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Pundits Predict Obama Win; Storm Swamps the Campaign; MSNBC's War on Romney

Aired November 4, 2012 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: This is the week when Mother Nature collided with politics, and we know who won. Just as the media establishment was ready to kick in to high gear for the final week of the presidential campaign, the climax of a tumultuous political season, the White House on the line, the news was all about this.


DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: As we come on the air, it is happening right now. Hurricane Sandy crashing on shore, winds now at 90 miles per hour, and this storm is so big, so vast, 60 million Americans will feel its power.

GINGER ZEE, ABC NEWS: One of the worst storms that has ever hit Atlantic City. This city is basically underwater.

SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS: It is the most powerful storm to hit the region since they started keeping track.

ALI VELSHI, CNN: It feels like I am standing 100 feet into the ocean. These are real waves coming along. You can see them blowing behind me.


KURTZ: Did this saturation coverage of hurricane Sandy wipe out the campaign or just send it underground? Were news agencies catering to the intense interest of the damaging storm?

Why has there been so little coverage of climate change?

And did the media make way too much of Chris Christie embracing President Obama as they toured the devastation in New Jersey?

Plus, social media was all over the hurricane but mistakes were made. Are disasters tailor-made for Twitter?

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


KURTZ: It takes a lot to upend the final week of a presidential campaign, but hurricane Sandy was one powerful storms. Political reporters were all but sidelined as news agencies were consumed by covering the impact of the storm that happened to devastate the nation's media capital and many places beyond New York.

But then breakthrough through the beleaguered pundits, President Obama went to New Jersey to inspect the storm damage and Chris Christie, a Mitt Romney supporter, actually said nice things about him.


STEVE DOOCY, FOX NEWS: Is there any possibility that Governor Romney may go to New Jersey to tour some of the damage with you?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I have no idea nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: Governor Chris Christie has a new best friend, President Obama.

TUCKER CARLSON, THE DAILY CALLER: I think on the margins, this probably hurts Obama a little bit in that that it adds to the sort of general feeling that things are amiss in America.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: The president's nowhere to be found on Benghazi but he'll be out there for the hurricane.


KURTZ: Yes. Even hurricanes can be politicized.

Joining us now, two days before Election Day, with pundits now predicting victory for President Obama, here in Washington, Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University and a former Washington bureau chief for CNN. And Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and a CNN contributor.

"Washington Post" opinion section this morning, Frank Sesno, has prognosticators forecasting the election. Almost everyone says President Obama is going to win except for a GOP strategist and the horse racing columnist.

Is there a group think going on at this point?

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Oh, I think there's group think, but the group think is also based on a lot of polls and a lot of analysis of the Electoral College. We know where Barack Obama is ahead. We know where Mitt Romney is ahead. We know where it's close to call and people can do the math. And that's what you're seeing.

KURTZ: In the national tracking poll, "Washington Post"/ABC, it's 48-48. But in the swing state breakdown, yes, Obama has lead in many key states, including Ohio. But I wonder if journalists are putting too much faith in these polls because these are small leads.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I like that the horse racing columnist, he picks a favorite, right? Sometimes when grow to the track, do you that.

But, look, in the last (INAUDIBLE) elections, back in 2000, we didn't have a place to go to aggregate all of the polls. You had to do it yourself. I remember sitting on the spreadsheet trying to figure out stuff out. Now, you have access to so much data, so much state-level data that you can sit there and go state by state and actually have a somewhat more informed opinion about what's going to happen in Ohio than you could a few cycles ago.

So I see the reliance on polls by journalists as actually one of the good developments in our business. It's actually using some scientific social science methods to make predictions and most predictions that pundits make are really not based on social science.

SESNO: The dangers with it, though, are the prediction overtakes the coverage. I think that's less of a danger now so close to the election because everyone's asking the horse race question. The big question is, who's going win. You know, what's he doing on the economy? You know, what he's going to do about Iraq?

Those questions, you know, belonged to the debates and a lot earlier. So, it's now about who shows up and do the numbers come true?

KURTZ: Now, the way in which that storm just took over most of this past week and we just saw the pictures of Barack Obama and Chris Christie. So much ink and air time was devoted to that, it was like cat nip.

LIZZA: One, Chris Christie is this larger than life figure. So -- and number two, it's so rare for a Republican, especially someone like Chris Christie who has spent the campaign as a partisan Romney supporter. It's so rare for a Republican to say anything nice about a Democrat or vice versa, that that's major, major news.

When someone steps into a leadership role and says what's going on to his state is bigger and more important than politics.

KURTZ: But underlying the orgy of coverage about this, it seems to me, there's a certain cynicism, which is that Chris Christie couldn't possibly be sincere in thinking that the residents of his state who were just devastated by this storm, without power, without gas, many of them losing homes, that that was more important than partisan politics. We just -- almost like we didn't buy that.

SESNO: I couldn't agree with you more. Imagine you're Chris Christie and you're out there and a woman who's lost everything is hanging on your arm and sobbing uncontrollably. You go to the Jersey Shore where thousands of people live and you see there's no shore anymore. You walk through a neighborhood and all you see is sand and flood.

The impact politically, economically and personally for you as the governor is like nothing you ever experienced. And what's about Chris Christie, because he is larger than life, he'll then talk to an interviewer and say, I don't give a crap about the campaign. I don't give a crap about Mitt Romney.

LIZZA: This is one of those cases where reporters are so detached from actually what it means to be in the governing role, and they think everything is about the campaign and everything is about the politics. And actually, you know, these politicians -- give them some credit. Once they get into power and have real responsibilities, some of the stuff that we obsessed about every day does wash away.

KURTZ: And I'm not saying there's no politics involved. Both men were aware of the benefits of appearing bipartisan.

LIZZA: It's a crisis, a massive crisis.


SESNO: But it also intrudes on the narrative. This is where you're right, Howie and why reporters go crazy over something like this. My God, Chris Christie, this guy who is as partisan as they come, suddenly scrambling the whole thing.

And so you provide that counter-narrative and that is the stuff of headlines.

KURTZ: Let me move on to the storm itself. Let's throw up the picture of the "New York" magazine picture that captures Lower Manhattan being blacked out right after Sandy hit. As bad as this storm was, was it magnified in the media coverage because New York City was so directly devastated?

SESNO: Yes. And not only was it magnified because it was New York, but a lot of other reporting outside of New York was minimized or forgotten.

I went through and I pulled a bunch of headlines from other communities. Farmers urged to keep thorough records due to hurricane Sandy. Somerset County this weekend, gas and shelters. Morris County, emergency shelters, charging stations.

There was a story out of West Virginia because the snows moved through there and there were homes that were destroyed -- we barely heard about that.

So I think the New York media capital and also the sheer size and scope of it sucked this coverage in.

KURTZ: And even in New York City, the focus was so tightly on Manhattan. It took about four days people to realize that Staten Island had been totally devastated, more than half of the deaths in the city occurred in Staten Island. And it took a while for journalists to get to that story.

LIZZA: Look, the media capital centered in Times Square and downtown and so, when you're going into work, literally what you're seeing is the story.

KURTZ: People know the landmarks and the subways. (CROSSTALK)

SESNO: -- the mayor to get there, too.

LIZZA: And it's also the most populated area in the city and it was affected in a pretty serious way. So, it's not like Manhattan wasn't a story. It took a while for it to radiate out into other places that were affected. And as Frank points out, especially some of these rural communities, and even on Long Island.

KURTZ: The cover of "Bloomberg Businessweek", if we can put that up, "It's global warming, stupid." And it was a story that said that while no particular story could be blamed on climate change, the growing frequency of these very violent storms, climate change is a factor according to most experts.

LIZZA: Yes. It's adding energy from the storms coming from the ocean.

KURTZ: Right. Is that -- is that in your face headline and the cover story of public service? Why haven't there been in the last two years more coverage of this? Just because the candidates aren't talking about climate change?

LIZZA: No. At least one party is not talking about it. The Democratic Party, which at its core believes in climate change and if you ask most Democrats, wants to do something it does not talk about climate change.

KURTZ: Because it's a political loser?

LIZZA: It's a political loser. Barack Obama in 2009, 2010 pushed a cap and trade bill, got it passed in the House, almost got it passed in the Senate. And it became a political loser.

If you talk to Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel, some of these guys will tell you, Democrats lost their seats in 2010 over this issue. And reporters, and this is the weakness of our trade, unless there's a two-party debate about something, they don't cover the issue.

SESNO: This is a big problem and is this is where Barack Obama has been whacked and he has been, because not only have they walked away from it. They actively ignored elements of it from within the administration itself.

But this is the big question that needs to be raised. Not that this storm as you say can be connected to climate change because directly it cannot be. But the unpredictability of storms, the veracity of storms, the frequency of storms, all the models of climate change. Never mind rising sea levels, try taking the subway in New York City today.

So, this is something that's going to have to be addressed profoundly and the media and beyond. And not just, you know, in the immediate aftermath of the storm because if you want to address this, it's billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to fortify vulnerable coastal areas going forward.

KURTZ: I think you made the salient point which is that if the candidates and the parties are not being about it, they might as well take a pass.

LIZZA: This is one of those issues where the press has to say, what's the science, it doesn't matter if one party's saying they don't believe in it. They're wrong. The science is compelling.

SESNO: The media have become intimidated I think. The media have been intimidated by a lot of the political pushback and the fact that there's silence on both sides. They were not asked about it in debates, it has not come up virtually at all in the campaign trail.

KURTZ: I also want to turn to Libya because, obviously, there's continued to be reporting about what happened in the fatal attack on Benghazi. FOX News, more than any other news outlet that I have seen, has been hammering away at this story and FOX had a scoop based on sources saying that the CIA, which we now know is more heavily involved in that consulate than was previously acknowledged, made an urgent request during that attack for military backup and this was denied.

That story was not widely picked up and some people thought, say the rest of the media are pro-Obama and kind of turning away from this story. Your thoughts?

SESNO: I think the FOX reporting raises very serious questions that need to be very seriously pursued. They have two fundamental claims in their investigative reporting. One, that the CIA denied at the time -- told people on the ground to stand down instead of respond to the immediate attack. And secondly that military action was requested and not forthcoming. Those are very serious charges.

The problem with the FOX coverage is they have been so, you know, out over their skis criticizing the Obama administration from the very outset of this that the investigative reporting itself raises questions about where FOX comes from journalistic. And there are quotes, unattributed quotes in their story that if I were still the bureau chief here at CNN, I would be going back to my reporters and saying, wait a minute, if you're going to say the response was incompetent and quote a single unnamed source to that, I want a lot of detail when you're alleging that level of wrongdoing.

KURTZ: Right.

LIZZA: Well, this is a problem when you're identified as a strictly partisan news organization. That sometimes when you have a scoop or some reporting that might be compelling, people question it because they think you're just there to attack the president.

I think there's enough in their reporting and enough in the back and forth between FOX and the CIA that important questions have been raised and the press is not going get to the bottom of this. This needs to be kicked to some kind of independent investigator to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. SESNO: I think it's really important because FOX reporting and other reporting raises really serious questions. Not did they not try, but were they not able to respond, the U.S., militarily and otherwise, and if not, why not? Why was security not provided for these people, if it wasn't?

KURTZ: OK. Let me get a break.

When we come back, which network is more partisan in this campaign coverage, FOX or MSNBC? We'll have that answer in a moment.


KURTZ: A new study by the Project for Excellence on Journalism looks at the campaign coverage, well since the conventions.

And here's some interesting statistics. FOX News on Obama, looking at the segments, 46 percent negative against the president, 6 percent positive. That's an eight to one tilt against Barack Obama.

MSNBC on Mitt Romney, 71 percent negative against the former governor, 3 percent positive, a 23:1 ratio.

So, Ryan Lizza, does MSNBC out-FOX FOX?

LIZZA: The data shows that they have. I mean, you know, they were created as an alternative to FOX. And according to this study, they've gone further in the other direction than FOX has. I'll admit to being surprised by this. I only watch CNN, of course. I don't want FOX.


KURTZ: It's part of my job, and Romney gets hammered pretty consistently on MSNBC. Here's numbers for CNN. When it comes to President Obama, 21 percent positive, 18 percent negative. When it comes to Romney, 36 percent negative, 11 percent negative.

Although interesting if you take out the horse race stories --

LIZZA: I think this is the interesting part.

KURTZ: -- everybody becomes a little more fair. And CNN is almost perfectly balanced because a lot of stories are -- well, it's negative because you say he's lost the lead in Ohio and he's going to lose the election.

SESNO: That's right. If you look at everything they collected. In the content analysis, they did, they find this what they call mixed coverage, which has a little bit of both and both are about 50 percent of the coverage is both.

I actually think they've gotten what they deserved. I'm not at all surprised by the MSNBC and FOX numbers. Man the barricades, that's what they do.

KURTZ: Who has gotten what they deserved?

SESNO: Both of the candidates because it was predominantly positive, negative against Romney and --

KURTZ: Twenty-three to one negative against Romney on MSNBC, eight to one on FOX, they deserve that?

SESNO: No, no, no. I'm talking about in their study, they look at the media broadly. Do they deserve that? That's not whether they deserved that. Whether MSNBC and FOX believe that's their job, and that's what they do.

KURTZ: That's like their business models?

SESNO: Yes. They're not the news organizations. They're the op-ed page. They're the electronic, cable-driven op-ed page.

KURTZ: But both of them will say that in their daytime programming, although this is becoming less of a clear line now, that they try to be straight reporters and that it's the O'Reillys and the Ed Schultzes and Rachel Maddows that do the opinion.

SESNO: False, false, false. It's not true.

LIZZA: Either you really have to look at the show by show. I mean, some of the shows on MSNBC are staffed by straight reporters.

KURTZ: Chuck Todd's show for example.

LIZZA: Exactly, and others are more partisan. The point you were making about -- this study overall actually is pretty good for the press and is a hit against people who think that the mainstream media is biased toward Democrats. Because as you pointed out, if you take out the horse race coverage, that's just coverage that says Obama is ahead and they count that as a positive story, if you clear it all out, it's perfectly even positive to negative coverage between Romney and Obama.

KURTZ: Let me move on, because I want to get to Nate Silver. He's "The New York Times" polling guru and blogger. He's predicting an Obama victory on Tuesday. And so, he got criticized by Joe Scarborough on MSNBC and on Twitter. Nate Silver offered a $1,000 bet which later increased the $2,000 that will go to charity, that if he's right, Obama wins, you know, then Scarborough would lose.

The ombudsman of "The New York Times", Margaret Sullivan, spanked Silver, saying this was inappropriate. It makes him seem partisan, does it?

LIZZA: Look, I think what Nate Silver does is a credit to journalism and I think a lot about people who say things off the top of their head about who's going to win or lose, feel threatened by someone who is as data-centric as Nate is. On the ore hand, as a journalist you can't put money up for one candidate or another even if it's going a charity. SESNO: "New York Times" can't have it both ways. "New York Times" can't say on the one hand, we're going to be "The New York Times" with this incredible journalistic ethics and our folks aren't going to step over the line, and be aligned with the blogger who on a daily basis says personally, you know, not on a daily basis, but occasionally steps over the line.


LIZZA: I don't think --

SESNO: But his blog is solid and transparent and has been very direct.

LIZZA: That's the most important thing about what Nate does, it's transparent. Go on the site, look at his data, you can see most of what he does with his algorithm. And, you know what? Frankly, that's' a lot better than a lot of the blogging and punditry that's out there that is just based on one's gut, but he shouldn't have placed the bet. That was --

KURTZ: Yes, he shouldn't have placed the bet, but he was having a little fun. Seems to me, "The Times" is being a little stuffy here.

SESNO: "The Times" is being stuff because that's what "The Times" does. "The Times" says, look, if you're going to be -- this is the problem that all news organizations are in today.

KURTZ: I know they want to be hip.

SESNO: You want to be called, you want to be blogged, but you also want to be solid journalistic, you can't have it all unless you're put a --


LIZZA: I know enough about the intrigue at "The New York Times" to know that Nate is -- there's some competition what Nate does and what a lot of the other reporters do. He's not the favorite person in "The New York Times."

KURTZ: Very hip this morning. Frank Sesno, Ryan Lizza, thanks for stopping by.

Up next, the aftermath of hurricane Sandy cast as new spotlight on the role of government. The storm over Mitt Romney's position on FEMA in just a moment.


KURTZ: The federal response to hurricane Sandy has brought the government's role in disasters into the medial spotlight, and it wasn't long before news organizations starting replaying this clip of Mitt Romney last year in a Republican primary debate moderated by CNN's John King.


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: FEMA is about to run of out money and there are some people who say do it on a case by case, basis. And some who say, you know, maybe we're learning a lesson here that the state should take on more of this role. How do you deal with something like that?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction.


KURTZ: Has this sparked an overdue debate in the media or purely partisan one?

Joining us now in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle." And here in Washington, Bill Press, who hosts a morning show at Current TV.

Deborah Saunders, Romney didn't quite say in that debate that he would abolish FEMA, but he did seem to kind of, sort of, imply it. Fair game for the press in the wake of this devastating hurricane?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Yes. I think so. He did say he wanted to move the federal agency to -- for states to run things and I'm sure a lot of people don't think that's a good idea. You don't see him talking about that a lot this week, do you?

KURTZ: On the contrary, Bill Press, his campaign's spokesman, strategists, are saying, oh, no, the governor supports FEMA and doesn't want to abolish it. How does the press deal with that, contrasted with what we just saw him say last year?

BILL PRESS, CURRENT TV: The way they dealt with it is they ask the candidate. They asked him 14 times the next day. Now, which do you mean? Do you mean your answer to John King in June 2011, or do you mean what your campaign is saying now? And 14 times Mitt Romney refused to answer the question, which I think it does get to the heart of what this campaign is really all about, which is the role of the federal government.

And clearly Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have two different ideas about it, particularly in disaster relief.

KURTZ: What about -- well, what about the role of federal government as espouse by Romney now and espouse by Romney during the Republican primary, was when he was running more to the right. Some of your liberal colleagues have made an issue out of that, but it hasn't really become a major story for the press.

PRESS: I think it has. You know why, because -- at least I've read a lot of stories and seen a lot of stories about the fact that with Romney, there is an attempt at any rate to reinvent himself.

Look. He was totally against abortion. Now, not so much. I'm not as bad as you think I am.

He was totally against Obamacare. Now he says there are parts I like.

Now, he says give disaster relief to the United States and now he says, no, but we'll still keep FEMA.

So, that raises question I think of where does he really stand?

KURTZ: That has become the theme of the recent coverage, Debra Saunders. Not as much of a theme, as one might expect. I wonder if you think it's fair or are we seeing a certain amount of spin in this coverage?

SAUNDERS: Well, look it. I think we've seen the etch-a-sketch Romney. He moved to the right in order to win the primary. Now, he's moving toward the center. And we're seeing I think the real Romney, the guy who's a technocrat, a guy who would come in with his pencil and move money around for FEMA to try to make FEAM more effective and more cost-effective.

And, you know, that's -- so I think it's fair for people to point it out and ask which one is the real one. I have to tell you, though, I keep getting these e-mails from the White House, forward from FEMA and I see this White House taking FEMA and making -- using its campaign slogan on FEMA everywhere. I think that's sort of an issue too.

KURTZ: It's possible exploitation of a tragedy, but at the same time, the president has gotten a lot of praise, even from Chris Christie for his performance after Sandy struck.

Let me turn to an ad, a Romney ads that that has come out in the closing days, gotten a lot of heat from the mainstream media, has to do -- of course, he's feeling sensitive on the auto bailout., has to do with the production of Jeeps.


AD NARRATOR: Obama took G.M. and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China.

Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.


KURTZ: Now in a "New York Times" front page story. Not a column or editorial, Bill Press, that ad was described as having -- as leaving a misleading he impression that the move would come as the expense of jobs here in Toledo, Ohio. The truth is that Jeep, owned by Chrysler, is expanding jobs in China, but not moving them from the U.S.

PRESS: I think this is very risky for the Romney campaign and blew up in their face, and I'll tell you why.


KURTZ: Should straight journalists be saying that's a misleading ad?

PRESS: The reason they are able to say that is because the president -- they didn't say it. The president of GM came out --

KURTZ: Afterward.

PRESS: -- and said, wrong. The president of Chrysler came out and said, wrong. The local newspapers in Ohio and Pennsylvania have just hammered Romney on this.

So the point I want to make is, you know, everybody understands, we in the media, that political ads exaggerate a little bit. You expect it. When you get right down to saying something that's not true, particularly in the day of fact checkers, it's dangerous.

KURTZ: I would argue, Debra, that fact checkers in the media have less impact on campaigns now than they ever have. They just seem determined to ignore the media truth squadders. But in this ad, the wording is very careful. Sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. The ad doesn't specifically say but does kind of imply that some of those would be American jobs.

SAUNDERS: Well, here's what sort of drives me crazy about this. I love the fact check organizations, PolitiFact, Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post, I look at them all. And I looked them up on this ad, and Glenn Kessler gives the ad four Pinocchios. And he writes that it's, quote, "technically correct but misleading. "

I don't know. If it's technically correct, doesn't that mean it's a two-Pinocchio thing or something? Bill says that we expect ads to be a little misleading.

KURTZ: A suggestion of promiscuity in Pinocchios. Let me get a brief comment from you if I can.

PRESS: The Romney ad, second radio ad started, Obama says he saved the auto industry. For Ohio or for China? That is not -- you know what Romney's trying to say. There's no doubt what he's trying to say, that Obama saved the auto industry to send jobs to China, which is not true.

KURTZ: We will come back to a New York Times op-ed that Romney wrote in 2008 in which he was against a federal bailout, although he frames it differently.

All right, I want to ask about one more thing, because I get e- mails on this all the time, why don't I spend more time on it, and that is, Debra, conservative commentators say that the media collectively are giving President Obama too much of a pass on what happened at the consulate in Benghazi. Now, has that story been undercovered in your view?

SAUNDERS: Yes, I think it has. Now, first of all, I want to give credit to a lot of places. CNN, Arwa Damon at CNN found Ambassador Stevens' personal journal. CNN has done some great reporting on this. Fox News has done some great reporting. New York Times had this amazing story about the head of Ansar Al-Sharia basically saying he's not afraid of the Americans and nobody has questioned him. He's the guy that they believe was the ring leader of this attack.

KURTZ: But you're saying they're the exceptions?

SAUNDERS: But they don't say -- but -- but the exception is you don't -- there isn't a rush to find out what's happened before the election. And there isn't, let's face it. The administration gave this completely bogus explanation for what happened when they blamed this on a video.

KURTZ: Let me get back to Bill. I think it's been covered as an example of incompetence and perhaps lack of preparedness, but not as a scandal, and I think that's frustrating the right.

PRESS: Well, it is frustrating the right, but I think the reason they're frustrated is because nobody's buying it. They're really trying to whip it up. I've been on so many shows where we could be talking about the World Series and somebody will call in and say, yes, but what about Benghazi. I think the fact is, Howie, it has been covered extensively, and they haven't been able to prove that the Obama administration deliberately lied, because they did not, and that's what's driving the conservatives crazy.

KURTZ: All right, Bill Press, Debra Saunders, thanks very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Coming up, the media coverage of this long campaign, has it been more superficial than substantive? Political guru Larry Sabato joins us in just a moment.


KURTZ: Time now to grade the media coverage of this long presidential campaign. I spoke earlier with Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia from Charlottesville.


KURTZ: Larry Sabato, welcome.

LARRY SABATO, UNIV. OF VIRGINIA: Thank you so much, Howie.

KURTZ: I have been moaning and groaning, some would say, about the media coverage of this entire presidential campaign, it seems to me, we've been too easily distracted by gaffes, by ephemeral little controversies, and not focused on the issues. Do you share my assessment?

SABATO: Basically. It sounds like every presidential campaign I've ever seen, but I share your assessment. KURTZ: You wrote a book a couple of decades ago called "Feeding Frenzy," critiquing the press. It seems to me that you go back to the early 1990s, and the coverage was way more substantive than what we're getting now, in the age of Youtube, and Twitter, and short attention spans, and everything's got to fit into 140 characters. Why is it in this important election that there hasn't been more consistent issue- oriented coverage in your view?

SABATO: Well, partly because the media today, at least the establishment media, is a pale shadow of what they were when I wrote that book 20 years ago. The essence of it is that most news organization, even the really good ones, don't have the number of people, don't have the researchers, don't have the investigative journalists that they once had. And I think there's another dimension to this, too, Howie. The press, as you well know, having covered so many campaigns, the press doesn't control the agenda. The candidates and their staffers control the agenda. So it's difficult to get the candidates to focus on these substantive issues, like, say, the fiscal cliff or the national debt if they really don't want to discuss them in detail.

KURTZ: But that seems to me to be a bit of a copout, that is letting my profession off the hook, because even if the candidates are playing small ball and are ducking the hard questions about fiscal choices, for example, you know, we have a pretty mighty megaphone between television and newspapers, even if it's smaller than it used to be, and we could pound away at the fact that these questions aren't being answered, that the issues like climate change aren't being addressed. That tax cut plans don't add up.

And yet it seems to me it's a lot easier for us to talk about Big Bird and bayonets and binders full of women.

SABATO: Well, that's certainly true. I've criticized a lot of that myself. Particularly the gaffe coverage. I mean, my God, who wouldn't commit gaffes if they had a microphone attached to them 12 hours a day? We all do. We all say things the wrong way or get our tongues twisted, whatever. And that's the easy coverage. It's so easy to do a story on that. It is so easy to have a little comical piece. And it's encouraged, I think, by the late-night comics. They cover that. And then that becomes the next day's story, and on and on.

It is more difficult to cover the substantive issues and to ask tough questions not only of the candidates, but also of the American people. It's very difficult to do that, and it is the role of the press to do it. However, I can see why they don't. You know, so much of the public only wants to hear what they want to hear. They want things to be validated in terms of their own partisan identity. They don't want to hear anything contrary about their candidate, or they scream bias.

KURTZ: So that's an interesting thought.

(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: That's an interesting point. You're not only saying that newsrooms are smaller than they used to be, you're not only saying it's easier to cover a Big Bird controversy than something -- the intricacies of the Medicare debate -- but you are saying that people now gravitate towards the kinds of media organizations that reinforce what they already believe, and that doesn't leave much of a path, would you say, for journalists who at least try to get it straight?

SABATO: Well, it leaves a path for them as long as they don't mind not having much of an audience. And that is a problem.

KURTZ: But that's not much of a path at all. We've got to stay in business.


SABATO: That's what I'm saying. They've got to run a business. They've got to attract viewers. They've got to attract readers. And, you know, the press has different kinds of competition today. It's online. And anybody can find dozens of sources to reinforce every bias they already have, to tell them what they already know but in a way that's very appealing. And millions of people choose that route, and them that becomes their reality. They don't want the reality challenged by anybody.

KURTZ: And in our remaining half minute, as a long-time campaign chronicler, as a professor, do you find this state of affairs to be a little depressing?

SABATO: I find it very depressing. Of course, I can't figure out whether I'm depressed because I'm in my 60s, or I'm depressed because I've realized that the press and campaign coverage have deteriorated even further. It's kind of a close race, Howie.

KURTZ: I can't help you on the first one, but we're going to keep asking questions about the coverage on the second one, and cheer up, Larry. It's not that bad. The election will be over soon. Thanks very much, Larry Sabato. Appreciate you joining us.

SABATO: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: After the break, not everyone followed Hurricane Sandy on television. A look at how Instagram and Twitter chronicled the storm, mistakes and all.


KURTZ: When Hurricane Sandy struck, many people flipped on the tube, but also a lot of people, millions of people in fact, turned to social media.

Joining me now to talk about that, in Los Angeles is Sarah Lacy, founder and editor in chief of the technology web site PandoDaily. Welcome.

SARAH LACY: Thanks for having me. KURTZ: You write that Instagram, the photo sharing app and website, might be the new citizen journalism, as we watched it unfold during Hurricane Sandy. Is it?

LACY: You know, I think Instagram was a bit of a disappointment, frankly. We wrote that on Monday. We had talked, had an exclusive sitdown with Kevin Systrom, who created Instagram the week before, and he had said that, you know, really this was his vision for Instagram, for it to be more than this, you know, blog of what rich people, kids buy on Instagram, and more of really having an Arab spring moment. And we wondered if this would be it, because a lot of the people being hit by the storm had iPhones. It was sort of squarely in their demographic, and it was a very visual story.

I think Twitter was still the big standout here.

KURTZ: Well, Instgram had some amazing numbers, people were posting ten pictures per second at the height of the storm, but Twitter, I was also struck by--

LACY: But they were doing that on Monday morning. And they were -- when they were all mostly fake photos. I mean, the signal to noise was quite off on Twitter, particularly in the runup to the storm.

KURTZ: I want to get back to the authenticity issue in just a moment, but all the conversations that were going on on Twitter, and one of the advantages, it seems to me, is on television, television can only show one thing at a time on the screen. On Twitter, you can look through all of the messages and you can find out what's happening in your neighborhood, or somebody else's neighborhood. Do they have power, is there flooding, is the subway station out. Do you think it also fosters a sense of community?

LACY: Yes, I think it does. And I mean, I think that sort of always customizable and sort of micro news aspect of Twitter is amazing. I mean, it's the only news media, if we can call it that, that we've ever seen that can both be incredibly micro, just what's happening on your street, or everyone you know around the world reacting to this.

You could have been in China and could know what everyone in Brooklyn was feeling. It's both like expands space and time, and contracts space and time. And if you didn't want to know anything about Sandy, if you did not follow anyone on the East Coast, you could have not seen anything about it, or it could have been your entire feed. I think that's one thing that makes it so powerful.

KURTZ: Another thing of course there is the fact that you can't really talk back to your TV unless you want to sit in your living room and yell at the set. You can -- Twitter is a dialogue. You can answer people, you can have your say, no matter who you are. You don't have to own a television station or a printing press. And that -- is that also part of its allure, particularly in a time of crisis or emergency where everybody wants to feel plugged in?

LACY: Yes, absolutely. I mean, let's not forget too, it was a way to check in with people and know if your loved ones were OK. I mean, a good part of my staff is on the East Coast, and I knew as long as they were filing stories, they were OK. But in the wee hours as well, where I could see them retweeting stuff, posting photos, it was a way of me tacitly knowing everything was going on OK there. So I think it is good when you have a big story and people want to fact check it and they are talking back to reporters, but I think also that micro human element, that -- imagine if we had had that in the aftermath of 9/11. You think back -- or even at the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco. I heard stories about when the Bay Bridge collapsed and people didn't know if their spouse who was on the other side of the bay was in the bridge or not for, like, you know, eight, nine hours.

KURTZ: It does have that human element, I think it's one of its great attractions. But of course, some of the humans posting on there don't always have the information right. Your side wrote about a guy named Tom Phillips, works for MSN, and he started a blog on Tumblr, which is -- combines text, photos, video, you name it -- and it was called IsTwitterWrong. And it was dedicated to showing that some of the photos being circulated on Twitter and other websites were just storm photos that had been taken well before, in other words, they were completely bogus.

LACY: Right. Or they were just photoshopped. A lot of them weren't even authentic.

We had a big debate on staff, and actually we're still debating this on staff. David Holmes who wrote that piece really believes that this is actually kept Twitter more honest this time around. Because it was able to be so instantly fact checked and corrected. Paul Carr, who is one of our more senior media commentators, feels the opposite. He thinks a correction is only as good as the people who see it, and if a medium allows more make information to get out there in the first place, you can't just say, oh, well, just because that medium can correct it quickly, makes that sin go away.

So I think the point is, Twitter is sort of here to stay as a way we cover these things and a way we consume this information. That's definitely a big challenge of it, though.

KURTZ: Right. And part of the problem is when things that aren't right, not that the mainstream media don't make their share of mistakes, but the things that aren't right get picked up from Twitter and Instagram, say the photos, by other mainstream news organizations who are also looking for content, for dramatic pictures from people's neighborhoods. Then how many of their readers see those corrections. That's I think part of the challenge of real-time fact checking.

LACY: I don't have a lot of sympathy for mainstream media that does that. The bulk of these photos were very easy to plug into Google Images and see if they were photoshopped, or see if they came from somewhere else. The fact that this guy was able to with a Tumblr blog update so much of this in real time, I mean, come on. Mainstream journalism still has a job to do. I think that you can acknowledge people who don't do this for a living will put out bad information, or retweet bad information, but come on, if you have a job as a journalist, check stuff.

KURTZ: Check stuff is always a good motto. This guy Tom Holmes actually did work with some mainstream news organizations in trying to knock down some of the false things that were on Twitter. But with so many people posting, I suppose, it is inevitable that it is not going to be 100 percent accuracy. And perhaps people have come to expect that. Sarah Lacy, thanks very much for checking in with us on the social media aspect of covering the storm.

LACY: Thank you.

KURTZ: Good to see you. Still to come, the website Buzzfeed, we were just talking about this, debunks a false claim on Twitter. A New York Times columnist takes on his incoming boss in print. And are the late-night comics taking sides in the presidential election? Stay tuned for "the Media Monitor," next.


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 website Buzzfeed exposed a man who was deliberately spreading misinformation about Hurricane Sandy on Twitter. This person's account Comfortablysmug was posting such falsehoods like the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water. Buzzfeed says the Smug one is Shashank Tripathi, who is the campaign manager for a Republican House candidate in New York. When the website called Tripathi for comment, he hung up. Tripathi later resigned from Christopher Wright's congressional campaign and tweeted this, "I wish to offer the people of New York a sincere, humble, and unconditional apology." So much for being comfortably smug.

I also like Joe Nocera's New York Times column on the sexual abuse scandal at the BBC, as we mentioned last week. The network's former boss, Mark Thompson, said he was only vaguely aware that a BBC program had killed an investigation into the late Jimmy Savile, a legendary BBC host now accused of abusing more than 200 children. Thompson is also the incoming chief executive of the New York Times Company. Nocera writes that by not leading the charge to find out what happened at the network, Thompson winds up appearing willfully ignorant, and it makes you wonder what kind of an organization the BBC was when Thompson was running it, and what kind of leader he was. It also makes you wonder what kind of chief executive he'd be at the Times.

It is not easy even for a columnist to point such a finger at the man who is slated to be your boss.

Finally, the favorite sport of late-night comics is mocking Mitt. The Center for Media and Public Affairs investigated the monologues of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Fallon and found the shocking truth. Although there were 62 jokes about Barack Obama from the conventions to early October, Mitt Romney was the butt of 148.


JAY LENO: Romney was in such a good mood after the debate, on the way home, he let the dog ride inside the car.

DAVID LETTERMAN: They had a guy come in and appraise the White House and surrounding property. Guess how much it is worth? $1.5 million. $1.5 million. Mitt Romney said hell, I got that on me.


KURTZ: Now, let me go out on a limb and say I don't think these hosts are politically biased -- well, I'd make an exception for Dave, he is leaning left these days. No wonder Romney won't go on his show. But as far as the others, Obama is just not that easy to ridicule. Saturday Night Live has tried two impersonators, and still hasn't nailed him. Whereas jokes about a rich guy with a 1950s lingo -- well, gosh, golly, gee whiz, isn't that hard to make people laugh. Keep this in mind, the fourth most joked about politician in the study, after all these years, is that man of outsized appetites, Bill Clinton.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I am Howard Kurtz. You can check us on iTunes every Monday, and download our podcast. You go to the nonfiction TV show section of the iTunes store. We'll be back here next Sunday morning, 11:00 am Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley begins right now.