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A Singing Legend Gone; Media Miss Catholic Outrage

Aired February 12, 2012 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: First, as you'll recall, the media pretty much ignored Rick Santorum until he won Iowa. Though at the time, we thought he'd lost.

Then, as you'll recall, the media pretty much wrote off Rick Santorum as he lost the next four contests.


HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Unless some miracle happens and Rick Santorum manages to win Colorado next week, you know, he's -- there's going to be tremendous pressure on him to get out.


KURTZ: So, with Santorum's miraculous wins in, yes, Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, did the pundits blow it yet again?

The press pounced on the story when the Komen Foundation tried to defund Planned Parenthood. But when the White House ruled that even Catholic organizations had to offer birth control in health plans, not so much -- that is until Catholic leaders and some commentators began sounding off.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Catholics and Christians all across America are fired up over President Obama's approval of new regulations that require insurance plans of religious organizations to provide contraceptive coverage.


KURTZ: Why did it take news outlets a couple of weeks to catch up with the Catholic protests?

A former White House intern for President Kennedy says she was his mistress 50 years ago.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did he realize that you were a virgin?

MIMI ALFORD, FORMER WHIE HOUSE INTERN: I think he did because he kept asking me if I was all right and I was all right. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But Mimi Alford confirmed the affair nine years ago. Was her book really worth an NBC primetime interview?

Plus, we'll look at the coverage of the sad and unexpected death of Whitney Houston.

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


KURTZ: We're going to begin with the tragic death at the age of 48 of singer Whitney Houston. And joining us on the line from Los Angeles is CNN's Larry King.

And, Larry, my question is very simple and very straight forward. What is it about her death -- why is this such a big story, the coverage began practically wall to wall last night on cable news networks?

LARRY KING, CNN HOST (via telephone): Well, it was disturbing. One, she's probably the best singer we have, ranking with Streisand and going back to Judy Garland. There were very few of these. She ranked right at the top.

Two, she's a victim of blaming her ex-husband, Bobby Brown. She's a fantastic looking person. A terrific actress who made a wonderful movie with Kevin Costner; who sang songs that probably will forever. She changed music. There was no one like her.

At the party last night, Clive Davis's annual Grammy party, Tony Bennett came out and did an incredible tribute to her and sang a Bergman (ph) song.

So, I think she was worth all the accolades. And then, of course, the tragedy of any person dying at age 48.

KURTZ: But that's the other part of the story, of course, Larry, is that the fact that her life became a kind of train wreck, doesn't that, sadly, hasn't that added to the media and public fascination with Whitney Houston?

KING: Absolutely. When I was there at that party last night, when I walked the red carpet, that's all people were asking about, the tragedy. What do you think she died of? How can such a great performer fall to such things like this?

In fact, there's a picture I'm looking at today of her taken a couple of days ago where she looks really disheveled. Yet when I saw her last year at this same party, she looked terrific. The ups and downs of her life, I think, are the absolute grab at media. That's why you're leading off with it.

KURTZ: In part, because we got a chance to talk to you, Larry. Thanks for getting up early. We'll have more on the Whitney Houston tragedy later in the program. Thanks to Larry King.

Turning now to a story that kind of dominated the news here in Washington. It wasn't exactly big news on January 20th when the Obama administration turned down a request from the Catholic Church that Catholic hospitals, charities and colleges be exempted for a ruling requiring their plans to offer birth control.

Now, "The Washington Post" put it on page one. But "The New York Times" carried the news on page 17. The "L.A. Times" carried a few paragraphs on page 7. The network newscast didn't touch it all, and then silence.

Now, about 10 days later as Catholic leaders and some Republicans began to attack the ruling, a handful of cable news shows began paying a bit more attention.


BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: Roman Catholic bishops said the Obama administration is telling the church to, quote, "to hell with you."

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: The Obama administration has suddenly found itself in a fight it would like to avoid, of course, with the Catholic Church.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Catholic Church leaders are outraged that a new rule by the Obama administration. And we're going to show you what all the uproar is about.


KURTZ: But it wasn't until this week that the controversy really reverb rated across the media landscape.


JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: I'm going to say, it is a staggering, staggering decision by HHS.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: As today, a fiery debate took center stage about women, contraception, and a White House order that has the Catholic Church up in arms.


KURTZ: So, if the debate was so fiery, why did it take the mainstream media so long to recognize the magnitude of this story?

Joining us now here in Washington, Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and a former managing editor of "USA Today" and Gwinnett Broadcasting.

And Frank Sesno, professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University and a former CNN Washington bureau chief. Lauren Ashburn, this has created, to use that word we keep hearing, absolute firestorm. The White House is forced to compromise on Friday. How did the media misjudge this story for two solid weeks?

LAUREN ASHBURN, ASHBURM MEDIA: You know, I think I might disagree with your premise about the media misjudging this story. I think typically in the past, the Catholic Church has just kept its mouth shut when it comes to controversial issues.

Look at the way that they handled the pedophilia scandal. And actually, I think that, in part, has allowed the Catholic Church, the media has brought the Catholic Church hierarchy, dragged it kicking and screaming, into the 21st century media world, making them come out two weeks ago in print, and then come out slowly, bringing the hierarchy, bringing actual people on camera.

If you take a look recently at "Morning Joe," for example, and "Morning Joe," Joe and his co-host, brought up -- brought in Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the archdiocese of Washington. They brought him on for 12 minutes, and had a very high-minded discussion about this issue.

Hannity on FOX, Sean Hannity, had a one-hour special on faith.

Yesterday morning on MSNBC they brought on Father Bill Daley, right, out of Notre Dame, and he talked about this in a very self- deprecating way. Again, it was driving the controversy.

KURTZ: Here's the contrast I would draw. Komen Foundation moves to cut off Planned Parenthood. Twenty-four hours after it hit social networks, the media erupted with this.

Why would you have to wait for Catholic leaders to speak out to say this is a pretty sensitive hot button controversy that we ought to cover as more than a one day history?

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think what happened here is you started with policy and it became politics. And politics is always easier and more fiery. Policy is narrower. It's sort of down in the weeds.

And the fact of the matter is this policy is -- if you are a Catholic charity or Catholic Church, what's the difference? It's the insurance policy that's accessible. Are we making --

KURTZ: Too complicated for the media?

SESNO: A little -- not too complicated, but too arcane. But at the point that it goes on to become part of the campaign, and you have candidates saying the Obama administration has declared war on religion. It fits a larger narrative.

At the point that as Lauren were saying, that you've got leaders of the Catholic Church, one of whom was on CBS this morning a couple of days ago, for a long period of time, very out there, very combative, quotable, and then it gains totally different kind of traction.

ASHBURN: I also have to give props, to use a term, to the media for actually not attacking members of the Catholic Church this time around.

KURTZ: Why would they deserve an award for not attacking members of the Catholic Church? Is there an expectation that we would attack the church?

ASHBURN: We have -- we have in the past. Look at the pedophilia scandal. The arguments were so derisive and the conversations were so polluted and I really --

SESNO: What, over the -- of the contraception thing?

ASHBURN: No, about pedophilia earlier. What I'm saying it did in the past --

SESNO: I don't see tension here at all.

ASHBURN: I do. In the past --

SESNO: Pedophilia is a grotesque crime.

ASHBURN: But the Catholic Church kept itself -- to itself became a victim and was tormented by the media. In this case, it came out against something that it believed in.


KURTZ: To come back to your point about Catholic leaders, the New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote in an op-ed piece in "The Wall Street Journal," decrying this policy about five days after the announcement. Even that didn't kick-start this kind of coverage.

And I have to say -- you talk about giving props -- two liberal commentators, Chris Matthews we saw at the top, and E.J. Dionne, "The Washington Post" columnist, you know, were outraged by this. They happen to be Catholic.

ASHBURN: Outraged by?

KURTZ: Outraged by the Obama policy criticized their side, so to speak.

SESNO: It merited an earlier and deeper examination. There's no question about it. But as I say, I think this is where we see issues in the media. There's this lag time.

It's sort of like if you have a turbo, you know we call a turbo lag, and you hit the gas and sometimes you don't go right away. When a story starts as a policy story -- and to be honest, the Catholic Church by itself and Dolan by himself should be enough to warrant a deeper look.

But it's when you start going into -- when turbo lag is done and you go into hyper drive, and you've got the candidates and others, that's when you get the media pile-on. That's when you get the multiplier effect. That's what happened here.

ASHBURN: The talking points for the Catholic Church, Howie, always were saying this is not about contraception. This is about religious freedom -- religious freedom, religious freedom, religious freedom.

SESNO: Which is what the candidates say.

ASHBURN: And they kept saying it over and over and over again. And I think that is the reason that the media actually began to pick up on it. It didn't just become a Catholic issue.

KURTZ: If there was a tin ear here initially, is it related to the fact that most journalists are not devoutly religious, whether they're Catholic or not?


ASHBURN: No, I think that --

KURTZ: You're saying because it wasn't a political flap. You're saying --

ASHBURN: I'm saying -- well, you know, I can't speak for how many -- I have no idea how many are religious or aren't, who are agnostic, who are Catholic, who are Jewish. So, I think that your question is --

KURTZ: Religion generally --


KURTZ: Religion generally doesn't get that much coverage.

ASHBURN: That's not true.

SESNO: There's also another component for this if I may, and that is this is a -- there's a lot of irony and contradiction in this thing. So we know where the Catholic Church stands on contraception, it's been long held. But 98 percent of women, Catholic women, what --

ASHBURN: Doesn't matter.

SESNO: Of course, it matters.

ASHBURN: No, it doesn't matter.

SESNO: Because there has been -- within media circles and elsewhere, there has been a certain discount factor, I believe, because there is such a disconnect on this issue. It doesn't mean it's not legitimate and shouldn't be looked at, but this is not -- this does not in any way rise to the pedophilia example that --

KURTZ: And -- ASHBURN: I'm not saying pedophilia and contraception are equal. Let's just be clear. I'm talking about stories as how the Catholic Church is portrayed.

SESNO: Stories worthy of attention and trying to explain this. They're not the same.

KURTZ: Since there is more than one Catholic position here as evidenced by that 98 percent figure and a poll of Catholics found that 58 percent actually support the Obama policy. There is another side to this which is providing no cost access to birth control, to lower income women.

Did the media then swing too far in the other direction? I mean, 28 states have similar laws.


SESNO: I think you could argue, and you could attack the media for not looking. If you are going to talk about holding authority to account wherever that authority may be, there is a giant story within the Catholic Church over their attitudes towards these issues, and their disconnect with their followers. So, that's part of this, too.

ASHBURN: I think I disagree. I mean, I think that, yes, you call people cafeteria Catholics. And, yes, in the media we are hearing that 98 percent of women use birth control. I mean, that was one of the stories.

But does that mean that because of that that they are not Catholics and they're not concerned about religious freedom?

SESNO: Lauren, that's not the issue. The issue is the media's role and the media's responsibility in all this.

If the Catholic Church is, in effect, declaring war on the Obama administration over the availability of contraception for people who work for institutions that are not merely the Catholic Church, but institutions supported by this religion, and saying this is war on religion, and if there is a schism, there is a divide within the Catholic community, why is that not part of the story? Why is that not a big part of the story?

KURTZ: One last question on this, let me just broaden this slightly. I took some heat for saying that I thought that the media approached the whole Komen Foundation controversy, cutting up Planned Parenthood, from a liberal perspective.

They didn't need any prodding. There was no two-week delay.

What is the difference between the reaction there and the non- reaction or delayed reaction or muted reaction, however you want to characterize it, on this story?

ASHBURN: I -- you know, I think that part of the media has this, as we have discussed, many times on this show, Howie, this ADD. You know, we're going to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. We're going to focus on the Maine primary. We're going to --

KURTZ: Republican primaries. Yes.

ASHBURN: Republican primaries.

Now, OK, oh, my gosh, hey, this Catholic issue is kind of getting some traction here. I think we better jump on it.

SESNO: I would say the Komen story is different because that was propelled by citizen journalists. People give money to Komen. They were following it. They were the ones who exploded and were outraged by it.

ASHBURN: Catholics give money to the Catholic Church.

SESNO: Yes, we just discuss the disagreements within the Catholic community about contraception and the availability of contraception. There wasn't much of a difference of opinion with Komen, or at least there didn't appear to be, and the social media exploded.

KURTZ: We could go on out. But I've got to get a break.

More later on this program on the death of Whitney Houston.

When we come back, CNN contributor Roland Martin suspended over a couple of controversial messages on Twitter. Are networks responsible for what their commentators say off the air?


KURTZ: Roland Martin was having a good time on Twitter during last Sunday's Super Bowl. But some of the CNN commentator's messages were in questionable taste.

Here's one: "If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham's H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him?"

And another: "Who the hell was that New England Patriot they just showed in a head to toe pink suit? Oh, he needs a visit from team whip that ass," I guess the technical term.

Gay organizations called the remarks homophobic. Martin strongly denied that, but he later apologized, saying, "To those who construed my comment as being anti-gay or homophobic or advancing violence, I'm truly sorry. I can certainly understand how someone could come to a different conclusion than the one I meant. I'm disheartened that my words would embolden prejudice."

After initially declining to respond to press inquiry, CNN suspended Roland Martin on Wednesday for an unspecified length of time. Networks saying in a statement, "Roland Martin's tweets were regrettable and offensive. Language that demeans and is inconsistent with the values and culture of our organization and is not tolerated."

Frank Sesno, should CNN have suspended Roland Martin over those words?

SESNO: Ooh, tough question. Yes, probably, because it has its own positioning that it needs to do with a larger community. It's not quite firing him, and it's not quite saying everything is just fine. We understand.

It gives everybody a chance to step back. It gives Roland a chance to apologize. It gives him a chance to meet with GLAAD and other organizations and gives everybody a chance to realize, you know what, tweets matter.

KURTZ: They do matter, but my initial reaction is these were a couple of jokes, bad jokes, to be sure. CNN didn't say anything for two and a half days, but then what happened was that gay organization racheted up the pressure.

ASHBURN: Sure. And I think that he responded appropriately. It is a right. It is not a right. It is a privilege, not a right, to sit on television and to give your views and to talk to viewers.

And as soon as you crossed that line, I think it is appropriate for a suspension, and maybe they didn't even go far enough. Maybe he should be assigned to do stories about the gay community instead of --

KURTZ: Journalistic community service.

ASHBURN: That's right. That's right.

KURTZ: OK. But why does CNN or any network feel responsible for something that somebody writes, and he is a contributor. He's not a full-time employee -- something somebody writes on Twitter.


ASHBURN: It's all about the brand.

SESNO: This is what mainstream news organizations actually still have a role in the world. They stand for something. They have standards. They say this is how we expect you to behave. They say this is how we're going to hold you to account.

You do have a job and a privilege as a public person and we want you to convey a certain tone and tenor because that's what we're about as an organization.

ASHBURN: Let's talk about --

SESNO: That's why Juan Williams isn't working at NPR anymore.

ASHBURN: Let's talk about Eric Erickson. You remember in 2010, he was brought on to CNN as a contributor. He sat right here and talked to you, Howie, and said, "I'm going to grow up," and he is going to stop that invective and that hate speech as executive editor of Red State, a conservative Web site. Right.

And he did. You said, "I will hold you accountable, I'm going to check in on this."

And I think that is the standard. I think you cannot come on television. You cannot tweet if you are on television things that are that hyper --

SESNO: It's very important for the public to understand because many do not that news organizations, CNN, NPR, "The Washington Post," they have statements, ethics policies, things that are laid out for their employees.

KURTZ: OK. What the standard is not entirely clear. You hire commentators to be opinionated. You like the fact that they're provocative.

So, I'll take a more recent example. Another CNN contributor Dana Loesch. Should she have been suspended for saying some weeks back that she would have urinated on those dead Taliban soldiers as U.S. Army personnel were accused of? A lot of people didn't understand why CNN didn't act against her?

ASHBURN: I think --

KURTZ: She said she didn't it on the air. She said it on a radio show, I believe.

ASHBURN: I'm not going to talk about whether she should have been suspended, or she shouldn't. It's a CNN policy. CNN gets to make those decisions that it's their news organization.

However, I think the point needs to be made that if you are a public figure and you are tweeting things that the public could misconstrue as offensive, then it doesn't help the brand of CNN. It doesn't help the brand of FOX for you to be on their program.

SESNO: As long as the news organization says that ahead of time, you can't make up the rules as you go along.

KURTZ: OK. But, look, I'm told by the way that Dana Loesch hasn't been on CNN's air for some time. But you have the case of Rick Sanchez, who was a talk show host here. And on a radio interview, he called Jon Stewart a bigot, and he joked about Jews running the media. He got fired.

Octavia Nasr, who was a long-time CNN foreign affairs specialist, she got fired after tweeting after the death of an ayatollah, one of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot. He, of course, tied with that terrorist group.

So, yes, there's a line you can't cross, but it's not clear to me -- it's not clear to me where the line is.

ASHBURN: Tweeting is really --


SESNO: Frankly, because it's not a bright line. All right? And this is going to be taken into consideration, you hope, fairly by the executives as they go. If Roland Martin were to continue this, if he were to do this on the air, I bet he'd be fired.

ASHBURN: But here's the -- wait. Let me just make one point about tweeting. You have to do it. You have to be pithy, you have to be informative, you have to be smart, you have to be funny, all in a very short amount of time.

And everybody wants followers. You must have, what, 87,000 or something followers. Twitter followers. But the point -- the way that you get those followers is by tweeting all the time. And so, not only that, but you are under this pressure to tweet and tweet and tweet.

KURTZ: Right.

SESNO: And that's the danger, and you just have to be careful, and you have to be mindful, and you also need to know that there are consequences. Those tweets, even as outrageous as they're going to be, as clever as you're going to be, at some level, you're going to be held accountable in the public statements.

KURTZ: It's not just Twitter. Pat Buchanan has not been on MSNBC for months. He says it's medical reasons. The president of MSNBC says that he wrote a book about race and immigration that said some things that shouldn't be part of the national conversation.

But I think the one thing we've agreed on here is that if you have a role on air -- and it is a privilege, as you say, Lauren, to be on the air -- anything you say in any other forum could be used against you because it's not a right.

We have to leave it there.

SESNO: Shouldn't be a surprise. Words matter, right?

KURTZ: Words matter.

SESNO: No matter where and how they're said.

ASHBURN: And in their proper order.

KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn and Frank Sesno, thanks for joining us.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES: more in Whitney Houston, how she went from a media sweetheart to a tragic figure.

And plus, the guy the press was all but ignoring, Rick Santorum, has a triple triumph in the campaign. Why were the pundits so ready to crown Romney the winner?

And later, a former White House intern talks about having an affair with JFK, something she acknowledged nine years ago. So, why did NBC give that story an hour of primetime?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: The coverage of Whitney Houston's death exploded last night, especially on cable, wall to wall. From what I have seen on the air this morning, it is very much continuing at a pretty intense pace.

Joining us now to talk about this from Tampa, Florida, Eric Deggans, media and television critic for "The Tampa Bay Tribune." And in New York, media commentator Rachel Sklar, former senior editor at Mediaite.

Eric Deggans, given the magnitude here of how this is treated, at least on the air waves, is the Whitney Houston story worth that kind of coverage?

ERIC DEGGANS, MEDIA/TV CRITIC: Oh, I don't think there is any doubt. Also, I got to point out my newspaper is "The Tampa Bay Times." But thanks a lot.

KURTZ: I'm sorry. So many years --


DEGGANS: As a lot of people -- yes. We changed our name from "The St. Petersburg Times" in January. As a lot of people have been pointing out, Whitney Houston formed a template that every diva that we've seen in the last 20 years has followed. You talk about Mary J. Blige, you talk about Mariah Carey, you talk about right on down to Adele -- every one of these singers has taken something from a template that Whitney Houston pioneered back in the '80s.

She was an incredibly influential singer. And I just think it's unfortunate that the way her life ended an addiction and erratic behavior and inconsistent performances, that has let a lot of younger people to miss the fact that she was such an amazing singer and such an amazing talent when her career started and through the '90s.

KURTZ: On that point, Rachel Sklar, I don't want to be insensitive here. I'm very said that she died, a woman of immense talent. But she was a huge musical star, you know, more than a decade ago, two decades ago. And in the last decade, she's really been the star of a soap opera, the soap opera of the problems in her life. Isn't that true?

RACHEL SKLAR, MEDIA COMMENTATOR: Come on, Howie. You can't sing the lyrics to "Greatest Love of All" right here. I think you probably can. I think you probably want to dance with somebody who loves you.

Her songs are not just songs from the '80s and the songs from the '90s. They are karaoke standards. They are songs that just form the indelible soundtrack of sort of the larger patchwork.

So, even though she may have come on scene in the '80s and cemented in the '90s, you know, there's generations of people who grew up with that.

And keep in mind that when the interesting things about Whitney Houston and her career is that when she emerged, she emerged in a narrow media landscape. There was radio. There was MTV video play. And it wasn't the sort of 24/7 media landscape we have now.

So, she was a very sort of tightly controlled, highly packaged pop princess, and I will say -- one of the very few African-American crossovers at that time. And through -- now that through the ark of her career has sort of matched the ark of media. So, as she became -- as she became more apparent that she was troubled, that also mirrored the time when suddenly there was reality TV. Suddenly there are blogs.

KURTZ: Right.

SKLAR: So, it was emphasized and magnified.

KURTZ: But on my point about the way in which she's been covered in the last 10 years, you know, mostly for self-inflicted reasons. Let's look at a sit-down she had with Diane Sawyer on ABC. This is back in 2002.


DIANE SAWYER, ABC: Is it alcohol? Is it marijuana? Is it cocaine? Is it pills?

HOUSTON: It has been at times --


HOUSTON: At times.

SAWYER: If you had to name the devil for you, the biggest devil among them?

HOUSTON: That would be me.


KURTZ: So, Eric, putting aside her undeniable musical legacy, how should she be covered and remembered now that the downward spiral of her life is undoubtedly part of the story, is it not?

DEGGANS: Oh, undoubtedly. But we've all had to cover these great artists who towards the end of their career may have wound up trapped in addiction or wound up trapped in a declining career. I mean, Elvis certainly ended that way. I agree with Rachel that --

KURTZ: There was a guy named Michael Jackson whose death was --


DEGGANS: And there was a guy named Michael Jackson. Exactly.

I agree with Rachel in this idea that when Whitney Houston first started, her public image, I think, was very different than her private life, and she started at a time when we didn't have very many press outlets that were very interested in probing the difference between those two things. And as we got closer to the media reality we have now, we have more and more avenues where that comes out. And then she does a reality show in 2005 where the dysfunctionality of her marriage to Bobby Brown and, you know, her erratic behavior is put before the world, and all of a sudden we have all these media outlets and web outlets ready to jump on that and explore the difference between the pop princess that we love and the life she seemed to be living in private. And so, of course, that became a major part of her story.

KURTZ: Right. And Rachel, it's hard to avert our eyes from what was a slow motion train wreck, but at the same time what I hear you saying is we shouldn't lose sight of Whitney Houston's musical legacy?

SKLAR: You were the one who said that -- you pointed out that she had a really long career. I think it's important. You know, you look at how she came in and what she evolved into, and then her fall, which is sort of almost a caricature of the kind of fall from grace that, you know, that you see in all these musical figures.

So I think that what's interesting about Whitney Houston and her reality show like that, you say it was a train wreck -- that was beyond a train wreck. You really couldn't look away. And in that interview clip that you showed, I mean, you didn't actually show this, but she immortalized the phrase crack is whack. That's --

KURTZ: She was asked if she had used crack. I have got to go. Eric and Rachel, thanks very much for coming in on short notice. We still, of course, don't know the exact circumstances of the cause of Whitney Houston's death.

Up next, back to politics. Rick Santorum stuns the pundits with his victories this week. Why were reporters so quick to write off any GOP candidate not named Romney?


KURTZ: I love the lead of the New York Times story the morning after Rick Santorum stunned the political world this week by winning two caucuses and a primary. His candidacy all but dismissed just days ago. Dismissed by whom? Maybe, just maybe it was the journalists and pundits who covered the campaign.


CHRIS MATTHEWS: I wonder why Santorum will stay in this race? If he can't win this coming Tuesday in nearby Colorado, what's he doing in this race except spoiling it for your candidate, Newt Gingrich?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN: It's increasingly impossible that Rick Santorum can win the nomination. So, yes, I can see Mitt Romney losing it, but it's hard to see these other guys winning.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC: Unless some miracle happens and Rick Santorum manages to win Colorado next week, you know, there's going to be tremendous pressure on him to get out because he is not going to have any money left.


KURTZ: Well, holy cow. I guess miracles do happen. So did the press, again, write off Santorum too soon? Joining us now, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. Jim Geraghty, columnist for National Review, and Bill Press, syndicated radio talk show host and author of the new book "The Obama Hate Machine."

Lynn Sweet, there were hardly any reporters covering Rick Santorum up until Tuesday, wasn't that a blunder?

LYNN SWEET, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: It was because they weren't -- it was because reporters at this level are paid to be better predictors than they were. So, I would say, yes, everyone who said he had no chance.

However, the financial disparity between the campaigns is so vast, Howie, there is good reason to wonder if he is in for the long haul. December 31st, he had about $300,000 cash on hand compared to $19 million for Romney.

KURTZ: I would say the press always overestimates the importance of money, because underfunded candidates -- Mike Huckabee last time -- often come out of nowhere. Bill Press, when Santorum did win Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri, New York Times and Washington Post didn't even put that story on the front page -- I suspect because the decision was made earlier in the evening before -- these are Western primaries -- before it was clear. Of course, the next day they came back with major shake-up in the race.

BILL PRESS, AUTHOR: Suddenly the miracle of Santorum. I think there were a couple of reasons. First of all, I agree with Lynn. We all under-reported Rick Santorum.

KURTZ: You plead guilty as well?

PRESS: I plead guilty as well. I think a couple of reasons. No. 1, because he is a pretty prickly guy and surly. He is not as much fun as Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann.

KURTZ: Prickly? He is serious, he's sober-minded.

PRESS: Well, if you --

KURTZ: Did he yell at you? Did he hurt your feelings?

PRESS: -- talk to him, he can be prickly. No, I'm just saying he is not as much fun to be around. He's improved a lot. But the second thing that I think we're all going by an old playbook, which is the playbook we grew up with, that if you have money, and name recognition, and organization, you win. That was proven not true in South Carolina, and it was proven not true this Tuesday.

KURTZ: I want to come to that. But Jim Geraghty, you and I were both at the conservative conference CPAC this week in Washington, you were there as well. Santorum was surrounded like a rock star. He walked in, and he was in the hallway, and there was about 150 people and lots of reporters shouting at him. Talk about a fickle media.

JIM GERAGHTY, "THE CAMPAIGN SPOT" BLOG: Well, look, I don't know if it's the fickle media. I think to a certain extent it's the electorate. You know, this race has been the most volatile we've ever seen. By the time summer comes, this may look completely different.

But look, Rick Santorum won Iowa. On Iowa caucus night, we thought either he had won or he had this close.


GERAGHTY: And then he didn't do that much in New Hampshire, didn't do that much in South Carolina, nor in Florida.

KURTZ: You are saying it was a rationale response by the press to basically say he is going nowhere fast?

GERAGHTY: The press pays attention to the top two people. Whoever those top two people.

KURTZ: Why is that?

GERAGHTY: I'm not saying it's the way it should be. I'm just saying that's the habit of--

SWEET: It's the national press. I want to point out that, in the four primary states, there's a ton of attention by the local papers, which people read more than "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" to get their everyday coverage. They do get through on that level.

KURTZ: But we make this mistake again and again. You talk about covering the way it was when we grew up. You talk about covering the top two. McCain was written off a couple of times in 2008. Newt Gingrich was written off. He had two surges. Is he being written off now? Maybe he'll come back. I don't know. And Santorum before Iowa.

So how many times do we have to be smacked in the head before we learn the lesson?

PRESS: Yes, Lucy and the football. I don't know. But I do think in this day and age of the new media and the importance of the debates, this is a debate-driven primary, we all have to reassess the way we cover campaigns and candidates.

And pay attention, if you look at Rick Santorum in these debates, God knows he didn't get much time, but he used it well. And he scored good points, and he was probably the most effective debater going after Romney and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.

GERAGHTY: It's also maybe (inaudible) kind of a delayed effect to these debates. In other words, remember Florida had very early voting. A lot of people had already cast their votes by the time of that Thursday night -- that Thursday night debate.

So if it takes a certain amount of time for these people to have process, people to watch, you know, maybe clips on YouTube, they talk to their friends, et cetera, there's kind of a cascade effect that takes place a couple of days later so that, in a way, the effect of the good performance in Florida may have kicked in in these -- in Colorado and Minnesota.

KURTZ: Is it my imagination or has the press looked pretty clueless this year in covering this campaign?





SWEET: The answer is yes.


KURTZ: You're saying it's my imagination?

SWEET: No, no. I think we all agree.

KURTZ: But you were explaining it away by saying, well, you know, Trump was up and then Cain was up and then Perry was down, and Santorum came back.

And what are we supposed to do? But I think one of the things we were supposed to do is not reach a premature conclusion, where we say, you know, when 5 percent of the delegates have been selected, well, Mitt Romney has got this thing wrapped up.

SWEET: I agree, I agree and that -- the volatility of this race has been demonstrated to everyone frankly months ago, and the ability of this race to change. Now, having said that, I think it's OK to say in the end who do you think? People can predict that.

But I don't think it's cast in stone, and I think reporters sometimes are -- maybe I'm speaking to the people who have, since we agree, we should not be so involved in the end product as it's OK to cover the story as it unfolds.

KURTZ: All right.

SWEET: That's where we fell short.

PRESS: I just want to say to prove that I haven't learned anything. I still don't think Santorum will be the nominee.

KURTZ: Well, you might be right, or you might be wrong. He certainly has a better shot than seemed like just five days ago, and the question I want to turn to now is whether as a winner of these three states and Iowa, whether Santorum will be getting more scrutiny from journalistic organizations.

Pretty aggressive interview this morning earlier today on "MEET THE PRESS." here's David Gregory asking this question to the former Pennsylvania senator.


DAVID GREGORY, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": I want to stay on some of the social issues that have come, I think, to define your campaign, that --

FORMER SEN. RICK SANTORUM, R-PA., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My campaign isn't defined by social issues. I understand the media wants to focus that -- on those issues.


KURTZ: OK, Jim Geraghty, Gregory went on to ask him about gay marriage and other stances that he's taken publicly. Does Santorum have a point? Do journalists try too much to define him only as a social conservative?

GERAGHTY: I remember watching the -- my first exposure to him this cycle was at the NRA convention last year in Pittsburgh, and he gave a speech -- you know, this is a group of gun owners. Their primary concern is the Second Amendment, Fast and Furious story had just broken.

He gave a story -- a speech that was heavily on social conservative issues, which some gun owners agree with a great deal, some don't. I think he is getting better at being a full spectrum conservative and talking about all the different issues that are motivating Republican primary voters out there.

But I think it's safe to say that for much of this primary process, particularly as he focused in Iowa and was leading all 99 counties and making his pitch specifically to that demographic, that was his bread and butter.

KURTZ: Is that going to be getting a lot more media attention now?

PRESS: Absolutely. He may deny it, but Rick Santorum, if you go back over his past record and the issues that he has been out in front on, for homosexuality, same-sex marriage, home schooling, contraception, these are the social issues, and he brings them back to the fore.

I mean, I think Republicans want to focus and should be focusing on the economy and jobs, but he is the social conservative. He is the Pat Buchanan of this primary.

KURTZ: And yet, in fairness, Lynn Sweet, Santorum also talks about manufacturing jobs and how unlike Romney when Romney made that gaffe, he cares about the very poor. So is there a danger the press will paint him as a one-dimensional candidate? SWEET: Yes, and the reason that Santorum talks to his strength is because I think that's where he connects best. I've heard his stump speech. He has the most to say on it. I think if he had more of a record to talk about on business, not just what he would do if president, but what he's doing, that would help. You talk to your strong points.

KURTZ: You all have a lot to say, and I think I'm going to be watching very -- with great fascination how the coverage evolves from here, particularly on Rick Santorum, who had been kind of sidelined and marginalized. Bill Press, Jim Geraghty, Lynn Sweet, thanks for joining us this morning.

After the break, a former White House intern describes her affair with Jack Kennedy, but was NBC's sit-down with Mimi Alford more about history or ratings?


KURTZ: The story of JFK and the intern is undeniably shocking but it's also old, and not just in the sense that the alleged events took place half a century ago.

Mimi Alford, the woman who says she had an affair with the 35th president, acknowledged it back in 2003, when historian Robert Dallek mentioned it in a book. Now Alford has come out with her own book, when landed her on NBC's "Rock Center" this week in a report by Meredith Vieira.


MIMI ALFORD, AUTHOR, "ONCE UPON A SECRET": And then what did happen was I lost my virginity right there. I -- then I think I went a little bit into shock. Not into painful shock, but just into -- just utter surprise.

MEREDITH VIEIRA, HOST, "ROCK CENTER": You are doing your homework in the car, knowing that you are being sent to Washington --


VIEIRA: -- to have sex with the president essentially.

ALFORD: Right. I think that's probably partly what makes me feel sad.


KURTZ: So does Alford's account of what happened to her in the early 1960s deserve this kind of media attention? Joining us now, Amy Argetsinger, co-author of "The Reliable Source" column at "The Washington Post."

So "Rock Center" usually does several stories. She got the whole hour. Given that she acknowledged this in 2003, what makes it news? AMY ARGETSINGER, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, in 2003, Mimi Alford basically just acknowledged that a sexual relationship had happened. That's it.

KURTZ: But we didn't have the salacious details --

ARGETSINGER: We didn't have the salacious details. And I have to say, beyond the salaciousness, there is also a revelatory quality about just the nature of this relationship. When we first heard about this, we thought, what's new here? Is it true, but also really what's new? There have been so many stories of Kennedy affairs over the years. This one really struck a chord even beyond our expectations.

KURTZ: But on the is it true part, I mean, most of the people involved are dead. How do we know she's telling the truth or not embellishing it?

ARGETSINGER: In her favor, you have the fact that she did not talk about this for years until Robert Dallek's book and subsequent reporting, I think by one of the New York papers determined that she's the woman. She acknowledged it. This is not a person who is coming forward with the story. But you did have the oral histories from 1964, where it was public knowledge within the White House staff that this 19-year-old was carrying on with the president. So when you've got that kind of historical record, that's what gave this all a grounding.

KURTZ: So some of the details, if true, really make Kennedy look like a pig, especially the part about having -- asking her to have sex with his aide, Dave Powers. And of course she is 19 years old, well before Monica Lewinsky was born. So can this story be defended? Can this NBC interview be defended on the grounds that it's revealing presidential character?

ARGETSINGER: You know, I would argue that this is -- it's something that changes the picture of Kennedy. Even for all of the knowledge that he was not a faithful husband, that there were a lot of affairs, when you have something like this, a teenage intern who was almost coercively seduced on her fourth day on the job, this is something that would be a career killer at any point in history for a politician.

KURTZ: Yes, imagine if it had come out at the time, although I guess there's a question about whether the press, given the mores of the time, would have reported it if it even could be confirmed.

But you said almost coercively seduced. And I certainly -- look, the gap in power between the leader of the free world and a 19-year- old intern who just started there -- but she certainly doesn't -- Alford certainly doesn't describe it as a case of coercion. She doesn't say she was talked into it, pushed, pressured. In fact, she seems to enjoy to some degree reliving part of the excitement of that era.

ARGETSINGER: Yes. But when you read the book and when you see the interviews, you have the sense of a woman who is still trying to process what happened to her at a relatively young age, who hasn't really made sense of it all yet, and who's kind of grappling with this, and I'll go so far as to say seems to have been a little messed up by this whole experience.

This was her first sexual experience. She kept it a secret from everyone. She says yes, she sort of enjoyed it, but she also says, well, it wasn't exactly consensual. I mean, they pored her -- filled her up with daiquiris and, you know, took her away from everyone else. It was a very creepy setting, and something that -- it sounds like she was clearly in over her head.

KURTZ: At the same time, does NBC give this an hour because it can do a good number in the ratings, and, you know, let's not lose sight of the fact that even though she was reluctant and even though it's 50 years later, she's selling a book?

ARGETSINGER: Exactly. I mean, it's a compelling story. It's a fascinating story. People will be looking at it because of what it does for the historic record. But people are also interested in it for the prurience of it all.

KURTZ: I'm shocked to hear that.

ARGETSINGER: It was not a big ratings boost for NBC. But I mean, I think, I mean, what's new? Of course, these interview shows -- sure.


KURTZ: You seem to have -- with less than a minute we have left -- you seem to have turned around a little bit. Your initial report about this, I thought, was on the skeptical side. And now you sound a lot more sympathetic. So as you learned the details, have you changed your view of this story?

ARGETSINGER: When you read the book, it really does -- it does -- it's very eye-opening, and also the reaction we've gotten from readers, the reaction I've gotten from people who are genuinely shocked by this. And you wouldn't think we could be shocked by anything of a sexual nature to come out of the Kennedy administration anymore, but people were really upset about this, I think especially when you see how young she was. There are pictures of her, what she looked like when she was 19. She was really -- I mean, she was right out of high school, basically.

KURTZ: And of course JFK remains such an icon in this country in part because of the circumstances of his death. Amy Argetsinger, thanks for stopping by to talk about it this morning.

Still to come, the New York Post retaliates after an unsubstantiated rape charge against an anchor at the same company.


KURTZ: Two weeks ago on this program, I expressed concern about all the media attention surrounding a somewhat shaky claim of rape against anchor Greg Kelly of Fox's New York station. Undoubtedly boosted by the fact that he's the son of city police commissioner, Ray Kelly.

Well, prosecutors have now decided not to bring charges based on the fact that Kelly and the woman in question exchanged steamy text messages after their sexual encounter. Kelly, who was unnecessarily dragged through the mud, had this to say after returning from a leave of absence to "Good Day New York."


GREG KELLY, FOX 5 NEWS: Folks, thank you. It was a tough couple of weeks, obviously, for a lot of people. And I'm very, very grateful for all the support I had here at Fox 5, the support from my family, friends, those I care about.


KURTZ: I'm sure it was a tough couple of weeks. But the New York Post, owned by Fox's parent company, responded by naming the accuser and publishing pictures of her more than once. Now, I understand editor Col Allan's argument that if the woman is not deemed to be a rape victim, she's not entitled to anonymity. But it feels like the tabloid was punishing her for filing a complaint against a company employee, and lots of people online agreed. With comments like, "shame on the New York Post."

That's it for this edition of Reliable Sources. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can join us here next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern. We'll have more on the death of Whitney Houston on "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley. And let me also take a minute to say that you can follow our program on Facebook, where a lot of people are hanging out these days, and you can follow me on Twitter @howardkurtz, where I try very hard to be entertaining and informative and keep my job.

"State of the Union" with Candy Crowley begins in just a moment.