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Covering the Clown Campaign; Hurricane Sandy Heads Towards Mid Atlantic; Obama Goes Off the Record

Aired October 28, 2012 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Every presidential campaign has its offbeat moments, but many in the media now seem to be gravitating toward the freak show. All kinds of strange stuff from Ann Coulter, Gloria Allred, Sarah Palin, and the Donald's absurd $5 million offer to Barack Obama.


PIERS MORGAN, CNN: We both know, everyone knows he's never going do this. So what was the primary --

DONALD TRUMP, REAL ESTATE MOGUL: I don't know that at all. Piers, I don't know that at all. I think he will do it.

ANN COULTER, CONSERVATIVE COLUMNIST: There's nothing offensive about the word "retard" applied to the president.


KURTZ: Why are so many journalists covering the clown campaign?

Mitt Romney spends the final debate agreeing with much of Obama's foreign policy.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I supported that entirely and feel the president was right. I want to underscore the same president the president made. I felt the same as the president did.

JON STEWART, COMEDIAN: I think Romney's leaning Obama.



KURTZ: But where on earth is the serious press coverage of their exchanges on Libya, on Afghanistan, on terrorism?

Plus, Obama's media blitz from Brian Williams to Jay Leno to MTV.


SWAY CALLOWAY, MTV: What are you most worried about -- Malia getting a driver's license, Malia going out on a date, or Malia being on Facebook?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm worried about Facebook right now. Even just for security reasons, you know, she doesn't have a Facebook page.


KURTZ: Are the media giving the president a friendly platform?

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


KURTZ: Did you know that Mitt Romney engages in spray-tanning before major events? That at least is what "BuzzFeed" is reporting based on one unnamed sources, and, quote, "mass conjecture" in social media despite a denial from the Romney campaign.

This is a sort of ephemeral stuff that's been, shall we say, coloring the campaign coverage in these final days. A challenge from media organizations that ought to be focused on substance, such as the foreign policy disagreements in this week's final debate.

Instead, all too often we have side shows like Donald Trump.


TRUMP: If Barack Obama opens up and gives his college records and applications, and if he gives his passport application and records, I will give to a charity of his choice, anything he wants, a check immediately for $5 million.


KURTZ: I the Donald will be holding on to his money.

So, are journalists spending too much time on what I've come to call the clown campaign?

Joining us now here in Washington, Michael Shear, political reporter for "The New York Times"; Lauren Ashburn, editor-in-chief of, where I'm also a contributor. And Craig Crawford, who blogs about politics at and is the author of "The Politics of Life."

Michael Shear, I know there are good journalists doing good work at "The Times", at CNN and elsewhere, but why -- it seems to me that a lot of these so-called clowns have hijacked much of the media coverage. Why is that?

MICHAEL SHEAR, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think for many of the reasons that they've been doing it for the past couple of years is that it -- you know, it gives them a platform that they wouldn't otherwise have if they didn't say outrageous things. But --

KURTZ: And the reason we're giving them platform is? SHEAR: Well, I mean, I -- you know, I think in part it's because we are -- we have sort of descended to the bottom, you know, we're bottom feeding as a media. But I would argue, Howie, that these things are having less impact today than they had six months ago or a year because they -- I think they have having trouble breaking through.

The Donald didn't break through with that in the way that he did or would have six months ago or a year.

KURTZ: He didn't. But any individual story maybe not. When you combine -- you just look at the last week and clips I played. We could have played more. We'll come back to some specifics.

But, Lauren Ashburn, you were holding up your fingers --

LAUREN ASHBURN, DAILY-DOWNLOAD.COM: Let's talk money, right? You talk ratings. You talk subscription sales.

This is the stuff that Americans love. They love this politics, the sport of politics. And it sells papers or whatever it sells, subscriptions now and ads on line.

And I think that that's why you hear things like spray tan, and that's why you hear the candidates just talking about binders full of women.

KURTZ: So it sounds like we are pandering to folks rather than giving them the campaign coverage they perhaps deserve.

ASHBURN: You and I disagree on this, Howie. You want to cover -- you want to look at foreign policy, go to "The New York Times." You want to go to the super PAC app to find out what people are doing, there is serious news out there to be had and serious reporters are writing about it.

But I think the American people like their desserts more than they like foreign policy meat and potatoes.


KURTZ: I want to get Craig on this, that the dessert has pushed the meat and potatoes almost off the plate. Yes, you can find certain things. But let's -- I mean, take these issues, that we all say, the polls show people care about -- tax cuts, Medicare. Are they too complicated? Are they too boring to be on the newscast, on the front page, as opposed to Donald Trump or Ann Coulter?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, CRAIGCRAWFORD.COM: I think people do want more substance and aren't getting it. One reason they tune it out. It's kind of like the Twitter effect. If it takes longer than 140 characters to talk about it, we don't talk about it. It's easier to talk about spray tanning in that limited environment.

KURTZ: So you agree with me that it is easier, more fun, and potentially more successful to play the game of sport as opposed to this serious business of --

CRAWFORD: Well, I mean, you rob a bank because that's where the money is. But I agree that drives it, as well.

But I don't let the candidates off the hook. I think, we -- you know, when we start beating up ourselves in the media handling, we deserve our blame. But we've got campaigns that have no substance to talk about.

I mean -- and what are their aides do? They get on Twitter. They get on YouTube with the ads. They spin us about polls.

And you ask the Romney people to explain how they're going to pay for their tax cut. You don't get an answer.

You want a jobs plan from Obama. You don't get an answer.

KURTZ: On that point of what the campaigns themselves are serving up, and, of course, we tend to cover what they are talking about -- Obama campaign ad has gotten a whole lot of attention the last couple of days. Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO's "Girls," saying this about why she is swooning for the president.


LENA DUNHAM, ACTRESS: The first time shouldn't be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy. A guy what cares whether you get health insurance and specifically whether you get birth control.


ASHBURN: I said this on "Daily-Download". I wrote a piece about this.

You know, this is something that the campaign is doing to reach out to younger female voters. Conservatives are going crazy about this kind of thing. But it is getting younger women to talk about women's issues.

KURTZ: I didn't have any problem with that ad. Had a couple of double entendres, but so what? But it's caught an amazing amount of media attention. Why?

ASHBURN: Because it's funny, it's interesting, at least to that segment. It's outrageous to the conservatives.

And it's one of those things that people can latch on to and say, yes, I am for women's issues, she's right, this their is a joke. But I find it to be compelling because it's this young woman, an actress, who is being very cheeky. And in a way, that relates to younger people.

CRAWFORD: You know, when the younger people see those conservatives complaining about that, I think it backfires with them.

ASHBURN: It fuels the fire.

CRAWFORD: It makes them look like old fogeys.

SHEAR: Look, I come back -- if you go back to the beginning of these debates, the beginning of October, I think between the debates and the myriad of campaign commercials that are focused on issues, they may not -- you know, they may be taking liberties with the issues, they may be distorting the issues, but I think the conversation that has happened in the last six weeks has, despite all of these things, has largely been a conversation about tax cuts, about the military spending, about --

CRAWFORD: Without numbers.

SHEAR: Again, I'm not defending the quality of the discussion, but it's not been a discussion about the Donald.

ASHBURN: On social media -- I do a lot of coverage of social media. And on social media, it is so much easier to throw some snarky comment up there about binders full of women or about any of these little Big Bird things that sort of trend.

SHEAR: But that's not what happened -- I mean, if the critique is social media being taken over by these things, that's one thing. But --

KURTZ: Social media is driving the mainstream media coverage. Here's why you're wrong -- it was only this past Monday that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met in Boca Raton to have the foreign policy meeting, very substantive debate. Bob Schieffer kind of let the candidates go at it without a firm hand.

I predicted after the next day when everybody was writes being who said what and Romney appeared more passive, that it would vanish. By the next day, I looked at the front pages of the major newspapers, I love a couple of newscasts, and it was certainly stories about the extent to which the debate might impact the outcome, but there was no discussion of what they said on Afghanistan, of what they had on Syria, what they had said on terrorism.

There was however some partisan reaction, as you might expect. Let's look at how the folks at FOX and MSNBC reacted to that third debate.


KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I thought the president was way too aggressive. You know, this about -- you know, they don't use horses and bayonets.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: The president came off at times petulant, little angry. Na, na, na, na, na, I felt.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: This was the worst performance of any candidate on foreign policy I can remember. CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: He didn't sound like the hawkish guy who had gone to the hard far right rail in the primaries and caucuses to win.


KURTZ: Why does the substance of that debate vanish so quickly? And it wasn't just on Twitter.

SHEAR: Part of it was that they agreed, right? Had they disagreed more --


SHEAR: There might have been more. I think, no, I'm not defend -- look, there's always room for more of that. I'm just suggesting that I think some of the most outrageous stuff that has happened hasn't really caught on. Hasn't really -- you know, I haven't seen the Donald's thing other than a side mention --

KURTZ: You watch cable news?

SHEAR: Well, maybe I should.

CRAWFORD: Part of is was how Romney was moderating himself and endorsing a lot of Obama --


KURTZ: I was going to say, isn't that the story? Isn't that the story?

CRAWFORD: I agree. But that was -- that was part of the story that did get covered, but I think there was some reluctance in the media to give him credit for doing it because they don't believe it. They don't believe he's actually moderating on these things. It was just a show on his part. And I think a lot of people didn't want to cover.

ASHBURN: There's also an issue of group think here. On my Twitter feed, I follow a lot of journalists. I follow a lot of polls.

Everyone starts in on, maybe that one binders full of women or I'm going to kill Big Bird, and it keeps snowballing and snowballing and snowballing.

And that's sort of the fun for journalists. They are three- screening it. They're watching TV, they have their computer, they're on their Blackberry twittering, tweeting, and they're doing all these three things. That's the point of it as opposed to writing the boring lead-all story.

KURTZ: And even doing that at the presidential debates themselves, I can tell you from firsthand observation.

Let's talk about a couple of the comments that attracted a lot of attention that are serious but yet became more fodder for the war. So, you had Sarah Palin talking about President Obama's dish on Libya, accusing him of trying to shuck and jive. A lot of liberals jumped on because it's obviously a phrase associated with African-Americans.

And John Sununu on behalf of the Romney campaign talking about Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama and saying -- well, I think, you know, because they're the same race. He later backed of that.

So, it seems like everybody's always looking to pounce on any hint of racial phraseology, racial -- you know, playing the race card as we like to put it.

SHEAR: Yes. And I think, look, we have the first African- American president that we've had in our history, you know, and some of those feelings in the country have if anything intensified. I think polling would suggest over the past four years as people have, you know, have assessed his performance and race, obviously, comes into that.

KURTZ: Should we jump on these kinds of comments?

SHEAR: No. I mean -- ideally I think, you know, to the extent that we cover race as an issue we should cover it as a serious issue and not jump on --

KURTZ: Gaffe of the day? Gaffe of the hour?

SHEAR: Exactly.

CRAWFORD: I think there's a strategy behind these comments. I mean, the white men that Romney needs to build this campaign on to win, I think this was a dog whistle to them. And I think it's worth noting. And I was fascinated to see Sununu backing away from it, which I've never seen him do.

KURTZ: Right.

CRAWFORD: But I think there's a strategy here.


KURTZ: But what was blunt and probably dumb, but the idea that African-Americans would feel some solidarity with the first African- American president doesn't strike me as a horribly racists thing to say.

CRAWFORD: It's the way Sununu says things. He's the perfect angry white man.


KURTZ: He's inflammatory which is why he's out there because he gets attention.

But come back to the contrast between the high and the low. We have 70,000 troops -- 70,000 troops in Afghanistan. Even after the foreign policy debate, you said because they agreed. Little discussion compared to Lena Dunham and that ad that we just played, that got 20 times more attention.

ASHBURN: Coming back from the debate, I was at an airport and overheard a woman and group of women -- average women talking about the war in Iran. And I thought to myself, wait. Should I go tell her it's really not a war in Iran?

But then later they're talking about things like we have been talking about here that are very lighthearted. And so I do fault the media for playing in this sort of fun little game. But it does have serious consequences.

CRAWFORD: But I still say if there's nothing -- they're saying that's significant and detailed and specific about how we're going to get out of Afghanistan, when we're going to get out, what we're going to do in Iran -- it's all rhetoric that we hear.

What is Obama going do about -- really going do about jobs? You know, how is -- how is Romney going to pay for his taxes? They don't answer any of these questions.

KURTZ: So you say that the candidates themselves are running somewhat empty --

CRAWFORD: A vacuum.

KURTZ: Filled with platitudes. And, therefore, you seem to let those of us in this business off the hook because --

CRAWFORD: I don't say off the --

KURTZ: We can do bayonets and binders --

CRAWFORD: I'm not shifting blame. I'm adding blame.

KURTZ: OK, you blame both sides?

CRAWFORD: I think the candidates have given us so little to talk about that we run off in all these directions. I mean, look at their speeches. They're vapid stump speeches given only to supporters, a billion dollars in ads --


KURTZ: Isn't all this stuff -- and again, you know, there's a place for some of the lighter stuff. I just think the volume has gotten so high. Isn't this much more a vapid campaign than 2008? And I'm talking about the coverage here.


KURTZ: It was barely a force in 2008.

SHEAR: Right. But, look, there is a tendency to look and say this is worse than it's ever been. I think if you go back in 2009, if you go back in 2004, there were lots of examples of place where's we focused as a media on, you know, sort of --

KURTZ: Joe the plumber.

SHEAR: There you go. That's a perfect example.

ASHBURN: But it wasn't there, right? So --

KURTZ: It existed but it didn't --

ASHBURN: But it wasn't really big. And this is the year of social media. In this presidential campaign, you are seeing social media roll over traditional media in a way that you didn't see in 2008.

KURTZ: I do think it's driving the conversation in many ways? I've got to get a break.

Up next, we go to the CNN Center in Atlanta for the latest guidance on hurricane Sandy.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KURTZ: With hurricane Sandy threatening to blow away much of the political coverage and forcing the candidates to cancel many events, we want to go now to CNN Center in Atlanta and meteorologist Bonnie Schneider with some brand new information on the track of this monster storm.

What can you tell us, Bonnie?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, right now, Howie, the storm is several hundred miles away from making landfall. We do have the exact position -- 575 miles south of New York City.

But what's interesting on the 11:00 advisory is that the increased height for storm surge has occurred. And this is for Long Island Sound, Raritan Bay and New York Harbor, now six to 11 feet. So that's higher than it originally was.

And a lot of people might be wondering -- well, what is storm surge? It's an abnormal rise in the water due to a hurricane. As the hurricane works its way over open waters, we can start to see the wind working its way across the water. And that might lift the waters height a little bit. But then when it starts getting closer to land, there isn't enough depth in the ocean floor.

So the closer it gets to more shallow coastal areas, we tend to find more storm surge and the water goes up and over. So, the track takes it onshore late Monday, early Tuesday, somewhere near the Delmarva or possibly south of New York City.

But this is a massive storm, the size is so large the wind field where tropical storm winds, several hundred miles. So, it's going to have a huge impact in areas inland, as well, with wind advisories posted. That's likely to cause a massive amount of power outages.

You know, when you look at New York City, Philadelphia, 10 million people likely to be impacted. And then you also have these storm wind fields stretching further west. So, cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh may see power outages, as well, Howie.

KURTZ: Far from the Atlantic Ocean. You know, people tend to forget that the impact of the storm itself will be great. But it's the aftermath, days and days of people going without electricity that I think is going to be the true legacy of the storm that's going to affect the campaign, as well.

Bonnie Schneider, thanks very much for the update from Atlanta.

I will make one prediction which is that I will lose power. It happens even when it sprinkles here in Washington.

When we come back, the off-record conversation that wasn't. The spat between the president and "The Des Moines Register" in a moment.


KURTZ: It may have been the most pointless use of off the record in modern memory. The editor of "The Des Moines Register" spanked President Obama for instating that his interview with the paper's editorial board couldn't be published. The Obama campaign then caved and put the conversation on the record and it turned out to be a utterly routine interview.

This morning, "The Register" is endorsing Mitt Romney for president.

Lauren Ashburn, should the editors of "The Des Moines Register" have talked to the president off the record in the first place in the last two weeks of the campaign?

ASHBURN: I think you'll see a lost of people doing that now. No, why, why bother? You can get access in this age of social media to things instantly. Why do you need to talk to somebody off the record? You can get the stuff that you need.

KURTZ: Editor Rick Green of "The Register" told us that he kept pushing for this to be on the record. Couldn't get the campaign to agree. Thought would be five or ten minutes. Ended up being a half- hour.

But how do you have that interview off the record and then write a column scolding the guy who you just agreed that he could stay off the record?

CRAWFORD: Yes, also I'm getting back to my obsession here about -- here's an example of a campaign, candidate decides to talk to the media, takes some serious questions from serious journalists and they want it off the record, and we accept that. I mean, I think the media -- my big blame for the media is accepting how these candidates don't give access. When I was on the traveling press corps for Dukakis, he did pressers every day. These candidates, we've gotten used to --

KURTZ: Sounds like 100 years ago.

CRAWFORD: I know. I know. Now we've accepted that we never have access to them.

KURTZ: In the White House before it caved in, where the campaign complained about the editor's blog saying even the fact that the call should have been off the record. But, then, of course, once they decided to make it public, it wasn't like Barack Obama had said anything differently than he says just about every day.

SHEAR: I mean, look, we in the media are complicit in letting lots of people if off the record when we shouldn't, I think especially the president of the United States. I don't think whether it's 10 days before a campaign or the first two weeks of his administration. I just think that the idea of putting the president of the United States off the record is not a good idea. There are occasions I guess where you'd have to do it.

And I think in particular in a case when the interview is pegged to -- you know, an editorial endorsement that's going to come out in a matter of days, just --

ASHBURN: You know what? Iowans got what they wanted in the end. And I say that this is because, again, of social media.

So the editor writes that note, right? In the past, he would have written that note, and where would it have gone? It would have in his paper the next day. But now, it spreads like wildfire across the Internet.

And there's this public outcry saying, why is this off the record? This shouldn't be off the record.

CRAWFORD: And what would happen if you said something really newsworthy? Would that editor have gone and written about it? I mean --

KURTZ: You made the agreement, you're bound by it.

CRAWFORD: I know. One reason they didn't release in the beginning -- I mean, to let the campaign wait and see what happened in the interview before you release it to make sure nothing bad happened, that's just no good.

KURTZ: Let's get to the larger issue here, "New York Times" this morning endorsing Barack Obama, not a shock. "Washington Post" did the same the other day. But "The Des Moines Register," of course in a crucial swing state.

Do newspaper endorsements in this age of social media and blogs and everybody popping off every 10 seconds, do they still matter?

ASHBURN: No. Except when you're "The Des Moines Register" and since Richard Nixon, you haven't endorsed a Republican and you do now. I think that in these momentous decisions where maybe even in 2008, newspapers endorsed Barack Obama and now they're endorsing Mitt Romney. Now, that's interesting and newsworthy and I think could sway voters.

Other than that, no. You know "The Washington Post" is going to endorse Barack Obama. You know "The New York Times" is going to endorse Barack Obama.

KURTZ: Right. And, clearly, the newspapers endorsements do matter in local elections and they can matter in primaries -- low turnout primaries. "The Des Moines Register" in the Iowa caucuses is gold.

But the argument is it's not just saying, hey, votes for this guy, a newspaper like "The Times" makes arguments in favor of a candidacy, which can get picked up by others and commentators. Does that just disappear into the echo chamber?

SHEAR: I think it largely does. I agree with Lauren. I would point out that many of these editorials are substantive and they're pointing out important stuff which goes to our last conversation. But I'm not sure about the "Des Moines Register's" endorsement.

I mean, I don't know how many people are really left who are in that persuadable category --

KURTZ: About 12.

SHEAR: Right. So 12 people --


ASHBURN: In Ohio --

SHEAR: Maybe that will make a difference. But I'm not --

CRAWFORD: I think you have to make TV ads out of the endorsements for them to have impact.

ASHBURN: No, I don't think TV ads do have any impact that they used to.


KURTZ: Well, I think TV ads is a good idea, except that a lot of people will have no power this week and they're not going to see them.

Lauren Ashburn, Michael Shear, Craig Crawford -- thanks for an interesting conversation this morning.

Ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES, Barack Obama goes everywhere from Leno to MTV. We'll talk about that. But first, the horrifying abuse scandal at the BBC that now stretches all the way to "The New York Times."


KURTZ: Media organizations, it turns out, aren't very good at investigating themselves. A revolting sexual abuse scandal at the BBC just keeps on getting worse and is now echoing all the way to New York.

Jimmy Savile was an incredibly popular BBC personality. Now there are accusations that he abused more than 200 boys and girls before his death last year. The BBC program "News Night," to its credits, started looking into the allegations and interviewed at least one alleged victim.

But the program's editor killed that investigation last year. What I would call a cover-up if it were done by the government. Instead, the British network, ITV, interviewed alleged victims and broke the story.

Well, the former head of the BBC, Mark Thompson, is the incoming chief executive of the "New York Times" company. And "Times" Ombudsman Margaret Sullivan has urged the paper to cover his role more aggressively.

Of Friday as if on cue, the "Times" did ran a lengthy piece on Thompson's role. Earlier Thompson told the "New York Times," "I was not notified or briefed about the "News Night" investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation."

"During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile." But later in an interview, Thompson also told the "Times" he had heard from a colleague that "News Night" was investigating Jimmy Savile, but didn't know the details.

He said he shared this with other BBC managers and was told the story would not run for, quote, "Journalistic Reasons." This is to see the least a serious problem.

The BBC has approved an internal investigation and also plans to have an expert look at sexual harassment claims dating back to the 1970s. And this morning, Lord Patton, Chairman of the BBC's governing body writes in "The Mail" on Sunday, can it really be the case that no one knew that he was doing?

Did some turn a blind tie criminality? Very good questions. The whole thing is a bloody shame. It would have been far better had the journal still "News Night" been allowed to do their jobs even though their target was an icon at the BBC.

Up next, with all the focus on Trump and Coulter and binders and bayonets, have the media dropped the ball on Mitt Romney's move to the center?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: We're going to put aside Ann Coulter and Donald Trump and Lena Dunham and even Hurricane Sandy for a moment and focus on the substance of the campaign coverage.

Joining us for that here in Washington, Matt Lewis, senior contributor at "The Daily Caller," and John Aravosis, founder of "America Blog."

All right, Aravosis, where is the media coverage? We've seen it in the few places. But where is the driving day-to-day media narrative about Mitt Romney especially in three debates moving to the center, away from where he had been?

JOHN ARAVOSIS, FOUNDER, AMERICA BLOG: I don't think you're seeing sort of a meta narrative about it, which is what's really going on with Romney, what's the larger question about he's not just moving to the middle.

He seems to be continuing this series of flip-flops, lies you might call it, on issue after issue that's been going on for years. Whether it's gay rights, whether it's immigration, guns, whatever. My suspicion is that the media sort of doesn't want to be in a position of being arbiter. They think our job isn't to police whether you're telling the truth or not, we'll do he said/she said. I also think that the media thinks, yes, he is lying and all politicians do that, who cares?

KURTZ: Well, lying is a bit strong because politicians do modulate their positions. But it seems to me that journalists do love flip-flop stories. That apparently was a narrative for Romney earlier in his career going back to the days as Massachusetts governor. But in this instance, maybe you'll disagree. I think Romney has largely gotten a pass.

MATT LEWIS, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, "THE DAILY CALLER": I think you're right. And I think it's partly baked into the cake. People know that Mitt Romney has held different positions on different things, and I think that Barack Obama tried to make that point desperately.

KURTZ: Romnesia is his favorite line?

LEWIS: Right. I felt bad for him because it reminded me of Republicans trying -- voters don't really care. I think for that last debate, what they wanted was somebody who passed the commander in chief test, who seemed moderate and reasonable, and I think Mitt Romney gave them that. I think he passed that test. And I think that, yes, the press hasn't focused on it, but I think it's because people -- it's part of the narrative for him, it's old news.

KURTZ: Here's my problem with it. The guy campaigns for two years and he talks about tax cuts and Obamacare and the whole panoply of issues. And then I am not saying he changed (inaudible), but he certainly has a different tone and emphasis at the very least. The question that the press seems to be asking is, is it working?

ARAVOSIS: I think it's twofold --

KURTZ: It probably is working, but is that the only question that journalists should be asking?

ARAVOSIS: No. I think Matt's saying, it may be working, but again, from my perspective, you get to a certain point where you changed your story so much as a politician that you have to -- and frankly, I would go so far as to say, you know, Romney putting out ads talking about Obama's apology tour or -- or today on the auto bailout where he's fundamentally changing his story 180 degrees.

And you have to ask, is there a character question involved? Even with Obama, look, I wasn't happy four years -- I forget what it was, it was a main issue that he had flip-flopped on. But I think it was a main issue I was ticked about. I think like there's so much going with Romney that it's fair to ask, is there something about this guy's character that is wrong.

LEWIS: But I think some of it is that I've always intuitively believed that Mitt Romney is a moderate. He feels like a moderate and I think he had to go to the right in order to win the primary. By the way, some of its tonal, right? Both sides conflate ideology with toughness. Romney had to act really tough to win the primary --

KURTZ: So when Romney was saying I was a severely conservative governor of Massachusetts, he had to do that to win the nomination, and now he's kind of reverting to what he feels more comfortable with. I think that's probably right.

LEWIS: Absolutely.

KURTZ: So doesn't that raise questions of credibility about what he was doing for those two years? And isn't it fair for journalists to say, well, exactly which President Romney would we be getting?

LEWIS: I think it's entirely fair to ask those questions, but I don't think it's going to move the public. I think that going back to the whole --

KURTZ: Why would voters not care if a guy is all over the map? You say it's old news.

LEWIS: I think it's old news, and I think that people intuitively believe that Mitt Romney is a moderate. I think that when he showed up -- let's go back to 1980. I hate to keep -- we always like to bring up Ronald Reagan if you're a conservative.

But they wanted to cast him as this bellicose, crazy right winger. He shows up at the first debate, Ronald Reagan is likable. He is sensible. He is moderate. I think we could vote for this guy and trust him. That is exactly what Mitt Romney has done, but that's who he's always been.

ARAVOSIS: But I think Matt is correct that people may not care. I would agree with you, Howie, that I think people should care. I care about whether I'm going to lose my health insurance if Mitt Romney gets elected because I've got pre-existing conditions, and I do. I brought this up before. I care about whether Mitt Romney would have bailed out the auto industry the same way Obama did, because he wouldn't have, and we would have lost a million jobs. But I don't know if the voters care about those details. I think they should.

KURTZ: Voters can care about anything that they want. But journalists ought to hold candidates accountable. And the same thing is true on Barack Obama's side. He hasn't been talking lately about gay marriage or immigration--

ARAVOSIS: The reason why -- if he flip flops four times in a day on pre-existing conditions, you hold him on it.


KURTZ: Let me move on to something else. "Politico" had a lead story the other day. "The Daily Beast" and others have done this too about the Romney transition, how he would govern. Do those kinds of stories help him by creating a sense of momentum?

ARAVOSIS: No. As long as they're covering both sides, I don't care. If it's just a story about the Romney transition --

KURTZ: You don't need a Obama transition story because he's already president.

LEWIS: They help him because nobody doing what's John McCain going to do when -- who's going to run the transition?

KURTZ: Nobody was doing three weeks ago what Mitt Romney was doing --


LEWIS: Nobody believed that John McCain would be president at this point. People think Mitt Romney could be. I want to go back - you talked earlier about this clown campaign, rights, about how we're focusing on small things that don't matter that much.

Part of it is that we are responding to a marketplace, fair or not, good or bad. Media and journalists -- look, I've written a lot of stories in the past couple of months about the manufacturing crisis. And Rust Belt states, it's going away and how hard it is on families. Nobody cares. They get two comments on it, right. It's frustrating, but if I write a story about Trump, I get 100 comments.


KURTZ: President gives a "Rolling Stone" interview when he suggested Romney is a bs-er. He actually said that this happened when he thought the interview was over, so in other words, he didn't intend it for publication. That's gotten a lot of media flack. Should it?

ARAVOSIS: I don't think so, only because we had George Bush repeatedly flipping the finger at the camera. I put it on my blog once. Dick Cheney's famous -- the "go "f" yourself"? I forget which.

LEWIS: Major league a-hole or something.

KURTZ: We don't have to go that far.


ARAVOSIS: -- about a "New York Times" reporter. But, you know, my suspicion is that -- my suspicion is it was intentional because it was meant to be little rough and tough, you know, the raw Obama you don't see. I don't really care. I could see the right trying to make hay of it, but I don't really care.

KURTZ: Basically you're saying to the extent that the clown campaign gets attention it's because of marketplace forces. This is what people like to read. It's fun, it's easy. What about the extreme weather campaign? It seems that the hurricane is about to -- not just mess up the candidates' schedules, but kind of dominate certainly television. How much is that going to obliterate at least for a few days, the final week of this campaign?

LEWIS: I think the things that drive readership, and I think the salacious stuff, the small stuff, Big Bird, but I think weather, it sports -- another World Series happening right now, by the way, as well.

KURTZ: But it's not close.

ARAVOSIS: Weather is a huge story. I think all of us in the media feel pressure to report on things people like because honestly we're not making a lot of money nowadays with the economy. But having said that, the weather story-

LEWIS: But this could be a legitimate, I mean, serious ramifications kind of a storm.

ARAVOSIS: The weather is kind of a huge story, what's going on this week. It will interfere with the campaign, I think it will.

LEWIS: It's going to take away from the amount of substance I also predict. You're going to see more process stories. More momentum is building for Mitt Romney -- you're not going to get into the foreign policy minutia.

KURTZ: The television has been known to hype certain weather stories. I don't think the storm is going to do a lot of damage, it's going to be a legitimate story, but sure is going to -- at least in part overshadow the campaign. John Aravosis, Matt Lewis, thanks for joining us.

After the break, from Leno to MTV, Barack Obama all over television these days. Have these platforms been a bit too friendly?


KURTZ: Barack Obama has been on a television blitz in these final days of the campaign, much of it centered around entertainment shows. From "The View" and "The Daily Show," he talked about the debates this week on Jay Leno's couch.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: The truth is this is not a natural way of communicating, right? You're sitting next to somebody and -- having an extended argument with them like that and --

JAY LENO, HOST, NBC'S "THE TONIGHT SHOW": But you're married.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I am. But the difference is -- is that with Michelle, I just concede every point.

LENO: Yes. Concede every point.


KURTZ: The president also let Brian Williams tag along with him for two days, producing a wealth of coverage on NBC programs.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: After the excitement of '08, given the power of incumbency, you got Bin Laden. You did not expect to be sitting on a more substantial race than we are as we sit here today?

OBAMA: No, Brian. Listen, you guys have some short memories, all right? Folks in your business were writing me off a year ago, saying there's no way I would win.


KURTZ: So what portrait of the president are these shows giving us? Joining us now is David Zurawik, television and media critic for "The Baltimore Sun."

All right, let's start with Leno. You were not a big fan of the way that Jay handled the president's appearance. Why not?

DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION AND MEDIA CRITIC, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": As I said, he spent the entire -- they gave him the whole show except for the monologue and the music. That's a lot of time. That's not President Obama dropped by today, Jay. He got the whole show.

That's a lot of free advertising. And Jay spent it literally like a guy on his knees keying up one question after another so Obama could drive - it was like a driving range, drive him off into the distance. You saw even that where he asked him about the debate. You'd say, well, he asked him about a poor debate performance.

KURTZ: He fed him.

ZURAWIK: He fed him the line to make him look great and how he let him reconstruct the narrative of this is an unnatural act of debating. You want a real man like me here.

KURTZ: Is this because Leno is a soft interviewer and wants to keep things light, or are you suggesting this he is leaning toward the president of the United States?

ZURAWIK: You know, honestly, I don't want to go there in terms of bias with people. I think that the president's campaign team is really, really savvy, and they only take him in to safe places, and they vet all this stuff.

There are no surprises. It kills me that veteran journalists from Washington were so cynical write, you know, the president's really witty and really fast on these replies. I'm going -- you don't think it was scripted?

Look, on Leno, this is what really upset me about Leno. They had Facebook questions they said from viewers. And one of them is how do you cure Romnesia. Well, now that's going too far. You're mocking the opponent.

KURTZ: And using a campaign talking point. I want to move on here. What about MTV, and this was extraordinary when Bill Clinton did it in 1994, does it still rock to go on MTV?

ZURAWIK: It was kind of boring, 5:00 on a Friday. I was a little disappointed. I have to get my Sunday column and go this is really important. The editor was like, why do you care. Anyway, Sway Callaway, the DJ was the interviewer, and actually Sway asked good questions.

He asked about, President Obama, please address the people that graduated from college with so much hope for your campaign 2008, who now don't have jobs. He really laid it out.

But then President Obama said well, you know, a college education will still earn a million dollars, that study, blah, blah, and Sway never asked a follow-up, never came close to asking a follow-up and only would say, thank you. He was kind of cowed by being in the presence of the president.

KURTZ: The president doing "Morning Joe" tomorrow and he spent a couple days I mentioned with the NBC anchor this week. Brian Williams got extraordinary access for "Rock Center" and "Nightly News". What did that produce?

ZURAWIK: You know, how I am a fan of "Rock Center" with Chelsea Clinton, and the bowing anchorman. I call Brian Williams the bowing anchorman for the former interview where he bowed to the president.

In fairness, I thought he did a very good job deconstructing what the campaign team was setting up, when they went to the fair in Iowa and they put hey bails around these two men in suits, Brian laughed about it, pulled it out. Said folks, they put this here so you know we're in Iowa. He did a very good job. The problem is he didn't follow-up on questions, but given what it is, I thought Brian did a much better job and deserves credit for it. KURTZ: Right, there's one question on Libya, the attack on Libya in particular where I thought he could have followed up.


KURTZ: Mitt Romney hasn't been on any of these shows since he did Kelly Ripa's program last month. He has (ph) done "The Daily Show." He canceled on "The View." He's not going to seeing him talking about his underwear on MTV. Letterman is ragging on him. Does that put him at a disadvantage in today's media marketplace?

ZURAWIK: I'm not sure it puts him on a disadvantage. Look, it gives President Obama an advantage to reach different audiences just as Bill Clinton figured it out, you know, 20 years ago now.

But here is what I think is dangerous about it. You know, when President Obama talked about the deaths in Benghazi with Jon Stewart not being optimal, using that language, right after a joke, a really a sick (ph) kind of joke where he said that's not very sexy in terms of something else. And Stewart said you don't know what may be sexy to me. It demeans those kinds of -- four deaths should not be yuck yuck in the middle of a conversation on Comedy Central.

KURTZ: Well, on the one hand, Jon Stewart is trying to get some serious questions, it's not just a laugh fest. On the other hand, you are saying the adjacency of kidding around and talking about deaths of American diplomats troubles you.

ZURAWIK: How it says to me you demean the presidency. You know, what we lose with this, President Obama is great on the shows, but we lose the Gettysburg address, that end of the presidency.

When you can speak to better angels and elevate us, he is taking us into late night TV on the couch instead of to Gettysburg and that's a danger because we need that, too, from a president.

KURTZ: These days the Gettysburg address would be considered way too long for television, you would get a ten second sound bite.

All right, David Zurawik, thanks very much for stopping by this morning. Still to come, "The New York Times" banned in Beijing, a technology pundit outlasts Arianna Huffington, and Superman's alter ego delivers a sobering message about journalism. "Media Monitor" is straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor." Our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business. Here is what I like. "The New York Times" did deep digging into the family of Chinese prime minister.

Reporter David Barbosa found that his wife, son, daughter, brother, brother-in-law, and mother who was a school teacher control assets worth nearly $3 billion. Beijing's reaction? Blocking Chinese access to the "Times" web site. Michael Arrington founded a popular web site, "Tech Crunch" is returning as a columnist. This is why it is interesting. A couple years ago, Arrington sold his site for $30 million to AOL and last year, he left after clashing with Arianna Huffington who had become AOL's editorial chief.

The issue was that Arrington had formed the Crunch Fund, a venture capital fund to invest in Silicon Valley companies while writing about Silicon Valley companies.

Huffington found that to be unethical. Now Arrington is able to come back because Arianna in a corporate reshuffling is no longer overseeing that tech Crunch unit. Arrington says he will disclose any conflicts related to the investment. He should be either an investor or journalist, not both.

My first taste of newspapers and maybe yours involve a certain reporter of "The Daily Planet."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Superman who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, who disguised as Clark Kent, a reporter for a metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.


KURTZ: Clark Kent along with Louise Lane and Jimmy Olson worked on some important stories in metropolis that is when he wasn't disappearing into a phone booth. They had phone booths back then to don his special uniform.

But in the latest edition of Superman, Clark quits the "Daily Planet" with a little speech about how journalism is giving way to entertainment. He is probably going to become a blogger according to "USA Today." Now you may call this a super stunt or another sign that newspapers can't catch a break.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I am Howard Kurtz. If you miss a program, go to iTunes every Monday. You can download us in the nonfiction TV show section of the iTunes store.

We're back here next Sunday morning, 11 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.