Return to Transcripts main page

Reliable Sources

Controversy Over Limbaugh's Statement; Justice Thomas Assails Anita Hill

Aired October 07, 2007 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: Rush to judgment? The media ripped Rush Limbaugh for his comment about phony soldiers. Or is this charge itself phony?
Supreme dispute. Clarence Thomas assails Anita Hill while promoting his book. Why didn't journalists press him about the evidence in the case?

A glimmer of home. Finally some good news in Iraq and it is buried by most of the press.

Coming-out party. Fred Thompson's wife edges into the media spotlight.

Plus, Britney loses custody of her kids. Now, will the media get serious about her train-wreck life?

Right on schedule. Another week, another media frenzy. Someone on the left says something provocative or dumb and the right goes haywire. Someone on the right says something provocative or dumb and the left makes it a huge story. First MoveOn, then Bill O'Reilly and now Rush Limbaugh. The radio talk show host's use of the phrase phony soldiers is still reverberating across the echo chamber. Was he insulting anti-war members of the military or as he says, one particular soldier who was in fact a fraud? And why can't the press sort it out?

Joining us now to talk about that and the Clarence Thomas media blitz, in New York, Frank Rich, columnist for "The New York Times" and author of the book "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush's America."

In Seattle, Michael Medved, radio talk show host and the co-host of PBS's "Sneak Previews."

And in Boston, Callie Crossley, media commentator for WGBH's "Beat the Press."

All right, let's play what Rush Limbaugh said on the air and then cut to his explanation after it became a controversy a day or two later.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's really funny is they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, EIB RADIO: The phony soldiers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The phony soldiers. If you talk to a real soldier, they're proud to serve. They want to be over in Iraq. They understand their sacrifice and they're willing to sacrifice for the country.

LIMBAUGH: They joined to be in Iraq. Morning update on Wednesday of this program dealt with a soldier, a fake, phony soldier, by the name of Jesse MacBeth who never served in Iraq, was never an army ranger. They love phony soldiers and they prop them up.


KURTZ: Frank Rich, Limbaugh says he was talking about one particular soldier, fraudulent soldier Jesse MacBeth. He had talked about the case the previous day and he talked about it about two minutes after the first part of that clip we just saw. So, what's the big fuss?

FRANK RICH, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I don't know what the big fuss is. As you sort of said in your introduction, it's a game we play where someone on left and someone on the right makes some outrageous comment, whether it be a Hollywood star or Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly.

We parse it and parse it. People have a right to say opinions even in my view idiotic ones as in this case where he sort of seems to be impugning the patriotism of soldiers who are against the war or critical of the war. But then people can respond to it and it's sort of, I don't know, a dog bites man story. I don't see what the big deal is.

KURTZ: Michael Medved, if Rush was misunderstood, why couldn't he say I'm sorry for being unclear and here's what I really meant.

MICHAEL MEDVED, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I don't think he was unclear and I don't think he was misunderstood. I think the real story here is that 41 Democrats in the U.S. Senate signed a letter to Rush's boss.

Now Frank Rich has been a very, very stalwart defender of the right of free speech and the first amendment right. It seems to me that when you have the U.S. Senate actually talking about a resolution condemning Rush Limbaugh for this expression of opinion, we've really gone too far.

And I would say, by the way, it was also totally bogus for the Republicans to push a resolution condemning the General Betray Us ad. I thought that was distasteful. But for God's sake, shouldn't our elected representatives be dealing with more serious matters?

RICH: I agree with everything that Michael just said. It's idiotic on both sides. This is why Congress, both parties, have low approval ratings with the American public, because it is a waste of time.

The "Betray Us" ad was silly, but it doesn't rise to the level of Congress stopping its business to deal with it. Ditto for the Limbaugh statement. So let's move on from these sort of phony MoveOn disputes.

KURTZ: To coin a phrase. Callie Crossley, in terms of the amount of air time this got, particularly on cable television, do some journalists believe that Rush Limbaugh was sliming troops who oppose the war or do they just love the controversy?

CALLIE CROSSLEY, WGBH: I think it is a little bit of both because there was going to be tit for tat as you said in your open. Once the general "Betray Us" ad got as much attention as it got, then people were looking on the other side for something to jump on. So that was going to happen.

Now having said that, there is a lot to be said for the amount of coverage that we give to litmus tests about patriotism. And that's really at the root of this because Rush has had a pattern of vilifying and demeaning people who are antiwar.

So for those who disagree with him about that and are angry with him about that, it seems natural then to raise that and say look, here is this guy who claims to say that the biggest patriots are our troops, yet he is going to attack them if they disagree with the war.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, it is interesting the way that some people come under fire, then try to go on offense. I'm wondering whether you think Rush Limbaugh is doing what Bill O'Reilly did last week when he became the focus of controversy over his remarks about having dinner in a Harlem restaurant with Al Sharpton, which is to go on the offense and make the story even bigger and stick it to his liberal detractors.

RICH: I think you're absolutely right. And also at a certain point in show business, which is basically what Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly practice, there is no such thing as bad publicity. It drives ratings, it drives book sales and everything else. And so why not keep it going and stay in the limelight. And indeed in the O'Reilly case, the parsing of that also reached the point of absurdity, I thought.

KURTZ: Well, in that case I should want you to attack me so I can counterattack you --

RICH: Exactly.

KURTZ: Get more people to watch this show. Now Michael Medved, you made reference to the I guess it was 41 Senate Democrats who spoke out against Rush Limbaugh on the floor of that chamber. One of them was Tom Harkin of Iowa. Let's listen to what he had to say.


SEN. TOM HARKIN (D), IOWA: It was most despicable is that Rush Limbaugh says these provocative things to make more money. So he castigates our soldiers. This makes more news. It becomes in the news. More people tune in, he makes more money. Well, I don't know, maybe he was just high on his drugs again.


KURTZ: Now it seems to me Limbaugh is entitled to defend himself against that kind of rhetoric.

MEDVED: Well, I think he is. And not only defend himself against that kind of rhetoric, but defend himself against the threat of re-imposing the fairness doctrine.

That it seems to me is the underlying issue here. There are a number of leading Democrats, not only in the House of Representatives, but in the Senate, where people like Dick Durbin who is in the Senate leadership have talked about -- John Kerry, talked about going back and looking at the fairness doctrine.

Look, the idea of trying to get the United States Senate or the Federal Communications Commission or some kind of federal bureaucracy to regulate the very free-wheeling comments that are made on shows like this one or on talk radio, whether it is Air America or the "Michael Medved Show" or the "Rush Limbaugh Show," that it seems to me as chilling and worth condemning.

KURTZ: I don't think there is broad support for that on Capitol Hill in either party. Before we leave this topic, Michael Medved, what did you think of Harkin's reference to Limbaugh's previous problems with prescription pain killers?

MEDVED: That's a typical cheap shot. It is like the kind of thing you would expect from a talk show host, but not necessarily a senator. I mean, yes, Rush makes references to Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick still, almost so many years after Chappaquiddick. But I mean come on, this is a United States senator talking about a private citizen who is an entertainer and it just seems to me way disproportionate.

KURTZ: All right, I want to turn now to Clarence Thomas who had a carefully choreographed media rollout this week for his autobiography "My Grandfather's Son," granting interviews for the first time since his Senate confirmation 16 years ago. The Supreme Court justice was asked about Anita Hill's allegations of blunt sexual talk by Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes" and Jan Crawford Greenburg on "Nightline."


STEVE KROFT, CBS NEWS: Was the Anita Hill that testified on the Hill the Anita Hill that you knew?

CLARENCE THOMAS, SUPREME COURT: She was not the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed. That's not the person I knew.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG, ABC NEWS: Do you think that your confirmation hearings, that the allegations of Anita Hill would have occurred if you had been white and if she had been white?

THOMAS: I have no idea, but I doubt it. I mean have you seen any other examples of it?


KURTZ: Callie Crossley, what did you make particularly of the "60 Minutes" interviews, which has drawn a fair amount of criticism from African-American commentators?

CROSSLEY: Well, I thought it was pretty soft. And I actually have to say that I was surprised because the normally-tough Steve Kroft really usually gets to the bottom of everything.

And I thought, listen. Justice Thomas is allowed his moment to talk about his memoirs, his growing up, what that meant to him, how it shaped him. But when it gets to news issues, such as the Anita Hill case - and there is a lot that's been written about it, including by two people at "Washington Post," and others, then he needed to be asked some critical questions about it. And I thought he was not. And I thought that was a disservice both to him, to give him an opportunity to really answer some tough questions, and certainly to the viewing public.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, in a "New York Times" column this morning, you describe the press coverage surrounding Clarence Thomas this past week or so as fawning. What did you mean by that?

RICH: Well I mean that basically first of all, he went to some venues where he knew he would not get tough questions, like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

But when he goes into mainstream news organizations like the CBS News and ABC News, it should be treated as something more than a celebrity profile. It is not just the Anita Hill issue, which was glanced by very lightly, but also issues of his jurisprudence on the court.

Instead, it is fine to hear his autobiography, although even that has some holes in it as presented by CBS, that they didn't explore. But this guy has a big role in the fate of American life and that was sort of just swept by the wayside to sell his book.

KURTZ: Let me read to you what Steve Kroft told me the other day. He said that, "It wasn't like we didn't ask him hard questions, challenge him on some of this stuff. We made the decision we were not going to re-argue the facts of the Anita Hall case because it happened 16 years ago and because he was not responsive on it. He didn't want to re-open the whole thing. He kind of shut down."

Michael Medved, the argument is this is mainly a memoir about him growing up in Georgia. Of course it is going to be a softer focus interview.

MEDVED: I think it is appropriate that it is a softer focus interview. It is about growing up from Pin Point, Georgia and overcoming all kinds of hardship.

It seems to me that there is another Georgian named Jimmy Carter who also gets incredibly soft treatment when he goes before American media, despite the fact that he is involved with even more controversial positions than Justice Thomas. And the idea that a Supreme Court justice, who is invested with a certain grandeur and dignity, he's been on the court for 16 years, the fact he would get respectful questions doesn't seem me to be some kind of anomaly.

RICH: But can I just point out one thing? This was about his book. His book did mention Anita Hill. So he brought the subject up. And also there are many other things in the book that these interviews didn't touch. His incredible anger at various groups. He attacks elite white women. He attacks light-skinned blacks. He's very, very angry - condescending, big-city whites. There is a lot of racial anger in this book. He brought it up himself so why shouldn't interviewers on television ask him about what's in his own book?

CROSSLEY: I need to follow that and say, that I believe is really where he got let off the hook. And I'm not certain that would have happened had he been interviewed by African-Americans to begin with, who are willing to put it to him.

I don't know if people felt uncomfortable pressing on him about it, but I think he hasn't been pressed about it and he needed the opportunity to really address it in a way that somebody who came from the same kind of circumstances -- there is a lot of fawning about what he overcame. There is a lot of African-American journalists who overcame the same thing, same background. So let's make that an even playing field and ask some tough questions about some of his perspectives that are articulated in the book.

KURTZ: Hold on. I just want to follow up on Callie Crossley, and then we've got to go. Callie Crossley, quick answer, quick answer. CBS did not invite Anita Hill to respond to what Thomas said on "60 Minutes," was that a mistake?


KURTZ: All right, she did give some interviews later in the week to other television news organizations.

When we come back, the Marion Jones disgrace. Are journalists feeling particularly stung because she lied to them about using steroids?



MARION JONES, ATHLETE: So it is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust.


KURTZ: When Marion Jones admitted Friday that she had used steroids to win those five Olympic track medals, it was a stunning fall from grace, all the more so because she had cultivated such a sterling media image and repeatedly lied to reporters who asked whether she had taken legal drugs.

Listen to how NBC's Anne Thompson began her report.


ANNE THOMPSON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Seven years ago, Marion Jones looked me in the eye and said this --

JONES: It is important to say I've never taken anything, taken any drugs.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: I was remembering with my family huddled around the television, we were all watching those Olympic games. She was someone we rooted for. When Marion Jones smiled, we smiled.


KURTZ: Frank Rich, this would be a tragic story no matter what. But when Marion Jones was so earnest when she kept lying to reporters, of course I didn't use performance enhancing drugs, I think that perhaps that's influencing the tone of the coverage here.

RICH: It may be, but you know this is a real staple I think of American life, the star athlete who then falls from grace for doing something wrong and possibly illegal.

It goes back to the Black Sox scandal, say it ain't so, Joe." You've had "Shoeless" Joe Jackson fixing a ball game. So yes, people were upset, but we've had so much of this in recent years, particularly involving these drugs, that I don't know, it is the same note over and over again to me.

KURTZ: Of course Marion Jones got an enormous amount of publicity over the years. "Time" magazine put her on the cover in 2000 the year. That was the year that she won those five medals at Sydney. But Callie Crossley, in terms of what I see as the personal disappointment among journalists, you know, Barry Bonds gets accused of steroid use. Well most reporters didn't like him anyway but Marion Jones was different, was she not?

CROSSLEY: Yes. She was storybook. When I watched her admit, it just went right through me, and yet obviously I knew the facts. And you've got to think that journalists can't help but be affected by that.

At the same time, I think it should be noted, kudos to those folks who continued the process of really looking into it and saying, listen. There is a lot of evidence that says otherwise, despite what we may want to believe.

KURTZ: Right. The easy thing to do would have just been to let it go. Michael Medved, with so many athletes now having admitted using drugs to cheat from Bobby Bonds to half the people it seems sometime who race in the Tour de France, now Marion Jones, are journalists going to become more cynical about the sports figures they cover?

MEDVED: I don't think they could be much more cynical than people already are. The difficulty it seems to me here is the difference in coverage between a Barry Bonds and a Marion Jones and part of that is because Barry Bonds is still active.

I mean he may not be playing for the San Francisco Giants next year, but he just set the record this year. And it seems to me that this obsession with steroid use missed the big part of the Bonds story, which was here was a guy who was dealing with adversity and overcoming it to continue some of that athletic excellence.

This doesn't go to the idea that a great sports figure has great character. But it does go to the idea that a great sports figure has great focus. The point about Marion Jones is I think the world had largely forgotten about her and now are reminded and it is a painful reminder that makes people sad.

KURTZ: Callie Crossley, it seems to me in the media narratives that surround these things, Marion Jones was depicted really at one point as the world's greatest female athlete, and now everybody who liked her has to confront the fact that she cheated. We saw her admitting it. We saw her crying.

CROSSLEY: I think that's absolutely right. And I think that you, as you point out, some of the response to that by the journalists who then fawned over her really and really gave her the pedestal from which she fell off, now have a harsher line in accepting her admittance of having done these drugs.

I mean I think it feels like they were betrayed, as much as the rest of the public and her sports fans and her family and whatever. It's almost as though she wrote the letter to all of the journalists in addition to her family and friends.

KURTZ: Brian Williams certainly sounded like he was let down in that clip. All right, Callie Crossley, Frank Rich, Michael Medved, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Up next, Don Imus coming soon to a radio station near you.

A mayor's mistress loses her television job.

And why Chris Matthews wasn't laughing after his interrogation by Jon Stewart. "Media Minute" just ahead.


KURTZ: Time for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute." The I-man is about to break his radio silence. It's been nearly six months since Don Imus lost his CBS Radio gig and MSNBC slot after that regrettable racial slur against the Rutgers women's basketball team. But now he's close to a deal with Citadel Broadcasting to put him on New York's WABC Radio and syndicate the program as well. Imus is also looking for a television outlet. He recently had lunch with FOX News chairman Roger Ailes and plans to add a black commentator to his broadcast team.


KURTZ (voice-over): The mayor's girlfriend has parted ways with Telemundo. Mirthala Salinas, who managed the not-so-bright feat of reporting on the marital breakup of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa while serving as the girlfriend of Antonio Villaraigosa was supposed to report to work after a two-month suspension, but she was transferred from Los Angeles to suburban Riverside, which journalistically speaking is like Siberia. Salinas refused to show up and has now left the station.

Chris Matthews tends to overwhelm guests with his mile a minute delivery. But when he entered Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" lair to push his new book on political strategy, Matthews more that met his match.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: I'm listening to you.

JON STEWART: No, you're not!

MATTHEWS: How can I not? You're trashing my book.

STEWART: I'm not trashing your book. I'm trashing your philosophy of life.

MATTHEWS: Will you come on "HARDBALL"?


MATTHEWS: Yes. Come on "HARDBALL." We can play this both ways.

STEWART: Can I say this? I don't troll.

MATTHEWS: You are unbelievable! This is a book interview from hell! This is the worst interview I've ever had in my life.


MATTHEWS: This is the worst!

KURTZ: Talk about playing hardball. Oh, and at party for his show's tenth anniversary this week, Matthews had this to say about the Bush administration - "They've finally been caught in their criminality." That is way over the line. He now says he was talking about the Scooter Libby conviction. Chris Matthews hosts a Republican presidential debate this week.

Coming up in the second half of "RELIABLE SOURCES," with her kids taken away, are the media finally ready to offer a serious take on the Britney Spears meltdown?

Plus, are positive stories from Iraq getting the cold shoulder here at home? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Now that Britney Spears has lost custody of her kids, will journalists finally get serious about the pop tart's self- destruction? We'll turn our critical lens in that direction in a moment, but first here's T.J. Holmes at the CNN Center in Atlanta with a check of the hour's top stories. T.J.?


KURTZ: In politics as well as pop culture, some women get hammered in the press. We'll get to Britney in a few moments, but consider Fred Thompson's wife Jeri, portrayed as a trophy wife and a bossy interloper in his presidential campaign. She stayed quiet for months but has now done a spread with People magazine and a friendly interview with both small children in tow with FOX's Sean Hannity who asked her about her coverage.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES: The New York Times, our nation's paper of record, referred to you as a "Trophy Wife." Did that hurt you? Did that bother you? Did that impact you?

JERI THOMPSON, WIFE OF FRED THOMPSON: It is very difficult to explain to someone who doesn't really follow politics or, quite frankly, read The New York Times, explain to them why they think that's important and why -- what does that have to do with politics or my husband running for president?


KURTZ: Are women like Jeri Thompson and Jenna Bush able to use the media to change their image? Joining us now, Jeanne Wolf, West Coast contributing editor for Parade magazine. And Rachel Marsden, columnist for The Toronto Sun. She joins us from New York.

Rachel Marsden, what do you make of Jeri Thompson, who had not given any interviews for months now trying to use these friendly media forums to sort of soften her image?

RACHEL MARSDEN, THE TORONTO SUN: Well, she is a very, very bright woman. This is somebody who worked for the Republican National Committee and she has worked in PR as well in Washington, D.C. So she knows what she is doing. But at the same time, I mean, there is one question that was asked of her. She was asked about Hillary Clinton running as president, and as a woman, and what she thought of that.

And instead of just addressing the issue and talking, what she should have really done is talked about women running for office and how it doesn't serve them well to play on their gender. Margaret Thatcher never did, it served her well not to.

But instead, Jeri Thompson deflected that question so severely to talk about women's rights overseas. And I think that was a little obvious. And so maybe she should just soften it up a little bit. That's the only advice I'd give her.

KURTZ: Well, of course, it did soften her for her to be seen with those two toddlers. Now Jeanne Wolf, whether you are a Hollywood star or a candidate's spouse, isn't the first rule of PR to get out there and define yourself rather than letting your critics define you?

JEANNE WOLF, PARADE: Well, it's true. But of course, in the case of Jeri, it was kind of detrimental to her to be interviewed by friendly questioners. It made her seem not real and having the two kids there, though, it softened the image and reminded you that their priorities are their children, it seemed very unnatural.

I mean, they should have brought the kids in, if they want to compare her to Jackie Kennedy, those tender moments with the kids, were not while they were doing -- making political statements.

And I think she will regret forever the statements she made about clothing. I think that Fred -- I think both of them came off in a very unnatural way, which is strange for people who are used to being on camera.

KURTZ: Well, she looked good in the People magazine spread.

Now Jenna Bush, the president's daughter, has always been portrayed as the rowdy twin. She was the party girl who was busted for underage drinking. We saw her sticking out her tongue at photographers. Well, now she has written a book about a 17-year-old single mother with HIV. She has been giving interviews on the airwaves.

Rachel Marsden, is that beginning to change the image we always had of the presidential daughter?

MARSDEN: I think a lot of people are sitting back right now and watching Jenna Bush on these shows during this press tour and saying, wait a minute, what did I miss here and how did I miss this? This is a young woman who went from apparently being a party girl to overnight becoming an author and a responsible adult. Yet the media never showed that transformation.

She spent time teaching in a public school in Washington, D.C., and then she went and did some work in Latin America with UNICEF, which is what this book came as a result of. So I think the media hasn't really shown that transformation. It would have been interesting to see.

KURTZ: But if that is true, Jeanne Wolf, wasn't that largely because the White House took great pains to shield her and her sister Barbara from media attention? Jenna never gave any interviews. I mean, it is understandable parents don't want their kids in the spotlight but therefore, we never really got access to what was going on in this woman's mind or in her career.

WOLF: It is absolutely true that we judged her just on some photos and some silly headlines. I would say she wins the -- if you want to call her, celebrity PR wars this week. She has been genuine, she has been in the room, she has been answering questions. She doesn't seem schooled, she doesn't seems prepared. She seems sincere. I am completely impressed.

There was one moment where she read from her book, very seriously. And then looked up with that expression that only a kid at a recital does, mom, did I do good? And you had to just love her for it.

KURTZ: All right. Well, now if Jenna Bush wins the PR wars, in your phrase, then one of the clear losers has to be Britney Spears. A judge ruling this week that she's losing custody of her two kids to her ex-husband Kevin Federline. Lot of chatter on the airwaves about this.

Let's watch.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Here's what disturbs me in this case. I don't give a fig about what's-her-name, Britney Spears. But you've got two babies here.

GLENN BECK, HOST, "GLENN BECK": Perhaps the most shocking upset since O.J. got away with murder, the courts decided that K-Fed is a good enough parent, which says to me that justice isn't just blind, it also has a sense of humor.


KURTZ: Rachel, all the coverage until now of Britney has been, can she revive her career? Did she look fat at the MTV awards? It has been driving me nuts. Finally the media are forced to confront the underlying issue here, is she a lousy mother?

MARSDEN: Well, we've seen so many pictures of her driving with her kid on the lap or stumbling around with the kid while trying to hold a drink at the same time. Quite frankly I've seen enough of Britney and Paris. My question is...

KURTZ: You've had enough? You don't want anymore?


MARSDEN: Yes, believe it or not, I've had my fill, thanks. But my question is, why isn't the media addressing celebrity culture in general? I mean, think about World War II and these young women during World War II, Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, who were over there in occupied France, risking their lives to help the Allied forces smuggling intel into Portugal for the troops.

And nowadays we have Cameron Diaz, who is about the same age as Josephine Baker was at that time, who brags that she wipes with one square of toilet paper. Well, good for you. Sheryl Crow, same type of thing. And we applaud them for that. Whatever happened to celebrities using their celebrity and doing good and actually putting some effort into it? KURTZ: Jeanne Wolf, I don't think we can put this toothpaste back in the tube in terms of the coverage that Britney and Lindsay and Paris get. But you know, Britney Spears, in and out of rehab, shaving her head, hitting the clubs, abusing alcohol and drugs. Why has the coverage been so trivial when you have to two little kids and their well-being at stake?

WOLF: You know, I'd have to disagree with you there. There has been plenty of ridiculously titillating, scandalizing publicity about her being panty-less. But at the same time, from the outset, I heard journalists with almost a personal connection to Britney talking like family members, concerned about her kids, concerned about her welfare.

I heard journalists talking like psychiatrists and therapists, trying to figure out, you know, in every family there is a big success story. And usually in every family, there is a mess-up. Britney right now is both. She is a huge success story and a confounding mess-up. And I think people feel sorry for her, worried, and...

KURTZ: Let me jump in. Let me jump in because we've got one more topic to get to. And I disagree that the -- I think the panty- less coverage has overwhelmed everything else.

Paris Hilton goes on David Letterman, she's out of jail, she's going to do something with her life. Look at how this interview went.


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Have your friends treated you differently since you've been out of the slammer?

PARIS HILTON, HEIRESS: No. But I've moved on with my life so I don't really want to talk about it anymore.

LETTERMAN: Yes. I know. I know. This is where you and I are different because this is all I want to talk about.

HILTON: I'm not answering anymore questions about it. I'm here for my clothing line and my movie and my perfume. I'm not here to talk about that.


KURTZ: Rachel Marsden, Paris Hilton went to jail. She was going to get serious about her life. And she now just wants to talk about her perfume, what do you make of that?

MARSDEN: Yes. I think when you go on Letterman, you have to expect that Letterman is going to ask the tough questions that his audience expects him to ask. That's what he does. And if he smells a little drop of blood, he is going to go into a feeding frenzy.

I think Paris Hilton would be best served to be a little -- perhaps a little more self-deprecating. And maybe she should have shown up with a fake license plate that said "Dave" on it. As soon as he brings up the jail topic, say, oh, Dave, made this for you, and that would have been the end of it.

Nicole Kidman, when was on that show, he brought up the issue of her divorce to Tom Cruise and she downplayed it, she says, well, at least now I can wear heels. It was self-deprecating, it served a purpose, and he moved on.

KURTZ: Yes. She seemed to have no sense of humor about herself. Jeanne Wolf, when did David Letterman become Tim Russert? I mean, he really gave her a hard time.

WOLF: He did give her a hard time. But what bothered me about the hard time was he acted above it, like, you're only here because I get to ask you those questions. I don't like it when journalists cover pop culture and act as if it they're only doing it because they have to.

If you really watch that whole segment, Paris got as much applause as David. She has some innate ability to gather our sympathy at the same time that she's the blonde we love to hate.

KURTZ: All right. Well, David Letterman I think would describe himself as an entertainer, not a journalist. Jeanne Wolf, Rachel Marsden, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Still to come, the White House versus Sy Hersh. How the press handled his report on planning for a possible bombing strike against Iran.


KURTZ: Coming up at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani sits down with Wolf Blitzer in an exclusive interview on "LATE EDITION."

The news from Iraq has been consistently depressing for several years now, a continuous tableau of death and destruction. But when the administration released more positive casualty figures this week, the media paid little attention. A couple of sentences on the "CBS EVENING NEWS" and NBC "NIGHTLY NEWS," The New York Times ran it on page 10, The Washington Post," page 14, USA Today page 16. The L.A. Times, a couple of paragraphs at the bottom of a page 4 story.

One exception was Charlie Gibson, who made it the lead story on ABC's "WORLD NEWS."


CHARLES GIBSON, ABC ANCHOR: The U.S. military reports the fourth straight month of decline in troop deaths, 66 American troops died in September, each a terrible tragedy for a family, but the number far less than those who died in August. And the Iraqi government says civilian deaths across Iraq fell by half last month.


KURTZ: Joining us now to put this into perspective, Robin Wright, who covers national security for The Washington Post. And CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Robin Wright, should that decline in Iraq casualties have gotten more media attention?

ROBIN WRIGHT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Not necessarily. The fact is we're at the beginning of a trend -- and it's not even sure that it is a trend yet. There is also an enormous dispute over how to count the numbers. There are different kinds of deaths in Iraq.

There are combat deaths. There are sectarian deaths. And there are the deaths of criminal -- from criminal acts. There are also a lot of numbers that the U.S. frankly is not counting. For example, in southern Iraq, there is Shiite upon Shiite violence, which is not sectarian in the Shiite versus Sunni. And the U.S. also doesn't have much of a capability in the south.

So the numbers themselves are tricky. Long-term, General Odierno, who was in town this week, said he is looking for irreversible momentum, and that, after two months, has not yet been reached.

KURTZ: Barbara Starr, CNN did mostly quick reads by anchors of these numbers. There was a taped report on "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT." Do you think this story deserved more attention? We don't know whether it is a trend or not but those are intriguing numbers.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: But that's the problem, we don't know whether it is a trend about specifically the decline in the number of U.S. troops being killed in Iraq. This is not enduring progress. This is a very positive step on that potential road to progress.

KURTZ: But let's say that the figures had shown that casualties were going up for U.S. soldiers and going up for Iraqi civilians. I think that would have made some front pages.

STARR: Oh, I think inevitably it would have. I mean, that's certainly -- that, by any definition, is news. Look, nobody more than a Pentagon correspondent would like to stop reporting the number of deaths, interviewing grieving families, talking to soldiers who have lost their arms and their legs in the war. But, is this really enduring progress?

We've had five years of the Pentagon telling us there is progress, there is progress. Forgive me for being skeptical, I need to see a little bit more than one month before I get too excited about all of this.

KURTZ: Do you think to some extent that story has also been overshadowed this week by the controversies over the Blackwater shootings? The private security guards who have now been accused of reckless behavior and they're being investigated by just about everyone.

WRIGHT: And whose deaths we don't know about in terms of how many they had been responsible for and how many of them have died. That's a whole 'nother separate force that has not really been factored in.

And to a certain degree as we begin to wind down our engagement, they may be absorbing more and more of the responsibility. So we're going to have to take very seriously the numbers engaged -- involved in Blackwater incidents or private security forces.

KURTZ: All right. This whole question of casualties in Iraq and the way it has been reported will be the subject on "THIS WEEK AT WAR," coming up on CNN at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

Now let me turn to this piece this past week in The New Yorker magazine by Seymour Hersh. He reported several things about the administration and Iran. Significant increase, says Hersh, in planning for possible, possible bombing strike against Iran.

A shift in the administration's focus, he writes, from Iran working toward a nuclear weapon possibly -- they say it is for peaceful purposes, to counterterrorism, dealing with Iran's role in the Iraq War.

And he says President Bush hasn't improved any of this. Here is how he put it on "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER."


SEYMOUR HERSH, THE NEW YORKER: I'm told that the National Security Council inside the White House is focused much more on attacking Iran and what's going on in Iran than it has been before. There has been a significant increase on the inside.


KURTZ: What did you think of Sy Hersh's piece? And is it difficult to do solid reporting on the administration's intentions in this area?

WRIGHT: I don't think it is impossible at all. I think -- the fact is the administration is increasingly focused on Iran. I'm told that there are just as many people engaged in looking at the problems with Iran, because of its suspected nuclear program, as well as Iraq.

But there is a very separate issue to talk about planning for a military strike. And I don't think we are anywhere near there. I think we have at least six months as they look through this -- work through this very specific diplomatic process at the United Nations, multi-lateral sanctions against Iran, trying to go after Iranian forces inside Iraq and Iranian operations inside Iraq.

But there is no way they're anywhere close. The talk about the drumbeat of war and the talk about going to war with Iran has reached hysteria that in no way represents what's going on within the administration.

KURTZ: Are you saying -- go ahead, Barbara.

STARR: Well, but as a reporter, that's what you have to be so careful of on this beat. You know, the first thing I always say to myself when somebody hands me an irresistible scoop is, why are they telling me this? What's the agenda? Why do people leak?

A reporter has got to first and foremost figure out in their own mind why someone -- why a source in the Pentagon or the State Department or the White House is being so very helpful to them by leaking them such a great story. What's their agenda? What are they trying to accomplish by giving this to you?

KURTZ: Are you saying, Robin, that you disagree with the Hersh article in saying that there is significant planning going on for a possible strike against Iran or you're just saying we are far away from any actual military action if that were to occur?

WRIGHT: I don't think there -- that decision has not been made. I think the administration at this juncture really is committed to trying to find a diplomat course. At the same time, they're increasingly frustrated by the fact the Iranians have not cooperated. And so I think there is a lot of planning going on but I don't think we are anywhere near the kind of juncture that would force a decision, that would force action, and I think that the piece in many ways...

KURTZ: I can hear a lot of viewers -- I'm sorry. The piece in many ways?

WRIGHT: I think went too far.

KURTZ: I can hear a lot of viewers saying, yes, they're focused on diplomatic action, isn't that what we herd in the run-up to the Iraq War and shouldn't the media be more skeptical here about the administration's intentions towards Iraq?

STARR: So who -- you know, just to be rhetorical here, again, who are Hersh's sources, who's talking to him, who's giving him all this extremely helpful information? Robin is exactly right. There are plenty of people in the administration planning.

The military plans for everything. They've got targets in every country you can think of. That doesn't mean they are about to go bomb them. So there is context and perspective here. I don't think the article reached that point.

KURTZ: There are contingency plans to invade Canada, I'm sure. Now White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was asked about the Sy Hersh piece earlier this week. Let's listen to her response.


DAN PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Every two months or so Sy Hersh writes an article in The New Yorker magazine and CNN provides him a forum in which to talk about his article and all the anonymous sources that are quoted in it.


KURTZ: But she wouldn't list any of the inaccuracies. Is that fair to slam the piece and not say what was wrong with it?

WRIGHT: Look, that's from the White House perspective.


WRIGHT: No, but I'm not going to, from the White House perspective, try to define what was right or wrong about the article. I think the fact is that -- for the very point you mentioned, that because of the run-up to the Iraq War, there is an eerie feeling in Washington that we have to pay a lot of attention.

I did one of the first pieces about the drumbeat of war on Iran back in the summer, talking about the very same thing, tanks and talkers and administration officials who had talked a lot about we need to go to war with Iraq, saying now we need do something about Iran.

But I think that at this point it is still much more confined and in fact the interesting thing -- and Barbara will know better than I is that there is -- within the Pentagon there is no enthusiasm for a strike against Iran right now.

KURTZ: In fairness to Hersh, he didn't say this was about to happen, he said he didn't know what was going to happen. He said President Bush had not approved it. So what's wrong with reporting that there is planning going on?

STARR: Well, the question again is one of context and perspective. Personally as a reporter, I wasn't terribly troubled by his article. I think there that were probably several grains of truth, if you will, in it.

But the question perhaps is at the end of the day, when you take the article on the whole, does that actually represent where the administration accurately is at the moment on Iran? That's something we don't know.

KURTZ: Perhaps we'll find out in the coming months. Barbara Starr, Robin Wright, thanks very much for enlightening us here today.

Up next, you heard it here first.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I wonder if you want to respond to the former mayor.



KURTZ: Why everyone in the media, and we mean everyone, has been yucking it up over Hillary's laugh.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: After watching TV for the last week, I've got just one thing to say, ha! I mean, we've already been through all the pressing issues in this presidential campaign, cleavage, divorces , trophy wives and the like. And now comes the latest media obsession, Hillary's laugh.



KURTZ (voice-over): As we told you on last week's program, it started when Clinton did all five Sunday talk shows and kept punctuating her answers with this sound.


CLINTON: I'm sorry, Bob.




BLITZER: Do you want to respond to the former mayor?

KURTZ: Laughter is Jon Stewart's specialty, and he dared to suggest that the Hillary guffaw was less than spontaneous.

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": Now, to the untrained eye that looks like a satellite delay. But that was not a satellite interview, this is what it really is.

COMPUTER VOICE: Humorous remark detected, prepare for laughter display in, two, one, go.


KURTZ: That led to a New York Times story on the "Clinton cackle," which led to a "Good Morning America" piece the next day.

ROBIN ROBERTS, HOST, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Now Senator Clinton is getting some scrutiny because of her laugh.

KATE SNOW, ABC CORRESPONDENT: One Clinton spokesperson said sarcastically yesterday, breaking news, the senator laughs.

KURTZ: For Chris Matthews, whose own laugh is fodder for "Saturday Night Live"...


KURTZ: ... it was the perfect topic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First of all, "cackle" is a very sexist term. It is hard to believe that you would talk about it.

MATTHEWS: No, wait a minute. Look, let me tell you something, I have got a cackle. I have a hoot. But I also heard that she cackled when she was talking to Bob Schieffer, which made no sense. I can't figure her out. Is the cackle killing her? Do you think it is a distraction? What is it?

KURTZ: Sean Hannity cast the chuckling in more sinister terms.

HANNITY: Hillary Clinton's maniacal laughing fits on "FOX News Sunday" have sparked speculation that she's trying to get voters to believe that she's not the cold, calculating candidate that the press has often characterized her as.

DICK MORRIS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: A loud, inappropriate and mirthless laugh, a scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech.


KURTZ: Now, there is a germ of an issue here somewhere. People need to feel comfortable with a potential president and the media are always on the lookout for phony or annoying behavior. Remember the silly fuss over Al Gore's sighing? But let's face it, this is a lot easier for the pundits than analyzing the senator's health care plan. And that isn't quite so funny.

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. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.