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Interview with Larry King; Year-End Wrapup

Aired December 26, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: It's been a tumultuous year from the Tea Party revolt to the tax cut compromise, from the Gulf oil spill to the so-called Manhattan mosque, from the Wikileaks uproar to this week's repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

How did journalists fare in covering politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin and media figures from Rick Sanchez to Juan Williams? Did the news business sink further into superficiality and sensationalism? We'll take an in-depth look.

There's never been a television career quite like it. Larry King changed the nature of broadcasting during his 25-year run at CNN, chatting up the famous and the notorious, but also drawing criticism for his laid-back approach. Did that bother him? And did declining ratings force him to give up his show? We'll talk to the man behind the oversized mike.

I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES. "Larry King Live" began right here on this set in a nearby building in Washington back when Ronald Reagan was president. It was a bit of an oddity at first, a radio show with callers on television.

It was stocked with celebrities, but gradually became a forum for politicians and presidents as well. I had my share of appearances on this set during the mellow drama of the Clinton years and as a media critic, I studied Larry's ability to talk to Paris Hilton or Mick Jagger one day and Al Gore or George Bush the next.

Over the years, the King program became part of the fabric of American culture.


LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Good evening. My name is Larry King, and this is the premiere edition of "Larry King Live."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can we talk about Nafta?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't interrupt.

KING: He brought up a --


KING: Yes. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm saying all government forecasts.

KING: There's no way you can plan for this job, so what about it surprises you the most?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The thing that has surprised me most is how difficult it is, even for the president, if you're going to take on big changes and try to make big things happen, to really keep communicating exactly what you're about to the American people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You should be ashamed.

KING: Is he responsible for what someone else said?

GEORGE W. BUSH: This is an attack piece.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is not by my campaign.

BUSH: It says paid for by John McCain.

KING: Joining us now in New York is Beth Holloway, Natalee's mother. Beth, is this finally at least put closure for you?

BETH HOLLOWAY: I think it's a daily torture for a family who has a missing loved one in the not knowing. I can now say, Larry, even though the knowing is difficult, the not knowing, that is just sheer -- it's just sheer hell.

KING: Are you saying though -- are you denying that a holocaust existed?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want to impose your viewpoint on me.

KING: It's not a viewpoint. It's a question.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why do you want to impose your opinion on me?


KURTZ: King's style had its critics and declining ratings helped put an end to his remarkable 25-year run last week. Lots of important people wanted to say goodbye.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're an amazing guy, Larry. We're going to miss you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Larry and thank you for all the years. You were great.

ANDERSON COOPER: You've been a friend, a mentor to me all these years I've been at CNN, and I truly cannot imagine this place without you. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I want to join all of you in congratulating Larry King, one of the giants of broadcasting, on a truly amazing career.


KURTZ: Joining us to talk about his career is the guy from the corner in Brooklyn, Hollywood, California. Hello, Larry King.

KING: How are you?

KURTZ: Doing this show, I'm on your old set here. This has been your life. How much are you going to miss doing a nightly television program?

KING: Imagine a lot, Howie. You know, it's been one-third of my life at CNN, and two-thirds of my life has been on the air so I'm certainly going to miss it. It becomes part of you, becomes part of the fabric of the way you live, and while I'm not missing it now, because I'm on a vacation now.

January 3rd, my kids go back to school after we come home from Utah, what am I going to do the night of January 3rd? Normally I'd be of these past two weeks anyway. But I'm looking at a lot of other things. I'm not leaving the stage. I just want more time with the kids and being home.

KURTZ: That would be nice. You get strung out.

KING: Colin Powell said something to me -

KURTZ: Go ahead.

KING: Colin Powell said something, which is very true, Howie. If you rode the subways in New York, you know when it reaches the last station it turns around and goes around again. And Colin said to me, you know, when you get to the last stop, get off the train. Get off the train.

KURTZ: You know, it's really remarkable. You had this radio show. You were doing the midnight to 5:00 a.m. shift and then you basically you just put it on TV. To me the turning point came 1992 when Ross Perot essentially declared for president on your show, Bill Clinton came on your show.

And then when he was president, I'm sure you remember this, he addressed a room full of reporters and said I can now bypass you people in the press because Larry King liberated me by giving me to the American people directly. What were your thoughts about that at the time?

KING: I was in the audience. I was so embarrassed. I mean, the press are friends of mine. I love -- I love journalism. I love the people in it. I love newspapers. I love the reporters.

And to have a president say that, of course, a compliment, but it was extremely embarrassing. However, with the rise of cable news, he may have been prophetic not just that he can go to Larry King.

There's so many sources that you can go to today that there is no one person, no one thing that's -- you're too young to remember, Howie, but, you know, if you have Walter Cronkite, if you have Walter Winchell, you had Arthur Gottfried, you had America.

KURTZ: Exactly. Can't do that today.

KING: No one power.

KURTZ: When you began to interview presidents, presidential candidates, prime ministers, of course you moderated the Al Gore/Ross Perot debate in 1993 over NAFTA, did you ever think, you know, what am I doing here? I'm not an expert on NAFTA. Am I in over my head?

KING: Well, experts on NAFTA don't make good interviews about NAFTA.

KURTZ: That's right.

KING: Because they know too much. The best thing is not knowing too much, and so I'm not a fan of hosts who know too much because then they overwhelm the guests. The guest -- I never had an agenda.

I knew enough about NAFTA to ask good questions. Clinton called me the next day and said that I owe you big time because he thought that debate changed the role of NAFTA in the Senate. He thought NAFTA would have been beaten if not for the job Al Gore did that night against Ross Perot.

That was a historic evening in television. I was proud to do it. But I also did -- in South Carolina, I did the Bush debate with John McCain.

KURTZ: I remember that.

KING: Whew. That was a tough one.

KURTZ: They were ripping each other across that small table. Since you mention your style, let me go to this. You've heard this criticism a thousand times. Larry King doesn't ask tough question. Larry King doesn't read the books when the authors come in. He doesn't prepare. But that was by design, wasn't it?

KING: Always. When I did the radio show, Howie, I had guests that came on, they'd written books, I had them on for three hours. I always felt the less I knew about the book, the more I'd ask about the book, the more the audience could be drawn into who whether they wanted to buy the book or not.

At CNN, I do preparation. When I did my "Larry King Live," I had to be prepared and go over my notes, but I always felt that I was like the audience. I was -- I was a conduit that through me -- I never understood that I asked -- I didn't know what softball meant.

I asked short questions. My questions didn't take three sentences. It always had a question mark at the end. A lot of questions are -- you see a lot of people interviewing today, they go, well, you're in Afghanistan.

KURTZ: And they go on and on and on. Then they say, do you agree with me?

KING: That's correct.

KURTZ: But, you know, I talked to your executive procedure, long-time executive producer, Wendy Walker, who said sometimes she would tried to brief you on guests and issues and you didn't want to get briefed too much.

KING: If you know -- I always felt, Howie -- by the way, you have to do your own style.

KURTZ: Sure.

KING: Don't be someone else's style. I watch you every Sunday morning. I get up and it's California, that's 8:00 a.m. I watch you every Sunday morning. You have a style. I like your style.

KURTZ: I like the fact that you watch.

KING: I never know where you're coming from. I don't know your politics and I love the way you handle the guests because you always are contrary to. This one, let's go to that one and you can handle groups well.

So everybody's different. I wouldn't say to a young guy do Larry King or be Mike Wallace or be this. But I know what I don't like and I don't like any show where the host is more important than the guest.

KURTZ: I can think of a few programs that fit that bill. You did a lot of crime subjects over the years, the 4,000 shows on O.J., of course that was a national obsession, but missing women, you know, Natalee Holloway. Why did you harp on those subjects sometimes? A lot of people thought well it's kind of a tabloid approach.

KING: That's when we hit the age of television where the producers, we faced the dilemma of what do you do to get an audience in today's television? And, yes, who could deny is Iraq more important than Natalee Holloway?

Of course, but what the top of the realm said, you had to do Holloway because Holloway brought you audience. I didn't always agree with that, but you don't win every battle and I understood that, you know, it's my show, but it's CNN's show, too.

KURTZ: Did you fight some of those battles? Did you fight some?

KING: You fight some, you win -- yeah. You win some, you lose some. O.J. was a genuine story.

KURTZ: Sure.

KING: Because it was beyond tabloid.

KURTZ: It was a cultural story that ripped the country.

KING: Right.

KURTZ: But in terms of -- you talk about the show shouldn't be about you. Did that require restraint? I mean, were there times when you kind of wanted to jump in and maybe debate a guest, but you held back because you wanted the spotlight to shine very brightly on that guest?

KING: Yes and hopefully the audience would make up its own mind. There had been times I had it with Ahmadinejad. I had a rough time with Ahmadinejad. I don't know how much the audience learned in that wonderful bit of two minutes of television of people angry at each other.

I mean, it's interesting to see people angry at each other. Like someone said, wouldn't it have been great if you walked off. Well, yes, it would have been great, but if you walked off, what would we have learned?

We would have learned Zippo, but that when people are looking for the dramatic. The dramatic comes along with it, but in the early George Wallace years ago in Miami. I had a terrible time with George Wallace when he was governor of Alabama.

The first time around he changed a lot. But, yes, I restrained myself because I felt that, again, I wasn't important. You know, I'd be there the next night. The guests counted.

KURTZ: Well, speaking of walking off, I'm doing this out of order, but, you know, all of us vividly remember when you had Carrie Prejean on, the former Miss California, you asked her a question she didn't like.


KING: So what you're saying is in mediation it was discussed why you were mediating.

CARRIE PREJEAN, FORMER MISS CALIFORNIA: Larry, it's completely confidential and you're being inappropriate.


PREJEAN: OK? You're being --

KING: Inappropriate King Live continues.


KING: Detroit, hello.

CALLER: I'm calling from Detroit.

KING: Yes.

CALLER: I'm a gay man and love pageants. I'm sure, Carrie, you have --

KING: You took the mike off. If you put the mike on, we can hear you.

PREJEAN: Yes. I think that you are being extremely inappropriate right now and I'm about to leave your show.


KURTZ: Wow. How did you feel when suddenly she's taking off the mike and walking off? I don't think that ever happened to you before.

KING: Well, the only other time it happened was this doctor who walked off because he didn't want to ask questions about an incident. He walked off. But she -- that was strange because she thought that I was inappropriate.


KING: And I don't know what was inappropriate about the question I asked.

KURTZ: No matter what you asked, she said you're being inappropriate, Larry, you're being inappropriate.

KING: I know. Larry. By the way, whatever happened to her?

KURTZ: Haven't heard much of her lately. Let me ask you about, you know, a lot of celebrities have come on your program over the years. I'm sure you became friendly with some of these people, particularly since you left us here, went out to California.

Was that ever awkward to have guests on the program, whether it was, you know, Al Pacino or Nancy Reagan or anyone else, who you also had a social relationship with?

KING: The hardest people to interview, Howie, are friends. You do the best you can, but they're hard. With Al Pacino, it was learning -- I knew that he had so many interesting things to say, having had so many dinners with him and spend so much time with him that I -- I broke the mold.

And I asked questions I didn't know the answer to because I knew how interesting they were for the audience to learn about the many films he did and behind-the-scenes attitude. Nancy Reagan has become a close friend. You're going to yell at a 90-year-old former first lady? You know.

KURTZ: I don't think so.

KING: So you do what you have to do.

KURTZ: Right. KING: By the way, the truest statement ever made about our business, ever, was it ain't brain surgery. It ain't brain surgery.

KURTZ: That may be true, but not everybody can do it. Let me get a break. You remember what that's like. More with Larry King in just a moment.


KURTZ: We're back with this guy who called in from Hollywood, Larry King with us. Let me ask you about your own personal views. I've talked to you a couple times and you have political opinions.

You lean toward the liberal side, but you took great caution not to share that all the years you were on this set and the set you were in Los Angeles. Why is that?

KING: Because when I started, Howie, when I started, it was back in 1957, it was rare for a host to give a view. We were trained not to, and I thought that I was best at asking good questions and that if I gave a view it would take away from the interview.

Now, of course, that's changed a lot now and hosts do give their views, and I don't mind that. But for example, all the years I paid tribute to one of my favorite people was Mike Wallace. I watched Mike Wallace. He's one of my heroes. We became very close friends. I visited him recently in his apartment in New York.

Mike Wallace came down tough on people. He was a crusher, but everyone thought that he was a CBS Democrat, right? Mike Wallace had to be left wing. They assumed that because of the way he approached things. Mike Wallace was offered the job of being Richard Nixon's press secretary.

KURTZ: I remember hearing about that so sometimes people surprise you. But in your time period at 9:00 p.m. Eastern in the later years you're up against Sean Hannity on Fox News, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. They're all about opinion on the left and the right. Did that not make it more difficult for you to compete because you were not giving your own views?

KING: Obviously it did. They got better ratings however, I don't regret anything, and I'm happy with what I did. I let it stand on its own, stand for itself and I'm not objecting to what they do.

They're more what I guess television is about today. It's just that my problem -- my problem with it is with those kinds of programs -- and they're both very good at what they do.

Is my own concept, Howie, mine is I never learned anything when I was talking. So what they are, are preachers. They're preachers of their opinion. They're telling you what they know.

They're not learning. There's no learning experience from either of those programs. They're just telling you that what they know. I want to learn. I want to learn. KURTZ: Certainly they make use of the microphone. In terms of --

KING: Yes, of course.

KURTZ: You said when you announced you were stepping down that CNN didn't pressure you in any way, but did you feel nudged a little bit after the ratings went down?

KING: Not nudged. I wasn't offered as long a contract as I had been in the past and I thought it was time to go, Howie. I thought it was -- you know, 25 years turned to 25 1/2.

That's a long time in one place. We're in the "Guinness Book of World Records." It's the longest running television show hosted by the same person at the same time on the same network ever.

KURTZ: Ever. Ever. Did you get that, America? Ever. People who make fun of you sometimes, you know, "Saturday Night Live," make fun of all the times you were married. Did that ever bother you?

KING: No. I was married many times. To be made fun of on "Saturday Night Live" is fine. You know, it means you're being recognized. It means you accomplished something. It's OK to be satirized. It ain't that important, Howie.

There are much more important things in life than what someone thinks of you or if someone wants to put you down. I really never let it bother me. Jackie Gleason told me that a long time ago. He said, you know, you're going to be there tomorrow night, kid. They can say anything they want. You're going to be there.

KURTZ: Got to be able to laugh at yourself. You'll obviously continue to do specials for CNN and helping to sell Brooklyn bagels. Is that right?

KING: I've got a wonderful thing. It's called Brooklyn Water Bagels because these firms have the water in Brooklyn, the best water in America, so it's a franchise operation. I'm a spokesman and I've got the Beverly Hills franchise. They'll be opening all over the country. They're in Delray Beach now. You like bagels, Howie?

KURTZ: I love bagels. I'm from Brooklyn. What do you expect? Before we go, the guest who stole the show on your final program was your 10-year-old son Cannon doing Larry King. Let's briefly take a look at that.


KING: First Cannon does me. Do me.

CANNON: Where's Sean? Get in the car. I'm too old for this. I've done this for 50 years.


KURTZ: How did he get so good?

KING: He's a natural. He says he -- please call me a football player. That kid is -- he will not be an accountant.

KURTZ: I think the television agents are calling now. Larry King, thanks very much for sitting down with us after your last program. Good to see you.

KING: Thank you, Howie and "The Washington Post" loss was wherever you are a gain.

KURTZ: "Newsweek" and "L.A. Beast" right now. Thanks very much. Good to talk to you.

KING: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: Larry King. That was fun.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, one bumpy year, from the coverage of the health care and Tea Party to the Democrats shellacking, the media often missed the boat, and some of its members got canned for controversial or inflammatory comments. An in-depth look at the press' performance in 2010.

Plus, Haley Barbour tells a conservative magazine things weren't so bad when he was growing up in segregated Mississippi. Should journalists be dredging this up decades later?


KURTZ: At the beginning of 2010, the media's conventional wisdom was that Martha Coakley would beat Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race and before too long that health care was dead. Those were among the mistakes and miscalculations that marked the year's coverage of politics.


KURTZ: Most of the media establishment basically ignored it, that is until the final days when the story suddenly became, oh, my god, Republicans could win Ted Kennedy's seat and block health care reform and change the course of American politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I left Boston thinking that's the ball game, never thought I'd be back in the state in January.


KURTZ: Another surprise for the press, at long last the health care bill finally passed.


KURTZ: Have the mainstream media, Glenn Beck aside, Terry Smith, flipped from calling Obama the new Jimmy Carter to the new FDR? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they've flipped, but the facts on the ground flipped, too. Last summer, when they were most critical, Obama and his administration, they were in trouble.


KURTZ: And they would be in trouble again with the BP oil spill that the media turned into a daily mellow drama.


KURTZ: We have heard this refrain in the media before, that Barack Obama is to passive, too passionless, too much the uninspiring technocrat.

SEAN HANNITY: This is Obama's Katrina on steroids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has not done less than he should, but Mr. President, we need you to get angry.


KURTZ: The only figurative rival the president news coverage less than favorable has been the former governor of Alaska.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her, has become the absolute glittering object for the media.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's sort of like the way the press cover Britney Spears.


KURTZ: Some of Palin's preferred candidates helped produce last month's shellacking of Obama and the Democrats and the headlines turned harsh over the tax-cut compromise, especially on the left.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's why the media kind of got critical this week because they're finally starting to see the pattern that a lot of folks on the left have seen, saying this guy doesn't get involved till the end. What does he fight for?


KURTZ: But even that sort of criticism just two weeks ago before Obama's victory on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," that now seems dated.

Joining us now to turn the critical ends on the media's performance this past year, Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and a former managing editor of "USA Today" live.

Steve Roberts, a former "New York Times" reporter and now professor of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University.

Amy Holmes, co-anchor of syndicated radio show "America's Morning News," and Thomas Frank, columnist for "Harper's" magazine.

Lauren Ashburn, when you look back at health care, financial regulation, the tax debate, did most of the media deliver the goods or was it more about sound bites and personalities?

LAUREN ASHBURN, FORMER MANAGING EDITOR OF GANNETT BROADCASTING AND USA TODAY LIVE: I don't think we delivered the goods at all. Add in there the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq.

KURTZ: The vanishing war in Afghanistan.

ASHBURN: That's right. I think that we have missed the boat. I mean, I really think that we spent so much more time on the scandal, not just the Tiger Woods-type scandals, but also the scandals that are in politics rather than the meat.

You know, look, I love a good dessert as much as anybody else does. But I think that we need to shift from dessert to meat and potatoes.

KURTZ: And broccoli.

ASHBURN: No. Not broccoli.

KURTZ: Steve Roberts, I look back at the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican incumbents getting knocked off in primaries. I always felt like the media were a step behind.

STEVE ROBERTS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think one of the reasons they're a step behind is they didn't fully understand the media architecture, that people communicated horizontally, not vertically.

They should have understood it because Obama utilized that new media architecture very effectively. The Tea Party really borrowed very heavily from Barack Obama's template and they didn't see I think the ability of non-elite, non-organizations to organize, to connect, to stimulate a grassroots activity.

KURTZ: And by the way, CNN has gotten some heat for a race of co-sponsor or GOP presidential race next year with the Tea Party Express, one of these groups. Does that concern you at all, that partnership?

ROBERTS: No, because I think that they are an important part of the American landscape. Now I don't think they're as important as they think they are. I mean, you had people coming into Washington this week and saying, wait, we won. No, you didn't win. You won a couple of seats, and you've got to deal with everybody else.

KURTZ: More than a couple.

ASHBURN: But isn't the question more about how they're aligning with the Tea Party? Isn't that the question? Whether or not the -- as opposed to whether or not the tea party is really something?

KURTZ: Well, it's one of the questions we need to chronicle. When you look back, Amy Holmes, at Obama over the last year -- he had a tough year; no question about it, the successes since the shellacking aside. Did the media kind of turn on him as his poll numbers sunk, and the coverage got more negative?

HOLMES: Indeed they did. And actually listening to this conversation I was thinking one of the -- the big pieces of this is how the media follows the polls. And if the president is up, his coverage tends to be more positive. If the president's numbers are down, then the president -- or sorry, the press becomes a lot more aggressive in asking him to explain himself.

Also, Barrack Obama's year was such a mixed bag. He had huge legislative successes. He did pass "Obama-care" after all, even thought it was on a purely partisan basis. But we also saw "Obama- care's" sinking in popularity, and of course the shellacking at the mid-term.

But when you went through that -- that preview -- or sorry, intro of back and forth and back and forth, it was like watching a tennis game. And so much of it was it seems the press's herd mentality in following one story sort of lurching from week to week. And now their back in love.

KURTZ: But on these legislative victories, Thomas -- Thomas Frank, and -- and I don't know if they were back in love, but certainly president getting better press in the last few weeks as he has piled up some victories in this lame duck session.

But the passage of health care, the passage of financial reform, it always seemed to me that when it finally happened, it became a one- day story, and the press didn't really give the president credit for what he had accomplished, whether you happen to agree with those proposals or not.

FRANK: Whether they gave him credit or not? Look, I'm one of the -- I guess I would be one of the people that turned on Obama pretty early; although that's a harsh way to put it. I mean, I -- I had a lot of, you know, hope.

KURTZ: Don't hold back.

FRANK: I had a lot of hope for the guy way back when. And he has been a sort of -- an off and on disappointment to me, you know, speaking as the -- as the sort of the -- the big liberal at the table. He has been a big disappointment for me over the -- over the course of the last couple of years.

And, you know, but none of this has been a surprise.


KURTZ: ... been a disappointment, but to talk about the way you would write about him, or the way your -- your friends on the left would write about him. Big disappointment who nevertheless got a lot of stuff done...


FRANK: That's right, nobody...


FRANK: That's true. He -- and look what he just did the other day. I mean, it's a great accomplishment. He did get something done with health care. I mean, it was -- it was the constant selling out earlier in the process, remember, of negotiating with the Rs, and then the Rs walked away from the table.


ASHBURN: ... White House communications. I've said this in the past on this show, is that he had these wonderful legislative victories for the liberals. And yet the White House doesn't say, hey, look, hey, look what we did. And it gets lost.

ROBERTS: Well, this is a very odd conversation to be having. That somehow he has disappointed the liberals when the conventional wisdom around Washington for years has been that the press is all liberal and they're too -- and they coddle Democrats.

The truth is that what the press does is they are always in favor of a good story, and against who is ever in power. That's the way news rooms work in this city. And it worked against Obama -- for Obama when he was a candidate. It worked against him once he became president.

KURTZ: Well, it certainly wasn't the case...


ASHBURN: ... about redemption. We're also about redemption...


KURTZ: It certainly wasn't the case in the opening months of his administration. But let me -- I don't want to just turn it into some treatise on Obama's presidency. How is it possible during this -- this mid-term elections, with all that was at stake, and with this great Republican tide that the one candidate who got the most attention was Christine O'Donnell?

ASHBURN: Because, I mean, she was a witch. She said she was a witch.


KURTZ: She denied...


HOLMES: She dabbled. ASHBURN: Dabbled in witchcraft, right, with her boyfriend. OK. But if you're going to come in to the political landscape and talk about witchcraft, like you said, I mean, news rooms...


ASHBURN: But -- but in news rooms no one is not going to cover that.

HOLMES: I agree with you. And she was an unconventional candidate, to say the least. She was also competing on the national stage to be a United States senator. So of course she was going to get national attention.

KURTZ: And she had no chance of winning.

HOLMES: But was it more than a one-day, one-week story? I mean, this was a constant drumbeat about Christine O'Donnell. I mean, thanks to Bill Maher, who is...

ASHBURN: But she made an ad about it.

HOLMES: ... a terrific comic, kept dribbing and drabbing these stories.

ROBERTS: That was one of the great failures of the press in this campaign. They paid attention to Christine O'Donnell and Paladino and Sharron Angle. Sharron Angle, the only one who had a chance to win of those three.


ASHBURN: ... got 44 percent of the vote.

ROBERTS: And the fact is that there were far more important people running -- far more serious people running. This was political...


ASHBURN: How about 63 House seats that were lost by Democrats?

ROBERTS: This is political coverage filtered through Entertainment Tonight.

KURTZ: I would say one of the failings was the failure to hold Republicans accountable as they talked about attacking the deficit, but pushed tax cuts for even the wealthiest Americans. But the Democrats went along with the same thing with that compromise.

What about Sarah Palin? You know, she's just a constant source of fascination in the media. And so she has done a handful of videos recently, but basically she gets all this attention just by tweeting and Facebooking. And I'm wondering how the media have covered her as a potential presidential candidate, or as kind of a pop culture celebrity. HOLMES: I think they've actually covered her a little bit of both. And in a fact a lot of Republicans, to their dismay, are finding that the media seems to be promoting her presidential candidacy more than Republicans are.

KURTZ: Because reporters are dying for her run, perhaps?

HOLMES: Absolutely. She'd be a great story to cover. But I think also it has to do with her gender. And we see female politicians like Christine O'Donnell or Hillary Clinton get a lot more attention than sort of, you know, the guys in the suits and ties up on Capitol Hill who are...

ASHBURN: I have to disagree...

HOLMES: ... indistinguishable from one another.

ASHBURN: Wait a minute, but if you look at what has happened in history, we always covered women because they were in the minority. And I think now for the first time women are getting coverage not because they're women but because they're interesting.

FRANK: You know why I'm fascinated by her? The reason I write about her all of the time, every chance I can, and I go out and buy her books and read them in one day and that sort of thing, is her constant...



FRANK: Her constant air of victimization. This is all she talks about. There's even a -- a biography of her out there. And I'm going to mangle the title, but it's something like, "The Persecution of Sarah Palin." This is her...


FRANK: This is her brand identity. This is all she -- all she ever talks about.

KURTZ: And -- and she talks about being victimized...

FRANK: And she -- she wants to be president because she has been victimized. It's -- it's...

KURTZ: Well, that can be a winning tactic, but she often talks about...

FRANK: It's amazing, isn't it?

KURTZ: ... also talks about being victimized by the "Lame-stream media"...

FRANK: That's right.

KURTZ: ... and who then proceed to lavish even more coverage on her.


ROBERTS: Well, it's because -- because they've -- but if you keep attacking the "lame-stream media" -- it's a clever tactic, because among other things you're trying to discredit all of these criticisms of her saying, see, there they go again.


KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: It's all the old Ronald Reagan line, there they go again. But we talked about this on the -- on this show a few weeks ago, about how clever she has been in using Facebook, in using Twitter, to send out her messages without scrutiny, without question...

KURTZ: Without filter.

ROBERTS: ... and then you get Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, in The New York Times Magazine saying, the White House press corps assembles and asks me questions based on her Facebook and Twitter messages. And she has been very clever in using this new media.

HOLMES: But it's also true that she has had -- that the media has floated stories that are unfair to her. For example, you know that whether or not she is Trig's mother. When she -- her candidacy was first announced, and she was put on the ticket...

KURTZ: Not all of the media...


HOLMES: Not all of them, but I remember on this network Akers asking that if it was proper for a mother of five, particularly a child with special needs, should even be running for the Oval Office.

KURTZ: I was very critical of that whole line of inquiry, but that was quite a while ago.

I just want to briefly touch on in a couple of media obsessions. One of them was the mosque -- the so-called mosque. The Islamic center that happened to be three blocks from Ground Zero. How did the press allow that to just chew up weeks and weeks of air time and column inches?

ASHBURN: Well, one of the ways was President Obama's reaction to it. In the very beginning he talks about freedom of religion. And then all of a sudden he sort of flip-flops onto that. I can see that level of coverage. I think that that's really important. But I also think that this was the third rail, right? This is the third rail where you're talking about 9/11 and what happened on 9/11, and the people who are associated with that.

ROBERTS: But it was purely symbolic.


ROBERTS: It was. And -- and look, I think that one of the failings was, was to allow -- talk about victimization. I mean, the families of 9/11, I have enormous sympathy for them, but they're not the only American voice. And -- and the voice here that somehow the memory of their -- of their loved ones was desecrated by a -- this mosque is run by people who are exponents of interfaith tolerance. They're the best of breed. They're exactly what we want in the Islamic community...

KURTZ: My theory...

ROBERTS: ... in America.

KURTZ: My theory is that because it gave us all something to argue about, and that's the staple particularly of cable TV. Looking back at the BP oil spill, I mean, it became this sort of -- you know, an enormous story, no question. But it became this sort of cable extravaganza. Day 62, let's look at the spill cam.

Looking back at the damage that was done, was that kind of hype to some degree?

FRANK: I thought that -- I thought it needed that. Look at -- this was the -- this was the biggest oil spill in American history. And it's funny, you make it sound like the -- the hostage crisis back when I was -- back when I was a little kid, counting off the days. But I was one of the guys that was talking about that all the time, because it got you at a -- I mean, at a number of really important issues very quickly. One of them is the complete collapse of the regulatory state.

And then President Obama's...


FRANK: ... utter failure to address that issue.


KURTZ: That was the important story that did not get...

ASHBURN: That's the point, that he didn't address it.

KURTZ: ... that did not get covered before the spill, before the mining disaster. It's one of my great criticisms of the president. Amy, I've got to get a break.

When we come back, up next, from Juan Williams to Helen Thomas to Rick Sanchez, a look at journalists who went too far, or were convicted of the sin of having strong opinions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: It's been a year in which a number of media folks have lost their jobs. Juan Williams fired by National Public Radio. Rick Sanchez fired by CNN. Helen Thomas forced to retire from Hurst Newspapers for comments she made to a rabbi.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any comments on Israel? They're arresting everybody today. Any comments on Israel?

HELEN THOMAS: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.


JUAN WILLIAMS: I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... is a minority as much as you are.

RICK SANCHEZ: Hey -- hey, come on. How is he a...




RICK SANCHEZ: Very powerless people. I'm telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart. And a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart. And to imply that somehow they -- the people in this country who are Jewish are an oppressed minority? Yeah.


KURTZ: Rick Sanchez unloading on Jon Stewart. And Tom Frank, when somebody does something like that, do they deserve to get dumped, or are we a little bit too quick to toss out these controversial figures?

FRANK: Well, of those three people, I think the -- the -- I think Juan Williams -- I mean, look, the guy was trying to talk about how he -- you know, how he -- he was trying to give his innermost thoughts, you know, that sort of thing. There was something forgivable about that. But...

KURTZ: But that caused a real backlash when NPR fired him, and of course Fox News gave him a big contract. A real backlash for alleged political correctness.

HOLMES: It certainly did. And actually Juan got a lot of support from the left and the right that saw this as a real infringement on free speech. Also, because he said it on Fox but he got fired at NPR. So it wasn't as if this infraction had been committed on their air. (CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: Whereas in Rick Sanchez' case, he's talking about his own network, on his own network, about his own bosses...


HOLMES: ...and floating a conspiracy theory. That's not what Juan was doing...


KURTZ: He said it on a radio show.

ASHBURN: Don't criticize your bosses. Do not criticize your boss.

ROBERTS: That's not the -- that's not the real problem with -- I -- it was with Sanchez. Juan Williams -- the real problem there was there was an inherent contradiction between his two roles on these two different outlets. He was an analyst on NPR. He was an opinionator on Fox. NPR has been increasingly unhappy with the conflict for years. I think they...


ROBERTS: ... they -- they -- they handled it -- they handled it badly. But they allowed the problem to fester, and it finally blew up in their face.

KURTZ: But -- but let's pull back the camera a little bit. Aren't columnists and commentators hired to be opinionators?


KURTZ: And then they -- you know, they -- they go one step over the line, and they get smacked down.

ASHBURN: Well, they do. But you have to play within the rules. I mean, look at what happened with Keith Olbermann, and all the people who held back their campaign contributions. And how if you're not playing by the rules of the network, and you're not doing what your bosses want, then you're -- then you're gone. I mean, it is their decision.

KURTZ: You're talking about him contributing to certain Democratic candidates.


HOLMES: ... let me clarify the situation with Juan, and -- and Fox, which is I think that Juan Williams will tell you at Fox he was also being an analyst. He was sharing his personal feelings about a situation, but he does try to pull back and be an analytical voice. And I can tell you as a conservative listening to NPR, a lot of the reports that are so-called, you know, straight news, I certainly detect a bias.

KURTZ: Do these people get a second chance? I mean, Exhibit A -- Eliot Spitzer has a show on CNN.

ROBERTS: Well -- well, that's a whole different issue. I -- I -- I think that...

KURTZ: I'm not sure it is.

ROBERTS: ... and Juan -- Juan has, you know, been -- been hired and gotten a very lucrative contract...

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: ... at Fox. But there is an issue there. And -- and -- and T.V. doesn't -- often does not do a very good job of labeling what you're getting. Part of the problem is deception here. On NPR, he was an analyst. And he was paid to do a certain role.

If you go on Bill O'Reilly, and you get pushed as we all do when we go on these shows to be more and more opinionated, more and more sensational, more and more out there, then you got to pay a price at NPR. And I think that's what happened.


ASHBURN: And that's what happened. I...


FRANK: The -- the -- the upper levels of the media is still playing by these rules -- these very, very strict rules, and in some ways very admirable rules about objectivity and not saying things like this.


FRANK: And then -- and -- but look at what is happening to the -- in -- in the bigger picture. I mean, the -- the media world that we're describing is falling apart. It doesn't mean anything anymore.


FRANK: I mean, yes. A few -- a few heads are now on steaks somewhere, you know?

KURTZ: Are you saying we -- we make too much of the fact that this...

FRANK: Absolutely. Who cares?

KURTZ: ... anchor or this commentator -- who cares?


KURTZ: Well, their families care. And I care. (CROSSTALK)

FRANK: Well, yes.


FRANK: ... for them as individuals, sure. But...


HOLMES: But -- but I think that also Fox does make a distinction between its night-time line-up where they say these are opinion guys -- Sean Hannity is an opinion guy, versus their reporters and their straight anchors like Shep. So...


HOLMES: ... where MSNBC does not make that distinction.

ASHBURN: But we are all about redemption in this country. And so to go back to your question, can these people be rehabbed (ph)? Heck yes. I mean, that's what the American story is. You fall down, we help you get back up.

KURTZ: In that case, we'll have plenty to talk about next year.

After the break, Barbour's blunder. A "Weekly Standard" profile has the Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in hot water for his comments about growing up in segregated Mississippi. Are journalists and pundits making too much of the distant past?


KURTZ: You might expect a profile of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in the "Weekly Standard" to be largely favorable, and it was. But the press pounced this week on Barbour telling the conservative magazine that he doesn't remember race relations in his state in the 1960s as being that bad. Barbour also saying that in his home town of Yazoo, the White Citizens Council, a white supremacist group, was a force for good because it opposed the Ku Klux Klan.

And Steve Roberts, there's no question of gotcha here. The "Weekly Standard" is not exactly hostile to Haley Barbour, yet it has touched off this media furor.

ROBERTS: Well, one of the -- it reminds us of two things. One is that this is a highly contentious issue. And there was a -- was there a whiff of political correctness in the response? I think the answer is yes. But more seriously, it also reminds us that Haley Barbour is a serious candidate for president.


ROBERTS: And when you get to that level -- the level of intensity -- the scrutiny goes so much greater. And people, even veterans like Haley Barbour are not ever prepared for how tough it gets.

KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn, Barbour talked about having seen Martin Luther King in his home town -- 1962. He said he couldn't really hear him, and he was more interested in girls at that point, and people jumped on him. He was 15 or 16 at the time. Is there a statute of limitations for the media on these things?

ASHBURN: No. And not for that. You said -- I think you wrote that this is -- this is all white noise, and that we shouldn't all go back to when he was 15 or 16, and I strongly disagree. This is a man who could be candidate for president. I want to know what he was thinking and doing at 15 and 16.

KURTZ: Well, hold on -- hold on. I think we should hold him accountable for what he says about it now. And if he's air-brushing or white-washing history now, that's fair game. He said he wasn't sufficiently sensitive as a 15 year old high school student -- that to you is something that we should rip apart?

ASHBURN: No. I'm not saying we should rip it apart. I'm saying we should know about it. And I think that the more you know about the character of a man, no matter how far it goes back -- I'm not saying, you know, when he's four -- but as you're developing as a person, that helps me understand who this person is.

Plus his response to all of this helps me understand how he can now navigate politics.

KURTZ: And he issued a clarification the next day. That was kind of inevitable. Saying that this White Citizen's Council which he had kind of defended, "Is totally indefensible as is segregation," he said. And this was a difficult and painful year for Mississippi.

So do you think, Amy Holmes, this deserved the amount of coverage that it got? Or how did that strike your ear when he said, "Well, it wasn't so bad in Mississippi in the early 1960s?"

HOLMES: Well, it certainly reinforces the narrative for Governor Barbour of the sort of good old boys club, and five generations of Barbours from Mississippi, and that he was insulated from these very, difficult, contentious, and painful politics of the time. And the fact that as an adult he reflects back on it and said, "Well, it wasn't that bad."

Well, maybe not for you, but that's the whole point. That there were some folks who were privileged and others who were not. And what it also did is it dredged up other stories about Governor Barbour, one involving watermelon that he was telling one of his staffers. And for the record...


HOLMES: ... I don't like watermelon.


KURTZ: OK. Thanks for clarifying that.


HOLMES: For -- for Governor Barbour. But I think what these stories do do though, however, is solidifying notions about a person, particularly if it comes out drip, drip, drip, and there's more and more -- they are more and more invaluable (ph).

KURTZ: OK. So while liberal commentators were quick to denounce Haley Barbour, there were even straight news sites that had headlines like, "Is Haley Barbour a Racist?" Was that fair?

FRANK: I think -- I think it's fair. But again, I think you want to go back to the -- the -- the larger question, which is how so many of these people really dodge, or white wash, or -- or pull the sort of gauzy haze over the past. I mean, it's not -- Haley Barbour -- this is -- this is an, you know, an outrageous misrepresentation of what went on in Mississippi in the 1960s.


KURTZ: And that's why he's throwing around a word like racist by the media is fair, because of the -- you see as an outrageous...


FRANK: You -- you were asking about that word? OK. That's -- now that's going a little too far.


FRANK: If he's -- if he's misrepresenting the past in a -- in a particularly outrageous way. But that's -- all year this has been going on. I wrote a number of columns about this. And I'm not talking about Haley Barbour here. I'm talking about the Tea Party movement, and their ideas about the founding fathers, Woodrow Wilson, on and on and on. It is complete distortion.


HOLMES: OK, if I can add this? That friendly audiences can sometimes be the most dangerous when a politician thinks, you know, that...


KURTZ: Don't let your guard down.


KURTZ: All right. Amy Holmes, Thomas Frank, Steve Roberts, Lauren Ashburn, thanks very much for joining us. Still to come -- Jon Stewart, legislative strategist? The comic gets a hand from an unlikely source.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Before we go, it's not often that a White House spokesman praises a comedian for anything other than being funny. But the other day Robert Gibbs offered kind words for Jon Stewart, saying he'd helped draw attention to the stalled legislation to provide health care aid to the first responders of September 11th -- a $6 billion measure opposed by a number of Republicans.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think he has put the awareness around this legislation. He's -- he's put that awareness into what you guys cover each day, and I think that's -- that's good.


KURTZ: In this case Stewart did more than tell a few jokes. He devoted an entire program to the issue.


JON STEWART, DAILY SHOW HOST: Apparently the party that turned 9-11 into a catch phrase are now moving suspiciously into a convenient pre-9-11 mentality when it comes to this bill. What's more, none of the three broadcast networks have mentioned any of this on their evening newscasts for two and a half months. Although to be fair, it's not every day that Beatles songs come to iTunes.


KURTZ: Stewart's guests -- four emergency responders who rushed to help others at the World Trade Center.


STEWART: So what's going through your mind as you're watching this process go down?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we're -- we're -- we're disgusted. We're disappointed.


KURTZ: Maybe it worked. The Senate finally passed the bill this week. Now Jon Stewart increasingly seems to be taking political stands. In this case, he jump-started the coverage of an issue that had faded.

That's it for this edition of Reliable Sources. I'm Howard Kurtz. Happy holidays to all of you. We'll be back here next Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. Another critical look at the media. "State of the Union" begins right now.