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Reliable Sources

Media Returns to New Orleans; Did Media Go Overboard on JonBenet Murder Suspect?

Aired September 03, 2006 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Hijacked by a hoax. Why did the media whip themselves into a JonBenet frenzy based on the shaky confession of one creepy character? And is it time for an apology now that John Mark Karr has been exposed as a fraud?

Back to New Orleans. A journalistic invasion puts the spotlight back on the devastation of Katrina one year later, but have most news organizations abandoned the crippled city? And are they moving on again after the anniversary?

Plus, why top Bush and Kerry aides have called a political cease- fire. John Dean critiques the conservative media and Bob Schieffer hands the baton to Katie Couric.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where today we turn our critical lens on the biggest natural disaster on American history. I'm Howard Kurtz.

There haven't been this many journalists in New Orleans since one year ago when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the Gulf Coast region. And, since the media love anniversary stories, newscasts this week re-played their accounts of a city's drowning.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Where is the aid? It's the question people keep asking us on camera.

MICHAEL BROWN, FORMER FEMA DIRECTOR: The federal government just learned about those people today.

KURTZ (voice-over): The anchors and correspondents have been reminding us that, despite presidential promises and the approval of more than $100 billion, much of New Orleans remains an uninhabited wasteland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An area along the Gulf Coast, the size of Great Britain would be ravaged, and a great American City would be left under water, and essentially broken. It is still broken one year later.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: They come up to you, begging to use your cell phone, your satellite phone. Often that was the only phone around. We tried to give it to as many people as possible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're here in (UNINTELLIGIBLE), here in New Orleans.

COOPER: All the conversations started the same: "It's me; I'm alive" -- and, then just breaking down in tears. There were a lot of tears shed in those days.


KURTZ: But, have the media let the story fade until this week's remembrances, and, are journalists adequately investigating the agonizingly slow pace of rebuilding?

Joining us now at CNN's Gulf Coast Bureau in New Orleans, Susan Roesgen, who covered the area for over a decade as a local news anchor before joining CNN last year.

In Los Angeles, Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, and the author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast".

And here in Washington Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for "The Washington Post".

Doug Brinkley, New Orleans has struggled for a year, as you well know, out of the media spotlight largely. Suddenly, all these anchors and reporters show up. Is the anniversary important?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, AUTHOR, "THE GREAT DELUGE": Yes, the anniversary was important. But, our message got lost. A couple days before the one-year anniversary Mayor Nagin made his now infamous 9/11 "hole in the ground" quip, and everybody wanted to talk to the mayor about that. If you looked at "Meet the Press" with Russert that became the major thing on Sunday. It was on "60 Minutes". And, so, we didn't get the message of how desperately we need things.

And, Nagin's failure started becoming the story. The fact that New Orleans has no plan started dominating the news.

Over the last year, it was really the "New York Times" that stayed on the New Orleans story, and CNN opening that Gulf Bureau where Susan's at. But, you saw other news organizations disappearing and then just coming back en masse for the one year anniversary, and virtually leaving on August 30.

KURTZ: I want to come back to that point. But, Gene Robinson, you were down there this past week. When you go and you see the utter devastation that is still there in so many areas, do you find it hard to convey that in words, and therefore to make people care?

EUGENE ROBINSON, ASSOCIATE EDITOR/COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": I think it's very difficult to convey in words. It's difficult to convey in pictures. The photographers from "The Post" have been frustrated at -- there's no wide angle lens wide enough to really capture it or... KURTZ: You can show a house, or even a block...

ROBINSON: Right. Right, but it's difficult to convey the experience of driving for blocks and blocks and blocks, and miles and miles and miles, and seeing a city devastated. So, it's very difficult to convey. It's really heartbreaking to see.

KURTZ: Susan Roesgen, you live there. You just heard Doug Brinkley say that the national media kind of parachuted in and parachuted out. Until this week, at least, did the people in New Orleans feel largely abandoned by the national press, because this is deemed to be somehow an old story?

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, some people parachuted in and some people parachuted out. But I am here. I'm staying here. CNN has this full-time fully staffed Gulf Bureau. And, we're going to continue to do stories here.

I do think the challenge, though, Howard, is to keep the stories fresh. You just can't tell the same story the same way over and over again. As Gene says, a lot of people in the rest of the country have seen these images. And, there is a possibility that they say, "Hey, we're tired of it." Katrina can be overdone just as any other big story can be overdone.

The challenge here now for me, and for anybody else who's covering this story, is to tell compelling stories in a compelling way so people don't tune out.

KURTZ: I've heard people say that about Iraq, as well, that the devastation there and the carnage and killing, unfortunately, has a certain repetitive theme to it.

Doug Brinkley, suddenly we see our journalists asking -- newspapers and electronics -- what happened to that $100 billion? Why has so little of it been able to be spent? Why have so few schools open? Why have so few hospitals open? Why has 60 percent of the population not returned?

But, those kinds of questions -- public policy questions -- not necessarily the stuff of dramatic television, correct?

BRINKLEY: Well, that's right. And, a lot of it -- I think the big news story was journalists coming back to the Lower Ninth or Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East. And their jaws dropped again. They were there a year ago -- or close to a year ago -- ten months ago -- and now suddenly they thought there would be this vast improvement.

And, people like Susan have been in the trenches all along. She knows the story. But, a lot of people came back just perplexed that New Orleans was in such bad shape.

And, then of course, as Maureen Dowd said in "The New York Times", President Bush coming down became the story. He was doing his visiting all the Stations of the Cross, if you like, asking for forgiveness or doing a prayer at all these different places. And, that became the new story: what is Bush doing.

And, then we -- I think there was the revisiting of the blame game, a conjuring up of Brown and Chertoff and Nagin and Blanco and Bush for one last kind of inventory of their failures of a year ago.

KURTZ: My jaw certainly dropped when I went down there a few months ago. And, you know, NBC's Brian Williams has gone about 10 times since Katrina. But he gets emails saying, "Get off this story. We're tired of hearing about it."

My question to you, Gene Robinson, will New Orleans be a big story nationally a month from now, two months from now when there's no anniversary and no Mardi Gras, or is the media attention span kind of too short?

ROBINSON: It should be a big story a couple of months from now. I'm not sure that it will be, frankly. The reason it's difficult at this point, is that this is a difficult -- it's a hard story to get your arms around. There are failures of government at every level. You can't just...

KURTZ: ... insurance company policies...

ROBINSON: Right. You've got the insurance issues. You've got issues with federal aid. You've got flood control issues. The Army Corps of Engineers, what are they going to do with the levies, short term and long term, to protect New Orleans? You've got the mayor essentially saying let the marketplace decide what neighborhoods come back. Which, you know, is again, it's all -- it's all difficult to get you arms around and cover in a quick snappy piece.

KURTZ: Susan Roesgen, would you agree that this is a hard thing for journalists -- to use a television term -- to package because of the complexity and the many layers of difficulties here?

ROESGEN: Sometimes, but I think the key is to dissect it, to really go into the small parts of the story, and then from there expand it to the bigger parts of the story. That's what you've got to do. You've got to focus on one person, or one particular situation. Otherwise, it is overwhelming. And, it is sort of numbing.

But, I have to point out, Howard, that I'm not so sure that people in this city want Katrina to be the defining moment in their lives. As a resident here, I don't want it to be the defining moment in my life or in my career. This was a happening news town before Katrina. The south is fertile news territory. The Gulf Coast in particular is very fertile news territory. There's a lot of things happening here that will go on -- go forward -- in the year ahead.

And, we've got things like the congressman -- a congressman who's under investigation. He might eventually be indicted. All kinds of interesting things happening in this area that are -- some of them Katrina related, but some not.

KURTZ: Sure. Sure. But, Doug Brinkley, I mean, New Orleans has always been a thick gumbo stew of interesting journalistic themes. But, when you have only 40 percent of the people living there who were living there before Katrina one year ago, how can that not be the dominant theme for the media?

BRINKLEY: Well, it will be the dominant theme. There will be big revisits. Something like Memorial Hospital, where you have the specter of a doctor and two nurses perhaps killing patients. That's going to become a big news story as that goes to trial. They've been charged with murder by Attorney General Foti of Louisiana.

You have questions, I think, of Charity Hospital and the reopening of it. Places like Saint Rita's, the nursing home where all these people died, that there are going to be court cases. I think what you're seeing is the trial lawyers coming in now and some of these big legal cases might start making the cable news runs.

I think a big barometer for us is going to be -- you know we've got the one year anniversary of Hurricane Rita coming up. And, that was the second worst natural disaster...

KURTZ: Sure.

BRINKLEY: ... devastated parts of Texas and southwestern Louisiana. It'll be interesting to see if the same amount of media comes and tries to cover that and from Lake Charles as they did this past week out of New Orleans.

KURTZ: One year ago, Gene Robinson, "Newsweek" ran a cover. The headline was "Poverty, Race, and Katrina: Lessons of a National Shame". And there was talk in the press. There was going to finally be kind of national debate or conversation about poverty and race, because we -- it was sort of ripped open when we saw the people who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. That didn't really happen.

ROBINSON: No, it didn't happen.

KURTZ: How much of that -- I mean look -- the president didn't talk about it very much. But, how much of that is the fault of journalists?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, in a sense we didn't stay on the story. We reported it. We reported what we saw in New Orleans. For a month later, you know, there were stories about poverty, but we never went that deep.

And politicians haven't been talking about it in those terms. I mean, the only one who really talks about poverty as an issue these days is John Edwards, who presumably is going to run for president. So, maybe we'll hear more from him. But, I think we did kind of drop the ball.

KURTZ: Susan Roesgen, was this a missed opportunity for a broader media debate? Not just about New Orleans, but about, you know, minorities and an underclass in every city that just happened to be dramatized by the fallout from Katrina?

ROESGEN: In some ways I'm sure we could have done more. But, I do think that the images speak for themselves: poor people clinging to their roofs, poor people outside of the Convention center who have nothing left. I think the images speak for themselves. People get it. Whether the politicians get it or not, that's another story.

KURTZ: All right. Gene Robinson, Susan Roesgen, Doug Brinkley, thanks very much for an enlightening discussion.

Coming up: John Mark Karr, vilified in the press, turns out to have made it all up about JonBenet Ramsey. Is this the media embarrassment of the year?


KURTZ: Welcome back.

It began when a strange character averted from the shadows of Thailand to say he had killed JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago. It ended -- well, sort of ended -- this week with proof that John Mark Karr's bizarre claim was bogus. But not before a full blown media frenzy, despite all the conflicting evidence.


KURTZ (voice-over): On "The Today Show" Rita Cosby interviewed Karr's one-time babysitter, who spoke from the shadows.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: John Mark Karr. He was a very odd man. I don't want to say he was creepy, but he did give off a strange vibe.

KURTZ: "Good Morning America" weighed in with Karr's first wife, who married him when she was 13-years-old.

CHRIS CUOMO, ABC NEWS: You knew your parents weren't happy. You knew they didn't like him. What did he say to you to make you believe in him?

QUIENTANA RAY, EX-WIFE OF JOHN MARK KARR: That he loved me. I believed that he loved me.

KURTZ: For CBS's "Early Show", it was, well, just some woman who happened to be on the plane as Karr was being flown from Bangkok back to the US.

NATASHA FAGEL, PASSENGER ON KARR'S FLIGHT: Yes, I was informed about it when I was checking in. And I became very scared because, to think that a murder suspect was going to be on the same flight as me, you know, freaked me out.

KURTZ (on camera): CNN interviewed the author of "How to Spot a Liar".

FOX News found a woman who has a high school yearbook with Karr's signature.

Many suspected it was a hoax. And, this week they were proven right. CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Prosecutors in the JonBenet Ramsey case say their only suspect, John Mark Karr, will not be charged in her death.

BOB SCHIEFFER, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Well after all the hype, and all the speculation, the DNA just didn't match.


KURTZ: Joining me now in New York, Steve Friedman, vice president of morning broadcasts at CBS News.

And, here in Washington, Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of The Project for Excellence in Journalism, and a former media critic for "The Boston Phoenix" and "The Boston Globe."

Steve Friedman, now that we know this was a hoax and a sham, I'm sure you'll agree that the media coverage was totally out of control.


It used to be, in the old days, Howie, when we started out, there was the beginning, middle, and end to the news cycle. Now, there's just a beginning. So, you have to start and keep going until the story plays out.

You have the 24 cables -- you have the 24 hour cables -- you have the Internet. And all of our reports and many other people's reports, even the much-maligned cable networks, took a -- took a scant eye at this fellow from the beginning. Dan Abrams -- Dan Abrams even said, "I don't know about this."

KURTZ: Yes he did. But, let's look at the volume of the coverage. I mean, based on nothing more than the word of a wacko, this was the lead story many days on the morning shows, a couple nights on the evening newscasts, hours and hours on cable. How could that be justified?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you justify -- well, first of all -- we over- cover everything. I mean, you know, when a story breaks we're always on it, we're always on it. That's the nature of the beast right now.

But, here was a ten year old case. And, Americans, and everybody else likes closure. It's everyone's nightmare: a girl taken out of her bed and killed. So, you know, there's a lot of interest in this case.

As, I always tell you when I come on Howie, television's the greatest democracy in the world. People vote with their clickers. And they watch this stuff. And, we present what we know when we know it.

KURTZ: Mark Jurkowitz, what accounts for television allowing itself to be hijacked by this story? MARK JURKOWITZ, ASSOCIATED DIRECTOR, PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM: Because I think there was the possibility that being one of these ongoing sagas that television loves so much. I mean, frankly, it's a staple of cable news, although the networks gave this tremendous coverage, as well.

KURTZ: Yes, they did.

JURKOWITZ: Tremendous coverage. It was the biggest story of the week that it really broke on. So, both the serious and non-serious media treated this very, very seriously.

Yes, there was some skepticism over this story. How could there not be? The average man on the street had serious qualms about it. On the other hand, there was a very intense -- I mean, everybody in America now knows which three drinks he had on the plane flight back from Thailand.

KURTZ: It was pretty intense.

Steve Friedman, I want to play for you some comments by CBS correspondent Erin Moriarty in the first days when this story broke on your own "Early Show".


ERIN MORIARTY, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: And we have to say at this point -- I think we have to stop speculating. Everyone is asking me for my gut on this. So is this John Karr the killer or not? And, I'm saying forget the gut. Gut is what caused this investigation to go awry in the first place. Let's wait until there's enough evidence to decide guilt or innocence.


KURTZ: Sounds like good advice to me but...

FRIEDMAN: Well, it's good advice. And it was on our show very early on.

But you've got to understand that the public every morning -- as far as early television -- woke up and said, "I wonder if there are any developments in the JonBenet case." And, our job is to present people what they're talking about. And so when they leave they know what's happening.

I will tell you this. You can make a case that we over-cover the Mid-East War. I mean, it was wall to wall, the same story over and over again. There was too much speculation...

KURTZ: Are you seriously comparing the global impact of the war between Israel and Hezbollah and a false lead in a 10-year-old murder case?

FRIEDMAN: No, but the same aspect of the story is, you've got to cover it as it happens, as it unfolds. I mean you saw on cable every movement of every little troop of the Mid-East War. Not -- and they weren't even able to tell you where they were. There is excess in television. There's no question about it.

But you know what? The idea that we can stop and just stop on a story and just say, "Oh, we're not going to do it anymore" before we know the outcome is naive, and it's not in this world of television these days.

KURTZ: Was it...

JURKOWITZ: I'm not sure...

KURTZ: Go ahead.

JURKOWITZ: I'm not sure the outcome is relevant. I think the bigger question is -- let's take it back another step. Let's say he was guilty. I think there's still a fundamental issue about whether the story was dramatically over-covered and what the definition of news is.

KURTZ: Well, Steve mentions the Middle East War.


KURTZ: And there's also been Iraq. And there was the British terror plot. In some way -- even though this is a very sad murder case -- was this kind of a respite from that heavy news diet?

JURKOWITZ: I completely agree with you. First of all, we've had big geopolitical events that are beyond our control. Nuclear deadline with Iran, the Iraq casualties, and then an intense war between Israel and Hezbollah, very dangerous. We got saturation coverage of. That conveniently for the news cycle may be kind of wound down just as JonBenet was breaking.

I don't want to use the term relief when it's such a gruesome case. But, I think there was a sort of a sense of return to normalcy. The kind of thing that when we turned on our cable and our television and saw people debating innocence or guilt. I think on some level everybody takes a sigh of relief and says, "Our world is back to normal."

Remember, September 10, 2001, biggest story in America, Gary Condit.

KURTZ: And Chandra Levy, yes.

Steve Friedman, I understand what you're saying. You know, people vote with their clickers. And morning television has to try to get people in the tent. Is there bit of a pack mentality here?

In other words, let's say that after a couple of days you decided that "The Early Show" had done enough on this and let's wait for some real developments. But, you see on your monitor that "Today" is doing it and "Good Morning America" is doing it. And is it difficult to get off the obsession du jour? FRIEDMAN: Well, I think it is difficult to get off it.

Let's talk about unsolved mysteries. A movie coming out soon about the Black Dahlia. That happened 60 years ago in Los Angeles, a gruesome murder. People want to know what happened.

There's "Hollywoodland" coming out about George Reeves' suicide, who played Superman.

As long as a story -- a murder -- is unsolved, people do want closure. And, again, I go back to the idea that, my God, this girl was taken from her bedroom on Christmas Eve in a rich area. If she's not safe, who is?

KURTZ: But unfortunately, Mark Jurkowitz, there are thousands of murders in this country every year, including murders of kids. It always seems that television obsesses on the pretty, white, young, middle-class girls or women.

JURKOWITZ: Well, that's been an issue and obviously -- maybe the Elizabeth Smart case in Utah was the biggest single case. In this case, the JonBenet Ramsey case was even a little more strange, because she was this young, 6-year-old beauty queen. We've all seen sort of he video...

KURTZ: Endlessly, endlessly.

JURKOWITZ: And I think frankly, on some level, that gave that story kind of a sheen of respectability, because there was the other social angle about are we adultizing (sic) our children, basically.

KURTZ: Right. Now, just as the John Mark Karr story finally started to fade late this week, along comes another story. Warren Jeffs, leader of a polygamist sect. He's arrested, charged with arranging the marriages of underage girls, a charge called rape by accomplice. And, let's take a brief look at some of the coverage.


GIBSON: Nevada police arrested Warren Steed Jeffs last night.

WILLIAMS: A notorious Utah polygamist who's been on the run.

LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: Warren Jeffs is in custody.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "ON THE RECORD": Polygamist Warren Jeffs is a church leader with 10,000 followers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What will happen to Warren Jeffs' some 40 wives?

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC ANCHOR: Warren Jeffs sounds like a creep to me.


KURTZ: Steve Friedman, is this the new JonBenet story?

FRIEDMAN: Not really. But you know, Howie, he was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. And, when they get a Ten Most Wanted arrest, you know, we do cover it.

But he will not have the long range implications of JonBenet, because it's now in the courts and will go away. You'll see the ex- wives or former wives or people from polygamy sects on here and there. But it will -- certainly on our show did not get the coverage that JonBenet did.

KURTZ: I see a lot of ex-wives, and it seems like news organizations using this as a jumping off point to talk about, you know, the strange subculture of polygamy and all that.

JURKOWITZ: I agree. But I also agree with Steve. I don't think this one is going to have the legs.

KURTZ: But in the past few days it has gotten a lot of airtime.

JURKOWITZ: It's a big -- it's a big story. And I disagree for a different reason. I think this is a little too far outside the mainstream.

If he's right, than everybody can sort of theorize about their little girl being abducted or something like that. I'm not sure people can theorize about this -- and imagine this lifestyle in a way that's going to bond them to the story.

KURTZ: On the other hand, there is an HBO drama about polygamy. So, we'll leave it there.

Mark Jurkowitz, Steve Friedman in New York, thanks, as always, for joining us. We appreciate it.

Coming up, another secret source in the Valerie Plame scandal is revealed.

And a new smell in the air at "The New York Times". "Media Minute" coming up next.


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

"The New York Times" ran a lengthy front page story this week on the foiled British plot to blow up several airplanes, but initially kept the piece off its web site because of concern that it could run afoul of British secrecy laws involving pending criminal cases.

Hours later the "Times" came up with a novel solution, posting the story online but blocking access to computers in Britain.

The last secret source in the outing of Valerie Plame has finally been revealed. In a new book called "Hubris", "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff and "The Nation's" David Corn fingered the former administration official who told columnist Robert Novak that the wife of White House critic Joe Wilson was a CIA operative, triggering a lengthy leak investigation.

The source: Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell. On "Meet the Press" Novak was not confirming the report, but he did say it was time for the source to come forward.


ROBERT NOVAK, NEWS COMMENTATOR/COLUMNIST: I told Mr. Isikoff, the investigator -- he's a very good investigative reporter, by the way -- but I had told him that I do not identify my sources on any subject if they're on a confidential basis until they identify themselves.


KURTZ: The book also says that Armitage provided information on Plame to the "Washington Post's" Bob Woodward, who declined to comment in his newspaper.

Finally, we had to sniff this one out for you. Perhaps only "The New York Times" would create the pungent job of perfume columnist. Chandler Burr will write a periodic column for "T", the paper's style magazine, reviewing, yes, fragrances.


CHANDLER BURR, "NEW YORK TIMES": This smells like the dark in a Rubens painting, the old Dutch master, those beautiful blacks that when you look at them, they're actually opalescent and full of color and rich and warm. And that's what this does. It's sort of a very light, a little dark.


KURTZ: And if that carries a whiff of elitism, well, high-end advertisers will undoubtedly want to ensure that "Times" readers smell good. What a job.

Coming up in the second half hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, they're used to firing at each other from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Now they're joining forces online. We'll talk to Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart and former Bush media advisor Mark McKinnon about their new web site.

And later, former Nixon White House staffer John Dean has some harsh words for the conservative media.

Plus Katie Couric provides a sneak peek by appearing on the "CBS Evening News".

All of that and more after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN center in Atlanta.


RANDI KAYE, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Randi Kaye at the CNN center in Atlanta. Here's what's happening now in the news.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won't end his country's uranium enrichment program without further negotiation. That's the word from U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who met with the president today. During Annan's two-day visit in Tehran, Iran announced a fall conference to question what it calls Holocaust exaggerations. Annan responded by stating the Holocaust was an undeniable, historical fact.

In custody this morning, al Qaeda's No. 2 man in Iraq. Iraqi officials say Hamed Jumaa Farid al-Saeedi was arrested Friday. Al- Saeedi is said to be the mastermind behind the February bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samara.

Ernesto, well, he's about to become just a memory, leaving behind power outages, flooding, downed trees and -- get this -- a boost to New Jersey's casinos. Nasty weather outside kept people inside at the gaming tables.

And what's now Tropical Storm John continues to pound Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The Hurricane Center warns that life-threatening flash floods and mudslides are possible.

More top stories in 30 minutes. RELIABLE SOURCES continues right after this break.



Democratic and Republican strategists love to pound each other, especially in election years, and we in the media are usually all too happy to help.

But some of the most prominent players of 2004, including Mark McKinnon, President Bush's media consultant and still an informal advisor, and Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton White House spokesman, have called a rare political cease-fire. They're launching a bipartisan web site called

When I sat down with them recently to talk about this, we began with a reminder of their combat two years ago, when Lockhart was a strategist for John Kerry's campaign.


JOE LOCKHART, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: The president's arrogance here is breathtaking.

And I think that this is just another in the pattern of a president who just can't tell the truth.


KURTZ: Then we reminded McKinnon of the attack ads he had produced against Lockhart's candidate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry and his liberal allies, are they a risk we can afford to take today?

John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.


KURTZ: Which prompted this question: they usually beat each other's brains in, and now they're business partners?


LOCKHART: Well, we are business partners. We are working together on this.

I mean, the partisan back and forth has a place in politics, but I think Mark and I both agree that it's gotten out of control. The public is now completely disconnected from the process. The 30-second ads, people aren't watching them. They've tuned out.

You know, what we hope to do here is something much broader here with, as far as allowing people to network and share ideas about politics, business and a lot of other things. But one of the side effects of that, if it works, is it might get politicians to start acting differently if the public has a way of showing them they care about other things.

KURTZ: You agree that politics has gotten out of control?

MARK MCKINNON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think that there's a huge audience, out there, Howie, that a network of people outside of Washington that are having conversations, but don't feel like they're part of the conversation in Washington.

And so we're providing a platform for people to -- to engage in a conversation that they're already having out there. We're not trying to replace anything that's happening right now. We're just trying to add that dialogue to the dialogue that's going on in Washington.

KURTZ: I can see people at home saying, "Wait a minute, if the political culture has gotten polarized and if it's gotten too nasty and negative and this is out of control, as you put it, who's to blame for that?" Both of you have been involved in a lot of campaigns.

LOCKHART: I think there's -- I think everyone involved takes a share of the blame. The consultants, the candidates, the media and the public in some way for, you know -- for not engaging and not demanding more.

Again, the political system has a way of fixing itself. That's not necessarily what we're trying to do with this idea. What we're trying to do is take what we've seen as the power in other areas, in social networking, and allow people who are having conversations, but are very limited because, you know, we've gotten to be a very small world, a very small country. The Internet now allows people from one coast to the other coast to talk to each other, based on their ideas and their interests.

KURTZ: You're not giving up your day jobs. You'll still going to be very much involved in the political game.

MCKINNON: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KURTZ: And yet at the same time, you're creating this web site that you say should elevate the dialogue. There's no...

MCKINNON: It's creating another dialogue, because it's evolutionary. People -- our jobs over time have been to monitor and try and understand the public mood and the public market, and the public wants a different dialogue. And so we're going to try and provide that.

KURTZ: Now, there are a lot of web sites out there, from "National Review" and Powerline on the right to Daily Kos and Huffington Post on the left. And one of the things that people like about those sites is they attract partisans who fervently believe in the view expressed by the blogger. So how do you get people to come to a bipartisan site?

MCKINNON: Well, there's 90 percent of people out there that don't feel comfortable either on that far left or far right. And they say, "Where's my conversation? Where can I go?"

KURTZ: So people feel shut out...

MCKINNON: Yes, I think they do.

KURTZ: ... by the state of political discussion in this country today?

MCKINNON: I think there's lots of people with partisan points of view that have an outlet. People who are not so partisan don't have an outlet.

LOCKHART: It's not just -- it's not just ideology.

MCKINNON: It's not just politics, either.

LOCKHART: Yes. Bloggers will have an important role to play. We're not challenging them. There's people who have very well-formed opinions, and they like to argue and they like to express that.

There are people who, you know, are making up their mind and want to talk about it. And it's not necessarily the right form. But it's also the subjects we pick to discuss. We're very narrow here in Washington and, you know, and sort of the blogging elite and the media elite.

KURTZ: People inside the beltway? LOCKHART: Yes, inside the beltway. People outside the beltway have a whole different -- areas of concern. There are issues they want to discuss. And, you know, I think first and foremost they want to discuss those things.

Secondly, I think they want to be heard, and I think if this is done right they'll be able to do both of those.

KURTZ: So if you put your opinions on the site and you have some essay on the site and then people responding will respond. There's going to be commenting back and forth and interactivity and all that. How do you prevent HotSoup from getting hotter than you want? In other words, people out there who do have passionate feelings.

MCKINNON: We hope it's hot. We want it to be interesting. By the way, it's going to be about a lot more than politics. It's going to be about culture and religion and entertainment. So it's going to be a very broad-based discussion.

And -- but we're going to have some rules and we're going to have some moderation.

KURTZ: Rules that say there are certain things you can't say?

MCKINNON: If you start swearing at people you're out.

KURTZ: That would never happen in the back room of a political consulting firm. Right?

LOCKHART: But I think the bottom line here is it's not going to be about what Mark and I decide.

MCKINNON: That's right.

LOCKHART: It's going to be about what the community decides. If you look at the social networking sites right now and even look at some place like eBay, the community decides what -- what gets discussed, what gets bought, what gets put forth, what the rules are.

MCKINNON: I don't think people want to hear from us. They don't.

KURTZ: You have to have a community. You have to get people to come to a site that they've never heard of.

MCKINNON: We're going to have...

KURTZ: That's going to be a difficult thing to do.

MCKINNON: We're going to have a great site. It's going to be the Disneyland of public policy sites. There's going to be so much there to do and so much fun, people are going to come in droves.

KURTZ: It's going to be that entertaining?

MCKINNON: It's going to be spectacular. KURTZ: Well, you're a good salesman.


KURTZ: Now you said earlier, Joe Lockhart, that a lot of people bear responsibility...


KURTZ: ... for the corrosive state of political debate in this country, including the media. You've had to deal with the press in your White House job and your current job. How much responsibility does the media have? Do we basically hold the coats and invite people like you on and get you to fight because we like to watch the action?

LOCKHART: Well, there's certainly a market for people fighting. You know, the media is not a non-profit business, although sometimes they may feel that way. It's -- you know, fighting, partisanship sells. There's no doubt about that.

If -- you know -- if you can get a couple hundred thousand people at any given time to tune in and watch your ads, that will make you money. And there are people who want to watch them.

We think there are 20, 30 million people who are turned off by that and have a lot of things they want to talk about that will go to this place as a way of not only discussing what they think, but learning something about what other people think. And that's what's missing in the political debate. People aren't interested in any learning. They...

KURTZ: Are the media too driven by conflict, based on your experience in both Bush campaigns?

MCKINNON: Listen, I think that's just the nature of the beast. I think the media is all about conflict and always has been and always will be. And we're not trying to change that. We're just trying to create a new forum for people to express and listen to ideas.

KURTZ: But you're offering an alternative, so obviously, you must be somewhat critical of what we have now?

MCKINNON: Well, we don't -- No. No. We accept the fact that there's media out there. We accept the fact that there's conflict. But we also understand there's a huge audience that wants something different.

LOCKHART: There's a great big menu out there for people choose from.

MCKINNON: People will still...

LOCKHART: No one -- if someone goes to HotSoup, that doesn't mean they don't -- say, don't tune in and watch Howie's show. There's a lot of things you and I can talk about (ph)... KURTZ: I like that message. All right. We'll see how hot HotSoup gets. Mark McKinnon and Joe Lockhart. Thanks very much for joining us.


KURTZ: When we come back, Katie Couric on the verge of her "CBS Evening News" debut. We'll take a look at the hype next.


KURTZ: After months of hype, the sort of drumbeat that might accompany a blockbuster movie, Katie Couric's debut on the "CBS Evening News" is just two days away.


KURTZ (voice-over): She actually made her first appearance on Thursday. Interim anchor Bob Schieffer, who has won great praise for rebuilding CBS' credibility after the National Guard document scandal that hastened Dan Rather's retirement, took a little walk-on to the newly-constructed set and introduced Couric to the CBS audience.

SCHIEFFER: I can't give you a tour because it's not quite finished yet, but here is someone who will be a permanent fixture, my friend, Katie Couric.

KATIE COURIC, INCOMING CBS NEWS ANCHOR: Hey, Bob. You know, I can't imagine following in the footsteps of a kinder, more gracious person.

KURTZ: So what's been the media chatter about Couric? The "Wall Street Journal" says she's moving to a more serious wardrobe.

"USA Today" quoted experts as criticizing her makeup.

"Parade" magazine made her cry by asking about her late husband, Jay Monahan.

And "The New York Post" had plenty of fun with this slimmed down photo of Katie which used to look like this until some idiot in the CBS publicity office used digital trickery to put the new anchor on a diet.

Oh, and a few articles have talked about what she plans to put on the newscast, such as a commentary segment called "Free Speech" which will include some essays by Schieffer.

In short, the press has had a grand old time portraying this as a smackdown among Katie and Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson for evening news supremacy.

But in the end, what matters won't be Katie's clothes, her hair, her legs, her new set, her new theme music by the composer for "Titanic", no metaphor intended, or any of the other bells and whistles involved in relaunching a telephone program. What will matter is the journalism, not just by the former "Today Show" star, but by CBS correspondents, as well. What will matter is the story telling, the coverage of the White House and Iraq and New Orleans and all the other subjects that somehow must be stuffed into a half-hour nightly newscast.


KURTZ: If Katie Couric can boost the quality of the third place "CBS Evening News", the audience will follow. If she can't, none the other stuff will matter, except maybe to television writers, who haven't had this much fun in years.

Coming up next, echoes of Watergate? Former Nixon counsel John Dean takes on the White House and the conservative media.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

He was involved in a criminal conspiracy in the White House, then pointed the finger at the president. John Dean told the truth about Watergate, went to jail and now, three decades later, is criticizing another president.

Dean says things are worse now than in the darkest days of the Nixon administration. I recently spoke with him about this and his new book, "Conservatives Without Conscience".


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN HOST: John Dean, welcome.


KURTZ: You worked in the Nixon White House. Now, when you criticize conservatives and commentators on the right, you sound like a die-hard liberal. What accounts for this transformation?

DEAN: Well, I'm -- I'm a registered independent and I'm really not a partisan, Howard. I've just -- I've been there, done that. And what I really am is a partisan for good government.

I see things that are astray, based on my own experience, my knowledge, my study -- I've got to speak out. Sometimes I speak about things others aren't willing to talk about and throw them out there because somebody should do it.

KURTZ: But you've become so harsh in your criticism of the Bush administration, yet you don't see yourself as having moved at all on the political Richter scale?

DEAN: I don't think I've moved at all. I think my views are pretty much where they have been for the last 40 years, but I certainly have seen Republicans in the conservative movement move much further to the right, which would make me somewhere left of center today.

KURTZ: Is the rise of a conservative media establishment a good thing? I mean, when you worked for President Nixon, wouldn't you have liked to have had FOX News and conservative talk radio and all that?

DEAN: I think it's a very good thing. I think it's healthy for the debate. There is some polarizing effect because the extremes on both sides are tending to set the debate -- the tone -- and frame the questions, if you will. But I still think it's healthy that we have an equal balance.

KURTZ: But at the same time, you would probably disagree with some of what -- but I mean particularly those conservative commentators and media outlets that are strongly supporting President Bush; clearly you're not in that camp.

DEAN: Well, I wouldn't -- I wouldn't necessarily say that. I -- you know, I'm always -- I'm one who's anxious to hear what the other side says, and I think what troubles me more is, the right is less interested in hearing what others than their own point of view might be, when I think it's healthy if we all listen to what the other person is saying.

In other words, we just don't -- we don't play to our base or sing to our choirs, that we try to...

KURTZ: You say the right is less interested, but that would not be equally true of committed partisans on the left?

DEAN: It could be. You know what's interesting; in my book what I studied was authoritarianism and brought that up on the table. And that type of personality really doesn't like self-criticism; it doesn't want to hear the other side of an argument. And while that's not the totality of conservatism, it the dominating element of it.

KURTZ: Let's talk about some of the leading conservative commentators, some of whom you mention in your book: Ann Coulter. What is your problem with Ann Coulter?

DEAN: No problem with her; I think she's an entertainer. In fact, I'm looking one forward -- excuse me -- I'm looking forward one day to doing some exchange with her, to really learn a little bit more about her thinking.

KURTZ: People say that she uses very inflammatory and incendiary language.

DEAN: People say -- I think that's quite obvious she does.

KURTZ: Rush Limbaugh.

DEAN: Rush Limbaugh. Don't know him. I can't say I've ever listened to him on the radio. I've seen him on television on a couple of occasions. I -- you know, he's not unlike many authoritarian personalities, that he is very sensitive to criticism. When he had his problem with his addiction... KURTZ: The painkillers.

DEAN: The painkillers, right. He -- he had very harshly attacked people who had the same problem, but yet when the criticism came to him, it just didn't seem fair to him or to his followers that he should be subject to criticism.

KURTZ: But that's what struck me in your book: when you mention Limbaugh, you bring up the fact that he was addicted to painkillers. When you mention Bill Bennett, you brought up the problems he had had with gambling.

DEAN: But in what context? I brought it up in their inconsistent context, how they can dish it but not take it.

KURTZ: But another way of looking at that would be that you were dragging their personal problems into the debate.

DEAN: No. No, I'm -- I'm merely raising it -- and in that particular section of the book, I was raising how typical it is for conservatives to hold inconsistent positions, both personally and philosophically.

KURTZ: You say that the excesses of the Bush administration are worse than Watergate -- the title of your last book. You know what your critics say: you're trying to prove that there's something worse than the criminal administration of which you were a part.

DEAN: No, it really isn't at all. To the contrary, you know, when I first decided to start doing public commentary, it was late in the Clinton administration. If you'll recall, almost every scandal that occurred during the Clinton administration was considered worse than Watergate, whether it be Whitewater, whether it be Vince Foster, whether it be the Lewinsky affair. Whatever it was, it was always dubbed worse than Watergate.

KURTZ: According to conservatives.

DEAN: According to conservatives, and so, when I was asked to speak out, somebody who did know what was happening during Watergate, I tried to put it in perspective. When I saw the secrecy of the Bush administration, it was immediately apparent to me that this was far more secret a president than -- or presidency -- than Nixon's.

KURTZ: But even if that's true, that's not the same thing as a criminal enterprise, which is what the Nixon administration ultimately was.

DEAN: Well, let me tell you the bottom line on why, you know, I've always been comfortable with the title. Nobody died during Watergate as a result of abuse of power. I see people dying today because of abuse of power.

KURTZ: Because of abuse of power or because of the war in Iraq that perhaps you don't agree with? DEAN: Well, I think -- you know, let's go even a little harsher: torture. I can't envision Richard Nixon ever, as somebody who served in World War II, telling the Congress that he would veto an amendment to prohibit torture. I can't imagine Spiro Agnew, in his darkest moment, going up and lobbying for torture. This is worse than Watergate.

KURTZ: Given your fierce criticism of the Bush administration, what do you make...

DEAN: "Fierce" is a little overstatement. Let's say "very candid and blunt analysis."

KURTZ: Well, I would say very strong criticism of the Bush administration and what it stands for. What do you make of the press coverage of this president and this White House? Is it aggressive enough?

DEAN: You know, one of the reasons I wrote the first book -- and indeed one of the reasons I'm raising the subject on -- about authoritarianism in my second book -- is because these are things that the mainstream media aren't talking about.

They didn't talk about secrecy, Howie. As you know, for years it went on, and there was no mention, really, in the mainstream media about how secretive this presidency was. I...

KURTZ: No mention?

DEAN: Well, passing mention, but it wasn't a focus. I was talking to people in the press corps, in your city here, and saying, "Why aren't you talking about the secrecy of this presidency?"

And they'd say, "Well, we find this a pretty tough White House." And long story/short story, I was told by many journalists that, you know, this is the most effective presidency they've ever run into, as far as stiffing them if they misbehave. They cut them off...

KURTZ: And did that change, in terms of journalists making an issue of this?

DEAN: No, what happened is, as Bush's poll numbers went down, the media began talking more and more about his secrecy.

KURTZ: And you see a relationship there?

DEAN: I do.

KURTZ: The less popular a president, more aggressive press.

DEAN: Right.


KURTZ: My interview with John Dean. 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.