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Massa's Appearance on 'Glenn Beck'; Media's Rahm Obsession?

Aired March 14, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Groping for answers, the ticklish tale of Eric Massa. His ethics problems and his downright weird appearance on "Glenn Beck." Our journalists separating rumors from reality? And why are all these publications suddenly obsessed with Rahm Emanuel?

Dave's lucky day. Letterman avoids a messy trial as his accused blackmailer pleads guilty. Is the fall-out from his "Late Show" affairs finally over?

Hollywood break-up. A film maker in search of an Oscar sues "Variety" over a bad review.

The case of Eric Massa was already exceedingly odd, when the former congressman charging well, one minute he was quitting Congress because he had cancer. The next it was because the Democrats were pressuring him to vote for the health care bill. Then it was because of an Ethics Committee investigation. No wonder the pundits range from amazed to appalled.


ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC HOST: The controversy involving Congressman Eric Massa is getting really strange by the hour.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: I know, this gets a little weird.

DENNIS MILLER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I'm not saying he's fireman calendar on the refrigerator gay but the guy is a little quirky.

BILL KRISTOL, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: If he's a creep, he's resigning.

JUAN WILLIAMS FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Massa is a self-aggrandizing bozo.


KURTZ: And how could journalists not get themselves in a lather over it? Democratic House member calling a Democratic president's chief of staff the son of the devil's spawn in describing this scene --


ERIC MASSA (D), FORMER NEW YORK CONGRESSMAN: I'm sitting there showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel wrapped around his tush, poking his finger in my chest, yelling at me.


KURTZ: But that turned out to be a mere tune-up for one of the strangest hours in modern television history. Glenn Beck, the caustically conservative Obama bashing FOX News star, trying to get the liberal lawmaker to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and dish dirt on the administration.


GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS HOST: You say this. Somebody says, I groped male staffers, female staffers. You know, I was fondling a cat. Whatever it is. I don't resign. I stand up and I say --

MASSA: Yes, you do.

BECK: No, I have to tell you, in my wildest dreams, your honor is at stake. I just don't -- I can't buy the fact that over tickle fighting, you would step down.

MASSA: It's not tickle fights. It was inappropriate language.

BECK: Tell us what you know. Make a difference now. Pick up a shovel and show us where the throw the dirt.

MASSA: So, the most important thing that people can do is to get involved. I mean, it's that simple.

BECK: No, no. You are in. No. No. Please don't be a commercial.

MASSA: All right.

BECK: Everybody knows that. America, I'm going to shoot straight with you. I think I've wasted your time.


BECK: So much to examine here. How have the media handled the Massa mess and what about the role of Glenn Beck and Larry King and why is there so much journalistic focus on Rahm and other top White House aides?

Joining us now here in Washington, Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review." Peter Baker, White House correspondent for "The New York Times," Jane Hall, associate professor at American University and a former FOX News analyst. And syndicated radio talk show host, Bill Press.

Jane Hall, what did you think of that Glenn Beck performance? Trying for 60 long minutes to get Massa to say anything incriminating?

JANE HALL, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, it was train wreck television. And I saw a promo of a guy who said if you want to rob Washington journalists home, now is the time, because they're all watching.

It was appalling, actually, because he started out asking him you know, to talk about these charges and then he says, did you do anything sexual? And he says, well, I groped people and he goes no.

First of all, it's a sort of a fundamental misunderstanding of what sexual harassment I think is. But then they get into a campaign finance reform discussion. He completely lost control of the interview. He didn't really get anything from him. And actually I think he has a lot of responsibility for what he said he did, which is wasting people's time.

KURTZ: Peter Baker, on the Rahm angle, did the White House press, did the White House push back with reporters on what I'm calling the most famous shower scene since the movie "Psycho."

PETER BAKER, NEW YORK TIMES: It's the most famous shower scene since "Psycho," but also may be the most fictional. I mean, the White House tells us this is not true. Rahm Emanuel did not, in fact, confront Massa in the shower naked.

KURTZ: Did White House officials say that on the record?

BAKER: That's a good question.

KURTZ: I didn't see any quote.

BAKER: They don't want to address it on the record in a briefing format and look like they're dignifying such a silly thing. I'll tell you this. I remember last year, I heard a rumor about a confrontation between Rahm Emanuel and Eric Massa. And I checked it out. I called Massa, I called his office, I said, is this true? I didn't know anything about clothing or naked. I simply heard confrontation. And Massa completely and flatly denies, there's no such thing. I asked Rahm Emanuel. He denied it at the time. So now, the story seems to have changed if we're talking about the same incident.

KURTZ: Bill Press, when Glenn Beck first booked Eric Massa, the now former congressman, many conservative pundits including Beck seemed thrilled to have somebody from the liberal side who was going to dish dirt on the administration.

BILL PRESS, SYNDICATED RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: First of all, I have to admit that I think the American media sank to a new low this week with Eric Massa and I enjoyed every minute of it.

As a talk radio host, I mean, this was everything we could ever dream for. You have a naked chief of staff, running around in the shower.

KURTZ: Allegedly.

PRESS: Allegedly. You've got a 50-year-old congressman having tickle fights on the floor with his staffers and then you've got these stories of these wild, naked parties on navy ships, which I never knew about before.

I mean, it was good material. It was funny to watch Glenn Beck's facial expressions when he realized two minutes into the interview that Eric Massa was not going to be the foil he thought he was and Eric Massa was admitting that he had done this tickling stuff and he had groped people and Glenn Beck's whole story I think just fell apart.

KURTZ: And Jim Geraghty, others on the right including Michelle Malkin said from the beginning, don't trust this guy. Don't give him the air time. I guess they turned out from the conservative point of view to be right.

JIM GERAGHTY, NATIONAL REVIEW: This is not a man you want to embrace, it's not a man you want to shower with. When somebody says, I've been pressured by the White House, Rahm Emanuel confronted me. He was thrusting his finger. This is one of those things where people, instinctively thought, oh my god, this is a fabulous story just for the sordid details, but also it kinds of fits the narrative on the health care bill. They are looking for votes. They want to arm twist and I hope it's only arm twisting as much as they can.

KURTZ: You're enjoying this a little too much. I've got to go back to J. Hall. Now Glenn Beck's difficult hour, he said it was a waste of time, made Larry King who also interviewed Massa, look like Tim Russert. I want to play a little bit of the question that Larry King asked the former congressman and ask your question on the other side.


LARRY KING, CNN HOST: It may be silly, but I guess we have to ask. Are you gay?

MASSA: Well here's that answer. I'm not going to answer that. In year 2010, why don't you ask my wife? Ask my friends. Ask the 10,000 sailors I served with in the Navy.


KURTZ: Should Larry king have asked that question which Massa went on to say was insulting to the gay community?

HALL: Boy, I don't know. You know, this is a really complicated story. Charles Blow wrote an op/ed piece in the "New York Times" saying this is -- jokes are made about this because there's a certain homoeroticism and a certain homophobia at work here.

If these charges were made that he groped young women, we may have come far enough that that might be taken more seriously. So I'm not sure whether it was appropriate enough to ask. If you go out and interview people in the Navy, how far do you take this? The question is, did he harass these people, not is he gay or not. In my opinion, that's the question.

KURTZ: Well, "Atlantic's" Josh Green did interview people who served in the Navy with him and said there had been unwanted advances. And the ""Washington Post's" Carol Leonnig reported that Massa was living with several young male staffers and had had lunch with a Barney Frank staffer, so it seemed to me as much as you were enjoying it, Bill Press, that this turned from an entertaining story about tickle parties to something somewhat more serious.

PRESS: It did. First of all, it was also a classic story of watching a politician self-destruct in front of our very eyes. Probably the worst since John Edwards. But there was a serious -- the stories that have come out about his behavior in the Navy raised all kinds of questions about this going out to dinner with a Barney Frank staffer just raised all kinds of questions about exactly how serious this might have become if he hadn't resigned right now.

KURTZ: But once he resigned, Peter Baker, is it appropriate for journalists to start digging into his relationships or non- relationships with other men? I mean, there is a certain discomfort level, I would think in this.

BAKER: There's a lot of discomfort, obviously. You know, it is somewhat legitimate. He's a man in a position of power. And I think whether he's still in office or not, there's a reasonable cause to sit there and examine how we used that office that the public gave him. And I think the larger question is was there anything to look at in terms to of the House leadership, in terms of what they knew, what they didn't do, how they handled these allegations when it was brought to them. That's probably the more meaningful thing. Eric Massa is going to go off into the night pretty soon and we won't be talking about him, but the House leadership is still there.

KURTZ: I'm seeing made for TV movie here. Did the press handle this in the same way that it handled the case of Republican Mark Foley, who quickly resigned in '06 after we learned of those sexually explicit messages that he had been sending to House pages, and that blew up into a huge scandal story.

GERAGHTY: Foley for better words, did not suddenly turn himself into -- not trying to say that there was a partisan reason for his resignation. There was no kind of angle of Karl Rove or anyone else confronting -- there was all of that angle was missing.

KURTZ: Do we sort of fall for the politics of distraction here, where Massa tried to make this about everything else except that?

GERAGHTY: Well you asked about that Larry King question. If he said yes, wouldn't we be looking at this story a little bit differently? Then suddenly this would be Jim McGreevey again.

PRESS: No, it was still inappropriate behavior, for a member of Congress...


PRESS: ... rolling around on the floor with a staffer, sort of, inviting younger -- other younger staffers out to dinner or to lunch and everything. It was still -- gay or not gay, it was still inappropriate behavior, which I think is the story.

GERAGHTY: He would suddenly be able to paint himself as a Jim McGreevey-esque victim, who had been living a lie all this time. And, you know, a certain portion of the gay community embraced Jim McGreevey. If Eric Massa had come out and played that card differently, he may have, you know, not become the ostracized, you know, butt of every -- and punchline to every joke that he is now.

BAKER: Not a lot -- I don't think there are a lot of communities that want to embrace him right now. I mean, I...


Obviously, the difference between Eric Massa and Mark Foley, by the way -- the other difference is that, with Mark Foley, we were talking around underaged children who were, you know, in the charge of the United States Congress. They were serving as parental, you know, substitutes, in effect. And did he, therefore -- and the other thing we had, by the way, were these messages, which has a way of continuing a story and becoming quite scandalous.

KURTZ: But it was interesting. A lot of newspapers declined to go with some of the early messages, which were not quite as sexually explicit, and it wasn't until ABC News broke the story.


KURTZ: Go ahead.

HALL: Well, and ABC News had so many people, once -- once they were out there, you know, basically asking people. They had a lot of evidence. And I think the reporting's been very muddy on what Nancy Pelosi's office did or did not know. I think this is where you see the real politicization of everything, including sexual harassment.

KURTZ: Do you agree with Bill Press that -- that the media have sunk to a new low here?

He obviously meant that in an entertaining way, but some people think there's been...


HALL: Well, I mean, we all watched, you know. That's why I said "train wreck television." I mean, it was a spectacle. I don't know that we've sunk to a new low, but I think -- I think that Beck was so blinded by the wish that this guy was a hero. Limbaugh was calling him a hero until Limbaugh backed away. I think people are so eager to prove their point, right now, that they're embracing people -- I mean, that was an embrace. To have him on for an hour and not know what he was going to say means that was a risk.

BAKER: Well, interviews -- interviews aren't about finding out what there is to know. It's about finding out what you want him to say.

HALL: Exactly.

BAKER: And that's -- that's the...


PRESS: The most telling comment, I thought, was Glenn Beck's final word, which is -- Jon Stewart got the best line off of the week, I think, that this should be his sign-off for every single show, is "I have just wasted on hour of your time."


KURTZ: Well, I hope we haven't wasted your time this morning. And before we go, Eric Massa also came up in a rather impassioned speech that outgoing Congressman Patrick Kennedy gave on the House floor. You might have seen this replayed on television, online.

I think he was wrong. I will tell you why after we hear from Patrick Kennedy.


REP. PATRICK J. KENNEDY, D-R.I.: Anyone who wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there's one -- two press people in this gallery. We're talking about Eric Massa, 24/7 on the TV. We're talking about war and peace, $3 billion, 1,000 lives, and no press! No press!


KURTZ: Now, he might be right about the Eric Massa 24/7 coverage -- or 23/7, I would say -- but that was a debate of a resolution to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. And the reason there was virtually no press there is that it had no chance of passing. It was a symbolic resolution that got 50 votes in the House. I think the media devoted enormous resources to the Afghan war. You can criticize this or that, but I think Patrick Kennedy got a little carried away there.

When we come back, the Rahm factor. The press corps has started taking aim at top White House officials. A report is penetrating the inner sanctum, or just getting spun.


KURTZ: President Obama may be the newsmaker in chief, but lately, there's been a non-stop series of articles, columns and blog posts about Rahm Emanuel and also about David Axelrod.

Why has there been so much media focus on these top White House officials? And is it more than inside baseball?

Peter Baker, you've got the cover story in this morning's New York Times magazine, if I can hold that up, "The Limits of Rahmism."

And you write here that these articles recently that have been defending Rahm, by Dana Milbank in The Washington Post and others, have made it worse for him at the White House because it fed suspicions that he was secretly disparaging the president and colleagues.

Are those suspicions fair?

BAKER: Well, with Rahm Emanuel, like Karl Rove, maybe, in the last White House, all sorts of conspiracy theories and all sorts of suspicions are -- are seemingly fair game, even to the point of his shower conduct in the House gym.

You know, in my experience, that's not been the case. You know, like a lot of reporters in Washington, I've known Rahm Emanuel for a lot of years. In my conversation with him, going back over the last 14 months since he's been chief of staff, I've never heard him disparage the president or disparage his colleagues.

What I think is happening is a lot of people are focusing on him because he is a larger than life personality. And Dana Milbank did defend him, and that did go over badly with his colleagues because he defended him at the cost of the president and his colleagues.

KURTZ: And the president was irritated, you report.

You also say that Rahm is a master media manipulator, and that, you like others, have expense account dinners with him and sometimes he calls you unsolicited to give you his spin.

So why shouldn't we assume his fingerprints are on some of these stories?

BAKER: Well, because I think the way he manipulates is different than that. I don't think he manipulates in order to trash his own colleagues.

And he's very sensitive about his position in this White House. He understands that his relationship with the president is not what everybody thinks. They're friendly, but they're not close friends. He didn't go through the campaign with him like Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs, so he's been very cautious about wanting to make sure he didn't overstep his bounds with the president who -- you know, whose boundaries he's trying to explore.

KURTZ: And Jane Hall, last Sunday, Peter's New York Times colleague Mark Leibovich wrote a piece about David Axelrod, saying that some were calling for him to be fired. And Axelrod got asked about some of the attention that he's been getting in the media this morning on "State of the Union" by Candy Crowley.


DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: These stories are what Washington does. When -- when people think there are political challenges, then the palace intrigue stories get written.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Palace intrigue. But why shouldn't journalists hold these high officials accountable when things are not going well, as they have not been for the administration?

HALL: I think that they're looking around to see why Obama, the great communicator, has not been able to communicate and get his health care plan passed.

I think there are a lot of interesting questions. Edward Luce in Financial Times had a piece in February which said that it was partially because he was paying so much attention to this tight circle of Valerie Jarrett and Gibbs and Axelrod, and included Emanuel in this, and that he wasn't paying enough attention to some of the able cabinet officers.

Now when I read The Washington Post's second story that said Emanuel may be the voice of reason, that was the headline of a new story. I did think, gee, maybe Emanuel helped write that headline. But I'm willing to believe...

KURTZ: Or people friendly to him.

HALL: ... Peter's saying that it has backfired. I think the big...

KURTZ: Well, obviously he has allies. Let me turn to Jim Geraghty, because we're a little short on time.

This is the first time, isn't it, in the Obama presidency that the press has gone after some of these officials personally.

GERAGHTY: Yes. You always get this in the White House. I think what is a little surprising is how early it's coming. Based on past history, based on the way Washington works, we've seen these kind of stories before, we've seen these leak in campaigns. I think it's very, very likely that at some point Rahm Emanuel is going to fire President Obama.


KURTZ: But are the media missing the point, Bill Press? Obama makes the policy, he is the decider, to use a phrase from his predecessor. He hires these guys to get it done, so why are they the story?

PRESS: First of all, I've got to say, any time you have a front page story in The Washington Post or New Republic this week, or Peter's article this morning, that the chief of staff is smarter than the president of the United States, this is not good for the administration. But the bigger story that I think the media is missing -- or two.

One is that Obama had a rough year. He did not have a great first year. And Rahm Emanuel has to share some of that blame, number one. And number two, during the campaign in 2008, this was such an airtight operation. There were all kinds of rumors and stories about Hillary's in-fighting, nothing about the Obama thing. And suddenly that has fallen apart.

Why and how and who's responsible. That's the story.

KURTZ: Because when you're not on top, people look for reasons for failures or setbacks. And you kind of buy into it, Peter Baker, because the limits of Rahmism suggest that there is a Rahmism that's perhaps as important as Obamaism.

BAKER: Well, you know, President Obama, of course, came into office as an outsider to some extent, promising hope and change, we're going to get rid of business as usual. And then he hires as his number one person the ultimate insider, the get-it-done guy from Congress. And it was an interesting dichotomy to begin with. What wins out? Idealism, pragmatism? And so that's what Rahmism represents.

What is this balance between the vision and hope and so forth the president wants to achieve, and Rahmism, which is about putting points on the board, getting victories, and...

GERAGHTY: And getting things done.

BAKER: Getting things done.

GERAGHTY: This guy was supposed to...


HALL: But I think we should be also talking about Robert Gibbs and Axelrod and the message. How did they let the right hijack the whole health care language? And we're talking about government giveaways and death panels. That's a story that ought to be also looked at.

KURTZ: We will have to wrap it up. And I want to ask Peter this last question, you write that "Emanuel declined to talk to me on the record." What should we read into that?

BAKER: Exactly what it says.


KURTZ: We'll let that one hang in the air. Peter Baker, Jim Geraghty, Jane Hall, Bill Press, thanks very much for coming by this morning.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, we'll move back to our regular studio. Letterman's lucky break. A guilty plea from a former CBS producer let's "The Late Show" comic avoid a tabloid trial. Now, can he beat Jay Leno in a rematch?

Plus, bad buzz. The producers of a small, independent movie are suing Variety for a lousy review. Seriously?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: David Letterman caught a break, a big break this week. From the moment that Joe Halderman was arrested for leaving a threatening note in Letterman's limo, it was hard to see how he would beat the rap. The former CBS News producer was demanding $2 million or else. Or else he would reveal what the comedian had been doing in his personal life.

Letterman went to the cops and fessed up on "The Late Show."


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: The creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.


KURTZ: Halderman pleaded guilty in New York this week to second degree larceny and will be sentenced to six months in jail. The former "48 Hours" staffer spoke publicly for the first time.


JOE HALDERMAN, PLED GUILTY TO 2ND DEGREE LARCENY: I apologize to Mr. Letterman, his family, to Stephanie Birkitt, her family, and certainly to my friends and family. I will not be doing any interviews and I thank you all for your patience.


KURTZ: Letterman briefly addressed the matter on his program. And this time, no jokes.


LETTERMAN: Now, I've never been involved in anything like this in my life. And I was concerned and full of anxiety and nervous and worried. And the people in the district attorney's office said this will be handled professionally, this will be handled skillfully, and appropriately. Well, the matter was resolved today and they were exactly right.


KURTZ: The important thing for Dave's career, of course, is that he avoids the very public spectacle of a trial. So where does this leave Letterman's image and his battle with Jay Leno? Joining us now in Los Angeles, Sharon Waxman, founder and editor of And in Austin, Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large for

Rachel, how important is it to David Letterman's image that this case did not go to trial?

RACHEL SKLAR, MEDIAITE.COM: Well, I think it wraps it up rather neatly. I think you played the one sound bite that struck the creepy note about, you know, Letterman, saying that he had sex with his staffers. That was the, ew, cringing moment. Everything else, as you noted before that he did wrap it in jokes even though it was handled seriously. That's what he wants to distance himself from.

I read some commentary that said that, you know, a trial might have been good for ratings. Nonetheless, I think you want to wrap this up and move on from it, particularly in the advantageous position that Letterman is in, which is that he still gets a ratings bump anytime this comes up.

KURTZ: Right.

SKLAR: And then he...

KURTZ: But, you know, a trial might...


KURTZ: A trial might have been good -- a trial might been good for ratings. I am sure Dave is happy to forgo those extra ratings points in order to get this out of his...

SKLAR: And also to not give use Jay Leno a chance to use it as fodder.

KURTZ: Well, we'll get to Leno in a minute.

Sharon Waxman, had Halderman not pleaded guilty, you would have had all of this testimony, all of these depositions, all of these details, how many women, how long did it last, what about the intern. And that really might have brought this back on to the front pages.

SHARON WAXMAN, FOUNDER & EDITOR, THEWRAP.COM: I think it definitely would have. I mean, we're in this very funny situation where our late night hosts who are supposed to be commenting on the news, have consistently, over the past, I don't know, six months, kind of been the news. And this is not a comfortable position either for David Letterman in this case, or Jay Leno and what went on with him and Conan and that whole drama.

That's not where they're supposed to be in terms of their positioning of kind of, you know, the armchair critic or the armchair commentary or comic for America. So I agree that for David Letterman, he must be -- he would be very happy to forgo those ratings points, as you say.

And it absolutely would have been gossip, tabloid, blog commentary endlessly.

KURTZ: Right. And I think it was an embarrassment for CBS News to have one of its producers pleading guilty in this case. He of course, Joe Halderman was angry because he thought his live-in girlfriend, Stephanie Birkitt, who had worked for "The Late Show" had somehow taken up with Dave again.

Rachel Sklar, the audience certainly seems to have moved on. Could you argue that this all actually helped Dave by making him appear more, I don't know, human? RACHEL SKLAR: I think you really could argue that. These things happen, and then it's how you react to them and how you deal with them and move on from them that really exposes your mettle as the person, frankly. And I think we also saw that with Conan and how Conan exited his show, in sort of in that very strong and inspiring note.

In terms of Letterman, how he responded to it was he took personal responsibility, and you know, he acknowledged what happened in a very serious way and he got ahead of the story. He handled it very well, while still, you know, being self-deprecating and funny, and doing what he needed to do as a host of, you know, his late-night show.

KURTZ: Right. I thought he sort of bobbled his first apology, where people in the audience weren't sure whether he was being serious or not.

SKLAR: Oh yeah, that--

KURTZ: (inaudible) serious apology, I think after talking to his lawyer. But let me turn to Sharon Waxman and ask her this question. Why is it that Tiger Woods is still being roundly denounced despite his apology in a way that Letterman is not?

WAXMAN: Yes, I think that shows you that it's a really good position, Howie, because that shows you the difference between the approach that Dave Letterman took versus what Tiger Woods took. That's exactly the point, that Dave Letterman got out in front of it, he was candid about it. I don't really agree with you so much about that first admission on the air being wrong because he was kind of funny about it. You have to remember, it was extremely jarring. It was like saying basically a meteor was landing in the middle of the stage. It was completely unexpected, so you have to expect a little discomfort there.


KURTZ: I think the audience just didn't know whether this was some kind of bit or not. I don't think he was trying to be funny at all.

WAXMAN: Well, that comes from 20 years of him being--


KURTZ: In Tiger Woods' case, obviously, Tiger doesn't have a show, so he had to do that stage-managed--

SKLAR: Tiger, the flip side with Tiger, it was excellent television.


KURTZ: Go ahead.

WAXMAN: Tiger was constantly chasing the news. He was constantly having to come back and explain why stuff that came out in the news was something that he was going to acknowledge or not acknowledge, or our business or not our business. And then finally, we know the apology, actually we talked on this show before, it was late, it was controlled. Was not open to question and completely -- and not candid in any way. So I think people felt it was insincere.

KURTZ: And of course Tiger came out weeks after we learned about the double digit list of mistresses, whereas we didn't know anything about this matter until Dave Letterman broke it himself on the Today Show.

So now we've got the rematch, Rachel Sklar. Jay Leno's been back at the Tonight Show for two weeks. He's been in first place, though his second week was much more of a horse race than the first week. Now last time you were on, you talked about how I think you and others, kind of fed up with Jay because he had been mean to Conan and would this hurt him, was he damaged goods.

SKLAR: That may be a slight bit simplistic.

KURTZ: So, but my question is, is the audience going to hold it against Jay Leno? He's back at No. 1 despite what he went through with that debacle on the prime time show.

SKLAR: I don't think people were, you know, team Coco, as exists on the Internet and, you know, in mobs with placards outside Universal Studios about a month and a half ago, they won't like Jay Leno. But that was never really Leno's audience. Leno's audience was going to capture the people who left when Conan O'Brien came on and also the people who just wanted to watch late night TV and flipped around and settled on NBC. So that's what Leno's return was for.

I don't think, you know, I think on the whole, there's not a grudge against Leno. I think there was sort of a sense that this situation was handled unfairly and that Leno wasn't a stand-up guy during it and that he was disingenuous in how he depicted himself as it unfolded--

KURTZ: OK, I've got about half a minute.

SKLAR: But I don't think people are going to hold it against him. Except for the hard core Conan fans.

KURTZ: And my view, Sharon Waxman, you know, we all talk about the internal politics of this, but people want to be entertained at 11:35 at night and not worry about who did what to whom six months earlier.

WAXMAN: Exactly. I mean, that's -- the ratings just go to show you how much of a tempest in a teapot it is for this very insular media world. We all like to talk about each other. The TV world likes to talk about one another, and it was going on onstage also during the whole Conan-Jay, then David Letterman would get involved, too. But what that just goes to prove is that the mass of Americans just want to be entertained. They like their Jay or they like their Conan or they don't, but basically, they were more comfortable with Jay at 11:30. He's back, they're back.

KURTZ: And of course, Leno felt compelled to do that interview with Oprah to try to explain his side of the story. All right, Rachel Sklar--

SKLAR: That was awkward.

KURTZ: -- thanks very much for joining us. Sharon, stick around.

Up next -- pink slips. "Variety" lays off its movie and theater critics. Are reviews becoming a lost art? Plus, the Hollywood paper is sued over an Oscar promotion deal gone bad.


KURTZ: When the Oscars got under way last Sunday, the movie "Iron Cross" was not among the ten nominees for best picture, but that wasn't for lack of trying.

The company that made the Roy Scheider film had signed a $400,000 contract with "Variety," the Hollywood trade paper, to create Oscar- worthy buzz through advertising, DVD inserts and other promotion. But after spending more than half that money, the filmmaker has now sued "Variety."

Why? The company says the paper ruined the movie's chances -- and I am not making this up -- by running a negative review. There's more to this tangled tale, and joining us now to talk about it in Los Angeles, Ben Mankiewicz, weekend host of Turner Classic Movies.

Let me start with Sharon Waxman first, Ben, because TheWrap, your website, reported on this lawsuit. What exactly did this company, Calibra Pictures, think it was getting with this $400,000 promotional deal with "Variety?"

WAXMAN: That's a good question. Well, we have the contract. We have actually published the contract, so we know exactly what they were getting. They were getting a certain amount of ads in the trade paper. They were also getting three slots in "Variety's" screening series, which is kind of unusual to make that part of a contract, an advertising contract.

But what's clear from the lawsuit, which is really fascinating reading, in terms of those negotiations over what can be promised and what can be delivered, is that they were kind of promising that they could A, help them get an Oscar nomination, and B, help them get a distributor because the important to remember is this is not a movie that's been released. This is not a movie that even has a distributor. That's what makes it so unusual.

KURTZ: So along comes this review in "Variety," Ben Mankiewicz, and this is with the late Roy Schneider, and the reviewer says this is story telling nonsense, it's mediocre, it's choppy. My question to you is, is it possible in 2009, 2010, for a filmmaker to believe that it's buying not just advertising, but a favorable review? BEN MANKIEWICZ, TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: It's hard to believe in -- and this looks like sort of a deal made between amateurs. It's hard to believe that "Variety" would enter into this agreement. Hard to believe that Joshua Newton, the director of the film, would enter into this agreement. It seems like an agreement yes, in the 1930s that we could believe this.

I mean, how could he possibly think that "Variety" would engage in this sort of tactic although it appears that "Variety" at least led him to believe that they would engage in this kind of contract, where they would again, make a $400,000 deal and promise him that they would not include a bad review of what appears to be -- although I don't want to call it a pretty bad film, it got one other bad review that I found in "LA Weekly," but I don't want to say it's a bad film. I haven't seen it. Lord knows, these guys seem pretty litigious and I don't want them to sue me.

KURTZ: All right, so we don't want to get you sued either. Now we invited "Variety" for this program and the newspaper declined. Sharon Waxman, what did "Variety" do when the review first ran and there was pressure about this? When there was complaints about the review, did the company cave?

WAXMAN: The company pulled -- "Variety" pulled the review. They made it go away. And that was how we found out about this to begin with because it was pointed out that the review had been disappeared.

When you ask "Variety," why, they said that there were errors in the review. Then the producers threaten to sue. This all happened in the past week and a half or so. Then the review mysteriously reappeared. Apparently the errors had been addressed or they weren't really errors. And then they did sue.

So just to be clear also, I don't think that there's any suggestion that there was explicit language. There is no language in the contract regarding a review of at all, but it's this notion of -- kind of an understanding that we're partners with you. We're going to help you. We're going to do this for you. And that this review kind of came out of nowhere and underlined the whole notion that they were partners with them in helping them get an Oscar nomination and get a distributor.

KURTZ: I find this -- go ahead.

MANKIEWICZ: Then it feels --

WAXMAN: It is kind of jaw dropping. It is.

MANKIEWICZ: It's jaw dropping, because then it also feels kind of sleazy that "Variety" is almost bilking these sort of independent producers out of $400,000. It feels sleazy on "Variety's" part if that's the case.

KURTZ: And at the same time, Ben Mankiewicz, this is just a coincidence, but this week "Variety" is laying off critics including its chief theatre critic. I have to ask you, you live and breathe the air out there. Isn't this at the heart of what a Hollywood newspaper does?

MANKIEWICZ: Yeah and you know, "Variety" has always walked this tough line, this tough line of "Variety" takes these giant, incredibly expensive ads from studios for its films and promotes this sort of Oscar buzz for the film and actors from the studios.

But then also, they cover the business. But you know, as Patrick Goldstein of the "L.A. Times" wrote in one of his pieces this week, quoting somebody from the studios, a Hollywood insider, that everybody in the business doesn't get "Variety" so that they can read the ads for the movies. They sort of get "Variety" for the sort of insight about the business. And if all "Variety" becomes is simply the ads for the movies, then obviously, not everybody's going to get the business. And "Variety's" expensive. It's not cheap.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Sharon.

MANKIEWICZ: Getting rid of guys like Todd McCarthy who sort of provide this insight and analysis takes away a lot from what "Variety" offers.

WAXMAN: I was just going to say, Ben, you probably haven't looked at "Variety" very much lately because there are almost no ads in it.

That's exactly the problem. That's the root of what's going on here is that "Variety" is so desperate for ads that they'll stoop to this kind of behavior that you're calling sleazy and I couldn't really argue with you. So essentially, you've got this sort of manipulative behavior on the part of a rather desperate Hollywood trade and then this kind of very, very naive behavior on the part of independent producers. At the heart of it is --

KURTZ: Let me jump back in. Editor Tim Gray by the way says that the readers will not notice these changes, that "Variety" will still run about 1,000 reviews a year, but written by freelancers. My last question to you, Ben Mankiewicz, are other papers cutting back on film critics? Is there a feeling that younger readers don't care and they'll just read the blogs and the whole idea of having informed critics doesn't matter as much as it used to?

MANKIEWICZ: Are other papers cutting back on film critics? Yeah.

KURTZ: Does it bother you?

MANKIEWICZ: Yes, I mean, it bothers me. As a media critic, I would hope it bothers you because you know, I mean, the idea that criticism, you know, in newspapers around the country is in jeopardy I think would bother everybody. And the Internet has provided a great outlet for some thoughtful people to offer their opinions. But it also offers opinions for less thoughtful people.

KURTZ: OK I've got to go. Sharon Waxman, Ben Mankiewicz, thank you very much.

And after the break, as the health care battle enters the home stretch, the politicians are out in force this morning. Candy Crowley breaks down the "Sound of Sunday."


KURTZ: Busy morning on the Sunday talk circuit. Here with our weekly look at that is Candy Crowley.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: We had a trifecta from the White House this morning as senior adviser David Axelrod hit the Sunday talk shows to press the case for finally passing health care reform.


DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: I think the sense of urgency has increased in recent weeks because we've seen rate increases across the country for health insurance. So, it is a, it's a struggle, but I believe we're moving in the right direction. It is important to the American people that we have the fortitude to go ahead against it, to leave the politics aside, to leave the partisanship aside, to resist the special interests and get the job done.


CROWLEY: As for the actual vote count, some rare bipartisan agreement this morning that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still doesn't have the magic number.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), MINORITY LEADER: If she had 216 votes, this bill will be long gone and, remember, they tried to do this in June and July last year. If they had the votes then, it would be law. They tried to pass it in September, October, November, December, January, February, guess what? They don't have the votes.

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC), DEMOCRATIC WHIP: We don't have them as of this morning, but we have been working this thing all weekend and we'll be working it going into the week and I'm also very confident that we will get this done.


CROWLEY: Looking beyond passage to the aftermath, a warning from a leading Republican for Democrats.


SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: I think from the day this passes, if it should, there will be an instant, spontaneous campaign to repeal it all across the country. It will define every Democrat at congressional races in November and it will be a political wipeout for the Democratic Party. That will be bad for the country, but it will change the leadership of the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CROWLEY: And although health care is topic A here in Washington, the White House is also dealing with a lot of things, including the war in Afghanistan and whether at some point it might want to negotiate with mid and upper level Taliban leaders.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The Afghan government would have to take the lead in that, in that discussion. But, Candy, when you look at Iraq, for example, there's always as part of this process a political reconciliation. And there may come a point when that is, when that comes into play, so long as people are willing to renounce violence, so long as they renounce contact with al Qaeda, so long as they support the constitution of Afghanistan, but that's down the line.


CROWLEY: Hard to imagine, but we might come to a day when Sunday morning talk is not about health care reform.

KURTZ: But, since we're not at that day yet, interesting that Axelrod was on three shows, the Democrats all have the same problem, which is they want to project an air of confidence about this, but who knows if they can get enough votes in the House to adopt that Senate version.

CROWLEY: Listen, here's what's happening. There's this fixed package that the House has to pass after it passes the Senate bill because there are things about the Senate bill they don't like.

So what they're waiting for is, A, the CBO to come in and say, well here's how much this package will count. Because they have these members who still say well I want to see the bottom line. But in the end, they have enough winks and nods from people to give them this vote and I'll tell you why, because the president wouldn't delay his trip for three days to then leave without health care reform.

KURTZ: So he's going out on a limb. You're going out on a limb by saying. Well you know this turf, Candy Crowley thanks.

Still to come, redemption tour. Karl Rove hits the airwaves to sell a book and defend the Bush administration. Are the anchors buying his version of history?


KURTZ: Karl Rove is out pedaling his book this week, an unabashed, unapologetic defense of the president he served. The challenge for interviews, to pin him down when Rove kept trying in various ways to blame the media.


KURTZ (voice-over): Rove kicked off the tour for "Courage and Consequence" on the "Today Show," where the operative turned pundit said it's the press that has portrayed him as a slimy, political practitioner.

MATT LAUER, TODAY SHOW: Dana Milbank, who wrote about the Bush White House for "The Washington Post" writes "that business about President George W. Bush misleading the nation about Iraq didn't happen --

KARL ROVE, AUTHOR: Well, let's stop right there. He may be able to dismiss it in one snarky line, but I have the facts in here.

LAUER: You say to believe all the bad things about Karl Rove, first you have to believe that the electorate is stupid, easily mislead by smash mouth TV ads, dirty tricks and fear and smear politics. I can't imagine you ever calling the electorate stupid. Who would be so stupid to do that?

ROVE: Well, those journalists were.

LAUER: But isn't the rest of it somewhat true?


KURTZ: Rove, like any author, should get a fair shot at explaining himself. But when Rove insisted that President Bush did not ignore conflicting intelligence on whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Matt Lauer pushed back hard.

LAUER: You don't have to be too bit a cynic to say, well of course they beat the drums about WMD.

ROVE: Well, this will be surprising to you. The president was restrained.

KURTZ: On the CIA leak investigation involving Valerie Plame, Rove tried to split hairs, saying he wasn't a confirming source of the late columnist Bob Novak that he merely said he'd heard the same thing as Novak did. He refused to apologize to Scott McClellan, the Bush spokesman who repeatedly told the press that Rove had nothing to do with the matter. McClellan responded on MSNBC.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think what you're seeing is that Karl is continuing to live in his own world here. Karl Rove actually did apologize to me on three occasions.

KURTZ: Rove got a more sympathetic hearing at the network where he is a commentator.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: You're going to do a multi multi- city tour. How can people find out where you're going to be?

ROVE: We've got a schedule there, of where I'm going to be and when I'm going to be.

KURTZ: But for all the history that Rove tries to fight and in some cases rewrite, he also got a chance to show his human frailty such as reacting to his mother's suicide note.

LAUER: How do you deal with that? How do you hold a letter like that?

ROVE: And to have five children that loved her and to have grandchildren and yet to feel there is so little in your life that you're going to end it has got to be just horrible.


KURTZ: Rove out on a couple of the Sunday shows this morning as well. There's a fine line between challenging a guest and debating him. Between calling him on his facts and calling him out. Lauer managed to pull that off, and Rove, who is now part of the media, got to score his points as well. That's it for "Reliable Sources" this week. Time now for "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley.