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Reliable Sources

Howard Kurtz Pens Book on the Network News War

Aired October 14, 2007 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Why are the pundits again touting a White House bid by the new Nobel Prize winner, despite his refusal to run?

Expectations game. Did the media set the debate bar too low for Fred Thompson and judge his performance mainly as an actor?

Child abuse? Is this 12-year-old boy fair game for the press in the fight over President Bush's veto of a children's health insurance bill?

Plus, the host on the hot seat. Why I've been getting grilled across the airwaves, including today, right here on RELIABLE SOURCES.


GAIL SHISTER, "PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": Please do not adjust your television sets. No, I'm not Howard Kurtz. Not yet anyway. I'm Gail Shister, columnist for and reporter for the "Philadelphia Inquirer".

Howard Kurtz is sitting over there, and we're turning the tables on him today and questioning him about his new book, "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War". He's been talking about it all over the airwaves this week.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": What news man of CBS or NBC is conservative?

KURTZ: I wanted to make -- first of all, Brian Williams -- we can talk about him in a moment -- probably President Bush's favorite anchor, has quoted Rush...

O'REILLY: He likes his ties.

KURTZ: Has quote Limbaugh...

O'REILLY: Oh, stop.

KURTZ: ... reads conservative blogs, as well as liberal blogs.

O'REILLY: I know Williams. He's about as conservative as Les Moonves. KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, MSNBC'S "COUNTDOWN": Why did we have to wait until the war's problems were pretty much apparent in '05 and last year, when we depend on high-power journalism to be the official question raiser and the red flag throwers, often in front of public opinion, not behind it?

KURTZ: Well, there was, of course, pressure from the administration and perhaps pressure from the public, especially in the afterglow of 9/11.

Katie Couric did hip replacement the other night. And so, you know, not really giving people under 30 reason to watch.

JON STEWART, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE DAILY SHOW": But don't -- I thought all the shows -- I mean, I remember when she was on "The Today Show". You know, they did, you know, the colonoscopy. I'm like, isn't that -- aren't people interested in that?

KURTZ: Sure.

STEWART: And don't they want to know how to replace their hips?

KURTZ: I spend a lot of time thinking about that myself.


KURTZ: And joining Gail Shister in the questioning, Frank Sesno, CNN special correspondent, professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University. And in New York, David Folkenflik, media correspondent for National Public Radio.

Gail, you have the floor.

SHISTER: I have the floor, and I like it.

OK. Most important -- I'm going to hit you with the hardest question first, because I'm interviewing Howard Kurtz. Why isn't my name listed in the index?

KURTZ: A crucial oversight on my part.

SHISTER: OK. Next question, though. Brian Williams, in the book, you quote a story that he was asked to host "Saturday Night Live", and he decided against it, but did appear on "Weekend Update", because he thought it was sort of unseemly for network news anchor.

Flash forward. Who's the host of "Saturday Night Live" this Saturday? Brian Williams. What do you think changed?

KURTZ: I think it's in a couple of weeks. But there's been a lot of pressure on Brian Williams. Because anyone who knows him knows he's a very funny guy, but he has a rather formal way of doing the news.

And in fact, when he did that one skit on "Saturday Night Live", he had flop sweat. He was so nervous. But people going all the way up to Jeff Zucker at NBC would like him to show more of his personality, more of his wit, on the newscast. He's been resistant.

I think it's dawned on him that he can have a little fun on Saturday night and still do news on Monday night without, you know, eroding any of his credibility.

SHISTER: Well, do you think the fact that NBC is in a real dogfight for first place with ABC had any influence on the decision?

KURTZ: It certainly is possible, if Charlie Gibson hadn't taken the top spot in the ratings war between the three evening newscasts, that maybe Brian Williams would decide that the risk of hosting "Saturday Night Live" was too great to take.

But I personally think it's a good thing for him to do. Lighten up!

SHISTER: Lighten up. Speaking of lighten up...


SHISTER: ... over to you.

SESNO: Good book, Howie. But first a Bob Woodward question. It's filled with quotes. You weren't the fly on the wall. Where did the quotes come from?

KURTZ: Well, sometimes, Frank, I was the fly on the wall. I went to all the networks with an offer that, if they would give me an unusual degree of behind the scenes access here, and let me, obviously, interview people over and over and over again, that I would produce a substantive and fair-minded book. So there were times...

SESNO: But you've got quotes from Dan Rather's conversations with his network bosses. You weren't at lunch with him.

KURTZ: Every single quote in that book, if I put quotation marks around something, then one of the participants told me verbatim what happened.

But in lots of other meetings and even in the control room, there were times that I was there. I spent two years on this book trying to get every detail right.

SESNO: All right. O'Reilly took you on, on the issue of bias and bias in the network news. So let me cut right to that. You have a story, for example, as the 2006 war in Israel between Israel and Hezbollah and Lebanon is going on, and the midterm elections are coming on, you cite CBS News reports, for example, on security moms, where the sources in the story is one security mom. Another story, it's an NBC piece, with three Republican sources, all of whom were opposed to the president.

Network news bias? What kind of content analysis -- what does that show?

KURTZ: There were times, as in the examples you cited, where I found that certain stories reflected a kind of a leaning to the left. You do a piece on security moms who are moving away from President Bush, and they found one security mom who didn't like Bush. Is there no other security mom in the state of California that day who, maybe, is more sympathetic to the president?

By and large I found that all these anchors and all these correspondents tried to do a very fair job, but there is a perception problem. Gallup polls show that 65 percent of Democrats think Katie Couric is doing a good job, only 36 percent of Republicans. There is a similar but smaller gap for Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson.

SESNO: Seems to suggest that Tim Russert is the most influential journalist in Washington, sort of setting the agenda. He's not even an anchor of a nightly newscast.

KURTZ: Yes. But he is the Washington bureau chief, as you know, of NBC News. He is on "The Today Show". He hosts "Meet the Press". He is a -- he is a presence there.

And he often got into it with Dan Bartlett, then the White House counselor, who complained about NBC and Russert's coverage of the midterm elections and of the war in Iraq. Russert said he's doing what a good reporter does, which is working sources. But those two butting heads a lot.

A perfect example of the kind of pressure that the administration sometimes brought to bear on all of these evening newscasts.

SHISTER: Let's go to David in New York.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Howie Kurtz, we know you've been very busy talking on all the other talk shows about this, so we appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to appear on your own show.

KURTZ: Happy to do it.

FOLKENFLIK: One of the questions that comes to mind is this. In this book you sort of seem to be taking the great man or great woman approach to covering the network newscasts. After all, they are led by these very prominent anchors.

And one of the intrinsic questions posed in your book is the degree to which the anchors' tone of their coverage on things like the Iraq war in particular have helped to shape and shift public policy. To what extent do you really think they're leading on that, and to what extent do you think they're following?

KURTZ: Well, you certainly could say that it has been easier in the last couple of years for Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric and Brian Williams to -- to be much more skeptical and aggressive in their coverage of the Iraq war, because after all, public opinion was starting to turn against the war.

But I believe that those anchors and those evening newscasts, in part because they have the biggest megaphone, 25 million combined viewers a night, really helped turned public opinion against the war at a time when the administration still said that things were going well.

Now, it's not just those three people. They have correspondents in Iraq like Laura Logan and Richard Engel. They have producers, executive producers.

FOLKENFLIK: I mean, what -- I understand that. But in reading the book -- and I thought it was very rich with access to some of the discussions -- it wasn't -- it was clear to me they were concerned about the tone they were setting forth. It wasn't clear to me how that necessarily shaped what ensued.

I mean, you know, a lot of liberal activists argued that there was a very organic turning against the war that news organizations were a little belated in responding to.

KURTZ: I don't believe it was organic. I believe it was the repeated exposure night after night, at least until Iraq fatigue set in, to all of the bombings and carnage in Iraq that television continued to show.

I talk about framing. Here's the role of the anchors, quick examples. Brian Williams one night, in order to -- you know, because you would hear night after night after night, 20 killed, 30 killed, 40 killed. Brian Williams one night talked about how coffin makers in Baghdad couldn't keep up with the demand, because there were so many dead bodies.

Katie Couric in one introduction talked about how the Iraq war had become a nightmare. There seemingly was no end.

Charlie Gibson took a statistic: 6,600 Iraqis killed in the previous two months and said, you know, if you translated that into American terms, it would be 75,000 Americans killed. And those kinds of things that I think helped frame the war as not going well.

FOLKENFLIK: In a related way, there was an interesting anecdote you had where Katie Couric said, back when she was on "The Today Show", that she had gotten an e-mail complaint from a viewer in Atlanta, forwarded by Robert Wright, which she sort of interpreted as a "you're taking too hostile a tone in the interviews toward the Bush administration."

How emblematic was that of the pressure that anchors and senior news executives felt in terms of their coverage of the war, or how isolated was that as an incident?

KURTZ: Well, it certainly loomed large in Katie Couric's mind, because Robert Wright was the head of NBC at the time, and he'd forwarded this complaint. It had to do with her pressing Condoleezza Rice during the 2004 campaign about whether John Kerry's election would in fact, as Dick Cheney had contended, make America less safe.

And she felt that there was a subtle, almost insidious pressure from the corporate executives to kind of toe the line or at least rein in criticism of the administration.

Ii think that everybody knows about the administration complaining about the media coverage of the Iraq war.


KURTZ: I think that some of them, some of the news operations, internalized this, because there was a push for more good news stories.

And you should balance the violence in Iraq with any progress that's being made, but I do think that -- that that whole process was important to explore, because I think television played a really important role.

FOLKENFLIK: Such subtlety actually has a significant and tangible effect on the newscasts.

KURTZ: Such subtlety? Well, I mean some people think it's less than subtle -- Gail.

SHISTER: I want.

FOLKENFLIK: Go ahead, Gail.

SHISTER: ... my turn. I want to talk a little bit about how you actually did the book. You were very clear that every interview you did was to be used only for the book, and you said, in this way, a lot of the sources opened up to you.

Were you ever in a situation where, as a daily news reporter, you stumbled onto something that you knew would be great to get in the paper right away, and you couldn't use it because you had given your word that you would hold it for the book? How much of a struggle was that for you?

KURTZ: There were a few times when I came up with newsworthy things that certainly would have been good reading in the "Washington Post". But the fact is, Gail, I could not have gotten these stories without making this offer to the networks: let me look behind the scenes, let me spend a year and a half to two years repeatedly talking to your people at all levels. I interviewed some people 50 times. And I will treat that in the context of a broad narrative that will take a serious look at what you do.

If I -- if I said, "Look, I'm on deadline for a story for tomorrow," I'd get the same spin as everybody else. And people relaxed over time. The same thing when I did my book "Spin Cycle" on the Clinton White House. Over time people feel more comfortable with you and they open up. I simply couldn't have gotten that information.

SHISTER: So, that said, were you in a situation -- w hat if you had stumbled onto a tremendous blockbuster that could have been a career-changing blockbuster? What would have you done in that situation? KURTZ: Well, there was always the option to going back to people and saying, "Look, we talked about this for the book. I think this is so newsworthy I'd like to write it for the newspaper. Do I have your permission to do that?"

Beyond that, though, I had given my word, and I had cleared this with my boss.

SHISTER: But did that happen at all? Did you have to go back to anybody?

KURTZ: There was no dramatic moment where that happened. I think I have a lot of things in the book that are newsworthy, but they're newsworthy in the broader context of the future of network news.

SHISTER: All right. I want to follow up that on the newsworthiness. One of the big breakout anecdotes of the book that you had was about Dan Rather threatening to leak some of the "Memogate" information to the "New York Times" to his executive producer if they didn't put it on the air right away.

That got a lot of pickup before the book even came out, the day or two before the book came out. And came up with something that said that the incident was already profiled in a 2004 book by David Bloom. Did that cause any kind any internal conflict for you?

KURTZ: Not at all. Because I was completely and totally unaware that David Bloom, to his credit, had put this in the paperback edition of his book. I looked at his hard cover.

I got that information firsthand from Josh Howard, who was the executive producer of "60 Minutes II", lost his job in the scandal that followed. And when he told me that the day or two before that Rather had called him from the "Evening News" set and said, "We got to get this out. We got to get this out. I got to leak these documents to the 'New York Times' so that CBS gets credit," my jaw practically dropped.

So the information was new to me. I was unaware that it appeared elsewhere. I still think it's important in light of Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS.

SESNO: I want to go right to the bottom line of this book. "Inside the Last Great Television News War" is what part of the title is. And you talk about how the online versions of the news is ripping down the barriers between anchors and the public. You talk about how their audience is half of what it used to be. You talk about how people are going in a million different directions.

The question is what is the future of these anchors and these newscasts?

KURTZ: You know, Frank, a lot of people think they're dinosaurs, they're toast, they're obsolete. Who wants to wait until 6:30 to get the news?

I still think they serve a valuable function in terms of providing a summary of the news to people who are not sitting at computers all day or downloading the news or watching cable TV. But they've got to change. They've got to modernize it. They've got to do more...

SESNO: What's that mean? What's that -- they've been trying. Every time they try their numbers go down more.

KURTZ: First of all, they've got to do more original reporting. I found an amazing number of things that were taken from that day's "New York Times" that seems to set the agenda for the evening newscasts.

Secondly, they've got to do some news that appeals to people who are under 30 or even under 40!

SESNO: Isn't that what Katie Couric tried?

KURTZ: Katie Couric made a lot of mistakes by missing -- by doing too many changes at once, by doing things like the free speech segment that just basically took away from news.

So yes, I give her credit for trying. It didn't work out for her. They've gone back to a more hard news approach.

It is possible, I believe -- I could be proven wrong. I believe it's possible for these evening newscasts to modernize themselves, to take more chances and still not drive viewers away. But it's a tough balancing act.

Now I'm going to take it back, because we are out of time.

Up next, we'll keep our guests here, and I'll get to ask the questions. Ann Coulter shoots off her mouth again, this time about Jews. Is it time for the media to stop giving her a soap box?


KURTZ: It's like clockwork. Ann Coulter has a new book to promote, and she says something so horrifying the media obsess on her and give her the publicity she craves.

This time, with CNBC's Danny Deutsch, Coulter was talking about Jews. That is, why America would be better off if everyone were Christian.


ANN COULTER, AUTHOR: We just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.

DONNY DEUTSCH, HOST, CNBC'S "THE BIG IDEA": Wow, you didn't really say that. Did you? Ann Coulter, if Democrats had any brains, and if Republicans and Ann Coulter had any brains, she would not say Jews need to be perfected. I'm offended by that personally.


KURTZ: David Folkenflik, good for Donny Deutsch for taking Coulter to task. But why did he put her on in the first place? What did he think he was getting? A polite discussion of the issues?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, Donny Deutsch and CNBC, you know, wants certain kinds of aggressive, brash, almost confrontational conversation on that show. After all, they're looking for viewers, like everybody else on CNBC and the cable dial.

But I think there's the question of pushing the envelope. And I think there's a question of exploding it. And she clearly seems capable again and again in doing that.

The question is, you know, whether news organizations should imbue her with some standing to comment on public affairs.

KURTZ: Frank Sesno, this is the woman who went on "The Today Show" and called a group of 9/11 widows witches and harpies who benefited or who were enjoying their husbands' death. And the producer said of "The Today Show" said, "Well, you know, she's entitled to say what she wants. It's good TV."

And yet, the talk shows continue to put her on.

SESNO: She has discovered that the more gas you throw on the fire, the higher the flames. And that works for her, or it has worked for her so far.

The question is, does she ever step over the line, or has the culture of sort of outrageous commentary gotten so imbued in what it is that the media do that -- that she's untouchable?

KURTZ: But what about our responsibility? She's also the woman...

SESNO: I don't think we have a responsibility. I think we have a responsibility to challenge her when she says these things, to force her into a corner and at some point to say, "You know what? This is not credible anymore. You don't deserve this real estate, because all you're trying to do is outrage."

KURTZ: Gail Shister, Ann Coulter also talked about John Edwards, make a joke about him being gay, using a slang term beginning with "F", and she said she was just kidding.

Is there a line that you can cross in our society where you don't get invited back on TV? Or can you insult Jews and gays and widows and still get booked if you deliver ratings?

SHISTER: First of all, I have to apologize, because I forgot my yellow star today. I was going to wear it in honor of Ann.

Yes, I would hope that, within the context of civilized discourse, there would be some kind of line. I don't see it yet. The fact that she can go on and say the kinds of things she does.

I think part of it that nobody has really addressed and I've seen, is she talks so fast that when -- a fast car is much more difficult to control than a slow car. People that talk that fast invariably blurt out things they don't mean to say.

I'm thinking of Chris Matthews -- comes to mind. These people who are -- these speed talkers are setting themselves up, and it's only a matter of time.

FOLKENFLIK: Chris Matthews...

KURTZ: You're not putting him in the same category as Ann Coulter?

SHISTER: Absolutely not. But if you -- as Frank said, you put enough gas on the fire, there will be a bigger flame. And that's what they're all about.

KURTZ: David?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I was going to say at least Matthews, you know, has a fair amount of knowledge of the political world, both as a former congressional aide, speech writer and as a journalist and talker.

But, you know, the other thing is that this was a conversation that didn't have to go into religion at all. I mean, they were talking about what the post-9/11 world would look like. And she dragged it there very intentionally and very quickly.

You know, the real question is, talk. The problem with cable a lot of the times is that talk allows for explosive talk to take up all the oxygen. And that's what Ann Coulter does again and again and again.

SESNO: The only problem with cable is that, in its grab for ratings, because the audience is diced and sliced so narrowly, people have found that the more outrageous the better. And outrage pays. And that's why Ann Coulter and others have gotten as far as they have.

And the question is, does the market correct this? Does the public say, "Hey, we're going to e-mail. We're going to blog you the way we e-mailed and blogged Dan Rather"?

KURTZ: Well, it's not just cable. "Today Show" gave her a platform. Ann Coulter happens to be a very smart lawyer who knows, who has figured this out, that you can sell a lot of books by being incendiary. And I just question -- this seems to happen again and again and again.

All right. Gail, last comment? SHISTER: Is this a chicken and egg thing? Because does she get a lot of media attention because we give it to her? Or does she say things so she'll get the media attention? At some point why don't shows just not book her?

KURT: You mean just say no? Well, there's no constitution -- she can say whatever she wants, but there's no constitutional right to appear on a television show.

Gail Shister, Frank Sesno, David Folkenflik, thanks very much for joining us and for your skillful questioning of me.

Still to come, black journalists cry foul over the I-man's possible return to radio. The reporter versus the mayor in Oakland. And a rather weak-kneed (ph) report about the New York Yankees going down.

"Media Minute" just ahead.


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


KURTZ (voice-over): A woman in Oakland has written a letter to Mayor Ron Dellums, urging him to resign. Elise Ackerman has also purchased a web address, An outraged citizen activist? Not quite.

Ackerman is a technology reporter for "The San Jose Mercury- News", who says she's upset about crime. Ackerman told the web site Full Disclosure, "I did step over the line, and I'm sorry about that," adding, "I did it because people are bleeding in my neighborhood on the ground."

(on camera) Talk about over the line. If you want to get involved in city politics, Miss Ackerman, ditch the newspaper job first.

(voice-over) Al Sharpton may have no problem with Don Imus getting back on the air, but the National Association of black Journalists is a different story.

Now that the I-man is close to a deal with Citadel Broadcasting to resume his morning radio show, the group accused him of -- quoting now -- "hate speech."

"It seems inconceivable that less than a year after Imus was dismissed from CBS Radio and MSNBC for his vicious insults upon the Rutgers women's basketball team, that Citadel Broadcasting would consider putting him back on the air."

The sharp-tongued host has repeatedly apologized for his disparaging racial remarks about the Rutgers women. But one thing is clear: critics will monitor his new show very closely.

When the Yankees got knocked out of the playoffs this week and manager Joe Torre's job was hanging by a thread, WFAN radio correspondent Suzyn Waldman went into the team's locker room and filed this report.

SUZYN WALDMAN, WFAN RADIO: I was OK, actually, until I went into the clubhouse, and the coaches are sitting in Torre's office, and they are watching this. And the tears that you hear in my voice are coming down the faces of the coaches in that coaches' room.


KURTZ: Looks like Tom Hanks was wrong. There is crying in baseball.

Waldman calls the criticism sexist, saying she and Torre are both cancer survivors. "It's absolutely ludicrous," she tells "Newsday". "I'm not Walter Cronkite. Who are these arbiters of journalism who are ripping me on the radio?"

Well, coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, the media talk up a certain Nobel Prize winner for the White House. So what if he doesn't want to run?

Fred Thompson makes his debate debut, and journalists grade him on a curve.

Plus, is it fair to go after a 12-year-old boy in the battle over children's health care?


KURTZ: Al Gore wins the big one, and the media start hyperventilating over his White House chances. How predictable is that? We'll talk about that in a moment.

But first, here Betty Nguyen at the CNN center in Atlanta with a check of the hour's top stories.


KURTZ: Thanks, Betty. After the break, he won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Nobel prize, and now the press is salivating over a non- existent presidential run by Al Gore. Stop us before we speculate again.


KURTZ: Al Gore is the winner. Those are the words he never got to hear in 2000 except from all the networks which awarded him the state of Florida prematurely. But which the former vice president heard on Friday when he won the Nobel prize, this on top of an Oscar for his film on global warming. It took roughly 10 seconds or so for the media to ask one of their favorite questions, now will he run for president? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS ANCHOR: It has raised speculation about whether Gore might jump into the presidential race.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Now that he has won the peace prize, will he go after the prize that eluded him earlier?

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, "TUCKER": And what if Al Gore did enter the race for president? The glow of today's news may convince you that Mr. Gore would be elected unanimously.

LAURA INGRAHAM, TALK SHOW HOST: Here's the problem, is that the Nobel Committee, whether it's giving Arafat the Nobel Peace Prize or a few years ago Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Mr. Oil-for-Food, or now Al Gore, I mean, it is kind of the elites awarding the elites.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the Gore coverage and some other political topics in New York, Mark Halperin, senior political analyst and editor-at-large at Time magazine, and author of the book "The Undecided Voter's Guide to the Next President." Here in Washington, Jonathan Capehart, who serves on the editorial board of The Washington Post. And Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter for

Mark Halperin, congratulations to Al Gore for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. All of this chatter about he might maybe jump into the presidential race, it is a media-generated myth, is it not?

MARK HALPERIN, TIME: Howie, I totally agree with the premise of this topic as you framed it. Absurd coverage by the press. Winning the Nobel prize doesn't get you one voter in Iowa or New Hampshire. It is not going to move his polls numbers. It is not going to create an organization or fund-raising. And it is not going to change Al Gore's reluctance to not go back into politics. I think it is just one day at least of crowding out of what we should be focused on, which is trying to figure out who the best president would be of the people who are actually running.

KURTZ: A plea for substance from Mark Halperin. Jonathan Capehart, what really drives me nuts about this is that the reporters and pundits themselves, they all know that Gore has exhibited no interest in running. His own advisers say (INAUDIBLE) he is not looking at running. And yet they come on and they ask the question, and they say, well, yes, I guess he probably won't.

JONATHAN CAPEHART, MEMBER OF WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL BOARD: Well, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the media and actually the American people love a comeback story. And given how the Supreme Court decided in favor of President Bush and he won the White House that way, and Gore spent the next seven years re-inventing himself, focusing on climate change, and now he has got not the ultimate prize, which a lot of people think is the presidency of the United States, he got the Nobel Peace Prize for doing something... KURTZ: So it is a great narrative of somebody who got off the canvas and came back. Why does he have to run for president to make that an even better story?

CAPEHART: Just because it is fun.

KURTZ: OK. (INAUDIBLE). Amanda Carpenter, in all of the coverage about Gore and winning this prize and global warming and his movie "An Inconvenient Truth," it has all been really, really positive. I've heard very little discussion, for example, of a British judge finding this week that there were nine factual errors in "An Inconvenient Truth" in a lawsuit in that country. What do you make of the coverage?

AMANDA CARPENTER, TOWNHALL.COM: Well, I'm not sure if we're reading all the same things as each other. I mean, in conservative circles, certainly people are very eager to point out the problems with the movie. They say that this British judge that found nine inaccuracies in it, this is a film that is riddled with errors that has essentially won the Nobel Peace Prize. And I think there is a legitimate question, does this invalidate the integrity of that prize?

KURTZ: And to what extent are those legitimate questions in your view being reflected in the coverage of Al Gore in the last two days?

CARPENTER: Not enough. The Washington Post did a pretty good fact check on this online which I thought was great. This has been bubbling the blogs a lot. You know, when we see the other things, NASA having to revise climate change data that was caught by a Canadian blogger a few months ago. So this stuff is bubbling there. I wish it got more coverage in the mainstream media. You know, there were people that did not get the prize. The Polish woman that saved 2,500 children from the Holocaust got bumped for this for essentially a piece of film.

KURTZ: Mark Halperin, just a quick question on this because I might need to move on, is there any guilt among some journalists about the way they kind of made fun of Al Gore in 2000, the sighing and all of that, now kind of giving him his moment in the sun?

HALPERIN: I think there is no question that people feel bad about what happened in 2000 to some extent. And I think also you look at what a lot of journalists feel about the Bush administration and they say, you know, maybe the wrong guy actually got in the White House.

That's not a view that I'm putting forward, but I think it is a view a lot of journalists have, and I think it's one that does drive a little bit of this Gore love affair that's in the press, not just this last week but every time he does anything or wins -- gets another award for the mantle.

KURTZ: Right. All right. Turning now to Fred Thompson, he made his debut at Republican presidential debate this week which was carried on MSNBC. This is a guy who is used to being in front of a camera in terms of "Law & Order." So everybody had to have a take on it.

Let's show a little bit of the debate, and then the pundits' reaction to it. But we start with Chris Matthews. Chris Matthews suggesting that the former senator was being a little long-winded in one of his answers.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MODERATOR: Took a long time. He said, no, he should have stopped there. Anyway, Mr. Mayor, let me ask you about the...

FRED THOMPSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, that's your opinion, Christopher.


MARIA BARTIROMO, MODERATOR: Senator Thompson. Senator Thompson, this was your first debate. How did it feel?

THOMPSON: Just like home.


THOMPSON: I didn't say which kind of home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I thought he was solid but not sensational.

FRED BARNES, FOX NEWS ANALYST: It wasn't a commanding performance.

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": The rookie Fred Thompson kind of froze during his first answer.

NORAH O'DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He's big, he has a big, tall presence but he was nervous.


KURTZ: Jonathan Capehart, the media -- did the journalists set a rather low bar for grading Thompson's performance?

CAPEHART: Oh, absolutely. I mean, one thing we have to remember is that this was the first time anybody on a large scale got to see Fred Thompson. And so he was supposed to be the savior of the Republican field and he gets on that stage and everyone looks, well, where is he? Where is this person that we've been waiting for? So, yes, media absolutely set a low bar.

KURTZ: What about the substance of what he had to say? It seemed that was just completely and totally overshadowed by people in our business talking about how he performed.

CARPENTER: Sure. If you look at the most important story that I think came out of the debate, and that was the sparring that Romney and Giuliani had over taxes and spending, certainly the most important story.

KURTZ: We're going to come back to that in a minute.

CARPENTER: OK. Sure. Thompson let that happen. He stood in the middle, did not get himself into that argument. If he was wanting to get on that stage, he needed to inject himself into that and he failed to do so. So this whole notion that he got a pass for not screwing up in this debate I don't think is good enough.

KURTZ: But do you think that he did get a pass generally from the media?

CARPENTER: I think he did.

KURTZ: Why so?

CARPENTER: Because the expectations have been set so incredibly low.

KURTZ: And that is in part because the reviews of his early weeks on the campaign trail have been about a guy who didn't know the details of some local controversies, hasn't campaigned that hard. In fact, since that debate on Tuesday, he has not been out, made a public appearance.

Mark Halperin, I want to play a little bit from "Saturday Night Live" that I think kind of captures in a funny way the media take on Fred Thompson and his lust or lack thereof for the presidency. Let's watch.


DARRELL HAMMOND, "FRED THOMPSON": I assure you, the role I most want to play is the role of this nation's president. How badly do I want to be your president? On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm about a 6.


KURTZ: Mark, what do you think of the media narrative here that Thompson is not exactly working overtime for this nomination?

HALPERIN: I'm going to sound again like kind of a cross between Andy Rooney and the Columbia Journalism Review, I hate the notion of expectations setting -- guiding what the coverage is like. Why Thompson was allowed to go into that debate with a bar being set not just by "Saturday Night Live," but by his campaign which said, well, he is just getting started.

We should evaluate candidates on performance and substance equally. There is no grading on the curve. There shouldn't be any bar setting. And this was a classic example of the press over- thinking it and then being spun by ourselves about how to evaluate his performance.

KURTZ: Well, you worked at ABC News for years. I mean, why do these expectations get set? It is not like anybody forces journalists to do this.

HALPERIN: I think reporters just -- they don't know how to cover campaigns. Should they cover them as theater critics? As sports writers? About the substance at all? It is very difficult to do but it shouldn't be done and it shouldn't be guided by what the campaign says the expectations are or what reporters decide amongst themselves. They should evaluate every candidate. We should evaluate every candidate based on how they actually do, how we think they perform and also the substance of what they say. This was another embarrassing episode for us, I thought.

KURTZ: And on that very point about covering it as sports writers or theater critics, there was, as you mentioned, Amanda Carpenter, quite a dust-up between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney over their respective tax records in New York and Massachusetts.

And I want to talk about how the press covered that but first let's look at what they did on the stage.


RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I brought taxed down by 17 percent. Under him taxes went up 11 percent per capita. I led, he lagged.

MATTHEWS: Sir, a rebuttal here? Final rebuttal?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is a nice line, but it is baloney. Mayor, you've got check your facts. No taxes -- I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes, number one.


KURTZ: Now The Washington Post a couple of days later did a fact check on what they were saying. And The New York Times did it on an online blog. And a group called did a very good job. But on television I saw almost nothing trying to sort out, well, who was right and who was wrong and who was making the exaggerated claims.

CARPENTER: Well, I think this kind of has to do with the rapid response, the fact it being in the debate. I think a lot of people watching as it happened, they were essentially fact-checking each other because it was an intelligent debate. They were saying, you lowered by 2.3 percent, and 5.5, they were issuing out very specific facts.

I still think it was a substantive debate. It was incredibly important. They were talking about executive records over taxes and spending.

KURTZ: Mark Halperin, clearly it is hard to do on the fly, but why couldn't TV news come back the next day or even the day after that? Here is one -- some of this gets complicated. Here is a quick example. Rudy Giuliani said that Hillary Clinton wants to give $1,000 to everybody for a retirement plan. Well, the reality is she wants to give $1,000, whether a good idea or not, to families earning up to $60,000. But I didn't see that pointed out.

HALPERIN: Howie, here is a case where I think there does need to be a division of labor between the different kinds of media. If a mistake is not really easy to explain or if there is an ambiguity that is not pretty clear-cut, I think it is difficult to do on television, even a day later or a day or two later. It doesn't mean it should never be done.

But that's the kind of thing where new media, particularly the Web, allows people who are interested in understanding all the details to read in deep, to drill down, to understand who might be exaggerating or not telling the truth. It is very difficult to do on television because of the news hole that exists in broadcast.

KURTZ: Well, I certainly -- I don't think cable has that excuse. And yes, facts and figures and statistics are difficult on television, but I think that that doesn't get television off the hook. What is your take?

HALPERIN: No, it doesn't get television off the hook, especially when you look at what's being covered, particularly on cable when you have cable focused on Britney Spears' latest missing of a court deadline or Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton or any of those other things that cable and other news outlets focus so much time and attention on those issues.

But when it comes to important things that affect American people's pocketbooks, nothing happens.

KURTZ: Even on TV there was a lot of pundits talking about whether Giuliani or Romney had won that exchange, but again, not much on who was actually right or wrong. Mark Halperin, you mentioned the role of the new media. When you were at ABC News, you wrote something called "The Note," which was sort of an insider's guide to politics. Tomorrow you are going to debut a new Web page called "The Page" at

Tell us a little bit about that.

HALPERIN: Well, "The Page" is for people who want to know what's going on in the presidential race all the time, 24/7. We are updating it all the time. Time colleagues overseas as well. So while we sleep here on the East Coast, the site is being updated. The Web page is It has got everything, the best reporting from Time magazine but reporting from around the whole country, local papers, local television, national television, cable, all consolidated on one page.

So if you're interested any time in knowing what's going on in this race, "The Page" is where people are going to look, I think and I hope.

KURTZ: Just briefly, do you think we're drowning in information on the Internet? And are you trying to sort of organize it?

HALPERIN: Even my colleagues -- our colleagues who cover this day to day, even the campaigns, there is so much to read, there is so much good journalism being done, watching on television, listening on the radio. Our idea is to consolidate that, to aggregate it all in one place. So if you are busy and you can't read every paper or watch every TV show, "The Page" is the one place where it is all going to live all the time on one page.

KURTZ: All right. Halperin, clearly planning on not getting any sleep, stick around.

When we come back, is a 12-year-old boy really fair game in the bitter battle over children's health insurance? We'll tackle that in a moment.


KURTZ: "LATE EDITION" coming up at the top of the hour. Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater will be among Wolf Blitzer's guests.

When television covers President Bush's veto of a $35 billion measure to expand a children's health insurance program, reporters invariably find a mother and child who need the coverage but it is often unclear whether they would lose the insurance if the program was continued at its current level.


TOM COSTELLO, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Kids like 14-year-old Kevin Hall (ph) who struggles with debilitating asthma was dropped from SCHIP when his mom's salary edged up slightly. She's now stuck with $1,100 in monthly medical bills.

RENEE HALL, MOTHER: I do what I have to do because I want my son to be here. His life depends on it.

MARTH RADDATZ, ABC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Lori Siravo has SCHIP coverage for her daughter Carly (ph).

LORI SIRAVO, MOTHER: Having it taken away would be devastating. You can't do that to children. It's not right.

RADDATZ: Analysts say children like Carly could lose their coverage but...


KURTZ: Now the focus is on Graeme Frost, a 12-year-old with a brain injury who the Democrats picked to deliver their response to Bush's weekly radio address. Conservatives began questioning whether Graeme's family was too well off to deserve such federal benefits, a line of criticism that brought a sharp response from Hillary Clinton.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just -- I never cease to be amazed at the mean-spiritedness that you can find on the right. But think carefully about this, because what's happening here is that there are commercial, partisan, political and ideological points that are being scored at the expense of this young man.


KURTZ: Amanda Carpenter, I'm firmly against beating up on 12- year-old kids, but did Graeme Frost become fair game for the media when the Democrats put him out there as a symbol of this health insurance program?

CARPENTER: I think he did. They put him out there as a symbol, and him and his family as a model family to promote the expansion of SCHIP. This is a political point that they were using a child to make. And so then, you know, how does it come across mean when people look into the circumstances that led that family to being so?

You know, as Mark Steyn put it, this is a family, they have three cars, two properties. This should not be the symbol for entitlement and expansion.

KURTZ: Jonathan Capehart, some of these attacks from the right were wrong. For example, yes, Graeme attends a private school, but he does so on scholarship. Yes, the dad owns a house, but he bought it for $55,000 in 1990 in a run-down neighborhood. Not so much wrong as misleading. But did all of this, the questioning of the family's income and eligibility, amount to what Time magazine called "the Swiftboating of Graeme Frost?

CAPEHART: Well, sure. That's sort of the nature of media these days. If you put yourself forward to be the symbol of an issue, the symbol of a cause, you have to expect that people are going to dig deep and find out who you are, are you telling the truth, are your circumstances what you say they are?

KURTZ: Mark Halperin, let me ask you a broader question. The president is not proposing to cut this health insurance program. He has vetoed a $35 billion expansion, so there is this debate about, well, what income level is appropriate for these millions of kids who don't now have any health coverage. Does television create the opposite impression that maybe the program is going to be cut by constantly showing footage of mothers and children who might or might not lose their coverage?

HALPERIN: I think some of the discussion has been centered on the fact -- I think most of the discussion, I should say, has been centered on the fact that this is a proposed expansion that has support not just from Democrats but from some Republicans.

I think that using real people is fine and I think that people do have to recognize that they will probably be attacked. But I think the reality is, it is accuracy that matters. And the inaccurate attacks, the mean-spirited attacks, whether it is a 12-year-old boy or an adult, are what's wrong with both the left and the right.

And I think that's the real lesson that people should take from this, not to debate personality but to debate the public policy questions illustrated by both sides by real people. KURTZ: But is it partisan, Mark, for criticism to be made and for the media to cover questions about the eligibility of the family or their financial circumstances when, after all, the Democrats did try to make Graeme Frost the poster boy for why we need an expansion of the program?

HALPERIN: There is nothing wrong with looking at a family that one side puts forward, left or right, to say, here is why their example proves our point, or here is a counterexample. But it should be accurate and it should not mean-spirited. And in this case, much of the criticism, much of the writing on the Web and in other conservative venues was inaccurate and mean-spirited. And that shouldn't happen on the left or the right when in serious public policy debate.

KURTZ: Now the conservative blogger Michelle Malkin took a lot of criticism. She was even called a stalker for going to the family's house and taking a picture of it and questioning the income situation. This is what she wrote, put that up on the screen: "When a family and Democrat political leaders drag a child down to Washington at 6:00 in the morning to read a script written by Senate Democrat staffers on a crusade to overturn a presidential veto, someone might have questions about the family's claims. The newspapers don't want to do their jobs." Jonathan?

CAPEHART: Wow, that's pretty strong stuff that she is saying. But still, if Graeme Frost and his family want to put themselves forward and be the face of this cause and this issue, they reasonably have to expect that the microscope is going to focus in on them. And you know, it's harsh, but they should have expected that.

KURTZ: The Baltimore Sun did a story on this family who was from Maryland and the family wouldn't file (ph) their tax returns. So some mainstream organizations say, well, of course these questions are fair to be asked. We've got about half a minute.

CARPENTER: Yes, I don't understand why it is mean-spirited to look into these kinds of things. There were circumstances that family, they had insurance, they went off it and then they wondered why they couldn't get back on it again.

HALPERIN: It doesn't have to be mean-spirited. It just sometimes in this case and other cases on both the left and right is mean-spirited in the way it is executed.

CARPENTER: Well, that's the way a lot of writing is on the Web and I think we are getting used to that.

KURTZ: The consensus seems to be that the questions were fair, but certainly the tone can be mean-spirited in a lot of these controversies and it is really striking when a 12-year-old boy is involved. Mark Halperin.

HALPERIN: We shouldn't get used to it. We should denounce it and we should look to have the country be better and more civil even in vigorous debates. KURTZ: You've got the last word, Amanda Carpenter, Jonathan Capehart, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, the most unusual interview from my book tour this week. And here I thought it was going to be friendly.


KURTZ: As you saw at the top of the show, I've been making the TV rounds this week doing what authors do to promote their books. And let me just say, it is a jungle out there. And there was one interviewer in particular that I confessed I did not want to face.

Roll the tape.


KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: Joining us now to flog his new book "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War" is Howard Kurtz.

KURTZ, AUTHOR: Gosh, thanks for having me. I'm a long-time fan of the show. Can hardly believe I'm talking with you.

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: Right. So are the network newscasts going to survive? I mean, who wants to wait until 6:30 to get the news anymore?

KURTZ, AUTHOR: I actually believe the NBC, ABC and CBS newscasts are better than ever. In fact...

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: You can't be serious? Better than in the days of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley?

KURTZ, AUTHOR: I am serious. Those black and white programs, with their endless sound bites from officials and lack of storytelling would be considered unwatchable today. The problem is that today's evening newscasts still aren't good enough, not good enough to make them appointment viewing for folks who are being deluged with information 24-7. And certainly not hip enough to attract younger viewers.

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: When did you become the arbiter of what's hip?

KURTZ, AUTHOR: Just part of my job.

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: All right. Who's the biggest influence on the anchors these days?

KURTZ, AUTHOR: That's easy. Jon Stewart.

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: Jon Stewart? But he does fake news!

KURTZ, AUTHOR: He also points out the absurdity real news. "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" and "CBS EVENING NEWS" have been playing clips from "The Daily Show." And they've got plenty of company. KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: So, after spending all of this time watching the network news operations, who do you like better, Brian, Charlie or Katie?

KURTZ, AUTHOR: With all due respect, that's not the point. The real question is...

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: Don't try to duck. Answer the question. You've got 10 seconds.

KURTZ, AUTHOR: They each have their strengths. For example, Charlie is an old Capitol Hill reporter and...

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: Let's cut to the chase, Katie, hot or not?

KURTZ, AUTHOR: I hardly think that's relevant.

KURTZ, INTERVIEWER: We're out of time. The book is "Reality Show." And I confess I haven't had time to read it yet, but I hear it is pretty good. Howard Kurtz, thanks very much for joining us.

KURTZ, AUTHOR: It has been real.


KURTZ: 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.