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Reliable Sources

Questions Surround Jill Carroll Release; Lou Dobbs Answers Critics of His Immigration Coverage

Aired April 02, 2006 - 10:00   ET



HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): As Jill Carroll's three-month ordeal finally ends, more questions about why she was kidnapped and whether reporters are being targeted in Iraq.

The big shakeup. Why have journalists been insisting that the White House needs a house cleaning? Will the resignation of chief of staff Andy Card satisfy them, and should reporters be sitting down for secret, off the record chats with President Bush?

The crusader. An interview with CNN's Lou Dobbs, on the hot seat over his outspoken opposition to illegal immigration.

Plus, polygamy goes mainstream. How an HBO drama produced a media maelstrom over multiple wives.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the release of Jill Carroll and the question about her captivity. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Jill Carroll scheduled to land in Boston in about two and a half hours, the last leg of a three-month kidnapping ordeal that ended with the 28-year-old freelancer being freed, finally, on Thursday.

In a videotaped interview right after her release in Baghdad, Carroll was careful not to say a negative word about her captors.


CARROLL: They would come, they would bring me my food. I would eat. It was fine. I would go to the bathroom. I was treated very well. It's important people know that, that I was not harmed. They never said they would hit me. Never threaten me in any way.

KURTZ: But the kidnappers repeatedly threatened to kill Carroll, as the world saw in a series of videotapes. The day before she was freed, a tape was released with Carroll, obviously under duress, slamming the U.S. war effort.

CARROLL: It's important that people hear from me. The Mujahideen are only trying to defend their country.


KURTZ: Carroll renounced those remarks yesterday, as we'll discuss in just a moment.

Joining us now from Iraq, Michael Ware, Baghdad bureau chief for "TIME" magazine, and in Washington Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Washington Post" assistant managing editor and a former Baghdad bureau chief for the paper.


Rajiv, you're a friend of Jill Carroll. I want to read the statement she put out yesterday in which she said, "I was and remain, deeply angry with the people who did this. Fearing retribution from my captors, I did not speak freely. Out of fear, I said I wasn't threatened. In fact, I was threatened many times."

She had to know that her initial remarks upon release were causing a lot of questions and speculation here in the United States?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, "WASHINGTON POST": I think so. I think, obviously, that had gotten back to her, and I think she also knew that her initial remarks were not made at a time and a place where she truly felt free and safe.

I mean, first of all, that video that was made under duress the night before she was released was clearly made as, perhaps, a condition of release. I mean, those were not statements made by a free individual.

KURTZ: Sure.

CHANDRASEKARAN: And then more importantly, that other videotape that got a lot of air time the day she was released, at the offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Realize, one, this is a political party. The largest Sunni Muslim political party in Iraq, with the people alleged to have some ties in with insurgent groups. Not overt ones. But clearly, this was an organization that her captors felt comfortable enough having her brought to.

And she has said that she did not believe that the remarks that she was making were going to be aired. Supposedly, she was told it was going to be just for the posterity for this political party.

KURTZ: And then, of course, the tape gets broadcast around the world.


KURTZ: Michael Ware, what do you make of the fact that Jill Carroll after this terrible ordeal, you know, has been criticized and had her motives questioned by skeptics, critics, and conspiracy theorists here at home?

MICHAEL WARE, BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I find that appalling, actually. I mean, this seems to be part of, you know, a campaign by certain political interests within the D.C. landscape -- I think that's where it's being fueled. I know one organization and at least one American network were getting sort of not background briefings, but were being fed pieces of poison by low rank and low ranked officials just to muddy the waters.

I mean, and to understand all of this, to put it in context, I mean, it's difficult for people to know what it's like here on the ground without having been here anyway. Yet, this situation, this circumstance and the criticism that is coming in on Jill gives new meaning to the sense of "walk a mile in a person's shoes" or do 82 days in their confinement. Let's see how someone else handles the stresses and the pressures.

I mean, I have been in the position where I've had insurgents arguing and moving me, preparing me for execution. So I can't imagine what that's like day in, day out for three months.

This really needs to be seen in context, and people can't hijack it for cheap and tawdry political gain.

KURTZ: To be under that kind of duress for nearly three months is clearly something we all need to keep in mind.

Rajiv, you were friendly, as I noted, with Jill Carroll during your time in Baghdad. The first call she made when she was being released was to two "Washington Post" reporters who went to where she was being held. "Columbia Journalist Review" said the "Post" coverage was almost fawning. Is it possible to be objective when writing about a pal?

CHANDRASEKARAN: It makes it really difficult. But, remember, you know, Jill was friends with almost all the reporters in Baghdad. And so, you know, it's hard to say one news organization should somehow recuse himself.

I think that reporters, like people from all other walks of life, who are in Iraq, have tried to help their own. And I commend the work that Mick and my "Washington Post" colleagues have done there to try to get the message out in Baghdad that she is a journalist. She's not a partisan.

And so I think it's only, you know, natural that you have, you know, some degree of -- well, you know, let me restate that. I mean, I don't think that the coverage in this case was in any way sort of skewed. You know, at least on the ground the first day, it wasn't really a controversial story. Journalists saw that one of their own had been released, and, you know, in my mind, that's all there was to it.

KURTZ: Michael Ware, given with what you have been through, with what Jill Carroll has been through, Bob Woodruff, "New York Times" reporters who have been detained, the whole long litany now, there seem to be a shrinking number of western correspondents in Baghdad. I wonder if you think that's going to result in even more limited coverage of the situation -- of the bloody conflict there.

WARE: Well, I think this very much plays into that. I mean, I've recently said that, where back in 2003 and 2004 there was literally hundreds of international correspondents crawling all over this country and all over this story. However, today, as I stand here in Baghdad, you could almost literally fit the entire press corps in a tourist bus. I mean, that's how people have whittled down.

Now, we've seen the European organizations pack up and leave, the Japanese organizations leave. We've seen most of the other western organizations leave. We're down to the major American organizations. And within them, given the security implications, given the fact that there's a want for volunteers to come here, and given the exorbitant costs, given the security imperatives of operating here, even these American organizations are pared down to the bare bones. Now, at some point that has to impact on the coverage.

KURTZ: Right.

Rajiv, Jill Carroll went to Iraq originally as a free manslaughter. She later ended up doing reporting for "The Christian Science Monitor" and for "USA Today", which hadn't mentioned that until Friday, trying to keep a lower profile for her. What motivated her to go, and do you think she took any unnecessary risks?

CHANDRASEKARAN: I don't think she took unnecessary risks. I think that it's a dangerous environment for all journalists, and particularly so for freelancers. And so...

KURTZ: Because they don't have the big security outfits?


KURTZ: They don't have the armored cars?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Exactly. Or, you know, numbers of guards or other sorts of resources that a "Washington Post" or "New York Times" or CNN can draw on. And so I do think in the wake of this there should be a real honest reassessment by organizations that employ freelancers there: "The Christian Science Monitor", other newspapers, other television organizations. Is it wise to keep people there without the sort of -- the full-on resources that major organizations have?

But commend Jill. As a young woman, who had a job to do here in Washington, she packed it up, went out to the Middle East to learn Arabic. She first went to Jordan before going to Iraq. But she was so deeply committed in telling the story of Iraq and the Iraqi people. And, you know, she went out and about at great personal risk, because she believed there was a real importance to that.

In a day and age where you have correspondents -- guys like Mick get out, but there are a lot of others in Baghdad who do spend a lot of time in their fortified hotel compounds in the Green Zone. She was out and about trying to get some ground truth. That's what journalists do. It's a dangerous business, and I have nothing but respect for her decision to be out to get that ground truth.

KURTZ: And just briefly, do you think, Rajiv, that this episode is going to make journalists there even more cautious?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think this incident is one of many that has made journalists cautious. I don't think it's cowed journalists, but it's forced them to really put the issues of security front and center in, you know, every decision they make as they go through their days.

KURTZ: Michael Ware, you spent some time with the Iraqi insurgents. And on Hugh Hewlitt's radio show, you got into a bit of a debate when he said that didn't see any reason for people like you to go behind enemy lines, and he likened it to a correspondent reporting on the Nazis during World War II. What was your response to that?

WARE: Well, I mean, for a start, it's horses for courses. I mean, World War II and this conflict are remarkably different, as I told him.

You know, World War II was clearly established frontlines. The Nazi regime had its own P.R. machine. There was plenty of ways to monitor them, understand them, listen their chatter.

It's much different here in this war, in this asymmetrical warfare fought in a dense, urban environment. I mean, we really don't know a great deal about the enemy, only what they feed up through their propaganda.

And as I said on the radio program, imagine the opportunity back in World War II for someone to slip into some Nazi-controlled territory, an objective observer who can look, feel, smell, taste what it's really like and come out to tell us. This is what it's really about, and this is what people will tell you in their quiet moments behind closed doors.

KURTZ: Right.

WARE: So there's a real value to coming to understand what's actually making things tick, because we're not getting the real picture from any of the players. The insurgents, the military, the government. No one. We have to pursue it ourselves.

KURTZ: All right, Michael. Stay safe. We appreciate you joining us.

Rajiv, thanks to you, as well.

We'll have more on Jill Carroll later in the program.

Coming up, he's been a harsh critic of illegal immigration for years, but with Congress finally grappling with this thorny issue, his television advocacy is coming under fire, as well. CNN anchor Lou Dobbs takes on his critics next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


Lou Dobbs has never been shy about offering his analysis of various issues, but in recent years he has become more opinionated -- critics say more one-sided -- on his signature issue of demanding tighter controls on immigration. He calls these segments "Broken Borders."


LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Tonight an alarming new warning about our broken borders.

One small town overwhelmed by illegal aliens.

The federal government is failing to protect our hard-working middle class.

Unwilling to force security at our borders.

Too many illegal aliens, not enough places to put them.


KURTZ: In just the last week, the "New York Times" has raised questions about a man it calls the nation's most prominent opponent of current immigration policy. And Dobbs debated Univision anchor Marina Elena Salinas on CNN and also pushed his viewpoint on NBC's "Today Show."


MARINA ELENA SALINAS, UNIVISION ANCHOR: We are sick and tired of being treated as criminals. Being treated as...

DOBBS: As criminals?

SALINAS: I mean, as terrorists, because we're not terrorists.

DOBBS: Marina Elena, they are -- wait a minute. Wait a minute. That's precisely what they are. They have broken the law.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I watch you talk about it, there is literally steam coming out of your ears, you're so angry. Why?

DOBBS: There are tens of millions of middle class Americans, working men and women, and their families right now, who have no representation in this debate.


KURTZ: Dobbs went to Cancun, Mexico, during President Bush's visit there this week, and I caught up with him there.


KURTZ: Lou Dobbs, welcome.

DOBBS: Good to be with you, Howard.

KURTZ: Have you become a crusader on this issue of immigration?

DOBBS: I'm certainly an advocate for truth in the debate, and there are very clear, non-partisan, non-ideological realities that are being absolutely obfuscated by both ends of the political spectrum in this debate on illegal immigration and border security. It's truly a remarkable situation at this time in our history.

KURTZ: You told the "New York Times" this week, quote, "There's nothing fair and balanced about me, because there's nothing fair and balanced about the truth."

DOBBS: Right.

KURTZ: But shouldn't a cable news anchor be fair?

DOBBS: Well, a cable news anchor should be fair always; fair and balanced as a piece of rhetoric about what we're doing here, I don't know. That's up to each individual cable news anchor, as you put it. On "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT", my broadcast, my viewers, my audience expects me to come at them with the unvarnished reality and the truth, irrespective of how the chips fall in the political spectrum. We do that.

Howard, you know that I'm as quick to criticize President Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton, as anyone else. It just doesn't, frankly, matter to me where the partisan views fall on a given subject. My interests are primarily working men and women in this country, the middle class and the national interests. And that's where --

KURTZ: Well when you use a word like truth, what gives you a monopoly on the truth, especially on a sensitive issue...

DOBBS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! I didn't say I had a monopoly. Come on, you sound like you're doing tabloid journalism, Howard.

KURTZ: There's nothing...

DOBBS: I never said I had a monopoly.

DOBBS: According to you -- "nothing fair and balanced about the truth."

DOBBS: Wait a minute, Howard. I never said I had a -- excuse me -- I'm quoting you; you said, "What gives me a monopoly on the truth? I never said "monopoly on the truth," Howard, you're a better journalist than that. Now you can get to whatever I have said, and I'll be glad to respond.

KURTZ: Well, when you say, "There's nothing fair and balanced about the truth," that raises for me, on an issue like this, where there are so many competing views and there ' so much passion about border security and dealing with illegal immigrants who are already here, that suggests to you that there is one version that one can come up with that would approximate the truth.

DOBBS: As a matter of fact, I think that indeed there is. If you do not accept the idea that one of the roles of any journalist is to get to the truth, then you and I are going to diverge on what the role of any journalist is.

First, there are facts that are absolutely immutable and irrefutable, whether it be in the illegal immigration debate or whether it be on border security. The facts are -- these are the truths, irrespective of whether you're Republican or Democrat -- we have a porous border to the north and the south of us. Our ports are absolutely porous; only five percent of the cargo coming into this country is inspected.

My god, Howard! What kind of partisan view do you want? That is truth. Now what that does, in terms of your ideological view, is up to you. But don't suggest to me that truth is always fair and balanced, because it is not. In point of fact, most of the he-says, she-says journalists working in this craft today, both print and electronic, are using it as what I would call a monstrous cop-out and an inability to carry out their responsibility to find the facts.

Who in the -- let me turn the question, a bit, Howard, if I may: Who the hell said there were only two versions of the truth, a Republican view and a Democratic view?

KURTZ: No, there are probably six, seven, eight different version for people with different views and opinions and constituencies and all that.

DOBBS: I'm not interested -- are you interested in six or seven views, or are you interested in the truth? Because that's what I'm interested in; that's what my viewers are interested in.

KURTZ: Let me ask you...

DOBBS: I'm sick and tired -- go ahead; I'm sorry.

KURTZ: Let me ask you about some of the criticism in the press, which I know you're familiar with.

DOBBS: Sure.

KURTZ: A "New York Times" piece this week said, "Critics deride him as anti-immigrant, and racist and biased." "Washington Post" columnist Michael Kinsley on Friday said you "used to be a mild- mannered anchor," and now you've "become a raving populist xenophobe." I want you to respond to that.

DOBBS: First, the "New York Times" article is, in the judgment of most, I think, entirely complimentary of what we are doing. The reference to critics is not the view of the "New York Times," but rather critics. The suggestion by Michael Kinsley that I'm a raving populist xenophobe, I'd love to see how he could support that.

I'm actually, in point of fact, Howard, just as we can get to the truth, I'm actually pro-immigrant. I am pro-legal immigration. I have great respect for the people who make up the preponderance of the illegal alien population in our country -- that is, Mexican migrant workers.

I mean, that's an insane statement by Michael Kinsley, who is a man who is a master of opinion journalism, as he tries to deride it. The fact is, on certain issues, I am an advocate. I'm an advocate for the truth. And I'm sorry that doesn't suit Mr. Kinsley and some others. But I don't think that that was a correct construction of the "New York Times" that you just made.

KURTZ: Let me play a clip from your show.

DOBBS: Sure.

KURTZ: This past week, you were talking to Janet Murguia, who is from the National Council of La Raza.


KURTZ: And here's how part of that exchange went.

DOBBS: Sure.


DOBBS: I don't think that we should have any flag flying in this country except the flag of the United States. And let me tell you something else, since we're talking about double standards -- and I think you're right about people who would believe that. But let's be clear: I don't think there should be a St. Patrick's Day. I don't care who you are.


KURTZ: When you say things like that, you seem to provide an opening for your detractors.

DOBBS: I don't care about my detractors. The fact is, and the point I was making, Howard, is that the United States has become a multicultural society with a political correct orthodoxy, emanating, by the way, from both extremes of the political spectrum.

My point being: What in the world is the big deal about St. Patrick's Day or Columbus Day? The days that are important to me are those days where we celebrate our commonalities, our similarities. This is the most diverse society on Earth, and as soon as any news anchor or host wants to talk about something riveting to the audience, they want to sensationalize the issue of race.

Do you know, most Americans are the most sensitive, open people in the world. I mean, this -- name one society that is more diverse than ours, ethnically, religiously, racially. Please. I cannot tolerate the pandering of ethnocentric groups or special interests, whether it be corporate American or labor unions, the Democratic Party or the Republicans. We're Americans! And I'm sorry that doesn't fit into everyone's convenient view of the world, but there it is.

KURTZ: Your ratings, Lou, are up about 28 percent in the last two-and-a-half years. Do you see any connection between your aggressive stance on this and other issues and success at the box office?

DOBBS: I think that's a great question, Howard. You know, whereas most of your viewers may not -- but certainly all of mine do -- that I've been covering really exciting issues like international trade, the economy, outsourcing of jobs and illegal immigration for years.

Now suddenly that the United States Senate is focused on this and the president is using his whatever political capital he has to push forward a guest-worker amnesty program, it's as if we came to this issue in the last two weeks. You know we've been reporting on broken borders for literally years.

KURTZ: And given your strong views, which you have enumerated and elaborated on here today, should CNN viewers believe they are going to get all sides of these issues on your program?

DOBBS: As a matter of fact, I think you will find that there have been far more advocates of open borders and illegal immigration on my broadcasts that there have been opponents. And my broadcast, as you put it, is not a typical CNN broadcast, certainly, nor is it a typical broadcast that you would find on any news network. We, at the outset, say this broadcast is about news, debate and opinion. And we believe that enriches the content of what we are providing to our viewers, and obviously, they agree with us.

KURTZ: Right. Well, it's a great debate. I hope we'll be able to continue it another time. Lou Dobbs...

DOBBS: Any time.

KURTZ: ... thank you very much for joining us.

DOBBS: Good to be with you, Howard.


KURTZ: And coming up later on CNN, go "ON THE STORY" with CNN's Andrea Koppel, who has been covering the immigration debate up on Capitol Hill.

But up next, the "Boston Herald" accuses a Supreme Court justice of making an obscene gesture, and he invokes "The Sopranos" in his defense. Our "Media Minute" just ahead.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Time now for our "Media Minute."

In the case of Antonin Scalia versus the "Boston Herald", the tabloid accused the Supreme Court justice of making an obscene gesture outside church when asked whether he gets flak for overly celebrating his Catholic beliefs.

Scalia issued a dissent in a letter to the editor, quote, "I responded, jocularly, with a gesture that consisted of fanning the fingers of my right hand under my chin. I said, 'That's Sicilian,' and explained its meaning, which is that I could not care less.' From watching so many episodes of 'The Sopranos', your staff seems to have acquired the belief that any Sicilian gesture is obscene."

One sentence has been handed down. Freelancer Peter Smith, who took the picture, has been fired by the Catholic weekly, "The Pilot", for releasing the photo. Smith says he did the ethical thing.

And one other note, ABC News has suspended the producer of "Good Morning America Weekend" for one month over a pair of embarrassing e- mails that were leaked to the Drudge Report and "The New York Post".

John Green wrote during a presidential debate that, quote, "Bush makes me sick." And in another e-mail he said that Madeleine Albright has, quote, "Jew shame" because she did not acknowledge her Jewish heritage until late in life. Green and ABC have apologized to the White House and the former secretary of state.

Ahead in our next half hour, more on freed journalist Jill Carroll, and journalists finally get the White House shakeup they've been clambering for. Who put them in charge? All that after a check of the top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning. I'm Tony Harris in the CNN Center in Atlanta.

Now the big news, a big homecoming awaits Jill Carroll. The former hostage in Iraq is scheduled arrive in Boston a couple of hours from now. Carroll, a journalist, spent nearly three months in captivity.

Pope Benedict XVI recalls the legacy of his predecessor on the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death. Pope Benedict addressed a huge crowd gathered at the Vatican to mark the anniversary.

In men's college basketball, the fairy tale is over for Cinderella, George Mason. They lost last night last night. In the other semifinal, UCLA beat LSU. The Bruins and Gators play for the national title tomorrow night.

More headlines in 30 minutes. I'm Tony Harris in Atlanta. RELIABLE SOURCES continues after the break.


Freed journalist Jill Carroll left Frankfurt, Germany, earlier today, and is scheduled to land in Boston in about two hours after her long kidnapping ordeal.

Joining us now, on the phone from her airplane, CNN international correspondent Paula Hancocks. Also with us to talk about Jill Carroll and later coverage of the White House, in -- All right. Let me go to Paula first. We'll introduce the other guests later.

What is Jill Carroll's demeanor, and is she aware of the controversy swirling around her?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Howard, she seems very relaxed and very happy at the moment. I just had a chat with her a few hours ago. And she seemed perfectly happy to chat.

She wanted to say thank you for everyone being concerned about her. She was very humbled by the whole thing. And she just really wanted to get a message across that everyone has been lovely to here, at Ramstein at the U.S. air base, and had been very helpful. And she felt really good in herself. She didn't have any health problems. And she just kept saying over and over again she just could not wait to see her family.

So I'm not sure if she knows about the controversy. She wouldn't do an interview. She wasn't keen on that. So it really, it was just more of a chat. Once, I mentioned the statements, and she just said, "Well, that's something I felt I had to do."

KURTZ: So just briefly, she feels like she wants to spend some family time, rather than making any grand public statement when she lands?

HANCOCKS: Well, she said that she wanted to see her family first, and then she's going to decide whether to give interviews or whether to give any photo opportunities.

Scott Peterson, her colleague was with her, as well, and he was saying, you know, in an ideal world, she'd be able to see her family and go home. So they didn't give me any indication of what they were going to do.

At the time, though, they were just sitting and chatting with each other and laughing. She was very relaxed, very at ease. And she was just counting down the minutes, as I'm sure she still is, to seeing her parents. I just popped by the first class cabin where she is. Every single person is asleep except for her and Scott, and they're still chatting.

KURTZ: All right. Paula Hancocks, live from the airplane. Thanks you very much for checking in with us.

Joining us now to talk a little bit more about Jill Carroll and, later, the coverage of the White House in Crawford, Texas, ABC's Ann Compton. Here in Washington, Ed Henry, CNN White House correspondent. And in New York John Fund, columnist for the "Wall Street Journal's"

Ann Compton, do you think some of this criticism of Jill Carroll over that first videotaped interview she did in Baghdad right after her release is just off base?

ANN COMPTON, ABC CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't think it's off base, because there were people angry that she wasn't appreciative of the kind of the effort undergoing to get her back, but you know, she seems to have recanted that from the quotes I've seen from the statement she issued or the paper issued for her. She has recanted a couple of things.

You know, she said she was well-treated. She said, no, that she was threatened, that that interview she did the night before she was released and in the interview that she did when she got to the political office after her release in Baghdad, she said that, you know, how well she was taken care of. She did feel threatened, and she felt she had to say those things.

She says that her anti-war statements do not represent her true feelings. I guess that's why we always report when we do these things, Howie, that any statements made while a hostage is in custody have to be under some kind of duress.

KURTZ: Yes. Now absolutely, the videotaped anti-U.S. denunciation, I immediately assumed that she had absolutely no choice.

John Fund, just briefly, any chance that journalists are making too much of this story? After all, dozens of Iraqis are kidnapped every week, and, yet, obviously when a fellow journalist goes through this kind of ordeal, it seems to become a big story in the U.S.

JOHN FUND, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM: Well, she was a very important journalist. She had been in Iraq for a long time. She had tried to blend in with the culture. I think the lesson here is, no matter how much you try to make friends with people in a country like that, there are people who are going to view you as a potential prize.

And of course, I agree with Ann. We need to have a moratorium on any analysis or anger or any statement after someone is released until we know what they actually think.

KURTZ: All right.

Turning now to politics, the press has been all but telling the president for weeks, "You need to shake up your staff. Don't you get it?"


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are any staff changes at the White House imminent?

CARL CAMERON, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Can you comment at all about whether or not you're experiencing any staff shortages?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Does the president think he needs new blood on his staff?


KURTZ: Ed Henry, this drumbeat of questions about a staff shakeup, who put the press in charge of White House personnel policy?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I don't think anyone did. I think it was really the press more really reacting to the fact that there are a lot of conservatives in the president's own party who are saying, "Look, there need to be some changes." They're very frustrated with the president's low poll ratings. I think it's more maybe some people shooting the messenger in the media, because the media was delivering that message to the White House, but the fact is people in the president's own party wanted this change and want more changes.

KURTZ: John Fund, when Andy Card was -- stepped down as chief of staff, replaced by Josh Bolten, some of the newspaper coverage, "New York Times" called it a step unlike to satisfy calls with the Republican Party for greater -- for fresh thinking. "Philadelphia Inquirer" said Bush is no Reagan when it comes to shakeups. "Boston Globe" fell far short of what many in Washington had anticipated. Sounds like the press still wasn't satisfied.

FUND: Well, again, the press was reporting a lot of the leaks they're getting from inside the White House: people not satisfied there.

But I think there needed to be some context here. Not all staff shakeups work out well. Jimmy Carter upturned almost his entire staff the year before 1980s election, and it didn't do him a bit of good. Ronald Reagan did succeed. But just because everybody is baying for you to replace your staff, doesn't mean have you to pay attention for it.

KURTZ: You know, Ann Compton, the press really put this on the agenda by pounding on these questions day after day. Some Republicans may have been saying it, but you can kind of sense that the feeling among journalists was, "Well, the president is down in the polls. He's got to do something. Why don't you just get rid of some people?"

COMPTON: Well, and look what the president did, Howie. This is a president who adores surprising the Washington establishment and the White House press corps. We knew at 8:22 in the morning before his 9:15 announcement that there was going to be an Andy Card resignation.

Nobody had the headlines leaked to them the morning before saying Josh Bolten is going to leave his kind of budget deal and go over and talk to, you know, take over the whole White House.

The other thing the president did was he didn't listen to the Washington insiders. His own party was saying, "You need somebody with gravitas. You need somebody to come in, a real Washington hand and shake things up." He reached way down inside his own very loyal team.

KURTZ: Right.

COMPTON: So this is a change done on the president's own terms.

KURTZ: Well, speaking of leaks, Ed Henry, It leaked this week that some journalists have been invited to secret off the record meetings with the president, get to know you sessions. How valuable can these backstage meetings be, if the reporters can't share with the readers and the viewers know what they learned?

HENRY: I think it can be very valuable. I was not at those sessions. I just started the beat...

KURTZ: You didn't make the list?

HENRY: Well, other people at CNN went, and I think it's easily defensible. I think the critics out there are really missing the point, which is that there's been so much criticism that we don't get enough of an insight into what this president does, that the White House press corps is so structured and stilted.

Here we have an opportunity to talk directly to the man himself. Who wouldn't want to take up that opportunity?

And while you might not be able to report directly what he's saying, obviously, I think it gives you a better insight into the man. It gives you -- it lets you behind the curtain a little bit.

KURTZ: Although John Fund, some liberals are saying that the journalists who participate in this are being co-opted in that they get to be charmed or seduced but can't report on these conversations. Although Bill Clinton did the same thing, and I didn't hear the liberals complaining about that.

FUND: No. And lots of senators, of course, give off the record briefings, and everybody likes that.

You know, the interesting -- the sad thing about this is that presidents only seem to want to do this when their poll numbers are low. When their poll numbers are in the 60s, they never seem to want to have these off the record meetings. I think presidents should do this an awful lot more. And I think Bush would have been better served if he'd started his presidency this way.

KURTZ: Ann Compton, are you interested in going for an off the record chat with Mr. Bush?

COMPTON: I've been to a couple, not in this recent -- recent round. But let me tell you, presidents have to communicate in a lot more ways than simply press briefings, big news conferences or little private sessions where you really do get a better measure of the man, and he gets a better measure of what we're thinking and how we go about our jobs and why some of us show us some days and we don't show up others, what kind of deadlines we're on. It's important for a president to know kind of how we work and what goes into the news stories that he then sees produced.

And as for the White House, press corps being co-opted, it will take more than a view from the Truman balcony to bring most of those people over across to being lap dogs for the administration.

KURTZ: All right. Ed Henry, on Friday there was a Senate hearing on Russ Feingold's motion to censure President Bush over the warrantless eavesdropping. And I've got to tell you, the collective media response was a yawn. It was the lead story on CNN's "SITUATION ROOM", but network newscasts, not a word, not a syllable. Couple of inside stories in the papers. Why not more coverage?

HENRY: I think because the potential support for this has just collapsed. It's mostly Russ Feingold standing on his own and launching this, and everybody knows he's running for president. And you have to give viewers that proper context that this is somebody who is running for president, very likely.

And most of his Democratic colleagues are not only not supporting the censure move; they didn't even show up at the hearing. He was pretty much alone on the Democratic side. More Republicans than Democrats showed up to defend the president.

KURTZ: But John Fund, nobody ever thought this thing was going to pass in a Republican Senate. But you had John Dean, the Watergate figure, giving his first testimony before Congress since the days of the Nixon administration crumbling. Wasn't this at least good political theater for the media?

FUND: Sure. And I think that there is a media angle here. We've we had front page story after front page story saying that the Bush administration clearly violated the Constitution in its -- with its wiretaps of terrorist telephone calls.

Well, if the front page stories say that, and you have a debate about censure, which is a rather mild form of disapproval by Congress, I think that is news, regardless of whether or not it passes. In fact, it's news if it doesn't pass, because it makes you wonder if the front page stories are all that accurate.

KURTZ: All right. Well, there's a poll saying 42 percent of the public supports censure, although, as I noted, that is likely to go nowhere fast on Capitol Hill.

Thanks very much, Ann Compton, John Fund, Ed Henry. We appreciate your joining us.

When we come back, this question: are the media more accepting of polygamy because of a controversial new HBO series on the subject?


KURTZ: Welcome back. It's a most unlikely topic for a fictional TV series: one husband, three wives, all his, and their polygamous family in the suburbs.


BILL PAXTON, ACTOR: We are making those sacrifices to live with principle, to keep faith. Margie, you are a valued member of this family. We weren't complete, not until you. You made us complete. I wasn't complete until you.


KURTZ: Four and a half million people watched HBO's "Big Love" when it debuted early last month right after "The Sopranos", and it's gotten plenty of press in "Newsweek", "The New York Times", "The Washington Post", and elsewhere.

Joining us now to analyze all the attention, in Seattle, Michael Medved, the film critic who hosts a radio show on the Salem Radio Network. And here in Washington, David Zurawik, television critic for "The Baltimore Sun".

David, "The New York Times" went as far as to bring together three polygamist wives to watch "Big Love". How can one little TV show trigger all this coverage?

DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": Well, I think there's a couple of things, Howie. One is viewing on Sunday night on HBO has become an institution, almost unto itself. Maybe what Masterpiece Theater was once upon a time.

Now people say, well, it's not a huge audience, you know, 4.6 million, but that is a great audience for subscription model cable television, and it's a ritual, Sunday night HBO, that people talk about at the next day, and it fans out into the culture.

KURTZ: The media continue to talk about it. Let me go to Michael Medved.

Does the coverage of this issue strike you as awfully positive, awfully accepting, considering that polygamy is illegal in -- let me do the math here -- all 50 states?

MICHAEL MEDVED, FILM CRITIC/RADIO HOST: Yes, it is. And also, in Utah.

Look, I think one of things that's surprising has been the relatively tamped down response by the Mormon Church, because they set this in Utah, and, of course, polygamy has been absolutely unacceptable for the Mormon Church, for the LDS Church, for 100 years.

The thing that strikes me about this is how little it really has impacted the public. I was coming up here today to talk with you, and the security guard was saying, "Well, what are you here to talk about?"

I said "Big Love."

He says, "What's that?" And that's very typical, I think, with the coverage that you're talking about. This is not a top of the mind series. This is a desperate and pathetic attempt to do something bizarre and to cut through that culture smog and to try to get attention, and then kind of half succeed.

KURTZ: All right. Something bizarre on television. That's unusual.

ZURAWIK: This is -- that's really an analysis that begs for a rebuttal.

No. 1, this is a brilliant show in the way HBO makes brilliant dramas. They are about fringe subcultures: the funeral industry, with "Six Feet Under", the Mafia with "The Sopranos", drug dealers with "The Wire." But yet, they do a wonderful job, Howard, of looking at mainstream American values in life through that prism, and this show has done that successfully. But I don't call that a pathetic...


KURTZ: I want to debate whether the liberal media -- whether this is a classic case of liberal journalists almost gushing about a show and a lifestyle that most Americans find pretty abhorrent.

ZURAWIK: But it isn't about the lifestyle, Howie. That's the very point I'm trying to make.

KURTZ: One man, three wives.

ZURAWIK: It's really about patriarchy. It's about the American entrepreneur, who's been celebrated in Reagan and Bush rhetoric for the last 25 years: what he's really about.

This guy owns a home improvement store. He's opening another one. His dream is to take on Wal-Mart in Utah and Arizona. This is that American entrepreneur, Howie, and this is a look backstage at his life and how messy it is.

MEDVED: He's also -- he's also portrayed as religious, and this is, like, big news, right? Isn't it? Hollywood, HBO in this case, is actually producing something that shows somebody who's religious and a businessman in a negative way?

Business people have been major targets of TV series going back to Dallas and Dynasty, for goodness sake. I mean, it's not something daring for a -- for a TV series to attack somebody who is an entrepreneur. They do it all the time.

KURTZ: But on that point, Michael Medved, there are an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 polygamists in the United States. How come they get an HBO show as compared to, say, a religious Christian family, a religious Jewish family, you name it?

MEDVED: Well, that I think is a very, very good question, Howie, because about 40 percent of Americans go to church every week, and they're very rarely presented. In "Seventh Heaven, you might say.

But here you have somebody who is shown talking to God. He's shown, as the clip indicated, trying to do his religious duty to maintain traditions. And those traditions are what most Americans would say are sick and twisted and disgusting.

And the association of religion with sexual exploitation of young people, the association of religion with a fringe subculture rather than the American mainstream, is something that's been a typical and, I think very, very negative aspect of television.

KURTZ: David Zurawik, "The Boston Herald" has a piece on the impact on Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is likely to run for president and who happens to be a Mormon. And even though this is a practice that's been outlawed by the Mormon Church since 1890, are the media taking this a little far?

ZURAWIK: Well, I don't understand why the media is taking it far by celebrating a really funny piece of drama. Howard, we want our drama to question our lives.

If television has a sin, going back to the earliest days of primetime television in the late '40s, it's timidity. So here comes a drama with a little guts that takes something on, and we're attacking it.

By the way, in response to Michael, television has -- primetime television has not denigrated American business. Think back to a show like "L.A. Law", where the boardroom was thought of as God at this law firm. That's -- I mean, it's ideological...

MEDVED: Excuse me. Excuse me. Most people who are entrepreneurs and business people do not have great love for lawyers. You're right. Lawyers get good treatment. Teachers get good treatment. But people who are entrepreneurs and business executives, very often they'll have a gun in the drawer and they'll be involved with corruption.

What's striking about this is most Americans look upon religious figures positively; they look upon -- they look upon business leaders positively, in most cases. And yet, the -- you'd have a very tough time pointing to somebody who is a corporate head or an entrepreneur or even running a small business who isn't seen as someone who is compromised and suspect in the world of either feature films or television series.

KURTZ: Briefly.

ZURAWIK: Michael, it's a hopeless generalization, and it's ideological rather than looking at the actual text of the shows.

MEDVED: All right. So where is the text of Tony Soprano as an example of a loveable businessman? Is that it?

ZURAWIK: Is Tony a good guy or a bad guy? Different people, Michael, read these shows different ways.

MEDVED: I'm sorry. This is...

ZURAWIK: No, no, no. You're not sorry. You're...

MEDVED: ... business with corruption and violence is not positive.

KURTZ: I am sorry, but I've got to blow the whistle here. This is a great discussion. I wish we had more time. Thank you, Michael Medved, David Zurawik.

When we return, more on those off the record chats between George Bush and reporters: how other presidents have also tried to seduce the press. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Reporters may or may not get great insight from being invited for off the record chats with President Bush, but the practice is not exactly revolutionary.


KURTZ (voice-over): John Kennedy courted journalists, especially his Georgetown neighbor Ben Bradlee, who may have gone a little too close.

Richard Nixon put reporters on his enemies list, such as Daniel Shore and Mary McGrory.

Ronald Reagan had journalists over for conversation and cocktails, in part because his advisors worried about him making gaffes at televised news conferences.

The first President Bush had lunches with the likes of Johnny Apple of "The New York Times" and once had Maureen Dowd over for a movie.

"USA Today" reporter Jessica Lee (ph) was so excited over a Bush dinner party invitation that she pronounced the experience thrilling.

President Clinton would make late night calls to columnists such as E.J. Dionne and Ben Wattenberg. He had off the record sessions schmooze sessions over iced tea and cookies with Andrea Mitchell, Brit Hume, Rita Braver, Wolf Blitzer, Jeff Greenfield, Jack Germon (ph), Susan Page, and Margaret Carlson, to name just a few. Clinton once played six hours of golf with Tom Friedman.

The current president has kept his distance from most media folks, but four years ago he brought in a group of conservative pundits, including Paul Gigot, Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, Kate O'Beirne and Robert Novak.

And Bush has continued the tradition of having network anchors and Sunday talk show hosts over for lunch, no direct quotes allowed, before delivering the State of the Union.


(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: But it's taken five years and a heap of political trouble for Bush to reach out to the White House press corps. They get the chance to see the president in a relaxed setting. He gets to turn on the charm with the built-in protection of not being quoted. What the rest of us get out of it remains to be seen.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again, next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.