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Reliable Sources

Aired November 1, 2009 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: The forgotten war is forgotten no more. Afghanistan rocketed back into the news this week for one fundamental reason. More Americans were dying -- more, in fact, than in any month since the invasion eight years ago.

After years of all but ignoring the war while focusing on Iraq, American news organizations are suddenly all over the Afghan story, as President Obama wrestles with the question of whether to send more troops and President Karzai's rival today dropping out of the run-off.

It's no coincidence that NBC's Brian Williams went to Kabul this week for the first time since the Taliban were toppled. It is again the center of media attention.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: Behind us is one of the F-15s that patrols the skies above here. The city of Kabul was the scene of a very serious attack here today, and the day started with some very bad news that has a lot of people in this region on edge.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Tonight, terrible toll. Roadside bombs kill eight more U.S. soldiers.

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: Major shift in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are engaging the enemy more aggressively now, and more Americans are dying as a result.


KURTZ: And while journalists risk their lives in the field, the armchair generals back home began debating the president's conundrum.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: You have to send 40,000 troops. Like Iraq, you've got to give it one more push to stabilize the situation.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that there are no good choices, but the least bad choice, I think, is to bring the troops home.


KURTZ: So how will the coverage affect the conflict, ,and how dangerous is it to cover this seemingly endless war? Joining us now Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor for "The Washington Post," who is just back from Afghanistan two weeks ago. It was his fourth trip this year. Terry Smith, former media correspondent for "The News Hour" on PBS. And Barbara Starr, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, who was in Afghanistan in April and is heading back soon.

Rajiv, for all the renewed focus on Afghanistan, when you've gone there, have you tripped over a whole lot of American correspondents?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Not a lot at all. You know, I was in Baghdad in 2003, when U.S. forces arrived in that country, and there were probably upwards of, you know, newspaper reporters from 18 different American papers. Every single television network had a bureau there with multiple correspondents.

Today, I mean, it's "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" that have permanent bureaus there. CNN has a presence, but other American networks sort of rotate in and out. It is still a story that is getting much less coverage than Iraq was early on.

KURTZ: Is that part of the danger? David Rohde of "The New York Times" recently writing this five-part series, chilling series about his kidnapping ordeal. Is it in part because of the danger, or also the cost?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think, you know, danger is certainly an element, but Baghdad was very dangerous for many years. I think it has to do with costs. And U.S. news organizations, at this point, are just not as willing to shell out the money it takes to maintain the sort of presence that I think they need to have in Iraq.

KURTZ: And Terry Smith, what is the fundamental reason, in your view, why this is again a big story, after years of neglect by the American media?

TERRY SMITH, FMR. MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEWS HOUR," PBS: Well, I think it reflects the administration as well. Afghanistan was the forgotten country. Attention was diverted to Iraq.

News media attention went with it. Now it's back, and rightly so. Now it's a living room war again just as Vietnam was, or a computer screen war, if you like. It's in people's living rooms and it's in their minds, and it's not a pretty sight.

KURTZ: Barbara Starr, CNN, I think, does more international coverage than other cable networks. But you look at last year and the year before, I mean, Afghanistan was not a top-of-the-newscast story.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: No. It's as everyone is saying. CNN has been there, has been there continuously, but like many organizations, we rotate people in, we rotate people out.

I think for the big national news organizations, it's not the same problem it is for the local city newspapers, the regional newspapers, the local TV stations, who are really hit hard by the economy. And it's those hometown newspapers that are really the heart of covering this war in cities across America. Those hometown newspapers are disappearing.

KURTZ: Rajiv, the news this morning, Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister, dropping out of the second round runoff after obviously there was widespread fraud in that first round. Hillary Clinton comes out and says well, this has no impact on the legitimacy of the process.

And from a journalistic point of view, is that something we can report with a straight face? The administration really believes that Abdullah bailing out will have no impact on the way the world perceives whether there is a democracy in that country?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think there's a fundamental contradiction between that statement out of the secretary of state and a lot of the other statements from the administration over the past couple of weeks with regard to this election and the runoff process, and, of course, what we're hearing on the ground, what Afghans are saying about the process.

Yes -- you know, and this is why it makes sense to have journalists in country talking to Afghans, talking to western diplomats there, doing that reporting about the electoral process. I mean, some of the first reports of electoral fraud were the result of journalists digging into this. It wasn't -- you know, it took the U.N. a little while. It took the western diplomatic community a little while to wise up to what was really happening and to speak about it publicly.

KURTZ: So, the lack of journalistic boots on the ground in that country is really hurting our perception of what's going on there, in your view?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I think it is. And I think it certainly means that we're getting only a small slice of the overall story.

KURTZ: Terry, you talked about the Afghan War being overshadowed by Iraq, and, of course, the casualties and the violence was much greater in Iraq before. But I have to ask you -- I mean, can't the American media chew gum and cover two wars at the same time?

SMITH: Two wars at the same time. Of course they can, but limited resources, as Barbara was saying...

KURTZ: At a time when the news business is obviously in a lot of trouble.

SMITH: That's right. And legitimately, I think, you had to cover Iraq as it was, and intensively as it was covered. And now you turn to Afghanistan.

Does it build opposition to the war? Probably, it does.

KURTZ: It almost seems to me that you have the reverse situation now, where the media are treating the war in Iraq as over, we're pulling out, but there are still 120,000 American troops there. And this week, there was a pair of bombings that killed 150 people, and it was almost like people said oh, yes, it's still a very dangerous and violent place.

SMITH: No, you're going to have to chew gum, et cetera, because you will have two wars. We do have two wars going on.

But the attention in Afghanistan, utterly reasonable, given the increase in casualties, U.S. and NATO casualties there. Now, October being the bloodiest month of all. So it's completely to be expected, legitimate, and it's going to have an impact.

KURTZ: Pick up on Rajiv's point, Barbara, about the fact that there just aren't that many American journalists there. The coverage that emanates out of here, out of Washington, whether it's troop levels or counterinsurgency, or whatever it is, does it reflect the complexity of what you have seen when you've being on the ground there, or are a lot of us just not getting it? STARR: Well, I think Afghanistan is very particular, because this is a war that's being fought village by village, town by town, mountain pass by mountain pass. So, you may see something, or have a sense of Afghanistan in one place, and over the next mountain pass, it may be something else entirely.

But I do want to follow up on something Rajiv said, because it was astounding to me. This week, for the first time, I had a U.S. military official say to me, "You people aren't reporting the good news about Afghanistan. Why don't you tell the good stories?"

KURTZ: Was that reminiscent of anything else?

STARR: Oh boy. OK. Here we go again.

KURTZ: Have you gotten any of that kind of pushback?

CHANDRASEKARAN: A little here and there.

STARR: I got it from a significant place, and it's everything you can do to say, I don't think General McChrystal, Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus would quite agree. These men are all saying publicly Afghanistan is in big trouble; that's the story right now.

CHANDRASEKARAN: But on Afghanistan versus Iraq, it's not just the number of troops on the ground. Quite frankly, it's casualties. And we have more troops, yes, in Iraq, but with casualties having increased so significantly in Afghanistan, it obviously becomes a bigger story.

You know, it's much tougher to cover Afghanistan, because unlike in Iraq, so much of the conflict there was centered around Baghdad. You could have a big bureau in Baghdad, you could get a lot of eyes on what was going on.

Here in Afghanistan, Kabul may be the capital, but the bulk of the insurgency is in the south and the east. And because our military for so long has done Afghanistan on the cheap, it's much harder for journalists to get from point A to B.

In Iraq, it was much easier for me to get in a helicopter and go out and see fighting in certain parts of the country. And I think Barbara would agree with this. When you're out there embedded, it is so much more difficult in Afghanistan to actually go to different places in a short amount of time and see what's going on.

KURTZ: So, if you're not in Helmand Province, you don't know what's going on with half this conflict.


SMITH: Right. And, of course, the big unresolved questions are in Afghanistan, not Iraq.

KURTZ: And the big unresolved questions on Afghanistan are also in the political debate here. And I played some of the pundits at the top.

The media love political conflict. And so, now that you have Obama weighing whether to send 40,000 more troops, and we have these leaks about, well, maybe he's going to split the difference and send 20,000, that becomes something else for the commentators to argue about.

SMITH: It certainly does. And this is a huge story.

This is arguably one of the big stories of the Obama administration. And whether he's dithering or not dithering, whether he's focused, I think most people and the public feel that he's taking the time that such a serious question deserves.

KURTZ: How much has our perception changed, if at all, when Brian Williams goes to Afghanistan and does reports, as he did this week, for "NBC Nightly News"? Because then you're talking about a mass audience.

SMITH: Right. And it ratchets the whole thing up. It brings it home to people.

They bring more attention. They see more about it and they focus on it. So I think it raises the level considerably.

STARR: I don't think anybody forgets it was Walter Cronkite who went to Vietnam so many years ago, came back...

KURTZ: 1968.

STARR: ... basically said -- when Walter Cronkite said Vietnam wasn't working, America listened.

SMITH: Right. But Brian Williams reached no conclusion this week.

STARR: Correct. Right.

SMITH: Didn't attempt to.

KURTZ: And, of course, it was Dick Cheney who used the word "dithering" about wanting a quicker decision from the president, and that set off this, I think, kind of parallel debate in the media. It's eight years now. Is this war George Bush's fault, or is it now becoming Barack Obama's fault?

Is that an intelligence question to be asking?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think it is relevant to look at how this war was managed for the first seven and a half years of the war under the previous administration. And the commentary from individuals in the previous administration about how this Obama administration is dealing with the process certainly needs to be looked at in the context of the resources that were put against Afghanistan, the sort of strategic reviews they did.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, there was one right before the election late last year. But what was the level of review going on in the first years of the conflict? What were the level of resources? And when you look at the situation today, there's nobody you talk to on the ground from either party who says that this was properly resourced and we had the proper attention on this conflict early on.

KURTZ: Before we go, Barbara Starr, you were on this program last March, and we talked about the fact that the media, for the first time in many, many years, will be allowed it go to Dover Air Force Base, with the families' permission, and report on the returning caskets. President Obama went there just the other day. It was quite a dramatic moment, in my view.

You said, are we going to cover these things after the novelty of the first one wears off? And largely, with the exception of The Associated Press, we have not.

STARR: This is the real emotional heart of the story. There have been dozens, hundreds return to Dover. And many, many times, it is only an Associated Press still photographer who is there to cover that.

KURTZ: All right.

SMITH: And yet, they do appear -- those photographs do appear in local media around the country when it's someone from that area.

KURTZ: Where, by definition, it's a big local story.

All right.

Terry Smith, Barbara Starr, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

When we come back, marital microscope. Barack and Michelle give "The New York Times" a lengthy interview about their life together, but are they actually marketing their marriage?


KURTZ: They have, perhaps, the world's most public marriage. They even make news when they go out on their date nights. Now Barack and Michelle Obama have granted a lengthy Oval Office interview about their marriage to "The New York Times Magazine" for a cover story out today. What does all this coverage say -- of their relationship say about the media and the first couple?

Joining us now to examine this is Lauren Ashburn, managing editor of Gannett Broadcasting and "USA Today Live."

Lauren, why is the journalistic fascination with the Obamas' marriage so intense that it warrants the cover of "The New York Times Magazine"?

LAUREN ASHBURN, MANAGING EDITOR, GANNETT BROADCASTING: One word for you, Howie -- Camelot. I think people want that kind of feeling from the White House. We haven't had it since JFK and Jackie -- young children, stylish, in the news, seemingly in love, and the word "intern" not associated with anything.

KURTZ: But is it our journalistic duty to go along with an image that obviously would be great for the White House? I mean, look, Michelle Obama just gets gushing press. I mean, she's on the cover of the new "Glamour" magazine, the first first lady to do that. "New York Times" columnist Charles Blow the other day said she was the coolest first lady ever.

What happened to journalistic skepticism?

ASHBURN: Well, you know, I think that Anita Dunn is probably driving this. Look at "The New York Times" article where she says she read a quote from the media that talked about Obama being a family man.

KURTZ: She, of course, the White House communications director.

ASHBURN: Right. And I think she ran with it. You know? And the media is biting.

But if you look at it, Howie, what's wrong with putting a functional marriage out there for people to maybe emulate? Is that a crime? Is it against journalism?

I mean, if we weren't doing puff pieces, why don't we just go to the style section of The Post, where you work, and say let's fire everybody? Wait, did I just call for your resignation on national television? You can ask me to leave.

KURTZ: Let's not go there.

Let me instead come back to the actual article, put up an excerpt on the screen for our viewers.

"Along the way, they revise some of the standards for how a politician and spouse are supposed to behave. They have spoken more frankly about marriage than most intact couples, especially those running for office usually do. Their marriage is more vulnerable than ever to the corrosion of politics, partisan attacks, disappointments of failed initiatives, a temptation to market what was once wholly private." And so this comes pack to your point -- marketing what was once private. Is that what they're doing? Are they trying to reap the political benefits of presenting themselves as, I don't know, as the Huxtables, and a new kind of first family?

ASHBURN: That's not what Michelle Obama is saying. I think she's taking this opportunity to role model for young people or for anybody who's married, frankly, that there are good times, there are bad times, and what is wrong with trying to show that on television?

I mean, I think politicians -- or in the paper, I think politicians can take a note from that. I mean, how often do we hear about compromise on Capitol Hill?

KURTZ: So you think that I'm being a tad cynical here and that this is not -- nobody involved, whether it's the Obamas or their staff, are weighing the political calculations of presenting their marriage to the country as something that might help them?

ASHBURN: Look, I think that, as you mentioned earlier, that Michelle Obama's ratings are higher than his. So, if you were the communications director at the White House, wouldn't you be trying to hitch his wagon to her star? I mean, I think that it just makes sense, from the White House point of view, and whether or not we buy it as journalists is our problem.

KURTZ: But you could do that, of course, by having her out there talking about issues, but she doesn't seem to want to go too far in that direction, echoes of first lady Hillary Clinton and so forth.

ASHBURN: But this is an issue. Isn't marriage sort of one of the -- traditional or not traditional -- one of the underpinnings of society? And it's an issue.

Our divorce rate is more than 50 percent. This is, as she is trying to say, something that's important to our society.

KURTZ: Let me play for you a brief clip from the HBO documentary "By the People," which is premiering on Tuesday, and it has some behind-the-scenes footage of the Obama family.



Daddy, I had to eat a lot of chocolate today.

Yes. OK. I love you.


KURTZ: The White House says Sasha and Malia should be off limits to the press, and I totally agree that. ASHBURN: I do too.

KURTZ: But they let the cameras in when they think it's in their interest.

ASHBURN: Is it in their interest, or is it something that can benefit society? I mean, we're having this argument, Howie. I mean, you're being cynical about this and I'm saying...

KURTZ: I'm being skeptical, not cynical.

ASHBURN: OK. All right.

KURTZ: Skeptical. That's the right word.


KURTZ: All right, look, this is a very well-reported piece, very well done by Jodi Kantor. She was the co-author of a page one profile of Cindy McCain last October that was pretty negative. It rehashed Mrs. McCain's addiction to painkillers.

So, people out there are going to be saying, sure, cover marriage. But is it Michelle and her husband who tend to get the favorable treatment here?

ASHBURN: I think if you're in political life, or if you're an entertainer, or even if you're a high-profile journalist, that you've got to expect the kind of treatment whether or not positive or negative. They've only been in office -- they -- he -- a little slip there, right?

KURTZ: It's a partnership.

ASHBURN: OK. Right -- has only been in office a very short time. Things change.

I mean, I think there was a honeymoon period for Bill and Hillary Clinton. And it might -- they're capitalizing on the fact that life is good right now.

KURTZ: Right.

Now, in fairness to both of them, it seems to me that they have talked pretty openly about the time in their marriage when he was a state senator spending much of his time in Springfield. She was basically raising the kids. And Michelle Obama is quoted in this piece as saying, "It would be unfair to the institution of marriage to project this perfection that doesn't exist."

So it sounds like they're being kind of honest about the problems that marriages go through.

ASHBURN: And how refreshing is that, somebody in Washington being honest about something? I think that if you are in a marriage and you are looking for something, you know, someone who is real, who can actually say that, when my husband is out of town and I'm stuck taking the kids to school, or making all the lunches, or doing all of that, that it helps -- in some way, could helps society and could help other people who could say, hey, if they have problems, then maybe it's OK that I do, too, and maybe that's a public service?

KURTZ: So maybe there's a positive side to this aside from whether or not it helps them politically.


KURTZ: All right.

Lauren Ashburn, thanks very much for coming in this morning.

And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, make or break. Will Tuesday's elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey offer a verdict on the Obama presidency, or are the pundits just grasping at journalistic straws?

Plus, trash talk. As the Yankees and Phillies slug it out in the World Series, the New York tabloids play hardball with Philadelphia and its fans.

And later, a world exclusive with a famous journalist who has never been interviewed on television.


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

Afghan presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah announced this morning he's dropping out of the November 7th runoff election. Abdullah said he believes the second round would be as fraudulent as the first. In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's campaign said, "We were hopeful he would participate in the second round. We wish all to participate together to consolidate peace, improve democracy, and respect the Afghan constitution."

More deadly bombings across Iraq. A motorcycle rigged with explosives blew up south of Baghdad today. At least five people killed, another 37 were wounded.

In the western city of Ramadi, a pair of car bombs blew up near the headquarters of the city's traffic police. Two people were killed in that bombing, eight were wounded.

House Minority Leader John Boehner says Republicans will have their own health care reform proposal ready for review by the end of the week. Speaking on this program a bit earlier this morning, the Ohio Republican says the GOP measure will make the current health system work better without raising taxes or cutting Medicare.

Those are your top stories here on STATE OF THE UNION.

KURTZ: In the pantheon of national politics, governors races usually get short shrift. They can seem so local, after all. But there are two exceptions -- New Jersey and Virginia. Not because the states are so fascinating, or their personalities so prominent -- I mean, Chris Christie, Creigh Deeds? It's because they are the only statewide contests the year after a presidential election. In other words, we've got nothing else.

So, with underemployed political reporters in serious withdrawal this year, they've become consumed by the battle for Trenton and Richmond.


DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: The president's out there for two big governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia this week, which a lot of people will see as some kind of referendum.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN: There are two high-profile governors' races next Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey, and both could end up being a referendum on President Obama.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Elections coming up next week that could decide which way the wind's blowing.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: There is a big test of President Obama's political power, and it's coming up in 11 days.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now to talk about whether the media are straining to give these races some national significance, in New York, John Fund, columnist for The Wall Street Journal's And here in Washington, Margaret Carlson, chief political columnist for Bloomberg News and Washington editor of "The Week" magazine.

Margaret, here's my prediction: conservative pundits will blame President Obama if either Democrat loses in New Jersey on Virginia, and the liberals will say, oh, no, no, they were lousy candidates, it's all their fault.

MARGARET CARLSON, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Oh, dear. You've taken away my talking points.

As an underemployed journalist, as you described me in the intro...

KURTZ: Yes. You confess to that.

CARLSON: ... you know, there is something to be said for these races.

First of all, they are all we have. But they pit, you know, in Virginia, this conservative against Creigh Deeds, one of the worst candidates in a long time. Democrats must be wishing after all they had Terry McAuliffe in there. I think he would have made short shrift of the Republican candidate.

But the -- what McDonnell did was to make an ad that was one of the most effective ads I've ever seen about Creigh Deeds dithering on taxes. And it took away the only thing Deeds had, which is the -- what do you call it, that thing he did.

KURTZ: But you're sort of making my point, which is that I think that these races turn on local issues, local ads, local personalities.

John Fund, I mean, clearly, President Obama has stumped for Jon Corzine, the incumbent governor of New Jersey, a number of times. But isn't it a stretch to take these two state races and say it's some kind of national referendum?

JOHN FUND, COLUMNIST, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": I think we pay attention to them to the extent that the president pays attention to them.

Look, in 1993, Bill Clinton went all out for the candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. He lost both races. And ultimately, Hillary health care and the rest of his agenda was hurt by that, by the perception that the country was turning against liberalism.

In 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush decided not to campaign, not to get involved in those races. Democrats wound up winning them, but it didn't hurt Bush because he did well in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

Obama has gone all out here. He is up in New Jersey now. The campaign for Corzine is called Yes we Can, 2.0, and Vice President Joe Biden is up in New York for an obscure special election. So, the White House is putting an awful lot of effort into these races.

KURTZ: But, Margaret, if we didn't say that this could be a referendum, it could have national significance, it could tell us something outside the political cultures of New Jersey and Virginia, no one in the other 48 states would care.

CARLSON: Well, in defense of the attention, remember, New Jersey is next door to New York. If New York sneezes, New Jersey gets pneumonia. They're a microcosm of the terrible economy and an anti- incumbent, anti-establishment movement that's taking hold.

In Virginia, it's a state that was -- that looked blue, that now seems to be turning red. That is a big, big story.

And, you know, I would disagree with John Fund on one point.

CARLSON: Yes, Corzine has hugged Obama throughout the race. The opposite has happened in Virginia.

Deeds was afraid that Obama's popularity was dropping. He didn't want him in the state. He pushed him away all during the summer. It's only recently that Obama has been in the state.

KURTZ: But again, John, going back to the New Jersey race, isn't Jon Corzine calling the Republican candidate, Chris Christie fat, or implying he was overweight, and the fact that there's a third party Independent in the race, isn't that ultimately more important than, you know, a president is always going to stump for candidates of his own party?

FUND: Well, of course, but remember, Corzine moved to the other issues after his relentless attacks on Christie as being a Bush Republican seemed to fall flat. Look, George W. Bush is still unpopular, but he's no longer president, so that wasn't working. So, that was an example of how the country's attention has shifted away from Bush to Obama, and that's why the issues that Corzine is promoting are much different.

So I think there are national strains and lessons in these races, because you watch how the candidates campaign and you watch them try different strategies. Many of them based on national issues.

KURTZ: All right.

Let me turn now to a Washington controversy involving Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson. Now, this is the guy who said the Republican health plan was that people should die quickly, and then he called members of the GOP knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. And then this week, he called a lobbyist a "K Street whore."

That prompted Fox News producer Griff Jenkins to chase after Congressman Grayson. Let's watch that clip.


GRIFF JENKINS, FOX NEWS PRODUCER: Quick question. I want to ask you what you meant when you said -- when you called Linda Robertson a "K Street whore"? REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: You're going to have to make an appointment with our press secretary. JENKINS: Then let me ask you -- I saw a letter you apologized to Ms. Robertson. Will you now apologize to Vice President Cheney for saying that blood drips from his teeth when he speaks?


KURTZ: Now, Grayson did apologize, but Fox News was all over this. There were a handful of mentions on CNN and MSNBC. This guy is a liberal Democrat. It feels kind of partisan.

Why isn't it more of a story? "The New York Times" today says that Grayson catapulted himself to national renowned for outlandish rhetoric.

CARLSON: Well, here we are talking about him. And, by the way, it seems to me he's gotten a lot of coverage, which is just what Grayson wants.

That reporter trailing after him down the hall is what he wants. He's like Joe Wilson -- completely unknown, says outrageous things and gets coverage. I mean, for a backbencher like Grayson to have this amount of coverage, do you think it's undercovered? KURTZ: Well, John Fund, I mean, we're talking about it now, but it has not been a major story on cable except for Fox. And I'm thinking if Michele Bachmann or Joe Wilson, the "You lie!" congressman, had called somebody a whore, MSNBC would be apoplectic.

FUND: Well, I think you're seeing how members of Congress now can transform themselves into national figures with the drop of an incendiary remark. Both parties have people who no longer represent their constituents so much as they represent their own publicity machines. And I think that it's sad that there are a lot of members out there who do a lot of interesting work in the back rooms, but the ones that anyone pays attention to are the ones who basically go on the cable show and incite the blogosphere.

KURTZ: But John, if that's true, shouldn't they get coverage, whether they're Republican or Democrat, on all the cable news networks, as opposed to certain networks focusing on Democrats or Republicans, depending on the leanings of their hosts?

FUND: Well, I think the audiences that some of these networks attract are outraged and inverse proportion to whose ox is being gored?

KURTZ: All right. Well, I think it should have been more of a story on CNN as well.

Speaking about CNN, anchor Lou Dobbs disclosing this week that about three weeks ago, he had kind of a horrifying incident in which a shot was fired at his house, or near him, where he was standing with his wife in New Jersey. He talked about it on his radio show and made a connection to what he's been saying politically.

Let's listen to some of that. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

LOU DOBBS, "THE LOU DOBBS SHOW": But we've got to start being honest. And instead, the national liberal media has chosen sides. And they have decided that they're going to focus on the liberal view, which is that they will embrace illegal immigration no matter who is harmed, no matter how many laws are broken, or how few consequences there are for breaking those laws.

My wife has now been and I have been shot at.


KURTZ: Margaret, if some nut was actually taking a shot at Lou Dobbs and his wife, is it fair for him to then blame it on the media climate surrounding his fervent opposition to illegal immigration?

CARLSON: No, but he loves doing it. Speak of your own publicity machine, Lou Dobbs generates so much about his own self. And he takes extreme views in part for ratings.

KURTZ: But that suggests he doesn't believe what he's saying.

CARLSON: You know, I think like Glenn Beck and some of these others, you come to believe when you're saying because it is so satisfying to you in terms of ratings and income. Listen, the police who investigated this said that it's hunting season, and there was a bullet mark in the attic on the third floor of his house. That he and his wife were in the same place at the same time, there's no evidence of that.

I mean, it sounds to me from the evidence that he was blowing this up into -- to be a victim -- to be a victim of the media when there's absolutely no, just no evidence that somebody was shooting at him or his wife.

KURTZ: John Fund, we don't know exactly what happened, but it is true that New Jersey state police did kind of play down this incident.

Did Dobbs go too far in trying to tie this to his stance on immigration?

FUND: I think, look, my brother was in law enforcement, and it's always a close call, because if you talk about people threatening you or possibly taking a shot at you, that can encourage other people to go after you. So I probably would have stayed away from it simply for reasons of security. But this issue of what his views are...

KURTZ: Just briefly.

FUND: ... "The Wall Street Journal" is very pro-legal immigration. But Lou Dobbs' views are not that extreme. He basically says we should enforce the laws we have on the books involving illegal immigration. Characterizing it as extreme, I think mischaracterizes his position.

KURTZ: That is a debate for another day. We'll have you back.

John Fund, Margaret Carlson, thanks very much for joining us.

And after the break, the media war between Philadelphia and the Bronx. How on earth did "The New York Post" find a sex angle to the World Series?

And as we go to break, a CNN/Opinion Research poll this week asked this question: Are the media out of touch with average Americans? Look at that number. Seventy percent say yes. That is a real vote of no confidence in the news business. 1999, just 10 years ago, only 48 percent said journalists were out of touch.


KURTZ: New York and Philadelphia are two raucous sports towns. So, this World Series, the Yankees took a 2-1 lead over the Phillies with last night's rainy victory. It was destined to generate plenty of heat.

The Series has also spawned something of a media war, with New York's tabloids mocking the Phillies and their fans with some Bronx cheers. There's even a sex angle.

Is this plain old locker room rousing, or is some of it out of bounds?

Joining us now from Philadelphia, where game four will be played tonight, Joel Sherman, baseball columnist for "The New York Post," and Will Bunch, a columnist for "The Philadelphia Daily News."

Joel Sherman, of course you're going to root like crazy for the home team, but this cover on "The New York Post" -- let's put it up -- "The Frillies are Coming to Town!"

What's up with that kind of trash talk?

JOEL SHERMAN, BASEBALL COLUMNIST, "THE NEW York POST": Yes. Well, I think that other parts of the newspaper get involved at this time of the year who aren't traditionally covering baseball. And the idea is to get the casual fan involved, and usually that's about making it a local team against somebody else. And I think that's all that's going on. Frankly, if you flip the paper over and read the words, it's one baseball team against another just like it's always been.

KURTZ: But, of course, the cover is what sells on the newsstands.

Will Bunch, I want to play a brief clip for you. This is Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino, who was pictured in a skirt on that "New York Post" cover. He was asked about it by the press.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, but, I mean, why did they choose you?

SHANE VICTORINO, OUTFIELDER, PHILLIES: Why don't you ask your folks? Why are you asking me? Why did they pick me? I think it's awesome. My legs look good.


KURTZ: My legs look good.

So what's your take, Will, on this kind of in-your-face journalism?

WILL BUNCH, COLUMNIST, "PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS": You know, that was kind of our reaction in Philadelphia, too. We kind of looked that the cover and said, huh? You know, nobody really got it.

You know, It's funny. Philadelphia traditionally is a city that always has some civic self-esteem issues over the years. And, you know, now, with the Phillies winning the World Series last year, Philadelphia is a much more confident city. And now it's like New York is the one mocking us.

We didn't really respond in kind. We just didn't get it. You know, like Joel said, we're here to play the game. And we're planning to win.

KURTZ: Turning the other cheek.

All right, Joel. What about this other page one story in your newspaper, this Philly woman who got arrested for offering on Craigslist her services? She offered to sell her body in exchange for World Series tickets. "Sex for Tix" was the classic tabloid headline.

Was that the most important story to put on page one that day?

SHERMAN: Yes. I don't think that the most important story ends up on page one every day of -- certainly of our newspaper and other tabloids.

Look, this is the World Series. It's the Yankees. They've become kind of the Beatles of baseball starting in the mid-'90s, when they were a dynasty. And so, at this time of year, more than just the baseball sells, and more than just the baseball gets into the newspaper.

But having said that, I think we've also reached the age with the Internet, constant 24-hour news, that if somebody was selling their body, and it was Kansas City versus Pittsburgh, and that was the World Series, I have a feeling that would get into newspapers in Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

KURTZ: I think you might be right on that.

Well, you know, Will Bunch, you made the point that Philadelphia is feeling very confident, it won the Series last year, it doesn't need to engage in this tit-for-tat. But in your newspaper, "The Philadelphia Daily News," Chuck Bowzman (ph) wrote about a site called Unlike the Beatles, not everyone loves the New York Yankees. And he wrote, talking about the folks in the Big Apple, "Pick up a New York paper after a Yankee lost for pleasure reading. No media group devours its own like the sportswriters of New York."

BUNCH: Well, you know, baseball, this is just fun, Howie. You know, there's so much bad news out there about the recession. We've got two wars going on. And when you pick up the newspaper, sometimes you forget about the things that bring people together. And nothing brings people together like baseball.

We're talking about families, we're talking about fathers and sons and tradition. You know, so why not have some fun with it? Why not, you know, go whole hog for a few days and put it on the front page, even the woman selling her body for tickets?

That's a great story. You know? You've got to love that.

KURTZ: It's a lot more fun than trying to unravel the public option on health care. I'll grant you that.

Joel Sherman, that quote about the New York press corps beating up on the Yankees after a loss, or the Mets, obviously, are you and your colleagues kind of a sadistic bunch? Do Steinbrenner's Yankees get ticked off at you sometimes?

SHERMAN: Yes. It was Halloween and we all came in in S&M costumes yesterday.


SHERMAN: I think the reality is that if our compatriots who cover news were as hard on health insurance in Afghanistan as we are covering these guys, maybe there would be other outcomes. The reality is you say we devour. I think it's fair and balanced, to be honest with you.

Instead of being homers, like you might be thinking with the dress on the front page, on the back page, when the Yankees play well, we're a mirror, we reflect well. When they play poorly, or the Mets play poorly, we try to find out why. We ask tough questions and we go after them in a hard, edgy way.

That's just the history of covering baseball in New York. Certainly at the tabloids.

KURTZ: So, Joel, you think that the hotshot journalists who cover national and international politics could perhaps learn a lesson from the aggressiveness of the sportswriters and sports columnists?

SHERMAN: I have a feeling that, Joe Girardi, the manager of the Yankees, gets asked tougher questions on a daily basis than a lot of our politicians in the country.

KURTZ: Maybe he's more available.

Will Bunch, but look, you go to Pittsburgh, you go to Philadelphia, you go to L.A., I mean, the papers are basically rooting for the home team.

Is sports the last place where it's OK to be biased in newspapers?

BUNCH: Yes. You know, and it's funny. It's because people are passionate.

You know, it's funny. I think one of the problems that we have in journalism with political coverage, which I'm also involved in, is the lack of passion that you see in sports journalism. I mean, frankly, if I thought we brought some of the enthusiasm that we brought to covering something like baseball to covering something like elections, I think our readers would be better served by that kind of enthusiasm. I really do.

KURTZ: No shortage of passion.

Joel Sherman, before we go, "The New York Post" also made a big deal about the Steve Phillips sex scandal at ESPN. This is the baseball analyst who was fired this week after having an affair with a 22-year-old production assistant, Brooke Hundley, who was also fired this week. She had been harassing Phillips' wife. ESPN had put out a statement saying they had already taken disciplinary action, and suddenly it cans these two people.

Was this story overkill, or was ESPN too slow to react?

SHERMAN: Well, I mean, I think ESPN was hoping this would go away. They had known about it for quite a while, and they only reacted when we started to write about it.

And, of course, we're interested in it -- besides the fact that Steve Phillips is a well-known person on ESPN, he worked for the local ESPN in New York. And, of course, he had been the general manager of the Mets. So, he was more of a public figure in our area than perhaps in other reading areas across the country.

KURTZ: If ESPN was hoping that it would go away, that did not happen.

All right.

Joel Sherman, Will Bunch, thanks very much for slugging it out with us this morning.

BUNCH: Thanks so much, Howie.

KURTZ: Up next, resurrection. President Obama's public option is showing new signs of life, but didn't the pundits tell us that it was dead?


KURTZ: Now that Harry Reid has announced he's taking a health care bill to the Senate floor that includes the public option, this question raises its ugly head: Weren't we all told the public option was dead, finished, kaput? That's what most of the pundits said, right?


KURTZ (voice-over): It began with the angry town halls in August, and by the time the shouting died down, a new conventional wisdom congealed across the media landscape. Time to write the obituary for President Obama's proposal for a government-run health plan to compete with private insurance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the public option is dead, but...

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Going for a few days, but it's dead. It's not going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's off. It's gone. It's dead. It's a dead parrot.

KURTZ: Well, not quite. What we're seeing here is the clash between the molasses-like pace of Congress and the snap judgment media culture.

As a bill oozes its way through House committees, then Senate Committees, and then to the floor, and then to a conference committee, a provision can be killed and resurrected over and over again. You've seen this kind of pack mentality before.

John McCain declared dead -- there's that word again -- a year before he won the Republican nomination. Hillary Clinton was a lock for the Democratic nomination, then she was certain to lose New Hampshire, then Barack Obama had to pick her for vice president, and on and on.

Even now, though, some folks are sticking by their forecasts.

O'REILLY: All right? There's not going to be a public option. Not going to happen.


KURTZ: Well, who knows?

Cable commentary is all about certainty. Yes or no? Up or down? Smart or stupid? Dead or alive?

Even now the public option could mutate into many forms: opt out, opt in, delayed by a trigger. The pundits, meanwhile, keep pulling the trigger. And I'll make one prediction: some of them are going to miss the target once again.

Still to come, picture of pomposity. I finally get to interview the biggest bozo correspondent around. I mean, this guy is a joke.

Stick around.


KURTZ: We have a world exclusive this morning with our globetrotting television correspondent. It took some arm-twisting, but Roland Hedley of "Doonesbury" fame agreed to answer some questions.

Now, the only reason this guy is doing it is to peddle a book. And it's a collection of his Twitter messages. Is that lame or what?

So, here's the thing. I had to go through this guy Garry Trudeau to send Roland questions, 140 characters or less, and then listened to his equally brief replies.

Hey, the guy's full of himself. What can I tell you?

Here we go.

Roland, has Twitter taken over your life? It sure sounds like you' spend more time tweeting than, what's it called, reporting?


SAM DONALDSON: Tweeting equals gossip's first draft, so definitely on reporting spectrum. No idea how I used two hours a day. Now I tweet. Probably just wasted them.


KURTZ: Is Fox News really comfortable with your tweets? Some aren't exactly fair and balanced. Any pushback from Geraldo?


DONALDSON: Talented Fox is given some slack regarding slogan. For instance, I'm personally more balanced than fair, whereas Geraldo is fairly unbalanced.


KURTZ: You write, "Why do journo-twits (ph) ask for questions? Do pilots ask passengers how to land?" What? You don't want input from your fans?


DONALDSON: I say this with greatest respect, but fans are morons. That's why they're the fans, we're not. Solicit sole White House presser question from Joe the Plumber? Please.


KURTZ: You tweeted from Afghanistan, but I didn't learn squat about the war. It all seemed to be about you.


DONALDSON: Zero proof all about me since rarely use pronouns in field. To save characters, become Bush 41. Can't go there. Wouldn't be prudent.


KURTZ: After Mark Sanford's sex scandal, you said you just terminated 14 innocent e-mail relationships. Huh? How innocent were they?


DONALDSON: Sore subject. Legal made everyone say that. Probably only two to three were innocent.

Advertisement, old? Ask doctor about Flomax. Warning: Could kill you.


KURTZ: How do you justify attacking advertisements on your already short tweets? Is this really about the money, Roland?


DONALDSON: Don't hate on Roland Hedley for netting $450,000 third quarter. How much did Howard Kurtz make, "Washington Post?" Just asking.

Advertisement: Clunkers for cash. GM.


KURTZ: You keep threatening to fire Lyn, your female producer, who you met at Hooters. Is that where you do your recruitment?


DONALDSON: Only go there with family. Usually stare at floor, but got boob-brushed when Lyn leaned in with garlic sticks. Seemed talented, so sent to HR. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: You say that Ed Henry, Jake Tapper and Terry Moran were no help with the book. Why did go negative on them? Jealousy?


DONALDSON: Yes. At first their jealousy was flattering, but then spread through White House. Obama slammed Fox same day my book came out.

Coincidence? You decide.


KURTZ: All right. Here's the plug. The book is "My Shorts are Bunching. Thoughts? The Collective Tweets of Roland Hedley."

But I've got to warn you, he's kind of a cartoonish figure.

And our thanks for Gary Trudeau for helping out with that interview.

And our thanks to Sam Donaldson for giving voice to those responses.

Sam, you nailed the part, but you're no Roland Hedley.

And John King, as I hand the ball back to you this Sunday morning, you get a lot of big exclusives on STATE OF THE UNION. I had to kind of lift the level of my game to compete.

Roland Hedley makes journalists look like buffoons, but it's good to have a sense of humor about ourselves.

KING: We need to have a good laugh every now and then. And you know what? It's great to hear the old friend and the familiar voice, Sam Donaldson. That was a lot of fun.

KURTZ: I knew you'd recognize Sam's voice right away.

All right, John. Back over to you.

KING: Howie, take care. Have a great day.