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Karl Rove Goes Rogue; Covering the Petraeus Affair

Aired November 11, 2012 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. We're going to look at the election and its aftermath.

Joining us in that conversation: Peter Baker, White House correspondent for "The New York Times"; Jackie Kucinich, political reporter for "USA Today"; and Fred Francis, longtime senior correspondent at NBC News, founder of

So, the drama, melodrama of the election night, FOX News projects that Obama has won Ohio, with it another four years, and then comes an objection from a member of the FOX News panel, the most prominent FOX News commentator.


KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I don't know what the outcome is going to be but you should -- we've got to be careful about calling things when you have like 991 votes separating the two candidates and a quarter of the vote yet to count. Even if they have made it on the basis of select precincts, I'd be very cautious about intruding into the process.



WALLACE: So maybe not so fast.

BAIER: Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thank you. Great to have you guys here.

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS: That's awkward.


KURTZ: That's awkward says Megyn Kelly.

So when Karl Rove says that as obviously wrong as it turns out, does it seem to you that he's speaking as a guy giving his independent judgment as a former political operative or as a guy who's acting as a Republican Party surrogate?

PETER BAKER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: That's the issue here, of course. Very awkward is a right word. It's awkward situation long before election night in which when networks have people on their programs who are also actors. They're no longer just observers.

That's also true here with Paul Begala obviously at CNN. It's not just Karl Rove. But Karl is running the, you know, multimillion dollar -- hundreds of millions of dollars worth of advertising in the campaign and suddenly he's a commentator.

KURTZ: The Crossroads PAC which he helped found.

And why do cable networks, and not just FOX News, allow people who are still in the game, who are partisans, who are helping to raise money, come on and be paid pundits?

FRED FRANCIS, 15SECONDS.COM: First of all, that was great television, OK?

KURTZ: It was. It's riveting.

FRANCIS: I'm sorry, that's one of the reasons they put them on there because they give good television. However, that meltdown was indicative of what is really wrong with what's going on in network news and cable news. The mixing of pundits and not just pundits but well-heeled pundits, Karl Rove with $300 million in his pocket before this election, with real reporters on the same sets, and it muddies the waters and it confuses the viewer. And something really should be done not just at FOX but CNN and MSNBC.

JACKIE KUCINICH, USA TODAY: And a great cheer went up at the Romney victory party, which is where I was when he said this. So it also kind of drew out the hope of that crowd who were watching this hoping for any sign that maybe this isn't over yet.

KURTZ: Keeping hope alive at a time when if you listened to FOX and the other networks, CNN, MSNBC, also making objection that Obama had won Ohio although the raw vote total was very tight.

But again, I have to say to myself, Karl Rove is a smart guy. He helped elect George W. Bush twice. But he's running the super PAC and you have to wonder, are you getting his independent (INAUDIBLE)?

BAKER: Remember, he had -- on 2000 and 2004, both election nights when he was fighting with the networks over their projections and he happened to be right both times. So, I think it's a little bit of history there where he says, wait a second. And it's interesting to have a guy like that on there.


FRANCIS: Asking Karl Rove whether GOP or Romney is going to win is like digging up Knute Rockne and asking whether the Irish should be number one. I mean, what answer do you think you're going to get?

KURTZ: The same answer you got from Dick Morris, who predicted that Romney would win in an electoral landslide over at FOX News. He was obviously. A lot of people were wrong, it turns out. Most of the mainstream media, I should say, and most of the pollsters were right about President Obama. But -- and so it makes me think about this: was this moment with Rove, fairly or unfairly, kind of symbolic with what we receive this year where some folks on the right, certainly not everybody, said the polls were skewed, said the unemployment figures were cooked, not accepting reality?

FRANCIS: Yes. Yes. They were clearly wrong. I mean, Frank Bruni said it best in "The New York Times" this morning, that oracle sabertooth (ph) -- a debacle.

I mean, you know, Rove was not just wrong, but he was cataclysmically wrong. And his entire methodology comes into question as does his stature at FOX News. I mean, will FOX News at this point look at what happened and say, you know, we need to rethink these things?

KURTZ: I think FOX News loves Rove and I think FOX News viewers like Rove.

FRANCIS: Because he's good television.

KURTZ: You also had Donald Trump who, you know, ran for president for about nine minutes it seems and pushing the birther nonsense all year and he tweeted on election night that that the election was a sham and a travesty and injustice with Barack Obama winning. And Brian Williams, the NBC anchor, said that Trump had driven far past relevance and veering to something close to irresponsibility.

KUCINICH: But didn't he also say something about how Rove made a bad investment, that was $400 million. So, I mean, I think --

KURTZ: And that Trump was shooting at Rove as well.

KUCINICH: Right, and we're talking about him. So, he --

KURTZ: Yes, that's the thing. Why do we lavish attention on somebody like Trump? He's colorful copy, he's good for ratings, we enjoy talking about him. But he also seems to be pushing against the facts as he did in the election night.

KUCINICH: I wish I knew is the answer. I mean, I think he's someone that has remained relevant through Twitter and people read about him.

KURTZ: It's a reality show.

KUCINICH: I know. It's true. And people read about him. He draws -- he is news.

FRANCIS: The fact is that people think that Donald Trump is a clown. He's not a clown. He is an iconic self-promoter. And when you push back -- when he tweets something and you respond like Brian Williams of NBC News did, you make his day. He loves that.

KURTZ: He loves to get into fights. Let me ask you, Peter Baker, about all the analyses that were in after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney. Suddenly, of course, Romney campaign was dumb, it was stupid, they couldn't do anything right, even though he came close to defeating an incumbent president. And then there were all these pot shots in the press. "Washington Post", for example, quoting some Romney finance guy, no name attached, saying they were all in over their heads.

Is that fair to let those people take pot shots behind the curtain of anonymity?

BAKER: Well, victors write the history, right? And that happens in every election. As you say, this is a very tight election if you really look at the bottom line in terms of the popular vote.

And yet, suddenly one side wins and they're brilliant. Everything they did was exactly right --


BAKER: Right, and everything on the other side did was exactly wrong.

Look, Republicans never fully embraced Mitt Romney. And they were more than ready to take shots once he lost because they never -- he was never really their guy. They took him because he was, you know, better. I mean, sort of like the last man standing, but not somebody they really got enthusiastic about. Happy to take blame --

KURTZ: Right. But any hesitation, just briefly, on journalists allowing people who are disappointed Republicans to criticize Mitt Romney without their names attached.

BAKER: I think we should insist on names as often as we can.

KURTZ: They want to be on the record, fine. Say whatever they want.

BAKER: Right.

KURTZ: All right. Let me get a break here. When we come back, the election results overtaken as a big news story by the saga of David Petraeus. Back in a moment.


KURTZ: David Petraeus, the former four-star general, resigning on Friday after acknowledging an extramarital affair.

Take a listen to NBC's Andrea Mitchell who broke that story, talking about what had happened when she reported it.


ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC: I have to tell you I don't take any pleasure in this -- RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: Yes.

MITCHELL: -- in a sense that this is really a personal tragedy. And having covered General Petraeus myself here and overseas, I am absolutely convinced from all the people I've had directly involved that this was a matter of honor.


KURTZ: Fred Francis, you know and have covered David Petraeus as well. The tone of much of the coverage has been, this is a shame, it's a tragedy. You don't see the piling on they usually do when some other public figure gets caught at this kind of messy situation.

FRANCIS: With David Petraeus, it was a shock to everybody who's ever covered him. I must say in a lesson to journalists that everybody -- there's a chinks in anybody who wears a shiny armor, and over the years when the alleged person who was having an affair with would show up in Afghanistan, reporters would ask questions to his staff, who is she, why is she here so much?

KURTZ: Well, let me take this (INAUDIBLE). Several news organizations have reported that the woman is Paula Broadwell, who is his biographer who took a TV tour, went on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, talking about her book about Petraeus, what great man he is. And supposedly an FBI investigation started by I'm she had written led to General Petraeus having to step down.

You're saying there were rumors in questions in the press box (ph).

FRANCIS: Rumors but maybe questions about why she was so close to a four-star general who was running the war in Afghanistan. And they never got answers. In fact, the public affairs people pushed back and said it's nothing, he's just mentoring her.

They said to me last night, one of the public affairs office, they never went to Petraeus and said, hey, they're asking questions about her, which would have been an appropriate thing to do for a public affairs person. That never happened.

But let me just continue. Petraeus knew three weeks ago that the FBI was onto this affair, OK? The honorable thing to do three weeks ago would have been to resign, not wait until the end of election. You know, we teach our clients in 15 Seconds get bad news out fast.

KURTZ: Right.

FRANCIS: He didn't do that.

KURTZ: Of course, this would have stepped all over President Obama's re-election effort.

But, Peter Baker, is it true that there's a more sympathetic tone in the coverage of somebody who gets into this kind of trouble when journalists know the person, when a relationship of trust is built as opposed to somebody who's kept at immediate arm's length?

BAKER: Yes, I think that's probably fair. Look, we'd all like to believe that we're completely neutral and that we would treat everybody the same defending on the circumstances and that's our goal.

But let's face it. General Petraeus is known with reporters all over town, had spent a lot of time cultivating the media and answered questions to his credit even from long distances and odd hours of the night. So he probably gets a little bit more of a break.

I think it helps him -- but it's not right -- that he didn't publicly denied something. I think it gets worse on people when you publicly deny something that then turns out to be true.

KURTZ: But that access, Jackie Kucinich, that Petraeus granted to some journalists, military journalists and others, has really produced a lifetime of favorable coverage, of positive headlines. I mean, this is a guy who had a terrific image. At least in part -- I'm not saying he doesn't deserve it, I'm not saying he didn't accomplish a lot in Iraq and Afghanistan, risking his own life, but in part because he courted the press.

KUCINICH: Right. I mean, this is a very savvy individual and there's no denying that. I think Peter is right. It's fair to say if reporters know someone, if someone's friendlier to them, they're going to take -- give them more of the benefit of the doubt. That said, this is a developing story and think there is a need to tread lightly.

FRANCIS: This story has legs.

KUCINICH: I mean, it really does. And I think that being a little bit more careful about a story like this where we don't know all the details yet -- there's still a lot out there -- isn't necessarily imprudent.

FRANCIS: He spent years cultivating reporters.

KURTZ: Including you?


KURTZ: What's the relationship like?

FRANCIS: You know, the phone would ring, it would be David Petraeus to chat.

KURTZ: He would call you.

FRANCIS: He would call me or he would call John Burns of "The New York Times." sometimes daily when he was in Baghdad. I'm sure Burns told you that. To chat off the record or on background, most often on background.

It was a two-way street. He understood that. So it's stunning to me now that he knew of this three or four weeks ago and he didn't give it up then. KURTZ: But the other aspect of this, Peter Baker, is that the CIA has been under fire over what happened in Benghazi and Petraeus, since going to Langley, has kept a low profile unlike when he was a four-star general.

BAKER: Right.

KURTZ: And I didn't see -- I saw a lot of criticism in the press to the CIA over the events in Libya, I didn't see a lot of criticism of Petraeus, why wasn't he out there, what did he know, why didn't he beef up security? And that again I think is a legacy -- and even now, some people have a conspiracy theory that this is a way to get him off the stage before him testifying in hearings on the Hill this week.

BAKER: Right. Can you imagine blowing up your entire life to avoid a hearing on the Hill? I think that's sort of silly.

Yes, you're right we did a piece at "The Times" looking at his role in all this, but I think that he did get a benefit of the doubt by virtue of the fact that he had long-time relationships with the media as well.

KURTZ: Maybe just maybe we ought to be a little more sympathetic to people in these kinds of problems because they're human beings, they make mistakes, unless it's with a subordinate, unless it's with a White House intern. You know, that's a different kind of situation. This is a civilian.

FRANCIS: The answer to that is no. I'm sorry.


FRANCIS: If it's the secretary of agriculture --

KURTZ: Right.

FRANCIS: OK, who cares? The information he has is about corn futures.

If it's the head of the CIA, if it's the chief of staff of the Army, if it's the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who have national secrets or vulnerable to blackmail -- no, that information has to come out and come out quickly.

BAKER: And let's not forget, this is somebody who was out there promoting him. I mean, she in effect had become a public agent for him out there and there's something very --

KURTZ: Paula Broadwell was not shy about pumping her book and her very favorable of General Petraeus.


KURTZ: Peter Baker, thanks for stopping by this morning.

More on RELIABLE SOURCES after the break and we are awaiting President Obama's remarks at Arlington National Cemetery on this Veterans Day weekend.


KURTZ: Extraordinary moment on election night on MSNBC when Chris Matthews said and I'm reading here from the transcript, "I'm glad we had that storm last week," talking about Hurricane Sandy, "because it brought in possibilities for good politics," meaning it helped Barack Obama. The next day Matthews had rethought what he had said, and had this to say about his remark.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: It was a terrible thing to say, period. I could say it was because I was tired, but the fact is I wasn't thinking of the horrible mess this storm has made of people's real lives up here in New York and elsewhere. I said something not just stupid, but wrong.


KURTZ: It was a terribly insensitive thing to say. Good for Matthews for recognizing it and making a full-throated apology.

You want to get in here?

FRANCIS: I do. I like Chris Matthews and we've been friends for many years, but it was the most insensitive thing I've heard in the entire election. He said later on that he was going to write a check up there. Well, he ought to take that check in one hand and a shovel in the other, and go up there for a couple of days and work on Staten Island and the Jersey shore.

KURTZ: Still a lot of people without power. By the way, Barbara Walters is kicking in $250,000 for hurricane relief efforts, and George Stephanopoulos, $50,000. Journalists putting their money where their mouth is.

Let's talk a little bit about the aftermath of Mitt Romney's defeat. We talked earlier about the finger pointing and the anonymous pot shots in the press. The coverage now seems to be torn between two poles. Some journalists and commentators saying Romney was a flawed candidate and that's why he lost, and tactics and all of that, and others saying the Republican Party has a problem. When the press says the Republican Party has a problem and that it's not appealing to women and Hispanics, is there a danger the journalists appear biased in that assessment?

KUCINICH: One of the things that struck me on the night before election night, there was a confidence with Romney campaign officials and the Republicans going into this election that wasn't like a wink, we're going to win. They thought that they were going to win.

KURTZ: It was not just spin.

KUCINICH: It was not just spin.

KURTZ: And Romney had not written a concession speech, we're told.

KUCINICH: Exactly. And he knew how many words his acceptance speech was. So they had thought that this was a real thing. Romney said that to reporters on the plane the night before so -- the day of, I'm sorry. So it really -- I think that's one of the reasons that you see the kind of reporting that you're seeing, saying, OK, guys, what went wrong here? Because you were so confident, and the data that's coming back is showing they didn't do well with Hispanics, they didn't do well with a lot of these--

KURTZ: Right. The numbers are irrefutable that they have, that the Republican Party has a Latino problem, to a lesser extent has a female problem. But also, if you look at the pushback that we got from the Romney campaign and other Republicans about the polling was off, and Nate Silver at the New York Times, data guru was totally wrong in saying Obama had a 90 percent chance of re-election -- he called every state right as it turned out.

FRANCIS: As it turned out several days before the election, when he was analyzing, Nate Silver of the New York Times analyzing the swing state polls. Twenty-two polls he analyzed, and he said 19 of them were pro-Obama polls. Two, only two were even, and only one went for Romney. He was so accurate. Three days before the election, he said that President Obama had a four in five chance of winning the election. And he went further and said that Romney had a one in 50,000 chance of winning the election. How do you ignore that?

KURTZ: All right. Fred Francis, Jackie Kucinich, thank you very much.

As I mentioned, President Obama getting ready to deliver remarks at Arlington National Cemetery. Let's go to CNN's Candy Crowley. She's standing by as we wait for him to begin.



KURTZ: Some closing thoughts here on RELIABLE SOURCES. And Jackie Kucinich talking about Mitt Romney's losing campaign -- in the final weeks, not only was he not going on "The View" or "The Daily Show" as Barack Obama did, he barely gave any interviews at all. You were along for much of that ride. What was it like being in that bubble?

KUCINICH: Yes, there wasn't a lot of access to the candidate. The advisers were around a lot more in the last weeks, you could talk to them. But the candidate himself--

KURTZ: You talked to them on the record?

KUCINICH: I talked to them on the record. Yes, you could do that. But as far as the candidate himself, no. The last day of the campaign, he came back to the back of the plane with a couple of reporters. But aside from that, there wasn't a lot. But at the same time, the president wasn't that open to reporters either in the final days.

KURTZ: He wasn't. The president having his first post-election news conference this Wednesday. But we talked earlier about David Petraeus and how maybe he's getting more sympathetic treatment for his fall of grace because he cultivated journalists. How much did Romney's inaccessibility as a candidate affect the coverage, in your view, if at all?

KUCINICH: I think it's hard, because John McCain of course had a very good relationship with the press, and it's not like anyone pulled any punches at the end of that campaign either. So I think once you get to a certain level, that sort of erodes. But early on I think it would have been a lot easier for him.

KURTZ: But we felt like we understood John McCain, as somebody who rode around on his bus back in the 2000 campaign. I'm not sure journalists felt they really got Mitt Romney. Brief thought on that, Fred?

FRANCIS: Yes, the fact is John McCain, reporters ran out of questions to ask him. I mean, he would talk for --

KURTZ: Eight-hour rolling press conferences.

FRANCIS: Eight hours.

KURTZ: I don't think anybody will do that again in the age of Twitter.

FRANCIS: Well, maybe they should. OK? If they're secure in their own skin, if a politician is secure in his own skin and they can sit down and talk to reporters about what he really believes, OK, over and over, day after day, I think it helps him out in the end.

KURTZ: A lot of Republicans now want to be interviewed about the depth of this defeat, not just for Mitt Romney but given the demographic problems that the GOP now faces, particularly with Hispanic voters. Are they going to maybe be more open with the journalists now, do you think?

KUCINICH: I think so. I think you saw a story in the Washington Post right after it. It was either the day after or the next day, about some of the soul searching that they're doing. I think we're going to be talking about this for a while.

KURTZ: Right. But what bothers me is the people who take the pot shots without being quoted. This was --

KUCINICH: This was--


KUCINICH: -- the RNC coming out and saying, yes, we're doing an after action report on this.

KURTZ: Before we go, bombshell news at the BBC, where the director general George Entwistle resigned yesterday. Of course, there's been the continuing embarrassment over the former -- the late talk show host, Jimmy Savile, and sex abuse charges involving hundreds of children. And now a program that inaccurately accused somebody of being involved in a pedophile scandal. It's a mess.

FRANCIS: It's probably the worst thing that's happened to the BBC in a very, very long time. Not just the direct general resigned, but many others should resign. And not just because of this latest mistake that they made pointing the finger at somebody in the House of Lords. But while some years ago one of the BBC's own broadcasters was a pedophile, and they kept that secret for a long time, and decided to hook the story and not do the story.

And the reason this is important for the United States right now, why it's an interesting story, is the director general of the BBC, 50 -- former director general, Mark Thompson -- will now next week take over as the head of the New York Times.

KURTZ: The New York Times Company, yes.

FRANCIS: The New York Times Company. The fact is that journalists have to be held responsible for these kinds of crazy stories. You remember in 1993, "Dateline NBC" --


FRANCIS: -- crashed and burned--

KURTZ: Every news organization makes mistakes. It's how you handle it that determines how you're perceived by the public. Just briefly, Jackie Kucinich, hasn't been a great year for British journalism, going back to the Rupert Murdoch "News of the World" scandal.

KUCINICH: And I think that's the real problem here. I mean, in all aspects of -- there's just a lot of work to do to rebuild public trust.

FRANCIS: Yes. It's not just the public trust in Britain, but it's the public trust here too, because it's a connected world. That BBC story was on every Internet page.

KURTZ: Every time a news organization does something dumb, covers up, isn't straight with readers and viewers, it hurts the reputation of all journalists. Fred Francis, Jackie Kucinich, thanks for coming by this morning. That is it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Glad you could join our abbreviated program this morning. If you miss us, go to iTunes every Sunday, to that non-fiction TV show section, and you can download us.

Coming up now, Candy Crowley with "State of the Union." Her program begins in just a moment. Thanks again for checking with us today.