

Who is the enemy, and how many are there? Is it Taliban, is it a mix of Taliban and al Qaeda?

MULLEN: What I've seen in the last couple of years is a merging of both al Qaeda and Taliban. It sort of gets summed up in this "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." And we've seen leaders from these organizations move together in a federated way.

So, in ways, it's both. And al Qaeda is supportive of the Taliban. As far as the exact numbers are concerned, it's hard to pin that down, but they're significant, they're growing, and it's the kind of insurgency that the additional troops that were put in there has to get at so we can actually focus on providing security.

It's less about -- as General McChrystal said, it's less about killing the enemy than it is providing security and protecting Afghan civilians. And that's really the thrust. That's what we're trying to do right now.

KING: I want to ask you, sir, to shift over.


KING: I know you have a map of Iraq as well there. If you can pull that up for me, a pretty big week in Iraq.

The deadline on June 30th to get out of the Iraqi cities. And as you pull the map up now, I wonder if you can play for me the video that shows our footprint before and our footprint after.

MULLEN: Sure, John.

This is obviously Baghdad, and you can see in the middle where our footprint was. And now, actually in the outskirts here, indicated here and here, is where we've moved our forces.

And we really are out of the cities now. We've moved our forces outside the main cities. You can see here, outside Baghdad, where we have our cities, and we're in support of the Iraqi security forces.

I mean, big transition. We've actually been coming out of the cities for the last eight months. We're at a period of time where we're in support of the Iraqi security forces.

We've reached a very clear agreement with the Iraqi political military leadership, with their military leadership, on how this was going to work. And I'm confident in what I've seen so far that us moving out of the cities has been a very positive step. So I'm really encouraged based on what I see.

KING: Very encouraged. And we're happy to hear that, sir.

I want you to listen quickly to a little snippet from the former vice president, Dick Cheney, who is among those voicing their concern that because they knew this deadline was approaching, that perhaps the enemy in Iraq has just decided to wait it out.


RICHARD CHENEY, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It would look like, one might speculate, that the insurgents are waiting. And as soon as they get an opportunity, they'll begin to launch more attacks. I hope that's not the case.


KING: Are you seeing any evidence of that, Admiral, that the insurgents simply knew the U.S. troops would be pulling out, and they're regrouping, taking their time and waiting? MULLEN: Well, we've expected for some time that this is a -- in a period of transition like this, that the insurgents could very well do this. We've seen no indication that there's any -- that they're looking to or we're seeing a trend towards the kind of sectarian violence which was so prevalent a couple of years ago. We have had an uptick in some major -- what we call high-profile attacks, but June of this year was the lowest level of violence since the war started.

I think General Odierno has spoken out about this. He's very pleased with how this transition has started, and again, it's just five days old right now. So we're very focused on it and we're very aware of this period of vulnerability. But up until now, it's gone pretty well.

KING: And 130,000, roughly, Americans in Iraq right now, due to be down to 50,000, sir, by about a year from now. And then, ultimately, all those troops out unless the Iraqis request more to stay by the end of the 2011.

Any reason -- you mentioned it's only five days. Any reason at this point to think that schedule will not be kept?

MULLEN: No, not that I'm aware of right now. And clearly, we have an agreement with Iraq to have all troops out by the end of 2011.

The focus area now is this obviously -- sustaining this security, and then focusing on the elections, which are the beginning of next year. That's the next really big event, and the politics associated with that are critical. And most of the issues right now are for the political leadership in Iraq to resolve.

So we focus on the January time frame. After January, we see a significant drawdown of our troops getting to 35,000 to 50,000 in about the August time frame, a little over a year from now. And from everything I see right now, we're on track.

KING: All right. Admiral Mullen, I'd like to invite you to take a seat and be more comfortable so we can continue our conversation.

MULLEN: OK. Thank you, John.

KING: And when we come back, more with Admiral Mullen on the upcoming trip by the president to Russia, tensions with Iran, and whether it is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the military.

Stay with us.


KING: We're back with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Admiral, you just showed us on the map there what you think is the strategic situation in Iraq. I want to talk to you a little bit about the images we saw this past week.

As the United States kept its promise and kept that deadline and pulled out, there were celebrations in the streets. Iraqi citizens celebrating the U.S. troops moving out of the city, many of them calling those troops occupiers.

And in a statement, Prime Minister Maliki focused on the Iraqi government, saying, "The national united government succeeded in putting down the sectarian war that was threatening the unity and the sovereignty of Iraq."

People in the streets calling your troops occupiers. The prime minister not thanking them in his speech. I'm just wondering -- to the parents, the spouses and the siblings of the more than 4,300 Americans who have given their lives so far so those people had the rights to be in the streets demonstrating, so that Prime Minister Maliki could have a democratic government, what kind of message does it send to them when the Iraqi government speaks like that?

MULLEN: Well, John, I've said many times I'm very proud to lead the best military I've ever been associated with in the over 40 years that I've been wearing the uniform. The 2.2 million men and women are just spectacular. And their sacrifices are truly extraordinary, including those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And when I look at that celebration, that's actually how I look at it. Here's a country that two years ago, was in very, very bad shape, spinning out of the control, and it was really because of the dedication of our young men and women and those sacrifices that we're able to turn it around and put the country in a position to have a future that is bright and was indicated, I think, by that celebration. And I know from my engagement with Prime Minister Maliki, as well as the rest of the political and military leadership in Iraq, they're very appreciative of everything that we have done.

KING: I want to move your attention to other challenges. And let's start with North Korea.

North Korea has tested some short-range missiles in recent days -- a provocative act, according to the White House and other governments around the world -- but not the longer-range missiles.

Do you see any indication, sir, in the intelligence that they are preparing, that some had said they might, to test again the Taepodong- 2, the longer-range missile, that if it is successful, could reach Hawaii or even the West Coast of the United States?

MULLEN: Well, much of what the North Korean leadership has said they would do in the past when they talked about things that they would continue to execute, including a possible nuclear test or a long-range missile, certainly there are possible there. I haven't seen any indications of that in recent days. The seven missiles which the leadership fired yesterday, basically into the sea, similar to what they did in 2006.

There were -- those were violations of United Nations Security Council resolution. They continue to do that. They continue to thumb their nose at the international community. And I think the international community, which has been bound very tightly together to include Russia and China, needs to -- and putting additional pressure on the North Korean leadership, that needs to continue and those sanctions need to be enforced.

KING: You mentioned China there, sir. Both you and Secretary Gates have spoken in recent days about your conversations with your South Korean counterparts, your conversations with your Japanese counterparts about what to do to respond to the North Koreans. But both of you have also said there have been no military conversations with the Chinese, who are, in the eyes of many, the most player, and who we know sometimes don't like the United States military, the United States Navy showing any muscle in their neighborhood.

Is that a hole in or response to this, that you're not having direct conversations with the Chinese?

MULLEN: We have had some contact. And we're committed to renewal of those military-to-military relationships. We obviously know there are differences and concerns, and what's really important about all this is that we have a dialogue, we are talking, so that we can move this relationship forward in a positive way, and certainly have an ability to communicate so that we don't miscalculate such a sensitive time and critical time in our relationship.

KING: You are off, sir, to Russia, I believe in the day ahead for the president's big summit with the Russian leadership there. On the table, more reductions in the strategic nuclear arsenals of both countries.

As you know, as there is considerable pressure on the president to try and get more Russian help when it comes to Iran, its nuclear program, the political fallout after its election. And several senators, a bipartisan group, sent the president a letter this week saying that they hope he will use his "... visit to Moscow to express the deep concern the United States has over Iran's nuclear program and make it known that Russia should not expect progress on issues of concern to Moscow if it does not take a tougher stance on Iran."

Should the president, in your view, sir, link progress and other issues to better Russian assistance when it comes to Iran's nuclear program?

MULLEN: Well, I'll let the president speak for himself.

We have areas that we have common interests in. Iran certainly is one. Obviously, the area of strategic missiles and the start, discussions that you spoke of. But we've got common interests and agreement in places like Afghanistan. The Russians do not want to see the Taliban take over Afghanistan.

Logistics support for Afghanistan, piracy, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, all those things. So we've got areas that we can discuss thing about, things that are very positive and we can move forward on, and included in that, I'm sure, will be discussions where we differ.

KING: I want to move on, sir, to an issue that comes up from time to time that's very emotional and a tough political arguments, and that is whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the United States military.

You are the nation's highest ranking military office. And at your confirmation hearing two years ago, I want you to listen to this. You said it was the right policy to have "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."


MULLEN: It's a policy that came in at a time -- in a time it was greatly debated at the time that it was actually put in place. I'm supportive of that policy.


KING: You said "supportive" two years ago.

Sir, I sat down in recent days with another gentleman who held your job, retired general Colin Powell, who supported the policy when it was implemented but now says it should be reconsidered.

Let's listen.


COLIN POWELL, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, the policy and the law that came about in 1993 I think was correct for the time. Sixteen years have now gone by, and I think a lot has changed with respect to attitudes within our country. And therefore, I think this is a policy and a law that should be reviewed.


KING: Two questions, sir. And let me start with the advice you give the president.

Do you still believe the policy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" should stay, and is that your advice to the president, even though that is contrary to the promise he made in the campaign?

MULLEN: Well, what General Powell talks about is the policy and, in fact, the law. And with respect to that, we clearly are carrying out both that policy and law, and will continue to do that until it changes.

Secretary Sates spoke recently about reviewing the policy to see if -- to make sure that we were executing it in the most humane way possible. It's very clear what president Obama's intent here is. He intends to see this law change.

And in my advice, you know, I've had conversations with him about that. What I've discussed in terms of the future is I think we need to move in a measured way.

We're at a time where we are fighting two conflicts. There's a great deal of pressure on our forces and their families. And yet, again, the strategic intent is clear.

And if we get -- and I am internally discussing that with my staff on how to move forward and what the possible implementation steps could be. I haven't done any kind of extensive review. And what I feel most obligated about is to make sure I tell the president, you know, my -- give the president my best advice, should this law change, on the impact on our people and their families at these very challenging times.

KING: I want to close, sir, on this July 4th weekend with an issue that I know is very close to you and I know it's of much concern at the Pentagon. And that is the care for the wounded warriors coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world.

You recently sent a memo to Secretary Gates after a trip to talk to military men and women about this, and the suicide rate is up, alcohol use is up, the divorce rate is up. You mentioned at Fort Hood there are only eight soldiers at a time allowed in the mental health symptoms classes. Fifty thousand troops are on that base at any given time.

What message does the president need to hear, the Congress need to hear, and, in fact, the American people need to hear, perhaps, sir, about what more needs to be done to make sure that these men and women coming home get everything they need? MULLEN: Well, I think leaders throughout the land and throughout communities in our country need to reach out and make sure that we are meeting the needs of these great, young Americans who sacrificed so much. And not just the military members, but their families. And while we've made a lot of progress in the last several years, we still have an awful long way to go.

There's a great deal we don't know about the combat stress, Post- Traumatic Stress. There's a great deal we don't know about the signature wounds of traumatic brain injury, whether it's mild or severe.

And in fact, young people, young families want to contribute to society. They still have dreams, and those dreams include getting to school, sending their kids to school, having a good job for both members of their family, and hopefully being able to own a home someday. And I think all of us in America need to pay this -- or repay this debt, that they've done so much for us, and do it in a way to make sure that they're in great shape for the rest of their lives.

KING: Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sir, thanks for spending time with us this morning.

MULLEN: Thank you, John.

KING: Take care, sir.

KING: And still ahead, Howard Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES tackle the media frenzy over Michael Jackson's death.


KING: I'm John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION.

Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

Two monorail trains crashed at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, this morning. One drivers killed. In a statement, Disney officials say the monorail has been shut down and the company is working with law enforcement officials to determine just what happened. Officials stress no Disney guests were seriously injured in that crash.

An autopsy is scheduled today on the body of former NFL quarterback Steve McNair. He was found shot to death yesterday in a Nashville condominium.

Police say he had been shot multiple times, including once in the head. The body of a young woman was found lying nearby with a single gunshot wound. Police say they are not actively looking for suspects.

Michael Jackson fans will soon find out if they're going to the singer's memorial service Tuesday in Los Angeles. Registration to win tickets ended last night with 1.6 million people signing up. Officials will eliminate all duplicates and suspect entries and hold a random drawing; 8,750 winners will receive an e-mail notification later today.

South Korea says missiles test-fired by North Korea are likely capable of hitting government and military targets in the south. Pyongyang tested-fired seven short-range missiles toward the Sea of Japan yesterday. Vice President Joe Biden called the missile launches attention-seeking behavior.

That and much more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

But first, after the break, Howie Kurtz and his "Reliable Sources."


KURTZ: Michael Jackson's death has become an absolute gold mine for the news business. Days after the initial shock wore off, the morning shows and the cable networks, led by CNN, seemed to crank up the volume even higher. The nightly newscasts joining the fray as well.

Hey, the ratings are good, let's have more Michael Jackson. Let's have wall-to-wall Jackson.

This, in my view, is getting out of control.

Now, there have been some newsworthy developments in recent days about Jackson's will, about the custody fight for his children, about who is the father of two of the children -- it's not the "King of Pop," it's his doctor, at least according to unnamed sources cited by "US Weekly." But much of the rest is just stirring the pot, cooking up angles about Jackson's use of drugs, Jackson's state of mind, Jackson's friends, his hangers-on, anything to keep feeding the fixation.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now more on the investigation into the death of Michael Jackson. CHARLES GIBSON, ABC ANCHOR: Michael Jackson's has put a new spotlight on the use and abuse of prescription drugs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The pop star's father insists he and his wife will be taking care of the children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now to the latest on the Michael Jackson investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's some debate about whether or not Michael was using painkillers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Jackson's will, how much he's worth, who gets the money, and one big bombshell...

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": Michael Jackson is reportedly not his kids' biological father, but we may know who is. MONICA CROWLEY, FOX NEWS: There have been reports over decades that Joe Jackson, the father, had beat the living daylights out of these kids, and especially Michael.

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": When we come back, I'm going to take you into Michael Jackson's private bedroom. And I'm going to show you what we found, a secret room.


KURTZ: So is this news infotainment, or just plain pandering?

Joining us now in Los Angeles, Sharon Waxman, founder and editor- in-chief of; Don Lemon, a CNN anchor who has been reporting this story since it broke; and here in Washington, David Zurawik, television and media critic for "The Baltimore Sun."

Sharon Waxman, right now, much of the day, on the mornings shows, cable news, led by CNN, this is treated as the most important story in the world. Is it?

SHARON WAXMAN, FOUNDER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THEWRAP.COM: It's the most important story for getting ratings in the world right now. And it's the summer, and it's quiet, and we've probably had enough of the president for a while, because we've been gorged on presidential news since before the election. And this is absolute, cannot-be-avoided stories. I am not surprised at all to see wall-to-wall coverage.

KURTZ: "Cannot-be-avoided," that's a very apt phrase.

Don Lemon, you've been out there in L.A. reporting on this story. You've interviewed Joe Jackson, the father, the assistant chief coroner, and that's great. You've also been doing endless live shots and devoted most of your Saturday and Sunday evening program to this.

Don't you feel deep down that this is overdoing it?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: No, I don't feel it's overdoing it. And I don't -- and when I hear people say that, I have to be very honest with you, Howie, I think it's elitist.

I don't remember -- I'm sure there was some criticism when there was the coverage of Princess Diana's death, but I don't think that there was this sort of criticism that we're having with Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson is an accidental civil rights leader, an accidental pioneer. He broke ground and barriers in so many different realms in artistry, in pictures, in movies, in music, you name it. So, no, I don't think it's overkill.

KURTZ: OK. He did all of those things. He also was accused of child molestation, and was a seriously weird person. But he has been dead for more than a week and we are still going almost wall-to-wall.

LEMON: Well, he has been dead for more than a week, yes, but Michael Jackson twice -- well, once, I should say, he was acquitted of child molestation. The other time it was settled out of court.

KURTZ: Right.

LEMON: And if you talk to people who were involved in those cases, they don't believe that he did it. So let's put that aside.

Yes, he has been dead for more than a week, and that's why this story is still front page news. It's still, you know, in the A-block of newscasts.

We don't know how he died. There are lots of questions about how he died.


KURTZ: I want to come back to that. I want to get David in. I would differ with you, I think it's the A-block, the B-block, the C- block, the D-block, and the E-block.

David Zurawik, I've been saving some tape for you. This is CNN coverage of one day earlier this week on a number of news shows in the afternoon and evening.

Let's roll that.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: A striking new voice in Michael Jackson's death with a shocking story to tell, a nurse who says that Jackson repeatedly asked her about a powerful IV anesthesia drug.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": The children, were they really his?

CAMPBELL BROWN, HOST, "CAMPBELL BROWN: NO BIAS, NO BULL": Tonight, up-to-the-minute developments in the Michael Jackson investigation.

KITTY PILGRIM, GUEST HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Tonight, breaking news on Michael Jackson's estate and his children.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, he was in rehearsal and planning to reaffirm his claim to the title "King of Pop." But was he ready? It depends on who you ask.


KURTZ: And that's just one day.

Now, CNN is usually the network that exercises some restraint on these big tabloidy stories.

What happened?

DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": Howie, first of all, I really -- this may shock you, but I don't think the coverage has been excessive. And when we get to the Staples Center on Tuesday, we're going to have 12 days now.

This is beyond a state funeral. And yet...


KURTZ: Why is it not excessive, in your view?

ZURAWIK: I think, you know, in pop culture, in cultural studies, they say that the size of a star, the importance to the culture, is in direct proportion to how they embody contradictions within the culture. Nobody, not Marilyn Monroe, not Lucille Ball, not Elvis, embodied as many contradictions as Michael Jackson does.

Family, we want to think family is a nice place. He had a troubled family, a (inaudible) family.

Childhood. Childhood, a time of innocence, not for him.

Most of all, race. He embodies the contradictions in race in our culture like nobody else. And I think...


ZURAWIK: ... we can't walk away from Michael because until we -- until we resolve him for ourselves. Of course, we're not going to resolve him, but we don't want to let him go until we resolve some of that.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Sharon.

LEMON: He's right. He's...


KURTZ: One at a time.

WAXMAN: I don't think it has to do resolving any conflicts whatsoever. I think there is a number of things that are going on here.

One is he is a worldwide story. In the age of the Internet, what we looked at, at "The Wrap," is we're looking at kind of the media coverage of sort of glut -- sort of media coverage. It's not just television.

The first couple of days, it was an Internet story. You had online news organizations, including ours, including tiny ones like ours, or relatively small ones like ours. And the big ones, portals like Yahoo!, who had the biggest traffic they'd ever had in their lives, in their history...

KURTZ: Sure.

WAXMAN: ... on the day -- the day after Michael Jackson died.

So people around the world, that has become anybody anywhere in the world -- and we were getting comments from Dubai, from Malaysia, Indonesia, in French. It was just unbelievable...


KURTZ: OK. Let me jump in here because I want to toss a question to Don. Hold on here.

The first couple of days, you know, the explosion of coverage, I have no problem. This was an unexpected death of one of the most famous and controversial people on the planet. And it was a guy whose music touched so many millions and all of that.


LEMON: Not one of the most famous. The most famous.

KURTZ: OK. The most famous, fine.

Once you get to day six, seven, eight, nine, we are basically awash on the airwaves with repetition and speculation.

Your thoughts?

LEMON: No, I don't think so, because our lead story today was Iran and Iraq on CNN. And it's going to be that way until Tuesday, until this goes. So it hasn't been -- it has not been the lead story every single day.

KURTZ: Don, if you look at the at the summation of the past week, certainly occasionally CNN has covered Iran, occasionally has covered Iraq. There was also a big U.S. incursion against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the lion's share of the hours, and the reason that you're not getting any sleep out there in L.A. is because it's all Jackson.

LEMON: But Howard, you have to look at it -- we spend lots of time covering Iran and Iraq. And I agree with you, we should cover those important stories. But this now is the time. There is a time and a place for everything. This is the time and the place for the Michael Jackson coverage.

And I do have to say that your guests are absolutely right. If you look at race, African-Americans are following this coverage.

Eight in 10 African-Americans are tuning in not only to broadcast medium, but also on Twitter, on Facebook, on the social mediums, on Yahoo!. As Sharon mentioned, everywhere. They want to find coverage of Michael Jackson.

This is the quintessential American story. You have poor families...

WAXMAN: Not just Americans, it's a world culture story.

LEMON: Yes, who -- a poor family who came from Gary, Indiana, raised -- nothing, poor, came and made -- you know, became millionaires and became the biggest star in the world, and touched people socially, culturally, civilly, politically.

And he was an accidental civil rights leader, and as they say...


KURTZ: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Let me get control here.

Since Don mentioned the numbers, I want to put up the poll.

Let me get David, then I'll come back to you, Sharon.

A Pew Research poll this week found the coverage of Michael Jackson's death, overall, 64 percent say too much, for all of you who are telling me this is earth-shattering, 29 percent say right about, and three percent, who apparently want it directly injected it into their veins, say too little.


KURTZ: But then if you go to the racial breakdown, there is a very interesting split here, David Zurawik. Blacks, 36 percent say too much. Whites, 70 percent.

ZURAWIK: Oh, I think it's absolutely true. And eight out of 10 African-Americans say they're following this story very closely.

Howie, I think that makes an absolute difference. And I would disagree, especially in connection with race, to say we're just playing stuff over, they're just repeating it.

You know, this week, one night last week, one night, I heard Katie Couric interviewing Spike Lee. It was a "48 Hours," by the way, it got over eight million viewers. You know when you say, come on, enough already? No, she asked him about race, and she asked him about the BET Awards, and Jamie Foxx saying that Michael Jackson belonged to African-Americans.

We're having a very good conversation about race within this context.

KURTZ: OK. Well, we also had Matt Lauer...

WAXMAN: There's another issue too.


KURTZ: I was just going to say you also had Matt Lauer and Larry King at Neverland interviewing Jermaine Jackson.

But Sharon, you wanted to get in, so let me give you the floor.

WAXMAN: Well, I wanted to make another point. Yes, that secret room had long been known about and viewed and seen and all the rest...


KURTZ: You're saying it wasn't a secret? Really?


WAXMAN: Hello? Thank you.

But no, I wanted to make a different point, which is, it just reminds me in a way of when John Lennon was -- died, was murdered so suddenly. And I remember being a young person at that time and thinking I was surprised at the overwhelming amount of media coverage at that time. So I wonder if there isn't some generational thing...


KURTZ: That may be true. But let me ask you this, Sharon, because you worked for "The New York Times," you've also worked for "The Washington Post." Now, those newspapers are -- and others, are certainly covering the Jackson story, but they're covering a lot of other things as well.

And the only other story that is getting anything near traction on television is the tale of Mark Sanford and his Argentine soul mate and the other women he may or may not have crossed the line with because, why? Because it involved sex.

So as you said at the top, is there really any way -- would we really be going so crazy over what you all say is the cultural and political and musical significance of Michael Jackson if the numbers weren't big?

WAXMAN: No, I don't think we would be. I think it's absolutely -- this is a ratings story, this is about business. And it's easy. I mean, it's an easy decision for every news network to make. Absolutely.

ZURAWIK: Howie, The numbers are astronomical. Howie, the answer...

LEMON: They are.

ZURAWIK: ... is, just as Sharon said, no, we wouldn't if it wasn't -- if it weren't these kinds of numbers in the summer -- you know, you can do eight million with "48 Hours" in the summer? Well, let's do it again tomorrow night!

KURTZ: All right. CNN won the...

LEMON: Yes, but the numbers reflect a direct interest in the people from this story. And part of being a news organization, part of covering news is covering the public interest. And people are interested in the story.

KURTZ: I'm going to challenge that. And here's what I say. There is no question there is a lot of public interest in this story. I mean, CNN won the...

WAXMAN: Yes, difference between public interest and the public interest. Not the same.

KURTZ: Well, I wasn't even going to go there.

WAXMAN: Public interest or the public interest.

KURTZ: CNN won the first couple of nights in the cable competition. And I'm sure executives, and this is a presumption on my part, said, let's keep doing this, the numbers are really good. That "breaking news" banner has been up there for hours and hours and hours.

But Don Lemon, you know that in cable, if the average audience at any given time might be, say, one million, and suddenly two million are tuning in, the producers are popping champagne corks. But that doesn't mean the whole country is fixated on this. And judging from comments on my Facebook page and elsewhere, there are a lot of people who really love CNN and its dedication to news who think this is just too much.

LEMON: Well, I'm not denying that. It is a business. I mean, come on, let's be real about it. I don't think that anyone, any producer or reporter has had a chance to pop a champagne cork later. That may come on Wednesday when this is all done.


LEMON: But at this point, no, no one has had a chance to do that.

But yes, I think that, you know, as I said, we do have to realize that it is a business. And had the numbers not been as much, I don't know if we would have covered it as much. But there is a public interest, and you cannot deny that Michael Jackson is a huge figure. And as I said...


KURTZ: I'm not denying that at all.

LEMON: And I'm not -- listen, Howie, and I'm not a Michael Jackson apologist or sympathizer, what have you. I mean, I criticize him just as much as the next guy. And I believe that we should tell his whole story, which includes a controversy as well, as journalists.

But we do, at this point, have to remember that a person is dead. And as my mom says, don't speak ill of the dead. We have to remember that we are remembering this person's legacy and not just all of the bad things about him. But yes, there is a business interest in this, but we have to gauge that business interest as well with what the public is interested in.

KURTZ: I agree.

WAXMAN: Well, there's another thing also. We've spent a lot of years beating up on Michael Jackson, and I was -- I covered them both -- many aspects of beating up on him, business-wise, and the child molestation thing. And what I think we're realizing in all of this is, hey, he was actually a good -- a nice person. And I can't say how many people...

LEMON: A real person.

ZURAWIK: Howie, I can't wait for Tuesday.

WAXMAN: I think there is a sense in the media of feeling badly, of regret in the Michael Jackson -- honestly, there is a little bit of that haze of expiation in, gee, he was kind of fantastic.


KURTZ: I've got to stop. I've got to stop. LEMON: If you look at Michael Jackson's story, the family story -- I know you have to go, but yes, this is a story that should be celebrated in more ways as we look at the train wreck aspect of it.

KURTZ: I'm glad that a more balanced portrait of the good and the bad is emerging.

I've got 10 seconds, David Zurawik. How long is it going to go on at this level?

ZURAWIK: Howie, we -- at least through Tuesday. I mean, I'm serious. I can't wait for Tuesday. As a pop culture lover, this is fantastic.

KURTZ: That would be Tuesday of which month?


KURTZ: All right. David Zurawik, Don Lemon, Sharon Waxman, thanks for joining us.

LEMON: We're still covering Diana. Remember that.


KURTZ: And when we come back, the man behind TMZ, which has, let's face it, dominated this Jackson story.

Harvey Levin is next.


KURTZ: TMZ, the gossipy Hollywood Web site, has had its share of big scoops in the last couple of years, but suddenly, with the death of Michael Jackson, it seems to be winning some grudging new respect. The Web site, owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner, not only beat most of its rivals with the news of Jackson's death, but has stayed ahead of the press pack on a number of key developments. And even the biggest news organizations are taking notice.


COOPER: The Web site TMZ reporting a will is to be filed tomorrow.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: is reporting that sources have told it an extremely powerful and dangerous drug used for surgical anesthesia was found at Jackson's home after he died.

CROWLEY: Actually, TMZ is reporting today -- and they've been right on a lot of stuff here on this Michael Jackson case -- that, in fact, Debbie Rowe is not the biological mother and Michael Jackson is not the biological father of any of these kids.


KURTZ: And joining us now from Los Angeles is TMZ's founder and managing editor, Harvey Levin.

So, these days, you're being profiled by the "L.A. Times," "The Washington Post," interviewed by "Nightline."

Are you sure you want this much respect?

HARVEY LEVIN, MANAGING EDITOR, TMZ: Oh, Howie, you're the best.

KURTZ: Don't you like being a rebel?

LEVIN: You know, look, what I like being, honestly, is a journalist. And, you know, we -- the predicate of TMZ is we do everything.

We will do important stories, we'll do silly stories, and we'll do everything in between. And we want to give people a balance and an experience. But my passion is journalism. I did it for 20 years before I did TMZ. And I love, you know, getting into these stories. KURTZ: Let me jump in and ask you this -- the TV networks were still sufficiently wary of your operation that they didn't report it when TMZ said Michael Jackson was dead. They waited for the "L.A. Times" to confirm it.

Did that bother you, surprise you?

LEVIN: Well, no, it actually didn't bother me, but I think it's pretty ironic for two reasons.

Number one, the "L.A. Times" was wrong, Howie. I mean, that's what is funny.

What they ended up doing was they ended up quoting a news operation that got it wrong. They said he was in a coma when he was dead.

KURTZ: Right.

LEVIN: So people who followed the "L.A. Times" followed them down a rabbit hole, as we had already reported that he was dead. So that's number one.

And number two, you know, I think people are kind of, like, over- analyzing this a little bit, because as you know, for the last three and a half years, CNN alone has probably quoted TMZ thousands of times on numerous stories. So it's not like we've just surfaced, by any means.

KURTZ: Right. And by the way, a Web site called "The Enterprise Report" (ph) said it reported Jackson's death even before TMZ.

But look, journalists say they like the site, it's spicy, it's fun, but it's gossip. You can't necessarily trust it, they don't have our standards.

And to your point about having been around the block for a while, why didn't that attitude change after you broke the story about Michael Richards and his racist comedy rant or the story of Mel Gibson and the anti-Semitic drunken rant.

Why has it taken a while for the rest of the media to take you more seriously?

LEVIN: It hasn't. They're just embarrassed about this one, but if you look at what they've done, they've been quoting us all the time. So, you know, if they're saying this, why were they quoting us for the last three and a half years?

When we did the Mel Gibson story, Howie, you guys and everybody else in America quoted us, "cited TMZ." When we broke Heath Ledger's death, you guys quoted us and everybody else did, too. Britney's divorce, on and on and on.

KURTZ: In a way... LEVIN: So, let me just say -- so, really, what this is, is, you know, it's disingenuous and maybe even dishonest, because if you look at it, all the -- look, we embarrassed a lot of people who were way behind on this story. And I don't think they should be embarrassed. I mean, it's enough to say, look, we had good sources, and everybody wanted to be careful. But I think for them to say it is ridiculous, because they've been quoting us for three and a half years.

KURTZ: Well, I don't think it's dishonest is they're attributing the stories to you. But in a way, does...

LEVIN: No, no, no.

KURTZ: Let me ask the question and you can answer.

LEVIN: OK. All right.

KURTZ: In a way, does TMZ make some of these stories safe for the mainstream media, kind of laundering through them through customs? For example, you published the photo of Rihanna, her badly bruised face, after she was beat up by her boyfriend, Chris Brown, and a lot of people -- I raised questions about it. But then everybody else showed the picture and jumped on the story.

LEVIN: Well, I mean, a picture is a picture. But, you know, in terms of other stories we do, how do they know what our news standards are?

I can tell you right now, I was a newsman at CBS and NBC. Our standards are tougher than there.

We have the toughest news standards that you're going to find in America, including, by the way, CNN. I mean, everything we have is lawyered. Everything we have is researched. We have multiple sources. We have this city wired.

I mean, we have a lot of really good sources. But we have the same standard that you guys have.

So the idea that it's gossip and everything else, it's not. It's a fact-based news operation that operates on the same standards that you guys do. And the fact is, if that weren't the case, shame on you guys and everybody else for quoting us all the time.

KURTZ: Well, it's an interesting argument that you say you have higher standards.

But look, when you were at CBS or NBC...

LEVIN: Well, I will say, not with you guys. With you guys, look, you guys really vet things carefully, you guys are really careful. But so are we.

I'm telling you that I've been in the local news business for many, many years. And I've seen things fall through the cracks and have them throw things up where it isn't sourced properly around the newsroom. And it is not the case here. I mean, it is not.

KURTZ: Well, when you were at CBS or you were at NBC, you would have been fired for doing what you do now, which is paying for information, paying for tips. You have no problem with that, I know, because we've talked about it, but it makes a lot of journalists uncomfortable.

LEVIN: Well, no, I didn't -- what I said was, first of all, it's ridiculous. Are you telling me that Larry Birkhead wasn't paid when he went on "The Today Show" and "Access Hollywood"?

I can tell you, it was a million dollars, Howie. That's how much he got paid.

They're paying for interviews, which we would never do. The difference is this -- if you pay for an interview -- which, by the way, we won't -- then you're basically saying to somebody, make the story really good so that it's worth the price. That's when it's unreliable.

If you pay for a photo or video, which, by the way, everybody in this business does, when you have a stringer covering a...


KURTZ: But you also pay for tips. You pay for tips and information.

LEVIN: But we don't put the -- we will occasionally. We don't put the tip up on the screen.

If you get a tip, Howie, how is it less reliable, even if you paid somebody $100 for it, if you're the one that ends up then looking at it and saying is it true, chasing it down? You tell me. What's the problem in terms of the reliability if you do that?

KURTZ: Well, I appreciate the fact that you need to confirm these things. I am still uncomfortable with the idea of money changing hands.

Let me come back to the Jackson story.

Among the things TMZ has broken, we showed at the top Jackson not the biological father of any of his children. His mother -- there was no mother's name on the birth certificate for his youngest son.

How is it with all of these big news organizations now playing on your turf, now covering, some would say overcovering, the Jackson story, that you're still able to be ahead on some of these stories? Are you feeling the heat of the competition now?

LEVIN: Well, look, I mean, competition is intense in this business, absolutely. And I also don't see it as zero-sum game. I think that there are a lot of stories out there. We're certainly not going to break every one. And I think there have been some really good stories and good reporting in this case. So, you know, I don't beat myself if somebody else wins a story.

KURTZ: Right. LEVIN: I will say that I think the advantage we have and one of the reasons we do break so many stories is this is our turf in the sense that we know a lot of these players because we've worked with them day in and day out for years now. And when you have sources and relationships in place, I think it's more effective when something big like this happens in terms of talking to them.

KURTZ: It's definitely your turf. And at the moment, you've got a lot of company on that turf in the rest of the media.

Harvey Levin, thanks very much for joining us.

LEVIN: Sure, Howie.

KURTZ: Still to come, the newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal finds itself caught in a scandal of its own.


KURTZ: There's no other way to put it. "The Washington Post," where I work, made a big, fat blunder this week. The company solicited corporations to pay big bucks from $25,000 to as much as $250,000 to underwrite off the record dinners at the home of post publisher Katharine Weymouth.

Just listen to the pitch on a marketing flyer. "Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders. Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it."

The first such salon was going to be on health care later this month, to be underwritten by $25,000 from Kaiser Permanente, which was close to signing a contract. Soon after "Politico" broke the story, Weymouth told me she hadn't approved the flyers and she junked the idea of the dinners. Marcus Brauchli, the "Post" editor, told me he was appalled and that the newsroom would not participate.

Well, it was a horrible idea, an unmitigated embarrassment for the newspaper, selling access to administration officials and congressmen? Other big media outfits, the "Wall Street Journal," the "Atlantic," the "New Yorker," to name a few, stage forums and festivals with top government officials and CEOs and accept many thousands of dollars from corporations to pay for them. But, here's the difference. Most of those affairs are on the road and open to media coverage. Having lobbyists and conglomerates underwrite small, off the record dinners doesn't smell right, and I'm glad the idea was quickly deep sixed.

That will do it for this edition of "Reliable Sources." Now back to John King for more "State of the Union."