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President Avoiding the Press; MSNBC Hires Ex-Obama Aides; Interview with Stuart Stevens

Aired February 24, 2013 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The latest clash between President Obama and the press corps comes not only budget cuts or immigration or guns but over golf. An outing with Tiger Woods sparks complaints that the president is stiffing the White House press, even as he talks to local TV types and hangs out on Google.


ED HENRY, PRESIDENT, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT ASSOCIATION: This is not about a trivial issue like a golf game. We don't really care about the president's score. What we care about is access to the president of the United States, whether as a Democrat or a Republican.


KURTZ: Does the press have a case or does this amount to whining?

For years now, we've heard David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs defend their boss.


DAVID AXELROD, FORMER OBAMA CAMPAIGN ADVISOR: Well, of course, the pamphlet reflects the ideas that the president is advanced throughout this campaign about where we need to go as a country, building on the progress that we made.

ROBERT GIBBS, FORMER OBAMA PRESS SECRETARY: I think you're going to see an exceptionally strong debate performance tonight from the president. I think you'll see somebody who will be strong and be passionate and be energetic.


KURTZ: Now, they're resurfacing as MSNBC commentators. Is the network becoming an Obama administration in exile?

Conservatives complained during the campaign that journalists were just plain unfair to Mitt Romney, is that true? And was it based on ideology?


STUART STEVENS, SENIOR STRATEGIST, ROMNEY 2012 CAMPAIGN: There's every reason to believe that the majority of journalists tend to lean Democratic. And we know people are people. That affects it.


KURTZ: Romney's chief strategist Stuart Stevens in an exclusive interview.

Plus, as we head into tonight's Oscars, a look at the fierce lobbying campaign to boost "Argo" and "Lincoln". And "Zero Dark Thirty" being Swift Boated out of contention?

I'm Howard Kurtz and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.


KURTZ: There was frustration. There was outrage. There was a virtual revolt by the White House Press Corps when President Obama hit the links with one of the most famous and controversial golfers.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Tiger Woods, by the way, is now talking about his golf outing with the president last weekend, the one we didn't get to see.

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: He made some headlines by golfing with Tiger Woods, but he got headlines because the press was kept away. It was secret.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: Here's a Zen question. If President Obama played a round of golf with Tiger Woods this weekend and the White House Press Corps was not permitted to cover it, did it really happen? And do you give a rat's patootie about who was allowed to cover it?


KURTZ: This sparked a heated debate in the media world about whether Obama has gone further than previous presidents in keeping his press corps at a distance, in all about refusing to do interviews with national newspapers, even as he makes the round on some of these softer media venues.

Joining us now: Bill Plante, senior White House correspondent for CBS News.

David Zurawik, media and television critic for "The Baltimore Sun".

And Julie Mason, host of the "Press Pool" on Sirius XM radio and a former White House correspondent for "Politico".

Bill Plante, you have been patrolling that building since Ronald Reagan. Does the White House press look self-involved and whiny, as I said earlier, complaining about this Tiger incident?

BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS: We have gotten used to being called whiny lap dogs. I've heard it for 30 years. But this is not about a picture of Tiger Woods. This is about access to the president. And access to the president has been cut and pushed and curtailed over every administration I've covered. Here's the nub of it, Howie, this administration has the tools to reach people on their own. They don't need us as much. And to the extent that they're able to do that, they're undercutting the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press through many voices.

If they put out their own material, it's state-run media.


KURTZ: Bill makes an interesting point. But Tiger Woods was the catalyst at least for this explosion, for this debate. And part of the reason that the White House Press Corps, no picture was put out. We never saw the two of them together. Maybe Obama administration wanted it that way given Tiger's previous scandalous past.

MASON: Yes. They didn't want a picture of the president with Tiger and, in fact, the White House was incredibly squirrelly about this trip and about this golf game.

And Bill makes a really good point. This isn't about golf. We push for access all the time behind the scenes, regular meetings with Jay Carney, asking for more access, asking for more opportunities to ask questions. When this president gives more access to the view than the reporters of "The Wall Street Journal" something has gone horribly amiss.

KURTZ: And yet, David Zurawik, I have the impression that the White House press corps is losing the battle of public opinion. There's been a lot of mockery about this.

DAVID ZURAWIK, THE BALTIMORE SUN: I think -- you know, look, Howie, that's what the Obama administration is good at. Winning the public opinion battle and that's where they're playing this game.

But I absolutely agree. Look, this is our job, this is our job to push for it and it's the job of critics like myself to reinforce that push, not back off and say, oh, my readers don't care or they love Obama, whatever.

No, this is a major issue. And, by the way, that picture of the reporters at the gate of that gated country club, you know, it was a "Golf Digest" reporter, right, who was in there, who tweeted as the Washington press corps was kept away. A "Golf Digest" reporter --

KURTZ: I think he got the information.

But let me turn back to Bill Plante, you talk about state-run media, and I can see why it's very frustrating. The White House Correspondent, the organization is spending major dollars to follow the president around the world, you rarely get near him, he's not doing interviews with the beat reporters, and yet, you say, they don't need us. Meaning that they have the digital tools now to bypass people like you? PLANTE: Sure. The purpose of the press pool I thought to the president was originally to make sure that anything happened, they were there to tell the story. Or if anything was to be transmitted, we were able to do it.

KURTZ: And now?

PLANTE: Eisenhower had a heart attack at a golf vacation in Denver. There were assassination attempt on President Kennedy, how did we find out? No satellites then. A wire service reporter picked up the phone ask called.

There were two assassination attempts on President Ford.

That's what the press pool is for. Not about golf games.

KURTZ: But, of course, most of the time, nothing happens.

PLANTE: Exactly.

KURTZ: And then the press is left cooling its collective heels.


KURTZ: But, you know, talk about digital tools here. President Obama recently did a -- what's called a Google hang out, which means that multiple people can come online and ask him questions. Questions from every citizen.

Vice President Biden did a Facebook town hall. Presidents use Facebook, as well.

So, now, Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, told me that is not a substitute for talking to the White House Press Corps, but sometimes it can look that way.

MASON: It absolutely looks that way. And, of course, President Obama is not the first one. President Bush called it the filter, right, Bill? And they would find ways to go around the press.

The problem is --

KURTZ: Bill Clinton went on "Larry King" and MTV and we complained that he was circumventing the mainstream media.

MASON: Right. But the problem is now that Rachel Maddow and others who want to say this is no big deal, this is a whining press corps, they are enabling the next guy to be even worse by not caring.

KURTZ: And did Rachel Maddow and her MSNBC colleagues get a private audience with the president when he was signing his economic plans?

MASON: Exactly. Exactly right.

ZURAWIK: Exactly. I mean, that's outrageous that statement from her, Howie. I just think that is outrageous. (CROSSTALK)

ZURAWIK: No one cares a rat's patootie. Yes, we do care a rat's patootie, we care about 10 rats patootie about this.

KURTZ: What she was -- she was putting it in the form of a question. Should the public care if -- whether or not journalists have access to some of these more routine events?

Bill, you're making the point, it's not just a golf game, he could fall and break his leg or whatever. But at the same time, I think to a lot of folks, let's be honest here, it looks like self-interested pleading on the part of the White House Press Corps.

PLANTE: That's why it's important to point out that this is not as much about us as it is about what the public gets to know and who tells them. The White House can tell them, but do you always trust the White House or do you want a somewhat disinterested outside view? Hello?

ZURAWIK: Howie, you know, this week we had a great example of the sequestration and the White House bringing in out of town reporters.

KURTZ: I was going to ask you about. These are the automatic budget cuts.

ZURAWIK: They brought in a --

KURTZ: They brought in like eight different local reporters from stations around the country. And so, the White House will say, what's wrong with that? He's accessible. These are journalists. Of course, they're not national correspondents, but --

ZURAWIK: Howie, I actually watched one of them. WJZ -- and this was a CBS owned and operated station. This is not some dinky little station.

Opens with the top anchor out on the White House lawn and he says, more than 12,000 people in Maryland could lose their jobs, education could lose 55 million this year, if this happens.

Meanwhile, the president and his senior staff are working around the clock warning Congress about how bad this could be. Then, you cut to President Obama who said, you people in Maryland don't have to lose your jobs if Congress would just do its job.

No, no context. None of the great history of, hey, who owns sequestration? Who came up with this idea in the first place? None of that.

It was like an Obama commercial. It was like a campaign commercial, I swear.

The reporter did no context, no background and just took the White House line and fed it to Baltimore viewers.

MASON: That's what the White House is counting on.


MASON: Circumventing the White House press corps.

KURTZ: Isn't there a little bit of elitism here to suggest -- and you can speak to this, Bill -- you know, local reporters don't ask good questions or don't have the factual knowledge to follow up? Now, it is true that those of you at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue every day, you know what the president said a year ago, two years ago, you can follow up.

But I fear we're denigrating journalists who work in Washington.

PLANTE: Look, I'm not denigrating them at all. I'm glad --

KURTZ: He did.


PLANTE: No, I am glad they have a chance to talk to the president. They are going to ask questions that are centered on their markets, on their local issues.

KURTZ: That's their job.

PLANTE: The president will take advantage of that to make his point straight away, as he did in David's example.

MASON: It should be both. It shouldn't be one or the other. It should be both.

KURTZ: After the White House got hammered coming out of the Tiger Woods incident, what happened is that the president held an off-the- record meeting with some of the White House beat reporters, I don't know whether you were there. But there's always this question, which is, I can understand why you want to see a president with his guard down, we have to watch every word.

But what benefit do readers and viewers get out of these off-the- record meetings?

PLANTE: You can inform your own with what learned in sessions like that. You can't quote the president. You can't even say you were there. But you can say that the understanding around the White House is X, Y, and Z.

KURTZ: So, right now, you can't even tell me if you were there?

PLANTE: I'm not going to say.

KURTZ: Non-denial denial.

MASON: But, Howie, on Friday, the president took a question in the Oval as a direct result of this contretemps over golf.

KURTZ: You think so?

MASON: Yes, he took a question from a reporter in the Oval Office. No one can remember the last time he did that. So, there was a direct benefit from this dust up.

KURTZ: In this dust up, President Obama also this week went on three radio shows hosted by African-Americans. One of them was Al Sharpton.

Do you think he basically is seeking out friendly forums and makes it look like he's out there but he's not really getting grilled?

MASON: Yes, absolutely.

ZURAWIK: That's his game.

MASON: And then the White House says, look at all these interviews we're doing. But they're not sitting down with "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" or any of the people who cover him all the time and would ask more critical questions.

KURTZ: Newspapers are really getting stiffed with this.

ZURAWIK: Newspapers are really getting stiffed. And, really, again, it's what Bill said. The people with the expertise and the background are not being allowed to talk to him. I'm not denigrating anyone.

But, look, if you're an 11:00 anchor in a local market, you don't know as much about the administration than Bill Plante does, OK?

KURTZ: I asked this question on my Twitter feed. Should the White House press complain about lack of access after Tiger? They put up. Got those graphics, some of the responses. Basically White House press got hammered.

"Who cares about that? I'd like the press to make the White House and their minions tell the truth about the sequester."

"Since the White House press is not doing their job with regards to questioning Obama, they have no room to complain."

"No. Media acts like petulant children. What exactly is the news value of a golf game again?"

I'll let you have a brief response, Bill Plante.

PLANTE: It's not about the golf game. Again, it's about --


KURTZ: And you're not being petulant?

PLANTE: No, I hope not.

KURTZ: But you are fighting for what you see is an important principle that you say is being eroded with every successful administration. PLANTE: Yes. But to -- because to the extent that the White House can broadcast its own news in various media and we don't have the access to the same news, the public is being ill-served. The First Amendment guarantees a multiplicity of voices.

KURTZ: Bill Plante, Julie Mason, thanks for stopping by. David Zurawik, stick around.

When we come back, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs sign on at MSNBC. Is it becoming the Obama defense network?


KURTZ: Two of President Obama's fiercest and most visible defenders are now becoming television pundits. David Axelrod, the former White House senior adviser and campaign guru, and Robert Gibbs, who was the president's press secretary, have joined the liberal lineup on MSNBC where they'll be talking about their old boss.


GIBBS: Look, the Republicans have spent the better part of the last two weeks trying to blame the president for his idea of the sequester to begin with.


AXELROD: I agree with you.

MITCHELL: Great to have you. Thank you very much. Hope this is just the beginning of a beautiful relationship. And with only nine days to go --

AXELROD: I look forward to it, Andrea.


KURTZ: David Zurawik, anything wrong with this beautiful relationship? Axelrod and Gibbs are both very smart guys.

ZURAWIK: They are smart guys. And, look, there is an advantage, Howie, I think, to having people who are in the room at key moments at this high level on your cable channel or network. That's important.

But, you know, I saw Axelrod with Andrea Mitchell this piece, and it was really interesting how hard he was pushing the president's line. He actually interrupted her. She was going on the next question and he said, wait, I just want to say this, Andrea.

There is a belief among some Republicans in Congress that maybe the sequester is a good thing. Maybe this is a good way of shrinking government in a dramatic way and then he said, that's a dangerous idea, of course. And then she said, no doubt.

Well, that's not a discussion about politics. That is propaganda. Republicans in Congress are dangerous. And then Mitchell says, no doubt, that really troubled me about how these guys are working the White House line on a cable channel.

KURTZ: Well, I contacted Axelrod and Gibbs, because I believe in reporting. And here's what they have to say, if we can put up their statements to me.

Robert Gibbs, "I don't see it either being a cheerleader for the president or a spokesman for the administration's point of view. I will be honest with my opinions and when I believe the White House has made a mistake, I will say so."

David Axelrod, "My role is not that of a surrogate but as an analyst and commentator. In this role, I offer observations based on my experience over 35 years in journalism and politics, and I will call tem as I see them."

So, of course, they're going to be sympathetic to the president, but they say they're going to be independent.

ZURAWIK: This is more -- Axelrod was more than sympathetic to the president. I really do think, Howie, he was pushing that line. To give them a forum to say this is all the fault of the Republicans and they're dangerous -- that notion of saying Republicans have dangerous ideas, that's bad.

KURTZ: OK. MSNBC already has as commentators, a lot of former Democratic operatives and politicians.


KURTZ: Howard Dean, Ed Rendell, Al Sharpton.


KURTZ: So, is this of a different magnitude in your view because they were so recently in Obama's employee?

ZURAWIK: I think also because they are such loyalists to Obama and have such a long history with him. I think it is a difference.

I think it's -- you know, you could say, of course, we know what MSNBC is about and what they're up to. But don't forget, this is NBC News. That's the banner they fly under.

And to bring two loyalists like this on and in their first outing, at least in the case of Axelrod, to have them so decide decidedly carrying the president's message into this forum I think is a problem.

KURTZ: What's the difference between that and CNN, for example, hiring Ari Fleischer as a commentator last year, the late Tony Snow for a while, James Carville and Paul Begala when they got out of the Clinton administration or thereafter? Is it different because most of the voices, with some exceptions in MSNBC like Michael Steele, are on one side of the spectrum? ZURAWIK: I think that's what part of it. Obviously, just having one side is bad.

But I'll tell you what? I was never crazy about CNN having as many former operatives in those roles. And there's fewer of them now and I'm kind of glad to see that.


ZURAWIK: I don't want those voices. Look, they're never, you get to that level of government, Howie, you know you're totally never out of government. You know, if you're not lobbying, you're connected.

KURTZ: Talking to all your old friends.


KURTZ: FOX News has been famously had a lot of potential presidential candidates last time and now, Herman Cain who left the presidential race is the latest commentary. Let me play a brief clip of Cain talking to Bill O'Reilly.


HERMAN CAIN, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: He is so popular because 51 percent of the voters were misled enough to vote for him.



KURTZ: O'Reilly says, oh, come on.

ZURAWIK: Thank God for O'Reilly saying -- this is why I like O'Reilly sometimes for saying, oh, come on. But, you know, Herman Cain came on there. I saw that.

He had like one phrase. Like a candidate would have. And it was, President Obama is not a leader. He is a politician. I think he said it three times. And I thought, this is your analyst?

KURTZ: I've got 20 seconds. What about the fact that he left the race amid charges of sexual harassment --


KURTZ: -- or a long-time affair which he denies?

ZURAWIK: Big problem. Howie, I think it's a big problem because there were a lot of allegations there that he never really addressed except to issue a kind of blanket denial. I would have -- I have real problems and I wrote about that. I have real problems with Cain.

KURTZ: All right. David Zurawik, thanks for joining us this morning.

Coming up, an exclusive interview with the man who ran Mitt Romney's campaign. Did the Republican presidential candidate get more negative media coverage? Stuart Stevens has plenty to say in just a moment.


KURTZ: We spent two years on this program questioning the strained relationship between Mitt Romney's campaign and the press and whether journalists were unfairly painting the Republican candidate as an awkward, out of touch plutocrat.


MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I like being able to fire people.

I'm not concerned about the very poor.

Brought us whole binders full of women.


KURTZ: Was there a tilt towards Obama that continues to this day? I spoke earlier with Stuart Stevens, the veteran Republican media man who was the campaign's top strategist.


KURTZ: Stuart Stevens, welcome.

Do you believe today that much of the media is in the tank for Barack Obama?

STEVENS: Oh, it's -- it's not a yes or a no question. In the tank, I would say no. So, yes or no question? I would say no.

KURTZ: Too favorable to the president, too sympathetic to the president? How would you put it?

STEVENS: I think after that the election, you're going to have a lot tougher questions that are going to be asked because you're out of an election environment. I think you're seeing that this past weekend with this whole golf outing.

So, I think they will be more critical now. I think --

KURTZ: But you're saying that the press should be finally more critical about the fact that Barack Obama went golfing with Tiger Woods?

STEVENS: Well, I think that the degree to which there is not a choice between him and a Republican candidate makes it easier for them to be tougher on the president. I think that's natural.

KURTZ: So that leads me obviously to say that when there was a choice between Barack Obama and a Republican candidate, who you happened to work for, you think that made it more conducive for the media to be easier on the president. Why is that? STEVENS: Listen, I don't think, I've never been a media basher. I mean, I spend a lot of my life writing -- if you look at the people covering our race, I've, you know, been writing for a long time and written probably a lot more than they have. So, I'm very sympathetic to their situation.

KURTZ: But you are, also, at the same time, an astute observer and critiquer of the modern day press, and you have just opened the door for me to ask you whether or not when it is a choice between Democrat and Republican, you believe it's implied that you believe that most journalists are more sympathetic to the Democratic candidate.

STEVENS: Well, look, let's start at what we know. There's every reason to believe that a majority of journalists tend to lean Democratic. And we know people are people. That affects it.

Now, that's not to say that they can't be good journalists and that they can't be fair. But I think that when you're in these arguments and a lot of campaigns are about arguments. That there is a pre -- presupposition -- pre -- how would you put it?

KURTZ: An inherent disposition.

STEVENS: Disposition to believe the fundamental basis of their argument, of the Democratic argument versus Republican argument. And I think that that doesn't mean that you can't win an argument. I think it means that it makes it more difficult to carry the day in that argument.

KURTZ: When Mitt Romney --

STEVENS: But this is -- but this is -- but this is sort of, I think, very old trout territory that we've been through before --

KURTZ: But there's a chance for me and our viewers to hear from you --

STEVENS: No. But --

KURTZ: Chief strategist of the campaign and let me turn it around.

It was a close election for most of that time. When Mitt Romney lost, the next day, the next hour, it seemed, a lot of conservative pundits came out and said Romney was a terrible candidate. Now, obviously, gone the other way, they would have said you were a genius. Did it bother you to get from your own tribe?

STEVENS: I think that in a campaign, you know, the proper way to deal with criticism is to try to listen to it, because every day in campaigns you make a lot of mistakes. And if you look at Mitt Romney's approach, after every one of our debates, all he wanted to hear about was what he did wrong and how he could improve. And I think that's a good model for us.

So, when conservatives and people supporting Republican Party criticized us, we tried to listen and to see what we could learn from it and to go from there.

KURTZ: And yet, you often to me and other reporters and sometimes in your writing would dismiss what you call the green room culture. You felt it was insular, Beltway press corps mentality that was out of touch with what was happening on the campaign trail.


KURTZ: Why is that?

STEVENS: Because it's true. One of the realities is that Mitt Romney very much was not a D.C.-based candidate. He, by virtue of the fact, he was not a congressman or a senator. He had not been someone who spent a lot of time coming up to the shows and did not go through that.

KURTZ: Right. So, he didn't have deep relationships.

STEVENS: He didn't have a lot of relationships.


STEVENS: And a lot of this is people being people. You know, he didn't spend time getting to know these reporters and how it affected them.

And I think that there is a desire for a certain vetting process to happen in the green room that Governor Romney hadn't really submitted himself to. He submitted himself to voters. I think that's one.

Two, I think that the economic realities of this moment are very important here. And I think it's more important than the ideological bias here. Seven out of ten of the most wealthy counties in America now are in the D.C. area. New York City is New York City at a time when we're in the greatest near economic depression, since the depression. And I think that the experience that most of the journalists have today in this area is very different than the experience that most Americans have.

KURTZ: I would be willing to concede that, and you're certainly right that Romney to many in the press--

STEVENS: We've made this case before yourself (ph).

KURTZ: -- corps what was an outsider. But during the two years he ran for president, he didn't really make much of a serious effort to develop those relationships.

He didn't do a lot of interviews certainly with print reporters -- and your campaign, I don't blame you for this because you usually pretty accessible -- but your campaign's press shop was kind of notorious among journalists for being difficult to get -- reach, to get to comment on things.

Looking back, was that a mistake? It's hard to circumvent this giant machine called the mainstream media. STEVENS: I think we did a lot more interviews than the president did. We were a lot -

KURTZ: Mostly at the local level.

STEVENS: We were -- we did a lot of national press. And we did a lot more interviews than, and were more accessible than is our culture as the president. Listen --


KURTZ: But president was not terribly accessible either. But why, Stuart, was there this belief among many in my profession that there was a strained, difficult relationship between your campaign and the fourth estate?

STEVENS: You would have to ask the reporters that felt that way and not me, because I didn't feel that way with reporters. But let me just say this, in the primary, we were running against candidates who were, in some cases, completely living off the press, in the sense of they would go anywhere and do anything for publicity.

The debates were a big part of that. So, to have that level of accessibility versus the level where we were trying to carry a larger message and to talk about big problems is not a really -- we had different goals here. And, also, campaigns are about message discipline. And I think there is a natural I think positive tug of war between a campaign and the press and that --

KURTZ: Press wants a news story every day. You want to (inaudible) message, and in your case, Romney's message was about the economy --


STEVENS: Actually, it was a time when they wanted a news story every day. Now, they need a news story every two hours, and that's a great pressure on these reporters that I'm very sympathetic to. I think that the idea that there's a filing deadline and when we came up.

They have tremendous amount of pressure on them now. I mean, as you know better than I, and it's to get this, to get that. And it's -- it creates, I think, an environment that is very conducive to the creation of news, the invention of news, that there is none, so therefore we will invent it.

KURTZ: In that environment, since you bring that up, do you think that Twitter and the need to have something to say and something provocative to say or something snarky to say every 20 seconds has hurt campaign coverage? Do you think it hurt the Romney campaign?

STEVENS: I think we used it to our advantage in a lot of cases. You take this Hillary Rosen little flap.

KURTZ: She criticized Ann Romney --

(CROSSTALK) STEVENS: She criticized Ann Romney for career choices, we were able to use Twitter to our advantage. Listen, I've been --

KURTZ: You don't tweet yourself, although I know you follow Twitter closely.

STEVENS: I don't tweet. However, I've been a somewhat obsessive follower of Twitter. Had a Twitter account, you know, since the very beginning of -

KURTZ: Since the beginning of time.

STEVENS: Since the service went up. I think it's fascinating. The way I would follow debates is just through Twitter. That's all I would look at is how people were tweeting during the debates.

KURTZ: Is that a good (inaudible)?

STEVENS: I think it is terrific because it's as close as you can get to talking to reporters while a debate is going on, while an event is going on. The thing about Twitter that is, it's a great thing and it's a very dangerous thing as we've seen a lot and it's part of why I chose, as did Matt Rhodes (ph), not to tweet, but to leave it to our communication shop. It's very stream of consciousness. As we know, once it's out there, it's out there.

KURTZ: You can't reel it back.


KURTZ: In a moment, more of my interview with Stuart Stevens and he talks about the famous Romney 47 percent video.


KURTZ: More now of my conversation with former Romney campaign chief, Stuart Stevens.


KURTZ: Let's talk about some of the stories that kind of blew up on your campaign whether it was Mother Jones who have taken that video of Romney saying 47 percent of Americans are victims and feel entitled to government benefits. Whether it was him saying binders full of women, which I first saw on Twitter during one of the presidential debates.

Whether it was Clint Eastwood's empty chair routine at the convention, which you defended but later a lot of people said was not a great moment for your campaign. Where those legitimate news stories or do you think the media kind of pumped them up in a way that was unfair to your guy?

STEVENS: I think news is whatever people decide news is.

KURTZ: Well, a lot of people feel (inaudible) is biased. STEVENS: I don't think that there is a legitimacy litmus test that you can put on it. News is what people are interested in. The question that news organizations have to ask themselves, and do ask themselves every day, is what kind of news do we want to validate?

Where do we want to be in this vast stream here of media? What do we want to cover? I think that's a question that every news organization is struggling with. And there is tremendous pressure to feed the immediate versus the long term. These are all things that organizations struggle with (inaudible). There are financial pressures now, like never before.

KURTZ: Absolutely.

STEVENS: And the idea you can send reporters out and they can spend two weeks in Ohio and talk to voters and they can get out of that. That's very difficult now.

KURTZ: You got a fair amount of flack as a chief strategist in the campaign. There were times when the critics and the media and elsewhere said you are screwing this up and then there was talk that in the final weeks that your role was reduced or at least you became less visible. Was that hard for you to deal with?

STEVENS: No, listen, not in the least. When you're --

KURTZ: You have your suit of armor. You don't have any feelings about being criticized?


STEVENS: I've said this before, I'll say it again. It is good that people are upset that the Romney campaign lost. It's good that people are angry. I played on a lot of sports team, and the worst thing is to be in the losing locker room and people aren't upset. This is a moment we should be going through. It's good.

And if we -- look, I was senior strategist for this campaign. We don't have to look for whose fault this loss is any further than me. I take full responsibility. Let's pause at that and let's move on. Let's not have a period where we go back and we try to say, well, let's blame this person, let's blame this person. Just blame me, that's fine, and let's move on. Let's go on and win races and learn from what we did.

KURTZ: But now, a lot of the media scrutiny of the Republican debate within the party about what is the moderate, the Karl Rove wing for lack of a better term, versus the Tea Party wing, there's still blame against Romney, for example, for a poor showing among Hispanic voters and for talking about self-deportation, and that's affecting the immigration debate. Do you think that's fair?

STEVENS: No, not at all. In all of these states where there were contested Senate races, Governor Romney did better than Senate candidates. So we have problems when we talk about Hispanic voters. We have problem with Hispanic voters going into this primary, which are very serious problems for the Republican Party. And there's not going to be any quick fix to that.

Immigration isn't a quick fix. Having Hispanic candidates isn't a quick fix. It has to be a series of steps to rebuild a bond of trust with Hispanic voters. The primary, I don't think, was positive for that. But there's no data to indicate that the primary was particularly toxic for it.

KURTZ: OK. Let me move on to this question. If there was, in your view, a distorted picture of Mitt Romney of, you know, the constant critique that he was not a comfortable politician, that he was awkward, that he had trouble connecting with ordinary voters. To some extent, was that his fault? Was that your fault? Was that the campaign's fault or you think it was kind of a press creation?

STEVENS: I think, listen, every campaign since the beginning of time believes that their candidate's not portrayed correctly. I just think this is a universal truth in all of politics, and you have to accept that and sort of not get hung up on it. Campaigning for president is a series of sort of kabuki play set pieces that you go through. It is difficult to convey the totality of someone in those moments. Now, one of the --

KURTZ: You're being restrained here and not blaming the press. I'm sure at the time you felt like you weren't getting a fair break from the press, particularly on some of these controversies.

STEVENS: I'm not going to get baited into press bashing here because I really do think that there --

KURTZ: This is the world we live in.

STEVENS: There's tremendous pressure on the press now to do something that they're not being equipped to do to the level that they would like to do, for large, economic forces. That said, I also do believe, as I said, that if you look at who these reporters end up supporting, they sort of come more from a world that is more of a Democratic world. And you can ask why, and there are a lot of questions, why aren't more Republicans from Iowa or Dallas--

KURTZ: Going into journalism?

STEVENS: -- going into journalism. We would be better served if they were.


KURTZ: How often do you see somebody in a political defeat say, just blame me? You could see more of the interview at

Up next, a lobbying campaign surrounding the Oscars.


KURTZ: There are always lobbying campaigns to influence the Oscars. The ceremony, of course, airing tonight, but "Washington Post" reports that there is also a negative campaign to block "Zero Dark Thirty" where torture scenes renew the debate about the search for Osama Bin Laden.

But there are also questions about "Argo," which Ben Affleck portrays a renegade CIA operative who almost single-handedly frees six American hostages from Iran back in 1980. Sparking a complaint from the former Canadian ambassador who secretly harbored them and who now says the movie unfairly minimized his role.

So what should we expect from these so-called docu-dramas? Joining us now Ann Hornaday, film critic for "The Washington Post." You report in this morning's paper that you question whether "Zero Dark Thirty" is being swift boated, your phrase.

I know there was already a debate about the depiction of torture in that movie, but are you suggesting in this proxy campaign against the movie that other studios might be behind it?

ANN HORNADAY, FILM CRITIC, "WASHINGTON POST": That would be pure speculation and I am not prepared to go that far.

KURTZ: So who is behind it?

HORNADAY: Well, I think it's compliments of events. You know, I mean, I think there was a spontaneous and genuine criticism of the movie that came out when it started being screened here in Washington, especially when journalists started watching it and weighed in.


KURTZ: Gave it a lot of attention.

HORNADAY: You know, you're exactly right. So, that was, you know, I don't think there was anything conspiratorial about that. I think there was a convenient confluence of timing when the movie was released here and Senator Feinstein and McCain and Levin fired of their letter to Sony criticizing the depiction of torture and the timing of that event with the release of their 6,000 page report, convenient.

KURTZ: So Washington. (inaudible). I mean, it's an important, legitimate debate of torture but talking about whether Kathryn Bigelow and "Zero Dark Thirty' should receive an Academy Award. As I mentioned at the top, the former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor who actually did help save those six American hostages who had escaped from the main group of hostages in our embassy in Iran back in '79. He is saying that Canada played a much bigger role than this Ben Affleck movie depicts, and Jimmy Carter who was president at the time, agrees with him. Should we care?

HORNADAY: Well, that's a really good question. I think that's almost for every individual to decide. I think people have different thresholds for veracity in terms of based on a true story trope. But I think that Ambassador Taylor had raised his criticisms earlier when the film was being shown on the festival's circuit, then Ben Affleck changed the tag to the movie to reflect the fact Canada did play a big role.

KURTZ: Affleck is defending the movie and he did meet with Ken Taylor in the making of the movie.

HORNADAY: Absolutely. So it's funny it's coming up now. I think social media has a great deal of a role to play in all of this. When people have a thought or a blip, it just gets amplified and multiplied against social media. So things have a way of taking on lives of their own that they wouldn't normally have.

KURTZ: Let me show you a little bit from the trailer for "Argo." I just want to ask you a question on the other side.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they stay here they will be taken, probably not alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're responsible for these people. I'm responsible.


KURTZ: Part of what we see there is a plane getting ready to take off with those six American hostages and the Revolutionary Guards of Iran are in this truck and they are firing their guns. It's completely made up. It never happened. When I see based on a true story I expect some little embellished dialogue, a little dramatization, but when you have fictional scenes, doesn't this undercut this is in fact based on a true story?

HORNADAY: Well, again, I think it exists on a spectrum, and I think what these movies do is allow us to impart meaning on events if you will.

KURTZ: Does it bother you as a critic?

HORNADAY: No. I think first and foremost these are movies, and we're sophisticated enough or should be sophisticated enough as viewers to know that these are all dramatizations.

KURTZ: Same thing applies to "Lincoln," obviously there's no footage from that time, but there are questions about the veracity there, about whether the bill he was lobbying for, Abraham Lincoln was lobbying for was actually supported by the Connecticut delegation. To the average movie goer and to you as a critic, you feel like the larger message, the theme is more important than the actual details.

HORNADAY: I do, and I think that when we look at what these stories mean, does the story of "Argo" mean that at one point, you know, that the CIA embarked on this completely wacky, zany, but ultimately effective plan to release these house guests from Iran?

Yes. In "Lincoln," does this messy, obstreporous, fractious system sometimes work with this great leader at the helm? Yes. In "Zero Dark Thirty," did the war on terror involve effectiveness on the part of our military intelligence, but also involve some contradiction in terms of our ideals, yes. Those meanings are all preserved by those films.

KURTZ: You're looking at the big picture, as a reporter I focus on the details. Ann Hornaday, thanks very for stopping by on this Oscar Sunday.

Still to come, the reporter who fuelled a bogus story about Chuck Hagel. David Brooks has second thoughts about his latest "New York Times" column and a Fox commentator apologizes for an outrageous remark. The "Media Monitor" is straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business. One of the bogus charges against Chuck Hagel, President Obama's Pentagon nominee, is that he had taken money from a group called friends of Hamas. Now "New York Daily News" reporter Dan Freeman says he was the source of the rumor.

He was joking with a Capitol Hill aide about Hagel when he sarcastically made the suggestion and later saw a headline on the conservative site, secret Hagel donor. White House spokesman ducks questions on friends of Hamas.

That attributed to Senate sources. Now Breitbart's hero defended his piece saying he got it from three separate sources, but that doesn't change an inconvenient fact about his story. There is no group called "Friends of Hamas." The whole thing is a charade.

David Brooks missed the mark with his "New York Times" column on Friday as he admits. In an online postscript Brooks said he was frustrated when he wrote the piece about automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect this week, but it was not fair to suggest that President Obama's only approach was tax hikes on the wealthy.

In fact said Brooks, the White House has proposed constructive changes for spending levels and entitlement programs. Good for Brooks for admitting his mistake, but it should have been called a correction, not a post script.

And this was just appalling, Fox News analyst Bob Beckel speaking dismissively of the serious crime of rape.


BOB BECKEL, FOX NEWS ANALYST: Raped on campus --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you talking about, it's absolutely rampant?

BECKEL: It's rampant?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rapes on campus?

BECKEL: Where? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In particular date rape on campus.


BECKEL: Take a gun out and shoot your date?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe you should.


KURTZ: Beckel has since apologized for making light of campus rape, including date rape. It was an emotional return for Robin Roberts, six months after the bone marrow transplant that forced her to take a medical leave from ABC and it was obvious she relished being back.


ROBIN ROBERTS, ABC: Hi, it's Robin, and I have been waiting 174 days to say this, good morning America. I keep pinching myself. This is actually happening.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Good morning America, and welcome back robin.

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Robin, we just want you to know the whole Obama family, we've been thinking about you and praying for you and rooting for you every step of the way.


KURTZ: Did that tribute from the Obamas create the appearance of coziness? In my view, Robin Roberts survived a life-threatening illness and that cuts across the usual lines separating journalists and politicians. Business is business, Roberts has landed an upcoming interview with Michelle Obama.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. If you missed our program, check us out on Mondays on iTunes. Just search for RELIABLE SOURCES in 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.