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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Trump for President?; Obama Catching Flak From Liberal Pundits

Aired April 17, 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: We've had a good time, I have to admit, poking fun at Donald Trump with his birther conspiracy, that hair, the rich guy swagger, and the notion that he's just pretending to run for president. But what if we who peddle the conventional wisdom are wrong? What if Trump runs and turns out to be the Ross Perot of 2012? Is the press giving him an absurdly easy ride?

President Obama, getting flak from liberal pundits in the wake of that 11th-hour budget deal. Are the mainstream media missing this revolt on the left?

Plus, Arianna made $315 million for selling "The Huffington Post." Lots of unpaid bloggers got bupkis. Is that their new lawsuit for a share of the profits has a shot?

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

It may turn out in the end that this was precisely what many of us suspected, a publicity scheme to boost the ratings of "Celebrity Apprentice." But what if the media are giving rise to a genuine Trump phenomenon, with "The Donald" now in first place among Republicans in a new poll? What if this wealthy developer, for all his baggage and the birther nonsense, is serious about a campaign for the White House? What if he actually runs?

Trump had a combative this week with "The Wall Street Journal," getting a little testy with the reporter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY EVANS, COLUMNIST, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": There are great businesspeople like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who have, to some degree, they embody maybe the best of American capitalism and there are people who would say that you embody the worst.

DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: Well, I don't think people would say that at all. I think that people think I have done a great job. I have done a great job.

But I have never filed for bankruptcy. I think you know that. I think your question is a sneaky question and really a dishonest question.

The concern is that if I don't win, will I run as an Independent? And the answer is probably yes. And that bothers me only from the standpoint that, if I don't win, we're not going to get a Republican and Obama gets re-elected.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Meanwhile, the Trump talk on the airwaves is drowning out discussion of every other possible Republican candidate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: When you look at most polls, a lot of Republicans have pretty much decided they want someone who can beat Barack Obama. And they'd take Donald Trump if he wasn't a laughing stock.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Does Trump know what he's doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump could run a serious campaign if he chooses to. So far, he hasn't chosen to.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: Folks, we're past the point of wondering whether Donald Trump is a serious candidate anymore, aren't we? At this point, we should just queue up the circus music every time this clown opens his mouth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, are journalists helping to create this Trump tsunami with waves of uncritical coverage?

Joining us now in Washington, Craig Crawford, columnist for "CQ Roll Call"; in Austin, Mark McKinnon, contributor to "The Daily Beast" and a former media adviser to George W. Bush. And in Chicago, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun-Times."

Craig Crawford, is it possible the media's wisdom is wrong, that I'm wrong, as infrequently as that happens, and that Trump will run and he'll be formidable?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, COLUMNIST, "CQ ROLL CALL": Well, you titled your own book "Media Circus." Here it is.

Well, you know, you mentioned Ross Perot. He proved that there is plenty of room for a populist plutocrat in presidential candidates. He got a fifth of the popular vote, and he was a gaffe-prone Independent candidate.

KURTZ: Mark McKinnon, I wonder whether you would agree. I mean, we've looked at these polls, Trump up to 26 percent among Republicans in one poll, with Huckabee at 17 percent; Mitt Romney, 15 percent. A lot of that is name I.D.

But have the journalistic wise guys been a little too quick to dismiss this guy?

MARK MCKINNON, "THE DAILY BEAST": Sure. I mean, Donald Trump has titanium testicles, and he loves to make them clank. And the press loves to report on it. But it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more attention he gets, the more real he takes himself, anyway.

And I think that it's very likely, as you were saying at the top, that he could become a Ross Perot candidate. Even if he doesn't get through the Republican primaries, which I think is highly doubtful, he's got the itch. And I think he may go out there and scratch it. And he could become a Ross Perot kind of candidates, get 20 percent of the vote, and throw the election to Barack Obama.

KURTZ: And spend a lot of his own money in the process, as Perot did.

If we can put up the cover of "The New York daily News" from earlier this week, Lynn Sweet, I know you can't see it, but it shows Donald Trump -- I'm sure it's coming any second here -- anyway, it shows him as a clown. And I was a little skeptical when he said that on the last episode of "Celebrity Apprentice" in June, he'll announce the date on which he's going to announce when he's going to run.

But has there been a bit of knee-jerk effort by the press, a knee-jerk response, to treat him as something of a clown?

LYNN SWEET, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, the answer is yes and no. This Trump possible candidacy, Howie, is, in a sense, a case study for a journalist here. How could somebody who is otherwise credible venture into uncredible territory with his birther claims? And how do you treat that when you know that if you interview him, you will get clicks and lots of ratings hits? So this is a little bit of new territory.

Now, clearly, there is an appetite within the Republican voters, the polls show, for Donald Trump. But I think, journalistically, you have to figure out a way when you write about him is to talk about the whole picture here and not -- and you have to put in that he is trying to make a run based on, in part, on the birther claims that not only have been debunked, but he says things that just aren't true in trying to make the case.

KURTZ: And we repeatedly give him a platform to say those things.

I want to come back to the birther issue in a moment, but let me first ask you, Craig, if we are going to put him on TV and write about him as a potential presidential candidate, then why isn't there any serious scrutiny of his record from his business record, the bankrupt casinos, to the changes in his position? I mean, 10 years ago, Trump was in favor of abortion rights, he was in favor of universal health care. Now he's flipped on both of those, not even getting into the three wives.

Why don't we take -- if we're going to give him all of this attention, why don't we take him seriously in terms of scrutiny?

CRAWFORD: And I think we got a hint of what that will bring, is his response, sneaky and dishonest questions. So I think when that comes -- and it will -- I mean, after the media's celebrity focus, there will be harder questions and scrutiny and investigations of his business background.

I wonder how he feels about financial disclosure if he actually becomes a candidate. Will we see his tax records and a lot of his business records? That will be a lot of fodder for the media, and I'm sure we'll get some very angry responses from him about it.

KURTZ: Let me pick up this birther question with you, Mark McKinnon, because, you know, various anchors and correspondents have tried to point out either during interviews with him or afterwards that, basically, what he's saying is not true, that there is no documentation that suggests that Barack Obama wasn't born in Hawaii.

Do you think it's getting so much coverage because he can't stop talking about it, or because we keep giving him a platform to do that?

MCKINNON: Well, he's getting a platform to do it, and he's leading the charge. It's interesting to see that Sarah Palin turned around on that issue because Trump keeps banging the drum.

But I think if he had that much trouble a "Wall Street Journal" reporter who's actually pretty friendly, when he starts getting the real tough questions from the press, he's going to wilt like a flower. And the real problem for him is going to be that he doesn't have the discipline to be a real candidate for president of the United States.

KURTZ: But what does it tell us, Mark, about the environment, media and political, that if someone else had come on TV and kept talking about Obama wasn't born in this country, we would generally dismiss that person as a fringe candidate, or a fringe figure. And yet, polls show that as many as half of Republican primary voters believe this. And Here's Trump catering, some would say pandering, to that sentiment. .

MCKINNON: He's perpetuating the myth. And we continue to cover it and continue to talk about it. And that's why the base continues to think about it.

But I think it's going to run its course pretty quickly, even though I'm surprised it's lasted as long as it has. But it's given Trump the kind of attention that he wanted, the kind of attention that he planned, and just the kind of attention that he knew would get us talking about it this morning on television.

KURTZ: Right. And here you have Mitt Romney, who formed his exploratory committee this week, probably getting 100th of the coverage that Trump has gotten.

I was in New Hampshire this week with Tim Pawlenty, and I asked him, "How do you feel about Trump getting so much more coverage than you are? You're out there campaigning." And he kind of deflected the question and said he didn't think Trump was a serious candidate.

Lynn Sweet, I was in New York in the late 1980s when Trump was becoming a national figure. And he was married to Ivana, and he had that affair with Marla Maples. And there was that classic "New York Post" headline, "Best Sex I Ever Had." Is all of that going to be exhumed if Trump persists in this presidential flirtation and/or candidacy?

SWEET: Well, I imagine it is. You know, character issues, personal life, financial life, all of that is what he's going to have to brace.

And one thing he's going to need to do if he is serious is build a real organization with real consultants, with real foot soldiers in the key primary states. Now, that's what he hasn't done.

He's vaulted to the top of the polls through his celebrity. Why not? It's his to use. But what he'll have to do soon is to understand that right now, he can kind of control the message because a lot of the stories are based on his interviews.

He was at a Tea Party rally in Florida yesterday, get as lot of attention. The story soon is going to go out of his control. Howie, you know how the press is.

There's going to be flocks of investigative reporters he will never lay eyes on, who he will never talk to, who will write stories about his business dealings. That's the moment we haven't come to yet. That's when we'll see if he really has what it takes to put together a presidential campaign that can compete with the scrutiny I expect he will get.

KURTZ: Yes.

CRAWFORD: But he did send a political adviser out to Iowa in his private 727 by himself. I think that sort of thing will not impress Iowans.

KURTZ: But that's where I think we have fallen down on the job. We are treating him as a big deal, but we are not applying the same kind of standards that we would apply to somebody who's even at one percent in the presidential polls.

Mark, did you want to get in?

SWEET: Absolutely.

MCKINNON: No, I was going to -- I wanted to say that, organizationally, it's true that he doesn't have much going so far. But I just read that he's apparently talking to Ralph Reed. And if that's the case, he's a serious player and he'd bring a lot to the table to help get that organization going.

His timing is impeccable. The political media is ready to cover the campaign. And there are not a lot of exciting people out there.

CRAWFORD: And his timing is impeccable, because the media -- political media sphere is ready to cover the campaign, and there's not a lot of exciting people out there.

KURTZ: Right. But that's why you had Sarah Palin and you have these -- Michele Bachmann, who may not run.

CRAWFORD: Even if Americans aren't ready to read about it, about half of them told pollsters they dread the next campaign.

KURTZ: I just wanted to mention, "Vanity Fair" wrote a piece on Trump. And he sent it back all marked up. I don't know if we have that. There you see his handwriting.

SWEET: I saw that, yes.

KURTZ: He called the author, Julie Weiner, a bad writer and he said -- let's see -- to Graydon Carter, the editor of "Vanity Fair," "I know far more about you than you know about my. You never got the Trump thing. You never liked me." He's pretty thin-skinned.

ABC's George Stephanopoulos interviewed the current president, Barack Obama, this week, and it was a wide-ranging discussion of budgetary and other matters. But there was this question which relates to our discussion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC: I mean, all of us have been struck by Donald Trump rising to the top of the Republican by feeding fantasies about your background.

What do you make of that?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It creates, I think, a problem for them when they want to actually run in a general election, where most people feel pretty confident the president was born where he says he was, in Hawaii. He doesn't have horns.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Craig Crawford, was that a question that Stephanopoulos should have asked? I mean, did he have to ask it, or is it a waste of air time?

CRAWFORD: I think it was good to ask, and I think it's good for the president, actually, to respond to this. And it's a legitimate question since it's out there. And even if it's crazy, I mean --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But I have a problem with this "if it's out there."

Mark McKinnon, I have a few seconds for you to weigh in on this.

You know, if Donald Trump went around saying, you know, I have evidence in my hand that the Earth is flat, you wouldn't ask President Obama, hey, what about this flat Earth thing? Or does he deserve a chance to respond?

Go ahead. I'm sorry. MCKINNON: Well, but I think that the fact is the president dismissed it. And it's an opportunity for the president to deflect it and show just how completely out of touch the Republican Party is. Because, right now, Donald Trump is representing the Republican Party.

CRAWFORD: And there are about a fifth of the Republican primary voters who believe this. They are like a kid afraid of a monster under his bed. You can't use reason to change his mind.

KURTZ: I've got to call time here and get a break.

When we come back, a United States senator says something flatly untrue about Planned Parenthood, and only a few media folks call him out, led by Stephen Colbert.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Jon Kyl went on the floor of the Senate and said, "If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does." Well, the actual figure, three percent. Kyl's office putting out a statement saying, well, that was not intended to be a factual statement.

That set the stage for Stephen Colbert.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": I decided to celebrate Jon Kyl's groundbreaking excuse-planation last night by tweeting 'round-the-clock non-facts about him such as, for the past 10 years, Jon Kyl has been two children in a very convincing Jon Kyl suit.

(APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: And Jon Kyl calls all Asians "Neil" no matter what their name is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, other than a few liberal pundits at MSNBC that beat up on Kyl, it hasn't gotten that much attention in the press. Why is holding a senator accountable left to the late-night comics?

SWEET: I agree with you. I would think that the other point that has kind of escaped, and just looking around to see who's been writing about it, do you know that he actually excised that "90 percent" from the congressional record? And that is -- I think maybe there's just a lot of news and not enough people to write about everything.

But when you take something out of the congressional record that he actually said, and it's on video, you get into kind of a serious question where you do push a story out, and I think maybe people just sometimes have to catch up in this world where there is a torrent of news. But when you make something -- what's that word, excuse- planation? That was a great phrase. I think the mainstream press is a little behind on this

KURTZ: Let me let Mark McKinnon jump in as well.

I wonder if it has to do with the fact that Jon Kyl is not exactly a household name. If Michele Bachmann had said this, I bet you everyone would have cove covered it.

MCKINNON: I think that's true, but it's a testament to what's happening now in our politics, that politicians, or somebody who's been around as long as Jon Kyl, could think he could go out and say something that's not intended to be a factual statement and get away with it. And if you turn that around and think about what he was saying, is that it's not intended to be a factual statement, then it was intended to be a misleading statement. I mean, he's acknowledging that it was completely bull.

KURTZ: No other explanation.

Craig Crawford, days later, Kyl finally admitted he misspoke and -- you'll love this -- blamed it on his press person.

CRAWFORD: Yes. And I think that press person needs to go back to press school, coming up with a statement like it wasn't intended to be factual. Why not just say you misspoke or something and let it go away?

KURTZ: Why not say you misspoke? If only politicians and others could learn that lesson, they could save themselves a week of ridicule.

Craig Crawford, Mark McKinnon in Austin, Lynn Sweet in Chicago, thanks for joining us.

Before we go to break, I want to say this about this sad news. Sidney Harman, the man who bought "Newsweek" and quite possibly saved the magazine, died this week at 92. He appeared on this program with "Newsweek" and "Daily Beast" editor Tina Brown after closing the deal.

In the short time that I worked with him, I found Sidney to be a remarkable man, smart, focused, with the energy of a youngster, and an amazing ability to recite Shakespeare and Tennyson by heart. We will miss him.

Coming up in the second part of this program, why Google is struggling to get into the social networking game.

But first, some liberal commentators have ripped President Obama over his compromises with the Republicans. But have the media largely missed this revolt on the left?

And then later, a blogger sues "The Huffington Post" for a share of Arianna's $315 million payday. We'll ask him why he should get a dime.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: President Obama may have kept the government from shutting down in that last-minute budget-cutting deal with the Republicans, but he ticked off many leading liberal commentators. And while some of them liked his budget speech this week, there are still grave doubts about whether Obama keeps giving up too much to the right wing.

But is that side of the debate getting enough attention? MSNBC's Rachel Maddow doesn't think so.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: The beltway media is not very interested in what happens on the lift, substantively, so you're probably not reading any interesting mainstream beltway journalism about this fight on the left, but it is a fascinating fight. And if the way that it works out is that the left does decide to take a harder line with President Obama, it will be really interesting to see whether liberals are capable of dragging the Democrats to a harder negotiating position.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: To examine that argument about the coverage, we're bringing in two voices from the left.

Joining us now here in Washington, John Aravosis, the founder of AmericaBlog.com. And in San Francisco, Joan Walsh, editor-at-large for Salon.com.

So, Joan, let me tee it up for you. Is it true that the beltway press isn't terribly interested in these debates and arguments on the left?

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, SALON.COM: You know, I would go beyond that, Howie, and I would say that the beltway media doesn't take enough interest but, moreover, likes to kind of kick the base and loves nothing more than when President Obama stands up to the base or the dissatisfied part of the base -- let's say that -- on these budget issues and on these tax and spending issues. That is seen as a sign of manhood in the beltway, when Democrats do that to liberals and progressives.

KURTZ: Well, look, is this the so-called liberal media we're talking about that enjoys seeing Obama --

WALSH: I don't believe that we have a liberal media. So, we can have another segment on that. I don't believe the media are liberal.

I think that there is a status quo beltway consensus, and people who think our tax rates should be higher, people who are really super concerned about our jobless recovery, the number of people still left out, people who are still losing their homes. That whole progressive economic side of things is barely covered. And when President Obama does something to sneer at his base, or when Robert Gibbs calls us the "professional left" and acts like we are a bunch of communists, the beltway media applaud.

And so it's a really dysfunctional relationship, which is why we have the blogosphere, which is we have our own media at this point.

KURTZ: Speaking of the blogosphere, John Aravosis, look, the media are always looking for signs of civil war in the Republican Party. A bunch of freshmen defect from John Boehner's budget deal, that's a big story. Among Democrats, not so much.

JOHN ARAVOSIS, FOUNDER, AMERICABLOG.COM: No. You know, it's been interesting the last few years, because on the left, I think dissatisfaction with Obama began pretty early, certainly with the gay community, and then it spread out I think to other communities as well, other parts of the Democratic base.

And you have never really seen any, I think, deep coverage of what is actually going on in terms of Obama's relationship with his own party. And I would go so far as to say I shouldn't have even just said the base.

I talk to folks on the Hill. And whether they are moderate senators, or moderate chiefs of staff, I should say, or others, they are just as unhappy with the president as a lot of us are, but it's not being reported.

KURTZ: And the reason it's not being reported, John, would it have to do with something like this -- is there a media mindset that, well, liberals may whine about Obama, but they're really not going to have any choice but to support him next year, so why should we pay attention?

ARAVOSIS: I think it's more than that. I think that, as Joan was saying, there is a little bit of a -- not a disaffection, but a little sense of, oh, the left, you know they're unhappy.

KURTZ: They're so cute.

ARAVOSIS: Yes, they're so cute, but look at those Tea Party people. They're crazy. Wouldn't they be fun to cover? And I think the media almost thinks it's more fun to cover right disaffection than left.

KURTZ: Joan Walsh, is there a media mindset that says that what the left wants, whether it's the public option on health care, or higher taxes for at least some Americans, is politically unrealistic, and therefore we shouldn't devote a lot of column inches to it?

WALSH: I think that's definitely part of it. And I don't know why people in the media get to decide that.

The tax rates we had during the Clinton administration are now apparently off the table when they were part of -- not the only thing, but they were part of bringing us a kind of unprecedented prosperity. But somehow, to suggest we go back to that, makes you kind of a crazy radical. And so, yes, there is a kind of bias for the status quo, a bias for what's perceived as being in the middle. And I think, actually, what you asked about -- well, the left is going to go with Obama anyway, I think that is part of it.

I think that we have seen these polls lately that say in the end, Democrats accept, for the most part, accept that Obama is going to compromise, whereas Republicans want no compromise. So it's also kind of a problem with the Democratic mindset, that we're the people who say, well, God, we don't want the government to shut down. And what if people don't get their welfare checks or soldiers aren't getting paid? OK, we'll compromise.

I mean, it's amazing to me that John Boehner made that deal and then -- you know, last Friday night, that progressives were upset about, and then he can't even get his own full caucus to get for it. He's got to go and get 81 Democrats.

KURTZ: But that's a good point.

And John, wasn't the media focused during the whole budget negotiation, what would satisfy John Boehner and the Tea Party conservatives, not what would satisfy the left wing of the Democratic Party?

ARAVOSIS: The media was, but I would posit that part of the problem though was the Democrats. It wasn't as if the president set a bottom line. And we all know that president. When he sets a bottom line, he's just not going to buckle.

No. I mean, everybody knew the president tends to give in too much, so that even, frankly, his speech this week, the president gave a great speech, I thought. He really laid down the line on all of these issues -- Social Security, Medicare, et cetera. But we know he doesn't really stick to his word, whereas those crazy Republicans, they don't give in. So the Democrats --

KURTZ: So this whole approach --

ARAVOSIS: Parts of it are the Democrats' fault, I would argue.

KURTZ: One thing that you and Joan seem to agree on is there is bias in the mainstream press -- and I'm sure a lot of people disagree with this -- towards the status quo, maybe even toward the center- right.

ARAVOSIS: Yes.

KURTZ: Does this drive you nuts?

ARAVOSIS: Well, it does because of what Joan I think had said, was sort of the lack of respectability in the sense that it almost is a sense in the media that people on the left aren't serious, that they are either not seriously taking on the president, or their actual views themselves are not serious because, oh, they're just crazy lefties, and they don't like to -- my favorite is when the media says the only reason you're upset with Obama is because you're a liberal and liberals just don't believe in compromise, and that's crazy.

Well, no. Liberals believe in compromise when it's necessary. They don't believe in compromise as God.

KURTZ: You know, there have been a few stories about this. "The Washington Post" ran one about liberals being upset with the president, Joan Walsh. But in terms of that budget deal and the negotiations that led up to it, it was the same thing in the lame-duck session when -- the compromise on the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

There is this recurring theme among people not just on the left, but particularly on the left, that Obama is too passive, that he gets into negotiations too late, and then he surrenders too much.

You got into a Twitter fight about this, on this very subject, did you not?

WALSH: I did. I got into a couple of Twitter fights.

I mean, one thing that I do want to say is that we really can't generalize about the base. The thing about the Democratic Party right now is that there are a lot of bases. There are a lot of pieces of the Obama puzzle, so that, for example, African-Americans tend to be pleased with him.

Now his standing with African-Americans dropped from the 90s to 85, the lowest it's been. That's very interesting to me. But for the most part, African-Americans are happier than the rest of the base.

You know, liberals, even polls week to week, month to month, show liberals -- 79 to 85 percent of liberals are happy. So, you know, those of us who get to go on TV have a responsibility to say, I speak for me, I have these values, I have -- I care about progressive economic politics, I'm unhappy for these reasons.

KURTZ: But do you get a pushback from people on your side of the political spectrum when you criticize the president because you think he gave away too much?

WALSH: Oh, absolutely I do. And that's what's great about Democrats. We argue, we debate, we fight.

There are people who feel that this president is doing all he can with the Congress that he has, that even the Democrats he has are Blue Dogs. Even last year, when he had, allegedly, for a half hour, 60 votes, he didn't have 60 votes. He had Joe Lieberman and Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson.

KURTZ: Right.

WALSH: You know, he's never had a mandate, even among Democrats for progressive policies, and that we are all being a little too impatient with him.

ARAVOSIS: But what's interesting though is on the left, you do see that a number of sort of the media types, or I'll say maybe progressive media types such as Ezra Klein with "The Washington Post," Matt Yglesias with Think Progress, people who tended to be more in Obama's camp, have gotten much more critical of late about the budget deal. So, you're seeing, yes, some people defend him, but it's fewer now I see.

KURTZ: Right, but I continue wonder why that isn't more of a story for those of us who aren't in any ideological camp. We love fights, we love arguments, we love dissension, but we seem to love it more --

ARAVOSIS: Especially with the election coming up. It's interesting.

KURTZ: -- on the right.

We'll have you back to talk about this.

ARAVOSIS: Yes. I appreciate it.

KURTZ: John Aravosis, Joan Walsh, thanks for joining us -- especially with the election.

After the break, we'll talk to one writer who says "The Huffington Post" owes its unpaid bloggers, many, millions of dollars, and another who says that's crazy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Jonathan Tasini has turned out his share of blog items for "The Huffington Post," and like most of those who write for the site, he wasn't paid a cent. This week, the freelance writer filed a class action lawsuit against Arianna's outfit on behalf of the 9,000 bloggers he says helped boost the value of her operation before she sold it to AOL for $315 million.

But is there a legal case here at all?

Joining us now from New York is Jonathan Tasini, the man who filed the suit and who currently blogs at workinglife.org, and Glynnis MacNicol of "Business Insider." She writes "The Wire" feature for that Web site and has also written for "The Huffington Post".

Glynnis MacNicol, good morning.

You did a lot of unpaid blogging, as I said for "Huffington Post." Now that Arianna has made her millions, do you feel cheated, do you feel ripped off, do you feel entitled to a big check?

GLYNNIS MACNICOL, "BUSINESS INSIDER": Certainly not. I don't feel like I'm entitled to anything.

My time at "Huffington Post" was very good for me, it was very good for my career. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to write there when I did. And I think Arianna built a really good business, and she deserves the money she made for having a successful business idea and seeing it through to fruition. KURTZ: Jonathan Tasini, why would you have voluntarily blogged for "The Huffington Post" for no money for quite a period of time, and now filed a suit saying you and others are entitled to a huge payday?

JONATHAN TASINI, WORKINGLIFE.ORG: Well, thanks for the question, Howie.

I think that as we have argued in our case, there are two issues here. One is something that's called unjust enrichment, which is a very long legal established doctrine, and also that there were deceptive business practices. But I also want to broaden it a little bit and point out that there is actually, outside the legal framework, there is a strike and a boycott against "The Huffington Post" not just on my part, but on the part of the newspaper deal which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America and the National Writers Union.

So, this is a very, very broad campaign that is not just in the legal arena, but may --

KURTZ: OK. But come back to the heart of the question.

TASINI: Yes.

KURTZ: You did this voluntarily.

TASINI: Right.

KURTZ: Nobody forced you to do it. Nobody promised you any payment. And now you want to get paid retroactively.

TASINI: As I said, many people, in fact, did post there and did blog there under certain assumptions.

I want to be careful and say there are some allegations that we believe, as many, many people have come to us since we filed the suit, that some people actually had been promised money and had been promised a contract. So it's a little more complicated than that, but I want to get back to the point about unjust enrichment.

Arianna Huffington built this business and sold it to AOL for $315 million. Again, this is someone who argues that we have a third world America where CEOs are trashing people, where there is a great divide between rich and poor, puts herself out there as a progressive person.

On the other hand, has now turned around and said all those people who created the value, all those people who made this a valuable commodity, and essentially created the value that attracted AOL, those people don't get a dime. I pocket the entire money, and for the rest of you, to hell with you. I think that's wrong.

KURTZ: Glynnis MacNicol, you're shaking your head. I have to ask you -- I like the idea of writers getting paid, as somebody who does this for a living. My Web site, "The Daily Beast," does pay contributors. Looking back, do you feel exploited? You were young. Do you feel like you were entitled to some token payment for your work?

MACNICOL: No, I don't feel like that. And when I wrote -- when I blogged at "The Huffington Post," when I wrote something that I felt strongly was worth being paid for, I pitched it to a place that I knew would pay me, and then, frequently, I got paid for it. So, I didn't go into "The Huffington Post" -- I went in with open eyes, with the understanding that what I was doing was for free.

And because it was for free, I wasn't required to pitch things. I wasn't required to meet certain traffic standards. There was no requirements on me whatsoever. That was the exchange. And what I got was a fairly high-profile platform that then resulted in people knowing who I was, reading my stuff, that further resulted in my getting a paying writing job.

KURTZ: Right.

MACNICOL: Something that Jonathan said though is that Arianna is a progressive and she's made all this money, and so she is required to pay it back. It makes it sound like she's sort of a one-woman welfare state.

I'm not sure she -- there was a lot more that went into Huffington Post's success than free bloggers. I think that's a very narrow way to look at why "The Huffington Post" was successful.

KURTZ: And I understand -- give me a second here. I understand your point about the exposure. My daughter writes an entertainment blog that's also carried on "The Huffington Post." She likes the exposure.

But I have got to ask you, Jonathan Tasini, about Arianna's response. Not only does she say she's inundated with people who want to write for free, but that you sent her e-mails gushing about The Huffington Post's ability to draw traffic to your Web site, you recommended a friend, you sent treats to the editors.

It certainly sounds like you got something out of your relationship with that Web site.

TASINI: Well, I sent treats to the editors because I tend to try to recognize the rank and file people who are below the CEO level. And there is a long history, actually, of Arianna Huffington abusing her staff people. You can do any Google search you want. I had very much sympathy for those people who worked at --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Well, she's not here to defend herself, so I'm not going to let that pass.

TASINI: I understand. OK. But, so, let me --

KURTZ: But I do want to -- this raises a perfect question. No, let me get one more question in.

You've called her unhinged. You have said that she'll be exposed as a liberal fraud. You have likened her to Marie Antoinette. This is a business dispute.

Why are you getting so personal?

TASINI: Well, I wanted to point out that I think what was important, at least one aspect of this, was that she pretends, and much of her brand is about presenting herself as a progressive leader, a person who believes in trying to bridge the gap between rich and poor, and in fact is acting just like the Wal-Marts, just like Goldman Sachs, just like the CEOs at Bank of America, and all those people who believe that they are the only ones that should be enriched from all the work that people create.

Glynnis said something I think is very, very important.

KURTZ: I've got just a few seconds.

TASINI: What we are looking at is the same battle that's gone on for 30, 40 years, which is people are being asked to work for free just on the basis of being able to be given exposure. That's the way writers and all creators have been exploited going back a very, very long time, and it has to stop.

KURTZ: We've got to go. We've got to go.

TASINI: And the culture will suffer from that.

MACNICOL: Arianna didn't ask people to work for free. She took volunteers.

TASINI: It's not the right thing to do.

MACNICOL: There is a difference there.

TASINI: It's not the right thing for a culture, that we have people being exploited.

KURTZ: You two will have to take this outside. Thanks very much.

Up next, Google is trying again to take on the likes of Facebook. But doesn't the online search giant already know too much about us?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Let's say you're looking for a good hotel or restaurant, or a smart news story on one of the 2012 candidates, or compelling video of the latest in Libya. Wouldn't you be more likely to trust the recommendation from one of your friends or colleagues? That's part of the essence of Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites, and it's a business that Google would very much like to get into.

The online search giant calls its version of friendly recommendations Plus 1.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you have lots of options in front of you, it's easy to find yourself wishing for a bit of advice. That's why we are introducing the Plus 1, a way for you and your friends to help each other friend great things in Google search.

When you click "Plus 1," you're telling your friends, your family, and the rest of the world, this is something you should check out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: It sounds cool, but Google has failed at this before. And there are some serious privacy concerns.

I spoke about this earlier with Steven Levy, senior writer from "Wired" magazine and author of the new book "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Steven Levy, welcome.

STEVEN LEVY, SR. WRITER, "WIRED": Thank you.

KURTZ: Outfits like Facebook and Twitter, they are all about social networking, people recommending things to their friends or followers. Google is at a big disadvantage here.

Why is that?

LEVY: Well, these recommendations actually help you find things. And that's what Google does.

Google's prime goal, really, and what they mainly do for most of their users -- and this is where they dominate -- is when you type something into their search box and they find things for you. So if there is all this information of what people like and don't like that could make Google more useful, Google wants to get at that stuff. So it either has to be able to draw on these other companies to share that information or get that information for itself.

KURTZ: But does it kind of go against the corporate ethos that, rather than having the magic formula algorithm that Google uses for its search results, tell you how to find things that your friend down the block or across the country could say, hey, I really like this movie, this restaurant, you name it?

LEVY: Well, it's not necessarily a contradiction. That's a piece of information.

And if you remember, Google's mission is to gather and access and organize all the world's information. So that's good pretty information for them if they can get hold of it. KURTZ: And the company now trying to get into this game with something called Google Plus 1.

How does that work? And does it have a shot?

LEVY: Right. Well, you have to understand a lot of things that Google has been doing over the past few months as pieces of a big puzzle. And we haven't seen the whole puzzle come together yet.

And the latest piece is this thing called Plus 1, which is pretty much analogous to the Facebook "Like" button, only it works with Google search. So, when someone likes something they see on the Web, or they get a result in their search results, they say, hey, I like it. And it sort of then goes to sleep and wakes up when of your friend searches for something, and they say, hey, my friend George liked that.

KURTZ: Maybe I should check it out.

LEVY: Maybe I ought to click it. Yes.

KURTZ: But, now, there is a troubled history here, as you well know. There was something called Google Buzz that raised huge privacy concerns.

Explain how that happened. And how could these geniuses who built this worldwide behemoth of a company not have seen the problem coming?

LEVY: Well, it's been interesting. You know, in "The Plex," I talk about a series of missteps that Google has had in social networking. And Buzz was just one of the more recent more embarrassing ones.

What happened with Buzz, which was sort of a social network, sort of like a super Twitter that they had attached to their mail product, Gmail. And when they tested it internally, they didn't see a privacy problem because everyone internally was just communicating with each other at Google, and there was no one secret on their mailing lists who they wanted to hide from other people because everyone was at Google.

But when it got released to the general public, a feature that Google had that they thought was great and saying, instead of painstakingly setting up your social network one by one, they'd do it automatically from the people you mail with, exposed contacts that people didn't necessarily want to expose. And that was pretty embarrassing.

KURTZ: In other words, you might be e-mailing with people who you don't want some of your friends to know that you are in touch with.

LEVY: Exactly, yes.

KURTZ: And this all became public. LEVY: Right. And there was one case, supposedly, where a woman's contacts were opened to her ex-husband, or something like that. And in any case, Google quickly fixed that, but the damage to that product was so extensive, that it essentially killed it.

KURTZ: I knew somebody would be getting divorced over this.

But, now, is this something we should worry about because Google is such a dominant search engine and knows so much about us? I mean, you buy a toilet, and suddenly you start getting ads served to you for bathroom renovation. And could this make Google even more powerful? And is that cause for concern?

LEVY: Well, definitely, Google has lots of information about you. Some of it is siloed in different areas.

The information you use and search doesn't get merged with the huge amount of information that Google has on you as you search the Web. They bought this ad network called Double Click, and what that does is sort of watches where you go on the Web so they can serve better ads to you. And then Google merged that with its own ad network, and made it even more powerful. But those things don't come together.

But for Google to have all this information in different places doesn't necessarily mean they can't be merged. You know, Google promises us what they do now, but some of these products -- just to stay competitive, Google wants to know a lot about you to give you better information.

So, the big thing they say now is these words, and Eric Schmidt says it a lot, "With your permission." So Google will say, "With your permission," we can now watch everywhere you go.

KURTZ: Thanks a lot for asking, Eric Schmidt. He, of course, the CEO.

Let me close with this. This is not the world's most transparent company, but Google let you spend hundreds of hours talking to its employees.

Why?

LEVY: Well, they felt that -- I covered the company for a long time, and they thought that if people saw how they worked, people would trust them more. It's all about trust for Google and these things.

If people don't want to feel that Google is going to keep your information safe, they'll go somewhere else. So I guess they felt that I'd get in there and people would feel OK about it, even if I did expose a wart here or there.

KURTZ: Well, we'll see how many "Plus 1s" or "likes" your book gets.

Steve Levy, thanks very much for joining us.

LEVY: Thank you, Howard.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Steve Levy joined us from San Francisco.

Still to come, a Pittsburgh TV station strikes out covering the rest of a baseball game; a shutout for a female reporter covering the Masters; and I love this one -- Hugh Grant turns investigative reporter.

The "Media Monitor" is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

This one is nothing short of a strikeout. A CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh jumped on a story that combined baseball and violence when police had to subdue an intoxicated fan at a Pirates game.

Here's the report by KDKA.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Video of a man being beaten and police using a Taser on him at PNC Park has gone all over the Internet. The images from YouTube show an unruly fan being asked to leave the park and refusing. Police say the scene turned hostile and they feared for their safety.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Here's the problem. The cops also arrested a second person in the crowd for complaining the officers were acting too aggressively. That person was Amanda Harle, a producer for -- wait for it -- KDKA.

The station didn't see fit to mention that its own journalist had become part of story. That is deceptive, it's dumb, and the station deserves to be called out.

There's an institution in America that ought to be careful about the way it treats women. It's Augusta National Golf Club, where the number of female members still totals zero.

At the Masters tournament last weekend, one credentialed reporter was barred from the locker room after the match, and she is Tara Sullivan of New Jersey's "Bergen Record." While her colleagues were interviewing the surprise winner, Carl Schwartzel (ph), she could only scramble for second-hand quotes.

Sullivan later tweeted that the Augusta folks had apologized, as well they should have. What an embarrassment. This one left me speechless: an article on the Fox News Web site after President Obama gave his budget speech at George Washington University. The headline, "GWU Suicide Tragically Coincides With Obama Speech." Fox even called the White House for comment.

That's right. Fox took the story of a student killing himself and tied it to the fact that the president was speaking at the school at around the same time. A remarkably cynical exercise. Fox defended the story as accurate, but took it down because of the uproar at the school.

Now, this might be my favorite item of all time. Hugh Grant was one of those whose phone was hacked by the British tabloid "News of the World," but he turned the tables on the Rupert Murdoch paper by secretly taping one of its former reporters who had blown the whistle on the scandal. Then the actor wrote about it for the "New Statesman."

In a taped conversation which takes place in a bar, Paul McMullan insists it's OK to invade the privacy of the famous.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

HUGH GRANT, ACTOR: But for celebrities themselves, you would justify it because they're rich?

PAUL MCMULLAN, EDITOR, "NEWS OF THE WORLD": Yes. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got off the stage. It'll do wonders.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, we've only got a bit of that audio, but here's what else was on the tape.

Grant: "So I should have given up acting?"

McMullan: "If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone --

Grant: "I live off my acting, which is different than living off your image.

McMullan: "Yes, but you're still presenting yourself to the public, and if the public don't know you --

Grant: "They don't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED." I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films."

The best part is the headline on Hugh Grant's piece, "The Bugger, Bugged."

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.