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Coverage of Obama Post-Health Care Reform; Tainted Cash

Aired March 28, 2010 - 11:00   ET



HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Victory and intimidation. Is the press boosting the president after his health care win and linking the likes of Sarah Palin to death threats against Democrats?

Tainted cash. Why on earth did ABC pay $200,000 to a woman now accused of murdering her daughter?

Junkie journalism. Politico's top editors on their bubbly brew of reporting tastes great, but is it less filling?

Plus, Tiger talks. Should two sports channels have agreed to five-minute interviews?


KURTZ: We all thought that the health care story would fade after President Obama finally got his hotly-disputed bill through Congress. On that point, we were wrong.

The coverage took a dark turn this week with reports of death threats and vandalism against perhaps a dozen Democratic lawmakers. Some Democrats started arguing that certain Republicans were encouraging the threats and the violence with their overheated rhetoric about the president and his supposedly socialist program.

And in much of the mainstream media, in tone and in story selection, they adopted that view.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: It can now be said that the debate over health care reform has gone too far. It's now veered into threats of violence.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS (VOICE-OVER): On Twitter, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin told followers, "Don't retreat. Reload."

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: It turns out angry opponents of the bill unleashed threatening phone calls, scathing words, even bricks thrown through windows.

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS (voice-over): On her Facebook page, crosshairs mark the districts of 17 Democratic lawmakers she wants to see defeated in November.

ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: Considering these threats, these concerns that we've been hearing about regarding violence, do you think, do you now recommend that your party use less incendiary language? And will you say that to her tomorrow?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Ann, I have seen the rhetoric of targeted districts as long as I've been in politics. Please.


KURTZ: Leading Republicans have denounced the violence and accused the Democrats of playing political games.

So, are journalists drawing unfair connections here or holding Republicans accountable for their rhetoric?

Joining us now here in Washington, Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and former managing editor of Gannett Broadcasting; Terence Smith, former media correspondent for the "NewsHour" on PBS; and David Zurawik, television and media critic for "The Baltimore Sun."

Terry Smith, should the media be adopting this premise that there's a connection between some of these death threats and Sarah Palin's use of the word "reload"?

TERENCE SMITH, FMR. MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSHOUR": Well, the reload is loaded as a phrase, that's for sure. But, no. Basically, they ought to cover this as what it is, which is a law enforcement matter. I mean, this is -- some of the rhetoric, it goes beyond rhetoric.

KURTZ: But when you say that reload is loaded, don't journalists routinely use such phrases as "targeting incumbents," "air wars," "battleground states?"

SMITH: Howie, reload is loaded. Come on.

You know, yes, they do. Of course they use kind of military, war-like phrases all the time. But that was not casually used.

KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn, Sarah Palin responded to this at a rally yesterday. She called this whole argument a bunch of bunk. And the Fox News contributor turned to the reporters section and said, "We ask you for some fair and balanced reporting here."

LAUREN ASHBURN, FMR. MANAGING EDITOR, GANNETT BROADCASTING: Well, you know, I think the problem here is that the leaders of the country are the ones using the hate and the rhetoric, and everybody else is sort of following along. Remember September 11th, when the towers went down and everybody rallied against hate? Right now what's happening now is in our country there is hate.

We hearing words like "thuggery" and "recrimination" and "confrontation." And it's not until politicians I think understand that the real reason they're doing this is self-esteem that it's going to stop.

KURTZ: David Zurawik, I'm also jumping on people like, say, Congressman Randy Neugebauer, who called Bart Stupak a baby killer on the floor. Then he apologized, and then he did a fund-raising video to capitalize on it. But the Republican National Committee putting up an ad that says "Fire Pelosi and her lot of flames," I mean, it seems to me like pretty standard political tactics.

DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": Oh, I think we're beyond that. I really do.

When you looked at last Sunday night, and you saw that final speech by John Boehner when he was saying, "Hell no," I recorded it and I went back and played it to just freeze-frame his face and the tone. It was angry. And this was the latest.

KURTZ: But how do you go from that, his passionate opposition, to a major program that does involve a lot of federal spending, to saying that Boehner and others are responsible for death threats and bullets in windows and that sort of thing?

ZURAWIK: Because it's not just passionate opposition to the policy. He said you behaved shamefully. It's personal attacks.

It's just like the language of "baby killer." And then that kind of disingenuous jujitsu when he said, oh, I said the bill was a baby killer. And then just as you explained, that is really upsetting and it's really, really dangerous. Howie, in his climate, when worrying right now with people losing jobs, all the really scary stuff that's happening in this country, for people like -- to go out there -- and especially the way Sarah Palin did, to put out that gun rhetoric into the middle of that, very dangerous and irresponsible.

KURTZ: The conservative argument is that the media didn't seem quite so concerned with civility when protesters were calling George W. Bush a war criminal and a Nazi and that kind of overheated rhetoric as well.

ASHBURN: I think -- let's stop it. I mean, let's stop talking about it. And can we just stop it? And I think that the only way we're going to stop it is to call people to task.

There is one word for all of this, and it's kindergarten. I guarantee you that John McCain's kindergarten teacher would not have allowed him to cross his arms and say there will be no more cooperation for the rest of the year. This isn't how leaders are supposed to act on either side of the aisle. Let's just knock it off.

SMITH: I think it's three to one against you, Howie. I mean, because it does go -- it does cross a line. It does go too far, and it ought to be reported that way.

KURTZ: Where I was concerned was where you had Sean Hannity on Fox News openly doubting -- remember the rally at the capital last week when all the protesters showed up before the health care bill passed, and you had people like Barney Frank and people like John Lewis and Emanuel Cleaver having the N-word hurled at them, and anti- gay epithets hurled at them, and Hannity says, well, how do we know it's even happening because there's no video of it? I mean, that's where I would have a problem.

Let me turn the conversation slightly to the way the media have covered the president after the passage of the health care bill, finally got it through after 14 months. Let's take a look at some of the reports, including one -- there's one guy on the end there who doesn't like Barack Obama very much.


HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS (voice-over): Tonight, making history. The House hands President Obama his long-awaited victory on health care reform, a bill that inspires.

SAWYER: Tonight on "World News," from Washington, making history. President Obama celebrates landmark changes in American health care.

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: This vote on health care was the end of the Democratic Party as we know it.



KURTZ: Have the mainstream media -- Glenn Beck aside, Terry Smith -- flipped from calling Obama the new Jimmy Carter to the new FDR?

SMITH: Yes, they've flipped, but the facts on the ground flipped, too. Last summer, when they were most critical, Obama and his administration, they were in trouble.

They were losing control of the debate over health care. And so it was reported that way. By the time the world had turned and the thing had changed, it was a major victory, and it was worth reporting.

KURTZ: Maker victory, absolutely, but for months we heard journalists, columnist, pundits, Lauren, calling Barack Obama too cool, too cerebral, too professorial, too detached, too ineffective, too differential to the congressional leaders.

And now?

ASHBURN: We love to win and we love to lose, and we love to affiliate ourselves with the winners and the losers. And we do it when people win. You want to be associated with that.

So, now, all of a sudden, oh, my gosh, he's not a failure. He is doing the great things. And now we can say, OK, let's promote the winner.

Our country loves to be number one. Nobody wants to be number two. And we all want to report on who is number one. ZURAWIK: And Howie, it's not just that he won. Even before that, you know, the day before the vote last Saturday, when he came and made that speech to the House Congressional Democratic Caucus --


ZURAWIK: --- that was an inspirational speech. That was as good as it ever gets. And I think Americans -- at least I did -- I saw something there where a guy was down and said, A, sometimes in our lives we find out what we're really about, and this is what I'm about.

If I go down with this, fine. But I'm going to go down with it. And I think people react -- I know I did as a viewer. I said I'm with this guy right now.

ASHBURN: Finally, we saw the Barack Obama of the campaign. He came back, and it was from losing the Olympic bid to this health care mess.


ASHBURN: And all of a sudden, here he is.

KURTZ: It was a very emotional speech. And I don't think it got the kind of coverage it deserved, because it was so unlike the Obama we had seen for the last 14 months.

ZURAWIK: Yes, that's exactly it.

KURTZ: Well, we know what the conservative position here is. "The Weekly Standard," if we can get the camera on here, says, "Repeal." And let me talk about the pundits on this.

Speaking of "The Weekly Standard," Fred Barnes wrote back in January -- if we've got a graphic on that -- "The health care bill Obamacare is dead, with not the slightest prospect of resurrection."

And here is Chris Matthews in an interview with Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, telling him -- well, you'll see what he told him about the idea that health care could pass in the Senate through reconciliation.


REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: Reconciliation is 51 votes, not 60 votes.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: What do you mean -- you can't create a program through reconciliation.

GRAYSON: You can create an amendment.

MATTHEWS: Nobody's ever done with.

GRAYSON: The bill's already passed the 60 votes.

MATTHEWS: Name a program, Congressman. Just name me the program that's ever been created through reconciliation. Name one. One.

GRAYSON: As I said, tax cuts for the rich was --

MATTHEWS: That's not a program. Under reconciliation you're allowed to do two things -- change fiscal numbers. You're allowed to raise taxes or cut program spending. You cannot create something.


ASHBURN: Videotape is a wonderful thing.


KURTZ: It's not that Matthews turned out to be wrong. There's a lot of that going on. It's that he's mocking his guest for taking this position.

SMITH: Well, I mean, it's a good thing in the end that Chris didn't run for the Senate, because the rules got away from him there.

KURTZ: Mr. television critic?



KURTZ: Is that good television?

ZURAWIK: Oh, it's great television! Howie, it's incredible television. Are you kidding?

But it also shows -- yes, it also shows what -- how foolish cable television can also be in this. And that's part of the larger issue that we're talking about here in terms of how they're throwing fuel on the fire. That --

KURTZ: How foolish when people try to predict the future, which is something I very studiously avoid doing because sometimes you're wrong.

Let's get a break here.

When we come back, ABC hands over big bucks to a woman now accused of murder. Can this payment possibly be justified?


KURTZ: When Casey Anthony's daughter went missing nearly two years ago, ABC devoted considerable attention to the story on "Good Morning America" and "20/20," showing exclusive photos and videos of the mom and her toddler. Casey Anthony was charged with child neglect that day, and weeks later indicted for murdering young Kelly. But only now are we learning from court proceedings that ABC News paid Anthony a whopping $200,000 for the material.

And Lauren Ashburn, I know that networks these days often pay for these kinds of pictures in big cases, but do you find this offensive?

ASHBURN: Of course. Well, actually, somebody needs to stimulate the economy, right?

Now, come on. I mean, everybody who's a journalist is going to say no, this is ridiculous. Why would you be paying that amount of money?

And it all comes down to the bottom line of ratings and money from advertisers, and keeping the news relevant. You know, we're cutting 25 percent -- ABC cut 25 percent of its news staff, and it has to somehow show that it can entice viewers in this age of the Internet.

KURTZ: ABC did not get an interview as a result, but let me read a statement from NBC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.

"It was a mistake not to disclose the payment to our viewers. We've instituted a policy going forward that if someone is a subject of a story and there's any arrangement made to license material from them, that will be disclosed to our viewers."

But that, David Zurawik, doesn't address whether the payment was a bad idea in the first place.

ZURAWIK: They say, oh, the answer is we'll disclose in the future. They shouldn't have made the payment.

I was astonished by their first response. And now to see Schneider go it again, double down on it, that's not the problem.

And Howie, this has escalated. As Lauren said, it's mainly the morning shows and the magazine -- primetime magazine shows where the big money is where they'll do it. And we used to be -- really, we used to really jump on it. There are so many problems now in the media that we almost let this slide, but we shouldn't.

SMITH: It goes beyond checkbook journalism. This is checkbook tabloidism. It's creepy, frankly. It's creepy.

ASHBURN: But let's take a look.

OK. Everybody this week, everybody from society professional journalists, to people like us, have said this is terrible, this is horrible. OK. It's terrible, it's horrible.

Now let's step back and look at the big picture. The news industry right now is under fire, and they're going to start aligning content and advertising, and advertising is going to start making the needle move this way when it comes to ethical guidelines and ethical rules. So, let's learn from this and let's figure out how we can make the newspaper industry and the television industry strong without breaking ethical rules.

KURTZ: Well, I don't think -- SMITH: Two hundred thousand dollars? This is the same ABC News, is it, that just, as you said, laid off 25 percent, 400 people, 25 percent of its news force? Two hundred thousand dollars?

KURTZ: These kinds of payments always make me uncomfortable and always make me feel that the way of getting around the restrictions they all say they abide by it, which is we don't pay for news.

Let me hold you up, Lauren Ashburn, because there's one other topic I want to get to before we go that I know you want to talk about.

ASHBURN: Oh, thanks.

KURTZ: A little bit of a lighter subject, but it's gotten a lot of attention on the morning shows. Not so much elsewhere. Let's roll the tape.


JUJU CHANG, ABC NEWS: We turn now to the latest on Sandra Bullock's marital woes. There are reports this morning that her estranged husband is telling friends he is hoping for forgiveness from the recent Oscar winner. Will she forgive him?

NATALIE MORALES, NBC NEWS: Sandra Bullock, of course, moved out of her house after revelations and allegations that her husband, Jesse James, may have been having an affair for 11 months with a tattooed stripper.

A.J. HAMMER, HEADLINE NEWS: Big news breaking today on "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT," Sandra Bullock's brand new humiliation over her husband's alleged cheating.


KURTZ: Here is my question. Everybody is talking about this. She just won an Oscar. There hasn't been a word on this in "The New York Times" or in "USA Today," where you used to work. There's been one paragraph in the gossip column of "The Washington Post," nothing on the network newscasts.

Do serious news outlets sometimes just sort of pretend that these things aren't going on?

ASHBURN: Well, they are not in touch with the conversation that is really happening in America. People love this stuff.

And why do they love it? Here's a woman who has an Oscar, she has a hot body, she's got great clothes. Right? And now she has a cheating husband.

OK. So, now, my self-esteem has risen because hers has been taken down. And it's the same thing with politics.

KURTZ: I'm glad there's some benefit. Now, you're talking about Jesse James. The tattooed alleged stripper, Michelle "Bombshell" McGee, sold her story --

ASHBURN: Oh, come on. This is why you're doing this. You just want to say that.

KURTZ: -- to "In Touch" magazine. It's about "In Touch" magazine paying for this.

ZURAWIK: Howie, you know, listen, my belief is this -- and it's sort of goes with Lauren, my belief is this -- if there is a large audience out there interested in it, there is usually something going on that's important sociologically with the story.

ASHBURN: That's my point, right.

ZURAWIK: And our job as journalists is to find what's going on sociologically with the story and try to explain it. That's the honorable way to do this.

SMITH: Am I the last man in America who has never even heard of Jesse James?

ZURAWIK: Yes, you are.

ASHBURN: Yes, probably. Here. Wait Let me find you "In Touch" for you here.

SMITH: I am so out of it, it's pathetic.


ASHBURN: You have the meat and potatoes, but you can have some dessert, too. Why not?

KURTZ: All right. We've just served it up for you.

Thanks, guys.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, is the rush for online scoops helping or hurting Washington journalism? The editors of Politico weigh in.

Plus, conservative blogger Erick Erickson on the heated criticism of CNN's decision to hire him as a contributor.

And the sports channels that got Tiger to talk, but all too briefly.


KURTZ: It's become a media brand name in a remarkably short period of time. Politico, as you probably know, is a Web site and a Capitol Hill newspaper that is, of course, fixated on politics. It was launched just over three years ago by two former "Washington Post" reporters, who in turn hired many other journalists from the so-called old media. And it's contributed to a speeded up media where scoops are measured in seconds.

That's been controversial at times, but it sure has changed the playing field.

Last week, we brought you an editorial meeting from the Politico newsroom, of course, over the river in Virginia. Now here is my conversation with the founding editors.


KURTZ: Scott Harris, Jim VandeHei, welcome.

A phrase that is often associated with Politico, I guess, my your star columnist, Mike Allen, is "Win the morning."

What does it mean to win the morning?

JOHN HARRIS, POLITICO: Well, nobody wins more mornings than Mike Allen does. And we use the phrase a little bit lightheartedly, but it's got a serious meaning behind it, because Politico is a 24/7 operation Web operation. I think we're attuned to the different and changing rhythms by which the audience gets news.

And we think it's really important to be putting a lot of our best content out in the morning and to be driving the news story in the morning. That's a different rhythm than the one I grew up with at "The Washington Post," where the most, sort of intense reporting activities were in the late afternoon, early evening, as we approached deadline for the next day's paper.

KURTZ: You both spent your whole career in newspapers.

Jim, how is it different working in -- I mean, you have a print edition, but you're very focussed on this Web site.

How is it different? How is life different?

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO: Well, I think the speed is definitely different. We don't think about what's going to be happening at night. We're thinking about sort of a continuum of different news cycles, and particularly when you're talking about winning the morning.

Like, one of the things that I think a lot about, that we think a lot about is that most of the information consumption that's done by the people that matter in this town is largely done between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. After that, you're in a meeting, you're too busy to sit down with a newspaper. You're probably too busy or sit at a Web site and read a full story.

Our feeling is if you can shape that conversation early in the morning, set the agenda for what the cable stations will be talking about, the networks what other reporters are following, you're already one step ahead of the competition.

So, our feeling is, is if you can help shape that conversation early in the morning, help set the agenda for what the cable stations will be talking about, what the networks will be talking about that night, what other reporters are following, that you're already one step ahead of the competition.

KURTZ: And one of the ways you win in the Internet business is to get a lot of clicks, a lot of hits on your various stories. I was just looking. This morning, you have got the "44" column, you've got Mike Allen's "Playbook," "Live Pulse," "Morning Score," "Pulse," "Huddle," "Click."

Are these all features that you developed in order to get more people to click more often?

HARRIS: We like getting traffic, and we get a lot of it. You know, the Editor & Publisher, or Neilsen net ratings, which is the one we pay most attention to, typically puts us in the top 10 among newspaper Web sites nationally. So we love it when people see our content. That's great.

Our fundamental model is not driven by traffic. It's trying to be as essential to the conversation of Washington insiders, people who live and breathe this, whose careers depend upon it.

That's a rather small audience. Our core audience is kind of at the center of the circle. That's the one we care about.

And that's not chasing traffic. That's not chasing a huge number. But for the readers who matter most to us, is does our content matter to them? Is it indispensable?

If we can answer that with a yes, then we're succeeding. If not, or somebody else beats us to it, then we're not.

KURTZ: Well, it's interesting, because you're sort of constantly on deadline in a way that newspapers never used to be.

Is the need for speed sometimes at odds with the depth of reporting, the substance? I mean, we live in an age where you kind of throw up what you have.

VANDEHEI: I think it can be intention. I think to be a first- class news organization, you have to do both.

I think you can do the quick hits, you can do the information that people need to know at that moment. I think one of the problems with conventional journalism, at last the way I practiced it for most of my career, is the truth is people weren't reading our stories. We might write a thousand words, but people were only reading for about 200 words of information. And often, 250, 500 words will suffice.

And I think what we try to do is balance getting people the quick-hit information that is quite perishable, but also take the time then to sit back, when a piece deserves a thousand words, deserves a couple days of real thinking, of real editing. And if you can provide that mix, then I think it's mission accomplished. Then we're doing what we need to do. We're informing readers, we're educating our readers and we're keeping people in the loop.


KURTZ: But since you can measure how every single story does, every column, every item, does that influence and, some might say, distort news judgment? I mean, if it turns out that story is about lobbying, and don't do that well in terms of traffic, would you shy away from doing more lobbying stories?

HARRIS: Well, I go back to the point that the point is connecting with the audience and the readers who matter most to us. And --

KURTZ: But you're not just writing for inside the beltway. You've got a lot more traffic than that.

HARRIS: We absolutely do. We want both. We want a large national impact, and we also want to be indispensable here in Washington.

So, different reporters would sort of measure success in different ways. I'm not expecting a reporter who covers an essential for policy subject or covers lobbying in Washington to be among our huge traffic drivers.

KURTZ: It's interesting. You keep talking about this driving the conversation.

You don't really feel like you've succeeded unless you are either in the middle of a debate or starting a debate or getting people talking about what you're doing at Politico. But does that lead to -- I mean, a while back you did a story about Obama's team was sort of starting to talk about who would play roles in the 2012 re-election campaign. But a lot of people said, well, of course he's gearing up for 2012, where is the great scoop here? But you played it as your lead story.

VANDEHEI: Right, but that was like a great piece of reporting by Mike Allen that had a lot of internal intrigue, that gave you an idea of who might do what for the campaign in 2012. And I think for our audience, for political junkies, that's crack.

People love that stuff. People want to know who's up, who's down. And I think you can do those pieces and you can do very sensitive health care coverage.

KURTZ: So you're basically are dope suppliers.


VANDEHEI: We're basically -- to our junkie audience. We do think a lot about our audience as sort of -- like, they are political compulsives, they're political junkies. They thrive on this stuff.

They know a lot of information, and so the bar is kind of high to make sure that you're telling them something that they don't know, or giving them a new analytical context to view information. So you're able to help them do their job better, help then understand politics better, help them understand Washington better.

KURTZ: Is there such a thing as being too far inside and therefore missing the larger landscape?

HARRIS: I mean, there's such a thing. That's why you have to do both. You know, if you've been in this business, you've got to sort of walk and chew gum at the same time.

Politico is not edited for the casual observer of politics who maybe once a week wants to check in from wherever they live in Minneapolis or San Francisco, and say I wonder what's happening in the political world? Those people are welcome, and they might enjoy it, but we fundamentally edit this publication for the people who are clicking three, four, five, half a dozen times a day, who aren't casual observers of this but are intensive observers. And in most cases, also participants in this process.

KURTZ: How many editorial employees do you have roughly?

HARRIS: I think that we are around 70, 75.

KURTZ: So, is one reason that you're trying to be part of the conversation and cater to the insiders is because, I mean, look, we're in Washington, there's a zillion news organizations here, the big networks, big bureaus here, "Washington Post," "New York Times," and so forth, and you need to have turf that's somewhat different, or do you see yourself as playing on the same turf?

VANDEHEI: I mean, I think there's a lot of people covering politics. What we focus on -- and we're kind of confined by our name of Politico, so we're going to be -- it's going to have --

KURTZ: You have no sports section.

VANDEHEI: We have no sports section. We're not going to --

KURTZ: Do you ever talk about sports here?

VANDEHEI: We're not going to have a metro section. We're going to talk about politics and governance.

And our ambitions -- and some day we hit it, some days we don't -- are we want to be the dominant Washington news organization, and that requires a pretty big editorial staff, probably bigger than the one we have right now. It requires us to expand or reach into other topics that we might not be covering as heavy as we are, say, health care right now. But that's what we want to be able to accomplish as a company.

KURTZ: Could you ever see charging for some of this content?

HARRIS: It's conceivable. I've never -- the bet that Jim and I and our publisher, Robert Allbritton, who's I think really one of the true visionaries in terms of media right now, and the kind of aggressive commitment he's made to expanding media, the bet we placed is on information as a niche.

I think the way to succeed in media these days is to define your niche that you want to own and then work to dominate that. And that can work as a business, because when you've got such a highly defined and attractive audience, advertisers want to be next to that content, so you can make a lot of money that way. But the difference I go back to is we define ourselves by dominating a niche.

You don't come to Politico for Washington Redskins news or for D.C. City Council news. That's different than the sort of broad focus that major metropolitan papers have typically.

KURTZ: But even on the political battlefield, do you think that newspapers have become too bland, too cautious, too dull? Or are they now adapting to try to compete with you because everybody has got a Web site and newspapers like "The Washington Post" have bloggers, and "The New York Times" has the "Caucus" column and all that?

VANDEHEI: I think everybody is adapting. The days of sitting back and saying the Web is not for real -- and it was real.

I remember when I was at "The Washington Post" three years ago, there was a lot of folks, to be honest, like ourselves included at times, thinking, well, if this Web is -- and maybe I should do a couple more videos or something for the Web, but did not think it would have a dominant presence. Everybody knows it's the dominant vehicle right now, so everybody is trying to play catch-up.

I think the advantage we have is that we focus, laser-like, just on politics and Washington governance. So if you're "The Washington Post" or "The New York Times," yes, you have a very robust bureau. But still, ,you have to focus on so many different topics.

You have to do style. You have to do business. You have to do politics. You have to do government, foreign policy coverage.

So it's harder to dominate six or seven things simultaneously. We're very focused and I think our readers appreciate that we're very focused because they know exactly what they're going to get every morning when they wake up and they log on.

KURTZ: What's your greatest frustration? What do you wish you could do more of?

HARRIS: Being interesting every single day is hard work. That challenge is no different than the one I had when I was at "The Washington Post." But being interesting every single day and --


KURTZ: Because people are not getting this home-delivered to their doorstep. They have to make a firm decision to click on to this and not "The Huffington Post" or "The Daily Beast," or the "L.A. Times" or "The New York Times" or the network Web sites or the cable Web sites. HARRIS: You've got to keep the conversation going all the time. Ben Smith, who's one of our most popular bloggers, he says you can't just coast -- if you're going to be a successful blogger, you can't coast for a week. You can't go on vacation for a week and let the blog go dead.

He does go on vacation, but when he does, we make sure that he gets a great substitute writer in there trying to keep that conversation alive. You can't --

KURTZ: You are in favor of people going on vacation?

HARRIS: I'm all in favor of people going on vacation and getting their batteries recharged.

KURTZ: But there's a lot of pressure.

HARRIS: But I am not -- everybody here is acutely conscious of we can't let the conversation die. Because even for a few minutes, you know that audience has expectations. And if those expectations aren't being met in this competitive world, they'll go elsewhere.

KURTZ: John Harris, Jim VandeHei, thanks very much for letting us into the newsroom.


KURTZ: Our conversation at Politico, part of Allbriton Media. The company owns local television stations, some of which are CNN affiliates.

Up next, Erick Erickson of CNN's latest contributor came with a history of some inflammatory comments. We'll ask him about them after the break.


KURTZ: Erick Erickson made his debut this week as a CNN contributor. He is a Georgia lawyer, a church deacon, and managing editor of the conservative Web site Erickson's hiring generated a great deal of publicity, most of the decidedly negative variety.

I spoke with him earlier from Atlanta.


KURTZ: Erick Erickson, welcome.


KURTZ: You have been getting hammered by liberal commentators since CNN decided to bring you on as a contributor to John King's program, and it all revolves around the things that you have written. So let's just go through some of them. ERICKSON: Right.

KURTZ: On the administration's health care spokeswoman, you wrote, "Linda Douglass is really the Joseph Goebbels of the health care shop."

You're comparing her to a notorious Nazi?

ERICKSON: Yes, to propaganda. I probably shouldn't have said that. And to be honest with you, I got her confused with one of the congressman who, the same day she came out and was urging people to begin e-mailing in to the White House the -- forwarding on the e-mails from friends who were "misrepresenting" the president's health care plan, a congressman came out and referred to people as "brownshirts." And I got my wires crossed that day and thought, you know, if they're going to go down that road, I will too.

I probably shouldn't have, but I did.

KURTZ: Yes. And She never said that, and she assures me that she never said that.

The first lady, you wrote the following -- the headline was, "Is Obama shagging hookers behind the media's back?" And you write, "I assume not. I assume that Obama's Marxist harpy wife would go Lorena Bobbit on him should he even think about it."

Why would you describe Michelle Obama in those terms?

ERICKSON: Well, you know, back during the campaign trail in 2008, a lifetime ago, frankly, in blogging, I was very passionate, very aggressive in defending my side. And at the time that I wrote that, the Eliot Spitzer story was breaking, and the point was -- distracted by the language, obviously -- that Barack Obama was as much a creature of the media as Eliot Spitzer was. Neither have been investigated. And, you know, since that time, I've really learned, headed into, frankly, the David Souter comment, that I don't have to get personal in blogging to make my point. I've definitely evolved over time.

KURTZ: Well, let's deal with the David Souter comment. When Justice Souter announced his retirement, you said, you wrote, "The nation loses the only goat (EXPLETIVE) child molester ever to serve on the Supreme Court."

Do you regret writing that?

ERICKSON: Yes, absolutely. It was about the dumbest thing I've done.

You know, counterintuitively, I guess, some good came out of it. It was the very first time I realized, Howard, how what I do for a living affects my family as well. Having my 3-year-old heckled and booed in the front yard by a neighbor, having my wife be berated at her office, you know, being a blogger, up until that moment I always considered I was just a guy chatting with friends, even on Twitter. And I realized that I actually reached a point where people listen to what I say and care about what I say, and frankly it was a wake-up call to me that I had to grow up in how I write.

KURTZ: Well, ,you know, at a time when there's this great debate about threats against Democratic -- mostly Democratic and some Republican lawmakers in the health care debate, I stumbled upon something you wrote about a Washington State controversy in which you said, "At what point do people march down to their state legislator's house, pull them aside and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot?"

Now, I assume you were being metaphorical, but some people might react differently to that.

ERICKSON: You know, the left tried to blow that one up, and I've written subsequently about that with a legislator in New York who wants to ban salt in restaurants. And I think the point is valid. The left may not like it.

I'm a local legislator myself, and I am afraid and have been since that time that we're reaching a point where reasonable people are just going to get kind of crazy with government intrusion in their lives. The particular case in that situation was Washington State banning phosphates from dishwasher detergent.

KURTZ: Yes. I understand, but I'm just talking about your language.

Let me make sure I understand now. Are you now, on, going to forcefully make your arguments -- and nobody disputes your right do that -- without these inflammatory personal attacks?

ERICKSON: Yes, I think so. I mean, I've definitely had to grow up over time and realize that it's not just me and friends anymore.

I think everyone understands you talk in ways with friends and about things with friends you don't in public. And in some ways, when you talk about things in private and in public, you sometimes use different language. And I've definitely had to grow up and realize I am someone now on a national stage and a platform, and what I say and write affects not just me and my family, but others.

KURTZ: I've got half a minute here.

This week, David Frum, the conservative author and columnist, frequent guest on this program, was forced out by the American Enterprise Institute after he called the health care vote the Republicans' Waterloo and criticized it as a big defeat.

Does the right have a lack of tolerance for dissent?

ERICKSON: Oh, good lord, no. You know, David Frum, I think, is disingenuous to a degree.

Yesterday -- or I guess it was earlier this past week -- said that he wasn't forced out because of his Waterloo comment. He was forced out because he wasn't spending any time at AEI.

In fact, in talking to several people at AEI, they've all said the same thing, he was never there and never participated. And his story has evolved and the criticisms have evolved. David Frum is one of those Republicans who calls himself still a conservative when it's clear to me he has evolved, but people still call him that.

KURTZ: All right. Well, "never" might be overstating it slightly.

Erick Erickson, glad we had a chance to talk to you about this. Thanks very much for joining us.

ERICKSON: Thanks very much.


KURTZ: David Frum says he was very productive during his time at the American Enterprise Institute, having written three books, a thousand columns, and made untold TV appearances. And with AEI under going pressure from conservative donors, Frum says, his firing came just a day after a "Wall Street Journal" editorial denouncing him for criticizing the Republican Party.

In a moment, it's the first Sunday since the health care law passed. Candy Crowley will help us break down what's being talked about on the talk shows.

That's next.


KURTZ: Time now for a look at what's happening on the other Sunday shows.

Here's Candy Crowley.

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": We were watching the other Sunday shows and sort of seeing what everybody out there is talking about. We opened our show saying it's over. We've got a health care vote, it's now health care reform law.

Let me just amend that a little. It's all over but the voting -- but the shouting. Because what's happened is we've moved arenas. It's just gone from the legislative arena to the political.

Take a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It is a house of cards. It is a Ponzi scheme of the first order.

It's going to blow up the deficit. It's going to affect every business, every family in this country. It was done by one-party rule, and it was a shame we had to go down this road. (END VIDEO CLIP)


SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Six months from now, by election time, this is going to be a plus, because the parade of horrible, particularly the worry that the average middle class person has that this is going to affect them negatively, will have vanished and they'll see that it will affect them positively.


CROWLEY: You know, one of the other big issues obviously has been the whole issue of civility. Who started all of this? Did the Republicans? Did they really add to the furor? Did they incite people to throw bricks? Did the Democrats take advantage of it?

We found one Democrat at "STATE OF THE UNION," Senator Barbara Mikulski, who did agree that perhaps Democrats should not have fund- raised off of some of these attacks. She called it strident.


SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI (D), MARYLAND: If we don't take ourselves seriously and act in a serious way, we're not going to be taken seriously by the American people. I have a suggestion. Let's go back to the three Rs: respect, rules of engagement that promote decorum. And number three, stop the reward system that enables you to raise a lot of money after using outrageous and bizarre behavior.


CROWLEY: So far, no takers on the three Rs, but hope springs eternal for a little civility in politics.

Last issue, as you know, the president made some recess appointments. That is, putting people in office that the Senate had had not yet confirmed.

KURTZ: Exactly.

CROWLEY: This is always incendiary. In particular, this time around for an appointment to the National Labor Relations Board, which Republicans had expressly asked the president not to make a recess appointment. He, of course, did that.

Two very different views this morning.


DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SR. ADVISER: We are in a position where the Republican Party has taken a position where we're going to try and slow and block progress on all fronts, whether it's legislation or appointments.


SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: What it's called is checks and balances. And what the president has done here is throw fuel on the fire at a time when the civil -- when the debate about politics is a very angry debate to begin with.


KURTZ: Candy, this the off-lead (ph) of "The New York Times" saying that this is a president who is now unafraid to provoke a confrontation with the minority party. George W. Bush appointed 15 recess appointees in the same period of time when he was president.

CROWLEY: He did. And also, not a president afraid to go ahead and do some things that area -- we know from the itinerary. We've just received word, a little breaking news for you here in your show, that President Obama has just landed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

For obvious reasons, this isn't something they like to make public ahead of time. So far as I recall, the president has not been to Afghanistan since becoming president, so a very big trip for the president because, after all, as we have said many times, this has really become his war. This is the man who has sent more troops there than George W. Bush did. Now in Kabul, obviously getting the lay of the land there.

KURTZ: He's made it his war by sending more troops, and he is now guaranteed that this is going to be probably the major story this week moving on from health care, his presence in Afghanistan. And that's quite a move on Obama's part.

CROWLEY: It is. And they think that they have had some successes there, although they do understand as well that the more Americans you put in Afghanistan for what they believe to be a just war, the more targets you have out there. So always a tricky situation, to be a wartime commander-in-chief, but indeed Barack Obama is.

KURTZ: Candy Crowley, thanks.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: You've heard me sound off about how Tiger Woods had to get out of the bunker. No way could he head into the Masters and keep ducking the press and hope to keep the focus on golf.

This week, he gave in.


KURTZ (voice-over): Now, lots of people said I was wrong. The scripted, stage-managed apology was enough. That, at least, is what Barbara Walters told me. BARBARA WALTERS, CO-HOST, "THE VIEW": I have said publicly that I don't think Tiger Woods should do an interview, because I think that he made his statement. I think he did his apology. I think he has to get his life back and get his wife back. And to sit down with a journalist like myself, or like you, well, what about the first one, what about the third one?

KURTZ: That's true. And yet, Tiger was sitting on a pressure cooker.

Much of the public was not going to accept his return to golf unless he stopped stiffing the press. Ari Fleischer undoubtedly gave him that advice when the former White House spokesman signed on as an adviser.

So Tiger tried to lower the temperature a bit by granting interviews, not to some big-name anchor, but to reporters for The Golf Channel and ESPN. And while Woods stonewalled about what happened during his Thanksgiving night crash, when he was either pursued or rescued by his wife, he did answer most of the questions about his serial infidelity.

KELLY TILGHMAN, THE GOLF CHANNEL: Were there moments you thought you should stop but didn't?

TIGER WOODS, PROFESSIONAL GOLFER: Yes. I tried to stop and I couldn't stop. And it was just -- it was horrific.

TILGHMAN: You went from being recognized as the greatest golfer in the world to becoming a punch line. How did that make you feel?

WOODS: It was hurtful. But then again, you know what? I did it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You said you've made transgressions. How would you in your own words describe the depth of your infidelity?

WOODS: Well, just one is enough. And obviously that wasn't the case. And I made my mistakes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why not seek treatment before all of this came out?

WOODS: Well, I didn't know I was that bad. I didn't know I was that bad.

KURTZ: Tiger's team limited those interviews to just five minutes. That prompted CBS Sports president Sean McManus, whose network will carry the Masters, to reject the chance to conduct a third interview with Tiger. And ESPN's Tom Rinaldi acknowledged that he could only get so far.

TOM RINALDI, ESPN: This interview, ,in a five-minute limitation, is not conclusive, nor is it comprehensive, nor will it stop so many of the other questions that so many other people have about Tiger Woods over the last four months. KURTZ: But it was a start. And you know what? President Obama has limited his interviews to five minutes when he's done a round of them with network correspondents. It ain't great, but sometimes in journalism you take what you can get.


KURTZ: Those Tiger interviews aired last Sunday night, just as the House was passing the health care law. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Thanks for joining us here in our new studio.

Now "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley.