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Tax Cut Compromise Passes Congress; Palin Goes on 'Good Morning America'; Interview With Soledad O'Brien

Aired December 19, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The reporters said President Obama looked weak. The pundits, mostly on the left, some on the right, said the tax cut deal was a tawdry beltway compromise.

Now Congress has passed the bill. And guess what? The polls say big majorities like it. So are journalists out of touch with the public?

Sarah Palin leaves the Fox lair for an interview on "Good Morning America." Is she finally ready to deal with the lamestream media?

Race and journalism tend to be uncomfortably intertwined, not just in terms of reporting, but for minorities trying to make it in the news business. A candid conversation on that subject with CNN's Soledad O'Brien.

Plus, a gripping story of life and death on Facebook, how Mark Zuckerberg's creation is changing the nature of journalism.

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

There's no question the president abandoned his promise not to extend tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. But the polls make perfectly clear that much of the public approves of the messy and malodorous compromise between the White House and the GOP, one that the House and Senate passed this week by comfortable margins and Obama signed into law.

Fifty-nine percent approve in an NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, 69 percent in a "Washington Post"/ABC survey. So the majority of folks are pleased that the two warring parties finally got together and did something.

The press reviews must be turning positive, right? Not so much.


PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think the deal was terrible for Barack Obama. Not getting the deal would be catastrophic for Barack Obama.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: More good news about the tax compromise. It may compromise this country's international credit rating, because Moody's says any economic growth the tax cuts create will be wiped away by the added deficit. Terrific.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: President Obama's political clout has already been hit hard by House Democrats who are furious over the so- called compromise.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: This tax compromise -- and that's what they want to call it. It's a cave-in. This could be the beginning of the end of entitlements as we know it.


KURTZ: On another divisive issue, eight Republican senators joined the Democrats yesterday in repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays serving openly in the media. But this larger question: Are the media more interested in partisan fights than bipartisan cooperation?

Joining us in New York, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of "The Nation" magazine. And here in Alex Wagner, White House correspondent for "Politics Daily"; and Ramesh Ponnuru, columnist and senior editor at "National Review."

Katrina vanden Heuvel, you were no fan of this tax deal. Some liberal commentators hated the tax deal.

Are some of these pundits just out of touch with the Americans who say they kind of like it?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR, "THE NATION": You know, I think there's a disconnect, Howard, between pundits and people. But let me step back for a moment.

Where was much of the reporting on how vast majorities of Americans, Democrats, Independents opposed the Bush tax cuts, the extension of tax cuts to the richest? There wasn't much coverage about that, and there hasn't been much coverage about majorities are far more worried about employment than they are deficit cutting.

So I think there is a feeling in this country right now, a seeking of compromise, at particularly the end of the year, the holidays. But at the end of the day, the bottom line is this tax deal is a handout to millionaires and billionaires, and is kind of shafting the working class, the middle class. And it's our job to report that.

KURTZ: It's our job to report what's in it, and it's also our job to report that each side obviously gave up some of what they wanted.

Ramesh Ponnuru, journalists just feasted on the split in the Democratic Party over this, and to a lesser extent, the Republican Party, because some very conservative lawmakers didn't like it.

Was that the story, in your view?

RAMESH PONNURU, SR. EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": No, I don't think so. I think that reporters understandably focused on the reaction of the factions, and also on some of the strange bits about the president's press conferences announcing the deal and defending the deal.

But the public, most of which -- most people don't pay that close attention to politics -- they just saw president approves extending unemployment benefits, extending tax cuts, and they liked it. And that was what the story was for them.

KURTZ: Right. And of course the parties are borrowing $900 billion in order to provide these goodies.

Alex Wagner, how much did the White House work the press in trying to move the storyline from Obama's broken promise to Obama as consensus builder?

ALEX WAGNER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "POLITICS DAILY": Well, I think if you look to December 6th and December 7th, there's definitely been a period of growing pains. I mean, initially, the president, the language was, I couldn't get the Republicans to budge, I couldn't persuade them. You know, this is the best that we could do.

KURTZ: They were the hostage-takers.

WAGNER: Exactly, and which, by virtue of that, puts the guns in the Republicans' hands. They didn't have a number for -- you know, talking to senior White House administration officials that night, they didn't have a price tag for the thing. And only in later days do we find out that, oh, look, actually tax cuts for the upper-income earners is $61 billion. It's $127 billion for middle class --

KURTZ: But in their dealings with you, did the White House officials try to move you toward this is a grownup compromise, the adults have finally come together for the good of the country?

WAGNER: Well, yeas. And on Friday I was talking to Gibbs. And I said, look --

KURTZ: Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.

WAGNER: Exactly, Robert Gibbs. And asked, "Look, is triangulation and compromise, is that the theme going forward, is that the new narrative of the presidency?" And he got his hair up on his back a little bit and said, look, this isn't compromise. This isn't triangulation. We won.

And they've taken a much more aggressive stance in the last week.

KURTZ: They hate that Clintonesque term, "triangulation," but it certainly was compromise.

Katrina, is there a default setting, in your view, in the beltway media when the two parties are at odds over substantive issues that bipartisan compromise, bipartisan cooperation is always good?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Oh, I think this infatuation with bipartisanship -- you know, we have two parties in this country for a reason. Listen, there has been -- and President Obama lashed out at his supporters, the base.

KURTZ: The sanctimonious liberals.

VANDEN HEUVEL: And, you know, reserve that passion, Mr. President, for those who would destroy your presidency.

There is a reason that people stand on principle, that you have the fights that define you, and you sometimes win by losing. I think, Howard, the big disconnect in this country is less left right than top down.

Inside the beltway there is an infatuation with bipartisanship. There's a lot of well-oiled, well-lubricated lobbyists, and people who decide the story of the day in many ways. I think our job as reporters moving forward is to look closely at this tax bill, try to understand, why is it that tax cuts for the rich extend out for two years, but unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut which may be a backdoor entry into cutting Social Security lasts for 13 months? I think we need to look hard at it because it's going to be with us and the Trojan horse leading into spending cuts which will cause more economic pain in a country that gets too little coverage by inside- the-beltway press.

KURTZ: Well, speaking of inside-the-beltway press, Ramesh Ponnuru, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer hasn't had much good to say about President Obama. He has now written two columns, the last of which praises him as "the comeback kid," basically saying that he beat the GOP with very little leverage, that he came out on top in this compromise.

I haven't heard that from many other conservatives on your side.

PONNURU: Well, it is certainly one of the views that you hear from conservative opponents of the deal who feel that Republicans have given the president a lifeline. But I don't think it's the majority sentiment of Republicans and conservatives.

I think most conservatives think, look, for 10 years now, Democrats have been saying they don't want to extend the upper-income tax cuts. They were forced to extend the upper-income tax cuts. That's a win.

KURTZ: Right.

And Republicans got most of what they wanted, but I'm starting to hear now, Alex Wagner, a little bit more of, well, you know, President Obama got shellacked on November 2nd. Having a pretty good month, but particularly after yesterday's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" victory, because it didn't look like it was going to happen, and it happens with 65 Senate votes.

Didn't the press portray that story a little bit differently because journalists are a lot more sympathetic to granting full rights to gays in the military and a little bit less enthusiastic about tax cuts to the rich?

WAGNER: Well, I mean, I think as far as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is concerned, that's really something for nothing insofar the White House did not put a lot of political capital behind pushing that through. I mean, even on Friday, Gibbs was asked, where is the president? Why is he not using the bully pulpit on this? Why has he not sort of tried to move the ball forward in a more aggressive fashion?

And effectively, the White House said, we commissioned the Department of Defense report. And that was sort of their big contribution to that.

And a week ago, we thought that legislation was dead. If there's anything the president has sort of really gone at, it's the new START treaty and the tax cut package.

KURTZ: Katrina, a quick thought on the coverage of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which, of course, a lot of people see as a civil rights issue, but others say it could hurt the military readiness or military relations within these units.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes, two-and-a-half points. One, it's a very interesting moment because it's about generational transition in values.

And it's less left-right again. It's about tolerance and dignity. And to see people on the wrong side of history -- to hear the right wing yesterday talking about deviants and perverts shows that they're out of touch with the changing country.

But I also -- listen, I've never been a big fan of Senator Lieberman. He played a good role in this. But the coverage also needs to look at the 20 years of organizing that went into this repeal, this victory for civil rights --

KURTZ: Right. But, you know, it is true that Joe Lieberman, who's not a hero to many on the Democratic left, made this happen more than any other Senator.

I want to get to John Boehner, because in a clip that has been showed so many times, a much-mocked piece of videotape, here he was with Lesley Stahl on "60 Minutes" last Sunday.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), MINORITY LEADER: I can't go to a school anymore. I used to go to a lot of schools. And you see all these little kids running around. Can't talk about it.


BOEHNER: Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American dream like I did. It's important.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: I see you grimacing, Ramesh Ponnuru. Could the media make Boehner into the weeper-in-chief by replaying these clips?

PONNURU: Well, it's not just Boehner. There is an epidemic of crying on the Republican side. Senator McConnell was tearing up saying good-bye to Judd Gregg. And Chris Dodd, even more bizarrely --

KURTZ: Is this a huge problem for the country?

PONNURU: I think that the CDC needs to look into the possibility there's some sort of infection.


KURTZ: But I've -- go ahead.

WAGNER: I totally disagree. I mean, first of all, I will say -- I'll put this out there. Whenever he gets weepy, I get weepy. When I see people cry on television, it's instant --

KURTZ: You're such a soft touch.

WAGNER: I am. I'm a soft touch. But I think for the Republican Party, and especially someone like John Boehner, who's been accused of being in bed with lobbyists and special interests, and the Republican Party is the party of obstructionist, and they have no feelings and they're not humans, here is the Speaker of the House, a weeper.

He's in touch with the American dream. He's very emotional. I think it humanizes him.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Howard, could I say --

KURTZ: Go ahead.

VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, I think -- I'm all for big men crying. But I think it's a distraction from John Boehner's policies which make me want to cry.

This man, in his 20 years in Congress, has been very hard-hearted when he thinks what he does for those kids he's weeping about. I think we keep a focus on his politics and where he wants to take this country, and I will restrain myself from weeping on your show this morning.

KURTZ: I would appreciate that.

Well, you know, we are getting to know the new Speaker of the House. I don't think he was covered enough when he was the House minority leader.

But just very briefly, Alex, there's been a lot of chatter about if Nancy Pelosi had cried and when women cry, they get a much harder time from the press. Do you buy that?

WAGNER: Yes, of course. I mean, I think that there is a double standard.

But the expectation is that women are going to let their emotions rule their heads. And so when that's gleefully overturned by a man crying and having his heart at the forefront, I think that's a pleasant surprise.

KURTZ: Well, let's all restrain our emotions for a moment while we go to break.

When we come back, Robin Roberts goes to Wasilla to chat up Sarah Palin. Is the former governor making her peace with the media establishment she usually beats like a captured halibut?



ROBIN ROBERTS, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": You have come from virtually nowhere to being a power player. How in the world does that happen?

SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: Let me tell you one thing that has changed. It's been tempting once in a while to start guarding my conversation and start hesitating a little bit in calling it like I see it.


KURTZ: It's been a running theme on this program, Sarah Palin dissing and ducking the mainstream media. The former governor has built the 2012 speculation to an almost fever pitch, largely by tweeting, Facebooking, and speaking from within the friendly confines of Fox News.

So I want to be fair and balanced in reporting that Palin is making occasional forays outside the Fox bubble. She spoke to "The New York Times" magazine for a cover story. She answered questions for "TIME" cover story by e-mail. Last week, she spoke to Barbara Walters.

And on Friday, as you just saw, Palin sat down with Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America," where she accused the president of reversing himself on tax cuts.


ROBERTS: You said flip-flop. He -- it's compromise. And that's part of the thing that the American public has been saying, can't you guys get together, bipartisanship, and then he will be accused, as you have done, of saying flip-flop.

I mean, how do you reach compromise if you -- if you don't --

PALIN: Well, I would say, though, that it is a flip-flop in his position on tax cuts because he was so adamant about not allowing the tax cut extension to take place for job creators. And then all of a sudden, one day, he was fine with it. So, again, I appreciate that he -- you can term it "compromise," I term it "flip-flop."


KURTZ: Alex Wagner, how did Robin Roberts do? Was that an aggressive interview, in your view, or a friendly interview?

WAGNER: I thought it was relatively friendly. I think Palin was definitely on the defense for certain moments, but Roberts sort of endeared herself to Palin. I think that's important, because she has such antagonism for the lamestream media.

I do think the "flip-flop" thing gave currency to anybody that is frustrated with Palin as just kind of being an abject conservative with no desire to actually govern insofar is here's compromise --

KURTZ: Here's her party going along with the president.

WAGNER: Exactly. Here's her party making a deal, getting what they wanted. And still, it's a negative assessment of the situation.

KURTZ: Ramesh Ponnuru, how does a politician attack the lamestream media pretty much 24/7, and then start sitting down with these lame journalists?

PONNURU: I think that Governor Palin has set herself up very nicely. If she does well in these mainstream media interviews, then she's exceeded expectations and she impresses people. If she does poorly, she can say, well, look, that's those media elites victimizing me again. And she set up her supporters to think in those terms.

KURTZ: So heads, she wins; tails, we lose?

PONNURU: Exactly.

KURTZ: Katrina vandel Heuvel, are the journalists who just rush to report Palin's every tweet holding her to the same standard, would you say, as other potential presidential candidates?

VANDEN HEUVEL: No. And I think what we're seeing with Sarah Palin is she's understanding her strategy of saying inside the Palin bubble, this one-way conversation with the American people isn't working.

The NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll this past week showed her negatives are rising. I think the key --

KURTZ: So are you saying she's been forced out of the bubble after doing some of these interviews?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I think she understands she needs to move beyond the Palin bubble. And I think the key, Howard, is whether the mainstream media will be very tough in questioning about her politics and policies, and not just like your power broker, the horse race.

We need to know about, you know, why she thinks it's time to shred government when we need government most, or why she thinks climate crisis is not manmade, or her misinformation about the health care debate, or stoking fears about Muslim-Americans. These are questions she should be asked, but I think she knows her strategy isn't working inside that Palin bubble, even with her incendiary one- way tweets and Facebook.

And she deletes bad comments off of her Facebook page. That's kind of Soviet.


KURTZ: That's paying close attention to the Facebook page.

Look, she's not a candidate yet, but she is certainly kind of a celebrity. Can the so-called liberal press give Sarah Palin a fair shake, in your view?

PONNURU: Well, I think that there is -- there's a lot of poison in this well. It is such a fraught relationship, that it's going to be very difficult. And as I said, I don't think she needs good coverage from the mainstream media. I think in a lot of ways --

KURTZ: Well, eventually, if she were to become a candidate, she can't just continue to kill halibut in Alaska. She's got to talk to actual journalists, no?

PONNURU: She has to talk to them, but it doesn't have to be a friendly conversation. She can continue to have an adversarial relationship with the press all the way through the primaries if that's the way she wants to go.

WAGNER: I would beg to differ. I mean, I think if you look at Sharron Angle, who was the Mario Andretti of candidates racing away from the press at every opportunity, I mean, you do have to engage with the media. And in this constant spin cycle, having them on your side, or at least amenable to what you're saying is very important.

PONNURU: Sharron Angle did win her primary. That's my point.

KURTZ: And lost the general election to Harry Reid.

I am happy to see that Governor Palin is finally talking to some of us in the press. I'm going to at least encourage that trend.

Katrina vandel Heuvel, Ramesh Ponnuru, Alex Wagner, thanks very much for stopping by.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, a wrenching tale of tragedy told on Facebook. Is the social network changing the nature of reporting?

We'll get into that.

Plus, CNN's Soledad O'Brien on the maddening frustrations of race and journalism.

And later, should Chris Matthews have taken a shot at the New Jersey governor's girth? Fat chance.


KURTZ: For black journalists of a certain age, their careers have long been entangled by thorny questions of race. That would be doubly true if you're both black and Hispanic. Many folks in the news business shy away from talking about these matters, but one conspicuous exception is CNN's Soledad O'Brien. She's reported extensively on race in America and is the author of a new book, "The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities."

I sat down with her earlier in New York.


KURTZ: Soledad O'Brien, welcome.


KURTZ: Now, you started out as a minority writer trainee, $6.00 an hour.

O'BRIEN: Big title.

KURTZ: WBZ Boston.


KURTZ: And you began after too long to question why you got that job.

O'BRIEN: Not after too long. I knew -- you know, when they call you the "minority trainee," it's pretty clear.

KURTZ: Yes, not real subtle.

O'BRIEN: Not subtle at all. In fact, one time I asked a producer -- the guy who was the noon producer at the same network -- I said, "So what do they call this job for the white people?" And he said, "Weekend producer."


O'BRIEN: You know? And he -- only half kidding.

No, it was the conundrum of always, you know, on one hand, what a great gig, and you have an in. And you finally get a skill, which was something that would differentiate you from the rest of the PAs in the group.

But also, clearly, you know, we picked you because you're a person of color, and we need more people of color, and we want to da- da-da-da. And so I think that there was always that rub.

My mother used to always say, you know, "Better to get into Harvard because you're black than not get into Harvard because you're black" --

KURTZ: Well, there is that.

O'BRIEN: -- at a time when people -- you know, she was around when people were not getting into Harvard because they were black. And so I think that they never -- they never looked at opportunities like, oh, feel badly about that. It was always, run with the ball, do your best.

KURTZ: But it's an interesting them that runs through your book. I mean, you got promoted to writer on the 2:00 a.m. shift, and then you actually got an on-air reporting job at KRON on San Francisco. And you report that you felt that some people didn't like you.

O'BRIEN: Oh, no, they clearly didn't like me.

KURTZ: All right. This was not just you being paranoid?

O'BRIEN: It was not my paranoia and it was not my feeling. You know, some of that was just, when you come in new to a place -- I was woefully underpaid, I was making probably a third of what everybody else was making because I was new and I was one of the new hires. So that was just that.

I was in over my head. I had never reported before in a big market, but I had been in network --

KURTZ: That became clear to me when I read about the live shot you did from a bar.

O'BRIEN: Yes, where I was groped.

KURTZ: And can I ask, were we in the playoffs?

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes. And I was literally groped in the middle of that live shot.

And I remember, like a deer in the headlights, I stopped and I stuttered and I couldn't finish. And after that, my boss brought me into his office and sort of said, "Santa Barbara might be a good market for you."

And I called Bob Bazell at NBC, who had been my mentor at NBC and my boss, and he said, you know, "Let them fire you. These jobs are hard to get. Let them fire you."


O'BRIEN: And I was able to, in that window before they fired me, figure it out, because, you know, a lot of television news is almost like apprenticeships. You have to sit down and just learn it, learn the process, learn the --


KURTZ: Now, today, if you were groped on camera -- and I'm not advocating that -- it would go viral and everybody would have it on everybody's blog.

O'BRIEN: And I'd be on every newscast by talking about it.

KURTZ: You'd be on Jon Stewart.

This sentenced stopped me: "I have always hated the way I look on camera." And then I'll --

O'BRIEN: I used to write myself out of my live shots. In fact, I got --

KURTZ: That's not the way it works in television.

O'BRIEN: Isn't it crazy? But, you know, I never could figure out how to add to the piece.

Why am I in this story in the middle doing that standup bridge? The story is about somebody else. It's actually the great thing about --

KURTZ: Well, you partially answered the question right here. There is an aspect of TV that is an extension of the beauty industry. Meaning?

O'BRIEN: Got to be cute.

KURTZ: Got to be cute. You didn't feel you were cute?

O'BRIEN: You know, it was less -- not feeling being cute. I mean, I tried to be cute enough. We know anybody with, like, a face full of makeup and your hair done, you know, you can be fine.

It was more about, why am I in this story? What's my role in this story?

If I'm doing an interview with someone, that gives you a valid reason to be there. But a standup bridge? You know, later today it looks like the marchers will go from here over to there, and they do the pan, you know, and you sometimes insert yourself. And I always thought, why am I in this story?

Some of it -- you know, as I write in the book, I say, you know, "I am attractive enough to deliver the news." Right? Not so attractive that it's distracting, not completely unattractive that it's annoying, but attractive enough to deliver the news.

And that's after being, you know -- in 2000, I think 2000, I was, you know, one of "People" Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful."

KURTZ: Yes, you were promoted from cute.

O'BRIEN: Right, that is cute. You know, on the other hand, I have gone, you know, big and small with, you know, having kids.

So, to me, it was less about attractiveness and more about, why am I in this piece? And the more I became good at my job, the more I felt like it was important for me to be in the piece, because I was asking important, relevant questions.

KURTZ: Well, but also TV news revolves around personality. So, just to pick up your career thread, you went to MSNBC. You wound up as co-anchor on "Weekend Today."

O'BRIEN: Right, with David Bloom.

KURTZ: You became pregnant, and then you write, "I left NBC in 2003 because I wanted to be a serious news reporter again."

Being the co-anchor of "Weekend Today" did not fit that definition?

O'BRIEN: No, it really didn't. And I love "Weekend Today."

KURTZ: Well, you were interviewing a mixture of people.

O'BRIEN: Well, you did three big interviews for the weekend. And David Bloom and I would fight very heatedly about those.

And David was a great friend, but also a great journalist, which meant he expected he was going to do the big interviews. And I was hoping to do the big interviews. And we would butt heads on that.

But, no, we did a lot of cooking and fashion and things that I liked to do. I mean, the "Weekend Today" show was a mixture, much more than the weekday "Today" show is, of light and fluffy, along with probably the one big interview in an hour on a Saturday or a Sunday.

KURTZ: Right.

O'BRIEN: So, no, there really wasn't enough.

I mean, when I started working at CNN, I was doing three hours a day. The show was then expanded to four hours. So I was doing 20 hours of news.

You know, we did not break for cooking, we did not break for fashion. You would do -- and I would anchor shows that were, at times, 11 and 12 hours long. The London bombings, eleven hours on the set.

KURTZ: You got your wish in spades. But since you brought it up -- and you write about this candidly in the book -- in 2007, you lost that co-anchor job on "AMERICAN MORNING."

O'BRIEN: I was fired, yes.

KURTZ: You and Miles O'Brien were told you were great reports, but not magnetic anchors.

O'BRIEN: We love you, but --

KURTZ: Yes. And you took it pretty hard.

O'BRIEN: Yes, I did, you know, because I had not really failed at anything in my career. And I always was able to figure my way through. And, actually, once I sort of got it together, I knew that I could do the same thing.

Jon Klein, the president of CNN, fired me and promoted me, literally in the same 20-minute span. He said, "We're taking you off the morning show." And I knew that was coming. The ratings had struggled.

But then he also said, you know, "We want you to do documentaries." We had done a couple, sort of part-time-ish, while I was anchoring the show, and they had been really successful. And he thought, you know, if you devote your time to this, you could really carve out a niche.

KURTZ: As it turned out. But you were crying every day for a while.

O'BRIEN: Oh, my gosh, yes. Well, you know, the hard thing is for -- if you're a journalist, you want to go report. It's really hard to -- in fact, I was taken off the show, and then the Virginia Tech shooting happened.

KURTZ: And you wanted to be there. You wanted to be on the story.

O'BRIEN: And you're like -- you're calling people and yelling and screaming, and everyone's like, well, where do we put you? What are you on? Where do we put you on TV?

So, I think for anybody who's a journalist, you know, your job is to stand in front of a camera and tell people stuff. And it is. It's really frustrating and terrifying and depressing when you don't have that platform.


KURTZ: After the break, Soledad O'Brien on a conversation she had with Jesse Jackson and why it haunted her.



KURTZ: You had a conversation with Jesse Jackson. You were talking about the lack of black anchors on television. He said something that really stuck in your mind, really wounded you.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it really did. He leaned over and pinched me on the hand, the back of my hand, and he said -- I said, "What are you talking about, Jesse?"

"I know, but" -- he said -- "There are no black anchors on CNN." I was like, "Not only have I interviewed you on CNN, I interviewed you a zillion times when I was at NBC. What are you talking about?"

KURTZ: Right. O'BRIEN: And he pinched my skin and he said, "Well, you know, you don't count." And, you know, what I remember most about that is I sort of was stunned into silence.

I really regret that now because, you know, my mom, who is sometimes my role model in these things, is so good at sort of saying to someone, "What?" And saying, you know -- just like my sister, who starts the book. You know, she would be the person who would say, "What is that supposed to mean?"

And I didn't say that. And I regret --

KURTZ: But what you were thinking was that you have a black parent and a white parent. Your dad is from Australia, your mother from Cuba.

O'BRIEN: And maybe I don't count.

KURTZ: And maybe you don't count.

O'BRIEN: And the arbiter of all things black, Jesse Jackson, says -- has just said I don't count. And, you know, we talked about it.

When I was working on the book, I called him, and we talked about the conversation. And he apologized, and he said, "Listen, if I hurt you" -- I thought you were Latina," is what he said to me. You know, and then he said something else very interesting.

KURTZ: Which is also true.

O'BRIEN: It is true, yes. And he said something else that was very interesting to me.

When I called him when the book came out, and he said -- he said, "You know what? It's people like me who fought for people like you to get your job." And that's very true.

KURTZ: But you -- this is -- I sense that it's kind of an area of vulnerability for you, because you quote a blogger by the name of Black Snob who said -- who wrote or blogged -- "Can Soledad O'Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not sounding black and not being married to a black man?"

O'BRIEN: And what does that mean, not looking black, not sounding -- I don't sound black? Well, I sound like a girl from Long Island who went through voice classes so she could become a TV anchor.

Not looking black? You know, I could show you pictures from my childhood where I have a giant afro. And so, I guess to me, it's just interesting fodder for a follow-up and for questions.

I mean, the one thing the Jesse Jackson incident taught me was to go back. I'd love to (INAUDIBLE).

Well, what does that mean? What does looking black mean to you? What does sounding black mean to you?

I mean, I don't know that I necessarily have my head around comments like that. So I think it's a good thing for discussion, because I've always sort of been very confused by that kind of thing.

KURTZ: Right.

Let me close on this larger question, because you've been in the news business for a long time.

Cable news, I think it's fair to say, increasingly polarized, increasingly unpopular. President Obama, who also has a white parent and a black parent -- and I'm sure you can identify with that -- criticizes it almost at every opportunity -- 24/7 news cycle, superficial.

O'BRIEN: Until something breaks, and then all you want to do is turn on CNN and watch what happens. Until there's an earthquake in Haiti and you need to see every incremental moment of something happening. Then, people say, oh, my God, thank God for cable news. Thank God for cable news during Hurricane Katrina. Thank God for cable news during the tsunami.

KURTZ: But what about the rest of the time for a network like CNN, which doesn't identify with the left or the right the way two other cable networks do, FOX and MSNBC? It's got to hold an audience --

O'BRIEN: Absolutely. And I think --

KURTZ: When there's no hurricane or tsunami.

O'BRIEN: -- that's absolutely a challenge. But at the same time, I'm so glad that our bosses have not said, so here's what we're going to be. We're going to pick this side and flog this horse. You know, I don't think most of the people here want to do that.

KURTZ: Soledad O'Brien, thanks very much for joining us.

O'BRIEN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.


KURTZ: More RELIABLE SOURCES ahead, but right now I want to turn things over to Candy Crowley for an update on the U.N. meeting take place this hour -- Candy.


As you say, the United Nations Security Council is holding an emergency meeting at this hour to address the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. We have CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, and senior U.N. Correspondent Richard Roth with us.

I want to go first to Richard.

What is the gist and the purpose this meeting?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SR. U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Russia called it, Russia says it's worried about escalating tensions. Russia also has extensive business interests there on the peninsula. Russia may want an envoy sent by the U.N. to try to defuse tensions, but that doesn't always work, a diplomat coming from the U.N., as we've seen in the past.

CROWLEY: You know, the problem, Richard, I guess, is these tensions have been going on for some time. Why has it sort of just now prompted Russia to move to the Security Council, do you think?

ROTH: Well, I think Russia has shown increasing interest in flexing its power at the U.N. -- and muscle. It blocked U.S. and others' action even on Cote d'Ivoire, saying the U.N. doesn't have the right to certify elections there. You see this from time to time. I think Russia is not the only one worried about the tensions, as you just saw ambassadors filing into the building for a rare Sunday morning session.

We could expect a statement which all 15 countries would have to agree to. No resolutions, no votes, really, today at the U.N.

CROWLEY: And since it's the U.N., and it's sort of where all the diplomats go to work, the fact is a statement that comes from 15 nations as diverse as the ones we're talking about is likely to be one that sort of looks at the situation even-handedly, right? We call on North Korea not to get provoked, we call on South Korea not to be provocative, in a way that the U.S., for instance, doesn't necessarily see things.

ROTH: That's right, but it can be a divided Security Council. It hasn't really responded to the shelling by North Korea a few weeks ago. And it didn't respond very quickly.

There are divisions where China will stand up for North Korea. If there's a statement today, it's likely to call for calm and stability. It probably will not say to South Korea don't do those live fire drills which has got North Korea so upset. The U.S. would certainly block that, saying it is a sovereign right of South Korea to do that.

But there are so many sanctions on the books from the Security Council, it certainly hasn't deterred the leaders of North Korea from taking provocative action against the South.

CROWLEY: Let me bring in our Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent.

Barbara, you and I had talked earlier about the feel at the Pentagon about what's going on in the Korean Peninsula right now.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely, Candy. This is a very tense weekend, a tense couple of days for the U.S. military. What they do not want to see is escalating tensions, escalating military action. They don't really want to see the South Koreans engage in these military exercises that might lead the North Koreans to respond. The Pentagon wants everybody on all side to take a deep breath.

Escalating tensions, the problem on the Korean Peninsula for the United States is, if, heaven forbid, something starts, how does it stop? Who can stop it?

The Pentagon has established emergency contingency communications with the South Korean military, because if something does happen, they want to be in touch with them instantly to know what is going on and what the South Korean plans are. They are watching this 24/7 -- Candy.

CROWLEY: OK. Thanks, Barbara.

And Richard, when do we expect to hear something?

ROTH: I think it could be a few hours. One western diplomat says the proposed Russian statement inside the Security Council does not adequately address the facts in a balanced way, doesn't recognize North Korea's actions and attacks in the past on South Korea.

That's the latest so far. That may indicate it could be a while if there is to be a statement.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much.

Richard Roth at the U.N., Barbara Starr here in Washington with us.

Appreciate it to you both.

Up next, how one reporter turned to Facebook to tell a woman's tragic tale of pregnancy and pain, and whether such stories are slowly eroding our privacy.


KURTZ: A whole heck of a lot has been written about Facebook, culminating with "TIME" magazine naming its young founder, Mark Zuckerberg, as "Person of the Year." But Facebook has also become a medium for storytelling.

Shana Swers is a 35-year-old Maryland woman who was narrating the story of her pregnancy in words and pictures. "The Washington Post" chronicled her story, which took a tragic turn for the worse when she developed post-pregnancy complications and died.

So, is Facebook now where reporters turn for personal information that perhaps we once all thought of as private?

Joining us now here in Washington is Ian Shapira, local enterprise reporter for "The Washington Post" who wrote that story. And in New York, David Kirkpatrick, technology columnist for "The Daily Beast" and author of the book "The Facebook Effect."

Ian Shapira, you had permission from Shana's husband to tell this story. How did you feel about calling him up and asking him?

IAN SHAPIRA, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I was nervous. I called up Jeff (ph) and his mom, and I spoke with Jeff's (ph) parents, as well. And I got permission from them, and they were happy to do it.

The story evolved over time. Initially, we wanted to do a profile of Shana using the status updates on Facebook, along with using the graphic of her updates and her page. But over time, we decided to only stick with the graphic and tell the story that way.

KURTZ: I want to come back to that.

But David Kirkpatrick, does this sort of symbolize how Facebook, this phenomenon now that has nearly 600 million members, has become a new form of communication and perhaps offering a lot more tools for journalists?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK, TECHNOLOGY COLUMNIST, "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, it certainly has done both those things. It is the most dramatic change in communication probably in my adult lifetime, I would say. It's almost as important as the invention of the telephone, to me. I call it automating communication. But from the standpoint of journalists, you know, journalists are one of several categories of people including political activists, small businesses, marketers, that really almost have no choice but to be on Facebook right now.

Now, what Ian did is actually more responsible than what a lot of people do when they use Facebook as a reporting tool, because he actually did the traditional respectful thing, called the family, got permission. That's not at all always what's going on. But journalists are using Facebook in a lot of interesting ways.

KURTZ: Yes. Well, you anticipated my next question. I'm going to stick with the telephone, by the way, as being slightly more important than Facebook, but you can disagree.

Now, what if you had been turned down? Where does this stop you or where does this stop some other reporter from publishing all these intimate deals of this woman's life-and-death struggle without having the family going on?

SHAPIRA: I don't think we would have done it if we didn't have the permission from Shana's family. I don't think it would have been sensitive. You want to have the cooperation of the family for this kind of story.

KURTZ: But there have been other stories you've done about Facebook -- for example, you did one that was kind of called "Teachers Gone Wild" in which D.C. teachers had posted all kinds of ribald and raucous pictures and comments about themselves. And it wasn't like you called up every one of them and said, "Is it OK to use this?"

SHAPIRA: Actually, I did. And what was different about that story was that these were public school teaches who had public pages.

You would type in the name of the school system on Facebook, and their pages would pop up and you would see everything. And then I called them up. Anyone who we used in that story, I called them up and asked them --

KURTZ: You called them for comment, but not necessarily for permission.

SHAPIRA: We called for comment, and I asked them about their pages. And they basically gave me permission, because I asked them about it. Then we discussed the content of it, they got into the content. They explained why they were using the comments and images that they were using on their page.

And that, to me, was permission. And we talked about, you know, their images being on -- in the paper.

KURTZ: Right.

But, you know, just a few weeks ago, David Kirkpatrick, there was an example where Willow Palin, Sarah Palin's daughter, and Bristol, got into a kind of flame war on their Facebook page with some young boys, using language that we can't repeat on television. Nobody asked their permission. They just reported it.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's all a matter of whether the data is technically public or not. And the individual user of Facebook has the ability to make that determination.

I mean, the most amazing story from my point of view was when the U.K., last year, appointed a new head of its secret intelligence service, Sir John Sawers, and his wife had posted tons of family photos on her Facebook page, not realizing that she had made them public. And one of the major newspapers, the day he was appointed, published a double-page spread of family photos of the new secret intelligence chief's personal life.

KURTZ: Right.

KIRKPATRICK: So, you know, people don't know what they're doing. Facebook is a new medium, and people don't know how to use it.

But if it's public data, I think journalists actually do have the right to use it without permission because it is public. That's what public means.

But there's a lot of cases that we've seen time and time again, particularly even with Mark Zuckerberg's personal material, where journalists have just -- because they're friends with him, or because they have access, they use material that is not technically public. And I think that's improper.

KURTZ: Right. Well, those lines are getting very blurry.

Let me come back to your story, Ian Shapira, about Shana Swers. Why did you decide to basically do this in graphic form, essentially letting her narrate her own story rather than doing it in a more traditional way where you add your own reporting?

SHAPIRA: Well, at "The Washington Post," we like to experiment. And in this case, we felt like Shana was the best author in this way to tell her own story. And we thought it was powerful because of the way that her friends supported her online.

I mean, she was talking about her pregnancy in the months leading up to the birth, and her friends were commenting and they were interacting with her. The page itself became such a reflection of the way we are communicating now, and the way we're all telling stories by bits and pieces now online. And in this case, it took a terrible turn. And her friends were still with her through these awful times and sensitive times that otherwise would have been very, very private.

KURTZ: Would you have written this story, pregnant woman, new mother dies from complications, if there hadn't been all these Facebook postings? And if not, then isn't it kind of something of a gimmick?

SHAPIRA: People have asked me about that idea, whether we were using this as a gimmick. And I still think we would have done some sort of story. I'm not sure it would have gotten the same kind of attention that she had, that we had in this case. But, you know, it was fascinating to watch her and her friends interact this way.

And it was still a great story. And actually, in this sense, Shana herself and her husband and her mother, who were all on there, they were the ones that had -- they had a bigger voice than they otherwise would have had.

KURTZ: David Kirkpatrick, before we go to break, you talked about information technically not being public, but for younger people, aren't they becoming more accustomed to kind of just sharing all these intimate details of their lives online?

KIRKPATRICK: Absolutely, yes. I mean, there is, to some degree, a kind of -- almost a moral or certainly an ethos-based shift towards more transparency that young people are much more comfortable with.

And Julian Assange evidences this at the larger scale. And I think many of us, the older we are, are less comfortable with it. But I think it is, to some degree, you know, unstoppable, and just the way the world is changing.

KURTZ: All right.

David Kirkpatrick, Ian Shapira, this will continue, this debate about Facebook.

"Media Monitor" straight ahead. Stay with us.


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

In today's installment, we return to the question of weight, courtesy of MSNBC's Chris Matthews. The "Hardball" host, not the most svelte of TV anchors, was holding forth (ph) at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown when he took aim, according to "The Washington Examiner," at New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: I mean, I saw him the other day. I was amazed by him. He must be 300-plus. And that's something he's just got to deal with, because you're not going to say, I'm going to cut the budget.

Well, how about starting with supper? You know?


KURTZ: That swipe -- let's face it, a cheap shot -- did not sit well with Fox's Neil Cavuto, who admits he's slightly overweight.


NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: Well, Media Chris, how about you starting with facts, like the fact this so-called fat governor has cut the budget? It is remarkable to me that those who delight in pointing out someone's girth, as if it is some disqualifier for office, say not a word about their party's own heavyweights.


KURTZ: Cavuto is right. Enough with the heavy-duty mockery, if only he hadn't ruined it with his own shot at Matthews' appearance.


CAVUTO: Look, Media Chris, just because you can dye your hair doesn't mean you can dye the truth.


KURTZ: Don't ask me. I'm all about substance.

We told you last week about what "The New York Times" said about ballerina Jennifer Ringer, the Sugar Plum Fairy in the New York City Ballet's "Nutcracker." "She looked like she had one sugar plum too many," Times critic Alastair Macaulay wrote, "in panning her dancing."

Ringer responded this week on "The Today Show."


ANN CURRY, "THE TODAY SHOW": The first moment you read that review, when you read those words, what was your immediate reaction?

JENNIFER RINGER, BALLERINA: Well, it made me feel bad. As a dancer, I do put myself out there to be criticized, and my body is part of my art form.

At the same time, I'm not overweight. I do have, I guess, a more womanly body type than the stereotypical ballerina.


KURTZ: I sure wish The Today Show's report had mentioned that in the very same sentence, Macaulay had said that a male dancer in the production looked even heavier, raising the question of whether the flap is selectively sexist. But that would have muddied a simple storyline.

I also wish Macaulay had accepted NBC's invitation to be interviewed.

But I liked how Jennifer Ringer handled this question from Ann Curry --


CURRY: Do you want an apology?

RINGER: No. I mean, you know, it's his opinion, and he is a critic. And he's paid to put his opinion into the paper.


KURTZ: She's right.

I had a hard time believing this one. Heidi Jones, the weathercaster at New York's WABC, and an occasional substitute on "Good Morning America," reported a crime back in September.

She said she was jogging in Central Park when a Hispanic man grabbed her, dragged her to a wooded area, and raped her. But that account, as "The New York Post" put it, proved to be as unreliable as the five-day forecast.

Police who found inconsistencies in her account have now charged her with filing a false report. The ABC station has suspended her indefinitely.

Why on earth would someone do that? Sources told The Post that Jones was making a plea for sympathy and smearing a hypothetical Hispanic in the process.

My forecast says Heidi Jones can't keep her job and doesn't deserve to.

And before I go, I'll have more to say about this next week, but Larry King got quite a send-off as he ended his remarkable 25-year run on CNN. Some leading journalists and commentators, even those who work for rival networks, paying tribute to "The King."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OLBERMANN: Larry King, who has been a friend and supporter of mine for more than a decade, who delights in every second he is spoofed, to whom the smallest kindest is the greatest thing that ever happened, will be sorely messed by all of us.

HANNITY: And we want to wish him the very best. He is a great pioneer in both radio and television, literally changed broadcasting in terms of its history.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Thank you so much, and we are your proteges, your groupies, your Pips here.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC: This has been America's kind of confessional. And 25 years is a towering, towering achievement. You're a giant in our business.

KATIE COURIC, CBS: "As you hang up your surrenders on your dressing room door, I speak for us all when I say, we want more."

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": It's not very often in my life I've been without words, but --


KURTZ: Larry will have more to say when we talk to him for next week's RELIABLE SOURCES. Not for the full hour, but we'll give him plenty of time.

That's it for this week's 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.