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Health Care Summit Examined; Tackling Toyota

Aired February 28, 2010 - 11:00   ET



HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Televised talk-a-thon. Seven hours, three cable networks, plenty of punditry. Was the president's health care summit breaking news or political theater?

Tackling Toyota. The media kick into overdrive as the company's chairman apologizes. But are they speeding too fast to compensate for their slow start? ABC's Brian Ross on investigating the automaker.

Jousting over JFK. A History Channel series on the Kennedys draws fierce liberal criticism even before the filming starts. Will this be a cheesy docudrama?

Plus, an ESPN host in the penalty box for dissing Hannah Storm. And Conan O'Brien, bumped by Jay Leno, gets his online revenge.


KURTZ: There was plenty of civility, hours and hours of civility. But by the time the health care summit passed the lunch hour, the cable news networks were growing inpatient with all the high-tone talk.

CNN and Fox News began cutting away to their punditry panels, and MSNBC switched to hockey -- Finland and Sweden. Well, that certainly had more action.

But the point of the Blair House meeting wasn't to produce scintillating television. It was what Obama described as an attempt to find some common ground with the Republicans. On that point, it seemed to fall short.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: And at the town hall meetings that I conduct all over my state people are angry. We promised them change in Washington, and what we got was a process that you and I both said we would change in Washington.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're not campaigning anymore. The election is over.

MCCAIN: I'm reminded of that every day. OBAMA: Well, we can spend the remainder of the time with our respective talking points going back and forth. My concern is, is that if we do that, then we're essentially back on Fox News or MSNBC, on the split screen, just arguing back and forth.

KURTZ (voice-over): The pundits, like Olympic judges, gave high scores to their team.

BEN STEIN, ECONOMIC COMMENTATOR: I think the president could lose some of his condescension towards the people who are not agreeing with him.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't believe the president is being condescending at all. I think he's trying to listen.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: This guy may be charming, but it's not enough. The public just doesn't buy the program.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: Republicans are making it easy for Democrats now by making it as clear as it can possibly be that no matter what, they are not voting for health reform.


KURTZ: So, how have the media fared at covering such a sustained discussion of a mind- numbingly complex issue?

Joining us now in New York, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of "The Nation." And here in Washington, Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post," and David Frum, former speechwriter for President Bush who now runs the Web site

Dana Milbank, you say Professor Obama acted like the smartest guy in the room. Now, you make your living as a columnist, but his demeanor more important than the substance of the exchanges?

DANA MILBANK, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I tried to do the substance, Howie, seven hours of it. I was woken up twice by colleagues for snoring in the newsroom.

And yes, the substance is important. But we've already determined that the substance of the debate was not going to be changed by it at all. And it really was just an event in political theater, whether or not that was the purpose in the first place. So we became theater critics and talked about how the various people performed.

KURTZ: Some people think we're always critics.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the bulk of the coverage said this was a win of sorts for the Republicans because they got to share the stage with the president and sound reasonable.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR, "THE NATION": You know, I'd hate to do the scoring. I think it was a clarifying drama, political drama, Howard. But, you know, I think the media so often treat bipartisanship as a prize rather than a process. And it does take two to tango.

And I think some of the media have a hard time reporting on the stark divide in views and visions between the two parties, and that was clear. So, there was no bridge to bipartisan bliss in this meeting. The only thing they could agree on was the shape of the table. They moved it to an O from a U.

KURTZ: And that took long enough.

David Frum, some analysts say, actually, this marathon helped Obama because it did show that Republicans, many of them, most of them, don't really want to deal. They just keep saying start over.

DAVID FRUM, FRUMFORUM.COM: The problem is they have public opinion behind them in not wanting a deal. Look, if President Obama actually wanted to produce a deal, he would not have invited the cameras, he would have done it in a smoke-filled room. That's how things actually get done.

KURTZ: So you're in favor of smoke-filled rooms?

FRUM: I'm very much opposed to transparency. I think that's one of the reasons why so much gets less done in Washington than it did a generation ago.

The point of this effort was for Obama to shoulder the Republicans into the corner the way he did in Baltimore to say, I'm the reasonable person, they're children. If they don't look unreasonable, they prevail, because he is the one who needs something to happen, something to change. And nothing happened, nothing changed.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, do journalists really know what to do with a wonky seven-hour discussion? I mean, it just seems to me that, could you blame the cable news networks for increasingly cutting away as this thing droned on?

MILBANK: No. And by my count, it was actually 11:13, so an hour and 13 minutes into it when they first started breaking away from it. So, no, I was surprised that they were attempting to do it at all.

I think if Obama had made good on his earlier plan to have all the negotiations on C-SPAN, a lot of our networks and newspapers would be out of business from the boring nature of our coverage of this. We were looking for more of a fight there than emerged. And, of course, the few moments like the clip of John McCain are the things that everybody focused on.

KURTZ: Right. Everybody likes the sharp sound bites. And there really weren't that many considering this went on for more than seven hours.

Go ahead.

FRUM: But that's because you can't say on TV the things you actually need to say, which is the president needs to say to the leading Republicans, what do you need in order to say yes? And the Republicans can then say, I need a new missile base in my state. None of those things are allowed to be said when the cameras are on.

VANDEN HEUVEL: David, as a media decoder, if one had to decode how many times the Republicans said, "Let's start over," can we decode that as let's just kill this bill? But the main thing -- I think I take issue with what Dana Milbank said.

I do think of so much of what goes on in terms of engaging with politics today is not on cable. It was social media.

The White House webcast said that they tallied three times as many hits as during the State of the Union. Josh Marshall of "Talking Points Memo" saw huge bumps in traffic. Twitter, a lot of people were engaged in that way. And I think it's wrong to just consign it to conventional media.

MILBANK: Well, if that's the case, then this should have had a monumental effect on the debate. And we'll see how that emerges.

VANDEN HEUVEL: No, I don't agree. But I think C-SPAN --

FRUM: Except the people who use special media aren't persuadables. They are people who --

MILBANK: Why not?

FRUM: Because the people who use social media already have strong points of view about what should happen. And so if you're going to reach public opinion, you have to do it in different kinds of ways. You have to reach the person who are uncertain.

VANDEN HEUVEL: But changing political culture is going to take much more, much deeper reforms than C-SPAN. We know that.

But I think you try. And I think any time people -- and I'm part of this group called Demand Question Time. Any time you have a little bit of semi-unscripted back and forth with the president, between the two parties, you see that there is a reason we have two -- we should have more parties in this country -- where --

MILBANK: No argument there. I think we should have question time every day.

VANDEN HEUVEL: -- the purpose of government -- I agree.

FRUM: Gosh. I think you should spend a little time in Ottawa or London if you want to -- I mean, it doesn't -- question time is scripted, question time is childish.

MILBANK: But it's good stuff.

FRUM: It's good TV, but it's not how things get done. What I would strongly suggest is bring back the old-fashioned committee structure that meets in camera if you want to see any legislation passed. KURTZ: I'm glad we have the Canadian perspective on this panel.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I'd be for that, too.

KURTZ: All right.

I do want to ask, without bring this discussion to a screaming halt, I want to ask about reconciliation. That's of course the process in the Senate where you can pass something with just 51 votes instead of needing 60 to break a potential filibuster.

There's been some fact-checking on this. "The New York Times" did an article. Candy Crowley, this morning with Mitch McConnell, raised this. But are the media really taking on the Republicans for arguing that this reconciliation which the Dems now want to use is some kind of radical nuclear step, when it's been used so many times before?

MILBANK: Well, I think it's been pointed out repeatedly that it's not any particularly radical step. I mean, I don't imagine you're going to get people to go any further than that, because how many times can you say "reconciliation" on your TV show before they switch to the hockey game?

KURTZ: Well, it needs a sexier name.

I want to turn now to -- you know, I've been fomenting (ph) on this program for the last couple of weeks about the David Paterson story, all of the rumors that were repeated both in print and online about terrible, horrible things that might be published about New York's governor in "The New York Times."

"The New York Times" actually did drop a bombshell this past week that -- on a completely unrelated story which I'll describe in a second. It prompted Paterson to say he's not going to stand for election as governor this fall.

Let's take a look at what he said.


GOV. DAVID PATERSON (D), NEW YORK: I have never abused my office. Not now, not ever. I will admit that I was very disturbed that for three weeks, unsubstantiated rumors, all of them dispelled in the end, lined the front pages of a lot of newspapers and demanded a lot of the coverage.


KURTZ: He is right, Dana Milbank. But what's not unsubstantiated is this "New York Times" piece about the governor intervening in a domestic violence case involving one of his top aides. And that story appeared on Wednesday. On Friday, he got out of the race.

"The New York Times," which chased Eliot Spitzer out of office, seems to have done the same for David Paterson.

MILBANK: Maybe they regret chasing Eliot Spitzer out of office.

But, look, ,he was going down one way or the other. And I think it's very convenient when you're heading out of office to blame the media for kicking you out. He has himself to blame. It's possible and likely that "The New York Times" was a catalyst to it, but it was inevitable.

KURTZ: He didn't have a strong political position.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, I'm going to hold up a couple of New York tabloids from Friday -- "Time to Go," "Time to Go, Dave." I guess we can see those pretty clearly.

Is it possible for a public official in New York to hang on when you've got the tabloids demanding you your head in that fashion?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Give me permission, Howie, just to say that I think what "The New York Times" did was strong, legitimate reporting that we need more of. And I think it was more damning than the sex scandal that so much of the media frenzy, prior "The New York Times," reporting thought it would be, because it was about abuse of public power, state power.

This is under investigation. And I think "The New York Post" has had it out for David Paterson for a long time. Who knows where the leaks were, but this is a legitimate story. The chief criminal justice czar has resigned because she was misled by state police.

I think moving on, it's unclear if Governor Paterson can sustain himself. He has an accidental lieutenant governor, Mr. Fix It, Dick Ravitch. And I think what's critical is we're going to see more reporting on the abuse of state police in New York. And now Andrew Cuomo will face the hot media spotlight because he is getting to get up to run.

KURTZ: Quickly.

FRUM: And the great thing with Andrew Cuomo, as you know, he would never, ever consider abusing power because he's just such a blushing violet.

KURTZ: Let's stick to this. What Paterson did in this domestic violence case, in my view, was indefensible. But was there an appearance the press was out to get him?

FRUM: Well, journalists sometimes have a sense that there is something there. And they hear rumors, they follow things that they aren't sure are true. And they then have drinks with their colleagues and they tell them what they're working on. And so things spread. But rumors do not bring politicians down, only facts do.

KURTZ: And as some New York Democrats call for Paterson to step down now, rather than finishing out his last 10 months, there are others who say that Rahm Emanuel should leave the White House because of the problems that the president is having.

You wrote a column this past week in which you said if the president had listened to Rahm, he would be in better shape. You cited some private advice Emanuel had given the president. Some people immediately said, well, Rahm Emanuel must be your source, or his mother or somebody close to him.

Do you want to come clean?

MILBANK: I've come clean already. He was not my source, and his people were not helpful to the story.

What I think is very typical Washington about this is nobody was actually reacting to the substance of the story, or the substance with the critique of what the president needs to do different and David Axelrod needs to do different. It was all about, who said it, who leaked it? As if it were some sort of Deep Throat revelation, as opposed to just things that were just hidden in plain sight.

KURTZ: All right. We're going to leave it there.

David Milbank, Katrina vanden Heuvel, in New York, David Frum, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

When we come back, revolving door. A Washington reporter leaves the journalism world to work for a politician, and now he's back at his keyboard.

Is that a problem? We'll ask him next.


KURTZ: Jonathan Allen is a lifelong reporter, or at least he was until he decided to try has hand at politics. Allen left a job with Politico to join a Democratic political action committee for Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. That lasted all of 40 days.

Now he's back at Politico and he's got some explaining to do.

Jonathan Allen joins me now in the studio.



KURTZ: You had a good job at Politico. Why did you want to become a Democratic staffer?

ALLEN: Well, I had somebody who I liked, who I admired, who asked me to come work for her. Journalism is seemingly a destabilized industry. I had just been laid off a few months earlier. I had a short-term contract at Politico. And so when she asked me to work for her, I was inclined to go do so.

KURTZ: And then you lasted just over a month. You hated it? ALLEN: Well, it turns out I'm really a reporter inside. I mean, I think the job of a political operative is very different than one of a reporter. They use some of the same skills. But at the end of the day, I wanted to be asking people questions and I wanted to be taking information from small numbers of people and giving it to larger numbers of people. That's what I do.

KURTZ: You felt like a fish out of water?

ALLEN: I totally felt like a fish out of water, like a reporter masquerading as a Democrat.

KURTZ: And that's exactly what you wrote in Politico. I was going to read the quote. "There will be some who will wonder whether I am a political operative just masking as a reporter," now that you have come back to Politico.

And you're right. Why shouldn't some people think that?

ALLEN: Well, I mean, some people will think that. I mean, I certainly have something to prove to all the Republicans, to the 300- plus Democrats that I didn't work for, to readers. But at the end of the day, a reporter's job is to separate their own views from what they're reporting, much like a teacher in the classroom doesn't just teach the kids they like. They teach the kids that they don't like, they separate their personal views from their job.

A doctor does the same thing. A soldier doesn't fight just in wars that they believe are just. So that's the job of a reporter.

It's not that you don't have views of your own, it's that you separate them from the reporting that you're doing. And I think the work will stand for itself. I certainly hope so.

KURTZ: But doesn't this confirm the stereotype a lot of people have of a liberal press corps whose members are closeted Democrats?

ALLEN: Well, I think for some people that will confirm a stereotype. I've certainly heard that from some Republicans. I heard it a bit when I went into reporting.

But, you know, look, I know a lot of reporters. And most of them -- and this includes myself -- are not partisans or ideologues.

So, while they may lean -- and I said in my piece I voted more often for Democrats than Republicans. But at the end of the day, I don't have allegiance to any party's platform. I certainly don't subscribe to anything or everything that any side says, and I just each issue as it comes on its own.

KURTZ: Now, the editor of Politico, John Harris, wrote a companion piece to your welcome back piece. And he was not sure he wanted to take you back.

Here is what he said. Let's put it up on the screen. "I am enough of a traditionalist to be wary of the revolving door between politics and journalism. And it seemed likely that Allen's brief tenure with a Democrat might open us up to shots at our fairness by Republicans. I viewed this as a matter of perception, not of reality."

So that was not exactly a ringing vote of confidence.

ALLEN: Well, I think that Politico hiring me back was a ringing vote of confidence. I think what John was saying, if you go beyond that quote, I think what he was saying is that there may be a perception among some that I might have some bias, but the reality is that he's known me as a good reporter and he believes I'll be a good reporter in the future.

KURTZ: Could you now overcompensate by being tougher on the Democrats just to show that you are not aligned with that party?

ALLEN: It's my job to not do that, to not overcompensate, to have no fear or favoritism for anybody. I think that was one of "The New York Times" publishers who originally said that.

But that's the job. You separate yourself from it, you separate your feelings from it. And you don't under-compensate, over- compensate. You just go out and report what's going on.

KURTZ: And is it not at all awkward for you to run into -- to go up on the Hill and run into some of the people, including Congresswoman Schultz, whose side you were on just a few weeks ago?

ALLEN: I don't think it's awkward. I mean, actually, I think a lot of the Democrats were surprised that I became a Democrat, and not so surprised that I went back. Certainly not awkward to run into the congresswoman. I have tremendous respect for her. I still like her a lot.

It just wasn't the right job for me.

KURTZ: All right. Clearly, your genetic makeup is one of a journalist, and we'll be following you now once again at Politico.

Jonathan Allen, thanks for stopping by.

ALLEN: Thank you.

KURTZ: Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Candy Crowley joins us to break down "THE SOUND OF SUNDAY."

Plus, stepping on the gas. Toyota's chairman takes his apology to Capitol Hill and Larry King, while news outlets step up their scrutiny of the unsafe cars.

But are journalists careening out of control in this story. ABC's Brian Ross talks about his investigation.

Plus, sneak preview. A History Channel miniseries on the Kennedys won't air for another year. Not a frame has been shot. But critics are already calling it a smear. Are they right?


KURTZ: The politicians are fanning out on the talk shows, as they do every Sunday morning with their messages. And here to take a look at that is Candy Crowley.

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": I hate to do this to you, but when it comes to health care reform, the new buzzword, "reconciliation."

It's a parliamentary process to get around that 60 votes that are required in the Senate to pass anything. And it seemed like a sure thing, the way forward, as they say in health care. That is, until the budget chairman, Democrat Kent Conrad, said this on CBS --


SEN. KENT CONRAD (D), NORTH DAKOTA: I am chairman of the committee in the Senate. I think I understand how reconciliation works and how it can't work. The major package of health care reform cannot move through the reconciliation process. It will not work.


CROWLEY: The other thing that may not work is bipartisanship, because as far as the Senate Republicans are concerned, there are only two choices -- start over or no.


CROWLEY: Is there any way the president can reconfigure this bill that would get your support?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: I don't think so, Candy. I mean, this is a massive overhaul of one-sixth of the economy. Republicans just don't believe that a half a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts and a half a trillion dollars in new taxes, and possibly higher insurance premiums for all of those on the individual market, is the definition of reform.


CROWLEY: With three-quarters of Americans now saying they don't support the current health care reform plan, it could be a rough ride for Democrats toward the November elections. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says it's her party and she's ready.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: The Democrats will retain the majority in the House of Representatives. We have a huge -- we have, what, a 54, 55-vote majority? We had a swing in the last two elections of 110 seats.

I'm not (INAUDIBLE) one grain of sand. We're fighting for every seat.


CROWLEY: One leading Republican senator predicts -- or maybe it's hope -- that the Democrats push through a bill by themselves. They're going to pay for it in November.


SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: It would really be the end of the United States Senate as a protector of minority rights as a place where you have to get consensus instead of just a partisan majority. And it would be a political kamikaze mission for the Democratic Party if they jam this through.


CROWLEY: Now, one of the things that Pelosi said, however, when I asked her about those figures and 75 percent of the American people either want them to start over or stop all together, she said, "Well, we don't have a bill yet." And so, when we do have a bill, we can sell it and they'll be really happy.

KURTZ: How long has this been going on? About five years?

CROWLEY: Four hundred years ago when we first started.

KURTZ: Diametrically opposite messages that they fan out on the Sunday talk shows.

But the one that really struck me as a stink bomb of a sound bite was Democrat Kent Conrad saying he doesn't think this can move through reconciliation. I know this sounds like arcane Washington process, but if they can't do this with a 51-vote Senate, it is dead.

CROWLEY: Then they can't do it. It's done. It's done.

KURTZ: Right.

CROWLEY: And I think what he's talking about -- and heaven only knows, I've actually spent time trying to figure this out -- is that you can make parliamentary challenges to every part of the bill that you're trying to go to. Now, these are just the changes that need to be made so that the House can go along with the Senate bill. So it's those changes that will be subject to it.

And as far as I understand it, anything can be challenged by the parliamentarian -- to the parliamentarian. He's the one that decides.

And honestly, I think the Republicans can tie this up for another four years just in the challenges. And now you have a Democrat saying I know how this process works, and a lot of these things don't fit under the rules of reconciliation.

KURTZ: A lot of sausage still to be made on this.

Candy Crowley, thanks.

It took the media a very long time to hit the accelerator on the problems at Toyota, even after the early complaints of cars accelerating out of control. In the "Los Angeles Times," in particular, the coverage remained stalled until the automaker started recalling more than eight million vehicles because of safety defects.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Tonight, from the driver's seat at Toyota to the hot seat on Capitol Hill.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The head of Toyota gets grilled, apologizes, takes responsibility. But is that enough?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The apology heard around the world. Toyota's chief takes center stage and says he's sorry for the chaos, saddened by the deaths in his cars.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Akio Toyoda, whose grandfather founded the car company, appeared before Congress today and took full responsibility for the problems in his cars.

AKIO TOYODA, PRESIDENT, TOYOTA MOTORS: I am deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced.


KURTZ: That was a big story this week.

One correspondent who ramped up his coverage early is ABC's Brian Ross, who recently did an experiment with a professor to replicate the conditions that have caused some Toyota drivers to lose control.


BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS: Going now at 20 miles an hour. Oh. Just like that, huh? The brakes don't work. The brakes give out.


(voice-over): The car surged past 70 miles an hour, overcoming its brakes until we put it in neutral.


KURTZ: Are journalists, having been slow off the mark initially, now moving too fast in portraying Toyota as a more reckless company than its Detroit rivals?

I spoke earlier with ABC's chief investigative reporter, Brian Ross, from New York, and with former NBC correspondent Fred Francis here in Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Gentlemen, welcome.

Brian Ross, let's start with that little ride you took in the Toyota the other day. You said you were trying to create an electronic short circuit. Could that be seen as something of a television stunt?

ROSS: Well, we went there because this professor at Southern Illinois University, working with a guy who works with some of the trial lawyers, said he had found, by inducing a short circuit, that it would not create the fail-safe mode that Toyota maintains existed, and that it would not create an error code, there would be no record of the malfunction in the car's computer. So we went to take a look for ourselves.

I don't think it was a stunt. It was a valid demonstration, at least of what he said he found.

KURTZ: All right.

Let me play a little bit of videotape. This is from January, when you had a little bit of an impromptu interview, shall we say, with Jim Lentz, who is the head of U.S. sales for Toyota.


JIM LENTZ, HEAD OF U.S. SALES, TOYOTA: What's most important is our customers know there is a fix, they're going to be able to start getting their cars repaired this week.

ROSS: Are you saying the problem is completely fixed?

LENTZ: Thank you.

ROSS: All problems -- are you so sure of that, that there's no electronic problems, sir?

LENTZ: I'm confident there are no electronic problems.


KURTZ: Now, has Jim Lentz's answer to you held up in light of what we now know about Toyota?

ROSS: It doesn't seem like it. He gave a surprising answer at the hearings this past week, when he said -- he was asked if the problem was fixed with the recalls of the gas pedals and the floor mats. And he said "not totally," leaving something else open there.

Toyota has since sort of said he was misunderstood. But I think in the end, there are now serious questions about the electronic problems, the same questions we were asking of Lentz when we had to catch up with him.

KURTZ: Right.

Fred Francis, what do you think of that kind of ambush?

FRED FRANCIS, FMR. NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, the only thing Brian has done wrong in this entire story, including that ambush, is he didn't put his body in front of the door to stop Lentz from going away.

And Brian, you didn't put your body in front of the car. It was probably a Toyota, and you didn't want to do that.

KURTZ: OK. Let's pull back the camera and look at the journalism around this story, culminating with the hearings this past week.

Is this aggressive journalism, or have we reached a point of piling on?

FRANCIS: Well, no, it's not aggressive. It has not been aggressive for two years.

Frankly, you know, Brian is the only one who's been pounding on this for two years. It's been episodic journalism. The fact is, when somebody dies, the story flares up.

But Toyota automobiles, while they've been accelerating for the last two years, you know, Toyota's executives have been stuck on idle, you know? They've been waiting for this to go away. Finally, it's not going away, and frankly, in large part to the work that Brian has done.

KURTZ: You advise companies on dealing with the media. How has Toyota failed in the spotlight? And the only interview that Akio Toyoda did was with Larry King. Should he have done more interviews?

FRANCIS: Well, first of all, you have to give them some props for going before Congress. And, you know, it was -- they knew he was going to be -- you know, this was going to be a hangman's job in Congress. There were very small --

KURTZ: How much choice did Toyota really have?

FRANCIS: They had no choice in the matter.


FRANCIS: But he did have a choice in going to "LARRY KING." In all due respect, you know, to Larry King and this network, he went on "LARRY KING." It was the smart thing to do.


FRANCIS: Because -- because he has to show something. He has to -- he had to show sympathy. It was the only smart thing they've done in the last two years. Literally, the only smart thing.

Remember, Howard, that -- that Tylenol in 1982, the classic example of having a product that was decimated. They apologized. They took it off the shelf, 31 million bottles. That cost them $100 million. Even though it wasn't their fault. And they gave people replacements.

Toyota for two years has been stonewalling their -- their clients.

KURTZ: And as you say, the media coverage has been quite episodic.

Brian Ross, you -- your first report on what has become this debacle was last November. There were 2,000 complaints at that time about accelerating Toyota cars. And including that fatal accident in California.

What made you decide to jump in then, before there were any major recalls, before this became a huge deal?

ROSS: Because we began to develop information that it was more than floor mats. They blamed that California crash on a floor mat, and that was one of the problems. But there were other problems, other owners who we talked to, as Fred was referring.

A kind of owner's rebellion took place. They said, "I didn't have those kind of floor mats. My car hasn't been recalled, and it still took off on me. Sudden acceleration."

And Howard, when we began to work on this story, Toyota's first response to that report in last November, they delivered their response purposely to the sales department of ABC News and said, "They'll give it to you, Brian, if you want to get our response." They went through the sales department.

When we tried to interview Mr. Lentz in that -- what you called the ambush interview, we waited for him outside the Bloomberg studios, because he talked to everybody but ABC News. And since that time --

KURTZ: Is that because he was angry at your reporting?

ROSS: I -- apparently so. He couldn't answer the questions I wanted to ask.

And since that time, their dealers in the southeast yanked all their commercials off ABC stations and shifted them to other stations. So, from my point of view, they have been aggressive in trying to avoid us. And we have been equally aggressive in trying to get answers.

FRANCIS: What companies like Toyota and other companies that get in trouble fail to understand is that they can actually use the media. Had they sat down with Brian Ross, had they sat down with Ms. Stoddard (ph), with reporters all over the place, they can actually use the news media to get their message out. But they have to tell the truth.

KURTZ: Right. But the message was damaging. They would have had to -- Toyota executives at that time would have had to say, "We have a problem. We have not fixed it." Of course, they are saying it now, but not three months ago.

FRANCIS: But you have to do it soon. Get bad news out fast.

Say, "We don't know what the problem is, but we promise to fix it." The only thing that really helps them right now is perhaps they come out and say, "If you don't feel safe driving your Toyota, we'll buy them back."

KURTZ: Were you surprised, Brian Ross, that the media -- and this would include the "New York Times," "Washington Post" and other outlets -- were so small on this story, even after those initial reports, the one that you did in early November? It didn't become a topic of top-of-the-newscast or front-page story.

Does that have something to do with Toyota's had a glittering reputation in this country, or the reputation it used to have?

ROSS: I think so. Now, you should also point out that, as you know, Howard, the "Los Angeles Times" was very aggressive. And we were exchanging leads back and forth. They did a great job, and they kept us awake on many nights.

But with us and the "Los Angeles Times," we didn't see anybody else joining in. Certainly, none of the other networks, until this series of recalls began, the massive recalls of the floor mats and the sticky gas pedals. And by that time, everybody understood what was going on, that Toyota had a problem. And then its reputation actually ended up working against it.

FRANCIS: I think -- I think Brian will agree one of the reasons the media has not been on this: newspapers, radio, television. Newsrooms have been gutted in the last two years.

Investigative reporters like Brian, 38 years ago, you worked together in Miami, are against each other in Miami. That's a thing of the past. So only larger stations can afford this kind of journalism, or networks.

KURTZ: But, of course, they're doing it now, by going to the records of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and finding out that there were complaints years ago, that there were documents. But in other words, this could have been done before, and we could kind of rush in after the story has already exploded.

FRANCIS: Very few networks assign reporters like Ross or others to full-time work. They want their reporters on every day. They want them in the paper every day, to write stories about what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. They do very little of this kind of investigative reporting.

KURTZ: And finally, Brian, any danger here that we're now piling on, collectively? I mean, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, have all had recalls, have all had quality issues with their cars. And yet, one might argue that the media has collectively made Toyota now into Public enemy number one.

ROSS: Well, none of them has had the number of deaths. Congress put it at 39 in the hearings this past week. They stand out.

There are other problems with other cars, certainly, but for some reason, the problems with the Toyota sudden acceleration exceed all others. And for that reason, we focused on them. But there's no reason we won't focus on the others, I guarantee you.

FRANCIS: Hardly piling on. Actually, not enough has been done. And until Toyota actually says, "We fixed the problem," or "We're going to buy your cars back," this is going to continue.

KURTZ: So you don't see this story going away anytime soon?

FRANCIS: Not after this past week.

KURTZ: All right.

Fred Francis, Brian Ross in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

ROSS: Thank you, Howard.


KURTZ: After the break, history lesson. A miniseries on the Kennedys look to have an awful lot of sex. Is the History Channel playing fair?

Liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald and his crusade against the project.


KURTZ: Not a single scene has been shot, but a miniseries about Jack Kennedy is already drawing fire from the late president's supporters. The History Channel project was created by Joel Surnow, an unabashed conservative and George Bush supporter, who helped produce the Fox drama "24" and is an acquaintance of Rush Limbaugh.

Liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald obtained a copy of the script and has put up a Web video denouncing the movie "The Kennedys," using the likes of former JFK adviser Ted Sorensen.


TED SORENSEN, ADVISER TO PRESIDENT KENNEDY: This one-sided, right wing script suffers from a vindictive, malicious approach.

KURTZ (voice-over): Greenwald's campaign is reminiscent of the conservative complaints seven years ago against the CBS movie "The Reagans," which portrayed the 40th president, among other things, as insensitive to AIDS. CBS caved to the pressure and aired the film on its Showtime channel.


KURTZ: One thing is clear about the script obtained by Greenwald. It includes some made-up scenes such as Jack asking his brother Robert what he does when he's horny, and saying that if he doesn't have sex with new women every couple of days, he gets migraines.

So, ,is it fair to attack a film that hasn't even been made?

I spoke earlier with Robert Greenwald from Los Angeles.


KURTZ: Robert Greenwald, welcome.


KURTZ: Why have you launched this preemptive strike against a movie that hasn't even begun shooting yet?

GREENWALD: Well it's a television miniseries in which Joel Surnow deliberately distorts historical facts, with the intent for political agenda. The reason we've done it now is, in fact, this is the time that you can affect things by getting the truth out there.

Once the miniseries is finished and edited, it's very hard to correct all of the political agendas and all of the reasoning that makes absolutely no sense. And that's the reason, by the way.

KURTZ: All right.

GREENWALD: It's not me. Five historians have come forward.

KURTZ: Right.

Let me jump in here, because we invited somebody from the History Channel to appear on this program. The History Channel declined. But I do have a statement.

In part, it says, "Our in-house group of historians have not vetted or, for that matter, seen any scripts yet. The scripts are in early draft form and are currently being annotated and revised every day. There are no final versions. The miniseries will be historically accurate and based on the work of multiple noted scholars."

So, basically, the channel seems to be saying you're firing your ammunition here a little early.

GREENWALD: Well, the channel has been saying many things. And I wish that they would save their energy, stop attacking me.

Look, everyone makes a mistake. They made a serious mistake by turning this miniseries over to someone with a political agenda. Now it's time to reevaluate.

They gave an interview in "The New York Times." They cited historians whose work they were using, including David Talbot.

David Talbot not only was never contacted, he released yesterday a scathing statement about the distortions, number one. And number two, Howard, as you well know, the cover-up is often worse than the mistakes.

The History Channel is not telling the truth. They are using this screenplay. They're going out and they're offering it actors with millions of dollars attached --

KURTZ: Well, in fairness --

GREENWALD: -- to try to get them to be in the screenplay.

KURTZ: In fairness, that remains to be seen. And scripts do change --

GREENWALD: No. It doesn't remain to be seen. No.

KURTZ: Well, you're saying this is going to be the final version. We're not going to see the final version until 2011.

GREENWALD: No. No, I'm not saying it's the final version. I'm saying that they cannot say that this version is not a version that they are using.

They're going to actors and they're saying to actors, "Be in this movie. Here is the screenplay. Here is several million dollars." They're not saying it's a work in development, which is a term in Hollywood. They're not saying --


GREENWALD: -- we're doing a project, are you interested? They're saying, here. Will you be in it?" That's hard, firm evidence.

KURTZ: Speaking of that "New York Times" article you mentioned, Stephen Kronish, who is the screenwriter on "The Kennedys," was quoted as saying, "Next year, when it's done and it's on the air, people ant to criticize it, so be it. But at this stage of evolutionary development, it seems that Greenwald's agenda becomes all the more obvious."

So they are saying that you are coming at this from a liberal perspective. You've got your own agenda.

GREENWALD: Of course they're saying that. But what they're not saying is we have a team of all-star historians, five of whom who have come forward, several of them strong critics of the Kennedy family, and they have been damning and indicting for the fact that what this miniseries does is it pursues a political agenda. And by the way, there's nothing wrong with pursuing a political agenda. The problem is they're doing it under the guise and imprint of something called the "History Channel."

KURTZ: Exactly. Now --

GREENWALD: That's a serious mistake.

KURTZ: The specific dialog in some of these scenes obviously were invented. But we now know that President Kennedy had a series of extramarital affairs. You're not disputing that, are you?

GREENWALD: Absolutely not. And as David Talbot says, it's fair game to introduce and talk about those in a manner that's historically responsible. And one of the painful things -- and you'll see it in our film at -- is the historians saying sadly, with pain, why are they distorting in this way that's not necessary?

Look, I have lots of disagreements with Kennedy on policy. That's fair debate to have.

KURTZ: Sure.

GREENWALD: It's not fair to trash and demean him for a political agenda.

KURTZ: Now, Stephen Kronish, the screenwriter, also told "The New York Times' that this is not a documentary. It's a dramatization.

Now, I am not a fan of that genre. They use real names and historical events, and many people assume that it's based on fact. But that's hardly unusual these days. And yet you're jumping on this film, or film in progress, as if no one has ever done one of these docudramas before.

GREENWALD: No. I myself came from a commercial world. I made over 50 television movies and miniseries. I'm intimately familiar with this form, and I have never in my career seen anything like this, where it's character assassination pretending to be a miniseries.

It has 12 to 20 sex scenes. Kennedy had time to do nothing else, it seems.

And most importantly, Howard, I don't care what your politics are. This is a below-the-belt trashing of a president of the United States not on policy, but character assassination.

KURTZ: Well, I am shocked that a movie would include a lot of sex scenes in order to get people to watch.

All right.

GREENWALD: No. That's not -- that --

KURTZ: I understand.

GREENWALD: That's not the point. The point is going after him, character, with a political agenda.

KURTZ: Robert Greenwald, thanks very much for joining us.

GREENWALD: My pleasure.


KURTZ: And up next, ABC News is moving toward massive job cuts. An ESPN anchor in hot water for playing fashion critic. And Conan O'Brien is back, just not in television.

Our "Media Minute," straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Minute."

Tony Kornheiser was a funny guy, but boy can he talk his way into trouble.


TONY KORNHEISER, ESPN: I'm Tony Kornheiser.

KURTZ (voice-over): Kornheiser's caustic sense of humor landed him the gig as co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption." And he also hosts an ESPN radio show in Washington.

But Kornheiser got himself suspended for poking fun at another ESPN personality, Hannah Storm. He talked about her wearing a horrifying, horrifying outfit. "She's got on red go-go boots and a Catholic school plaid skirt, way too short for somebody in her 40s, or maybe early 50s by now. She's got on her typically very, very tight shirt. She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body."

"Hannah storm, come on now! Stop! What are you doing?"


KURTZ: Oops. Personal foul. Penalty.

Now, that was a fairly dumb thing to say, but come on. Would ESPN come down on Tony if he had mocked a sportscaster from another channel?

Kornheiser has now apologized, saying that, "If you put a live microphone in front of somebody, eventually that person will say something wrong. This was one of the times I said something wrong. I broke the rules, and this is the punishment that's come."


KURTZ (voice-over): ABC News is about to shrink, big time. In fact, news division president David Westin calls it "... a fundamental transformation that will ultimately affect every corner of the enterprise."

He has offered voluntary buyouts to all his full-time nonunion employees and isn't ruling out layoffs. Reports say ABC is looking to chop 300 to 400 jobs, as much as 25 percent of its staff.

What's more, ABC is combining its weekday and weekend staffs for "Good Morning America" and "World News," and will push more journalists to function as one-man bands, reporting, shooting and editing their own footage.


KURTZ: Now, all the broadcast networks have been cutting back. So have the nation's newspapers. And after four rounds of buyouts out "The Washington Post," I can tell you that you can't lose that many bodies without having an impact, a significant impact, on the journalism.

And finally, when Jay Leno returns to "The Tonight Show" tomorrow, Conan O'Brien will be stranded on the sidelines, but not entirely. Conan has found a new outlet for his humor. It's called Twitter.

His first post: "Today I interviewed a squirrel in my backyard and then threw to commercial. Somebody help me."

Conan has been an online phenomenon, attracting more than 430,000 followers in a matter of days. And Jay, he's got 30,000.

So, who needs television? Tweeting and the $33 million that NBC paid him to leave should make Conan very happy.

Still to come, candid camera. A reporter, a governor, the governor's girlfriend and a confrontation. We'll go to the videotape, next.


KURTZ: It's been a rough couple of years for Jim Gibbons. The Nevada governor was accused of infidelity, wound up divorcing his wife, and doesn't seem real happy about answering questions from nosy journalists.


KURTZ (voice-over): Jonathan Humbert, a reporter for the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, confronted Gibbons at the Reno Airport with this question -- had he taken his girlfriend, Kathy Karrasch, to the National Governors Association meeting in Washington?

The governor's ex-wife, Dawn, had accused him of having an affair with Karrasch and he denied it, although there was the matter of those 860 text messages to her for which Gibbons had to reimburse the state.


JONATHAN HUMBERT, REPORTER: She's not in this airport right now?


HUMBERT: She was not on that flight?


HUMBERT: Absolute, unequivocally denying that?

GIBBONS: What? What is with you? What is your -- I just told you, no taxpayer money was ever spent on anything.

HUMBERT: Including a trip with Kathy Karrasch?

GIBBONS: Yes. Well, that's impossible.

KURTZ: When the KLAS reporter first spotted Kathy Karrasch, she slipped into the ladies' room.

GIBBONS: When you came out of the bathroom, I started asking you a question and you ran back inside.

KATHY KARRASCH: Well, you know, it was probably because I forgot to wash my hands. I'm a very clean person.

GIBBONS: So you're saying that you did not attend the conference with the governor, even though we saw you coming off the plane directly after him?

KARRASCH: You know what? I could have been in Las Vegas having tea with the first lady.

KURTZ: Right. The iTeam (ph) reporter chased after the governor again and got a little testy.

HUMBERT: But you also said she wasn't on this flight with you, sir. You lied to me.

GIBBONS: Well, I didn't say she was on --

HUMBERT: I asked you unequivocally whether she was on the flight or not with you. Sir, we are literally less than 12 hours away from a special session that's going to decide almost $1 billion in cuts, and here you are with a woman who's not your wife.

GIBBONS: You're full of (EXPLETIVE DELETED). You are. You really are. All you're doing is out here, late at night, trying to make a scene.


KURTZ: Well, the reporter may have been making a scene, but he wasn't full of what the governor said he was full of. The camera caught him red-handed. Gibbons later apologized, saying he did take his girlfriend on the trip to Washington, but not at state expense.

Why the bogus story? The governor told the station, "I was briefly stunned by your brazen inquiries about my personal life."

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Before we go, I want to say thanks to Jennifer Burch, who has been a mainstay and a videotape wizard on our staff for years now. She is moving onward and upward, to John King's new primetime show, and we will miss her many talents.

You can catch our program, RELIABLE SOURCES, next week and every Sunday at our new time, 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

Right now, "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.