Return to Transcripts main page

CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Senate Dems Reach Agreement on Health Care Bill

Aired December 20, 2009 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: We've been covering the health care debate through all its twists and turns, compromises and showdowns, amendment after stupefying amendment for nearly a year now. And with Washington buried under a blizzard yesterday, Senate Democrats finally got their 60th vote to shut down the Republican plan to filibuster the thing to death.

But it's been an excruciatingly slow and difficult process for journalists to cover. And if the media treatment is any indication, things have been getting increasingly personal, even downright nasty.

Some liberals ticked off at Howard Dean for leading the television charge against the watered-down bill. Others blaming President Obama for not knocking heads together. But most of all, many Democrats are furious with Joe Lieberman for forcing his former party to remove the public insurance option and Medicare expansion. And that, in some ways, became the story.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: The one man who is the focus of so much anger from the left...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You cannot underestimate the rage on the left at Joe Lieberman.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: Is he really the most hated man in Washington tonight?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN: The former Democrat-turned-Independent may be the most hated man in America, at least if you're talking about liberals.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: He has been bought and sold by the insurance lobby. He has become a senatorial prostitute.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, as we hit what could be the homestretch on health care, has the media's coverage become more about personalities than policy?

Joining me now, Ceci Connolly, who covers health care for "The Washington Post"; Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker"; and Matthew Continetti, staff writer for "The Weekly Standard" and author of "The Persecution of Sarah Palin."

Ceci Connolly, will the media portray this if the Democrats do indeed get this bill as a hard-won victory for Democrats, or as a bill that's been so badly shredded, that it's really not worth the name "reform"?

CECI CONNOLLY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes.

KURTZ: OK. Can you elaborate?

CONNOLLY: You'll see both. And I think that both is really the accurate depiction of what it appears is coming out of this year-long saga on health care.

From the two bills that passed the House, and is likely to pass the Senate -- and there will be a conference -- but the way things are shaping up, there are going to be many very positive elements and developments within the health care system here in the United States as a result of this legislation.

On the other hand, there are some problems. There are some favors to certain industries and certain states that most people would say is not necessarily good policy. So it's a mixed bag.

KURTZ: But many would say, Ryan Lizza, the bill is so stripped down, that it's hard for even sympathetic journalists to call it some kind of triumph.

RYAN LIZZA, "THE NEW YORKER": No, I disagree with that. It's not so stripped down.

Look, at the end of the day, it's going to be $900 billion to expand health insurance to 30 million new people. I mean, that's the headline, and that's a monumental achievement if Obama signs this into law.

KURTZ: So you think that the whole business about the public option and Medicare and even the abortion debate have been kind of sideshows and we've taken our eye off the ball that this is really...

LIZZA: Look, there haven't been sideshows because that's been the focus of how you get to 60 in the Senate.

KURTZ: Right. It's about the math.

LIZZA: And what's amazing in this process is that there was an incredible degree of consensus among Democrats on some of the big issues that never reached the level of all-out fights. And we just had -- you know, basically, the public option at the end here and abortion became the big sticking points. At the end of the day, those are not going to be the most relevant things here. The most relevant thing is almost a trillion dollars to ensure 30 million people.

KURTZ: Do you think, Matthew Continetti, the White House can convince the press -- and you may, of course, disagree with a lot of this bill -- but this is a major achievement? MATTHEW CONTINETTI, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Oh, yes, of course it can and, because, from a liberal perspective it is. For all the reasons Ryan says.

I mean, the fact is you see in Joe Biden's op-ed in The Times today, he says people have been trying for universal health care since T.R. And sure enough, Teddy did support the idea. He never went around to implement it, but Democratic presidents since Harry Truman have tried to push this thing. They've always failed.

If Obama can get a bill through, no matter what your political opinion, it's a major success.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, as we saw in those clips, the partisan fire round, Joe Lieberman, for several days this week, calling him a turncoat -- a couple of critics even saying he's not a good Jew -- was truly remarkable.

Now, was that a more interesting, simpler storyline than the complicated debates over the public option and the Medicare expansion?

CONNOLLY: Well, it certainly was, Howie. But I guess I would say two things.

First of all, we got to the point in the process, as Ryan was pointing out, where it was about retail politicking within the Senate, and that was about getting to 60. And it meant Harry Reid trying to go and, one-on-one, find out what each of those 60 needed to be on board. That's what the storyline was.

KURTZ: But even, though, for example, Ben Nelson, who became the 60th vote when he got the compromised language on restrictions of using the money for abortions, I didn't see anything like the vilification campaign, deserved or not, that was mounted again Joe Lieberman.

CONNOLLY: Well, I think a couple things are going on there.

First of all, there's the whole history with Joe Lieberman and the way in which he went from being Al Gore's vice presidential running mate to then endorsing John McCain, campaigning for him, leaving his party...

KURTZ: Speaking at the Republican Convention, yes.

CONNOLLY: ... speaking at the convention, et cetera. So, there's a whole kind of history of ill will going on there towards Joe Lieberman and those tensions.

It's interesting though because, on substance, most smart people in Washington knew the United States Senate was never going to vote for a public option. So, for the liberals to suddenly say, gosh, Joe Lieberman killed it at the last minute, just not true.

KURTZ: What did you make of all the focus on Lieberman? LIZZA: Well, he became the pinata, exactly, as Ceci points out, because of the way that the left views Lieberman as a turncoat and someone that represents a liberal state, a blue state, and they should be able to vote with the rest of the Democratic Caucus on this issue. On the other hand, he represents insurance interests, and that's the most plausible explanation for him being against the public option.

But there are almost a dozen Democratic senators that sent Harry Reid a letter laying out objections to both the public option and the Medicare buy-in, very similar to Liebermans's. So, he became the public pinata partly because of all the fire directed his way. But I'm not sure if it wasn't Lieberman, there may have been some other Democrat that put their head up and said no on that.

KURTZ: Well, the thing about needing 60 votes is that any senator -- every single senator has a nuclear weapon. Everybody can blow up this agreement by just threatening to withhold his or her vote.

Do you find it amusing that Lieberman suddenly became public enemy number one? And I didn't sense a lot of sympathy for him in the media, who I think also view him as a turncoat.

CONTINETTI: Well, I mean, he's been public enemy number one for the left for some time, as Ceci went through, especially starting in 2006, when he refused to recant his support for the war in Iraq. And, of course, there is that left-wing challenge for him.

Listen, though, if I were on the left, I'd be sending flowers to Joe Lieberman's office.

KURTZ: Flowers?

CONTINETTI: I'd be sending "thank you" notes because the fact is, as Ryan pointed out, he saved this health care compromise. The fact is that he was able to get this public option and this Medicare buy-in which no one liked in the moderate caucus of the Democrats, and, of course, the Republicans, too, out of the bill. And I think saved its chances.

It cleared the way for Nelson to be the only holdout. He flipped. You got 60 votes. A major win for the White House.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

LIZZA: Well, one of the storylines here that probably hasn't gotten as much attention is all the debate over the public option has -- there's not enough bandwidth to cover everything in the health care debate. There are a lot of controversial parts of this bill that I think a lot of people in the White House and Democrats on the Hill thought would be very controversial, but never rose to the level of the public option or abortion just because all the bandwidth was taken up with those two issues instead.

CONNOLLY: And that's going to be the challenge. LIZZA: And now that we know it's a conference, some of the focus may shift to that stuff.

CONNOLLY: Right. For the press corps going forward, not only at a conference, but, I mean, let's stop and think. For months and years to come, we're going to be digging into this piece of legislation and figuring out what actually happens in the real world.

KURTZ: Well, that, to me, is a major challenge. And it seems to me that if, for example, the Congress, as it has been known to do, backs off from some of these large cuts in Medicare which helps pay for this bill, will that be a big story, will that be a story that runs on the bottom of page three because we've moved on to something else?

But I want to turn to something. Lieberman is on board, Nelson is on board. One guy who is very definitely not on board is Howard Dean, the doctor turned Vermont governor, turned presidential candidate, turned Democratic Party chairman, and now leading critic of the Senate health care bill. He was everywhere, wrote an op-ed for "The Washington Post" and made the rounds on television.

Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, FMR. DNC CHAIRMAN: Now, you can't vote for a bill like this in good conscience. It costs too much.

This is an insurance company's dream, this bill. And I think it's gone too far. It's just a shame.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Pre-existing conditions.

DEAN: There are no reforms on insurance. That's just what I'm telling you.

The health care bill is a disaster.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: I know he's a doctor, but he has no vote here. Why was his opposition treated as some kind of turning point?

LIZZA: Well, he does have a political group, and he did announce at the start of the debates that the most important thing to him and his constituents was the public option. And he was going to lie down on the tracks for it.

KURTZ: You don't think it's because the media love a defector? Here's a guy who's a...

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: Oh, no, absolutely. He's leveraging that interest in the press to point out that he thinks the public option is the most important thing in this bill, and without it you should vote against it. A lot of people that know a lot more about health care than Howard Dean disagree with him.

CONTINETTI: And if you're a left-winger, you have every reason to be upset at this bill, because what you really want is government- run health care with government -- direct government payment for services. And this bill isn't that.

This bill, with the mandate and the fines and everything, is giving millions of new customers to the insurance companies. And so, if you're on the left, you have every reason to be upset.

KURTZ: And conservative commentators suddenly find some redeeming value in Howard Dean?

CONTINETTI: Well, as I said, this was a huge achievement of the Obama White House, because, for once, it has brought the left and the right together, because everyone is opposed to this mandate now.

CONNOLLY: You know, Howie, it's fascinating to me. We often used to talk about 15 minutes of fame. And it seems like now, in this media environment, it might be about 10, 15 seconds.

You know, I mean, in the span of one week, we went from Joe Lieberman is the guy that everybody is talking about, to Howard Dean is the guy that everybody is talking about, to Ben Nelson is the guy.

KURTZ: Right. Amazing.

CONNOLLY: That was one week's time they each had their moment.

KURTZ: Amazing.

LIZZA: And in the conference committee there will be someone else, one of the members of that conference committee who holds it up.

KURTZ: Yes, exactly. And the conference committee, who knows how long that can drag on?

I want to come back to the point you made, Ryan Lizza, about the focus on divisions within the Democratic Party. And they were pretty sharp. We saw this on the House side as well.

Republicans -- has the press given the Republicans a pass? Basically, basically, we just now assume no Republican is going to vote for this. They're opposed, they don't have an alternative plan. And therefore, we don't have to bother with them.

LIZZA: No, I agree with you. That's a consequence of their strategic decision at the outset of this debate to just say, OK, we're going to oppose this, keep our members in line, not let any of our members Congress the aisle and support any part of this bill. That was a decision they made in the beginning, and they had strategic reasons for doing it.

But once the process moves forward, the entire debate becomes among Democrats, and, frankly, it's our responsibility to cover that debate, not the guys who are on the sidelines and not part of the process. And I think that decision was -- could be seen as a mistake and helped get this bill -- moved this bill along.

CONNOLLY: You know, journalistically, Howie, covering this story for nearly a year, many good journalists have tried over the span of time to think about, what are the smart stories about Republicans in the health care debate? And I have to be honest, there's just been a limited number of stories to actually probe when it comes to the GOP and health care.

CONTINETTI: And a larger story, too, is we are beginning to see fissures in the Democratic coalition just over the course of the past month.

KURTZ: Really? CONTINETTI: Yes. Not only on health care, but also Afghanistan. Let's not forget, the left wings in Congress are started to raise hackles about the Obama administration's policy there as well. So, I think at the moment that Democrats are far more divided than the Republican Party.

KURTZ: It's hard to be a governing party, we have learned that, particularly here in the Democratic Party.

Let me get a break here.

When we come back, foggy picture. President Obama hails the last-minute climate agreement in Copenhagen, but the media's response is rather chilly.

And as we go to break, let me play some tape for you of Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesmen, in Copenhagen, arguing with Chinese officials that the American journalists have to be let into this meeting between the president and Chinese negotiators.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Can my guys get in just like your guys got in? This is a joint meeting. My guys get in or we're leaving the meeting.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I did not get in.

GIBBS: This guy didn't get in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Just in time for the evening news on Friday, President Obama salvaged the climate talks in Copenhagen with an 11th-hour agreement he trumpeted as significant and unprecedented. But the international deal was nonbinding, totally voluntary, and the emissions targets fell short of what the conference's goals were.

So, are the media buying the White House spin that this was some kind of breakthrough?

Ryan Lizza, Charlie Gibson said that what Obama brought back from Copenhagen may not be worth the paper it's printed on. Are the media just sort of dismissing this agreement?

LIZZA: No, they're not dismissing it. I think they're treating it with the right degree of skepticism.

It's not what a lot of people expected out of the conference. And the key in politics is often meeting expectations. It's not nothing, and I think a lot will depend on what happens next year when the climate legislation starts making its way through the Senate. We can do a lot here in United States on our own.

KURTZ: Well, it's not nothing, but some would say it's close to nothing because there's no way of enforcing this, and it didn't even set a firm target for the next round, if there's next round of negotiations.

And do you see this as journalists kind puncturing the administration's hype?

CONTINETTI: Well, I think the puncturing began earlier in the summer with the Nobel Prize announcement and the failure to win the Olympics. And, for me, that's the turning point. That's when the press started to actually start criticizing the Obama administration, not giving it always a free pass.

With this agreement, basically it's an agreement to one day reach an agreement. So it should be taken with the appropriate skepticism.

KURTZ: Does it seem to you that -- you know, oftentimes when an administration announces an agreement, particularly an international agreement, that gets reported and then you go and you quote skeptics and supporters and so forth. Here, it seemed to me the press just kind of skipped that step and said, well, this thing was a letdown, it was a disappointment, it was a papering over of disagreement.

CONNOLLY: Well, I think, interestingly, what's happened over the last few years, and especially the last several months, Howie, is that much of the press core, and the public as well, has become much more educated about this issue around climate change and environmental issues and science. And so you had a group of journalists who really sort of knew their stuff. Many of them had been there for the full 10, 12 days of the conference, listening and talking to experts for quite some time.

KURTZ: Which was even duller, by the way, than the Senate negotiations. It seemed like nothing was happening. It was like watching snowfall.

CONNOLLY: And as Ryan was pointing out, there was so much anticipation and excitement before this event. And, you're right, I mean, it really did kind of fizzle. But I think Obama, trying to repeat sort of his Olympic trip, you know, swoop in, here I am, and I'm so eloquent, and this is just going to be fabulous, interestingly, what you saw afterward was the White House trying hard to build a lot of drama into those final meetings.

We were getting background briefings and things from White House senior unnamed officials who were trying to do the whole, "And there was a meeting going on and he forced his way in."

KURTZ: Right.

CONNOLLY: And so, really, building up even just the logistics of it.

KURTZ: That he crash the meeting with the Chinese and Indian and other officials. Fascinating.

One other thing that happened with the president this week is he played the Oprah card. He did a Christmas special with Ms. Winfrey, and it was a wide-ranging conversation. But what really got picked up, particularly by the pundits, was this...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: What grade would you give yourself for this year?

OBAMA: A good, solid B -plus.

WINFREY: A B-plus?

OBAMA: Yes. I mean, I think that we have inherited the biggest set of challenges of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So then, of course, every pundit on America goes on and TV and says, "I give him a D." "I give him an F." "I'm sending him to remedial school."

Was that a misstep, to actually give himself a letter grade?

LIZZA: No. It was a good question, because he had to answer it. He couldn't...

KURTZ: There are ways of ducking it.

LIZZA: Maybe he could have, but he would have been hit for that. And look, it's perfect for pundits, because they love to do things like give grades and hold up cards and -- but, what was he going to say?

KURTZ: There's something about report cards. "I gave him an A- minus."

(LAUGHTER)

CONTINETTI: Well, it's an easy way to frame your evaluation, right? I think you could see in Obama's face as he gave that answer, I want to get that A. You know? And I think in his mind he sees himself as deserving an A.

I love to say, if he does get health care, just on a basic basis, he's doing something that no liberal president has done in 50 years. It's a pretty big achievement.

KURTZ: So you give him an incomplete?

CONTINETTI: Well, I give him a C. He's average in my view.

CONNOLLY: Well, I think we give Oprah an A, because it was a good question. And I think what we saw once again is he's a striver. And you know what? He's striving for that A.

And he's always going to be pushing himself a little further. And I think Americans like that.

KURTZ: There were also, of course, questions about Bo the dog and other things that you would talk to about Oprah. And I would accuse the president of only fielding softball questions, except he also talked to Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes" this week, so I cannot make that charge.

Ceci Connolly, Ryan Lizza, Matthew Continetti, thanks very much for joining us on this snow-filled Washington morning.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, stuck in the sand trap. Tiger has cheated. He's taken a break from golf. We've met most of the mistresses, I think. But are the media still clamoring for more? Is it time to put the clubs away on this tabloid tale?

Plus, judging George. Just five shows into his stint at "Good Morning America," we'll examine how the political junky is doing in his new gig and look at Charlie Gibson's farewell to ABC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The end is in sight for the first major snowstorm of the season. All winter storm and blizzard warnings are set to expire by noon Eastern Time.

The storm dropped record amounts of snow in parts of the Mid- Atlantic region, nearly two feet in some areas before hitting New York and New England. Three storm-related deaths are reported in Virginia.

East Coast travelers are being warned to expect treacherous roads, as well as flight delays and cancellations. The storm forced the airlines to cancel more than 800 flights.

Emergency officials in Virginia are reporting hundreds of abandoned vehicles. They're urging people to stay home and off the roads. Those are your top stories here on STATE OF THE UNION. KURTZ: The Tiger tale has become America's favorite pastime, or at least the media's favorite pastime, far more popular than the support that made the world's top golfer rich, famous and, quite clearly, very desirable to women.

Now, you might think the drama has largely played itself out. We've already learned of the 13 or 14 or 15 mistresses. Tiger Woods has already taken a broke from the pro tour. Several corporate sponsors have already dropped him. And his marriage already appears to be on the rocks.

But from the tabloids, to the gossip sites, to the cable shows and the morning shows, and the sports shows and all kinds of shows, everyone is still talking about Tiger.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: Now to the latest twist in the Tiger Woods scandal. His wife Elin is no longer wearing a wedding ring.

ROBIN ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: There's another crack this morning in Tiger Woods' billion-dollar image.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Tiger Woods makes history, but in a very bad way.

COOPER: Tiger Woods hasn't just kept a low profile since the scandal erupted, he's basically disappeared.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: Another day, another girlfriend, and one less sponsor. The Tiger Woods scandal rolls on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, are the media just clubbing this story to death and spreading unconfirmed rumors in the process?

Joining us now in New York, Diane Dimond, special correspondent for "Entertainment Tonight" and a columnist for Creators Syndicate. And here in Washington, Jane Hall, professor of media and politics at American University.

Diane Dimond, you were on the Tiger watch in Florida this week. You rented a boat to get near Tiger Woods' house. What did you learn form that expedition?

DIANE DIMOND, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, "ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT": Well, not much. I don't know exactly what I expected to learn bobbing out there by his back yard. But, you know, Howie, this story is not going away because the public has an insatiable -- they haven't quenched their thirst for it yet.

There's a thing called Nielsen overnight ratings. If they show that the public isn't interested in what you put on the night before, you don't put it on the next day. If you came out and wanted to talk about the media in Uzbekistan or something, probably someone would say to you, "You know, it's not very popular. Pick another topic."

Everybody is talking about Tiger. It's natural that that's what the media is covering.

KURTZ: Well, that's an age-old question, do we just give people what -- do we pander to what people want? But this is a great story. I'm not going to apologize for it. It's a classic fall from grace, one of the world's most famous people.

But, are we at the point where the media will do anything, Jane, to keep it alive? "The New York Post" had 20 straight front-page covers on Tiger Woods, more than after 9/11.

JANE HALL, PROFESSOR OF MEDIA AND POLITICS, "AMERICAN UNIVERSITY": Well, I think that the media will do anything to keep it alive because it is a dial-stopping story. You can't understand the public option too easily. You can understand this.

And also, as somebody who worked at "People" magazine years ago, I know that this story has particular appeal to women. I don't know if this is sexist or feminist to say it, but I know a lot of women look at that picture of him and his wife and his beautiful children and go, she's beautiful, she's smart. What is he doing? And it's a serial drama.

You know, those clips that you showed, they're doing inch by inch. Today she takes off her wedding ring. Tomorrow she files for divorce. It's going to keep going because it's something that gets attention.

KURTZ: And one of the things that gets attention is this unbelievable parade of women, the mistresses -- or some of them alleged mistresses who say they've been with Tiger Woods. Another one surfaced on television this week. Cori Rist is her name. She spoke on "The Today Show."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NATALIE MORALES, NBC NEWS: Let's get this out of the gate here. Why are you talking now?

CORI RIST, CLAIMS AFFAIR WITH TIGER WOODS: Because I'm being attacked. They're saying horrible things and very hurtful things that just are not true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Diane Dimond, should TV be providing a platform for one mistress after another, all these women who seem to want to grab a slice of fame for talking about having been with Tiger Woods?

DIMOND: My eyes glazed over after mistress number seven or eight. You know? Yes, I guess we should, because I'm a firm believer in, get all the truth out there and then make up your own mind.

That woman, I thought, was pretty brave to go on "The Today Show" and say what she did. And she seemed to be remorseful for what she did.

You know, if we say, shame on you Tiger Woods, we need to say shame on you about all these women. And I agree with Jane. I think women has a fascination about this story, maybe a prurient interest in it or something -- look at what all those women did, too.

KURTZ: But let me say to this to Jane.

I don't see the media saying shame on you to all these women. They're perfectly happy to boast about what they did.

DIMOND: You didn't read my column then.

KURTZ: Well, you're an exception.

DIMOND: Because that's exactly what I said.

HALL: Diane is pretty much alone. I mean, I agree with Diane. You know, the problem is you've got, I am sure, competing bids from all the morning shows for the alleged mistresses.

KURTZ: They're all chasing them. They all want to get...

HALL: They're all chasing them. They're all, like, we believe in you. And so, when you get one of these people on there -- and I'm not condemning them.

And Meredith Vieira did ask one of them, you know, harder questions than some of the others. But if you get access, they're not going to press them very hard and they're not going to ask, "Well, how do you feel about this? How do you feel about this relationship?"

KURTZ: And how about the standard, Jane, for what we report? For example, Cori Rist, the woman we just saw, says she never got any money from Tiger Woods. The source who says she did turns out to be her ex-husband who's involved in a custody fight.

It seems whether it's that or saying that Tiger Woods' mom is disappointed in him, I mean, it's always secondary, unnamed sources. I just wonder whether we should be retailing and repeating some of this garbage.

HALL: Well, I'm not sure that we should. You know? And the problem is, "The New York Times," "Washington Post" held off on this.

TMZ is out there, and "The National Enquirer" is out there, places that pay for this information. And you've got a weird kind of bifurcation, except now these people are coming forward. I think they should be questioned a little bit about their allegations.

DIMOND: Absolutely.

KURTZ: And on that point, Diane -- go ahead.

DIMOND: I was just going to add to that. You know, I would really like to challenge people in the media who want to cover this story to get past the screaming headlines of the next mistress's name out there and go to the core of why we are so interested in this.

You know, I think it goes -- as I wrote in my column this week, it goes to the character and the integrity of the human being here, Tiger Woods, and why do we idolize people like this? Why do we look at these celebrity athletes and celebrities in general and put them up on such pedestals when, in fact, we don't really know anything about them?

That's what I'm more interested in, rather than who paid what and, you know...

KURTZ: A lot of celebrity journalism is built on the notion of building up these people, whether they're athletes or movie stars or different kinds of boldfaced names, or Paris Hilton, or party girls, that we're fascinated about what goes on their life. And the truth is journalists don't really know. A lot of these people have walls of publicists and agents and fixers and handlers around them.

HALL: Well, you know, I think Tiger Woods, I think we underestimate the value that is attached to beauty. Tiger Woods is beautiful. His wife is beautiful. His swing is beautiful.

His narrative of this story of his father and his mother, that was all very pleasing. And apparently, what else was going on was either not reported -- I mean, it's like the steroid scandal, which to my mind is a worse story. How could these guys covering sports not notice they were bulking up at every corner?

KURTZ: Right. We talked about that.

DIMOND: Ask about Tiger.

KURTZ: Let me come back to this question with you, Diane, about what gets through the media gatekeepers. For example, it's been widely reported that Elin Nordegren is about to file for divorce.

How do we know that? She hasn't said that. No lawyer has come forward and said, "Yes, she has hired me," and yet, it's -- and it may be true, but it's become kind of an accepted fact in the media.

DIMOND: Well, no lawyer has come forward publicly and said that. But I know Gerald Posner, my colleague over at "The Daily Beast," has written extensively about this. He has got sources that I don't have. I have not reported that.

But, you know, back to the issue of character and integrity, I look at the fact that two years ago, "The National Enquirer" had -- and I'm pretty convinced of this -- had pictures of Tiger Woods and a woman in a car, in a church parking, lot doing things we don't want to discuss this morning on family television. And two years ago, Tiger Woods knew that the media was on to him, and he continued his behavior until just right before this Thanksgiving.

What kind of arrogance is that? And can he expect any privacy now? No, I don't think so.

KURTZ: Right. I'm glad you brought that up, because this was a "Wall Street Journal" report, among others, confirming this. And saying that "The National Enquirer" killed that story in 2007 involving this woman...

DIMOND: Why?

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... Mindy Lawton, who has since acknowledged being paid by some British paper that she was one of the mistresses.

Why? Because Tiger Woods gave a lot of access and a photo shoot for a profile by "Men's Fitness," which happens to be owned by the same company, American Media, as "The National Enquirer." Now, American Media says this is inaccurate and false, although it has not detailed why it is inaccurate and false.

That's a pretty amazing...

HALL: That's a pretty amazing quid pro quo. It's true, "The Wall Street Journal" has sources that they quote as being very close and very knowledgeable.

I think it gets to the question of, it's not only arrogance. It's power.

I mean, if you are a celebrity in this country, you can dictate what's written about you, because you've got all these magazines competing to have access to you. And so then you have "The National Enquirer" playing very hardball. If you don't do this, we'll print it somewhere else.

KURTZ: And not only that, I was amazed to read that "Golf Digest" pays $1 million a year to the Tiger Woods Foundation in exchange for access to him.

HALL: Yes. Right.

KURTZ: And it just seems incredible to me.

All right. Associated Press poll of sportswriters across the country has made Tiger Woods the Athlete of the Decade. Some of the voting took place before the scandal broke, a half afterwards.

What do you think about that, Diane Dimond? Should we only deal with his athletic abilities in that kind of context, or would we have to consider the whole man?

DIMOND: Well, I think we're looking at it as Monday morning quarterbacks now, because I think the voting took place before all this happened. KURTZ: Only about half of it.

DIMOND: Oh, really? Oh, that's interesting.

It goes to the point exactly of why we adore the people that we adore who are in the public spotlight. I mean, to me, a man who wantonly goes out and is with barfly women while his wife is home pregnant is not a man to be voted the best of anything.

I mean, I don't care that he can play golf, Howie. My husband does. He's a great golfer.

I don't care that he can play golf. In the game of life, to me, Tiger Woods is a loser.

KURTZ: A brief comment.

HALL: Well, you know, Chris Brown was getting a Teen Choice Award after he was arrested for beating up his girlfriend. I think there's a double standard. I think there's a feminist point to be made about idolizing these men.

They don't tend to suffer the consequences for this behavior. They don't.

KURTZ: A subject that we should pursue on another edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, this whole question of how the media treat these people.

Jane Hall and Diane Dimond, thanks very much for joining us.

DIMOND: My pleasure.

KURTZ: Up next, morning man George Stephanopoulos interviews the likes of Robert Downey Jr. as he debuts on "Good Morning America." Top critics on the former Clinton aide's challenging transition in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Some people said, don't do it, George. Stay on Sunday morning, where you belong. Others said, that's silly, George would make a fine morning show host if he could just learn to loosen up a little.

Everyone, it seems, had an opinion on whether George Stephanopoulos should abandon his "This Week" franchise and jump to "Good Morning America."

Well, Stephanopoulos has now saddled along Robin Roberts, so we can judge him by his performance.

White House adviser David Axelrod didn't do Stephanopoulos any favors by reminding viewers of his Democratic past. And George gamely tried to talk about himself and deal with some of the lighter issues.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": He's one of the president's closest advisers, has an office right next to the president, David Axelrod.

Good morning, David.

DAVID AXELROD, SR. ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: It used to be your office, George.

(LAUGHTER)

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's right. A long, long time ago.

AXELROD: I want you to know that your friends in the White House have chipped in to get you this gift. It's an alarm clock.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's interesting, this whole coupon code thing. You do much online shopping? You know, it's...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Not so much.

ROBERTS: Wrestler? Wrestler, really? Seriously?

STEPHANOPOULOS: I thought I blocked all of that out. I was. I'm not a very good wrestler. I set my high school record for ties, for draws.

ROBERTS: I'm just seeing you in the headgear and everything.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I had the whole thing.

We're going to find out who has the recipe for victory. These guys look serious this morning.

Good morning America. I'm George Stephanopoulos. ROBERTS: And I'm Robin Roberts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And joining us now to talk about the Stephanopoulos switch and Charlie Gibson's final week as ABC anchor, in New York, Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large for Mediaite.com. And in Chicago, Phil Rosenthal, media critic for "The Chicago Tribune."

Phil Rosenthal, this was obviously a big adjustment for Stephanopoulos. How did he do?

PHIL ROSENTHAL, MEDIA CRITIC, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I mean, I think it's a week in. It's tough to say. But I think he's a little stiff.

I think this is a new venture. But the whole point of putting him in this show, I think they think he'll get better. I think they think he'll get good. But part of it is to see if he can pick up these skills in the first place. KURTZ: Rachel Sklar, did Stephanopoulos seem to you to fit in with the tone of early morning network television?

RACHEL SKLAR, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, MEDIAITE.COM: Well, he certainly seemed to fit in with the first hour. It's always the second hour that is the challenge.

I think that -- you know what? I think he'll be fine if he loosens up and if he embraces the subject matter. That's really the question.

You know, if you're going to do morning TV, you have to not only want to interview David Axelrod, but you have to want to cook with gusto and talk about online shopping, and do celebrity interviews and talk about Tiger Woods. So, I think that if he is open to that, and he does that and doesn't look like he's wrinkling his nose in distaste when he does it, then he'll be great.

KURTZ: Well, Stephanopoulos told me he actually likes to cook.

Jane Hall, you decided to stick around to weigh in here. How do you think he fit in with "Good Morning America"?

HALL: I think he did OK. You know, this has been a stepping stone in the past. Tom Brokaw was on there. There's more fluff than there used to be on there, so he better be ready to cook with the stars if he's going to want to do this, which is different from the Washington officials.

KURTZ: And Phil, picking up on Rachel's point about whether he's willing to fully embrace all the things you do on morning television, there were times -- I thought he got better as the week went on. There were times it seemed like they had planted us (ph) that he was avoiding some of the lighter stuff, almost sort of like doing a show within a show.

ROSENTHAL: Yes. I don't think he -- here is the thing -- you can't have contempt for what your audience is interested in. And the people that tune in to "Good Morning America" have a broad base of interest.

They want to know about what's going on in the White House, but they do want to know what they can cook over the holidays and that sort of thing. They want to know about what's going on with Tiger Woods.

You can dig into those interviews. I mean, Bryant Gumbel certainly didn't have a whole lot of taste for that sort of thing when he was at "Today," but he didn't dismiss it. He didn't refuse to engage. And I think that's going to be the challenge for him.

I think, you know, he's got certain skills that he's shown. And this is a place where he's going to have to show a lot more and sort of open up the entire paint box.

KURTZ: Right. Now, Rachel, Stephanopoulos was honest at one point. He was doing an interview with a woman about online shopping. He says, "Well, I don't really do any online shopping." But it maybe made him seem slightly unplugged.

SKLAR: You know what? It's time for him to flex a few different muscles.

I'm sure that he read up on all of his guests when he was doing and still doing "This Week." Time to go online and surf the Net. Time to embrace everything.

You know, he's got to read up on it. He's got to engage with his co-hosts. They've got to just get to that natural place.

And I think it's possible. It's like they should all just go out for karaoke. If he can embrace a night of karaoke with his co-hosts, then he'll be fine.

KURTZ: Well, I'm sure he surfs the Net. He's probably going more to Politico.

What do you think about that point?

HALL: Well, you know, I think that he also needs to interact with Robin Roberts. I mean, she's no slouch. And that -- not "chemistry." It's not the right word. But they need to have a good balance on the show because she's already the established person. He's the newcomer.

KURTZ: Speaking of that, Phil, every review I read made a reference to the height disparity between Robin Roberts, who is rather tall, and George Stephanopoulos. Is that unfair, or is it part of a critic's job to point such things out?

ROSENTHAL: Are you asking me?

KURTZ: I'm asking you, Phil Rosenthal.

ROSENTHAL: OK, I'm sorry. I missed that part of it.

I would say, you know, people are always going to obsess on physical traits. That's the easy shorthand for things. The people are going to talk about haircuts, they're going to talk about what -- if he decides to wear a tie, not wear a tie, what suits. I think that's the sort of thing -- you know, it's the kind of thing that nobody cares about after a point, and it only becomes a matter if they let it get to be a matter.

You know, it was important that you had two women on the couch for a time with Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts until it didn't matter. I think that's just something people are going to notice right off the bat, and either it becomes a factor or it doesn't.

I don't think it long term is a problem unless they fail to connect. And then you're going to be looking for reasons why. SKLAR: Connecting. That's the key word here. You know, if he embraces it, doesn't care about it, if they kibbutz about it, great. That's all in the vein of the hour. But I think that's how you connect to viewers, is to have that genuine warmth and appreciation and not sort of be putting on any airs.

KURTZ: Right. And you do have to talk about yourself and your family, and the fact that you were once a wrestler, which he did this week.

Does this, Jane Hall, bring Stephanopoulos one step closer to inheriting the anchor chair eventually after Diane Sawyer steps down?

HALL: It's possible. It's possible.

You know, I was just thinking that it will erase more of the Clinton era. You know, he started out as a Clinton-era guy. You know, Tim Russert always said...

KURTZ: That's how he became famous.

HALL: Right. Tim Russert always said that as long as the door only swings one way, you can swing out, but you can't come back. If his career move is to go forward to the "World News." this may be a good career move. It will take away -- the Sunday morning shows still bring up his Clinton-era credentials.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, the reason the "World News" chair is vacant, at least until Monday, when Diane Sawyer takes over, is that Charlie Gibson had his last night on Friday night. And he talked about it on the air, and there was some tributes. And he really is a guy who has been there for 35 years. It really was kind of an end of an era.

Let's roll some of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So why now?

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Why now?

ROBERTS: Yes.

GIBSON: There's no one reason, but it's better to walk off the stage a little early. I have been anchored, been lucky enough to anchor, one of ABC's major broadcasts for almost a quarter of a century. And it's just time. And you find -- I'm more tired now on a Friday night than I was when I was doing this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Charlie, let me say thank you to you for your extraordinary career. And you've always been a class act. It means a lot to be able to sit here and talk to you in your last week.

GIBSON: You're kind to say that. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: After over 40 years in television, your absence will leave a gaping hole in our business.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: You really have been a great guy and a great competitor. A great competitor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Phil Rosenthal, Charlie Gibson told me he felt it's time to move on, but that, "Two days a week, I feel like the dumbest idiot in the world forgiving up this job."

He did bring a lot of stability to ABC News. Did he not?

ROSENTHAL: He did. You know, it's funny. ABC, as you'll recall, was going to go back a generation after Peter Jennings' death. They were going to go with Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, and then Bob Woodruff got into that incident in Iraq.

KURTZ: He was badly injured, yes.

ROSENTHAL: Badly injured. And they had to rethink the whole thing for a while. And so they went with age and stability, and Charlie Gibson got pulled off -- well, probably off a retirement track at that time...

KURTZ: Yes, he was going to step down.

ROSENTHAL: ... and put into the job. You know, he had given them years of good service on their very profitable "Good Morning America," so this was a just reward for a job he probably wanted in the first place.

KURTZ: Right. Let me go to Rachel, because we're short...

ROSENTHAL: He wanted to get through a presidential cycle. I think the same thing is happening now with Sawyer.

KURTZ: He certainly wanted to get through that campaign and the inauguration.

Rachel Sklar, Gibson also said that, "Objectivity is not universally in favor in our business these days, but it's critically important."

He is not a fan of all the opinion mongering that goes on, on the airwaves.

SKLAR: Well, that's what the 6:30 news half hour is sort of the last bastion of, that objective news hour. And, you know, for the three big anchors, that's their space for that.

Even the sort of kibbutzing stuff that Brian Williams and Katie Couric do, they do that outside of that space. So I think it's an important point to be made. And Charlie Gibson is a perfect person, for him to have made it, because he does not engage in any of that. Frankly, I was surprised to see Muppets in his farewell.

KURTZ: I've got to go. Oh, that's right. Well, the president was right, Charlie has been a class act.

Rachel Sklar, Phil Rosenthal, Jane Hall, thanks for sticking around.

After the break, party animals. The president meets the press in a holiday mixer, and not surprisingly, Obama's guest list looks a little different than last year.

I'll have an eyewitness report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: I went to the press party at the White House this week, and it was clear that things had changed from the last administration. It wasn't just the addition of oysters, tasty as those were. The guest list, not surprisingly, leaned to the left.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): I'm not talking about the reporters and editors, though some might disagree with that assessment. But Arianna Huffington was there, and The Nation's Ari Melber, and Josh Marshall of "Talking Points Memo." You sure didn't see them during the Bush years.

On the other ideological side, Laura Ingraham and Hugh Hewitt were off the guest list, but talk about the holiday spirit -- Bill O'Reilly and Fox News chairman Roger Ailes -- there he is chatting with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow -- showed up at the TV party.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: The president and first lady were very gracious to me. This is the first time I've spoken to Michelle Obama, and I was impressed. She's charismatic, articulate and beautiful.

KURTZ: Now, this is just a low-key social evening, not like the black tie White House Correspondents Dinner, where news organizations vie to bring the biggest Hollywood stars as guests. But a little business gets done amid the eating and drinking.

I got a chance to chat with press secretary Robert Gibbs and the outgoing communications director, Anita Dunn. I hadn't seen her since we had this conversation...

ANITA DUNN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: The reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party. KURTZ: The highlight of the evening, as it has been over the years, is getting your picture taken with the president and first lady. In fact, tremors went through the press corps when rumors surfaced that Obama might dispense with the receiving line.

Come on. This is the picture that you send home to mom.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: But the president chose not to dis the press. And I jokingly thanked him for keeping the media in business with all his interviews. He smiled and said, "What else would you guys have to talk about?"

Touche.

But the slimmed-down guest list meant that not all the regulars could get in, including one "Washington Post" columnist who had ticked off the White House with a snarky piece on Michelle Obama.

Dana Milbank tried to pull a Salahi.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA MILBANK, "WASHINGTON POST": This is not the change we need.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're not invited.

MILBANK: Anybody have an extra ticket?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three hundred and fifty...

MILBANK: I can get a red sari for less than that.

KURTZ (voice-over): Poor Dana was reduced to visiting the Wax Museum.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Now, even with the shrimp and the crab and the presidential photo, did the party-going journalists cut the White House more slack? No way. It's just a two-hour timeout from the adversarial wars. But I guess those who were excluded might feel slightly resentful toward Obama.

But Dana will get over it, I think.

Still to come, the call girl's new calling. "The New York Post" finds new talent from an old sex scandal.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: I can say one thing about The New York Post's new advice columnist, and she has experience. Unfortunately, her experience is a high-priced hooker. And not just any hooker. Her $4,000 session with Eliot Spitzer helped bring back the New York governor, and now Ashley Dupre is back. She's even taking a swipe at Tiger Woods' mistresses for lacking discretion. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ (voice-over): You remember the headlines and the pictures, especially the pictures. But for her new career, Dupre has traded her old attire for a business suit and glasses.

ASHLEY DUPRE, "NEW YORK POST": Hi, I'm Ashley Dupre. I used to be on the front page of "The New York Post." Now I'm writing for it.

Ask me anything about love, sex and relationships. Is there telltale signs that your husband isn't happy in his marriage? Readers, fire away.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Talk about an extreme makeover.

Look, Spitzer writes for Slate and pops up on MSNBC, and is one of the authors today of a "New York Times" opinion piece on financial reform. Why shouldn't his call girl be able to capitalize on this scandal as well? I guess everyone deserves a second chance.

And John King, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, glad you were able to visit your 48th state, Hawaii. What a hard assignment that was.

KING: Tough one, Howie. That was a tough one.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: As you know, the media portraying the 60th vote for the Senate Democrats on health care as being a hard-fought victory. But anyone who has ever lived through a House/Senate conference committee knows, to quote Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'till it's over."

KING: It certainly isn't. And you heard David Axelrod earlier today saying they're on the one-yard line. Well, we're going to have that 60th vote, Ben Nelson, here.

And you made an interesting point in the last hour. Look, these personalities, how do you get the last vote, that is important. But our number one job here is how they're going to pay for it, how much would it cost, what would it do to your health care policy. And I hope we keep that part of the mission even as we cover the very interesting characters and personalities in the debate as well.

KURTZ: I would assess to the American people, that's the key. All right, John. Over to you.

KING: Take care, Howie, you have a great Sunday.