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Reliable Sources

Astronaut Love Triangle: Compelling Journalism or Tabloid Exploitation?; Coverage of Obama's Presidential Bid; Russert on the Stand

Aired February 11, 2007 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Blast off. The astronaut love triangle soars into the media stratosphere. And the death of Anna Nicole Smith isn't far behind.

Compelling journalism or tabloid exploitation?

Obama in the ring. Why are reporters now asking, is he black enough?

Russert on the stand. The "Meet the Press" host finding the tables turned at the Scooter Libby trial.

Plus, cyber wars. John Edwards says he's offended by the writing of two liberal bloggers but keeps them on his campaign payroll.


KURTZ: Let me be up front, we had planned to lead off this program with coverage of the presidential campaign and the Iraq debate, and we will get to that. But by mid week I started reading about the "Astronut" and the "Hussy for Houston." And it was clear that this love triangle among the outer space set had gripped the media imagination, which you already know if you own a television set.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The bizarre story that sounds like something out of a soap opera.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: The bizarre and seemingly sad story of an acclaimed astronaut who has been charged with attempted murder.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: The episode has prompted soul searching at the space agency and a media frenzy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How could such an accomplished woman who last summer was in space just lose it, just snap like that?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: This is unprecedented. An active astronaut facing felony charges, much less attempted murder.

NANCY GRACE, CNN HEADLINE NEWS: Tonight, the right stuff? No way.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Should we be doubting the psychological screening at NASA?

GLEN BECK, CNN HEADLINES NEWS: Apparently reentry into life in this planet has been a little tricky for her.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're headed to find your boyfriend's girlfriend and you're wearing a diaper, he's just not that into you.


KURTZ: Joining us now to examine this, as well as some more earthly controversies, Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. In Washington, Katty Kay, Washington correspondent for BBC News and anchor of the program "BBC World." And Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

Katty Kay, is this purely an American tabloid fascination, this astronaut story, or would BBC viewers be interested as well?

KATTY KAY, BBC NEWS: Well, I wish I could say it was purely an American. No, but we ran it on our world news that evening, so it clearly is of interest to world viewers around the globe. And it was in papers around the globe, as well as on television programs all around -- all around...

KURTZ: And to ask an obvious question, what explains that?

KAY: It must be the thing of astronauts who are held up as these patriotic heroes, who really can't do any wrong. We have this from childhood. We've all looked up to astronauts.

My kids have dressed up as astronauts at Halloween. That image of them is almost perfect. And then there's this woman who does this rather tawdry thing. And I think it was the diaper, wasn't it? I mean, wasn't that the real problem?

KURTZ: Driving 900 miles with a diaper, that will get the attention of journalists everywhere.

Karen Tumulty, but it's your basic love triangle. I mean, it's Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco with spacesuits.

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME": No, at zero gravity. That's the -- love at zero gravity, that's the new element here. And it's just interesting. And also, you know, the space program is something that a lot of Americans hadn't focused on in a long time, and certainly...

KURTZ: So you're just saying this was just an attempt to get publicity for NASA?

TUMULTY: And it succeeded. No. But I do think it, you know, reminds us -- as Katty was saying, I mean, these were for most of us our childhood heroes. And to see them as human beings under human pressures, it's just as good as a human interest story can get. KURTZ: Are the media are going to shamelessly milk this for weeks?

MATTHEW FELLING, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Oh, milk it, milk it, milk it dry. I think that this was -- I mean, agree with what Katty was saying, that they are kind of the grown up Eagle Scouts of the American society, where they are -- they have the right stuff. But at the same time, we're dealing with the media here.

They love the missing white women. They love merging cops plus Lifetime movie network sort of things. And then the diapers and the weapons, it was just too good to be true.

And the thing -- the great thing about the story is the diapers put it on the front page the first day. And then we talk about, what about these rubber little cords? And then it just keeps giving. You could find a different leg to walk with it on for a couple of days.

KAY: And there's also the psychological profiling element, isn't it. Because there's a lot being made of that -- didn't NASA do enough to psychologically profile? What it made me think is that, actually, this was just an indication that the most normal people, the people that we would think of -- everybody can do something wacky in their lives. People can go off the reservation.

KURTZ: Don't you think the psychological...

KAY: I've never driven across the country wearing a diaper or not wearing a diaper.

TUMULTY: That we know of.

KURTZ: You're on the record.

Don't you think the psychological profiling aspect is the mainstream media's attempt to kind of dress this up with something that sounds important and significant when it's really another excuse to talk about the diaper and the pepper spray and the rubber hose and all of that?

FELLING: Yes, absolutely. I think the psychological profile is to say, we could not see it coming. And here we have this stalwart astronaut, a social figure, and then she just fell off. I mean, her rocket sank.

And I think -- let's -- let's not forget, one thing that really keys a lot of media coverage in the 21st century is the mug shot. It got Nick Nolte, it got James Brown. And then when they can put that up on the screen over and over all week, and especially show the contrast of her dressed up versus the mug shot, that really just brought it home.

KURTZ: Her dressed up in the astronaut suit, with the helmet off.

FELLING: Yes, exactly. KAY: And it might be the media excuse, but we are all genuinely fascinated by people doing things that are unexpected, whether it's politicians, whether it's astronauts, whoever it is. When somebody who you thought was going to behave in a certain way suddenly goes off and does something completely unexpected, completely out of character, that's pretty fascinating. It's the stuff of novels.

KURTZ: But when it degenerates as it did, within about 12 or 14 hours, into, well, did Lisa Nowak break up the other astronaut's marriage, and all these lawyers come out and, well, could she plead insanity, and what -- and the profilers and the experts, then aren't we -- piling on is not really the right phrase. Aren't we kind of trivializing -- this was allegedly attempted murder.

TUMULTY: "Piling on" is the perfect phrase for this. And I do think that, you know, the first couple of news cycles are sort of a human interest story. But then it becomes -- it becomes tawdry and more of a reflection, I think, on the people who are covering it than the people who are being covered here.

KURTZ: We just saw the contrast between the astronaut shot and the mug shot.

Go ahead.

KAY: And once again, we're in the thing of, you have 24-hour television, you have the Internet. And all of these stories are covered so much more today than they would have been five, 10 years -- certainly 10 years ago, anyway.

KURTZ: Well, here's my two cents.

This was a great, fascinating, weird and compelling story. Of course we're going to cover it. But once the -- what I call the O.J. commentary machine kicked into gear, and all of these esteemed attorneys came on to engage in their (INAUDIBLE) and all the profilers talked about their pop psychology view of Lisa Nowak, and all the rest, well, journalists just lost a sense of gravity. It just floated away.

Now, speaking of losing a sense of gravity, the astronaut soap opera, as hot as it was, was suddenly overtaken Thursday afternoon by the news of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, which prompted the cable news channels to run hours and hours of programming, illustrated by endless shots of this one-time "Playboy" Playmate busting out of her blouses and dresses.

And you know what? Let's just take a look. Watch these pictures.


JOHN GIBSON, FOX NEWS: A nearly half a billion dollar fortune. But should Anna Nicole have had something to fear?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She later dies. Does this sound like a cardiac call to you and the result of cardiac arrest?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Trying to sort out just what shape she's in by the time she actually hits those hospital doors -- Wolf.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Or whether there was a drug overdose at work here. And obviously that's what the postmortem or autopsy...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... whatever techniques they could to save her. So what we're hearing makes perfect sense.


KURTZ: You're shaking your head. Was this an excuse for cable to show Anna Nicole Smith in all of these sexy outfits and poses ad nauseam?

KAY: It was partly that. And it was partly the fact that there is this woman, as you've put it, busting out of her dress. And there is huge amounts of money involved, and there's a baby we don't know the parentage of. And I've had a baby, too, recently, not to look at all of this and think, you know, poor child.

KURTZ: Oh, sure.

KAY: I mean, that was my only reaction. But why the spin of it? And we even covered it on the BBC on our domestic channels as the news was breaking. And you could see our anchors who really didn't know who Anna Nicole Smith was, kind of thinking, we have to be very serious. They were almost going in to kind of royal mode -- there's been a death and we have to report this.

And then...

KURTZ: I don't mean to sound cavalier. I'm sorry she died, and the baby and all of that. But this was a woman who was famous for getting breast implants, posing in "Playboy," marrying a rich old guy, inheriting his money, getting involved in a legal battle, and then having this awful E! television reality show.

So why do we care this much? Why do journalists care this much?

TUMULTY: Well, you know, I think there's a -- there's a difference between what's tragic and what's just sad. And this is a woman who had spent her entire life courting exactly this kind of attention.

And so, you know, it becomes -- I mean, she had spent her whole life trying to sort of put these images across. And to see these in this context is just sort of sad.

KURTZ: Matthew, let me read you a couple of e-mails we got. This is before we even came on to talk about this subject.

"CNN should be better than this. They're supposed to be a NEWS station, not a celebrity fan site for the talentless," says Dan Greenburg of Merrick New York.

And, "A disgusting waste of news resources. The media have been pimping Anna Nicole Smith for years. I guess they had to wring the last drop out of her life. Vultures." George Delury from California.

FELLING: Vultures? Actually, that's really funny, because, you know, I spoke with "The Houston Chronicle," and I said that what this story did was it turned the media into vultures of Anna mania, because they were just harping on it and harping on it.

And also in that "Houston Chronicle' piece, somebody used the word "titillating". And I was really hoping that was somebody was going to stay away from that.

And I think what really bothered me about this story was day two, when we started turning her into my generation's James Dean. I mean, when we said, oh, she was taken away from us at her peak.

You know...

KURTZ: And what bothered me was comparisons to Marilyn Monroe, an international film star, compared to...

KAY: Well, she is had tried to promote herself as. I mean, that was part of...

KURTZ: Sure. It didn't mean that we had to buy into it.

KAY: But, I mean, wasn't it -- wasn't it also a suggestion or a reflection of the fact that we've had so much coverage of Iraq, of Iran, of the Middle East, of the politics of '08, that actually then comes along this tabloid story, and you could almost -- it was almost like there was a kind of sigh of relief. Ah, now we can cover something that's...


KURTZ: It was an absolute respite.

Now, our Google Gainers this week.

The biggest increase in Google online searches, no surprise, number one -- put up the list -- Anna Nicole Smith.

Two, was Super Bowl commercials.

Three, was Prince, who performed at halftime at the big game.

And then Colleen Shipman. She's the other woman in the astronaut triangle.

And Lisa Nowak bumped to number five.

When we come back, Barack Obama's big jump. Are journalists playing up the race angle now that he's officially making a White House run? Plus, the Senate's non-debate on Iraq. Is the press buying in to a fake drama?

And later, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, join CNN's John Roberts for "THIS WEEK AT WAR."

Here's a preview.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Coming up on the fourth anniversary of the war, we're still as a country talking about the flawed intelligence that led up to this war.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: U.S. forces rule the sky. They can find them with helicopters, kill them with helicopters.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These guys are staying out in the community, working with the Iraqi security forces.

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN AFRICA CORRESPONDENT: We took a lot of risk going down to Niger's Delta.



KURTZ: Well, we've gotten our Anna Nicole Smith discussion out of way. We can go back to covering real news -- Britney and Paris on this current week's "Newsweek."

All right. Presidential politics.

He's been a media darling since beginning his White House flirtation, and yesterday Barack Obama made it official.

Katty Kay, he had his big announcement in Springfield, Illinois. What is it about Obama that causes journalists to just go weak at the knees? I have never seen a candidate get two months of gushing coverage the way this gentleman has.

KAY: I think it's what he was saying in Springfield, this idea of hope, that there is somebody out there who's part of a new dangerous, who looks and sounds different from other politicians. And we're always looking for somebody who can break through and represent something that -- break out of the pack, that could give us something original. And he says he can do that, with all his language, and he looks different enough that perhaps he can do it.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, there's been a recurring theme in the press over the last week, Karen Tumulty. And I'm going to play a clip from "NBC Nightly News" questioning whether Obama is black enough for the African- American community, and if he becomes more -- identified with that community, could that hurt him with white voters?

Let's take a look at how Brian Williams put it.


WILLIAMS: While he has never positioned himself as the black candidate, the question of his race is, of course, and will continue to be much discussed and debated, especially among African-Americans.


KURTZ: What is with all these stories? Did a memo go out?

TUMULTY: You know, I don't get this, because I cannot believe that this is a true conversation that is actually going on in the heart of the black community. Even that phrase is, you know, something that's really hard to define. I think it's the media's effort to try to figure out some way to put a frame around this very unique life story that Barack Obama brings to politics and that is part of his appeal.

KURTZ: Although here's Orlando Patterson writing in "TIME" magazine, "The sad truth is that Obama is being rejected because many black Americans don't consider him one of their own and may even feel threatened by what he embodies."

I think it's too early for him to be rejected. Nobody's voted...

TUMULTY: I would absolutely like to see the evidence that he is been rejected. And there is certainly an interesting political story here in that he's running against Hillary Clinton. And there is no white politician who has the amount of appeal in the black community as Bill Clinton. So certainly there's a tension there. But in terms of -- there's no evidence that the black community is rejecting Barack Obama.

FELLING: First of all, I think it's very interesting. Way back when I was in college, my professors, Dr. Rut (ph), said, "The key to debate is tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them."

And it seems to me -- I'm trying to get grasp on this idea of in 2008 people are allowed to say that they're going to be a candidate, people are going to say, I'm just about to become a candidate, and then they're allowed to say, I'm officially now a candidate. I mean, Giuliani...

KURTZ: It doesn't mean we have to cover it every single time, but we fall for it.

FELLING: No, it doesn't. And then with regards to "are you black enough" story, it just seems like the media is swerving back and forth.

A couple of weeks ago he was too black, he was too foreign. He was in a madrassa. He was -- he was the Manchurian candidate. And now we're going to say, oh, well, he's not black enough. I mean, it almost seems like the media is trying to find some dent to make -- some weakness.

KURTZ: The madrassa, of course, was a bogus story -- yes.

KAY: But it does hit on something about Barack Obama, which is, you know, one of the things that makes him different again, is that he's African and American and not African-American. Now, that's clearly a distinction.

He's not seeped in the civil rights movement. He's past that generation. And the fact that he's from Africa, his roots are from Kenya, rather than from the southern states of America, makes it different.

KURTZ: But you said earlier that he was striking some kind of code with -- some kind of a cord, excuse me, with his talk about hope and new generation and all of that. But I wonder, aren't journalists, these hard-bitten, cynical, hardboiled people, supposed to be more skeptical than that? "The New York Times" this morning says that Barack Obama's past has been largely unexamined by the media. And I'm wondering, why? And is that going to change?

KAY: A lot about Barack Obama has been largely unexamined by the media, and I think you're going to start increasing questions now that we officially have the candidate up and running from yesterday. You're going to have questions not just about him, but also about his policies. That's the other thing we haven't heard much about. He has made a big effort not to give us -- I think there's going to be more and more questions from the press.

FELLING: Yes, that's the...

KURTZ: And the other thing the press I think is starting to say is, where's the access? I remember I heard a story from last week when he was up in Fairfax speaking, there was a "New York Times" journalist who went up and said to him, "Senator, can I ask you some questions?" And Mr. Obama said, "No, but you can walk with me." And he literally meant, no, but you can walk with me.

KURTZ: You can't ask any questions.

Journalists also were freezing yesterday in Springfield, Illinois, where it was seven degrees. They didn't understand why the event wasn't moved inside. And the answer was, Obama wanted that shot of the old Illinois state House where Lincoln had given a famous speech.

Now, Rudy Giuliani took the first of the three steps that Matthew Felling talks about. It looks like he's getting in.

We seem to have a program key on our computer that says great -- you know, a guy with great appeal, but he's pro-choice on abortion, he's pro-gay rights, he's pro-gun control. Therefore, he can't win the Republican nomination.

Maybe that conventional wisdom is not right?

TUMULTY: You know, as you go around and talk to activists, they will tell you that basically what people on both sides are looking for is somebody who can win. So if Rudy Giuliani ends up the nominee against say, Hillary Clinton, I think that, you know, conservative -- culturally conservative Republicans will have no problem voting for him.

KURTZ: How much will the press bring up his personal life? For example, his messy divorce from Donna Hanover, when he had to move out from Gracey Mansion while he was mayor and move in with a couple of gay guys? And, you know, we saw an effort, perhaps -- just perhaps -- to soften his image when his current wife, Judith Nathan, gave him that big kiss for "Harper's Bazaar" magazine. "The New York Post" put it on the cover, that kind of lip-locked picture.

How much is going to involve this? There's the picture.

FELLING: Well, yes. And I think what Karen was saying is they always line up the "he's this, but, but, but, but, but." And that's also been lacking in the Obama coverage.

And I think the Giuliani story is very interesting, because imagine him and Bush after 9/11. They were just raised on pedestals. And after a while, Bush's pedestal has become a pothole. But Giuliani is in suspended animation. He's still there for a lot of Americans...


KURTZ: Well, of course he left office.

FELLING: Exactly.

KURTZ: So he no longer was under partisan attack. He wasn't an office holder anymore.

FELLING: And I think that what we're going to start seeing -- because in the primary process you're appealing to your conservative base for 10 or 12 months, as opposed to the rest of the country for four. And you're going to see the conservatives, especially the evangelicals, start to say, we're not so crazy about a lot of your stances.

KURTZ: I want to turn now to the Iraq war situation.

For several weeks now there's been coverage of a Senate debate about these non-binding resolutions objecting to President Bush's Iraq strategy, escalation, and so forth. They couldn't even get a vote on that.

Why has there been so much coverage of something that is pure symbolism? That even if it had been voted on and even it had passed, it would not have affected the war one bit?

KAY: Because people are still asking the question, why did we go to war? People still want to know about the weapons of mass destruction, whether the intelligence was twisted.

There's a whole host of questions surrounding -- which is why the Libby trial has been so interesting his week -- a whole host of questions surrounding a debate that should have been had in this country four years ago but wasn't had. And I think people want that debate, they want these questions out there. And it hasn't been the Senate's finest moment.

You've had all this discussion about a vote that's non-binding, for goodness saying. And they can't even bring it out...


KURTZ: Right. The House is going to try this week.

FELLING: I think the problem with a lot of the media coverage that I've seen is in all the network coverage, ABC, CBS, NBC, has been that they're talking about this -- this -- "oh, my god," this battle, this headlock, this head-to-head battle between the White House and Congress. But you know what? It's a just a resolution. It's just the Congress saying we're not so crazy about this, we don't really like this surge plan.

And I think the best piece was in the "L.A. Times" on Monday. It was -- the lead was, no matter what the Senate does this week, no soldier's behavior is going to get altered in the next week, month, six months, because it is non-binding. And that part was largely ignored.

KURTZ: And why -- why wasn't that the focus, as opposed to all the, well, is the McCain version or the Warner resolution going to pass, or (INAUDIBLE) compromise, when the reality is, nobody in Congress, very few in Congress, I should say, because there are exceptions, wants to grapple with the real world consequences of actually doing something about the funding for the war, whether you're against or for the war?

TUMULTY: Because ultimately it descended into a story about Senate process. Now, if there is anything that is a story killer, it's Senate process. Unless maybe if you're Robert Byrd.

And so -- but what it did produce was this headline the next day in every paper that said, Senate Republicans block the debate. And I think that is instructive, because it does tell Americans that Congress, as an institution, as much as people thought the Democrats are taking over, this is a new direction, Congress as an institution is just not equipped to deal with issues like this.

KURTZ: All right.

Well, this is one story that's not going away.

And as you say, Katty Kay, it is driven by the still strong passions about this war and how we got into it.

Katty Kay, Matthew Felling, Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, FOX vows to take on CNBC for business supremacy.

And later, from Sunday morning talk show host, to star witness, Tim Russert on the hot seat at the Scooter Libby trial.

Also, the mayor of San Francisco having an affair with an aide, heading into rehab. Why Arianna Huffington doesn't think that's much of a story.


KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice over): Jeff Zucker has been ticketed for big things at NBC ever since he became executive producer of the "Today" show at the age of 26. This week, the network announced, to no one's great surprise, that Zucker will succeed Robert Wright as head of NBC Universal Television, making him the first person from the news division to ascend to the top job.

(on camera): We got a lot of e-mail this week saying we've been too hard on CNBC's Maria Bartiromo in that flap about whether she had gotten too cozy with an executive with Citigroup.

(voice over): But Rupert Murdoch says the network's problem is that it's too antagonistic toward business, too quick to leap on every scandal. Murdoch confirmed that he will enter the arena by launching a FOX business network by the end of the year.

RUPERT MURDOCH, CEO, NEWS CORP.: We wanted to be a little bit more business friendly, I think, than CNBC has been. There's just an atmosphere to it that's a little bit negative, I think.


KURTZ: Fair and balanced coverage of the corporate world? Well, never underestimate Murdoch.

Ahead in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, NBC's Tim Russert was the one getting grilled this week in the Scooter Libby trial.

Plus, free speech philandering and flying. John Edwards' inflammatory bloggers, Gavin Newsom's San Francisco sex scandal, and Nancy Pelosi's costly plane are all fodder for our blogging guests, Glenn Reynolds and Arianna Huffington.

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


KURTZ: Welcome back. Tim Russert took the witness stand in the Scooter Libby perjury trial this week, and Libby's lawyer suggested that he might have it in for the former Dick Cheney aide, playing a clip from "Imus in the Morning" shortly before the indictment was announced.


TIM RUSSERT, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": It was like Christmas Eve here last night. You know, Santa Claus is coming tomorrow. Surprises -- what's going to be under the tree?


KURTZ: Russert talked about the challenge of two days of cross- examination on "NBC Nightly News."


RUSSERT: As someone who makes his living by asking questions on "Meet the Press," being on the receiving end, in a box in a courtroom, a witness box in a courtroom, is a much different experience. "Meet the Press," you talk -- talk to a guest and try to draw them out, let them finish their thought, complete their sentence. When you are in the witness box, you are sometimes limited to "yes" and "no" answers.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about Russert's role and several other media controversies, in Los Angeles, Arianna Huffington, co- founder and editor-in-chief of And in Knoxville, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who blogs at

Glenn Reynolds, Tim Russert testified that Valerie Plame's name never came up in his conversation with Scooter Libby, and in five hours of cross-examination he wasn't really shaken from that. So, unlike other journalists who sought out Libby -- Russert had gotten a phone call complaining about something Chris Matthews had said on MSNBC -- was Russert's reputation tarnished at all here?

GLENN REYNOLDS, INSTAPUNDIT.COM: I don't know. I thought the interesting part about all of this journalistic testimony was the extent to which journalists were asked about things they had said on television and didn't remember it. And that's not surprising.

If you ask me in a couple of years about this show, I probably won't remember what I said either. But I think given that the whole trial turns on the accuracy of people's recollections, I think that's probably good for the defense.

I'm really kind of curious as to why we're not hearing from Andrea Mitchell, who I gather the defense wants to bring out but for some reason the prosecutor has been resisting that. And I'm a little hazy on exactly why the prosecution is resisting that.

KURTZ: Well, the trial is complicated. I believe Andrea Mitchell of NBC will probably testify this week.

Now, Arianna Huffington, you wrote on your blog that Russert's handling of this whole matter "speaks volume about the very chummy relationships that has developed between the Washington press corps and government officials." And while I would agree with you about the chummy part, in Russert's case, he wasn't calling anybody up. He was getting a call of complaint from Scooter Libby.

So what was your problem with his appearance?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, CO-FOUNDER, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: Well, actually, there was three problems.

One was that he said that he assumes presumptively that every conversation he has with a government official is confidential, that he doesn't have to have that request made to him. He assumes it.

Now, this is not reporting. This is enabling.

The second thing is that he had already told the FBI agent who had called him about his conversation with Scooter Libby, had already described it. So why fight it? Why claim First Amendment rights?

Why did NBC produce this plea to quash the subpoena when in fact Tim Russert had already disclosed the contents of the conversation with the government? That was never answered.

KURTZ: And the answer to that is -- let me just break in here. The answer to that is, when you're a journalist, you never want to be subpoenaed because you fear that the prosecutors are going to go on a fishing expedition and ask you about other confidential sources, other conversations. No reporter wants to be dragged in by subpoena.

HUFFINGTON: But of course, Howard. But, of course, as you know perfectly well, his testimony was limited by Fitzgerald. So that was already handled. So that was not a reason. That is an excuse.

And the third thing is that he clearly, from everything he said, had not called Neal Shapiro, his boss, the head of NBC News, but he had already told the FBI agent about his conversation. So NBC was out there making all those pompous statements in the affidavit which the defense lawyer, Ted Wells, put up on the screen in "Meet the Press" style. And, in fact, all that was completely meaninglessness since Russert had already testified.

I predict, Howie, that this testimony is going to be part and parcel of journalism school from now on teaching journalists in the future how not to act. Because this is not...

KURTZ: All right.

HUFFINGTON: ... reporting. This is stenography (ph).

KURTZ: I should make the point that the media consensus was that Russert was a pretty good witness. Others, like Judith Miller, former of "The New York Times," were not. But I want to move on, Glenn Reynolds, to John Edwards' presidential campaign.

As you know, he hired two liberal bloggers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, who had written some inflammatory things. Let me read something that Amanda Marcotte had written. This is, of course, before joining the campaign."

"Can't a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it? So unfair."

That, of course, a reference to the Duke sexual assault case.

So what was Edwards going to do? He agonized, he said he was personally offended by what they've written, but he's keeping them on.

What was your reaction to that?

REYNOLDS: Well, I actually think Edwards did the right thing, though I'll note that most of the stuff that she said that was really inflammatory doesn't get read on air because you probably can't, the stuff about the Virgin Mary, for example. Well, we won't go there.

KURTZ: Things perceived as being stridently anti-Catholic.

REYNOLDS: Yes, that's right. And I think if you want to be a political operative -- and there are a lot of people in the blogosphere who really want to be political operatives -- you do have to realize that people who have that as a career goal tend to kind of make sure that they don't leave a nasty back trail. And a lot of people in the blogosphere have left a back trail, and some of it is kind of nasty.

Edwards, I assume, knew all about these people before he hired them. It's sort of hard to imagine that they could have hired bloggers without bothering to read their blogs. So I assume he thought this was OK, and I guess he still thinks it's OK because he kept them. And that's right.

KURTZ: Well, unless his staff didn't do the obligatory Google search.

Arianna Huffington, if a candidate hires bloggers who have written some things that some folks are going to find offensive, does that candidate have to take responsibility for that?

HUFFINGTON: You know, I think this was another scandal. And what made it particularly laughable was the final that you had Michelle Malkin and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League acting as kind of the arbiters of (INAUDIBLE) discourse when both of them had made really inflammatory and extreme statements on many things, including in the case of Bill Donohue calling Hollywood being run by secular Jews and anti-gay statements.

So this was nothing but an attempt to embarrass Edwards. He did the right thing. He should have done it even earlier. KURTZ: All right . We'll play that tape when a conservative candidate hires -- a Republican candidate hires conservative bloggers who have said some outrageous things.

All right. Let me move on to the Nancy Pelosi plane issue. This was a story broken by "The Washington Times," saying that the Pentagon had turned down the House speaker's request for a larger military jet to take her to California. It turns out this is mandated under post- 9/11 security rules, Glenn Reynolds, and some conservatives kind of slammed her as a pampered princess.

Was this a legitimate story or not?

REYNOLDS: I think it's legitimate, and partly because it was in the week when she was coming out and making a very big deal on global warming. The plane that she originally had requested was actually a military version of a 757 airliner. And her staff said she wanted to have room for an "entourage," which was perhaps an unfortunate choice of word.

But, you know, it worked out OK in the end. She is now flying in the same plane Dennis Hastert used to use, which is a 12-seat commuter jet that has the range to reach San Francisco nonstop. So everything is fine.

But, you know, it's been sort of a campaign of mine in my blog to point out that a lot of people who are speaking out about global warming and the urgency of the problem are also flying around in private jets. And I think people should start flying commercial.

KURTZ: All right.

Arianna, you know, Nancy Pelosi says she didn't even ask for this plane, the request was made by the House sergeant-at-arms. And no less a figure than Tony Snow, from the White House podium, said this was a silly story.

So was the mainstream press snookered here?

HUFFINGTON: I would say this was the dumbest story of the month. And there were many dumb stories this month.

The fact is that this was, as you said, a matter of security, a matter for the sergeant-at-arms, and it was -- the precedent had been set by Denny Hastert post-9/11. And the only difference was that you need a different kind of plane sometimes to get to San Francisco than you need to get to Chicago without stopping and wearing a diaper like the astronaut.

So, that was really the simple fact. And it was another prepackaged false scandal that the right-wing noise machine tried to make a big deal out of.

KURTZ: All right.

And finally, we move to Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco. Glenn Reynolds, as you know, he held a news conference a couple of weeks ago to say that he was sorry that he had had an affair with a woman who was on his staff, on the city payroll. It happened to be the wife of his campaign manager, who quit in disgust.

I would say -- and then, of course, he says he's going into rehab for alcoholism. Apparently nobody can have any scandal in America without going into rehab.

But would you say this is pretty significant story?

REYNOLDS: Well, yes. I think -- I've heard Gavin Newsom spoken of as presidential material, and I think this pretty much rules that out. I mean, even Bill Clinton didn't get involved with the wife of his campaign manager. And I think that that really speaks a complete lack of judgment, and I think that the rehab is probably an excuse, as you say.

I don't know. But, yes, it's a career killer, I would expect.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, after CNN and cable networks carried Mayor Newsom's news conference, you were very skeptical of the whole thing. You wrote, "Why is this a public matter? Why was it a story?"

HUFFINGTON: My point, Howie, was, why was this breaking news? I could understand, of course, that the media had to report it, especially since the mayor held a press conference. But breaking news?

And you had anchors breathlessly promising much more, and there was the second day and the third day. My point is, as I've said again and again, there has to be a thick line between private lives and public lives, otherwise...


KURTZ: Well, wait a second. Wait a second here.

I don't care -- I don't care if he had an affair with somebody who has nothing to do with city government. He has an affair with somebody who's on his payroll. He holds a press conference. He stands before the microphones. He invites reporters to come and cover his apology to the city and the country.

Why would that not be news?

HUFFINGTON: I'm not saying it's not news. I'm saying it's not breaking news.

It was breaking news all the afternoon. It was Wolf Blitzer breathlessly promising us more. That was my objection.

It was not the reporting. It was the sensationalizing, the same thing that we saw in a much larger way with Anna Nicole Smith. That's my problem with the way the media covered this minor, minor, minor story. KURTZ: Well, I would say that the mayor of San Francisco, who is a national figure, is not quite as minor of Anna Nicole Smith, who was a celebrity who was famous for being famous, but...

HUFFINGTON: And who got more coverage than the mayor of San Francisco.

KURTZ: That's true. Absolutely did. And that's not over.

Arianna Huffington, Glenn Reynolds, thanks very much for joining us.

HUFFINGTON: Thank you.

KURTZ: A reminder. If you missed any of our show today, you can download a video podcast by going to Click on the link for RELIABLE SOURCES.

When we come back, is the news business under siege as never before? Lowell Bergman of PBS' "Frontline" has the documentary evidence.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: The news business is under assault as never before, says Lowell Bergman. The veteran journalist has produced a series for PBS' "Frontline" which begins this Tuesday night at 9:00 Eastern, continues every Tuesday for this month. And among the questions he explores is why the media failed to adequately challenge the Bush administration's claim about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.


LOWELL BERGMAN, JOURNALIST: You believed there was WMD in Iraq.


BERGMAN: You said as much publicly.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happens if we go to war against Iraq and we knock them right out and we find no weapons of mass destruction?

WOODWARD: I think the chance of that happening is about zero. There's just too much there.

When I say the chances are about zero, that's the way it looked. It was totally wrong. I think I dropped the ball here. I should have pushed much, much harder.


KURTZ: Lowell Bergman with Bob Woodward. And joining me now from Boston is Lowell Bergman.


BERGMAN: Thanks for having me.

KURTZ: I don't know anyone in the news business who doesn't admit that this profession fell seriously short during the run-up to the Iraq war. Why, in your view, is it still important to focus on that period?

BERGMAN: Well, first of all, to understand what's in the background of the Scooter Libby trial, for instance, and the procession of reporters coming in to testify, you can't understand that situation, for instance, which is unprecedented in the history of journalism in the United States, to have so many reporters coming in and testifying both for the prosecution and the defense, then the backdrop of this is the whole run-up to the war in Iraq. Because obviously Libby's leaking to reporters had to do with the government trying to spin that story.

KURTZ: And since you brought up the Libby trial -- since you brought up the Libby trial, do you think that has tarnished the reputation of journalists who are seen by some as having been too cozy with Bush administration officials during this effort to out Valerie Plame?

BERGMAN: That's part of it. I think the other part of it, though, is the fact that the journalism community is seemingly covering these trial without understanding or explaining that 35 years ago we went through many of the same issues with the Nixon administration. That resulted in something called the Branzburg decision, where, in fact, reporters lost the right to stay out of grand juries.

However, in the reaction to Branzburg, none of those reporters ever testified, no notes were handed over, and the popular support of the journalism community itself created a privilege in many states for us not to testify. And we didn't do that kind of joint defense, if you will, or support each other in the run-up both to this grand jury investigation and then in this trial. What we've done is actually tear each other apart, and I think weakened the community.

The revelation that Tim Russert talked to the FBI without even talking to an attorney, for instance, before he talked to the FBI means that people cannot be clear in their confidence in reporters when they talk to them.

KURTZ: But at the same time -- well, two points on that. I mean, Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days to resist having to testify in that case. And Russert says he didn't really have anything confidential to protect because he wasn't calling up Scooter Libby asking him for confidential information, he was receiving a call from the vice president's former chief of staff to complain about, you know, something Chris Matthews had said on MSNBC. BERGMAN: But I think any of the lawyers who handle these kinds of cases will tell you that this case overall has create a bad precedent. It has reaffirmed the decision and ended a truce that existed between the federal government and federal law enforcement and the news media.

And that precedent is being felt around the country outside of the beltway, places like in Cleveland, where "The Plain Dealer" says it won't run a story for fear that its reporters will get subpoenaed, places like San Francisco, where the reporters revealed the people who were taking steroids in professional sports are now facing jail next month if they lose in the 9th Circuit. And where a video blogger is currently in prison and has just set a record for the most times spent in jail by any journalist in contempt of court in the history of the United States.

So there's been a reverberation which the news media, particularly inside the beltway and in New York, hasn't covered. And a chilling effect around the country.

KURTZ: Yes. That last case you referred to involves Josh Wolf (ph), who has refused to turn over videotape of an...


BERGMAN: And you'll see an interview with him in the second of documentaries that we did.

KURTZ: Let me move on to "The New York Times," which you also deal with on your "Frontline" series, taking an enormous amount of heat for breaking the story about President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, later about the secret banking records story. "The Washington Post" secret CIA prison story also came under a lot of fire.

Do you believe the Bush administration is trying to intimidate these news organizations by criticizing these national security scoops?

BERGMAN: Well, you'll see an interview with Dan Bartlett in our documentary series where he reaffirms that the question of whether there will be an espionage prosecution or not is still open. And you haven't heard talk like this in many years.

Remember, the Pentagon papers case, which really allowed newspapers to publish without prior restraint, the Supreme Court said that in fact newspapers or publications could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. That has never really happened since then, with the exception of one case in the mid '80s and a case involving a journalist who revealed some photographs of Soviet aircraft carriers. But now it's being talked about openly both in Congress and by the administration.


KURTZ: Just briefly, are you -- I didn't mean to interrupt you. Go ahead.

BERGMAN: What you have to understand is that this puts a chilling effect out there. People have to start understanding that maybe they can't protect their sources, for instance. Maybe we'll get prosecuted for espionage. And that's a reality that's never existed, at least in the last 20 years.

KURTZ: I've got about half a minute. Are you on leave from your job as a "New York Times" reporter?

BERGMAN: I left "The New York Times" on May 1st in order to do this series, because obviously as you'll see in the series, we have to interview people at "The New York Times," and "The New York Times" is deeply involved in many of these issues.

KURTZ: Right. All right.

Lowell Bergman from "Frontline."

Appreciate your tackling these issues. Look forward to seeing more of the series.

BERGMAN: Thank you.

KURTZ: Up next, I thought I was just covering the news, but I kept stumbling into the spotlight. I'll explain in a moment.


KURTZ: I generally try to cover the news, not be in the news. But that was awfully difficult this week.

When Tim Russert testified in the Scooter Libby trial, I was one of a couple of dozen journalists in the courtroom. Imagine my surprise when my name came up again and again. What exactly did Russert remember telling me in an interview nearly three years ago?

The upshot was that NBC's Washington bureau chief told me he never called a columnist who had criticized him in "The Buffalo News" but later remembered that he had made the call after all. Libby's lawyer was using the incident to try to portray Russert, whose testimony was damaging to his client, as having a flawed memory. But, as I sat in the courtroom, I couldn't instantly remember every detail either.

Human memory is less than perfect.

The next morning, there was a brief uproar at the trial because one juror had briefly seen my article. The federal marshals who were supposed to cut all trial-related pieces from the jury's newspapers had missed "The Washington Post" style section, always a mistake. The lawyers conferred, the judge questioned the jury, and somehow I avoided being blamed for a mistrial.

That same day, my name popped up in the new Capitol Hill newspaper "The Politico." An official in the White House Drug Policy Office was upset after getting an inquiry from a political reporter who had previously worked for a group dedicated to legalizing marijuana. The official contacted a top executive at "The Politico," and, the paper reported, threatened to call Howard Kurtz about a conflict of interest.

Well, I'm always happy to take such calls, but if this keeps up, I need to get a secretary, and maybe an agent.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 Eastern, another critical look at the media.