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Reliable Sources

Media's Coverage of Negative Ads; Did Media Overplay Kerry's Comments?

Aired November 05, 2006 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Trivial pursuit. As the midterm elections careen toward the finish line, how did the media wind up spending so much time on sex, sleaze and smarmy attacks? Are journalists following candidates down the low road or rewarding them?

Kerry's sorry moment. Did news organizations make too much of the senator's insulting joke, or did Kerry keep the story alive by stubbornly refusing to apologize?

Madam Speaker? The press discovers Nancy Pelosi. Is the San Francisco congresswoman getting an easy ride.

Plus, America's hottest newspaper and why it gets no respect.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on coverage of the battle for Congress.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

We'll got to the guilty verdict in the Saddam Hussein trial a bit later in the program.

But first, two days to go before Election Day, and there has been no shortage of serious concerns in this midterm contest. The Iraq war most urgently topping the list. So why has so much media attention been lavished on the personal charges, distorted attack ads, meaningless controversies, and plain old sleaze that have spread through many of these campaigns like a virus?

Let's take a look.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: We turn now to politics, to this increasingly bitter campaign season with just 11 days to go now, and it's getting even uglier out there.

KURTZ (voice over): And the ugliness comes up in one race after another. Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell addressing his opponent Ted Strickland. KEN BLACKWELL (R), OHIO GOV. CANDIDATE: When you had an opportunity to stand up, you sat down and got a standing ovation from the North American Man/Boy Love Association.

KURTZ: Wyoming Congresswoman Barbara Cubin told a wheelchair- bound opponent after a debate, "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you across the face."

Virginia senator George Allen had his "Macaca' moment...

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), VIRGINIA: Let's give a welcome to Macaca here.

KURTZ: ... and faced questions about his family background.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews, and if so at which point Jewish identity might have ended?

KURTZ: Allen's campaign gave the "Drudge Report" samples of Democrat Jim Webb's fiction.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Steamy details and other controversial details. It's 5:00 p.m. in Virginia, where some novel sex scenes are heating up an already very nasty Senate race.


KURTZ: And then there are the negative ads, many of them involving sex.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The phone number to an adult fantasy hotline appeared on Michael Arcuri's New York City hotel room while he was there on official business.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right, instead of spending money on cancer research, Ron Kind voted to spend your money to study the sex lives of Vietnamese prostitutes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I met Harold at the Playboy party.

Harold, call me.


KURTZ: So are the media encouraging this sort of thing?

Joining us now to talk about that and the rest of the campaign coverage, here in Washington, Jill Zuckman, national correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune"; David Folkenflik, media correspondent for National Public Radio. And two White House correspondents here in the studio, CNN's Ed Henry, and in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is spending part of the weekend, Jim Axelrod of CBS News.

Jim Axelrod, I'm not letting the candidates off the hook here, but the media gobble up these attacks about sex and sleaze more than, let's say, comparing the candidates' positions on healthcare.

JIM AXELROD, CBS NEWS: Well, you just gave five or six examples right off the top of what the candidates are doing, and let's not forget the first basic rule here. We are covering what's out there.

Now, Howard, in this Internet age there's no shortage of places to go if you want to read position papers or hear what candidate are holding forth about the economy, education, the environment, anything like that. But our job, especially in the last four or five days, is to take everything that's coming in and crystallize it through a filter of what is popping, what seems to be the most of -- I guess, what you'd call man biting dog, what's out of the ordinary.

Look, do you really think in America that there are more than a handful of people who -- take the Arcuri ad in New York -- are thinking that this guy was actually calling a phone sex hotline, or, as the actual story was, the digit that the guy was trying -- his campaign staff was trying to reach was one digit off of this number?

KURTZ: Well, my problem -- and let me turn to David Folkenflik -- is that we play those ads and we don't always explain why, how this is distorted, exaggerated or simply false. That anti-Harold Ford ad with the woman playing the Playboy bunny has been played thousands of times on television. So we're doing the campaign's dirty work for them.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR: Well, I was watching that parade of horrors here, and I was wondering if we had switched inadvertently to Comedy Central for a little bit there. I mea, it's an extraordinary array of things.

I think part of what you're seeing in some ways is the closeness of this election feeds the candidate themselves. Instead of simply surrogates on people they don't control, the candidates themselves are leveling extraordinary accusations. The sex line thing is completely misleading, and there are a series of other things like that.

It's not enough simply to say that there are position papers available elsewhere. Mainstream media also has its obligation, and in many cases also doing the sort of basic gut check reporting on policy and other implications there.

KURTZ: Ed Henry, these politicians are Ph.D. students when it comes to knowing how to get media attention. They know that journalists will go for these personal attacks every time.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And obviously negative ads work.

We've seen many studies of that, and that's why people go negative. And I think that gives it -- us more of a premium.

We have to take the extra step to make sure we're covering that as part of the story, but we're going beyond that. And one thing we did last week on CNN that was not mentioned there is we devoted one full hour in prime time, not at 2:00 in the morning, but in prime time, on Iraq, Iraq only. Not on negative ads, but on the central issue of this campaign.

So, sure, we also covered the negative ads, but also, you know, you have to make room for the spinach.

JILL ZUCKMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": You know, the fact is the campaigns are trying to manipulate the media. It costs them money to put an ad on television, but if they put something really sensational on briefly, that's so sensational, then they know that the press is going to then play it over and over again or talk about it.

KURTZ: A quick media question for you, Jill Zuckman. This morning's "Washington Post," here's the banner headline: "Democrats on the Offensive, Could Gain Both Houses".

Has the media coverage just been tilting too much toward predicting a Democratic victory?

ZUCKMAN: Well, I think that headline is, like, one of the worst I've seen in a long time. And I feel badly for the people who wrote the story, because I don't think they wrote that headline, and I don't think they would have signed off on something like that. Because it goes way too far and, honestly, we don't really know what will's going to happen on Election Day.

We have an idea, but -- but to say that the Senate is -- you know, the Senate is a lot less at risk than the House is right now.

KURTZ: We don't really know. Nobody ever says that on television.

Jim Axelrod, let's -- as an example, look at the Virginia Senate race. We had George Allen with the "Macaca" controversy, we had him being asked about his Jewish mother. Then the Allen campaign wants to make an issue about Jim Webb's steamy novels, so they give some excerpts to the "Drudge Report" and the story ends up on the front page of "The Washington Post" and on the "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News".

Your thoughts?

AXELROD: Well, it just -- I mean, it seems to me, again, what we're talking about here is what the candidates are putting out there, and then the media ends up looking sort of sucked in or manipulated.

But Howard, I guess the point I really want to make about all this -- and the Allen-Webb race fits in like any of these other examples that we're giving -- if you come to the CBS Web page, for instance, yes, you can see a story on the "Macaca" moment, but there's also going to be links to all kind of other places.

This is not two, four, six years ago in terms of what the media does to cover these things. And that has changed everything.

KURTZ: Yes, but your biggest -- your biggest forum -- your biggest forum, Jim Axelrod, is the two-minute report that you get on the "CBS Evening News". And I'm not saying there haven't been coverage of issues, of course there has.

AXELROD: Yes, I mean...

KURTZ: But there's been a lot of this silly stuff.

AXELROD: Look at our lineups, first of all, over the past several weeks and months. And I don't think there's been any shortage of substance in races. But when you get to the end of it and Allen and Webb are throwing these charges out, are we supposed to then ignore all of that and say, yes, but let's spend the next two minutes to look at what each one of them wants to do with college tuitions? I don't think that that necessarily serves our viewers either.

KURTZ: Does this sort of coverage turn viewers off to politics and to the way we cover politics, or do they love it?

FOLKENFLIK: People always say they hate negative campaigns. People always say they hate negative ads.

I have got to tell you, I don't think that campaigns and parties would spend the I think over $2 billion in television campaign ads this year, a heavy portion of it being very negative -- I don't think they'd do that if they thought it was very ineffective. They want to turn off the people who might vote for the opponent, and they want to turn on the people they think will vote for their guy.

KURTZ: Right. Now, a story that dominated the campaign coverage for about 72 hours this week was John Kerry's joke which he said that he botched about the troops. And Kerry refused to apologize. He got hammered by the White House, and then he went on the "Imus in the Morning" show.

Let's watch a little bit of that.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Good morning, Don Imus. How are you?

DON IMUS, "IMUS THE MORNING": Please, stop it. Stop talking. Go home. Get on the bike, go windsurfing, anything.

Stop it. You're going to ruin this.


KURTZ: Ed Henry, was that an important moment in that flap? And was it an important story?

HENRY: It was, because in that flap Don Imus was saying what we were hearing in our reporting a lot of Democrats saying, get this guy off the stage. And John Kerry's camp doesn't like to hear that.

But that was one of the things behind this, which was that John Kerry was inserting himself here because he wants to run for president in '08. And the fact is, he still regrets not pushing back against the White House enough in 2004, and the Democrats were, like, well, you had your opportunity, you missed it. Get off the stage now because you're distracting from the campaign.

The White House loved this story because it enabled the president to fight on his terms. Terms that he won in 2004. He beat Kerry, and he loved having Kerry as an opponent all over again.

KURTZ: I think Kerry was suffering from what I call post- traumatic swiftboat syndrome.

Jill Zuckman, you have covered him over the years.


KURTZ: You covered his campaign in '04.

Did the media make way too much of this admittedly offensive but obviously misdirected joke, or did Kerry himself keep this story alive by refusing to apologize for two days?

ZUCKMAN: I mean, this is the golden rule of politics and journalism. If you make a mistake, you've got to apologize immediately, otherwise you just damage yourself worse and you let it hang out there, hang out there, hang out there. And so the coverage ended up being more about his refusal to acknowledge what a stupid thing he had said, or to really go far enough and apologize.

KURTZ: Jim Axelrod, I want to play a part of your report on this controversy from the "CBS Evening News".

Let's take a quick look at that.


AXELROD: The Republican campaign official told CBS News -- quoting here -- "John Kerry has given what Democrats have had for months, an evil bogeyman. We spent $200 million last time getting people to hate John Kerry. Now we just have to tap right back into that."


KURTZ: Now, that's accurate, but why give a free shot to an unnamed Republican campaign official when there were so many Republicans more than willing to go on the record in blasting John Kerry?

AXELROD: Well, at that point, when we were getting our report together, the person I talked to who had, it seemed to me, as good a read on anything else was saying something that I think gave the widest view to sort of a feeling out there in the most stark terms. And I wasn't getting people on the record using that kind of language.

But Howie, I think the story here when you posed it at the top was, was this the White House manipulating the situation or Kerry making a mistake? I'm not sure it's either/or at end of the day. I just think that -- I mean, clearly, if you look at the transcript, John Kerry was in the middle of a series of one-liners about the president. The White House took it and ran with it. But it is amazing to me just how quickly this thing died once Kerry apologized, and I know that Democrats wished he would have just made that apology much earlier.

KURTZ: David Folkenflik, once Kerry came out with that joke and said that if you were smart and got a good education you wouldn't get stuck in Iraq, clearly that was going to be something that news organizations were going to just jump on.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. I mean, he -- if he delivered it as the text he released it later on suggested, it would have been a jibe at Bush.

KURTZ: So he departed from the script. That was his problem.

FOLKENFLIK: He departed from the script. He wasn't scripted.

I will say I think it's possible for it to be something that is genuinely a political flap and also possible to be something that's over-covered.

HENRY: But it's also...

FOLKENFLIK: I mean, the fact that -- I don't think any voters are going to be going to the poll Tuesday with this as their primary motivation. John Kerry is not even on he ballot this year.

HENRY: But it's also important to hold the White House's feet to the fire here because Tony Snow was at the White House podium saying, "We're not fanning the flames here."

And, you know, as Jim Axelrod was pointing out, the Republicans, the White House starting it we're more than happen to fan the flames here. So certainly there were self-inflicted wounds. Tony Snow was right, John Kerry kept this story alive, but the White House was happily fanning these flames.

KURTZ: Absolutely.

Let me get a break here.

When we come back, Iraq, the Saddam verdict and the midterm elections. We'll look at the impact.

And later on CNN, Wolf Blitzer interviews White House Press Secretary Tony Snow on a special "LATE EDITION," "America Votes 2006". That's 11:00 a.m. Eastern, and a second edition at 5:00 p.m.

And at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, John Roberts hosts a special "This Week at War: The Iraq Effect" from Baghdad.


KURTZ: Welcome back. The cable networks went into breaking news mode a few hours ago, middle of the night, as the verdict was finally hand down in the Saddam Hussein trial. Iraq's high tribunal sentenced Hussein and two others defendants to death by hanging for crimes against humanity. Hussein will get an automatic appeal in the case, a case which stemmed from charges of brutality during a 1982 crackdown against Shiites in an Iraqi town.

David Folkenflik, will this be a huge story by tomorrow, or will it quickly fade because it was so widely expected?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's a pretty interesting moment that this has occurred. I think it's an important story.

It doesn't seem to me as a story that blocks out the landscape. I mean, surprisingly to me, the scandal with the evangelical leader out in Colorado I think will receive much more coverage than the sentencing to death of Saddam Hussein. I don't think too many people would have thought that he'd have any other verdict handed to him or any other sentence, but it is still an important story and worthy of a lot of coverage.

KURTZ: Jim Axelrod, Iraq has basically been the increasingly loud backdrop for this whole midterm election campaign. I want to play for you something that Rush Limbaugh said during his interview this week with President Bush on the subject of Iraq.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW": To a man and woman they are shocked, they say, when they get back here, turn on the news, and look at the reporting of how things are going. They think there are tremendous successes that have taken place in Iraq.


KURTZ: He's talking there about soldiers returning from Iraq watching the news coverage and feeling like it is distorted. We've heard a lot of this from the administration.

What's your take?

AXELROD: Well, to a man and woman? I'm not sure about that.

I mean, talk to anybody who's been on the ground in Iraq by way of media as well and, you know, you're talking about a situation that I think is incredibly violent and bloody. And I know it would be a convenient way for the administration to frame things to say, wait a minute, there's all kinds of other measures. But what are they?

I mean, I know that in terms of electricity going on, or, you know, getting the educational system or getting the trash picked up in place, are we really seeing that? Believe me, if there were that kind of significant developments in Iraq, I don't think the media has any predisposition about doing good news stories, but I think, clearly, what's driving it -- and what's the number now? Thirteen military deaths in November over a hundred in October.

Clearly, that is the driving development in Iraq. As far as -- what's that, Howard?

KURTZ: Keep going, Jim.

AXELROD: And as far as what's going on with the trial today, I don't think we can -- you know, it's interesting in this immediate media age what's the significance. We're going to find out over the next 24, 48 hours heading into Election Day.

If Baghdad is on fire on Tuesday, clearly that's a development that doesn't help Republicans. And if everything stays calm, then maybe the story does fade away a little bit. But I don't think you can talk about the importance of what's gone on with the Saddam verdict at this point. It's going to be over the next 24 hours it really is going to take some significance.

HENRY: I think what Rush Limbaugh is missing as well is the fact that very senior Republicans like John Warner, a stalwart ally of this administration and the mission in Iraq, came back recently and said it's going sideways. You know, it's not just the media reporting, it's Republicans, senior Republicans going on the ground, not just reporters, and saying, wait a second, this is not working out the way we thought it would.

So, I think it's convenient to just blame it on the media, but let's look at the facts on the ground, not just from reporters, but from Republicans, as well as Democrats.

KURTZ: And I have seen a number of soldiers interviewed in Iraq for the first time openly questioning the mission, openly questioning what they're doing there, are they in the middle of a civil war? So not everybody is blaming the media.

At the same time, the Saddam verdict clearly is at least going to remind people of why President Bush felt the need go in there in the first place.

There was another interview that President Bush did this week. It was with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. Excuse me, it's Vice President Cheney -- they've got so many people out there that for a moment I got confused. Vice President Cheney talking to Stephanopoulos, and raised an interesting point about media questions of another subject.

Let's watch.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: You know, you mentioned the unemployment rate today, 4.4 percent unemployment, exceptionally low. Why don't you think the president is getting more credit for that?

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, you guys don't help. The fact, of course, is that what's news is if there's bad news. And that gets coverage. But the good news that's out there day after day after day doesn't get as much attention.


KURTZ: I'm not buying Cheney's media conspiracy theory, Jill Zuckman, but the announcement of the lowest unemployment rate in five years on Friday got a few sentences on all the networks.


KURTZ: It didn't make the front pages of a lot of papers. So does he have a point that that's been under-covered?

ZUCKMAN: Well, it's not so much the coverage, is that if you look at some of the polling, the public is not feeling it. Public opinion polls show people feel anxiety about the economy, regardless of the low unemployment rate.

I went out to the Philadelphia suburbs, did a story about the economy, and I found a lot of people who felt stressed about it. And it was a factor in their thinking about the election.

So, you know, I'm sure it is frustrating for the administration to feel like they're not getting credit, but it's not just the media. I think it's the public as well.

KURTZ: Jim Axelrod, does Cheney have a point, that the press has not exactly been doing a lot of stories on some relatively good news on the economy in recent months?

AXELROD: Well, to pick up on what Jill's saying, I think implicit in that line of criticism is if the -- if the media, if the liberal media were to just tell everybody how great the economy is, then everybody would feel much better about it. But this is one of these issues where, in a sense, the media isn't as much a part of the communication chain as people and their wallets and their bank accounts. People themselves know how they're doing economically.

Look, the White House would love to be talking more about the economy. There's the unemployment, there's the deficit being cut in half. There's another side to this in terms of the debt and who's really being advantaged, what sector of the population is really being advantaged by all of this. They'd love to have that debate because then they'd be talking about things other than Iraq.

KURTZ: All right. Jim Axelrod in Crawford, David Folkenflik, Ed Henry, Jill Zuckman, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, Comedy Central versus YouTube, and the media's super- secret room where some journalists will be locked up on Election Day.

Our "Media Minute" up next.


KURTZ: Time now for a look at the news business in our "Media Minute". (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Because as you heroes know, my show is all over the YouTube.

KURTZ (voice over): It's no joke having your video run on YouTube is the best free exposure in the world. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been among the most popular draws on the video Web site.

So why did Comedy Central ask YouTube this week to remove its longer clips from the popular site? Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, would much rather have you visit its Web sites to check out footage from "The Daily Show". But that is such a shortsighted view.

You cannot buy the kind of publicity that your network gets from having hundreds of thousands of people watch your stars on YouTube, period. Maybe Comedy Central will eventually get hip enough to figure that out.


KURTZ: And this is not a Comedy Central item. It sounds like something out of a B movie, but it's a key part of this week's election coverage. It's call The Quarantine Room.

In past years, the network exit polls have leaked out early to the Drudge Report, Slate and other Web sites, and the partial figures are often wrong, such as the 2004 surveys that put John Kerry well ahead of President Bush. So, on Tuesday, the networks and the AP will each get to send two people to a windowless room in New York where their cell phones and Blackberrys will be confiscated in an effort to stop these leaks.

By the way, after two decades of Dan, Tom and Peter providing results, this will be the first election night with a new trio of anchors: Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson. But they'll be on only intermittently. The real action will be on cable news.

Coming up in the second half hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, radio talk show host Rachel Maddow and Michael Medved face off on whether the media have made too much of John Kerry's botched joke about the troops and the handling of allegations against a top evangelical leader.

And later, two California journalists on the press and Nancy Pelosi. Are the media giving an easy ride to the woman who might become House speaker?

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



It was 2004 all over again as journalists and commentators jumped on the war of words between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The Massachusetts senator found himself under fire for an ill-timed joke in which he said you can succeed if you get a good education, and if not...


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: You get stuck in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They don't want to talk about the war in Iraq, and this is the bloodiest month ever.

HANNITY: The war matters. Degrading our troops, insulting them matters. Insulting their intelligence matters.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Senator John Kerry has in essence called out President Bush for not being smart, not studying, and being intellectually lazy. And the president and his minions have replied by demanding Kerry apologize to the troops in Iraq. Kerry called them stupid, and they were too stupid to know he called them stupid.


KURTZ: Joining us now for a new more opinionated look at coverage of the Kerry flap and the 2006 campaign, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Rachel Maddow, host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America. And in Seattle, Michael Medved, host of "The Michael Medved Show" on the Salem Radio Network.

Rachel Maddow, you have to admit this was not a smart move by John Kerry. He doggedly refused to apologize. The White House had a fun time beating him up, and it's a great story for the media.

RACHEL MADDOW, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, he didn't doggedly refuse to apologize. He did apologize on Don Imus's show the next morning on MSNBC, and then he did send out a written apology the next day.

KURTZ: He didn't really apologize on Imus. It wasn't until late in the day, the second day of the controversy that he actually made a full-throated written apology.

MADDOW: Well, you're right. But on "Imus," what he said was, "I'm sorry that I botched that joke."

I mean, the reason that I think they made this into -- they overreached a little bit with trying to make this into a seven-day story was that nobody in the country believes that he was legitimately trying to insult the troops. I mean, it's obvious that he misspoke, and they tried to turn it into a week-long story. I think it's turned into a bit of an embarrassment . I spent the whole week replaying Bush's clip from the White House Correspondents Dinner where he jokes about looking for the weapons of mass destruction while troops are dying looking for them.

KURTZ: If it's obvious that he misspoke, why did this get so much media attention?

MADDOW: Because it was -- they were so desperate to have John Kerry to fight again. It was like, anything that John Kerry -- anything that he would have done that would have been an excuse to put him on TV this week, they would have done anything. They would have done anything. They just wanted to fight him.

KURTZ: Michael Medved, what about Kerry's argument that this was a botched joke, that the press went along with the Republican spin machine, and that everybody knows he didn't intentionally set out to insult the troops in Iraq?

MICHAEL MEDVED, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, if that were the case, then why didn't he apologize immediately? Look, surely he has aides who were around him who heard that, as according to reporters who were there, there were gasps when he said the thing at Pasadena City College.

If he had come on immediately and then said, look, I just heard the tape of my remarks, I was appalled and horrified at the way they came out. I mean no disrespect for the troops at all, no one supports the troops more than I do, this is what I meant to say -- but he didn't say that. He came here to Seattle the next day, and he said, "I apologize to no one," and then he called Bush despicable, he ramped up the rhetoric, he talked again about how Bush and Cheney didn't fight in a war and he did, and he did this huge counterattack.

Kerry made the story, and I think he made the story because he wanted to be the center of attention again. He thought it would help his campaign in 2008 if it was once again, George Bush versus John Kerry. The problem is he lost again.

KURTZ: All right.

Rachel Maddow, the media in recent weeks, recent days have all been but predicting a big Democratic win on Tuesday. I mentioned "The Washington Post" headline this morning, which is, "Democrats on the Offensive, Could Gain Both Houses".

Does this sort of drumbeat fuel the argument of those who think that the liberal media are favoring the Democrats and are kind of rooting for a Democratic victory on Tuesday?

MADDOW: Well, I mean, are all the pollsters rooting for a Democratic victory, too? I mean, at some point it becomes a big story that it looks there's going to be a big turn in the midterms. I mean, the other alternative is to not cover it, or to say we have no idea what's going to happen in the election, but that would be disingenuous.

It does look like there's going to be a big shift. I don't think it's a liberal media bias to say that.

I've been saying on my show for the last three weeks, you know, don't -- if you want a Democratic victory in Congress, don't feel assured by the headlines, don't feel assured by the polls. There's still a lot of work to be done.

So, I'm not sure which is a better message if you wanted to be biased.

KURTZ: Michael Medved, does this reflect the well-known journalistic obsession with polls? In other words, if this was an election in which the Republicans were far ahead in the polls, would we see the same kind of headlines trumpeting a good day for the GOP?

MEDVED: No, we wouldn't, because if you look at the polls, nobody is far ahead. This is a very close election. And for "The New York Times" this morning to have a big headline that says "GOP Glum," glum, as it struggles to hold Congress, look, there has been a turn in the Republican direction in the last few weeks.

Democrats were far ahead. It's now very tight.

Every midterm election, as you and Rachel both know, is about a 40 percent turnout. It will be huge if this is a 50 percent turnout. That means that this turnout question is absolutely crucial.

If Republicans have the normal turnout edge that Republicans do, this election will not necessarily go as it's planned. I think a lot of this is intended almost specifically to suppress GOP turnout.

KURTZ: All right. Well, it seems to be GOP glum is the one possible -- the defensive -- defensible thing here because Republican strategists don't sound that optimistic.

But let me move on to the news of the day. Early this morning, the Saddam verdict, guilty, death by hanging.

Rachel Maddow, is this going to be a huge story over the next 48 hours, or maybe not because everybody was expecting it?

MADDOW: Well, everybody was expecting it. It's no surprise that the verdict came out when it did and that the verdict was what it was.

I do think that the Republicans would like to make this into a positive story about Iraq. They'd love to have some positive spin they can put on the Iraq issue.

I personally feel like it's not a great move for them to try to pump up the story and keep it going. I think that any time the country is talking about Iraq, it's bad for the Republicans. And I think that honestly, anybody who is excited about the prospect of hanging Saddam, still even those people, the next question is, well, does this mean we can come home now? Is this the benchmark that means the troops can come home?

That question is always out there whenever we're talking about Iraq. I don't think there's much good spin to get out of it.

KURTZ: Michael.

MEDVED: Yes, I agree with her actually on this one. I don't think this is going to help Republicans in particular, and I don't think it will help Democrats either, unless there's another huge explosion in Baghdad and a ramping up of violence.

One of the things that's fascinating about this, Howard, it seems to me, that largely George Bush beat John Kerry in 2004 on the idea of somebody who was consistent and straight ahead and didn't change, versus somebody who was a flip-flopper. What is interesting today is this election will help to determine the extent to which the American people still want some consistency, some determination, some resolution on Iraq, or whether they do indeed want to flip-flop. And I think it's possible they may vote for a flip-flop, a change of course, a very dramatic one in Iraq, though we still don't know from the Democrats what it is.

KURTZ: I'll be interested in seeing how many stories there are in tomorrow morning's papers since everybody didn't get it into today's papers because it happened about 2:00 in the morning Eastern.

Let me finally turn to the Reverend Ted Haggard. He, as everyone knows, resigned as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He was ousted yesterday by his Colorado church.

All of this happened because there was a male prostitute named Mike Jones who went on KUSA in Denver and some radio talk shows and alleged that he had a three-year sexual relationship with Reverend Haggard.

Is there anything, Rachel Maddow, about this outing just before the election -- and Jones said he did it deliberately before the election -- that makes you uncomfortable?

MADDOW: No. I'm perfectly comfortable with outing people who are gay in their private lives or who are behaving -- who are having homosexual sex in their private lives but in their public lives are trying to hurt the gay community and gay rights. I'm perfectly OK with that.

It's been a debate in the gay community for a very long time, and that's where I come down on it. I mean, Ted Haggard is the president of an association that claims to represent 30 million people in an organization -- in a country that only has 300 million people. I mean, he claims to represent one in 10 Americans. He's an incredibly close White House ally.

KURTZ: So you think -- hold on. You think it's OK for the media to go along with outing any gay, somebody who chooses to keep their sexuality private, as long as that person takes some sort of anti-gay position in public?

MADDOW: No. I mean, the media reported the allegations from this guy. Ted Haggard then came out and decided that he was going to resign and made the confessions about what it is that he says that he did with this guy.

So, I mean, reporting on the allegations I think is fair game. I mean, the guy's decision to make those allegations, I personally, as a gay person, personally, as somebody who thinks about these politics all of the time, I'm all right with that. I don't think the media did anything wrong by giving him on a platform. He was on a talk radio show in Denver and it all came out.

KURTZ: Michael Medved, Haggard initially denied the allegations, then the next day came out and said, yes, well, I bought some meth from the guy, but I only got a back rub.

So it does look like the story had the virtue of being accurate.

MEDVED: Well, Haggard -- there's a big problem here, which is most Americans, including most Christian Americans, have never heard of Ted Haggard until this particular exposure. And what is questionable to me is the fact that this makes the front pages of newspapers, that it becomes a lead story on TV. Why?

I mean, Ted Haggard...

MADDOW: He's the head of the National Association of Evangelicals. He's got a direct line to the White House.

MEDVED: Yes, but the National Association of Evangelicals -- people who involved in the Christian movement, the NAE is not like a major player. And Ted Haggard isn't a major player.


MEDVED: And the idea that this particular male prostitute did this, he said he did it for political reasons.

MADDOW: Right.

MEDVED: He said he did it to influence the votes in Colorado right before an election. And look, I would have thought that one lesson for the -- from the Clinton administration, and it was a lesson that Republicans and Democrats should have learned, is the whole emphasis on personal life and sexual scandal is really not a great thing for American politics, particularly on the eve of an election, particularly with someone who is not a candidate for office and not even a politician.

KURTZ: All right.

MADDOW: But listen, mass hypocrisy is always a story, Michael. You know that.

MEDVED: It is a story.

KURTZ: I've got to hold it there. Got to hold it there. Obvious disagreement here.

Michael Medved, Rachel Maddow, thanks for livening things up this Sunday morning.

And for the latest political news, check out the CNN political tickers,

Still to come, the press and Pelosi. As journalists lavish attention on the possible new speaker of the House, where is the scrutiny of her record?


KURTZ: One of the clearest indications that the media are bracing for a possible Democratic takeover of the House is all of the journalistic attention being lavished on Nancy Pelosi. From major newspaper pieces, to a "60 Minutes" profile, the House minority leader is getting a big buildup. But is the press taking a hard look at the liberal views of a woman who could become the first female speaker in congressional history?

Joining us now in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the "San Francisco Chronicle". And in Los Angeles, Mark Barabak of the "L.A. Times".

Mark Barabak, why all these Pelosi stories now? The Democrats haven't won anything yet. It sounds like journalists are measuring the drapes for a Democratic House.

MARK Z. BARABAK, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, I think there's curiosity of who she is. I don't think anyone is saying it's a done deal at this point, but I think there's a curiosity, who is this woman, and a pretty good chance that she's going to be the next speaker.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, Denny Hastert not the most exciting guy for journalists to cover. Is the press rooting for Nancy Pelosi to become speaker?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Sure. And I think part of the reason that the press is rooting for Nancy Pelosi is she's the new flavor.

She'd be the first woman speaker. I mean, she looks different. She plays up the shtick of being an Italian grandmother. So, yes, I think there are definitely people in the media who would love to see her win just for the different face.

KURTZ: Just for the record, she is an Italian grandmother.

SAUNDERS: She is an Italian grandmother.

KURTZ: Mark Barabak, you write in a recent piece on Nancy Pelosi that she's a national symbol of liberalism. Republicans would say a symbol of the loony left, but viewed very differently in San Francisco, where she's seen more as a moderate.

What kind of reaction did you get to that piece? BARABAK: Well, I was attacked from the left for being a right- wing, knuckle-dragging, troglodyte homophobe, and I was attacked from the right for being a gay-loving communist. So it was typical.

KURTZ: And Debra Saunders, what do you think of this sort of contrast between Pelosi's media image and the reality of San Francisco, where you live, and how she's viewed in that city?

SAUNDERS: Well, you know, it's sort of funny, because in San Francisco people are just baffled that anybody would think she's very liberal. Now, she is very liberal. She has very liberal positions, she gets very high liberal ratings from all the groups that score that sort of thing. But here, because she's poised and because she soft- pedals many of her liberal positions in order to win the House for the Democrats, people are just baffled.

I think Mark's piece was great about that. They're just baffled that anyone would think that she is a hard-core lefty, which she is.

I mean, we have an interview in "The Chronicle" today where she says that if she is speaker, one of the things she wants to do is to get the Democrats to amend the Iraqi constitution. That's a far-flung position to have, and -- but we haven't seen a lot of that because she's really tried to underplay how hard core her positions are in order to win.

KURTZ: Mark Barabak, were you surprised at the liberal criticism? What is it liberals didn't like about your piece?

BARABAK: Oh, they felt that I was making light of the progressive community, of Speaker Pelosi, and I was sort of buying in as a symbol of the hated and evil mainstream media, that I was kind of buying into the whole right wing agenda by making her look foolish and look silly. I would say, though, I don't think the coverage of Leader Pelosi has been all that flattering.

I mean, I'm not an expert on Nancy Pelosi coverage, although I'm playing one on television. But the stories that I've seen suggest that she's not the best face for the party, point out that she's not campaigning in a lot of swing places, that she's sort of been isolated to a lot of blue states, blue districts. So I don't think it's been altogether flattering.

KURTZ: I want to turn to a "New York Times" story the other day. There's been others like it, about how Republicans are using Pelosi in a number of their ads for congressional candidates.

Let's take a look at two of the ads that are cited in this "Times" story.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Liberal Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi says amnesty is the answer. She'll reward illegal aliens with welfare, food stamps and free education.

How do we stop her?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Speaker Pelosi will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda led by Barney Frank.


KURTZ: Mark Barabak, my problem with this "Times" story, there's not one sentence in here about whether those charges in the ads are true. Does she want to reward illegal aliens with welfare? Is she for the radical homosexual agenda?

I mean, if we repeat these things, don't we have some responsibility to do some fact-checking?

BARABAK: Well, I don't want to criticize a colleague. I'll leave it to them and their editors to decide how to approach the story.

To answer your question...

KURTZ: Well, if you had written the story, would you have -- if you had quoted those ads, which is perfectly legitimate -- would you have made some attempt to tell us what her positions are?

BARABAK: Talk about what her record is? Sure. To put that in some context, I mean, I don't think it will be a shock to anyone watching this program or anywhere in America that they exaggerate when it comes to political ads. But sure, put in some explanation of where she stands on those issues would have not been a bad thing.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, I mentioned the "60 Minutes" profile that ran a couple of weeks ago. Let's take a brief look at that and then I will ask you a question.


LESLIE STAHL, "60 MINUTES": Since she was elected Democratic leader of the House four years ago, she's been happy to push other members of Congress to the microphones to speak for the party, but now she says her time has come.


KURTZ: Most of these profiles have been kind of favorable, I would say, to Nancy Pelosi. This is not exactly the treatment that Newt Gingrich got in 1985, is it?

SAUNDERS: No, it's not the kind of treatment Newt Gingrich got. And again, I think the novelty of Pelosi as the first woman speaker works in her favor. And it was a pretty, you know, sloppy piece, but I think Leslie Stahl was aware. I saw some comments she made afterward that they have all these quotes where Pelosi is calling Bush every name in the book, and then she says but she wants to restore civility to Washington. So I think that, you know, it was a profile about Nancy Pelosi as a person, it wasn't a profile about her politics and her positions.

BARABAK: Well, and Howard, can I interject? Just...


BARABAK: I agree with what Debra said, but, you know, you said the question, that's not the coverage that Newt Gingrich got in 1995. Let's see what kind of coverage Nancy Pelosi gets in 2007.

I mean, we see -- we tend to do this. We introduce people, we write these stories that, again, I don't think they're altogether flattering, but tend to be more favorable, shall we say. Let's wait and see what kind of stories develop next year when and if she is Speaker Pelosi.

I think you might see the tone change at that point and some of coverage get tougher.

KURTZ: Right.

And Stahl did ask her -- did ask Pelosi about some of her harsh criticism of President Bush.

One last California topic for you two journalists.

Three years ago "The Terminator" ran in that recall election. There was huge national coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governor. Right now he appears headed to reelection on Tuesday and there's been very little national coverage. Obviously plenty of coverage in California.

Mark Barabak, what happened?

BARABAK: Well, I think some of the novelty wore off. I think that the recall came -- and it was by itself. I mean, we're in the midst of a hugely important, really interesting midterm election. There's a lot of stuff going.

The recall was the only game in town in 2003, and the fact is it just has not been that interesting of an election. Notwithstanding the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger has come back.


Debra Saunders, just briefly?

SAUNDERS: Well, I mean, we've been covering the tight races. I mean, that's what your -- that's what CNN is covering. And Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like he's going to walk away with this with a very healthy margin. So I think...


KURTZ: But is it also -- is it also true that he is no longer covered as a movie star and is covered more as a governor and a politician?

SAUNDERS: He'll always be both. He'll always be a movie star and a politician. You can't stop that.

BARABAK: And that's why he's running as well as he is, because he stopped being a movie star and he started being a governor.

KURTZ: All right. We'll leave it there.

Mark Barabak in Los Angeles, Debra Saunders in San Francisco, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, which New York newspaper is pummeling the competition? One hint, it's got big, screaming headlines.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: The newspaper business keeps on getting bad news. Papers being sold or slashed as circulation heads south, with new figures this week showing another decline of nearly three percent. But there are exceptions out there. The fifth most popular newspaper in America is now "The New York Post".


KURTZ (voice over): With its typical modesty, the tabloid reported that its new circulation of 704,000, not only pushes it past "The Washington Post," but also its arch rival, "The Daily News". In fact, said it's less than fair and balanced story, "The Daily News" is yesterday's news. The news fired back that it sells more copies in the New York area and that "The Post," which sells for only a quarter, has lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, it's easy to make fun of "The Post". It can be sensational and simplistic. Sometimes irresponsible, and sometimes wrong, such as when it reported that John Kerry had chosen Dick Gephardt as his running mate.

Owner Rupert Murdoch has used its pages to play political favorites over the years. He made Ed Koch mayor with an endorsement in the '70s and boosted Rudy Giuliani in the '90s. And the paper was relentless in attacking Bill and Hillary Clinton during their White House years. But now that Murdoch has mended fences and attended a fund-raiser for Hillary, the senator gets a lot more respectful treatment in "The Post".

The paper's strengths are feisty local coverage, root for the home team sports pages, pugnacious columnists, and, of course, the gossip of fame known as "Page Six," whose items can be delicious even if they're not always on target. By contrast, the "Los Angeles Times," a big, fat, serious newspaper that covers the world and has won a slew of Pulitzers, can be a little on the dull side. "The Times" circulation dropped eight percent and the parent Tribune Company recently fired the publisher for refusing to order more layoffs.


KURTZ: Now, I wouldn't want to see other metropolitan dailies imitate the tantalizing tabloid, except in this one respect: "The Post" is fun to read. Too many papers are cautious and timid and feel like homework.

So here's a tip of the hat to "The New York Post," until the next time we criticize you for doing something outrageous.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.