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Robert Gibbs Complains About 'Professional Left'; Interview With Harry Shearer

Aired August 15, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: When a press secretary says he spoke inartfully, it probably means he was telling the truth. And the latest utterances from Robert Gibbs have clearly ticked off a whole bunch of left-wing commentators. The White House spokesperson's complaint that liberal pundits are wildly unrealistic and insufficiently grateful to President Obama raises a much larger issue. Are they supposed to be on the team or maverick outsiders?

On the fifth anniversary of Katrina, one voice -- actually, he does many voices on "The Simpsons" -- is speaking out. Harry Shearer says in a new documentary that the media have gotten the flooding story all wrong. He'll be here.

It's a booming business, photographers chasing celebrities all over L.A. But is there collusion involved? We'll have a behind-the- scenes report.

Plus, Politico's corporate parent launches a new local Web site here in D.C.

And why on earth are the media turning this reckless JetBlue flight attendant into a hero?

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

Robert Gibbs is usually a cautious, deliberate spokesman who's practically allergic to making news, but in an interview this week with "The Hill" newspaper, Gibbs slammed what he rather dismissively called the "professional left." He said those who are comparing Obama to George Bush ought to be drug-tested, that it's crazy, that they won't be satisfied until America shuts down the Pentagon and adopts Canadian health care, that they would be dissatisfied even with Dennis Kucinich as president.

Those remarks sparked a heated reaction from talking heads and bloggers on the left, professional and otherwise.


KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: I'm sorry, sir. I'm sorry, Mr. Gibbs. We are not just another version of the right. We think over here, and we fight for what we believe in.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: Robert Gibbs took a nasty, cheap shot at the left. Gibbs thinks progressives are just a bunch of whiners because they expect the Democratic president to act like a Democrat. Is that it?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think that Gibbs is whining. It's his left that's whining.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There's a lot of merit to it, frankly, but that's what you say over a beer.

And Gibbs, I should take you out for a beer. You don't say it to a reporter.

He knows that.

KURTZ (voice-over): Gibbs initially seemed to backtrack, but from the White House podium he stood by his comments.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I will say I watch a lot of cable TV, and you don't have to watch long to get frustrated by some of what's said. I think many of you all have heard frustration voiced in here and around -- sure. I don't -- I doubt I said anything that you haven't already heard.


KURTZ: So what does all this tell us about the liberal punditocracy in a Democratic era, and how do its members differ from those on the right?

Joining us now here in Washington, Jane Hamsher, the founder of the Web site; Julie Mason, White House correspondent for "The Washington Examiner"; and in Seattle, Michael Medved, host of "The Michael Medved Show" on the Salem Radio Network.

Jane Hamsher, as a member of the professional left coming in to talk with us today, how do you feel about being slopped around by Robert Gibbs?

JANE HAMSHER, FOUNDER, FIREDOGLAKE.COM: Well, the irony is, as Matt Welch says in "Reason" magazine this week, in a very good piece, that the people that Robert Gibbs is upset with are actually the people who aren't echoing the Dennis Kucinich talking points. They're the members of the punditocracy who are echoing complaints the American people have very broadly based.

There are problems with the individual mandate in the health care bill, problems with the extension of executive power, problems with civil liberties, with the blanks having too much influence over government, with the bailouts. And so I think it's what Robert Gibbs is saying, we just don't want to hear it from the left.

KURTZ: You said this week that the White House is in la-la land by blaming its troubles on people like you.

HAMSHER: Well, yes. And mostly because most Americans haven't heard of most of the people that he's referring to. And if you look at the presidents polls, I think Gallup has him at an all-time low, at 43 percent this week. So, you know, clearly their problems are not with a bunch of bloggers and a couple of talk show hosts nobody's heard of.

KURTZ: Michael Medved, from your perspective on the right, is the romance between Obama and liberal commentators now officially over?

MICHAEL MEDVED, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, it's been up and down and back and forth, particularly over this health care reform, which consumed most of his first two years.

Look, the idea here is that this is delightful here from our point of view, because the essence of winning in politics is uniting your side, and conservatives are as united as I've never seen them, and dividing the opposition. And the opposition is falling out. That's a very positive thing.

The one thing is, for a White House press secretary himself to become the center of controversy, Gibbs certainly made an error. He's supposed to speak for the president, not sort of speak ahead of the president as --


KURTZ: Right.

But maybe he is, Julie Mason -- and I've interviewed Gibbs on this program, in fact. He chooses his words very carefully. I don't think he was just popping off here.

How frustrated -- you heard him use the word "frustration."


KURTZ: How frustrated are he and others at the White House feeling about the coverage they're getting?

MASON: They're very frustrated. And this is something that a lot of them have been saying privately.

It was rare for Robert to go on the record about this, but part of the reason, Howie, why this electrified the White House press corps so much is because Robert and Obama are so close, that when Robert does speak out of school, it's like you're getting the unvarnished opinion of the president. So that's why we were all geeked up about it last week.

KURTZ: The president also takes his whacks regularly at the 24/7 news cycle, cable television and so forth.

MASON: Right.

KURTZ: Jane Hamsher, here's the White House line. This president has gotten health care, nearly a trillion dollars in stimulus spending, financial reform, we're about to withdraw from Iraq, with compromises, to be sure. That's what you do in a political system. And you and the other liberal critics are not just ungrateful, but you're not realistic about what can be accomplished inside the beltway.

HAMSHER: Well, you know, I mean, you're talking about unemployment at very high rates. It's got the entire country upset.

KURTZ: Sure.

HAMSHER: And the fact that, you know, we're still bailing out the banks. There's sort of a backdoor bailout through Fannie and Freddie that's going through right now. Ed DeMarco, who's the head of the oversight board for Fannie and Freddie, is trying to go after the banks for $4.8 billion of bad loans that they passed off on them. And, you know, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are trying to bring somebody in over him to stop him.

KURTZ: But how do you see your role? You don't see -- you obviously don't feel you need to automatically support the president on every issue. But he is a Democratic president. We don't have that many of them in the modern era.

You don't feel -- do you worry about undermining your guy? Or is he your guy?

HAMSHER: Well, I feel that the honest thing to do is support the issues that you support no matter who's in office. And if we were giving Obama a pass on the things that we criticized George Bush for, then everybody would be calling us hypocrites. I think there's an intellectual consistency that's going on here that doesn't necessarily translate well into partisan terms, but that's the honest thing to do.

KURTZ: And in the Bush years, Michael Medved, it seemed to me that most conservative commentators, with some exceptions on the Harriet Miers nomination and immigration, pretty much stood by George W. Bush almost until the end.

Is there a different standard of loyalty on the right when it comes to opinion-mongers?

MEDVED: Well, I think that, partially, because there are -- particularly in mainstream media, there are fewer opinion-mongers right. But you say with the exception of Harriet Miers and immigration. Those were huge exceptions.

KURTZ: Sure.

MEDVED: And the attacks on George W. Bush on the right, particularly toward the end of his term, when President Bush was pushing the TARP bailout, that was not unanimous on the right at all.

Look, on the one hand, I know that there are people who defend the administration on this, who say, look, what you're seeing here is the same thing that Bill Clinton did. The famous triangulation, in Dick Morris's phrase, is that he's running in a difficult electoral environment. And being attacked by Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann and Alan Grayson, the congressman from Orlando, Florida, that actually makes him look like more of the centrist that he claims to be.

I don't think that's going to work for him at all, however, in the election coming up in November.

KURTZ: And now, Julie Mason, we have Maureen Dowd this morning in "The New York Times" calling for Robert Gibbs to step down as press secretary.

I'm wondering this -- did liberal pundits develop grossly inflated expectations about Obama during the campaign, and did Obama aides get a little too used to the very positive coverage they got and now they're in shock?

MASON: Sure. You look back at the inauguration, it was almost this messianic moment. You know, and they really thought they had their guy. And people project a lot of things onto Obama.

Centrists see a centrist. Liberals see a liberal.

KURTZ: Yes, he didn't run as a flaming liberal.

MASON: No, he didn't. But a lot of people expected him to be. And he's not. And so they're rightly disappointed.

KURTZ: Let's talk a little bit about his --

MEDVED: Howard --

KURTZ: Go ahead, Michael.

MEDVED: Yes. What I'm wondering about is whether the president's stepping in very belatedly into this conflict over the mosque at Ground Zero, whether that might be an attempt to try to appease some of the people on his left who were outraged by Robert Gibbs' comments, because it seems so peculiar to me.

I mean, here he is at three, four weeks into the controversy. The president had been scrupulously silent on it.

KURTZ: Right.

MEDVED: And then he steps forward, and then he goes backward. Is there some attempt here to try to come to terms with some of his critics on the left?

KURTZ: It could be. But the coverage would suggest that when you do it the second day, and you say here's what I really meant to say, you haven't hit the mark.


KURTZ: I want to talk briefly about the president's wife, who went on vacation this week. And every time I turned on the TV I saw some of this. Let's roll it.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: First lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha are back home at the White House after a five-day trip to Spain that has drawn some flack for being too extravagant in these tough times.

DON LEMON, CNN: Michelle Obama's deluxe vacation is rubbing some people the wrong way. They're even comparing her to Marie Antoinette? Is that going too far?

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Michelle and her closest friends may have traveled on their own dime, but it is you, the taxpayer, who is paying for the travel and lodging of approximately 70 Secret Service agents who tagged along.


KURTZ: Jane, is this a way overblown summer story?

HAMSHER: I never heard this kind of commentary any time Laura Bush went some place. I mean, talk about intellectual consistency and hypocrisy, this is just blatant hypocrisy.

The first lady was never treated like this during the Bush era. You know, Michelle Obama has the right to go on vacation if she wants to with her daughter.

KURTZ: Well, maybe it wasn't the best move at a time when so many Americans are hurting, Michael Medved. But on the other hand, she paid for her own accommodations. And yes, the taxpayers picked up the Secret Service cost and the travel because they always do when a first lady travels.

MEDVED: I think there are general issues here that ought to be raised generally about how much we spend on travel not just for the president and his family, but for members of Congress.

Look, on my radio show I said it was a mistake to criticize the first lady for one very simple reason. She's more popular than the president. And the president could step forward now and do a Harry Truman, when his daughter Margaret was criticized for her singing, and say, look, you can criticize me all you want, but when you criticize my wife and my daughter, I'm not going to stand for that.

I'm surprised, in fact, that he hasn't done that, because I think some of the criticism on my side of the aisle has been way over the top on Michelle.

KURTZ: Interesting.

I think the president -- Truman actually threatened to punch somebody in the nose. If Obama did that, we'd talk about it for a week. Before we go, Julie Mason, the president had 11 beat reporters over for an off-the-record lunch. "The New York Times" refused to attend because it was off the record.

Were you invited?

MASON: No, I was not invited, sadly.

KURTZ: Would you have attended?

MASON: I would have attended, but I would have admitted it after the fact. I wouldn't have been secretive about it.

KURTZ: What do you get out of it if you can't share with your readers what the president has said?

MASON: You learn a lot about what the president's thinking and how he's thinking, and that kind of information comes down in stories eventually. You don't quote him directly, but it helps inform your readership.

KURTZ: I hope you make the invite list next time around.

MASON: Thank you.

KURTZ: Thanks very much, Julie Mason, Michael Medved, Jane Hamsher. Appreciate your joining us.

When we come back, going local. Washington gets a new Web site, not for national politics, but for neighborhood news in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. And the folks behind Politico score another hit.


KURTZ: It doesn't cover national politics, but it's been the talk of the blogosphere. It keeps track of highway closings and restaurant openings and a lot more with the help of more than 100 bloggers.

Politico's parent company launched a local news site this week here in Washington, and TBD, as it's called, is being touted as a new way of covering a metropolitan area. TBD has help from two other parts of Allbritton Communications -- the ABC affiliate station here and the cable station formerly known as News Channel 8.


KATHERINE AMENTA, TBD: Good morning and welcome to the new News Channel 8, now TBD.

I'm Katherine Amenta.

Well, it's pretty obvious there are some major changes to what you've known as News Channel 8.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about TBD is Jim Brady, the general manager, and Steve Chaggaris, vice president of cable news.

So, Jim Brady, you've got 15 reporters about to cover this huge metropolitan area and compete with places like "The Washington Post," where you used to run the Web site and work with people like me.

Explain your game plan.

JIM BRADY, GENERAL MANAGER, TBD: The game plan is that there's not really room in a metropolitan area of this size for even one place as big as The Post to cover it all. And what most news sites have done for a long time is pointed to their own stuff -- here's the stuff we've produced, here are links on our home page to our stuff.

Meanwhile, this whole ecosystem of bloggers and other local news sites have grown up in the last five years and sort of been ignored by those sites. And our idea is, let's hire reporters to cover the things that reporters should do, and let's work with the blogosphere and cover these regions and these subjects and these topics that aren't getting covered by the press.

KURTZ: But many of these bloggers were already doing their thing. So how does featuring them on your site, where they're talking about everything from food to nightlife to real estate, how does that help establish your brand?

BRADY: I think it helps. Because sites link to their own stuff, for the most part, what you don't have is -- if you're a news consumer in Washington, you need to go to 10 different Web sites to really find out what everybody's reporting on a given day, and that's not really providing a service to the resident who just wants to know, what's going on here today?

On our site, TBD, if you come here, you will find out the best stuff going on in the region and the most important things going on in the region whether it came from our staff, whether it came from "The Washington Post," whether it came from WTOP, because we're trying to be that one-stop shop for people. And I think too many media companies have missed the opportunity to sort of reassert their role as a gatekeeper but move where the gate is. We have to look at what's being published now, because everybody has a publishing tool, and decide what's worth reading.

KURTZ: Steve Chaggaris, how important are the TV stations to this operation? I noticed last night there was a big fire at a major downtown hotel here in Washington, and checking this morning, you had video up from one of your stations.

STEVE CHAGGARIS, VP OF CABLE NEWS, TBD: Well, we're established. We have a breaking news situation set up, our desks, some people out. We're still going to cover it as breaking news, and it's great that we have a Web site that can put some of that stuff out there.

But at the same time, I mean, what's different here is it's not only TV feeding a Web site, it's not a Web site for a TV station. What it is, it's an organization that happens to be feeding both Web and TV parallel at the same time. And so we've built this thing so it's not just -- the Web site is not just sort of a promo tool for the TV station.

KURTZ: You were covering national politics at CBS, but politics is just a piece of this site. In other words, you're not intending this to be a local version of Politico.

Is that correct?

CHAGGARIS: No. No. I mean, we will still talk politics. There are big races here in the fall. But it's not just politics that we'll be doing. We're covering local news, and there's a lot to cover in local news.

KURTZ: I'm interested in your thinking in this question of linking, because the old media paradigm is, why would you have links sending your readers to the competition? And yet, I've been reading your site this week, and you've linked to "Washington Examiner," "Washington Post," other TV stations in town that compete with WJLA.

Some people would say that's crazy.

BRADY: Yes, but go by the old adage, if you love someone, set them free. And they'll come back if you serve them well.

And I think we're saving readers in the region time by saying here's the things that you ought to know about today. And I think as long as you do that, where people start their Web experience from are important than where they end it. If they're starting with you in the morning, you're going to be just fine.

KURTZ: You want to be in that bookmark?

BRADY: We want to be in that routine.

KURTZ: "The New York Times" has tried it, "The Washington Post" has tried it. Others have tried these hyper-local experiments where you have a lot of news from one county, one town, one neighborhood.

Does TBD rise or fall on how much neighborhood news people really want?

CHAGGARIS: That's a good question. I mean, I think it remains to be seen.

I think what we need to do though is be distinctive. And I think one of the ways to be distinctive is to drill down to a level where people aren't -- people who live in Loudoun County, people who live in Fairfax County aren't getting the news they're getting from the local affiliates or from "The Washington Post" or from other local outlets.

KURTZ: Why do you think the other experiments have faltered?

BRADY: Well, I think most of them took a very hyper-local approach. That was all they tried to do. They tried to bite off one county.

We are actually taking a regional approach. We are trying to cover region-wide issues like transportation and arts and entertainment and sports, and supplementing that with the very micro stuff.

KURTZ: And you can search for your zip code, your block, or whatever.


KURTZ: So, it seems to me that you've built is this new kind of machine, but now you've got to figure out whether it can make money.

BRADY: Absolutely. I mean, that's the question, that local news has struggled to make money on the Web since its inception. And I think you've seen these hyper-local experiments fail, and I think we feel like we have a model that is helped hugely by the fact we have a TV station associated with us, because we have existing relationships with huge advertisers in the region already. We have a large sales force, and I think the rise of mobile and the rise of geolocation in the advertising space is going to be great for local in the next couple of years.

KURTZ: But is speed a crucial part of this? There's a fire, there's a political scandal, there's a big storm that knocks out power to hundreds of thousands of home, as happened this week, and you've e got to be up minutes later, you can't take six hours to post the story?

CHAGGARIS: I think it's a combination of speed. Whenever there's breaking news, of course speed is a big deal. But it's also -- it's giving people a reason to come watch us and come to look at our Web site.

And I think it's taking a page from Politico's playbook. It's sort of coming up with reasons for driving the day, driving the news.

Last week we had a Fenty-Gray debate, which is the mayoral race in D.C., on TV, dove people to the Web site to check out our coverage of that. So it's not just speed, but it's also giving people a reason to watch and look at our Web site.

KURTZ: I've got just a few seconds left.

You want to explain the name?

BRADY: Yes. It actually started as a joke because our Eric Wemple, who's our editor, started signing his e-mails "TBD," to be determined, because we couldn't come up with a name. We tried a bunch of different ones and just were running into roadblocks. And eventually we looked at it and it suddenly started to grow on us, because I guess we look at the name is, the news is to be determined. There's always stuff we know and always stuff we don't know, and so it stuck.

KURTZ: It never ends.

Jim Brady, Steve Chaggaris, thanks very much for talking to us about your new venture.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, "The Big Uneasy." Harry Shearer says journalists were wrong about Katrina, and he's got a new documentary to back up his charges.

Plus, celebrity chase. We'll have a behind-the-scenes report from Los Angeles on the relentless paparazzi in action.

And later, the press hits some turbulence with the breathless coverage of JetBlue head case Steven Slater.


KURTZ: Five years after a major American city was under water, we all know the story of Katrina, the images seared in our minds thanks to the saturation coverage. But what if that coverage missed the mark?

Entertainer Harry Shearer says most journalists were wrong about the real cause of the deadly flooding and makes the case in a new documentary film called "The Big Uneasy."


HARRY SHEARER, ENTERTAINER: But as a part-time resident of New Orleans, I became aware over the weeks and months that followed the flood, as did everybody else here, that there was a very different side to that story.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is contrary to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who are trying to claim that Katrina was a --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One in 496 probability of occurrence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Army Corps generals came out in their green suits and immediately said that --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was a big storm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The reason they're doing that is to cover their behinds.


KURTZ: Now, does Shearer have the goods? I spoke to him earlier here in the studio.


KURTZ: Harry Shearer, welcome.

SHEARER: Thank you. KURTZ: You're known as a social commentator, an entertainer. You were in movies such as "Spinal Tap." And, of course, you do many of the voices on "The Simpsons."

Why did you decide to tackle this very serious documentary?

SHEARER: It wasn't a career move, I can tell you that for sure.

I'm a New Orleanian. I wasn't born there, but it's my adopted home. And over the four-and-a-half years since the flooding, we in the city have been privy to the leaks, not -- and not just leaks, but the public airing of the interim reports from these investigations.

KURTZ: By leaks, you mean journalistic leaks, not more water flooding the --

SHEARER: That's correct. Thank you. Thank you for that.

KURTZ: I wanted to see if I missed something.

SHEARER: No, no, I'm being metaphorical -- of these investigations that were proceeding in the wake of the flooding. And so it's a story that we in New Orleans know.

But the rest of the country kind of lost interest after the water went away. And so I think in most of the country, the impression is, ooh, a city built too low, below sea level, got hit by a big storm, so what?

And it's a very --

KURTZ: And you say --

SHEARER: Sorry. It's a very different story.

KURTZ: You say the rest of the country lost interest, but often that's measured by how much news coverage something gets.

Have the media lost interest? It's five years later and we have other mega disasters like the oil spill to worry about.

SHEARER: I would say it's a subtler thing than that. And I would quote a not-to-be named anchor person who said these words to me when I asked, "Why, after all this time, do people who watch your broadcast not know why New Orleans flooded." And the answer was very telling to me. The person said, "We just feel that the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience."

And that's a pretty damning indictment, it seems to me, that it leaves it up to a comedy person to tell the real story of why the city flooded.

KURTZ: Of course, Katrina was an incredibly emotional story, but --

SHEARER: Of course. KURTZ: -- but now we're in the aftermath portion.

SHEARER: Well, and --

KURTZ: Nobody's stranded on a rooftop.

SHEARER: Right. And, by the way, it would be useful in the information business to tell people why these people were made to suffer.

KURTZ: But, see, there's two different issues here, it seems to me. One is this question of, how long does the national media spotlight remain on the city, now some five years later? I mean, we -- I think the last time we really cared about New Orleans was when the Saints won the Super Bowl.

SHEARER: That's right.

Who dat?

KURTZ: But the other issue is the writing of the history as to why this happened and it could it happen again? Now, here, you zero in on the Army Corps of Engineers.

You feel the mainstream media missed the mark, or is that overstating it?

SHEARER: A, I don't zero in. The people who did the investigations, the scientists and engineers who actually know what they're talking about, zeroed in on the Army Corps of Engineers, four decades plus of malfeasance and misfeasance that led to this disaster.

I think the national news media basically did take a walk away from that as the core of this story, that this was a manmade disaster. And that's why I was led to make the movie, to sort of try to correct the record now five years on.

KURTZ: Why do you think national journalists walked away from the story? I mean, in other words, was it just short attention span? Was it laziness? Or was it a failure to dig?

SHEARER: Well, I think it's all of those things. And again, I go back to this quote from this anchor person, that the emotional stories are what gets eyeballs. And this is deep stuff.

I mean, I worried as I started to make this movie, I'm not taking people to engineering school. I can't be an instructional film. I can't --

KURTZ: You're not Al Gore standing up with the charts and the graphs.

SHEARER: Right. Right. I have to make it somehow -- I face the problem that you and all your colleagues do --

KURTZ: You want people to watch.

SHEARER: -- I want people to watch and I want them to stick around. And I want them to be there at the end, as well.

So, it's a difficult story to tell. It's a deep story.

A lot of reporters, I think, use the phrase "deep in the weeds" to describe this kind of story. But you really have to go there to tell the story of, A, what happened in New Orleans?; B, what kind of an agency the Army Corps of Engineers is, why it's that way; and, also, the larger context of why the city flooded, which has to do with the disappearing of the wetlands, which is a slow motion disaster that the national media, until the BP disaster, really never covered.

KURTZ: We're not great at slow motion anything.

SHEARER: That's right.

KURTZ: Sometimes the news will be --

SHEARER: Except slow motion footage of perp walks.

KURTZ: Yes. We're very good at that.

But, look, this is not exactly virgin territory. Here's a "New York Times" piece from December, 2005, a few months after Katrina. "The devastation of New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen because of a significant flaw in levee design by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to preliminary findings of a Louisiana team."

So it has been covered to some degree.

SHEARER: I agree with you there. And, you know, Brian Williams had the lead story on June the 1st of 2006, when the Army Corps stood up and said, we screwed up. But it didn't --

KURTZ: And Williams has devoted special attention. He's made many trips to New Orleans.

SHEARER: Yes, he has, as has Anderson Cooper of your network. But it has not become part of the national narrative of what happened to New Orleans.

And you see it -- you know, a friend of mine, Sandy Rosenthal from Levees.Org, refers to it as Katrina shorthand. And you see it all the time -- "Katrina Whacked New Orleans." Katrina didn't whack New Orleans, Katrina whacked the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

KURTZ: There was a hurricane.

SHEARER: There was a hurricane which hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But in the words of one of the leaders of the -- one of the two investigations out of U.C. Berkeley, if the hurricane protection system had functioned right, the worst New Orleans would have suffered during Katrina was wet ankles. So that was a different disaster from what Mississippi suffered. Mississippi had a one-day hurricane event. New Orleans had a six-to-eight-week flood caused by the wholesale catastrophic failure of a man-engineered system.

KURTZ: And do you contend in this movie that this could happen again because of the failure to learn these lessons?

SHEARER: We have a whistleblower from within the Corps of Engineers who raises some very disturbing questions. And, you know, then there is the larger question of they have a way of doing things, and is that the right way for America to be making water policy in the 21st century, when water, people who talk about climate change tell us, is going to be the key issue?

KURTZ: The last question, this film is slated for a one-day release in selected markets, major markets in New Orleans, on August 30th, the fifth anniversary of the hurricane.


KURTZ: How much impact can the movie have?

SHEARER: Well, I hope that as a one-day event, it stirs conversation and makes people want to, if they don't get to see it on August 30th nationwide --

KURTZ: How could they see it after that?

SHEARER: There will be DVDs. There will be video on demand. We'll be in the marketplace. But I wanted to make an impact at the time when the subject of New Orleans and what happened to it is again on the media landscape, at least.

KURTZ: Any way to get the story line on "The Simpsons?"

SHEARER: It'll take eight months and have to be animated in Korea.


KURTZ: All right. Harry Shearer, thanks very much for stopping by.

SHEARER: Thank you, Howard.


KURTZ: Up next, what really goes on with those photographers who make a living panting after celebrities? A battlefield report from L.A. on the paparazzi.


KURTZ: We've talked about the paparazzi many times on this program, and when we were in Los Angeles last week, we decided to take a close look at one of the city's craziest industries. We have a report for you now that examines the men -- they're mostly men -- who chase celebrities with cameras.

We begin with my sit-down with Marco Gonzalez, a reporter for one of the top L.A. photo agencies, x17online, a thriving business tucked away in a small house in Beverly Hills.


KURTZ: Marco Gonzalez, welcome.


KURTZ: When I say L.A. and photographers, what comes to most people's mind?

GONZALEZ: Celebrities doing things that all of us do. And people are drawn to see what they're doing at all times, 24 hours a day.

KURTZ: Don't they also think of photographers in speeding cars harassing anybody with a half-famous name? The reputation is not that good, let's face it.

GONZALEZ: That's true, the reputation isn't as good in some people's eyes. But paparazzi photography is, by nature, raw. And, you know, people want to see celebrities doing what they do.

And this is cutting through the red tape. This isn't through publicists, through managers. This is the celebrities doing what they're doing as it's happening.

KURTZ: I've wondered about that, because when I see these pictures -- maybe some of them taken by x17, of Cameron Diaz walking on the beach in Santa Monica or, I don't know, Jennifer Aniston having ice cream in Malibu, I wonder, well, you've probably been tipped off. You just happened to be there at the time when she's doing something or he is doing something that they want the public to see.

GONZALEZ: And, you know, sometimes we are there at the right time. I mean, we have 50 photographers out at any given time. That's 50 reporters, essentially, because every photographer is a reporter.

So you figure with that kind of coverage, you're bound to catch somebody. But a lot of these stars do tip us off. And that's the big --


KURTZ: So it's kind of stage managed?

GONZALEZ: It could be.

KURTZ: It's supposed to look candid. Here they are just out walking the dog.

GONZALEZ: Exactly. Over the years, we've established really great relationships with certain celebrities. And we do get calls from them, texts from them saying where they're at. And a lot of the managers and publicists don't even know that's happening.

And that's what's interesting, because these stars have become savvy with this. They know that they can control what is going out about them, in a sense.

I mean, and a lot of times they'll say, "Don't tell anybody that we tipped you off," so they do the whole, like, surprises kind of element, which is what people love to see. I mean, but, you know, when you see people like the Jennifer Garner, you know, Ben Affleck's wife, in her jeans at the grocery store, it's exciting because people go, "She's just like you and I." She's a normal girl. She just happens to be really famous.

KURTZ: A normal girl who makes a lot more money than most people watching those movies.

All right. Lindsay Lohan gets out of jail for her 14-day sentence. You and everybody else want to get the picture.

Why? I mean, so she got of jail. Why is that considered such a newsworthy shot?

GONZALEZ: Well, it's interesting, Howie, because Lindsey Lohan news has kind of become mainstream. You're finding now in broadcast, whether it's CNN or anybody else, that you're -- you know, you're talking about the local fire, you're talking about a political story, and Lindsay Lohan.

I mean, it's become mainstream knowledge. And so, you know, we all wanted to see where Lindsay was. It's become a worldwide story. And you have media from all over the world handling this.

And, I mean, she -- as you know, people like to see, you know, people recover from the depths of their career. And it seems as though she did hit a big bottom. And now she's kind of going up. And people want to see, can she do it?

KURTZ: She just gotten out of jail. It's a train wreck.

GONZALEZ: Well, you know, some people are saying that. But, you know, she's now in a really tight facility, the UCLA Medical facility, and you're right, it's mass pandemonium when you're there at the courthouse or whether you're there trying to follow her. But, you know, people want to know every move she makes.

KURTZ: Does x17 pay for information that could lead to you being in the right place to take a picture?

GONZALEZ: You know, we often are there to get our footage or our shots, if you will. We license our pictures around the world. So we're there taking the photos and people do get them from us.

Once in a while -- I mean, a rare time -- we'll pay maybe for photographic access to something. But we purchase, at times, footage from freelance photographers, which is essentially who works for x17online. KURTZ: But you're less likely to pay then, for example, TMZ, where you used to work?

GONZALEZ: Right. Well, other media outlets do license from us -- you know, you named a couple there. And when that happens, you know, that where we come in handy.

I mean, people go to us because they know we're going to have the footage. I mean, our Web site is the first of its kind. We publish over 1,000 pictures a day, 10 to 15 videos, and over 40 blog posts in any given day. And that's with only four writers.

KURTZ: You know, 20 years ago, sure, people were interested in movie stars. But you didn't have all of these Web sites and TV shows and gossip columns and blogs breathlessly panting after these famous people.

GONZALEZ: But look how many people like to look at this though. We're not really feeding it, we're kind of helping people along when it comes to their entertainment. I mean, we cover here at x17online -- all the writers are trained journalists.

You know, we do the same type of thing. We check our facts. We recheck our facts. We make sure we have accurate sources.

This is real journalism. It's just at a quicker pace. So with Britney Spears, we cover news stories and fun stories. This could be a fun story. Why not find out that she loves her frappuccino and that she's kind of bouncing around with her new boyfriend?

KURTZ: Well, at a quicker pace --

GONZALEZ: That's entertaining.

KURTZ: -- but on a much lighter plane, except when they end up going to jail or getting into a drunk driving arrest.


KURTZ: A few years back, x17 sued Perez Hilton for using pictures.

Do you still have a problem with being ripped off, having your stuff appear without being licensed on other places?

GONZALEZ: I think now that x17online has been here for over four years, I think people are aware of who we are and know that we have power behind us. And they don't really --


KURTZ: Power? What power?

GONZALEZ: Well, power, because, you know, we're an outlet for so many different people to get information. We're no longer kind of, you know, the Web site that nobody knows about. Everybody knows about us. We've been written by a ton of different magazines.

KURTZ: So you're an established outfit.

GONZALEZ: Of course.

KURTZ: You're not some journalistic upstart.

I've got half a minute.

Now that everybody has got a cell phone camera and can take pictures of some of these stars walking around the beach, isn't that a lot more competition for you, people who are not necessarily doing this for a living?

GONZALEZ: That's true. But the clarity -- the clarity is not there. I mean, you can get a cell phone image and a cell phone camera, but it's not going to get you what trained photographers out in the field are going to get.

They're going to capture those moments, those exclusive moments that not Joe Schmoe could get. And that's what makes x17online so unique.

KURTZ: It sounds like you have a smart business there.

Marco Gonzalez, thanks very much for joining us.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.


KURTZ: Better than Joe Schmoe.

So, what's it like to be out on the streets for an agency like x17online? We sent producer Natalie Apsell for a ride with photographer Walter Blanco to find out.


NATALIE APSELL, CNN PRODUCER: So give me a little perspective of who we're working on today, what's going on.

WALTER BLANCO, X17ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHER: Well, it's Rebecca Gayheart. She's eating at La Conversacion.

I want to ask her when she's going to give us those pictures of her baby. She's been hiding them for a while, so I want to know what the deal is. I want those pictures.

OK. Here she comes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rebecca, how are you doing? Good to see you.

BLANCO: How's your baby, Rebecca? We're waiting for those pictures. Make sure you call me when you come out.

Thank you.

APSELL: Just got the money shot. How do you feel?

BLANCO: It feels good. It feels good.

APSELL: Yes? Satisfying? Worth all this effort?


Kevin Connelly. It looks like he's going in towards, like, Rodeo, Beverly Hills shopping area. Driving this Range Rover sport here, black.

Turn your camera around.

What are you doing?


BLANCO: What are you doing? Hello?

Look at Kevin.

He's really, like, trying to ride the bumper. I think it's time to let him go because, yes, when it gets to that point, there's no point of trying to, you know, agitate him. I mean, he seems upset.

APSELL: So we just missed Serena Williams. We thought it was her.

BLANCO: We thought it was her.

APSELL: But who are we chasing now?

BLANCO: One of the cast members of "Lost." I think this is him. I know he has a Porsche. Just being a little sketchy, but that's normal.

I thought we were going to have a confrontation.

APSELL: What's been your best -- your most high-paying, best, most satisfying shot that you've ever gotten?

BLANCO: Oh, my gosh. When anybody ever asks me that, the only one that comes to mind -- because there's been a couple, you know, but the one that I always, you know, mention because -- I don't know. I guess I pick this one.

But it's when Paris Hilton came out into the public with all these bruises, mysterious bruises all over her face, all over her body. She had gotten into a fight.

I mean, it's in question to who she got in a fight with. It was really dramatic, and it was horrible. I mean, I even had a hard time taking the pictures because I just really felt bad for her. Sure enough, she comes out and, you know, she just gives me all the pictures. She wanted me to really photograph, you know, what had happened to her. And that's a classic for me. You know? And, you know, I felt bad about her situation, you know, but I had to get the pictures.


KURTZ: After the break, President Obama yesterday said he wasn't endorsing the building of an Islamic mosque at New York's Ground Zero when he spoke on Friday about the importance of religious freedom. That's all over the Sunday shows. And we'll be all over it in a moment.


The lead story in this morning's "Washington Post," "Mosque Stance Gets an Asterisk. Obama, Not an Endorsement."

And that, Candy Crowley, has prompted a lot of talk this Sunday morning.

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": Yes. Well, in the dog days of summer, which are dog days for news, too, thank heavens for little flare-ups like this.

The president, on Friday night, seems to indicate that he supports the building of a mosque, Islamic center about two blocks from Ground Zero, which has created quite a fuss.

KURTZ: Absolutely.

CROWLEY: Then he talked to our Ed Henry the next morning, when he's down in Florida, and said, well, I was just saying that we have freedom of religion in this country, I wasn't endorsing that. That's up for the local people to do.

And then the White House came and re-explained the explanation, saying, well, he didn't say anything different in these two things.

KURTZ: Not a good position to be in.

CROWLEY: No. All of which means it was fodder for the Sunday shows.

Take a listen.


REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: I think the president, by the way, is trying to have it both ways, because I don't know of anyone who was saying that Muslims should not have the right to practice their religion. But with rights go responsibilities, and that's the part it the president didn't comment on.

If the president was going to get into this, he should have been much more clear, much more precise. And you can't be changing your position from day to day on an issue which does go to our Constitution and it also goes to extreme sensitivity. So that's where I'm critical of the president for not being clear.



SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: I think the president recognized that his position of trying to reinforce a principle that we all share, which is that this is a nation of tolerance who are fighting religious fanatics, that position automatically doesn't translate into a facility down there in lower Manhattan unless that facility is contributing to this tolerance, to this communication between different religious groups.



SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: The president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America, and I think that's one of the reasons people are so frustrated. I think this is sort of the dichotomy, that people sense they're being lectured to, not listened to. And I think that's the reason why a lot of people are very upset with Washington.



REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: I agree with the president. I think the issue is one for the people of New York City.

I think it's up to the people of new York. I mean, they are obviously the folks who are right there at the site of the attack, of 9/11, and it's a question for them.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), CALIFORNIA: I think the president -- if Chris is saying this is a New York issue, then why did the president engage in it? But if you listen to what he first said, he brought up the exact location and said he supported.


KURTZ: It's fascinating, Candy, that Obama had studiously avoided this controversy for weeks before reigniting it this weekend.

CROWLEY: Yes. And listen, is this going to move the November elections? I don't think so.

And everybody -- I should say everybody on all these shows -- said, well, this really isn't a political issue. And I'm thinking, really? Because it just became a political issue the minute it happened. And everybody is sort of talking in different directions. In the end, the one thing to take away from this is there's absolutely nothing the government can do to stop this. It's on private property. But it sure did fill up some space, some real estate on Sunday morning.

KURTZ: And it's an emotional issue, especially for New Yorkers.

Candy Crowley, thanks.

Still to come, "GQ" relies on an unnamed source over an ancient college prank by Rand Paul.

And that JetBlue folk hero, it turns out journalists revved up the engines before checking out his tale.

Our "Media Monitor" straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Monitor," a weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.

Here's what I liked: Peter Baker's piece in "The New York Times" on the personal toll of living in the White House pressure cooker, something we often forget. Baker interviewed such former Obama aides as Linda Douglass, who said that even when spending time with her husband, "It was just the three of us, him, me and my BlackBerry. I felt like I was losing friendships."

Here's what I didn't like: "GQ" magazine using an anonymous source to denigrate Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul for something that supposedly happened back in his Baylor University days in 1983. The unnamed woman described a prank in which Paul and a friend "blindfolded me, tied me up and put me in their car."

They allegedly pressed her to smoke pot, took her to a creek, and told her to bow down to the God of Aqua Buddha. The Republican nominee denies the episode.


RAND PAUL (R), U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE: No, I never was involved with kidnapping. No, I was never involved with forcibly drugging people.


KURTZ: And guess what? The source told "The Washington Post" blogger Greg Sargent that she was playing along with a college ritual and the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. She said she just felt like she was being hazed.

The woman says she didn't want to go public about a 27-year-old incident because of her job as a clinical psychologist. In that case, "GQ" should have just said no. Paul, meanwhile, left the Fox News interview and refused to talk to a local Fox reporter who followed him out of the studio, part of a pattern this year of subcandidates avoiding the press.

And here's what left me with motion sickness: this JetBlue clown, the flight attendant who got ticked off at a passenger, then triggered the emergency chute at JFK Airport and slid his way out of a job and got himself arrested is actually being celebrated by the media.

Yes, I know, it's August and he's got over 200,000 Facebook fans. But Steven Slater could have killed someone on the runway with that reckless move.

And yet, look at this -- front page of "The New York Times," front page of "USA Today," front page of the New York tabloids, and television in a tizzy.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Air rage: the story behind a flight attendant's dramatic departure from a JetBlue plane.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: All right. What about this nutty JetBlue flight attendant?

ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: The last-straw moment a lot of people identify with.

SCHULTZ: And a JetBlue flight attendant may have broken the law, but he did what a lot of Americans would have done.

TONY HARRIS, CNN: A JetBlue flight attendant strikes a chord with the overstressed and overworked. A lot of you look ready to make him America's newest folk hero.


KURTZ: Actually, Tony, you and your colleagues are turning Slater into a folk hero.

Actually, Ed, a lot of Americans would not have done what he did because they have got common sense.

And even as the media raced into the stratosphere with this tale, Slater's story was shot down. Passengers telling "The Wall Street Journal" and others that he was rude and was bonked on the head by an overhead bag even before the flight took off.

News outlets are taking a colorful incident and inflating it into a cosmic cultural protest because that gives them an excuse to keep pumping it up.

And with that, I'm going to slide right out of this bogus story.

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.