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Holiday Hype; How Much Do Journalists Matter?

Aired January 2, 2011 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: When the news watch slows down, as it invariably does the week after Christmas, it's a chance for journalists to do more thoughtful and in-depth reporting. You would think.

Instead, TV news has been filled with such scintillating topics as President Obama's views on Michael Vick's comeback, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell complaining that Vick's Eagles should have played football during a blizzard, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie staying at Disney World during the storm. Can't we do better than this holiday hype?

In the new media landscape, how much do journalists matter when everyone can share news and create their own news on Facebook and Twitter?

Plus, he was the thinking man's talk show host in a black-and- white era, the late-night guy who chatted up the likes of Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley and John and Yoko. How much has television changed since his heyday? A conversation with Dick Cavett.

And from Barbara Walters to Hugh Hefner, a look back at our most provocative interviews of 2010.

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

With Obama off in Hawaii, members of Congress, at home, are on the usual junkets, and Hollywood stars on their fabulous vacations, there isn't a whole lot of hard news to talk about this week. Now, newspapers have managed to come up with some interesting, enterprising reporting. But on cable, even broadcast news this week, there' was a lot of chatter about the president and a certain football player now making a comeback.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Well, he is one of the most controversial figures in sports, Michael Vick. He went to prison for running a dogfighting ring. Now President Obama is speaking out about him.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC: Mr. Obama talked about Michael Vick and redemption. The president said so many people who serve time never get a second chance, and that he was happy a high-profile organization like the Philadelphia Eagles had shown their faith in someone after such a major public downfall.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS: I think, personally, he should have been executed for that. He wasn't. But the idea that the president of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs, kind of beyond the pale.


KURTZ: Now, to be fair, this wasn't the only news on the cable channels this week. There was also snow, a lot of it, in winter, and a whole lot of carping about the failure of certain politicians that triumph over a two-foot snowpocalypse. The larger question here, why are journalists, many journalists, at least, turning mildly interesting episodes like the Michael Vick business into a media blizzard?

Joining us now here in Washington, Christina Bellantoni, associate politics editor at "Roll Call"; Craig Crawford, columnist for "Congressional Quarterly"; and in Philadelphia, Buzz Bissinger, contributing editor of "Vanity Fair" and a weekly sports columnist for "The Daily Beast."

Buzz Bissinger, many sportswriters, including you, by the way, have weighed in on the Michael Vick saga. Why are television and the Net going so wild over Obama telling the owner of the Eagles that Vick deserves a second chance?

BUZZ BISSINGER, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "VANITY FAIR": Well, because, A, they're pathetic; B, they have nothing to do. And I just have to get this out of the way -- Tucker Carlson is a fake, a fraud, a farce, and an F-bomb.

He only did that to self-aggrandize himself. He is desperate for attention. As you know, he got fired from CNN, or left. He went to MSNBC, and I think had the most short-lived show in history. So he goes on Fox --

KURTZ: Wait. What's the difference between Tucker Carlson giving his view on Michael Vick killing dogs and any other windbag on TV popping off?

BISSINGER: Well, because no will go to -- first of all, no one has gone to the lengths of saying that Michael Vick should be executed. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and this has become sort of a cliche with me (ph).

I have a dog. I love my dog. But they're dogs.

They didn't invent penicillin. They didn't invent the Internet. And they should not trump the killing of a human life.

People in Philadelphia, in north Philadelphia, are killed every day, and they are the subject of abuse, and nobody ever hears about them. Maybe it's a one-day story or a two-day story. This has been a five-year story.

I believe he should be forgiven, and I think Carlson did all of us a favor, because I think now it's over.

KURTZ: All right. Well, it's not quite over for us yet.

So, Christina Bellantoni, all the attention this has gotten, is it the president would hold forth on sort of a pop culture topic, or is it media desperation?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI, "ROLL CALL": Well, to be fair, this is something President Obama said in a private conversation with a coach that got leaked out in the media.

KURTZ: It wasn't leaked. The coach is Jeffrey Lurie, and he told this to "Sports Illustrated," yes.

BELLANTONI: He did, but it wasn't as if President Obama --

KURTZ: Right. The White House didn't --

BELLANTONI: -- held a press conference to say hey, I want to talk about Michael Vick and exonerate him.

KURTZ: But we didn't care.

BELLANTONI: And I do have to wonder if he would have done it if he wasn't a candidate for MVP. I mean, this is somebody who's an extraordinary athlete, and President Obama is, like, the most biggest sports fan in the entire country. So I think that has a lot of to do with it.

And not to defend Tucker, but I will defend Tucker a little bit. I mean, this is somebody who puts his money where his mouth is. He's on the board of this Washington Animal Rescue League, he's really into rescuing dogs. So, he's not just out there talking to talk.

KURTZ: Craig Crawford, is there a subtext here of an African- American president defending an African-American athlete who did something horrible?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, "CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY": Sure. I think that's a real possibility. And we never can prove that, though. You can assume it. It's all circumstantial. But those were the circumstances, and that could be the case.

This is one of those just empty calorie stories. You know, lots of energy and no nutrients. And I just welcome a holiday week with no news as an opportunity to shut up and think. And that's what I'd like to see more of in the media.

KURTZ: There was no shortage of empty calorie stories, and one of them, boy, did Ed Rendell get a lot of mileage out of this. We're going to play a couple of bites as he made the television rounds that he was really mad that last Sunday, the National Football League had the temerity to cancel the Philadelphia Eagles game because of this major snowstorm.

Let's roll that. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ED RENDELL (D), PENNSYLVANIA: The wussification of America. I think we've lost a little bit, Cenk, of our boldness, of our pioneer spirit, of our innovation.



RENDELL: This is the wussification of America, Kathleen.



WILLIAMS: I take it you look at your country today and don't see the same spirit that, say, won World War II?.

RENDELL: Absolutely. We don't have that pioneer spirit. We don't have that sense of adventure. We don't are have the boldness and the courage we used to have.


KURTZ: And Buzz Bissinger, you took on Ed Rendell on Twitter. You said he doesn't have to drive to the game, he hasn't driven in 20 years. And he responded to you, saying that, well, there was a time when he was out of office, when he took the subway. So, Buzz, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

BISSINGER: Well, he hasn't driven in 20 years. He served in the Reserve, so he didn't serve in Vietnam. He certainly didn't serve in World War II. He wasn't old enough.

Look, if he wants to call us "wusses" for not going to a football game, that's fine. In fact, the weather was terrible. But then he makes this ridiculous leap to World War II, to China, but it's Ed Rendell.

He has stuck his foot in his mouth a dozen times. It wasn't scripted. Some of it is charming. Some of it isn't.

It was an idiotic thing to say. But the more idiotic thing was how much play it got, all over the country, you know, op-ed piece in The Times, in every newspaper. Once again, this shows we are going down the drain quickly.

BELLANTONI: This was also Ed Rendell in his final moments as governor trying to generate some headlines. I mean, he's a colorful character. He knows he's going to get played multiple times on TV --


KURTZ: But this is a guy who knows how to use the media.

BELLANTONI: Oh, completely.

KURTZ: And he knows it's Christmas week.

BELLANTONI: And we all talk about it. I mean, here in Washington, nobody can drive in the snow. I mean, people are sort of wussies.

KURTZ: Oh, two inches shuts the town down.


KURTZ: But I'm wondering if you're thinking maybe this guy who is going to be out of office in a couple of weeks is looking for a cable contract, maybe on MSNBC.

BISSINGER: No, I don't think --

CRAWFORD: Wouldn't be surprised to see that. I mean, anything can happen.

You know, seriously, I think what's going on in the media, this is the curse of link (ph) bait in the Internet world. I mean, because in the old print newspaper world, we didn't know how many people read our stories, and so on.

KURTZ: Right.

CRAWFORD: We didn't get traffic numbers. Now we do, and there's a great pressure on those of us in the Internet media world to use stories or -- you know, for example, on my blog, any time I put Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck in there, I get 30 percent more traffic.

KURTZ: So you throw it in.

CRAWFORD: It's worthless, but, I mean, sometimes I think I'll just throw those names in the lead paragraph out of context.


BELLANTONI: That is done. That is done.

BISSINGER: You know, I don't think that's a good -- and you're right, but I don't think that's a good excuse to use it.


BISSINGER: I mean, there are important things coming down the pike -- that we all say we care about America, the deficit, immigration reform, health care. But the basic fact is what we as Americans care about is Ed Rendell calling people "wusses," and President Obama, in a private conversation, saying that Michael Vick should be give an second chance, and then Tucker Carlson making a complete fool and ass out of himself. That's where we get mileage. We have become a complete society of --

CRAWFORD: That's where the empty calorie thing comes in, and we like hamburgers and French fries better than we like foods that are good for us. The same with news.

BELLANTONI: Although, snow and this massive weather center affected everybody's lives far more than, let's say, immigration reform does.

KURTZ: I was going to make that point. Look, if you are living in New York or Boston, and there's 24 inches of snow, it paralyzes the place for a week.

BELLANTONI: And during (ph) the holidays.

KURTZ: And that's a major story. But, of course, it was turned into a national story for people who were living in Florida.

CRAWFORD: And a political story.

KURTZ: Yes, and a political. And speaking of that, so you had Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, down with his kids at Disney World, not coming back for the storm. And this got covered a lot, and he said, well, you know, I promised my kids a vacation. What was I going to do, shovel?

CRAWFORD: I best not criticize him because I was at Disney World the same day he was.

KURTZ: But you're not the governor.

CRAWFORD: I'm not the governor. I mean, what was bad about that is he actually left on the day of the snow, and that is something I could imagine, you know, a lot of his constituents being upset about.

KURTZ: And New York City had a very slow response, particularly in the boroughs outside Manhattan, to this blizzard, and Michael Bloomberg should be held accountable. But I heard one guest on MSNBC saying this ends any chance for Bloomberg to run in 2012, which he wasn't doing anyway. So that seemed a little bit over-inflated.

BELLANTONI: Yes, absolutely. This was an area where the media definitely drummed this up a little too much.

I mean, Chris Christie is not out there shoveling the snow like Cory Booker is in Newark. But at the same time, you had so much focus on that and very little focus on, let's say, the 168 members of Congress who didn't vote on the 9/11 health care bill. I mean, they skipped town.

This is one governor leaving to go on vacation while there's some snow. He couldn't shovel it anyway.

KURTZ: It took Jon Stewart to embarrass the media on that one.

Before we go, I have something I want to throw Buzz Bissinger's sway, and this has to do with the ESPN anchor Will Selva. First, let me read you a column in the Orange County, California, "Register" about the Los Angeles Lakers. "Christmas ain't over yet, Laker fans. The big game, it turns out, will be the game after the supposed game of the year. In San Antonio on Tuesday night, the Lakers will be out to give themselves and their fans the much-needed gift of hope."

Now let's play what Will Selva had to say.


WILL SELVA, ESPNEWS ANCHOR: Christmas isn't over yet, Lakers fans. A big game, it turns out, is the game after the supposed game of the year. In San Antonio, on Tuesday night, the Lakers were out to give themselves and their fans the much-needed gift of hope.


KURTZ: That, Buzz, is called plagiarism. ESPN says it takes it very seriously and has suspended the guy.

Does he -- should he keep his job?

BISSINGER: Yes, he should keep his job. And I think -- I mean, there were so many cliches in that prose, I think he should be flattered that someone actually repeated it.

I think this is part of ESPN ever since the decision, ever since canceling play (ph) makers, because the NFL, they have so many conflicts of interest, this is a way of trying to prove to people that they're an independent news organization.

KURTZ: All right.

BISSINGER: The guy made a mistake. But you know what? It wasn't a big deal.

KURTZ: All right.

CRAWFORD: Maybe he'll get a presidential pardon.

KURTZ: Selva apologized for what he called a horrible mistake.

Buzz Bissinger, Craig Crawford, Christina Bellantoni, thanks very much for joining us.

After the break, the aloha man, Ed Henry, back from covering Obama's Hawaiian vacation. We'll ask him about his little spat with the local press.



KURTZ: CNN's Ed Henry just back from his hardship duty covering President Obama in Hawaii, where he took some hula lessons.

But you also ran into a little bit of controversy with the "Honolulu Star-Advertiser" -- let me read from the editorial, which is titled, "Reporting Live in My Hawaiian Shirt." "The news reports themselves, but for the tourism industry, and any live shot with palm trees in the background is all good."

Defend yourself.

ED HENRY, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes. We put something on, our blog, and, look, it was all in fun.

I mean, the "Star-Advertiser" decided to go after me and some of the other reporters on the trip, saying we were doing fluff. The bottom line is, look, number one, for me, the hula lesson was silly, but it's kind of like when Nixon went to the beach and he used to wear wingtips and a suit, and it looked ridiculous. You're in Hawaii, have a little bit of fun.

If the president --

KURTZ: You have a lot of these shirts, by the way.

HENRY: I have a whole new wardrobe because of President Obama. I appreciate it very much.

No, but seriously, last Christmas, unfortunately, there was that terror attack.

KURTZ: Right. You had to work.

HENRY: And we worked around the clock. And we were not wearing Hawaiian shirts. We were wearing serious --

KURTZ: All right. This time, not so much.

HENRY: This time, the president wasn't making news. Thankfully, there was no terror incident. And so, have a little fun with it.

I mean, look, if the president had come out and had a news conference, or did something super serious, of course we would have treated it --

KURTZ: Not just that. I mean, you barely saw him. Even the photo-ops were very limited.

HENRY: Right.

KURTZ: So isn't there a thing where you come out on camera -- and it's one thing for a newspaper article to say, well, Obama's laying low. You've got to have some semblance of news. You can't just say, hey, we're all on vacation here.

HENRY: Right.

KURTZ: So is there a little bit of kind of pretend that there's something going on? HENRY: Well, I don't think we were pretending, but I think you're struggling to find something to talk about, and that's why sometimes it gets into a silly hula lesson or something like that. But, you know, the president is playing golf, but there's hardly pictures of it. The president's family plays tennis, they go out on the beach. And there's no picture, so they --

KURTZ: So you were angry.

HENRY: We weren't angry.

KURTZ: The president was not playing ball with you.

HENRY: He was playing golf, he wasn't giving you any tidbits. We all had to talk about what he had to say about Michael Vick.

HENRY: Right. But in all seriousness, I think the bottom line for me is the president is entitled to a vacation. So it is not a matter of him playing ball with us. He can do what he wants on his vacation.

KURTZ: And yet, you have to be there because --

HENRY: But we need to be there. We spend a lot of money doing that. And a lot of people sort of raise questions about that around the country, and fair question, why do you follow him on vacation?

KURTZ: And the answer is?

HENRY: God forbid there's a terror incident like last Christmas. He came out three or four times to make statements. We need to be there.

Now, I don't think we shouldn't be traipsing through his back yard, doing paparazzi photos, try to get him without his shirt. Some of the paparazzi -- we try not to do that. He's entitled to his space, he's entitled to his family time, but we have got to be there if, God forbid, there's a big story.

KURTZ: And you never know. He could play basketball again and need more stitches in his lip.

HENRY: And need more stitches, and we'll make a big deal out of it.

KURTZ: Ed Henry --

HENRY: Happy New Year.

KURTZ: -- thanks for stopping by.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, Dick Cavett weighs in on everything from interviewing the great performers and writers of his age, to the changing nature of today's TV culture.

Plus, Bob Woodward, Chris Cuomo, Barbara Walters, Lara Logan and more -- our best media interviews this past year.


KURTZ: He has interviewed John Lennon and Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope and Jack Benny, Fred Astaire and Alfred Hitchcock, Lucille Ball and Bette Davis. In other words, this guy's been around.

Dick Cavett was a late-night talk show sensation in the '70s and has been a writer and cultural critic ever since, with an online column in "The New York Times." His new book is called "Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets."

I sat down with him earlier in New York.


KURTZ: Dick Cavett, welcome.

DICK CAVETT, FMR. TALK SHOW HOST: Howard, thank you. My God, you had me right back, months later.


CAVETT: No, weeks later.

KURTZ: I promised to do that. I promised to do that.

Now, a lot of people have said to you -- a couple to me after you were on the program last time -- why don't you come back on TV on a regular basis?

CAVETT: I hope you know the answer and will tell me.

KURTZ: Are you waiting for an invitation?

CAVETT: Well, yes, frankly. I've lived without doing it for many years. When you're doing five -- we were real men back then. We did 90 minutes a night.

KURTZ: Ninety minutes.

CAVETT: Five times a week.

KURTZ: Like a telethon.

CAVETT: Yes. And what was really telethonic (ph) was Thursday, two, back to back, with 20 minutes in between, at the end of the second, when you did not know the guest name, your name, what town you were in. You just wanted to fall to the floor.

KURTZ: You're saying you had enough of that grind?

CAVETT: Well, I had enough then and thought, will this ever end? As everyone I know who's done five days a week has said, will this ever end, came to them as a shock since you spend your life trying to get there. KURTZ: Exactly.

CAVETT: But now I'm in the mood.

KURTZ: OK. Well, we'll take advantage of that right now.

CAVETT: As long as I'm only in my 30s, I think I'm probably in pretty good shape.


KURTZ: You started out as a comedy writer -- Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson. Was that a lot of pressure for a young kid?

CAVETT: Yes, it was at first, because I wanted to please the illustrious star, an obsessive figure in my life. Jack Paar was my first job. I impulsively took him in monologue -- sparing you all the details -- found him in the hall, he hired me as a writer.

And then I was inside the world of magic. I had gone through the looking glass from watching Jack Paar every night that I was alive and able, to being in the Jack Paar offices and watching the show tape every night.

KURTZ: I thought you were in the bathroom slipping him jokes.

CAVETT: Well, Jack improves all stories. I actually ran into him in the corridor, but he's made it that I cornered him in the men's room.

KURTZ: All right. Well, obviously that worked out well for you. You even wrote for Groucho Marx, who kind of became a friend of yours.

In this book you weigh in on the pundit shows and you write the following: "They're not all that compelling or entertaining, yet I dutifully watch Pete and Chris and Wolf and those Sunday morning talk shows."

So why do you watch?

CAVETT: Partly punishment, partly feeling that I ought to keep up -- that dreadful phrase. I envy people in life who don't give a damn about keeping up --

KURTZ: Who just don't care.

CAVETT: -- and who would rather go home and read Richard Brinsley Sheridan's plays than watch "Meet the Press." Now, I know that's subversive, but I don't think everybody has to be always involved.

And the thing I said to one of the Chicago Seven famously on the air, "Politics bores my ass off." ABC didn't mind leaving it in because it was said to a left-winger.

(LAUGHTER) KURTZ: I see. But you're suggesting that ABC didn't allow certain things or discouraged certain things if it was --


CAVETT: Well, there was certain sensitivity to vulgarity of language at the time.

Now, Timothy Leary came on my first week of shows, and I had never spoken rudely in any way to a guest, didn't know I ever would. He had his new book and, you know, his motto was "tune in, turn in, and drop out," something of a drug advocate. And he held his book up and he said, "This is the new bible. This book is the new bible. The Old Testament was just a bunch of old kooks on a bad trip."

How can I forget that quote? And I said, "I really think you're full of crap."


CAVETT: And I still treasure the letter from a lady from Iowa who'd seen that moment, dropped her iron on her foot.


CAVETT: But she said it was well worth it.

KURTZ: In today's cable culture, calling people "pinheads" and worse wouldn't have stood out as much as, say, "You're full of crap."


KURTZ: Now, look, a lot of people have asked you about this because we recently went through the sad anniversary, 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death.

CAVETT: Oh, yes.

KURTZ: But what do you remember most about interviewing John and Yoko on your show?

CAVETT: Well, there are several things I remember most. And, by the way, my blog -- the "New York Times" online -- is about memories of John. Because the feelings of John run deep, still.

KURTZ: You testified on his behalf when the Nixon administration was trying to deport him.

CAVETT: How do you know all these things?

KURTZ: Because I read books.

CAVETT: You do.

KURTZ: Well, at least I read your book.


CAVETT: Are you so naive as to think you have to read the guests' books?


KURTZ: You didn't do that when you were hosting five shows a week?

CAVETT: I did read them. I read a 480-word book by Gay Talese my first month, and then realized I'm on the air with him for seven minutes. What am I, nuts?

KURTZ: Over-preparation is good.

CAVETT: But, yes, John asked me if I would testify that the great un-indicted co-conspirator whom we dealt with last time I was on --

KURTZ: Yes, we did.

CAVETT: -- of Yorba Linda and Whittier College -- if anyone still wonders about whom we're speaking -- had wanted John deported.

KURTZ: And your testimony was not the most illustrious moment of your career, you recount.

CAVETT: No, I wasn't very proud of my testimony. I noted when I got there, that John -- I'll never forget this -- down the long corridor of that building with all the steps, familiar from "Law and Order" that you'd -- there was John, silhouetted, and he seemed very small. And as he came closer, he seemed scared a little about the proceedings.


CAVETT: I remember much talk back and forth of, is cannabis resin the same as marijuana, and there'd been a drug charge. And I remember just thinking, I wasn't very eloquent, but apparently I was sincere.

KURTZ: All right. Well, that counts for something.

Now, look back at some of the guests that you've had over the years when you were on five nights a week -- we'll mention that again. You know, Norman Mailer debating Gore Vidal.

I mean, could that kind of thing work in today's television culture?

CAVETT: It might not be likely to come about, partly because somebody's going to say authors -- authors are what got on "The Tonight Show" in the last three minutes. You know? When Cavett does a show, the authors will come on first. Well, that wasn't necessarily true as they were -- but --


KURTZ: But you're still saying you wouldn't have mass appeal.

CAVETT: Yes. People would say, you know, get Lucy and Phyllis Diller and Groucho, all of whom I did. But, yes.


CAVETT: I'm sure three authors might not get on today.

KURTZ: But I'm trying to lead you into the question of today's talk shows. I mean, there are some very talented hosts, but it just seems the culture is so much speeded up, so much changed, that things that you could do maybe just simply wouldn't fly in 2010.

CAVETT: I wonder about that. I'm not sure.

People who have bought my DVDs, or had loved ones give them to them from "The Cavett Show," or see it on YouTube -- all the stuff that's on there for no profit for me -- think they're fine, say they miss them, wish they were on. And they're, in a sense, on now, because they're seeing them now. So maybe we -- this may be false logic, and you're about to pounce on me, but --

KURTZ: No, they have an afterlife thanks to --

CAVETT: Let's call that an afterlife.

KURTZ: -- the wonders of the Internet and DVDs.

I've done a lot of research for this. This actually came from just a Google search, but you were on the cover of "TIME" magazine, 1971, and the article, which was pretty lengthy, longer than you'd see in a news magazine today, said the following: "Dick Cavett, at 34, has produced the best mixture of literate repartee, information, entertainment, and urbane wit to be found on late-night television."

That must have gone to your head.

CAVETT: I'd love to know a guy like that.


CAVETT: That did. In fact, no one will believe this, and I certainly expect you to, because you're as normal as anybody I know. I've never read that article.

KURTZ: You deliberately chose not to?


KURTZ: You deliberately chose not to read about yourself at the time?

CAVETT: I just -- when things come out about me, I don't want to read them because, as Mr. Richard Burton said, "The good reviews are frankly never good enough, and the bad ones upset you and ruin your breakfast." And so it's best to wait a few years.

KURTZ: All right. It's been 39 years.

CAVETT: Thanks to you -- you think I'm entitled to read the damn thing now?


CAVETT: Yes. And a "LIFE" cover. I read some of that. * CAVETT: One thing I will read though in those days was when I got in an argument with "The New York Times" TV critic and they splattered my letter protesting his review all over the Arts and Leisure section, five columns wide. I wasn't expecting that.

KURTZ: What was the nature of your complaint?

CAVETT: That he did a sloppy job of reviewing the shows, that he did not report things that people might want to hear, that the newspaper record might like to know exactly what Laurence Olivier had said, or that Orson Welles had said on the show, at least one example. But the part I love best was the next to the last line, which was, "Shall I say him name? No. His prose has all the sparkle of a second mortgage."

KURTZ: You can quote that from memory all these years later.

CAVETT: I can quote it because two people stole it within the next two weeks about somebody else.

KURTZ: You should have sued.

One political question before we go.


KURTZ: How did President Obama's coverage in the media go from the absolute swoon of 2008 -- nobody can deny that -- to this constant carping of the last couple of years?

CAVETT: Oh, if I knew the answer to that you'd be having me on for another hour, at least. I don't know.


KURTZ: Well, part of it has to do with his performance in office and the collision between the poetry of campaigning and the prose of governing, of course.

CAVETT: I like that phrase. Can I use that?

KURTZ: Sure. Feel free to steal it.

CAVETT: To me, the main thing about the administration is, why on earth haven't they made things clear to people that are good for them? There are good things in the -- imagine this example, though I think it may be true -- I sounded like Bill Buckley, it might be true -- that a woman, I think I read about, found that with the insurance she would thereby get with this, her daughter would, though having asthma, be able to get a policy that she wasn't able to get before.

KURTZ: Under the health care bill that was passed.

CAVETT: Yes. I mean, that's one of many things, I assume. Why not spell those out to people? It's almost like they're too modest to say these are the good things?


KURTZ: Or is there just too much of an echo chamber out there with cable and blog, that the -- any White House's message kind of gets lost?

CAVETT: Well, I'm sure that's a factor, too. And it just seems that the PR people have let the president down in areas where he could well have gained good feeling by saying, you know, this will be good for you. Read it again.


KURTZ: Dick Cavett, I'd love to give you another hour. It's a fascinating conversation.

CAVETT: Well, do it. Aren't you in charge here?


KURTZ: We'll have you back. Thanks very much for joining us.

CAVETT: OK. Oh, by the way -- do I have another second?

KURTZ: You do.

CAVETT: OK. Don't get too close to me unless you have a great desire to -- I'm just getting over that bug that's going around town.

KURT: Ah. If only you had warned me.

CAVETT: Yes. But your nose stuffs, your head -- and your thoughts get weird, and you want Sarah Palin for president.


KURTZ: Thanks again.


KURT: Dick Cavett stealing the last moment of the spotlight.

When we come back, from Twitter to WikiLeaks, is the media's new Wild West leaving the old journalistic establishment in the dust?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURT: When I talk about the media, I think of professional journalists gathering and reporting this thing we call news, and maybe bloggers weighing in as well. But these days, many of you play a similar same role. You share news and links and your opinions and observations at places like Facebook and Twitter.

So how is social networking changing the way we get and think about news?

I put that question earlier to a panel of journalists here in the studio.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media, and a former managing editor of "USA Today Live"; Steve Roberts, former "New York Times" reporter, now a professor of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.; Amy Holmes, co-anchor of the syndicated radio show "America's Morning News"; and Thomas Frank, columnist for "Harper's" magazine.

When I look at the new media landscape, Steve Roberts, one of the things that strikes me about Facebook and Twitter is that they take some of the clout away from journalists who used to kind of control the information and give it to hundreds of millions of users. And I argue, that's pretty healthy.

STEVE ROBERTS, PROFESSOR OF MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS, THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I agree. I think it's very healthy. I think the choke hold the elite media, the lamestream media, whatever word you want to use, had -- the flow of information is much healthier.

KURTZ: The evil media.

ROBERTS: The evil media -- as it's been democratized.


ROBERTS: The problem is, as you lower the barrier to entry, you lower the barrier to entry to good information and also bad information. And there is greater possibility of rumor, greater possibility -- look, 18 percent of Americans think the president's a Muslim. They didn't hear that on CNN. They read it on some Web site somewhere.

So the benefits are enormous, but the risks go up with the benefits as well.

KURTZ: But, you know, people trust their friends or those they follow on Twitter, and more than some distant journalist who claims to be objective.

LAUREN ASHBURN, PRESIDENT, ASHBURN MEDIA: Right, but I think that the problem with that is that they don't have all the facts. And I think that one of the things --

KURTZ: Sometimes.

ASHBURN: Sometimes more than not, I think. And one of the things that needs to be clear is that Facebook and Twitter cannot replace edited news. And I think that you need a balance of both.

I mean, Facebook and Twitter may have the truth, but it may not. And I think that, you know, even though CNN or MSNBC or Fox could have a slant, you know where they're coming from.

KURTZ: But, you know, even -- if we're entering in an age now -- I know you're not a big Facebook aficionado, but we're entering an age where everyone --

THOMAS FRANK, "HARPER'S" MAGAZINE: I have 4,000 friends on Facebook.

ASHBURN: You do not.

FRANK: I do.

ASHBURN: You said you just joined yesterday.

FRANK: No, I didn't join. I just figured out how to make friends.


KURTZ: OK. So any one of those 4,000 people --

FRANK: It might be 3,000. I forget.

KURTZ: By the end of the show it will be 2,000.


FRANK: Yes. I love them all tenderly.

KURTZ: If anybody can be his own editor, and they can choose to be friends with you or friends with someone else, and who to follow on Twitter, isn't it a danger that they insulate themselves from people whose views they disagree with?

FRANK: Yes. But, look, Howard, it's much worse than what you're talking about.

Look, all the stuff that you guys have described, it's all true. OK? And I love that aspect of the Internet, the fact that we can do things like Facebook and Twitter and all that sort of thing.

There's something out there called content mills, OK, where they pay people that they recruit via the Internet who have very little experience in writing, or maybe they have a lot of experience in writing. But the bottom line is they pay them very, very little to write stories that one day will be supplanting the news. OK?

KURTZ: Why supplanting if it tells you -- FRANK: Because it's cheaper. Because it's cheaper. If you want to run a newspaper for profit, this is the future. And this is -- what we see in this is the galloping horsemen of the apocalypse coming down on us.

ASHBURN: Demand media makes its living --

FRANK: That's exactly it, yes.

ASHBURN: -- by looking at the algorithms and saying, OK, this is what people want to know about. Then they hire freelancers who will write about what people want to know about.

FRANK: It's the end of the world, and it's coming right at us. Sorry, the end of our world.

AMY HOLMES, COO-ANCHOR, "AMERICA'S MORNING NEWS": I think though for readers, that it's a little more complicated than that. I admit, I read gossip sites -- oh, it's terrible -- Radar Online, TMZ -- but you read with a certain grain of salt. So what is reported on a Twitter feed or a Facebook or a gossip site, while it's salacious and delicious and you love it, you're able to be persuaded the other way much more easily because it doesn't have --

ASHBURN: But you do that. Not everybody does that.

HOLMES: -- that imprimatur of authority and respectability.

ROBERTS: But there's also an interaction of the old and the new media every single day. My students at George Washington University, they learn information about each other. They're twittering, they're texting.

What are they texting? Links to "The New York Times" --

KURTZ: Right.

ROBERTS: -- links to CNN.

KURTZ: Actually, it's a good thing.


ROBERTS: There is an interaction between the old and the new, and in many ways the new media becomes an advertising platform.

FRANK: There's towns with no newspapers. It's a disaster for --

KURTZ: You're bringing me down with this analysis.


KURTZ: One more thing I want to touch on, and that is WikiLeaks is new media. And hasn't the Julian Assange site, with its indiscriminate posting of secret documents, also kind of surpassed what traditional news organizations do? ROBERTS: No. Well, in terms of the raw dump of data, yes. But where did most people get their information? They got it filtered through "The Guardian," through "The New York Times." Actually, I agree --

KURTZ: WikiLeaks needed old media?

ROBERTS: It needed old media not only to edit and to digest, but also to give them credibility. And I disagree profoundly with Tom. I think that here, you've got an example that reinforces the value of old media, not its demise.

KURTZ: So what I concluded from this is that the new media landscape is tremendously exciting and very dangerous.

FRANK: Both at the same time. That's the thing. You have to keep those both in your mind at once.

KURTZ: All right.

HOLMES: Who's never gone on the Internet. They keep going around and around.

ROBERTS: You're right about that.

KURTZ: Amy Holmes, Thomas Frank, Lauren Ashburn, Steve Roberts, thanks very much for joining us.


KURTZ: After the break, some of the year's hottest issues as seen through the eyes of top journalists and anchors. And we'll even throw in my visit to the Playboy Mansion.


KURTZ: I talked to some fascinating folks in 2010, exploring different aspects of the media and their impact on people's lives. Time now to look back at some of those moments.

I sat down with White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and pressed him on the art of the leak.


KURTZ: A couple weeks ago, "The New York Times" had a front-page story about the president about to announce that day, the next day, a new policy on offshore oil drilling.

It says, "Unnamed officials who agreed to preview the details on conditions that they not be identified." Now, that's what I would call an authorized leak.

Why is it in the White House interest to give one news organization a story before he makes the announcement?


You know, we talk about the news cycle, and if you think about it, what it used to be maybe 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, you'd say the news cycle lasted, you know, several hours, six hours, eight hours. The news cycle now is continuous, right? Every reporter, quite honestly, is a wire reporter because, immediately, their copy goes up on the Internet, the AP wire, cable television.

KURTZ: And we all blog.

GIBBS: Right. And Twitter and all that sort of thing.

KURTZ: So you need to get out ahead of that cycle?

GIBBS: The news cycle starts at 5:00 a.m. in the morning. It lasts probably until 10:00 or 11:00 at night.

It sleeps only a little bit before it all starts again. And on occasion, we want to get ahead of what the news is going to be that day by letting folks know.

I will say this -- you know, we had a discussion with the White House correspondents earlier in the year about the use of background sources. And I offered the Correspondents Association -- I said let's end background, right? We won't do background, you don't do background.

KURTZ: And the reaction?

GIBBS: And the specific offer was, if you've got a background source, one, you should put them on the record. And if you're not going to put them on the record, then have somebody at the White House --

KURTZ: Give an on-the-record response to what they have to say.

GIBBS: -- give them an opportunity to say that is or is not true, and we would attach our name to it.



KURTZ (voice-over): During our conversation with Barbara Walters, I wanted to know how she got people to answer very personal questions, such as when she asked Sarah Palin whether she had known her daughter Bristol was sexually active.

SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: No, and that is why it was shocking. And that's the understatement of the century, too, that we were shocked, and we were -- truthfully, we were devastated.

KURTZ (on camera): Sarah Palin is a woman who got offended when Katie Couric asked her what newspapers and magazines she read, but she responded very well to your questions. BARBARA WALTERS, ABC: I think Katie Couric did two or three interviews with Sarah Palin, and Sarah Palin has written about this in her book. I think what bothered Sarah Palin was that she came out looking uninformed and stupid.

To talk to her about her daughter's sexual activity, I didn't insult her intelligence. And so that's why she answered me.

I don't come out belligerently. I don't give my political point of view. And if I don't get an answer, I say something like, "What's the biggest misconception about you?" And it's amazing what you learn.

I'm not out for the kill. I'm not out for "the get." I'm out to have you know this person.

KURTZ (voice-over): A Bob Woodward book is always a Washington event, and with his latest effort, "Obama's War," I asked him about the almost total reliance on anonymous sources.

(on camera): You know, in some of your "Bush at War" books, it seemed to me you were moving a little bit more toward transparency. You talked about interviewing Don Rumsfeld on the record, as well as President Bush.

Here, except for Obama, there's not one on-the-record source. Why not?

BOB WOODWARD, AUTHOR, "OBAMA'S WAR": But there are all kinds of on-the-record sources, because I have or have seen the documents that I quote from at length. And nothing is better than a document, particularly one that is produced at a specific time.

But in this case, I'd love to do all the interviews on the record. And as you know, you want to get the truth and you want to find out what really goes on. And if you go in and put a tape recorder down and said, "OK, this is on the record," you're going to get a lot of untruth.

KURTZ: But it's --

WOODWARD: You know, you -- I learned that the first day I was a reporter when somebody on a city council in Rockville, Maryland, said something in public, and then I talked to him afterwards, off the record, and he said the opposite.

KURTZ (voice-over): Afghanistan received remarkably little media attention this year, but that wasn't the case with CBS' Lara Logan, who came under fire, along with American soldiers, during her latest trip to the war-torn country. She is also a working mother.

(on camera): I know you're a veteran correspondent. I know you've been in war zones your whole professional life. I have to ask you, why do you subject yourself to these risks? You now have two little children at home. LARA LOGAN, CBS: I know. It's the worst question anyone can ask you is if you're a war junkie, do you do this for the adrenaline. Because anyone who's had babies, any mother, knows how hard it is to leave your children.

KURTZ: What is your answer to that question?

LOGAN: It's -- I'm absolutely, absolutely committed to this. It's my -- I'd say this is my responsibility, that if you're going to send soldiers to war in other people's lands, you have a responsibility for the people of this country and for the people around the world to know what it is that they're being subjected to, and to know how that's going. I mean, if you don't have people reporting on this, then anyone can say anything they like about it and you don't know whether it's true or not.

KURTZ (voice-over): After North Korea released hostage Laura Ling during a visit by Bill Clinton, I asked her sister, Lisa Ling, about their media strategy.

(on camera): Lisa, after your sister's arrest, you called a couple of cable news presidents, some producers, some correspondents, and you asked them to limit the coverage of this story. Why?

LISA LING, JOURNALIST: I did, because we did not know what exactly happened, whether Laura and Euna had actually crossed into North Korea or not. And we were really afraid because North Korea is considered the most isolated, secretive country on earth, and its government is so unpredictable, that we didn't want to do anything that might jeopardize their situation anymore.

KURTZ: Did you feel awkward at all as a journalist, asking other journalists to play down the story?

LING: It's not something that I have done before, but it was just so crucial. And most of the organizations that I reached out to were very receptive and cooperative, because I think every journalism organization has had -- has faced situations where their correspondents have been in unpredictable situations.

LAURA LING, JOURNALIST: I, of course, maintained hope, but when the judge did say no forgiveness, no appeal, that was -- that's what really struck me, perhaps more so than the lengthy sentence, because I always hoped that there might be a chance of an appeal. But I definitely spiraled into a depression after the sentence.

KURTZ (voice-over): When ABC's Chris Cuomo interviewed an ex- girlfriend of the suspect in the Natalee Holloway disappearance, why, with so many murders out there, that case become a media obsession?

CHRIS CUOMO, ABC: Why her? Because she's blonde and attractive, Natalee Holloway? What about all those African-American kids? What about the kids when their skin sheen is different? Their deaths don't matter?

They happen all the time. There are all these cold cases. Why do you have to be good looking? Why do you have to be affluent? These are all good questions. This is a difficult business in that very often, we cater to the interests where it lies other than trying to correct what the interest is.

KURTZ (on camera): You have to put up the numbers.

(voice-over): And why did the ABC pay the ex-girlfriend for text messages and photos, an increasingly common practice among all the networks?

CUOMO: That's also a frustration, because now I'm trying to get somebody against Howie Kurtz. He's already better looking than me, he's already a better journalist. And now he's going to outspend me on this piece. I'm not going to be competitive.

KURTZ (on camera): So it's a financial arms race, it sounds like.

CUOMO: Sometimes. And I think that if there were an agreement among all that it's not going to happen, I think ABC would be first to the plate to say, great, we'll sign on to that. Let's never pay another dime for anything. If we lose, then we all lose.

KURTZ (voice-over): My visit to the Playboy Mansion, strictly for work, of course, got plenty of attention. I asked Hugh Hefner about his magazine's impact on American culture.

HUGH HEFNER, FOUNDER & CEO, PLAYBOY ENTERPRISES: Back in the 1950s, nice middle class moral kids could not live together before they got married. To have a baby out of wedlock was criminal. We changed that and the attitudes toward sexuality, and I take a tremendous pride in that.

KURTZ (on camera): But you didn't only change the laws, you changed the whole social compact. And not everybody thinks that turned out so great. I mean, as you say, revolutions have unintended consequences.

HEFNER: Well, I think it's perfectly obvious that some people would rather be living back there, but they don't remember what it was like. They don't know the hurt and hypocrisy of it all.

KURTZ: And yet, you, yourself, say, there have been excesses.

HEFNER: Of course there are. Sure.

KURTZ: And the way sex is treated in society.

HEFNER: Again, do I approve everything on the Internet? Of course not.

KURTZ: What don't you approve of?

HEFNER: Well, I think that you can get some clue from "Playboy." I'm not a big fan of the most explicit kinds of pornography. KURTZ: Some people would be surprised to hear that.

HEFNER: Well, some people don't really pay much attention. They don't really know what I'm really all about.

KURTZ: Right.

HEFNER: I'm a romantic, and I always have been. And I think, as a matter of fact, as someone observed not long ago -- and I think, as a matter of fact, it may be in the documentary, that my rosebud is really love.


KURTZ: Hefner back in love, announcing this week he'll walk down the aisle a third time. The 84-year-old popped the question to 24- year-old Crystal Harris. If only he had given me that scoop.

Still to come, we say good-bye to a pioneering female journalist.


KURTZ: Before we go, she's 70 years old, and that's a pretty good career. She was the epitome of the hard-bitten newspaper woman and one tough broad. You could say that back in the day.

Today is the final day for "Brenda Starr." And "The Boston Globe" put it this way: "She stood up to the guys in the newsroom and earned the chance to travel the world and chase scoops."

Dalia Messick created the newspaper strip, but changed her pen name to "Dale," because, well, women didn't get the same respect back in 1940.

Brenda was played by Brooke Shields in a film more than two decades ago. Nope, I didn't remember it either.

And in the comic strip, Brenda had fallen on hard times in recent years. Furloughed by her newspaper, while bloggers infiltrated the place, she finally quit this week.

It's a cruel world out there, but "Brenda Starr" had quite a run, and maybe convinced some young girls they, too, could be reporters.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Happy New Year to all of you.

Check us out right back here next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

"STATE OF THE UNION" this week with Ed Henry begins right now.