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Press Pans Obama's Speech; Interview With Linda Douglass

Aired June 20, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: It's become sort of a ritual for me. After a big presidential speech, I watched Barack Obama getting panned on Fox News, then flip over to MSNBC to check out the praise. This time, that didn't happen.

It was hard to find any pundit, left, right or center, who liked the president's Oval Office speech on the oil spill. Why was that exactly? Were the media expectations too high? And did we all later get distracted by the Republican congressman who apologized for his apology to BP?

Also, Linda Douglass, the network correspondent who became President Obama's health care spokeswoman, is returning to journalism. Did her White House experience change her view of the press? We'll ask her.

We spend so much time analyzing and sometimes psychoanalyzing Obama, but few journalists have taken an in-depth look at his life. This morning, "New Yorker" editor David Remnick on writing the biography of a president who's already published two memoirs himself.

That, plus our new fact-checking segment, and the question no male anchor would have dared ask Sarah Palin.

I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.

Journalists have long been accustomed to reporting on Oval Office speeches involving military conflicts -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam -- and this one certainly sounded like a declaration of war.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And tonight I've returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we're waging, one that we will be fighting for months and even years. To lay out for you what our battle plan is going forward, I've authorized the deployment of over 17,000 National Guard members to activate these troops as soon as possible.

And more damage before this siege is done.


KURTZ: Now, liberal commentators have been accused for a long time, going back to the days when he was a rookie senator with a funny name, telling the country, "Yes, we can," of being in the tank for Barack Obama. But there was a moment after this week's speech when I knew that had changed, and it didn't involve just a single word. Just a sound.


KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: What did you think of the speech?


KURTZ: From the newspapers to the blogs to the television coverage, the 18-minute address was most often described as somewhere between bad and horrible.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: This speech should have been given 50 days ago. This president blew it.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Well, I didn't think it conveyed much.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought it was a great speech if you've been on another planet for the last 57 days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think he was specific enough.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I'm the only person who loved that speech.


KURTZ: Paul Begala liked it.

So, what does this gusher of negative reaction tell us about the president, the oil disaster, and the nature of media criticism?

Joining us now, Chris Cillizza, managing editor of and author of "The Fix" blog on; Amy Holmes, co-host of Talk Radio Network's nationally syndicated "America's Morning News"; and John Aravosis, the founder and editor of

Chris Cillizza, the fact that everyone with a pundit license trashed this Oval Office address says to me that either it was the worst speech of all time, or that their expectations were out of whack.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MANAGING EDITOR, POSTPOLITICS.COM: I think it's the expectations being out of whack a little.

Look, I think it would have been very hard for Barack Obama to succeed in this speech for one reason. The oil is still coming out of that pipe and there is an image of it on every television screen. If you watch cable television, which I admit I do from time to time, if you watch it day to day, you are going to see that. So, you had that on the one hand, which makes it very hard for him to say we're doing everything that we can, we're moving on, everything's going to be fine.

The other is, look, Barack Obama has a history of delivering amazing speeches even when expectations are high -- 2004 Democratic National Convention, 2007 in Iowa, the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. They're sort of catapulting --


KURTZ: But now he's sitting at a desk.

CILLIZZA: And now he's the president of the United States. The hope, the change, it's very, very difficult. I'm not sure he could have succeeded. That said, he clearly didn't.

KURTZ: John Aravosis, the denunciations of the speech from your side, from the liberal side, were worse than much of what I heard on Fox News.

JOHN ARAVOSIS, FOUNDER & EDITOR, AMERICABLOG.COM: I think a lot -- I just gave the Rachel Maddow sigh, too.

You know, first of all, it depends who you talk to on the left as far as, I think, a number of the blogs, for example, were in Obama's pocket, or whatever you want to call it during the election, and then sort of fell out of favor in the last year, just being upset with him on a number of issues. But I think what's interesting is across the board, as you said, you found people on the left not being happy.

I think for the president, the problem is speeches aren't enough. And I think during the campaign, speeches are enough because, per se, you can't legislate, you can't do anything at all politically. Whereas, now, the White House still thinks that, A, the president should lay back for a long time when a crisis hits or when a big issue hits. Give a sort of general policy, but lay back, don't say anything, let Congress get involved, let something -- and then at the end plummet in and do a speech.

It doesn't work. And this time I think the people didn't fall for it.

KURTZ: Amy Holmes, conservative commentators didn't like the speech much either, but I always have the sense that they didn't expect much.

AMY HOLMES, CO-HOST, "AMERICA'S MORNING NEWS": No, because the conservative commentators are looking at deeds with this president and not words. I think what we're seeing with the media, that has been so enthralled by Barack Obama's oratory, his rhetorical skills, they're now starting to focus on his actual leadership, his ability as an executive. And he has been, it seems, absent.

And I would add, Chris, that it wasn't just the media that have high expectations for the president. The president set those expectations by locating the speech in the Oval Office.

KURTZ: Yes, absolutely. But the day after the speech, he persuades, shall we say, BP to start this $20 billion escrow fund.


KURTZ: And that didn't seem to get anywhere near as much coverage as the big buildup and the speech itself.

HOLMES: Well, again, because as Sean Hannity said, this should have been happening 50 days ago. And we have had reporting that foreign governments were trying offer their help, but this administration rebuffed it, when, you know, conservative commentators, myself included, every day on the radio have been saying where is the president, why isn't he rallying international resources?

KURTZ: Does it matter what the pundits say as much as it used to? Adam Nagourney asked that question in "The New York Times" this morning, saying that, look, in the age of Facebook and Twitter and blogs, people get their commentary from lots of different sources, not just from you.

CILLIZZA: I was going to say, this is like a self-preservation answer, Howie. Yes, it matters hugely.

HOLMES: We are entirely (ph) important, right.

ARAVOSIS: Justify your existence.

CILLIZZA: I try to every day.

I hesitate to disagree with Adam in this regard, and I don't, actually, because the media environment is so fractured, that I think if it's a 50-50, 60-40, 70-30, even, in terms of the readout of how something big went, I think if you want to go find -- if you're in the 30 and you want to go find the 30, you can go find it. I would say when it's 90-10 -- and that was roughly what the coverage of the Obama speech was, 90 percent saying this was not good, this was too late, whatever you want to say, negative coverage, and 10 percent being positive --

KURTZ: Uninspiring, not specific enough.

CILLIZZA: -- I think it helps drive -- from the White House on down, it helps drive a storyline, it helps drive a narrative. So, there is a level of influence.

Is it what it once used to be, where if the speech was bad and people on TV said it was bad, well, that was it? No, not even close.

HOLMES: But I would actually just throw out a name out there of someone who is enormously influential, James Carville. And when he had that meltdown, you know, "President, where are you? We're dying down here," you saw the White House swing into action. It took that one moment to really, I think, get this White House focused. CILLIZZA: And we are still -- I mean, one thing I would say is we are still a television-centered country in the way we consume and read news. You know, the images, James Carville, Charlie Melancon, the congressman from Louisiana, crying, all of that stuff came to us via TV -- the oil spill the ducks --


HOLMES: And President Obama got in an airplane and he went down to Louisiana within days of that.

ARAVOSIS: But even the blogs. I mean, we may or may not agree with Chris on a daily basis, but we talk about Chris a lot on our blog. No, but I'm quite serious.

KURTZ: You're saying as a ripple effect.

ARAVOSIS: I mean, even if we are being critical of Chris, Chris' influence matters because we're still analyzing what he's saying, and our readers then start to pick that up.

KURTZ: And the White House seems to care, because just this week -- and this is a president who's never been particularly close to journalists -- Barack Obama had over for lunch -- and he's been doing more of this lately -- some liberal columnists -- Rachel Maddow, who we saw earlier sighing of MSNBC; Gene Robinson of "The Washington Post"; Gail Collins of "The New York Times."

Is that effective?

HOLMES: Well, early on --

ARAVOSIS: Well, yes, because this White House, I think, during the campaign, and certainly once they got into office, they had this sort of autarchic view of politics that they were everything. They didn't need the media, they didn't need the blogs, they only needed their own grassroots and themselves, and that's it.

KURTZ: And now?

ARAVOSIS: And now they realize that what they had wasn't enough, that the president's opinion polls have gone down to, what, the mid- 40s now? And they're kind of stuck there.

HOLMES: But John, I'd have to disagree with that. I think we've actually seen this White House very focused on the media, very focused on the punditocracy. The president, he's constantly referring to the pundits -- don't listen to the pundits, Fox News.

KURTZ: Yes. He criticizes them.

HOLMES: He criticizes the pundits, yes.

KURTZ: He takes whacks at them 24 hours --

(CROSSTALK) HOLMES: And we also know that James Carville and Paul Begala have coordinated with the White House to attack particular pundits -- Rush Limbaugh, for example.

KURTZ: I want to get to another subject here, as fascinating as this is. And that is, on Thursday, you had the big congressional hearings, and the purpose of which was to flog Tony Hayward, the BP chief executive. And then a Republican congressman from Texas had this to say. And we'll take a look at that as well as the commentary that followed.


REP. JOE BARTON (R), TEXAS: I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown.

MATTHEWS: These are Republicans who hate the federal government so much, they prefer to attack the government than blame a universally-despised oil company.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think that wins the award for the most politically stupid statement of the year, and we can retire it right now in June. I mean, it's absolutely astonishing.

OLBERMANN: Talk about a shakedown, Barton forced by leadership to retract his first apology.


KURTZ: Now, Amy Holmes, that was embarrassing, but it became the story, even more than all the members of Congress beating up on Tony Hayward.

HOLMES: Well, your colleague here, Chris Cillizza, on "The Fix," said that Joe Barton had the worst week in Washington. I might actually say Tony Hayward, because he did get sacked in terms of leading.


HOLMES: And Dana Milbank said that Joe Barton had managed to become even more loathsome than Tony Hayward.

Again, I think this is sort of like the shiny object thing that happens with journalists, that you have this one story, but you're looking for the next one. And let's face it, it was an extraordinary statement.

ARAVOSIS: But he's the top Republican on the House Energy Committee. This is not some errant Republican crazy guy. He's the number one Republican -- he's the number one Republican on these issues in the House, and he's showing that he's for BP and not the public.

CILLIZZA: I just want -- I'm not going to wade into there, though Amy is right. I did say he had the worst week in Washington.

HOLMES: You did write it.

CILLIZZA: The one thing that I would say that I thought was fascinating, if you read the reporting afterward it said Barton, as well as other members of the committee, were told by leadership, don't have any YouTube moments, don't -- those Democrats are going to try to draw you in, don't do it.

What does he then do? He comes out -- now you can debate whether he should have. But look, I think John is right, this is a guy who's a prominent figure on this committee.

HOLMES: The guy with the worst week?

KURTZ: But here's where I think the media fell short. With some exceptions -- there have been a couple of good pieces in "The New York Times" on this -- did most of the media gloss over the more serious debate here about how aggressive government should be in regulating private corporations, whether it's oil companies or Goldman Sachs or AIG or Toyota or Massey Energy?

ARAVOSIS: That is a very interesting discussion to you and me, and I think it's a very boring discussion for the public. And I think that --

KURTZ: Why should it be boring?

HOLMES: I don't think it's boring at all.

ARAVOSIS: Howie, this is the problem we have with the media. Not with the media, but with reporting in general. It's very hard to do Atlantic-style pieces that go on for 20 pages that you might read on an airplane going across the country.


HOLMES: We talk about this a lot, which is the inside-the- beltway media doing the horse race, doing the gaffes, doing the superficial coverage, Joe Barton apologizing for his apology. And I think the public actually wants to know, what has been the government response in the Gulf? This is an ecological economic disaster.

ARAVOSIS: They don't think there's been much of a response.

KURTZ: But I'm talking about how far federal regulators should go, whether they've fallen down on the job. And that seems to be at the heart of what the country should care about and that we in the media should care about.

Got to get a break.

When we come back, "Saint Sarah." Is "Newsweek" deriding Sarah Palin with the halo on this cover? And the anchor who dared ask her, "Are they real?"


KURTZ: The "Newsweek" cover this past week has an air of mockery. "Saint Sarah" depicted with a halo. The article is more serious, examining Sarah Palin's impact on conservative Christian women.

Fox's Greta Van Susteren asked the former governor about the piece.


SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKAN GOVERNOR: Haven't seen it, but if the title and what I hear about the content is any indication of where "Newsweek" is going, it's no wonder that "Newsweek" is doing so poorly. People are not reading that stuff.

It's not real relevant. It's not interesting stuff that they're making up and writing. And that's why they're going down.


KURTZ: Amy Holmes, was the "Newsweek" story unfair to Sarah Palin?

HOLMES: I think it was. And when you contrast that with the halo that was put around Barack Obama on the cover of "TIME" magazine -- unironically, I might add -- and that Barack Obama's actually been the most explicitly messianic sort of politician -- Oprah called him "The One." Evan Thomas said he's sort of a God. He gave Chris Matthews a thrill up his leg.

But what I thought was interesting was that in the opening of this, that Lisa Miller said that Sarah Palin was over-sharing in terms of conveying her personal life, the pregnancy test. And I think that this is actually in the mainstream of feminist confessional. I mean, this would be right at home with Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues" and nobody criticizing them.

KURTZ: Might it be a good idea, John, for the former governor to read the article before accusing "Newsweek" of making things up?

ARAVOSIS: Well, yes. It might be a good idea for the former governor to actually do media interviews before she criticizes the media. I mean, Sarah Palin wants to have it both ways.

You know, we talk about Obama getting all the great press. Well, we just spent 10 minutes talking about Obama getting a lot of bad press. I think the media's being quite fair with Obama now.

Sarah Palin doesn't do interviews. What do you expect them to write about?

KURTZ: You've set up my question to Chris Cillizza, which is this -- with the obvious exception of her paid perch at Fox News, are you surprised that Palin continues to run against the press, as opposed to communicating through the press? CILLIZZA: No, only because I'm not surprised really by anything she does. You know, to quote an old Jane's Addiction, lame music reference album, "Nothing is shocking" to me when it comes to Sarah Palin, because if she was running for president, or thinking about running for president, Howie, yes, I would think she would -- not with everyone, but she would start to try to break down some of those walls.

But I could see her running for president and not breaking down those walls. She doesn't put out press release when she endorses candidates. She posts on Facebook.

This is a totally non-conventional politician. I'm not criticizing it, I'm just suggesting it's a way in which she follows different rules.

HOLMES: But the point is she doesn't have to.

KURTZ: She doesn't have to because she can make news.

HOLMES: Exactly.


HOLMES: She doesn't have to work through the press. She can work around the press.

CILLIZZA: But just real quickly, though, to John's point, I mean, to be totally honest, look, bashing the media is totally fine. I'm used to it. Trust me, I have a thick skin.

But she admits she didn't read the piece. Now, Amy has read piece and takes issue with it. That's totally fine.

KURTZ: Fine. Rip it apart.

CILLIZZA: But don't say they're going down the drain because of articles like this. But it -- the point is --

HOLMES: You may not agree with the causal relation --

KURTZ: I want to play one more sound bite. We're going to run out of time.

And this is Greta Van Susteren asking Governor Palin another kind of question.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: My guess is this next question I'm going to ask you, which is the buzz of the Internet, it's in mainstream media, I bet it gets more attention than our discussion about energy. So here it is.

Breast implants, did you have them or not? PALIN: Well, first, Greta, you know why we love you? Because you're not afraid to ask the questions. And I've got to respect you for asking that question, because I know that is -- "Boobgate" is all over the Internet right now because there are a lot of, I guess, bored, idle bloggers and reporters with nothing else to talk about.

No, I have not had implants.


KURTZ: Real quickly, should Greta have asked that question?

HOLMES: Why are you directing the question to me?


ARAVOSIS: You used the word "celebrity," Howie, and I think that's the perfect way to describe Sarah Palin. She is the Paris Hilton of politics right now. She doesn't do anything, but she knows how to get news. But just because you're Facebook smart doesn't mean you're Oval Office smart.

KURTZ: But Greta Van Susteren -- it was all over the Internet.

HOLMES: It was all over the Internet. And I think only a female reporter or a female anchor could actually address this question. I think if a male asked Sarah Palin this question --

KURTZ: That person would be out of business.

HOLMES: -- I think Sarah Palin would have the same reaction.

KURTZ: You've got 20 seconds. She opened the door for us to all write about it.

CILLIZZA: She opened the door. And in truth --

HOLMES: How did she open the door, by wearing a white T-shirt?

CILLIZZA: No, no, no. Greta Van Susteren by asking about it. Greta Van Susteren by asking about it.

Look, I mean, Greta Van Susteren essentially acknowledged this is going to make ratings, this is going to make news, so we're going to ask about it, and it's going to overshadow everything. And she was right, which goes to our point earlier, which is the media does have a bright, shiny object tendency to it, obviously. And that's playing the game.

But Sarah Palin knows how to play that game. Make no mistake about it.

KURTZ: And we are out of time. Thanks, everyone.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, from network news to the Obama White House, and now back to journalism, Linda Douglass talks about her experience trying to sell the president's health care bill and her changing view of the press.

Plus, "New Yorker" editor David Remnick on what it took to research his new biography of the president.

And later, from "Fox & Friends," to "Countdown," we turn our critical lens on some of the week's biggest media missteps.


KURTZ: Linda Douglass, who spent three decades at ABC and CBS, was a regular guest on this program before joining Barack Obama's campaign. She went on to become the top White House spokeswoman in the more than year-long battle over health care.


LINDA DOUGLASS, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF HEALTH REFORM: Hi. I'm Linda Douglass. I'm the communications director for the White House Office of Health Reform.

KURTZ: Why did you decide to take on Matt Drudge and put up that video, which, of course, calls more attention to the original attack video?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, one of the things we learned during the campaign was that if you give people all the facts, they become better informed.


KURTZ: Now Douglass is back on our side of the fence, having just been hired as a top executive at "The Atlantic."

I spoke to her earlier here in the studio.


KURTZ: Linda Douglass, welcome.

DOUGLASS: Thank you for having me.

KURTZ: I know you're going to "The Atlantic" as a vice president, but after two years with Barack Obama, did you expect to go back to journalism at all?

DOUGLASS: You know, it was unclear. I mean, I think what happened here is, you know, I certainly was proud of be able to work on the health care initiative, which was an issue that was important to me. But after I left, utterly exhausted from the grueling pace, what I really realized I was interested in is how the media are changing so rapidly today.

And I have this very exciting opportunity to be part of a venture where they are really, you know, strengthening and building an already terrific brand name, making it, you know, a lot more current and cutting edge in one of the most fascinating times in journalism I've ever seen. And I thought...

KURTZ: Absolutely fascinating.

DOUGLASS: -- this is a great opportunity.

KURTZ: Fascinating, but also polarizing. Now, David Bradley, your new boss, told me that he wants you involved not just in corporate strategy, but in the editorial product. But says there's a "blinking red light" -- his phrase -- because of your political experience.

DOUGLASS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I'm there to do several things.

I'm there to help raise their profile. I'm there to help brainstorm about how to make this terrific news product even better.

We're certainly talking about -- we're hiring 30 new journalists, some of the best journalists in the country. We're looking all around the country for some of the best journalists. I'm going to be part of that project...

KURTZ: "The National Journal." Yes.

DOUGLASS: Yes. But what I'm not going to be doing...

KURTZ: Could anybody -- yes?

DOUGLASS: -- is covering health care or the White House, telling reporters how to write their stories or what to cover. That wouldn't be appropriate.

KURTZ: But if you're helping to shape the newsroom, could anybody be skeptical and say you're bringing some kind of pro-Obama agenda?

DOUGLASS: What I'm doing is bringing decades of experience in journalism and in communications to try to rebuild this operation and see where people get their news, who they believe, who they trust --

KURTZ: You're so experienced, you just deflected my question.


KURTZ: All right. Let me move on.

When you were in the middle of this health care fight, which seemed to go on forever, were you disappointed by some of the reporting you saw?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, everything has changed so much. I was -- of course I was disappointed, but you're always disappointed no matter which side you're on. And the thing I --

KURTZ: What disappointed you? DOUGLASS: Well, what I saw on all sides was that reporters are under so much pressure now, you know, to report something every 15, 20 minutes. I mean, when I was a reporter, you had a deadline once or twice a day.


DOUGLASS: So they've got...

KURTZ: So everything gets thrown up online.

DOUGLASS: Everything gets thrown up online. Everything is news, no matter how small or trivial. Any little trivial thing can go on and on and on. But they're under pressure from their editors to churn information out.

The government officials or the campaign officials are trying to tell their own story and they're under pressure with these waves of news that are pouring over them all the time.

And what I think is unfortunate is that it's harder and harder for reporters and government officials to trust each other. You don't have the time to develop those relationships anymore and there's so much pressure and they're so wary of each other, as they should be, naturally, that it's very hard for that trust to be built, which occasionally will exist with reporters on beats with a government official.

KURTZ: Now, some of the reporters I talked to said you were a very aggressive PR person, that you would challenge the premise of stories, that if stories were published that you didn't like, you would call up and complain about them. And they were a little surprised at that, I guess, given your long journalistic experience.

DOUGLASS: Well, I was advocating for the health care initiative and I was very critical of stories that were not accurate. There were also stories that were written which were not favorable to the administration, and I would open up the paper and look at that and say, ah, that's a good story. He's got it right.

You know, so it just depends on how you do your job. And I certainly try to do every job I do as well as I can.

KURTZ: The stories that were not accurate, were you -- were they unfair? Did you feel like the White House and the administration was given a fair chance to comment?

What most bothered you about some of these pieces?

DOUGLASS: You know, if there was a factual -- only if there was a factual inaccuracy or if somebody's not, you know, called to try to get some kind of a response, that would be the kind of thing that would provoke a reaction. And certainly it, you know, as a reporter myself, and as a long ago reporter myself, because I haven't been a reporter for several years, but somebody who is involved in media, you know, you always want to have the highest possible standards. And I think, you know, most reporters actually really do.

I actually found that the bulk of the reporting that I saw over the last couple of years was very good. And reporters worked very hard to get it right. They worked very hard to get information out of people who may not be ready to give them information.

It's a tough job.

KURTZ: I saw you in some contentious interviews on Fox News.

Did you think that Fox, overall, was fair in the way it covered the health care plan?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, they were, as you say, contentious. It -- certainly, if you were talking to a journalist who has a point of view -- and there are many, many journalists out there on both sides who bring their points of view to their reporting. Those types of interviews get combative.

KURTZ: Is that a bad thing, from your point of view?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, I think the rise of opinion is a very interesting thing. I mean, there is opinion where the facts are shaped to produce a certain outcome and there's reported opinion. You know, I'm thinking, for example, of Ezra Klein is one of the reported opinion columnists who got a lot of reading during the health care thing...

KURTZ: A blogger at "The Washington Post."

DOUGLASS: A blogger at "The Washington Post." And he's got this feature called "Wonk Room," which I think is interesting.

These reported opinion columns do provide the other side, you know, in many cases, and give you a chance to kind of weigh the whole thing. And it seems that some opinion people are gravitating toward because they want to find somebody they agree with. Sometimes people are going toward opinion because they want transparency. And I think that's kind of an interesting phenomenon.

KURTZ: Put your cards on the table.


KURTZ: The breakdown of trust that you talked about between administration officials and journalists, do you think that's gone forever? Does this reflect a new, speeded up, polarized environment in which we all live now, the media culture?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, just by virtue of people getting to know each other, I think that reporters and government officials, those who really have been doing their jobs for a while, have respect for what each other is doing. Everybody is trying to serve the public here.

Reporters are trying to inform the public. People who work in public are trying to serve the public with policies they think will be helpful.

So, you know, there -- you know, hopefully, this red hot environment now will still make it possible for sources to be developed and sources where the trust can go both ways. And it's a hard thing right now.

KURTZ: I've got half a minute.

With what you learned in the health care fight and what you learned in the presidential campaign, will that now change your approach to journalism?

DOUGLASS: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean, I think I've seen it. Certainly, I've seen it from both sides.

I don't know if it really changes my view of how it operates. You know, in the end, it's an adversarial relationship, always has been, always will be. You know, people are trying to get information. And the people with the information may not be ready to give it to them.

So, you know, I think reporters have to work very, very hard not to take handouts from government, to really try to, you know, get through and get the information. And that's what a good news organizations does. And, you know, I absolutely respect that. And I expect that that's what "Atlantic" media is going to be doing.

KURTZ: Welcome back to the other side.

Linda Douglass, thanks for joining us.

DOUGLASS: Thank you.


KURTZ: Up next, The New Yorker's David Remnick on writing the biography of a president who's already written his life story, and why his weekly magazine is thriving in tough times.


KURTZ: Barack Obama must be the most written about person on the planet. His every move chronicled by newspapers, television, Web sites, blogs, YouTube, and Twitter. And the 44th president is the subject of and cooperating with a growing number of books.

That presented a challenge for his newest biographer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick. He's been the editor of "The New Yorker" for a dozen years, and his new book is called "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama."

He joins me now from New York.


KURTZ: David Remnick, welcome.


KURTZ: You set out to do a biography of a president who's a pretty good writer and who's already written two memoirs, especially the evocative tale of growing up, "Dreams From My Father."

How do you deal with that when your subject has gotten there first?

REMNICK: Well, the same way a biographer did of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Then along come many scholarly biographers.

And look, memoir is a story you tell about yourself, and the way you tell about yourself is only reliable through one lens. And a scholar and a journalist do something entirely different.

And in Obama's own book there's no politics. There's no congressional race. There's no getting started in politics. There's no Senate race and running for president.

It's just -- there's a search for identity. And it's a moving book, but it's a book that ends before politics, before public life.

KURTZ: Right. But beyond that --

REMNICK: So, it's an entirely different thing.

KURTZ: And beyond that you concluded that not everything in his first book is literally true.

REMNICK: Yes, I don't think in a mendacious way. I don't think in a terrible way, but in the way of memoir.

And he announces his intentions in his own preface. It says, look, I'm going to put together certain characters. I'm going to compress certain events. I'm going to do what memoir writers do.

But that's not a freedom that's given to a journalist or a scholar. You have an entirely different operation going on.

KURTZ: But to some extent, was Obama engaging in mythmaking about himself?

REMNICK: Well, I think politicians are involved in mythmaking. And to some extent, all memoir writers are involved in a literary way and engaged in mythmaking. Even James Thurber was involved in a certain kind of mythmaking. Memoir writers, to an enormous degree, do that.

KURTZ: Almost everyone in your book -- not everyone, but almost everyone is on the record. How did you do that in an age when, particularly in Washington, there seems to be almost a genetic predisposition to speaking on background?

REMNICK: Asking and insisting.

KURTZ: Insisting?

REMNICK: Asking and insisting over and over and over again. And look, I don't want to take anything away from journalists who do it the other way. I work with some of them, and they're dealing with entirely different kinds of material.

When Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh go into the weeds of background and off the record, they do it purposefully and they do it for a reason. And the -- what's yielded there is extremely important and very valuable. I think, though, when I'm talking for hours and hours with, say, Obama's mentor in community organizing, the business of going off the record is fruitless and it invites something that I don't want.

KURTZ: You don't think other journalists are too promiscuous in offering the cloak of anonymity?

REMNICK: I think it's case by case. And if it's done too automatically, it leads to a kind of lazy going over to off the record.

But I think, you know, used carefully, and used in the right instance I think it's very valuable and I think it's very necessary. It's very necessary to journalism of all different kinds. So, I don't want to dismiss it and say just because I got all these hundreds of people on the record, that you should never use it. I wouldn't be so arrogant as to say that.

KURTZ: How useful was it, or not, to sit down and interview Obama?

REMNICK: You know, you never say no to the head of state interview. You never say no to the interview with the candidate. But you have to know what the limitations are.

You used the word "mythmaking." I don't think Obama and the White House has engaged in mythmaking, but he's engaged in putting himself across. And I have to say I learned a great deal more about Obama. And you get out of the book, out of "The Bridge," a great deal more about Obama that comes from other voices, from other lenses, from other places.

KURTZ: David, you --

REMNICK: But I say it is valuable to spend, you know, 45 minutes, an hour in the Oval Office.

KURTZ: Oh, sure.

You write that during the campaign, which is sort of where your book ends, that Obama received generally adoring press coverage. And you had a couple examples I hadn't seen.

Meredith Vieira -- this is when she was on "The View" -- said he would be a huge force in this country for the better. And Barbara Walters compared him at one point to Nelson Mandela.


KURTZ: What came over the press in 2007 and 2008 when it came to Barack Obama?

REMNICK: Well, first of all, he was new. We hadn't been over this story 700 times.

And let's face it, Barack Obama was a part of a narrative of the most painful and prolonged history that we have in our country, which is the epic story and extremely painful story of race in America. And the business of him being a serious candidate for the presidency, not just a symbolic run, not one that's doomed to failure, but one that could quite possibly reach the end and be elected president, well, I think we were all taken up with that, and I think legitimately so. I think the notion of an African-American running successfully for president --

KURTZ: Legitimately so, except that you have another candidate for president. And a lot of people concluded, fairly or unfairly, that the media, or parts of the media, were in the tank for the Democratic candidate.

REMNICK: Well, I'm only responsible for "The New Yorker" and for myself, and I thought we were fair to Hillary Clinton and I think we were fair all around.

Were we taken up with the extra story of race? Absolutely. And I think we should have been.

KURTZ: A couple of months ago "The New Yorker" ran a cover cartoon by Barry Blitt of Barack Obama walking on water, but then starting to slip into the water. And apparently, David Axelrod's office called you about that?

What happened?

REMNICK: Well, they wanted a signed version of the cover. And, you know, there were other covers maybe they didn't like as well. But I think they got over it. In fact, they got over it a lot faster than some other people.

KURTZ: What did Axelrod's office tell you about Obama's personal reaction?

REMNICK: I think Axelrod and Obama were laughing hysterically over this cover. And the fact to their credit, within a matter of weeks, that they reversed the really sinking trend that they were experiencing, and they passed health care. And the White House certainly reversed its downward trend pretty quickly after that cover. I'm not saying the cover was anywhere near responsible for it.

KURTZ: Well, it's a good thing you didn't have him sinking all the way into the water after Scott Brown's victory.

Let's talk a little about "The New Yorker."

This is, as you know, a very tough time for the magazine business. "Newsweek" is --

REMNICK: I've heard that.

REMNICK: -- up for sale. Yes, you have.

Your company, Conde Nast, has had some cutbacks, has closed a couple of titles. "The New Yorker" doesn't seem to have been affected all that much.

How have you insulated your magazine from these trends and declining advertising and all that?

REMNICK: We're not insulated from trends, but certainly -- and advertising in general has been much harder to come by, and the recession was very tough. I think we're coming out of it now.

I think "New Yorker" is fortunate in that we have something that people want -- a model for depth and penetration and journalism and -- as well as literary work that people want. There's no question that this genre of magazine is wanted by our readers. We have a renewal rate of 85 percent in an industry where, if you have half that, you're pretty successful.

The tough thing is advertising. But that, I think, is starting to see a return.

The second part of it is technological, people reading things in different ways, whether it's on a Kindle or on an iPad, or online and all the rest. And we have to adapt to that and work with that, and be good on that in ways that my predecessors didn't have to think about.

So, the editor's job is now more -- it's more varied. It's just not concentrated on that one issue that very week.

KURTZ: But to the extent that you can run 5,000 words or 8,000 words on some --

REMNICK: Or 25,000 words, as Janet Malcolm did the other week.

KURTZ: OK. All right -- on a topic where the writer spends weeks, months, and really -- why don't we see more of that from other magazines? Is there something unique about "The New Yorker" franchise? I mean, very few publications even attempt that.

REMNICK: Well, it's expensive, for one thing. To have somebody working on one piece, as you know, on an investigative piece for six months, for a year, is very expensive. You just added up all the expense that's go into it, whether it's the salary and expenses incurred in terms of travel. It's very expensive.

And you have to invest in it. And you also have to know that sometimes those stories will lead to nothing. You can have an investigative reporter on something for six months and it becomes a dry well.

KURTZ: And recognizing that it's a dry well, I think, is one of the underrated judgments that journalists have to make, so you don't just print something because you spent so much time on it. I've got half a minute.

REMNICK: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Everybody wants to know the answer to this question. Do you really pick all the cartoons?

REMNICK: I do. I work with Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor. And we sit there on Wednesday afternoon and pick them. It's the best hour of my week.

KURTZ: And does it have to meet some sort of Remnick standard of humor?

REMNICK: Yes, they have to be funny.


KURTZ: If you think they're funny, I guess that means that the cartoonists get to appear in the pages of "The New Yorker."

David Remnick, thank you very much for joining us.

REMNICK: Thanks for having me, Howie.


KURTZ: I spoke to Remnick earlier from New York.

After the break, Rahm Emanuel not usually working the Sunday circuit. He's out there today. We'll take a look at all the programs with Candy Crowley, next.


KURTZ: Rahm Emanuel's not usually on the Sunday circuit, but he sat down this weekend with ABC's Jake Tapper.

And Candy Crowley, what kind of news did the chief of staff make?


We've got the Gulf disaster. We have two wars going on. We have a bid for energy policy. But we also had Joe Barton. And Joe Barton being the Republican congressman who apologized to BP for the White House being so terrible to him, and then came back and apologized that he had apologized --

KURTZ: And I bet Rahm couldn't resist.

CROWLEY: And he couldn't, because the fact of the matter is, Democrats want to make this far larger than one Republican, and Republicans are trying to push away.

Take a listen.


RAHM EMANUEL, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: You can say it's a political gift for us, and it is. But it's dangerous for the American people, because while the ranking Republican who would have oversight into the energy industry -- and if the Republicans were the majority, would have actually the gavel and the chairmanship -- that's not a political gaffe. Those were prepared remarks.

That is a philosophy. That is an approach to what they see. They see the aggrieved party here is BP, not the fishermen.



SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: Couldn't be more wrong. Couldn't be more wrong.

The statement that Representative Barton made was wrong, absolutely wrong. He has since apologized for it.



SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: I couldn't disagree with Joe Barton more. BP doesn't need an apology, they need to apologize to us. And they certainly need to cover all of the costs of the cleanup and the economic damages as well, and they're going -- they're going to.


CROWLEY: It looks like "Joe the Plumber" of the last election has now been replaced by Joe Barton.

KURTZ: The sound of political distancing going on.

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Afghanistan another big topic this morning. And the secretary of defense was out.

CROWLEY: Yes, he was out. And in part, what he did was to try to push back with all of these stories.

I'm sure you've seen the coming out about how awful things are now in Afghanistan, that even as we ratchet up the number of troops, that the violence is getting more. And we heard a little bit of that from a couple of senators I talked to earlier this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, right now it's estimated that 40 percent of the territory is either contested or controlled by the Taliban. That's a difficult situation.



SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), INDIANA: I think the president is going to have to redefine the plan. And when the proper time comes for that, he'll have to make a decision.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: What I'm saying is people are losing context. This policy, this strategy has been in place and working for only about four or five months. We have yet to put yet a third of the surge forces into Afghanistan.

The president has said we'll wait until December to evaluate how we're doing. So, I think there's a rush to judgment, frankly, that loses sight of the fact we are still in the middle of getting all of the right components into place and giving us a little time to have this work.


KURTZ: Will the somewhat overshadowed Afghan War starting to get more media attention now with rising casualties and the Democrats -- some Democrats being uncomfortable with it?

CROWLEY: Yes, because the other thing we have coming up here is votes on authorizing some of the funds for the war, and that always kicks up the debate, particularly this time, I think, from the left. It will be very interesting to see how much more opposition to the war has gathered over the time since the last time we had a funding bill.

KURTZ: All right. Candy Crowley, thanks for stopping by.

Still to come, Steve Doocy, Keith Olbermann and Lance Armstrong. They're all part of this week's roundup of media mistakes.


KURTZ: Time now for our new segment on the media's missteps and blunders this past week.

"Fox & Friends" offered a warm welcome to Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite who won the Republican nomination to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.

Co-host Steve Doocy invoked a big political name -- his fellow Fox commentator.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STEVE DOOCY, "FOX & FRIENDS": You've got the backing of two important entities. Former governor Sarah Palin gave you a nod, endorsed you.

KURTZ (voice-over): That's wrong. Palin never backed Angle in the GOP primary.

And Doocy tried to neutralize one of Angle's most controversial political positions.

DOOCY: Perhaps it's misinformation or mischaracterization, but some have said that you are out to get rid of Social Security.

That's not true, right?

SHARRON ANGLE (R), NEVADA SENATE CANDIDATE: Well, that's nonsense. I have always said that we need to make the lockbox a lockbox. Put the money in there for our senior citizens.

KURTZ: Misinformation? Perhaps he should have checked Angle's Web site which recounts her longstanding position: "Free market alternatives, which offer retirement choices to employees and employers, must be developed and offered to those still in their wage- earning years, as the Social Security system is transitioned out." Younger workers, she says, "must be encouraged" to open personal accounts, a version of the George W. Bush privatization plan that crashed and burned.

But the Fox folks seemed more interested in congratulating the GOP nominee.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sharron Angle, an amazing campaign run for you so far.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Good luck to you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And we'll continue to follow it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nice meeting you.

ANGLE: Thank you so much for having me here this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I appreciate it.


KURTZ: This next one is easy. Keith Olbermann got a little carried away while whacking his favorite target, Bill O'Reilly. So much so, that the MSNBC host named himself one of the "Worst Persons in the World."


OLBERMANN: Wednesday, I reported that Billo had dropped so far off the radar -- "off the radar" O'Reilly, if you will -- that he had signed on to shill for a Newsmax economic event at which they may again sell their $1,495 Money Matrix Insider program in which, to quote some of my words, he has "been reduced to hyping pyramid schemes," fading out.

KURTZ (voice-over): Then Olbermann heard from the Newsmax lawyers.

OLBERMANN: So, let me retract what I said about Newsmax's product. It is not -- repeat, not -- a pyramid scheme.


KURTZ: Olbermann did proceed to denigrate the firm with lots of other colorful language.

You know, you can get away with saying almost about anything about a company, but pyramid schemes are illegal.

Finally, I think most mainstream media outlets really blew it this week when faced with a stunning videotape involving North Carolina Congressman Bob Etheridge. Most treated it as intriguing footage or a good gossip item, but the guy went bonkers when approached by two young men with a video camera.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just here for a project.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please let go of my hand.

REP. BOB ETHERIDGE (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Tell me who you are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm just a student, sir.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just students. That's all we are.

ETHERIDGE: I have a right to know who you are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All we are is students.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, we're in a public place.


Who are you? Who are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please let go of my arm, sir.

ETHERIDGE: Who are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir -- sir, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congressman, please let go of me.

ETHERIDGE: Who are you? KURTZ (voice-over): Etheridge has apologized. And we still don't know whether the young men were political agitators.

Andrew Breitbart, the conservative who publicized the ACORN sting, was the first to put up the Etheridge video, which got a big ride on Sean Hannity's show.


KURTZ: But it really doesn't matter. Remember how the media went nuts over that tape of Republican Senator George Allen using the word "Macaca"? By minimizing this footage of a Democratic congressman, most news organizations have enabled their critics to charge once again that they have a double standard.

Finally, the cover of "Outside" magazine features Lance Armstrong in a T-shirt with the number 38, his age, and the letters "BFD, big -- well, you know what it stands for. Except that Armstrong never wore such a shirt. It is, as the magazine admits in teensy type, just Photoshopped. The champion cyclist says, "This is lame BS."

I'd use stronger language, but you can't say such things on television.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

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

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