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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Media's Obsession With Campaign 2012; Is Press Turning Against Obama on Libya?
Aired April 3, 2011 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: I like a good presidential campaign as much as the next junkie, but as I watch all the media hyperventilating over Donald Trump and this birther nonsense, and Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, and others who may not even run, I have to wonder, why the obsession to chronicle a campaign that hasn't really started?
President Obama chats up the network anchors to make the case for bombing Libya, but the media tide may be turning against him. My question: Does the press have the patience for another messy, drawn- out military conflict?
And a much bigger appetite for this one. What do Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and the Weather Channel have in common? They're all going to the royal wedding. It's just starting, folks.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
It sounded so simple, so precise, so surgical -- a no-fly zone. Now, of course, the media recognize that we are at war against the Gadhafi regime. President Obama finally made a moral case for bombing Libya this week, a speech that played to rather mixed reviews among the pundits.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Did you sense what I sensed tonight, that this was a political speech, that the president was defensive, and the president was answering every criticism from the right and left that -- because he had been so incoherent?
ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: The president slammed the ball in a very classy way on his decision to use force in Libya.
SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: I think that was a profoundly disappointing speech because it proved that the Obama doctrine is still full of chaos and questions. It's dodgy. It's dubious.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: What he defined tonight was why Libya and not Syria, why Libya and not Yemen, why Libya and not all these other places where there's bad things going on that could cause a flood of refugees?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A terrible speech, because you could not predict American future behavior based upon anything he said.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The president's next stop was New York, where the network anchors questioned him on Libya. Some more aggressively than others.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC: What if it doesn't work? What if the rebels find themselves bogged down, this becomes protracted?
With all due respect, Mr. President, watching the reporting of our two correspondents in Libya, what it appears the rebels need is military equipment. Some of their equipment dates back to World War II.
Are you ruling out U.S. military hardware assistance?
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in.
ERICA HILL, "CBS EVENING NEWS": The Supreme allied commander for NATO said today that there are flickers of al Qaeda and Hezbollah amongst these rebels.
How do we know what their end goal is?
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: If Gadhafi ends up in a villa someplace in Zimbabwe with no war crimes trial, is that OK with you?
OBAMA: Well, you know, that's not going to be my decision alone.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So is the press starting to sour on the stalemate in Libya?
Joining us now here in Washington, Roger Simon, chief political columnist for Politico; Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post," and in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, a columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle."
Roger Simon, are the journalists and the anchors we just saw now aggressively challenging and acting openly skeptical about the Obama policy in Libya?
ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, POLITICO: Yes, and that's a good thing. We're supposed to be openly skeptical.
The bloom isn't entirely off the rose between Obama and the press, but reporters are starting to concentrate more than ever on what he says rather than how he says it. We will stipulate that he's the greatest orator of modern times, but now we're looking beyond that in every speech for what he's actually telling us.
KURTZ: And sometimes there is a gap, which we'll get to in a moment, between what he says and what the policy is.
Dana Milbank, now that the shock and awe of the initial bombing raids have worn off, and we do seem to be headed toward a military stalemate, is the media tide starting to turn against Obama own this issue?
DANA MILBANK, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think so, and I think it because we in the media have a tendency, as one of our colleagues once put it, to simplify and exaggerate. That is our mission.
And the Obama doctrine, whatever it is, is not very simple. It's very nuanced and difficult to follow. And I think that we like, in the media, like a simple storyline, smoke them out, bring it out.
KURTZ: Dead or alive.
MILBANK: Dead or alive, right. So we like that. And I think so immediately we've sort of switched to this other construct -- quagmire. They're already talking about Iraq. And it's the same thing that happened to Bill Clinton in Bosnia.
KURTZ: Debra Saunders, the speech this week didn't get much praise, even from some people who kind of are on the president's side. I wonder whether news organizations, in your view, are no longer giving Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt.
DEBRA SAUNDERS, "THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, I think, by the way, it's important to judge the president not so much for what he says, as for what he does. And that speech, I think, gave him great political coverage. And boy, don't we end up sort of judging speeches now not whether or not they are great orations, but whether or not they give you the cover you need?
It laid out a moral argument for what he did, for going into Libya, for the no-fly zone, but I don't think it gave a lot of people on the right what they wanted to hear, which is they want to hear that we're going to do something about Moammar Gadhafi. We don't want to do a half measure with him. We don't want 10 years of no-fly zones. And that's a fear some people have.
Roger, you wrote in Politico this week -- you asked this question: "Who are the rebels?' on whose behalf we are intervening. That's a question that has gotten remarkably little scrutiny in the media.
SIMON: Well, it got remarkable little scrutiny from the Obama administration before we started the bombing. We didn't know who they were. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in London the day after the Obama speech. She said we don't really know who the rebels are, but we have time to get to know them. Obama was pressed by --
KURTZ: It sounds like a dating process, we have time to get to know them. Is this the first date? SIMON: Erica Hill of CBS pressed him on this, and he said -- I want to quote exactly -- those he has met, "most of them are professionals, lawyers, doctors, people who appear to be credible." Well, the number two guy in al Qaeda, al-Zawahiri, is a medical doctor. I mean, it seemed that Obama was delivering the message to rebel kids, stay in school, get that -- and some day we will bomb on behalf of you.
KURTZ: On the same day this week, Dana Milbank, "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" both had stories about the CIA being involved, clandestinely, of course, in Libya, presumably helping to spot targets and that sort of thing. Now, maybe that's an excellent idea, but it kind of points up the gap between what Obama is saying publicly -- he doesn't use the word "war" -- it's a kinetic military action, or whatever the phrase is -- and what we're actually doing on the ground.
MILBANK: Right. I mean, the idea of the CIA being on the ground, we should probably be reassured by that, that we're not completely blindsided. I think --
KURTZ: But I'm sure that story was deliberately leaked.
MILBANK: Well, I think what's happened here is the president got behind the eight ball because he went off to South America, and it left a vacuum. Not that he shouldn't have gone to South America, but he let his opponents fill that vacuum, let people start asking questions rather than getting out right in front and defining this.
So I think he did not rally the support the way he needed to or the way he could have. So now he's being defensive and trying to catch up and regain that support.
SIMON: If I can just state that CIA story, shouldn't the CIA have been there beforehand? Isn't that what spies do? And after they are there, do we announce that our spies are on the ground? It seemed to be a reaction of, we have got to find out who these people are who we're supporting.
KURTZ: But an interesting dilemma for the media, Debra Saunders, when we have a situation where what the administration and the administration say publicly doesn't seem to match what we can see with our own eyes. And Ross Douthat, a columnist at "The New York Times," this week talked about a credibility gap starting to develop.
Do you think there's something to that analysis?
SAUNDERS: Well, when you're a president at war -- and I'll use the word "war" even if the president won't -- I don't think you can win on this stuff. You can't tell everybody everything you're doing. If you do, you get criticized for it. So, I mean, I think that that's a problem that they have.
No president who goes to war is going to be entirely credible, especially with the skeptical press we have here. I'm not saying the press shouldn't be asking the questions. I thought Roger did a great job talking about the fact that we don't know who the rebels are. And these are questions that have to be answered, but that doesn't mean that the administration is going to give us the answers.
KURTZ: But then it is hard to get answers in a wartime situation. And always, there are people out there who think, well, we should rally around the president because U.S. forces are at risk. But, I mean, this is precisely the kind of situation where journalists must demand answers, and I think were slow at the beginning of this operation to do so.
SAUNDERS: That's right. I agree.
KURTZ: Is this starting to resemble a Bush military operation in the sense that he drug out so much flak from liberal pundits for the shifting explanations about Iraq, particularly after WMD -- and it's not directly comparable, but I just wonder whether or not Obama's -- a press that some would say is sympathetic to Obama is maybe getting less so on this Libya intervention.
SAUNDERS: Can I answer that?
KURTZ: Go ahead, Debra.
SAUNDERS: I mean, I think the one thing that I see is that the press coverage is far less personal with Barack Obama than it was with George Bush. I mean, you're not hearing the big blood for oil accusations, we're not talking about the fact that he didn't serve in the military, the trip to South America, which may -- as Dana mentioned, made it difficult for him to be on message. But there are people who wonder if he should have gone there at the time, the basketball picks, all of this stuff.
I think this has been much -- I think the press has given him a lot more slack than was given to George W. Bush.
KURTZ: Nor has he sent 150,000 ground troops, Roger. So it's not directly comparable.
SIMON: No. But I think the press and the public are understandably nervous about this war. It's our third war, all in the Mideast, after a wonderful speech the president gave in Cairo about our reaching out to the Muslim world. All the people we're shooting and bombing are Muslims, and it is nerve-wracking to me that we are going into Libya on the cheap, air power only, Tomahawks, if we can, no more pilots, if we can avoid it, as if we can win a war that way.
KURTZ: Let me mention another related story in a way. The guy who I call the kooky pastor, Terry Jones, in Florida, who got so much unnecessary media attention to the run-up to that 9/11 anniversary when he was going to burn the Koran, finally didn't. Well, it turns out he did do this at his church a couple of weeks ago.
And I would congratulate the media for not covering it, except I think most news organizations didn't even know about it. Of course, that incident has now sparked rioting or violent protests in Afghanistan, more than 20 people dead. Now he's on the front page of "The Washington Post." Now he's getting a piece in "The New York Times."
I guess we have to cover him now, but it just shows you how crazy we were, I think, to turn this guy into a national figure. And I'm sorry that it resulted in a loss of life.
Before we go in this segment, I mentioned last week that the four "New York Times" journalists who had been captured and detained in Libya by the Gadhafi regime have been released. They started to make the media rounds this week.
Here's them talking on "The Today Show" about what they went through.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHEN FARRELL, JOURNALIST CAPTURED IN LIBYA: I distinctly remember as I was -- I think I was the first to be pulled from the car by a guard who was kicking and punching me -- no more than two steps out of the car you suddenly realize you're -- the rebels are firing, they're firing straight past you. You can see people running for cover.
And you're having this bizarre, surreal argument with a guard. We're really going to have a discussion now about giving up my camera and what's in my bag?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You were sexually assaulted?
LYNSEY ADDARIO, JOURNALISTS CAPTURED IN LIBYA: I was groped repeatedly. I was groped repeatedly.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How often?
ADDARIO: Pretty much every time we changed hands to new men.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why, do you think?
ADDARIO: I don't know. I think every time we ended up with a new group of men, or we were passed off to people, I think they wanted to scare us and assert their power over us. And I think with the men, it was being hit in the back of a head with a rifle butt, and with me it was groping.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: A harrowing experience, to be sure.
When we come back, the absurdly early presidential campaign that mostly seems like a bit of a circus. Why are the media lavishing so much attention on Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann?
KURTZ: Tim Pawlenty formed a presidential exploratory committee last week, but let's just say the media coverage of the former Minnesota governor has been restrained. That's not because all the news organizations are too busy covering Libya, it's because all the cable and online chatter has been about these folks --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: And we have a bit of news just in to CNN about the Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She is now forming a presidential exploratory committee. That means that this committee will help determine whether she should run for president in 2012.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: Donald Trump sure is fired up about 2012. He seems to have his eye on the White House. But will he run?
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: But why is this important to you?
DONALD TRUMP, ENTREPRENEUR: Because if you are going to be the president of the United States, you have to be born in this country. And there is a doubt as to whether or not he was born --
O'REILLY: Come on. Do you really feel as if --
TRUMP: I want him to show his birth certificate. There's something on that birth certificate that he doesn't like.
JOY BEHAR, "THE VIEW": Oh, my God.
BARBARA WALTERS, "THE VIEW": Oh, that's a terrible thing to say.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Dana Milbank, why are the media lavishing all this attention on non-candidates like Trump and, for the moment, Bachmann?
MILBANK: Well, I think they're in two different categories. I mean, Bachmann at least is an elected member of Congress.
KURTZ: Yes, she's a member of Congress.
MILBANK: She's a real politician. She does have an actual following and could do reasonably well in a Republican primary.
KURTZ: I agree. Donald?
MILBANK: Donald Trump is an absolute joke. You can see it from his first speech when he came to the Conservative Political Action Conference. The man isn't serious, and I think people know that. It's just I don't understand the fascination with him, and that has nothing to do with presidential coverage.
KURTZ: Debra Saunders, is Michele Bachmann the new Sarah Palin in this sense -- the colorful conservative woman who liberals in the media love to kick around?
SAUNDERS: And she loves to be a victim. There's nothing she likes better.
I mean, she really is. I'd call her Sarah Palin as a brunette Sarah Palin, but Sarah Palin is a brunette. And I think that one of the reasons that she gets all this coverage is that she just feeds into this stereotype that a lot of people in the media have of gaffe- prone Republicans. I mean, she just knows how to get it.
I sort of look at the coverage in the election right now as the trailer before the movie. So we're seeing the unserious things, sort of the little bit quickie candidates. And then the coverage will become of course more serious when the election really gets started.
KURTZ: The difference there is that the trailers in these move theaters run about two minutes, and this is about 24 hours a day.
You know, that CNN story, Roger Simon, I think now looks premature. CNN reported from sources that Bachmann would form a presidential exploratory committee in June. Said told "The Daily Caller" she's actually making a very prudent, thoughtful, deliberate decision about whether to run.
But contrast Tim Pawlenty, not the world's most exciting guy, but a real candidate who really is running, and Michele Bachmann, who might run, and yet she must be getting, what, 100 times more coverage?
SIMON: Well, Tim Pawlenty is not a dull person, he just plays one on TV.
The reason we cover exotic candidates so much is twofold. One, the sincere believe that the people and not the press should choose the candidates. Two, they say outrageous things and they are fun. And that gets some coverage.
And they sometimes do well in the early states. But in the end, they fail an important optical test. The American people try to imagine them behind that desk at the Oval Office making life-and-death decisions. And when you try to imagine Donald Trump there, that's where his campaign falls apart.
MILBANK: Could I submit, Howie, that I don't think these guys are really running for president. They are -- it's the easiest, cheapest way to publicity, it increases their speaking fees. It will do wonders for Donald Trump's show.
KURTZ: Right. Well, Donald Trump doesn't need speaking fees.
MILBANK: And we're just being -- well, no, but maybe Michele Bachmann does. But we're just being played, and I don't understand particularly why they keep putting their mugs on TV.
KURTZ: Well, I covered Donald Trump in the 1980s when I was in New York, and he has a genius for publicity. He built the Central Park skating rink that New York City couldn't build. And that's part of how he built his empire. More importantly, his brand.
But this birther claim that he is giving -- and look, a lot of people take Donald Trump seriously. He's made a lot of money. He's a national figure. Why do we continue to take him seriously? You seem to be indicating that we're just surrendering to the Trump mystique.
MILBANK: No, I think --
KURTZ: But why?
MILBANK: Why do we do it? Well, I suppose and I think it's a TV phenomenon. He wants to get his mug out there and he wants to be replayed in clips like you're constantly playing. I mean, I write about Donald Trump, but it's simply to mock him.
KURTZ: I see Debra trying to get in here.
SAUNDERS: He knows that every time -- he knows that if he brings up birther, bringing up the birth certificate issue, it's like candy for cable news. So he's a genius at self-promotion, and he knows that if he brings up something like the birther thing, that cable will run it. It will be on TV.
And, you know, we know he's not a serious candidate. If you ask him about Libya, he talks about the great real estate deal he got when he overcharged Gadhafi for where he put his tent. I mean, he's not serious and we should treat him as if he was serious. We should treat him like intermission.
SIMON: I mean, the media loves to gawk at the train wreck, and some of these candidates are. But the birther claim takes him out beyond the usual exotic, outrageous stuff. Even Glenn Beck attacked him.
KURTZ: And Bill O'Reilly gave him a hard time.
SIMON: Well, because even though not every birther is a racist, by any means, the basis for the birther movement was racism, that they could not imagine a black man legitimately becoming president of the United States. And they had to find a way to disqualify him.
KURTZ: Whether that's the case or not, there is an overwhelming evidentiary case that it didn't appear -- in 1961, when Obama was born, and then two birth announcements appeared in Hawaii newspapers, that was part of some grand conspiracy? And yet it bothers me, because on the one hand, journalists point this out. On other hand, they give a platform -- and Trump is not the only one -- to people who continue to peddle this ludicrous nonsense.
SIMON: Well, one --
SAUNDERS: The more we talk about it, the more people wonder if there's a reason for us talking about it.
KURTZ: If there's smoke, there must be fire.
Do you want to get on, on this?
SAUNDERS: That's right. That's right. MILBANK: I mean, you know, that's the same reason an absurd number of Americans think the president is a Muslim. More of them probably do now thanks to Donald Trump.
KURTZ: So you don't think he's running?
SIMON: Donald Trump?
SIMON: Oh, I think he'll run as far as he can get.
KURTZ: But run toward the cameras.
SIMON: Well, debates fuel this thing.
SAUNDERS: Just not for president.
SIMON: And in the primaries it's very hard to knock these guys out of the debates. Alan Keyes, in 2000, won, judging by audience reaction, every debate he was in until finally the Republican Party banned him from the debates. Donald Trump can't wait to get into these debates. Neither can Michele Bachmann.
KURTZ: Well, I predict he's not going to run. He's done this before. And if he does, we'll be having more discussions like this on this program.
Debra Saunders, Dana Milbank, Roger Simon, thanks for joining us.
Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, from Brian Williams and Katie Couric, to the E! channel and the Weather Channel, the yanks are preparing to descend on the royal wedding.
Are you ready to overdose on William and Kate?
And later, why a new book by a former "New York Times" reporter prompted the paper to run a correction to a story 69 years later.
KURTZ: Don't get me wrong. I think it's just swell that Prince William and Kate Middleton are tying the knot in London at the end of the month. But as I was reading in "Women's Wear Daily" about the journalistic invasion, I thought this is bloody over the top. Brian and Katie and Matt and Meredith and Joe and Mika, Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan, Bravo, E!, and that's even before you get to all the newspaper and magazine folks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILL: And here we are out in front of Buckingham Palace as all of London and, frankly, the world is preparing for the royal wedding, which is just about a month away.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, the wedding is now officially just one month away, which leaves us little time to find out as many details as we can.
MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": And just ahead, as we've mentioned, we've got the countdown continuing to the royal wedding.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many days is it now?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know.
LAUER: Thirty-one or something like that?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where's our countdown clock?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The question sort of raises itself. How much is too much?
Joining us now here in Washington, Amy Argetsinger, co-author of "The Reliable Source" gossip column at "The Washington Post." In Los Angeles, Sharon Waxman, the founder and editor of TheWrap.com. And in Springfield, Illinois, John Avlon, CNN contributor and a columnist for "The Daily Beast."
Sharon Waxman, a big global story, no question. Worldwide interest, no question. But this is a journalistic invasion to rival Normandy.
SHARON WAXMAN, FOUNDER & EDITOR, THEWRAP.COM: Right. And a month out?
I mean, obviously, this is a business decision, not a news decision. From a news perspective, that's completely ridiculous. I'm sorry.
And I don't really care if -- we can gorge on it as much as we want. It's fun. It's kind of news. But from a business perspective, you kind of wonder, are you going to wear out the viewers before the event really happens?
And the other question for me is, how many eyeballs does anybody have? I mean, you have this going on, on every single channel, and on Twitter and on Facebook. How many places can we look at this if we're only one person?
WAXMAN: So there is going to be -- you're going to max out on this at a certain point.
KURTZ: Well, that's why we decided to do this today, because it's so early.
And I was just looking at the list, Amy Argetsinger. There's a "TIME" special issue, there's a current issue of "Newsweek," where I work. "Dateline" is doing an instant documentary.
"People" has a special issue. And not to be outdone, "US Weekly" is planning two special issues on the royal wedding.
Does that strike you as overkill?
AMY ARGETSINGER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Perhaps, but this is sort of what you have to expect with the celebrity news industrial complex these days. If this surprises anyone, then they obviously missed out on Jenna Bush's wedding or Chelsea Clinton's wedding, the whole wedding mania, or really the whole growth of TMZ culture, where you have this much celebrity news generated.
You know, there was about this much, I would say, 30 years ago, with Charles and Diana. Don't you think?
KURTZ: Well, but of course that was before there were nine million cable channels and Twitter and all of that.
John Avlon, I have a very short and direct question for you. Are you sick of the wedding yet?
JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm very happy for them as people, but yes. I mean, this is absurd.
You know, a month countdown with everything that's going on in the world? It might have made sense 30 years ago, but I think there's a significant generation gap in this coverage. I think people who remember the Charles and Diana wedding 30 years ago maybe see this as some kind of story that's come full circle, but for most young Americans this is irrelevant.
And that's part of the point of being Americans. We don't have a monarchy. We chose not to care about this a long time ago.
And new polls show that 65 percent of Americans don't care at all. So why the month countdown with everything going on in the world?
KURTZ: Well, you kind of anticipated my next question to Sharon.
Which is, is this a not-so-subtle effort on the part of the media to bring back the era of Diana? Princess Diana, of course, was a godsend for the media. She sold endless numbers of magazines.
WAXMAN: Yes. I mean, I think this is the kind of thing -- look, you've got to be a little bit forgiving of the media here. I mean, there's no way that we're not going to try to glom on to a story like this.
It's one of the rare fairytale stories, but I'm thinking a lot about news budgets and what's getting poured into the coverage of this event, particularly on the heels of these two huge global disasters that news departments everywhere have had to deal with -- the Japan thing. They're both, like, global and very, very expensive to cover, Japan and then everything going on in the Middle East.
So I don't know if this is a way to try to kind of make up for the cost of that because there's going to be a lot of advertising that comes into the news networks around this event, or if it's really just about trying to maybe lighten the mood a little bit and find something a little happier. Because, really, it's been grim lately.
KURTZ: It has been months of grim news from Egypt to Libya, and then the Japanese nuclear disaster, Amy Argetsinger. But Sharon makes a good point. I mean, we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of journalists that are going to go to London, and it just makes you wonder something about the scale of it at a time when newsroom budgets are being strained so badly.
KURTZ: Are you going?
ARGETSINGER: No, I'm not going.
KURTZ: OK. I thought maybe I was insulting you.
ARGETSINGER: No, no, no. We have one colleague who's based full time in London, Anthony Fiola (ph). Our style section colleague Monica Hessey (ph) will be going over, and she'll be doing several stories that are non-wedding-related as well.
KURTZ: Now, that's not to say that you won't be all over it.
ARGETSINGER: Well, you know, I don't know that I really need to get involved in this. Look, you're talking about --
KURTZ: You're taking a pass on the story of a lifetime?
ARGETSINGER: You talk about -- I think a lot of reporters are wearing on it. You know, you talk about all this stuff, honestly I find myself -- I see something go across a crawl or across a Web site that says, "William will not wear a wedding ring," I'm not even clicking on that.
KURTZ: You're not even clicking on that, and you're the target audience. I just discovered this morning before we came on a big scoop from the AP The headline: "Prince William's Hairline Fading Fast." One thing he lacks, a full head of hair. I was not aware of that.
KURTZ: John Avlon, does this require, in order for all of this gushing coverage -- and of course the coverage the coverage to follow after the wedding -- turning Kate Middleton into kind of a mythic figure?
AVLON: Well, that will probably be part of it. And I do have to say that at least Kate Middleton, the fact that she does come from a self-made family, makes it slightly more relevant to the American story. That's a sympathetic figure. But again, it's a question of degrees.
It's not just Libya, Japan, Afghanistan. It's also conflicts we're not covering in the Ivory Coast, where this breathless, all- oxygen-out-of-the-room attention on the royal wedding a month out, with minutia that could be better used in a thousand ways.
So, you know, Kate Middleton, I think, is actually a pretty compelling figure in her own right because she represents a step outside that inbred aristocracy. But nonetheless, it's a matter of priorities. It's a matter of getting a big picture and a reality check, folks. We shouldn't care so much about this.
KURTZ: Yes. It's the fact that it's a month out that makes me wonder -- actually, to quake with fear -- but what it's going to be like when we actually get to the end of April.
Let me get a break.
And when we come back, more on the media's royal obsession as the networks chase Prince Harry to one of the coldest spots on Earth.
KURTZ: The media's interest in the royal wedding is such that ABC's Bob Woodruff went all the way to the Arctic to ask Prince Harry thinks about his brother getting married.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB WOODRUFF, ABC NEWS: The big wedding coming up. You're going to be the best man. And I know it's been your dream, in some ways, that you have a sister some day.
PRINCE HARRY: And she's a fantastic girl. She really is. My brother is very lucky, and she's very lucky to find my brother. The two of them are a perfect match.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, in fairness, Amy Argetsinger, Prince Harry was there to raise money for wounded soldiers, and Woodruff talked about that. But what do you make of this?
ARGETSINGER: Honestly, I'm interested in the royal wedding and I find that really boring. And this is the problem with stories about weddings and royal weddings, is that there is not a whole lot to say.
KURTZ: It's all going to be scripted.
ARGETSINGER: And the palace has been very savvy about this in terms of sustaining interest and doling out. They've been leaking (ph) out little bits of details over the past several weeks -- here's who the wedding party is going to be, here's where the procession is going to be. Here's how William is not going to wear a ring, et cetera, et cetera.
And it's been like a narcotic drip for media organizations. They constantly have something to say about it.
KURTZ: And Sandra Waxman, you live in L.A., which is sort of the spiritual home of the paparazzi. I'm wondering whether you think this craziness will continue once the wedding is over, and whether we'll have more invasions of privacy of both William and Kate.
WAXMAN: Well, the thing is, you think about contrasting this with Charles and Diana, it really isn't as interesting a story. This is a relationship that's gone on for a long time.
They broke up, they're back together. I have only ever followed it out of an eighth of the corner of my eye. But even so, Charles and Diana was a really fantastic story.
Here, you have this guy who had run around with all these different women, who still wasn't married at an advanced age. And at that time we thought he actually had a shot at being king.
And here come this girl, virginal, beautiful, head over heels. I mean, that was really a fantastic story. This is really much more prosaic. And the fact that she's a commoner, Kate Middleton, it's not that meaningful, honestly, to most of us in America.
KURTZ: All right.
WAXMAN: And he just seems kind of like a nice guy.
KURTZ: Let me get John Avlon in. We've got about a half a minute to break here.
Is there any way the media can say just no to this, or are we looking at a full-blown orgy of wedding coverage?
AVLON: I think the budgets have already been set and the ships have been deployed. But it should bring some soul-searching.
And I think if you talk to reporters, even on the beat, off the record, they'll say look, I think it is a little overblown. There are real stories in the world. Americans don't care that much about this. And treating royalty like another celebutante doesn't do them a disservice either.
KURTZ: All right.
AVLON: Britain's a great country, got a great, special relationship. But this is absurd and overkill.
KURTZ: We've got to go, Sharon Waxman.
WAXMAN: Howie, do you really think that if a big story comes up, that Anderson Cooper won't be the first person on a plane, honestly?
AVLON: I hope so.
WAXMAN: Sharon Waxman -- we're going to let that question hang in the air -- Amy Argetsinger and John Avlon, thanks very much. Up next, author John Darnton on the search for the real story about the death of his father, a "New York Times" correspondent back in World War II.
KURTZ: "The New York Times" ran a correction recently of a story published back in 1942. That World War II report was about one of its own correspondents, Barney Darnton, who was said to have died in an accident. The correction was prompted by his son, John Darnton, who spent 40 years as a reporter and editor at The Times. He tells the tale in a new book, "Almost a Family."
I spoke to him earlier from New York.
KURTZ: John Darnton, welcome.
JOHN DARNTON, FMR. REPORTER & EDITOR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Thank you very much. I'm glad to be on your program.
KURTZ: What drove you to spend all of this time, all these years investigating the circumstances of your father's death?
DARNTON: Well, you know, for many years, I didn't think about it at all. I just kind of went into the same profession as he did, even working for the same newspaper. And then a very strange thing happened.
My brother and I -- my brother is two years older -- learned there was a pub named after him in Scotland. And it turned out that this remote pub on an island 13 miles off the coast had been the scene of an accident of a liberty ship that was named after our father.
So we went over there to, frankly, you know, drink some champagne in this pub. And while we were there, we saw the remnants of the ship, as the kind of eight foot hull left in the harbor, covered with moss and --
KURTZ: And that got you thinking about what had happened?
DARNTON: -- I started thinking -- the whole chain of events.
KURTZ: Here's something that really jumped out at me. You found in "The New York Times" morgue a story from 1947.
KURTZ: This is five years after your father was killed.
KURTZ: Never published. And it said the following in the lead sentence, that "His death was perhaps the first in a number of tragic incidents during the war in which American aircraft mistakenly attacked our own troops."
So that story about Barney Darnton was never published.
Didn't "The New York Times" -- wasn't it part of a cover-up?
DARNTON: Well, I don't know if it was a cover-up, but I found it fascinating that they never printed it, because as far as any reader of the newspaper of record would know, he died in an accident. My family knew, shortly afterward, that it was a case of friendly fire, but the whole story was never told.
And in 1947, this journalist uncovered it, wrote a story about it, and it was never printed. And I found this in sort of the bowels of the paper --
DARNTON: -- in their archives. And there was a little notation by the then-managing editor, a fellow named Edwin L. James, in reply to a question from the publisher. And he said, "We decided not to print this on the grounds that it would do no good." And I found that interesting.
KURTZ: That's an amazing rationale considering --
KURTZ: -- that he was a "New York Times" correspondent.
Now, you tracked down men in their 80s and 90s who had served with your dad. You even found the name of the pilot who had -- whose plane had dropped the bomb.
DARNTON: Right. Right.
KURTZ: This was a real detective story.
DARNTON: Well, it was. But I have to say, I was helped by the Internet. I mean, it's a marvel.
You can locate people. You can send out messages to every member of the 32nd Division, which was the troop ship he was on. And through that, I was able to meet a fellow in Plainview, Texas, a 90-year-old man who actually had been talking to my father just before the attack, and then wrapped his body in a GI blanket and took it to shore.
KURTZ: Amazing that you could hook up with him --
KURTZ: -- after so many years.
KURTZ: We're talking half a century here and you find him through the Internet.
KURTZ: And you also eventually took a trip, as you write, to New Guinea.
What did you find there?
DARNTON: I did, because this is where the accident that occurred. The case of friendly fire was off of a tiny remote village called Pongani (ph). And that area had always been very kind of almost sacred, in my memory, because our mother, who lived then in Westport, Connecticut, always claimed she knew at that moment of his death that it occurred, that something dramatic had occurred.
She even went so far as to kind of have to go outside and collect herself. And she said the next day, "The New York Times" called with the news. So that place has always had a kind of -- assumed almost a mystical sense to me.
DARNTON: I decided I had to see it.
DARNTON: And we went to this remote village. I thought probably nobody would still be alive. It was over 60 years ago. And the average life expectancy there is 48.
And we went to this village. And they received us with ceremonially dress and everything. And after a long negotiation -- a certain amount of money has to exchange hands in these situations, apparently -- they let me talk to two village elders who both remembered it, including one man who was a 6-year-old boy on his way to school. And he took me out to the beach and just pointed right to the spot where the body lay.
KURTZ: That is so remarkable. We're running short on time but --
KURTZ: -- as you pieced together the story of your father's life, as well as the details of his death, did it fill some kind of hole within you?
DARNTON: I think it did. I think it did.
Anyone who has lost a parent, under any circumstance, at a young age, has to fill that vacuum with something. And in my case, I think it was filled by myth.
He became a figure of heroic stature in my eyes. I think that's why I went into the same profession. And this humanized him quite a bit. I suddenly was able to fill in the silhouette with a real flesh and blood figure.
KURTZ: And just a quick question about your mother, Eleanor. After Barney died, she eventually went to work for "The New York Times." She became -- she was in charge of what was then called the women's pages.
KURTZ: And you quote a 1945 memo she wrote to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, then the publisher, in which she talked about the outmoded policy of covering clothes and cosmetics. And she wrote that The Times had a particular blind spot to the news value of other stories, that this is not obvious to the men or the decks (ph), which for years have ignored the interests of women.
KURTZ: A little bit ahead of her time?
DARNTON: She -- most certainly ahead of her time. In fact, her experience at the paper ended somewhat unhappily and she left it to found something called the Women's National News Service, news by women and about women for papers all over the country. Sadly enough, it didn't succeed. I think it was ahead of its time, too.
KURTZ: So much has changed, but it's a timeless story.
John Darnton, thanks very much for joining us.
DARNTON: Thank you very much for inviting me.
KURTZ: Still to come, the Fox News executive who pushed a dubious talking point about Barack Obama, and how NBC blew a big story involving one of its corporate owners.
Our "Media Monitor" is next.
KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Monitor," a weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.
There it was on the front page of "The New York Times," one eye- opener of a story. General Electric, one of America's blue chip corporations, paid no taxes last year. Zip. Zero.
And lots of news organizations ran with it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID MUIR, ABC NEWS: The headline generating a lot of outrage, as you may know, the CEO of General Electric is now President of Obama's point man on jobs and economic growth. And yet, today, we learn GE, his company, pays less in taxes the rest of us. Nothing, in fact.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But NBC, which is partly owned by General Electric, looked the other way. I will let Jon Stewart pick up the narrative, as he was describing how GE has moved some of its jobs overseas.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Of course GE still has some workers in America like "NBC Nightly News." And the night this story broke, they were probably all over it like, nothing, they didn't -- they didn't report at all that GE -- no.
Well, to be fair, Libya, Japanese radiation, there's an awful lot going on in the world. And I imagine their Friday night newscast was chockfull of the type of urgent news that would preclude a more esoteric financial story.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: The Oxford English Dictionary, the most formal and proper of them all, has added some decidedly informal words to its lexicon tonight -- "LOL" and "OMG," "Whassup," "taquito," "muffin top" made the list.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Well, six days after this story broke, Brian Williams' newscast finally took note of it on a day when GE chief executive Jim Immelt, who doubles as the head of President Obama's Jobs Council, was offering an explanation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFFREY IMMELT, CEO, GENERAL ELECTRIC: Like any American, we do like to keep our tax rate low. But we do it in a compliant way, and there are no exceptions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Well, better late than never.
By the way, CBS' Lesley Stahl offered some aggressive reporting this week on precisely how corporations evade taxes in a "60 Minutes" piece, and was fair to the companies involved.
In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, there was a lot of talk on Fox News about Barack Obama and socialism. Some of it coming from a top news executive, Bill Sammon.
Here is what he said on Greta Van Susteren's show after Obama told "Joe the Plumber" -- remember him? -- it was good to spread the wealth around.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL SAMMON, WASHINGTON MANAGING EDITOR, FOX NEWS: This clip that we have been showing where Barack Obama told a plumber that, you know, he wants to spread the wealth around, that's anathema to conservatives. That's the same as saying spread the misery around. That's basically tantamount to socialism.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barack Obama talks about these terms in his books, and he was drawn to Marxists, he was drawn to liberals, he was drawn to socialists by his own admission as a young man.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But Sammon didn't believe what he was saying. As I reported this week, here is what he said in a speech on a cruise ship the following year, unearthed by the liberal advocacy group Media Matters.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
SAMMON: At that time I have to admit I went on TV on Fox News and publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism, a premise that privately, I found rather far-fetched.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
KURTZ: Amazing. He privately found it far-fetched, but kept on raising it anyway. This, from Fox's Washington managing editor.
Sammon told me he also criticized George W. Bush in that speech and considered it kind of remarkable that the country was even having a country about Obama's alleged socialist tendencies. Does he regret raising it? No, because it was a main point of discussion, he says, on all the channels in all the media.
But much more so, I would say, on Bill Sammon's channel.
Here is one that had me shaking my head. Tucker Carlson's conservative Web site, "The Daily Caller," knows a good story when it sees one such as Sarah Palin's reality series on TLC getting $1.2 million in state tax credits for filming in Alaska under a law Palin signed as governor.
Beginning on the seventh paragraph, the Web site ran a statement provided by Palin: "Any suggestion that I somehow did something wrong by signing this legislation is ludicrous. The accusation hinges on the notion that I signed the legislation into law knowing that it would personally benefit me. That's absurd."
Her full statement appeared on the next page, but that wasn't fair and balanced enough for the Fox News commentator. On her Facebook page she writes, "Goodness, cleaning up the sloppiness of reporters could be a full-time job. In response to 'The Daily Caller's' online inquiry, I gave them a statement that the writer buried on his story's second page which most people won't even notice -- I didn't even notice it -- after he spent the first page completely spinning the situation. Having to set the record straight on my Facebook page yet again is further proof that the media can't be trusted even to print a statement in a manner that people can read."
So, Palin doesn't just resent the liberal media, she thinks every outlet should tell the story exactly as she outlines.
Finally, ever wonder how a totally bogus Internet rumor gets started? Here's anchor Jorge Ramos asking the BlackBerry-addicted president about his gadgets.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JORGE RAMOS, NEWS ANCHOR (through translator): Do you have an iPad?
OBAMA: I do have an iPad.
RAMOS: Do you own a computer?
OBAMA: I have got my own computer.
RAMOS: Very well.
OBAMA: Jorge, I'm the president of the United States. Do you think I've got --
OBAMA: Do you think I have to go borrow somebody's computer?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Good line, but KNTV, the NBC station in San Francisco, somehow turned this into -- and this is the actual headline -- "Obama Cuts in Line and Gets an iPad 2," reporting that the president got a newer version of the tablet computer from Apple, and got it before everyone else.
That "gotcha" headline wound up on "The Drudge Report," except KNTV now admits it was wrong and " -- it's unclear which generation iPad the president uses."
"It's not clear" in this case means we have no idea whether what we reported was true.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.