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Raging Rumors; Stuck in Neutral

Aired February 14, 2010 - 11:00   ET



HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Raging rumors. The press trumpets unsubstantiated allegations against David Paterson based on chatter about what "The New York Times" might report on the governor.

Stuck in neutral. Why did news organizations all but ignore the long history of Toyota's troubles?

Ladies in the limelight. Michelle Obama defends her man and Sarah Palin consults her hand.

Plus, dirty little secret -- how to do a TV report without breaking a sweat.


KURTZ: First came the rumors on the Web. Then the mainstream media covered the rumors, the allegations about the rumored "New York Times" story that had not yet been published. Then the rumors ratcheted up to say The Times piece was about to come out and that David Paterson would resign.

It didn't and he didn't, but New York's governor felt compelled to respond in a news conference. Again, without a single verifiable fact being reported.


MARCIA KRAMER, CBS 2 NEWS: In a state known for its odd political developments, this is right up there in the top 10 list. Not only has no story been published yet, but Governor Paterson is lashing back at what he calls an orchestrated, scandalous assault on his character. The governor says it's all false.

GOV. DAVID PATERSON (D), NEW YORK: The article will be written about other subjects and not the ones that have been the source of the mass speculation and feeding frenzy and circus we have witnessed the last couple of weeks...


KURTZ: So, how on earth do media organizations justify reporting what's essentially damaging gossip from an unpublished story? Joining us now in New York, Marcia Kramer, chief political reporter for WCBS, and Joanna Molloy, columnist for "The New York Daily News."

Marcia Kramer, when the rumors first surfaced that "The New York Times" was supposedly, allegedly working on some kind of bombshell story about David Paterson, but before the governor said anything, did you consider going on the air with it?

KRAMER: You know, I knew about it three weeks before he actually talked, and I did not ever consider going on the air with it. But, you know, it was rampant.

The Times had a team of reporters asking questions, and they talked to dozens and dozens of people in New York politics. And they talked to everybody. But were we going to go on TV with it? No.

KURTZ: Joanna Molloy, I'm looking at the tabloid covers. Here's the one in your newspaper, "Captain Chaos." We can put some of the other ones up on the screen.

"New York Post": "I did not have sex with that woman." We don't know who that woman is.

And so my question is, why did The Daily News and "The Huffington Post" and a zillion other Web sites run with rumors about alleged scurrilous conduct by New York's governor based on something that we thought another newspaper might or might not report?

JOANNA MOLLOY, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": This Times story has been like "Waiting for Godot." I was hoping to open it, The Times, this morning and finally read it.

But first the blog put it up. Something called "Business Insider," which is owned by a man named Henry Blodget, who actually was ousted from the finance industry by Eliot Spitzer, they put it up, as Governor Paterson said, in the first quarter of the Super Bowl. "Huffington Post" put it up shortly thereafter. And, you know, Arianna Huffington...

KURTZ: And it just kind of snowballed. It just kind of snowballed.


KURTZ: Eliot Spitzer, of course, the former New York governor who resigned in that prostitution scandal, clearing the way for Lieutenant Governor David Paterson to take the top job.

And I'm looking at some of these stories in the early days. Fred Dicker, "New York Post" columnist, says these are rumors -- "Maybe you heard the one about the wild sex and drug parties at the executive mansion."

Here's Elizabeth Benjamin in The Daily News: "The rumor mill running over time. A major newspaper about to drop a bombshell story about Paterson that will be far worse than his acknowledged extramarital affair with a former state employee."

But now, Marcia Kramer, once the governor starts talking about this and lashing out at the media, then you have to cover it, right?

KRAMER: Well, that becomes the story. I mean, the governor decided that he would, for whatever reason -- because we know The Times is still working on this story and maybe it will still publish the story. So the governor decided that his strategy would be to talk about it to try to kill it.

And, you know, once he started talking about it publicly, and not only did an interview with The Associated Press, but went on Larry King's show and went on radio shows, and every day it kept getting -- the hyperbole kept getting more and more and more, I mean, you had to cover it. I mean, he's the governor of the state of New York.

KURTZ: He is the governor of the state of New York talking about allegations that he is understandably upset about because they haven't actually been published.

And Joanna Molloy, you criticized the governor, saying that he should have kept his mouth shut, and by going on that mini media offensive, he was assuring fresh headlines and sleazy gossip. But what's the guy supposed to do? Doesn't he have a right to defend himself?

MOLLOY: I think that he looks off focus. We have an $8 billion to $10 billion deficit in New York that he should be taking care of. And if everything is false, I think he should keep the blinders on and take care of business.

KURTZ: It's funny. I don't see the $8 billion to $10 billion deficit on the front page of "The New York Post" here -- "I did not have sex with that woman. It doesn't seem to be the big New York buzz story.

You mentioned among the stops on the media tour for David Paterson was "LARRY KING LIVE." And he was asked, as we'll see in just a moment, ,about how these rumors came about, whether someone was pushing them.

Let's watch.


LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Is somebody after you?

PATERSON: Well, clearly somebody is. Three different media outlets were contacted in the first quarter of the Super Bowl, and they called us before the first quarter could end to confirm that the governor is resigning over a scandal. And there was no such conversation about resigning because none of this is true . It's a flat-out lie.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: And Marcia Kramer, it's no secret that some Democrats in the state don't want David Paterson to run for re-election. It sounds like the media may have been manipulated here.

KRAMER: Well, you know, you held up two headlines just a moment ago from "The New York Post" and "The New York Daily News." But there was actually a more dangerous and difficult headline for Governor Paterson a few weeks before that, when "The New York Post" caught him having lunch, I guess, with a woman, not his wife, at a New Jersey steakhouse dressed in what some in state government have called a purple disco shirt.

Now, his first response to that was to say, "She's on my staff," which is not true. And the second response was to say that he was on his way to a meeting for Haitian relief, which you wouldn't go dressed like that.

And it was such a difficult headline for him, that the following Monday he went to a King Day celebration with his wife to show that they were still together. And in the court of public opinion, I mean, maybe it was an innocent lunch, but it was a lunch where he went to New Jersey, he met a woman, not his wife, and it looked bad for him. Whether it was or not remains to be seen. But in the court of public opinion, that was not a good story for him.

KURTZ: OK. But at least that's a story that had some actual substance to it. It was actual --

KRAMER: Yes, but that made the rest of the rumors take on a new credence, because you saw it -- just, right as all the rumors about The Times investigating him came to fore, there was that headline and those pictures with that woman who really existed. So, that, in the court of public opinion, and also in the chattering classes, I would say, gave -- people felt, well, they had to check out the other rumors they were hearing because of that Post story.

KURTZ: Checking out rumors is one thing. Publishing and whispering about rumors --

KRAMER: I agree.

KURTZ: -- as you know, is something else.

And let's talk about "The New York Times" role here, Joanna Molloy.

The paper basically has been pursuing this story, is doing a big profile piece, has interviewed the governor for an hour and a half, hasn't said much about what it's working on. This morning, the executive editor of The Times, Bill Keller, telling his paper's ombudsman that to make some kind of statement just spreads these rumors, gives it an aura of credibility.

For The Times to issue a statement saying we are not investigating rumors about the sex life or drug use or financial shenanigans of public figure X doesn't clear the good name of public figure X.

What do you think? Should The Times say more than that?

MOLLOY: I don't think that they should comment on an ongoing story. One of the reporters is Serge Kovaleski. He's an excellent reporter. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on former Governor Spitzer in a team effort. And I think it's ridiculous that Governor Paterson asked The Times to address that now.

I think that Governor Paterson is a bit paranoid. He doesn't seem to understand the way that the blogs work now. In other words, if he got three phone calls during the Super Bowl, it simply means that people saw "The Huffington Post" posting. And Arianna Huffington believes -- she has said this -- in putting up a story fast and letting itself correct.

KURTZ: Well, but you can't self-correct when we don't even know what the actual allegations are, because this is all predicated on something that "The New York Times" might or might not report. There's still no more.

Marcia Kramer, I want to give you the last word on whether or not you look back the last 10 days, whether you think the media have just gone way overboard here in New York.

KRAMER: Well, what I think is it's sort of part of the blog culture. The blogs put it up and then the mainstream press put it up.

I mean, I didn't think it was responsible to write those stories. But once the governor talked about it, there was no choice. It was the governor of New York talking about this whole thing.

KURTZ: Right. But he was, of course, kind of forced to do that. And my two cents is --

KRAMER: Well, that's the question, as to whether he really was forced or he could have just kept quiet and continued to do the work of government.

KURTZ: We can debate that, I suppose, as a matter of political strategy. As a question of media ethics, I think this was a humiliating moment for the press, for the blogosphere, for all of us collectively, to report something based on a whisper of a rumor, of a possibility that a newspaper can report something really bad, perhaps devastating. But the story hasn't come out.

I think this is Exhibit A in why people do not like journalists, why they think that we go way too far when we don't have the goods.

Marcia Kramer, Joanna Molloy, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

When we come back, tackling Toyota. The press gearing up over safety problems that began years ago but rarely made headlines. Were journalists stuck in neutral when it really mattered?


KURTZ: Ever since the press went into overdrive on the safety problems at Toyota, there's been plenty of blame to go around. It turns out the Japanese automaker with a sterling reputation has had its share of manufacturing defects in the past, and federal regulators failed to crack down.


BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS: Some Toyota owners have been in rebellion. As they say, the company ignored their repeated reports of problems involving both those brakes and the more serious issue of uncontrolled acceleration.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it received some 2,000 complaints, and this is for the sudden acceleration dating back to 2004.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the situation, but it turns out that the agency was warned back in 2008 about accelerator problems in other Toyota models and they did nothing.


KURTZ: But one question has gone largely unanswered in the debacle: Where were the media? Did they give the company a pass for its safety issues over the years? And why did journalists pay so little attention to the Toyota investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?

Joining us now in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is Micheline Maynard, who covers the auto industry for "The New York Times" and is the author of the book "The Selling of the American Economy: How Foreign Companies are Remaking the American Dream."



KURTZ: I don't think it's an overstatement to say that Toyota had an absolutely golden reputation in the press until the wheels came off, so to speak, in recent months.

Should journalists have been more aggressive about Toyota's past safety problems?

MAYNARD: You know, Howie, there actually were recalls back in 2005. And Toyota took a lot of hilts back then. And their president came out and bowed low and apologized and said, we're putting a committing to and we're going to investigate these recalls and they won't happen again.

And actually, after a couple of years, the recalls died down a little bit. And I think because things calmed down, that people were not keeping an eye as much as they could have been on what was going on at Toyota until the terrible accident last fall that involved the deaths of about four people in California and a floor mat that got entangled in the accelerator pedal.

KURTZ: I have in my hand here a story that you co-authored on the front page of The Times in 2006 saying that, "Toyota has a growing problem with recalls that is sullying its carefully-honed image." But that story didn't seem to be widely picked up, it didn't resonate. Maybe The Times should have followed up more, but you say the problem subsided.

MAYNARD: The problem seemed to subside. And we have data on their recalls worldwide, and they actually dropped substantially. But there have always been problems.

And I want to just say that this sudden acceleration issue is a problem for many automakers. People might remember back to the 1980s, when Audi had issues with sudden acceleration on the Audi 5000. It was the subject of a famous investigation by "60 Minutes," and the company fought very hard against those allegations. So this isn't a new problem in the auto industry.

It is an issue that we had not seen before at Toyota. The defects seemed to be for other problems, but not for the sticking pedal issue.

KURTZ: Now, Warren Brown, "The Washington Post" car columnist who we hoped to have on this morning but he couldn't make it, has written rather forcefully that the media have gone very easy on what he calls "Saint Toyota" and playing up the admitted manufacturing problems and quality control problems of the big Detroit automakers, while not, perhaps, in his view, applying the same standard to Toyota.

Your thoughts on that?

MAYNARD: That's something that we've heard for years from the Detroit car companies. And essentially, it was happening when the Detroit car companies were recalling a lot more vehicles than Toyota simply because they sold a lot more vehicles than Toyota.

I do think that Toyota's reputation, until the last six months or so, did get something of a pass from the media. I think one of the reasons is that they've sold a lot of cars to a lot of satisfied buyers. And if you're not hearing constantly from people who are upset about their cars, you tend to think that maybe the cars are pretty good.

KURTZ: Well, this is interesting. The "Los Angeles Times," as well as ABC News, has done a very good job recently on this. Here is an "LA Times" story from early November. More than 1,000 Toyota and Lexus owners have reported since 2001 that their vehicles suddenly accelerated on their own. That did not get widely picked up.

And then the same day, coincidentally, there was a story, and "The New York Times" gave this four paragraphs on page four of the auto section saying -- "The Washington Post" didn't cover it at all, as far as I can tell -- saying that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has publicly rebuked Toyota, accusing it of putting out inaccurate and misleading information about this acceleration problem.

Why didn't that set off more alarm bells in the press?

MAYNARD: I think it should have set off more alarm bells in the press. And I think that the whole way Toyota has handled this situation, you know, first they said it was pedals that could get stuck under the accelerator. And they said it's not a problem with sudden acceleration.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, they recalled millions and millions of cars because of this potentially sticking pedal issue. And now they're saying -- people are saying, is it the electronics on these cars? And Toyota is saying absolutely not, they have a study showing it's not the electronics. But, you know, if it turns out to be the electronics, then you would have had several cases in a row where Toyota's credibility comes into question.

KURTZ: Before these spate of problems, did Toyota have these brilliant PR wizards who enable the company to get such good, favorable, I would say even glowing, coverage? And I've owned both American cars and Toyotas, and they're pretty good cars. Or do you think it's that the press likes a winner, and as Toyota sold more and more cards and became the world's number one automaker, the favorable publicity just followed?

MAYNARD: There's a couple things that Toyota did have over the last let's just say 20 years.

First of all, they built factory ins the United States. They built them in Kentucky and Indiana and down in Alabama and Texas. And so when you do that, you pick up people for your team. So you had all these governors.

Mississippi is a great example. Haley Barbour, Trent Lott, they vowed to be warriors for Toyota. So they had people on their side in Washington.

They've always had a big cocktail party in Washington at Christmastime, and people like John Dingell, who is the Democratic representative from Michigan, have shown up at Toyota events. They did a very good job of making sure that their message got across in sort of neutralizing their Japanese heritage.

And I also think they used to have someone -- Jim Olson (ph) -- who is in New York for Toyota who would take on anybody, take on Lee Iacocca. He'd take on General Motors and he would fight very hard for Toyota's image. And he was available. And to be honest, to the media, when someone is available, that goes a long way to helping their image.

KURTZ: Availability definitely helps.

Well, my two cents is think -- I think these stories, these problems could have gotten a lot wider play earlier if there were more journalists in this era of downsized newspapers and magazines who covered the federal regulatory agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because the reports were there, the investigations were there, and NHTSA didn't always follow up. And it reminds me of the financial crisis, when we suddenly went back after the system imploded at looked at the SEC's failure to be aggressive and looked at some of the banking agency's failure to be more aggressive with unsavory Wall Street practices. Or when there's a mining disaster and suddenly we then check on the Federal Mining Agency perhaps not doing as aggressive a job as it should.

This is where I think journalism is falling down on the job.

Very happy to have your perspective. Micheline Maynard, thanks for joining us from Ann Arbor.

Before I toss to break here, I want to bring up one other media issue.

Last night, for those of you have been following the Olympics, Bob Costas went on the air on NBC and said that NBC would no longer be showing that heartrending video of the Georgian athlete who was killed while training for the luge. And I think that's the right call.

It was a tragedy that needed to be covered. NBC, as the network that is carrying the Olympics, obviously had to show it. Didn't necessarily have to show it several times, as was the case. Several other networks showed the video that was provided by NBC.

They all gave the sort of viewer discretion warning, you may be disturbed by what's coming up. I'm not sure those warnings were completely adequate or left enough time for people to change the channel.

But at this point, we get it. It's a tragedy. It should be covered. It should be investigated.

We don't need to see that video looped again and again. And I'm glad NBC is pulling the plug on that.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, after six months without facing the White House Press Corps, President Obama takes some questions and talks of bipartisan cooperation. But the pundits don't seem to be buying it.

Plus, the media find a new reason to mock Sarah Palin -- well, she kind of handed it to them.

And later, one man spills the beans about what TV reporting is really about.



CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION" (voice-over): Seven government officials, politicians and analysts have had their say on this morning's talk shows. But only the best make it to STATE OF THE UNION: SOUND OF SUNDAY.


CROWLEY: U.S. and NATO sources continue their assault aimed at clearing out a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Once that area is cleared, it will be up to the Afghan government to maintain stability. The president's national security adviser says he's confident President Hamid Karzai can hold up that end of the operation.


GEN. JAMES JONES (RET.), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I personally met with the president in Munich just over a week ago. And I had, over the five, six years that I have known him, I have had the best meeting with him and the most -- I left more confident now than I have been at any time in the past.


CROWLEY: One of the Obama administration's fiercest critics in matters of national security was out and about this Sunday. Former Vice President Dick Cheney offered a litany of criticisms including the Obama administration's decision to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court.


RICHARD CHENEY, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's the mindset that concerns me, John. I think it's very important to go back and keep in mind the distinction between handling these events as criminal acts, which is the way we did before 9/11, and then looking at 9/11 and saying this is not a criminal act, not when you destroy 16 acres in Manhattan, kill 3,000 Americans and blow a hole in the Pentagon. That's an act of war.


CROWLEY: As a counterpoint to Cheney's criticisms, the administration put out Vice President Joe Biden, who dismissed Cheney's assertions and challenged his facts.


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All I know is he is factually, substantively wrong on the major criticisms he is asserting. Why he's insisting on that, he either is misinformed or he is misinforming. But the facts are that his assertions are not accurate.


CROWLEY: Still, despite what that my may sound like, bipartisanship is not dead, not when it comes to Afghanistan. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY: Well, I'm a complete supporter what they're doing in Afghanistan. I think the president made the right decision to send troops into Afghanistan. I thought it took him a while to get there.


CROWLEY: And finally, on the issue of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," General Jones, a Marine for over 40 years, says despite his earlier opposition, he now believes gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military.


JONES: This is a policy that has to evolve with the social norms of what's acceptable and what's not.

CROWLEY: So it's time to lift it? You think it is broke now?

JONES: I think times have changed. I think I was very much taken by Admiral Mullen's view that young men and women who wish to serve their country should not have to lie in order to do that.


CROWLEY: Now back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: It's very interesting, isn't it, that the White House put out Joe Biden to counter Dick Cheney, whose appearances get so much attention, setting up kind of a battle of the veeps?

Now, I'm not going to take any credit here. I'm sure it was just a coincidence that President Obama walked in to the briefing room and took some questions this week, the day after I wrote about how he had gone six months without a news conference and how many White House correspondents were frustrated that he had essentially been ducking them.

When the president did, he was still singing the song of bipartisanship, about how he had invited Republican leaders to a summit meeting on health care in an effort to find common ground. But the GOP was insisting on tearing up the bill, starting from scratch, and the press was skeptical.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After meeting with you, John Boehner came out and told us the House can't pass the health care bill it once passed, the Senate can't pass the health care bill it once passed.

Why would we have a conversation about legislation that can't pass?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I agree with is that the public has soured on the process that they saw over the last year. And this gives an opportunity not just for Democrats to say here is what we think we should do, but it also gives Republicans a showcase before the entire country to say here is our plan, here is why we think this will work.


KURTZ: The reaction just as sharply divided in the pundit world, with conservatives saying the president is in denial over his agenda and liberals ripping the Republicans as obstructionists.


CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think the president is at sea. He's just had his entire agenda of year one rejected. And I think he's talked himself into believing that it's because of process and not substance.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Republicans still advocating "Do it our way" as the only course for health care bipartisanship.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Why would they want to keep pushing something that the public is overwhelmingly against?


KURTZ: So is the press prepared to assign blame for this endless gridlock or just report it as a natural paralysis, a political version of the snowpocalypse that has hit D.C. this week?

Joining us in Atlanta, Debra Saunders, columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle." In New York, Keli Goff, political blogger for And here in Washington, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun-Times."

Lynn Sweet, Obama keeps talking about bipartisanship. He wants to meet with Republicans, hold hands, sing songs. I don't know.

Is the press right to be reacting so skeptically?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES Well, sure, because nothing in Congress has happened in a bipartisan year for the first year of the Obama White House, no major legislation that has passed has done so in any bipartisan roll call. So, this upcoming February 25th bipartisan meeting that Obama is calling is a chance to see, once again -- and I guess the press will evaluate -- is it real bipartisanship or just some kind of a showcase?

KURTZ: Or a big photo-op, or the appearance of bipartisanship.

Debra Saunders, the tone in the media about the Republicans, it seems to me, is that this is the party of no, and the leaders aren't really interested in a deal on anything, even a quick compromise jobs bill collapse. And they've got a much smaller version now.

So, is this fair or unfair, the way the Republicans are being treated? DEBRA SAUNDERS, COLUMNIST, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, I think it's unfair. In fact, every time I see Barack Obama get up and talk about petty politics and how he wants to be bipartisan, I know he's going to be pointing the finger at the party that doesn't control the White House, doesn't control the Senate and doesn't control the House.

And then I just see basically a lot of media people just sitting back and watching him do it and talking about how the GOP is obstructionist. I'm not saying that there isn't an element of truth to that, but who has the power? So why are we blaming the people who don't?

KURTZ: Well, one reason, I suppose, Keli Goff, would be that the Republicans haven't barely provided more than one or two votes for anything the president has tried to do, beginning with the economic stimulus package. But the Republicans will say that, particularly, Nancy Pelosi just runs rough shot over them in the House. Some people think the Republicans did that when they controlled.

So what's your take?

KELI GOFF, POLITICAL BLOGGER: Well, to Debra's point, I mean, something that I've written about, Howard, is the fact that I think the GOP hasn't actually been Barack Obama's biggest problem his first year in office. I actually would argue that it's been progressives.

They've sort of backed him into a corner. I think there's this fearful perspective in terms of what can happen to him in a primary. And so there is a perception, whether fair or not, I think, among a lot of people that he's been sort of backed into a corner --


KURTZ: So are you saying the media have missed the story and that, really, the story is a bit of a civil war within the Democratic Party and not Republicans not wanting to give this president any legislative achievements?

GOFF: I think the answer is it's both. I don't think it's either/or. I think it's actually both. And I think, though, that it's a sexier news story to say that it's the GOP versus Obama, as opposed to saying that there is a bit inter-party warfare going on here.

But, Howard, look, we have to look at the poll numbers. I mean, the White House is actually smart. The poll numbers show that the majority of Americans do see it that way. I mean, 62 percent of Americans now think that Obama is trying harder to work with the GOP, and the same number I think that the GOP is not trying to work with him. That's according to the poll that came out a couple of days ago.

KURTZ: But they're also fed up with the fact that not much is getting done.

And you have been shaking your head, Lynn Sweet. So -- SWEET: I'm shaking my head because here is a point I want to remind everyone -- that in the Senate, Republicans are in the minority, but they have the power. Look at the power any senator has to put a hold on legislation. So, it's not quite accurate to say that the Democrats alone have all the power because of the way that the Senate is set up and the rules --

KURTZ: And in the Senate you need 60 votes --

SWEET: Or a filibuster.

KURTZ: -- the Democrats no longer have 60 votes.

SWEET: Right.

KURTZ: But let me ask you about the mere fact that the president came out on two questions. Why would a president who had in the first months of his tenure four prime-time news conference extravaganzas go six months without a news conference? Has he soured on taking questions from the likes of you and your colleagues.

SWEET: Well, I don't want -- you know, I did have that last question in that July 22nd press conference --

KURTZ: So it was you?

SWEET: Well, no, no. But I did have --

KURTZ: You asked about?

SWEET: I asked about the Cambridge police officer.

KURTZ: The Louis Gates arrest, right.

SWEET: And that created a flap. I think they just realized, from their point of view, not from the press point of view, that there's other ways to communicate, more controlled situations, without aggravating, the networks giving him prime time. He killed two birds with one stone. In this one, he was able to command a story on bipartisanship where he was the lead and answer criticisms from people like you about not having press conferences.

KURTZ: Well, Debra Saunders, White House officials tell me that the president has been interviewed just in recent weeks by Diane Sawyer, by Katie Couric, by George Stephanopoulos. He's taking questions on YouTube, average people sending in their videotapes. And they contend that these kinds of questions are just as tough as those you get from the White House Press Corps.

SAUNDERS: Well, first off, Howie, I think you should take credit. I think that that column did have something to do with the fact that they pulled the president out of the box and they had him come out.

And they said that they had been planning on doing it for two weeks. Well, why didn't they tell the press? Clearly, they're shielding him. Clearly, they're afraid of getting the kind of questions that Lynn might ask, and they're trying to cherry-pick where the interviews come from.

You know, can I just speak from a broad (ph) point of view for a second?

KURTZ: Go ahead.

SAUNDERS: Writing for the "San Francisco Chronicle," there are a lot of national media people who will come in, and they'll get interviews with Governor Schwarzenegger, Meg Whitman, who's a Republican candidate for governor, and they like to give those interviews with the national people. They don't like to give interviews with the locals, because we're going to really put their feet to the fire on local issues.

The White House is playing the same game in a different way. They don't want to have the press conferences, they want to cherry- pick who they talk to, what they talk about. So they're picking people for those one-on-one interviews. They don't want to mix it up anymore.

KURTZ: I don't think we can completely say the administration is shielding President Obama, because he has done a lot of television interviews with, obviously, experienced and respected anchors.

But, Keli Goff, to say that average people on videotape can be as aggressive -- obviously you can't follow up if you're just a disembodied voice as Chip Reid or Chuck Todd or Ed Henry or Jake Tapper or the newspaper reports at the White House, Anne Korblut, Peter Baker of "The New York Times." These are people who follow these issues very closely and are very attune to any change of nuance or contradiction with past arguments.

GOFF: Right. But, you know, I think there's another part of this story, too.

Of course I'm going to have to point this out speaking as a blogger, which is that the White House has actually been much more accessible to online media and to new media. And I think this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, because the Obama campaign, obviously, they really paved the way in terms of the standard bearers on the campaign using social network and new media. So no one should be shocked he's bringing the same perspective to the White House.

But I think we should be clear here, he's not being shielded, as you said, Howard. He's done significantly more one-on-one interviews and significantly more online than any of his predecessors ever have. So it's not entirely fair to say he's hiding.


SAUNDERS: Why didn't they tell the press ahead of time that this was going to be a briefing by the president? SWEET: Well, I don't know if that's all that important, because, you know, they're professionals. I was in the briefing room when he came out. And yes, we were surprised.

KURTZ: But it does suggest it's a last-minute decision.

I want to get to another spokesman for the administration. That, of course, is Michelle Obama.

She had a bit of a media blitz this week talking to "LARRY KING LIVE," "Good Morning America," "USA Today," the "PBS NewsHour" about her signature issue, childhood obesity. And, you know, who's against getting kids to lose weight? But of course she also opened herself up to political questions as well.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you feel when people are making light of something that was very important to the campaign and had every intent and still do to bring hope and change and make it a better world for people?

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Well, this has been a tough year for this country. You know, my husband entered office when this country was on the brink of a depression.



M. OBAMA: We were on the brink of a depression, worse than anyone really ever imagined.


KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, was the first lady sticking to some talking points there?

SWEET: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Now, I cover her quite closely, especially for politics daily. And you sometimes can see the script unroll.

And even though she had a media blitz, most -- the questioner who I thought was one of the toughest ones, actually, turned out to be Larry King, because he didn't just stick to devoting most of his conversation about her let's move anti-childhood obesity drive. He covered Haiti, Sarah Palin. He tried, at least, and I think some of those interviews, I was surprised at how the interviewers more or less stuck to the subject at hand.

KURTZ: Right.

And Debra Saunders, the White House obviously knew that once reporters and anchors got a crack at the first lady, they weren't just going to talk about childhood obesity. But on the other hand, she's probably more popular than her husband right now.

SAUNDERS: Well, she's been a very popular first lady. And I think that this childhood obesity issue, up until now it's been a great issue for her, having that kitchen garden. I mean, it's a good first lady issue, it's not political. It's, like, don't litter, everybody should read.

I think they sort of took it a little too far this time. I think that when she started talking about her daughter's body mass index, that was a little personal. She said that childhood obesity is a national security issue. I mean, then everything is a national security issue. So --


Keli Goff, quick response from you.

GOFF: Well, no. She took some criticism, ,as you know, from one of your colleagues, Robin Givhan, in a column recently about how she wasn't really defining her first lady platform. And I think this is somewhat of a response to those critics, just following the footsteps, as my mom said, of Nancy Reagan, "Just say no"; Barbara Bush, "Read."

And so I think this is a good, defining issue for her. And her approval ratings are higher than his.

KURTZ: All right.

Well, speaking of prominent women in politics, up next, Sarah Palin seizes the media spotlight again and gets pilloried for peeking at her notes. Why we just can't get enough of the woman from Wasilla.


KURTZ: It's been a big attention-grabbing week for Sarah Palin, delivering the keynote address at the first Tea Party Convention, and then the clearing on "Fox News Sunday" that she's not ruling out a run for president, which, of course, boosts her value as a Fox News commentator, even if it's all talk.

But the media coverage, on the other hand, focused on her hand. That is, the one where the former governor scribbled a few talking points for her Q&A session at the convention.

And the pundits had some fun with that.


SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKAN GOVERNOR: We've got to start reining in the spending. We have got to jump-start these energy projects that, again, we've heard so much about.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Oh, big deal. Writing notes on your hand shows she's an average Jane, not like those elites and their memory. I write basic information on my hand all the time. See?



ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I wrote a few things down. I wrote "Eggs, milk and bread." I crossed out "bread" just so I can man pancakes for Ethan if it snows. Then I wrote down "hope" and "change" just in case I forgot.


KURTZ: Keli Goff, so Governor Palin scribbled a couple notes. Why have the media pounced on this?

GOFF: Well, look, it's sort of like Dan Quayle misspelling "potato," right? Which is that it sort of plays into some preconceived notions that are already out there.

And I have to say to the chagrin of my more liberal friends, Sarah Palin is actually one of my favorite political figures, Howard. And I will admit, it's for a very selfish reason, which is that as a member of the media, there's nothing I love more than a public figure who refuses to be handled and marches to the beat of their own drummer, which gives us moments such as this one.

I think it's great. That's sort of fun. So I'm looking forward to her as a presidential candidate.

KURTZ: Well, if she runs, which I'm still skeptical of.

Debra Saunders, the press rationale seems to be that Palin makes fun of Obama for relying on his teleprompter and, therefore, here she has her little cheat sheet going.

SAUNDERS: Yes. I don't know, I think it makes us look like bullies in junior high school, the way we pick on her for stuff like this. And I don't consider Sarah Palin to be a serious political contender. But we just can't help ourselves.

You see this story with her hand, and a bunch of people have to make out and make fun of her. Then a bunch of people have to come out and defend her.

You know, it's sort of like the way the press cover Britney Spears. It's not because she's talented. It's because she's a train wreck and they like to kick her when she's down. And I think that there's an element of that with Sarah Palin.

KURTZ: Let me pick up on that with you, Debra.

Let's put up a "Washington Post"/ABC poll this week that showed that 71 percent of those surveyed do not believe that Sarah Palin is qualified to be president. And that includes a majority of Republicans, by the way.

You say, Debra, that she's not a serious political figure, but the media certainly treat her as a huge political figure.


SAUNDERS: Well, it's like they treat Britney Spears like she's a big talent. I mean, they like her because they like to make fun of her.

And as I said, I think we in the media look bad, and I think it's one of the reasons why people hate us, because we just can't -- we feel smug because we can make fun of her. And it's not as if people in television don't use teleprompters.

GOFF: I don't agree.

KURTZ: I have notes right here.

GOFF: Howard, I don't agree. I don't agree. I'm going to disagree slightly with Debra on this.

This would not be a news story if she did what every other public figure does and used note cards. The reason this is a story is because she went up there and wrote on her hand, which is not what adults do for a major significant presentation. It made her look like she wasn't ready for prime time, which, again, played into the preconceived notion of her.

KURTZ: Well, the only thing I thought was funny is that she only wrote three things. You know, taxes, energy and -- she couldn't memorize that?


KURTZ: But Lynn Sweet, let's come back to this point. Politico had a piece this week saying that the press and Sarah Palin have a symbiotic relationship, that we in the media build her up and treat her as an essential figure because she's good for box office, because people like reading about her, because people like clicking on stories about her.

SWEET: You put Sarah Palin in the headline and you get a lot of clicks on your blogs and Web sites. But here's a distinction I think people ought to make about Sarah Palin.

She might not be fit to be president in the eyes of people surveyed, but she is a leader of a movement. And that is a difference. And she still, therefore, can be a factor politically. She still is perfectly able, as we see, of throwing darts at the Obama White House.

I was a little surprised that Robert Gibbs did his hand --

KURTZ: His hand jives.

SWEET: His hand thing, and that was right after Obama gave his press conference, because, one, it drew more attention to her, which plays into her strength and gives her attention from the White House, which validates her and raises her profile even more. And if you think it is kind of childish, I just don't know why you want to go down that road.

KURTZ: All right. Just briefly, Lynn, doesn't Sarah Palin exploit the media fascination with her, especially from her new perch at Fox News?

SWEET: Darn tootin'.


KURTZ: You betcha.

SWEET: You betcha.

KURTZ: Shortest answer I've gotten all morning. All right.

Lynn Sweet, Keli Goff, Debra Saunders, thanks very much for stopping by this morning.

After the break, paint by numbers. Take a TV reporter, add some pretty pictures, a few graphics, a meaningless man on the street -- the secret sauce of electronic journalism.


KURTZ: Television is all about pictures and, all too often, the same kinds of pictures. In fact, the storytelling on TV is sometimes a series of well-worn cliches from the opening shot to the standup closing.

In an online video that has gone absolutely viral, Charlie Brooker, a British journalist and comic, shows us how it's done.


CHARLIE BROOKER, BRITISH JOURNALIST: It starts here, with a lackluster establishing shot of a significant location. Next, a walkie-talkie preamble from the orator, pacing steadily toward the lens, punctuating every other sentence with a hand gesture.

KURTZ: Hey, is there anything wrong with hand gestures? I happen to like hand gestures.

BROOKER (voice-over): Often something like this, a fellow shot designed to give your eyes something to look at while my voice babbles on about facts. Sometimes it will slow down to a halt in monochrome and some of those facts will appear one by one on the screen.

KURTZ: All right. All right. We're just trying to help viewer follow the numbers, as opposed to heading for the fridge. BROOKER: After which the report is padded out with a selection of lazy and pointless vox pops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You usually get some inane chatter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they do have too much. I think what we want to hear is actually what is happening and not what other people think of it.

KURTZ: What's this guy got against street reporting? So what if 99 percent of the people we accost have nothing coherent to say?

BROOKER: The report segues gracefully into a bit of human interest, courtesy of some dowdy man opening letters in a kitchen and explaining how he has been affected by the issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When I'm watching the news, I don't really -- you know, there is a person talking to me, telling me what's going on. And I don't really listen to what they are saying.

KURTZ: But all we're trying to do is personalize an abstract story by picking one person who, OK, may not be a symbol of anything, but is available and can string a couple of sentences together.

BROOKER (on camera): And then the final summary, ending on a whimsical shot of something nearby, accompanied by a rye signoff.

(voice-over): If you're lucky, a bit of wordplay fit for a king, or, in other words, a Regent's treat.

Charlie Brooker, Newswipe, London.


KURTZ: Now, this is embarrassing. Charlie Brooker has gone and given away all our trade secrets. It's a good thing he didn't get into this, or he would have sprayed us with another stiff coating of ridicule.

Still to come, the investigative reporter who got caught stealing other people's words. Why do so many journalists fall into this embarrassing trap?


KURTZ: Plagiarism is not only one of journalism's worst sins, it's also one of the dumbest. It's so easy to get caught, even if you are a veteran investigative reporter.


KURTZ (voice-over): Gerald Posner was writing up a storm for Tina Brown's "Daily Beast" site when he was accused of stealing the words of other authors.

In a piece on a Florida murder, Posner admitted lifting several sentences from "The Miami Herald." He apologized and called it an accident. But Slate columnist Jack Shafer, who exposed that bit of plagiarism, came back with more examples in an article in the charges against Michael Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray.

From a Texas lawyer story on Murray's attorney, Ed Chernoff, "Chernoff says he was able to deliver his main messages about his client. Murray was cooperating with police. He did not prescribe Demerol or OxyContin to Jackson. He had only treated Jackson for a short period of time and other doctors had treated and prescribed medication for Jackson."

Now here is Posner in "The Daily Beast."

"Chernoff got out four main messages: Murray was cooperating are the police; hid not prescribe OxyContin or Demerol to Jackson; he had only briefly been Jackson's doctor, and many other physicians had treated and prescribed medication for Jackson."

When The Beast's own investigation turned up still more plagiarism, Posner resigned. He said on his blog that "... the excellent reputation established by 'The Daily Beast' in the last year should not be tarnished by any controversy swirling around me. I have inadvertently but repeatedly violated by own high standards."


Now, I give Posner credit for owning up to his mistakes, but it's hard to buy the notion that a journalist is accidentally ripping off the work of others when it happens again and again.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Thanks for watching.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern -- our new time, 11:00 a.m. Eastern -- for another critical look at the media.

STATE OF THE UNION with Candy Crowley begins right now.