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Reliable Sources

Bhutto Assassinated; Interview With David Yepsen

Aired December 30, 2007 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): The Pakistan factor. As the shocking assassination of Benazir Bhutto changes the tone of the presidential campaign, do the pundits have any idea which candidates might be helped or are they just flying blind?

Iowa bounce. How far will news organizations go to boost Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee if they win the caucuses and to bury Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney if they lose? We'll ask Des Moines columnist David Yepsen.

Race against history. With Obama poised for an Iowa upset, has the prospect of America's first black president become a nonissue or are journalists simply wary of raising the question?

Plus, Dana Milbank on the strangest and scariest journalists in Washington.


KURTZ: Presidential candidates and the journalists who follow them travel in something of a bubble. That bubble was rocked on Thursday by a tragedy that reverberated from Pakistan to Iowa.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto shoved the terror issue back on to the media's radar screen after a campaign that had focused more on healthcare and immigration, on likability and Christmas ads and pheasant hunting. Within hours, reporters and pundits were assessing the impact of the suicide attack on the prospects of the 2008 field. And some of our guests this morning were asked for instant assessments.


MORT KONDRACKE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think it probably helps McCain more than anyone else.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think the one it really hurts in the end is Huckabee, because he is really at sea on foreign affairs.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CBS NEWS: Since this wasn't a direct attack on Americans, the impact we're talking about is likely marginal and probably would help those with national security profiles like Senator McCain, perhaps Rudy Giuliani, as opposed to, say, a Mike Huckabee. CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Does this help Hillary? Does this help John McCain? It's a terrible thing to do, but we're doing it. Let's just say we're doing it.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: The Republicans first, the conventional wisdom, this could revivify Rudy Giuliani.


KURTZ: Did journalists engage in a rush to political judgment?

Joining us now from Des Moines, Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for; CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin; and with me here in Washington, Dana Milbank, who writes the "Washington Sketch" column for "The Washington Post."

Dana Milbank, you were asked for an instant reaction on Thursday, the day that Benazir Bhutto was murdered, the impact on the campaign. Isn't the honest answer nobody really knows?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, of course it is. And my first answer to that was, if there is an effect it's so marginal.

This is a classic story driven not from the snowy fields of Des Moines, but from here in Washington or New York, wherever editors sit around and say, oh, it's a big international, therefore it must be important to the voters out there.

I was picking up none of that. They're like, Benazir who? What?

KURTZ: Roger Simon, you were also in the snowy fields of Iowa. You were asked the day of the assassination for -- to handicap the impact. I know, you know, pundits have to have some kind of answer to these questions, but isn't it true that the impact could just as easily be marginal?

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO.COM: It could be marginal, but it could be important. We don't know what's going to happen in Pakistan in the days ahead.

Should there be a coup in Pakistan and radical extremists get their hands on nuclear weapons, I guarantee you everybody in this country is going to care who the next president is going to be and how the current president is going to handle it. You just don't know on rapidly breaking international situations.

Yes, domestic affairs usually drive American politics, but not always. I think it was a fair concern. I think it was a fair assessment. And I think the candidates very quickly tried to establish their credentials on this, and we just reported what they were trying to do.

KURTZ: There's no question, a lot of them were running to television studios to talk about Pakistan.

Jessica Yellin, you were out that day covering Barack Obama. And his chief strategist, David Axelrod, took kind of a shot at Hillary Clinton. I want to play that for our viewers and ask you about it on the other side.


DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA CHIEF STRATEGIST: She was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit is one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan, al Qaeda, who may have been players in this event today.


KURTZ: Now, this was portrayed by the press as being kind of, you know, blatant attack on the former first lady, but was Axelrod really responding to questions from reporters who wanted to draw him into some kind of fight?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he was responding to questions from reporters, and the Obama campaign has made it clear that they feel it was completely misportrayed by the press, that what Axelrod was doing was really just pointing out the same message that Obama has repeated for some time now, which is that the U.S. took its eye off the ball.

But reporters did bring this up in the context of what this Democratic race has been about, at least in part, which is this debate over experience. And to the extent that voters are concerned about it, that's a relevant question to ask, I think.

The big question is how concerned are these voters? I mean, when I go to these events here, they're not really asking about foreign policy and Benazir Bhutto. They're asking about their healthcare. And in fact, the candidates seem to know that.

Even on the day of Bhutto's assassination, they barely mentioned it. It's become a new line in most of their stump speeches, but they quickly blow past it because it's not the prime concern of these voters here.

KURTZ: So do Obama aides have a point when they say that this particular incident was misportrayed by the press?

YELLIN: Well, we said that there seemed to be -- he was drawing a link. And in my view, I think he was drawing a link. But to the extent that it was presented as Hillary Clinton being responsible in some way for her death? That's completely irresponsible.

That's not accurate. It's not fair. And they did get -- it was definitely a bad news cycle for them that day. And...

KURTZ: All right.

You know, the next day, on Friday, Senator Clinton was on CNN's "SITUATION ROOM," and Wolf Blitzer played for her something that Barack Obama had said. And it was a pretty general and mild. He talked about, "Experienced hands in Washington" -- this is Barack Obama -- "have not made particularly good judgments when it comes to dealing with these problems." Here is Clinton's response.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you want to respond to Senator Obama?

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, first, Wolf, I really regret that anybody would try to politicize this tragedy. I personally knew Benazir Bhutto.


KURTZ: Roger Simon, what's your reaction when a journalist asks a candidate about a specific criticism by a rival and the candidate says, "My opponent is trying to politicize this matter"?

SIMON: My typical reaction is, is this is the typical game plan of politicians everywhere. When you're dealing with a tragic event there are political implications. We talked about a few of them today. But to say that your opponent is politicizing them is to score a political point.

It makes you look human. It makes you look like you're caring about the death of a woman and someone who was a friend to Hillary Clinton, while the others are just talking about the political implications.

It was, from Hillary Clinton's campaign, a clever and good point. And that's what campaigns are about, especially the end game.

KURTZ: Wolf Blitzer asked her a second time about that and got pretty much the same answer.

Dana Milbank, I get the impression that journalists this these final days before Iowa are groping. First, the number issue was the war. No "It's the economy, stupid." And then change versus experience. And now, no, it's Pakistan.

What's your sense?

MILBANK: The sense is nobody has any idea because the polls show no obvious movement or pattern, no very clear winner. So, in that sense, any little thing could make the difference here.

So reporters are groping out there. Nobody has a clue.

We sit around at the end of the day over a drink and say, what do you really think is going to happen? If you got five people at the table, you've got five different opinions, although I haven't heard anybody yet for Dodd or Richardson.

KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, you mentioned a few moments ago that even on the day when Benazir Bhutto was murdered, the concerns among voters that you were watching and talking to were, you know, the more typical taxes -- the economy, healthcare and that sort of thing. Why does that -- is that not reflected in a lot of the coverage? Is it the fact that the press, you are out there every day with the candidates who are pretty much saying the same things, and we need a new narrative, a new story line, so a big event then gets perhaps distorted a little bit?

YELLIN: Well, it's no secret that the media likes to cover conflict and what's new. I mean, we do it every day. And, yes, it's that we just want the latest story sometimes on the air. And it does, you know, sometimes when you are out in the field get frustrating that the whole picture of what you're covering isn't fully portrayed out there, but it's also the nature of the beast, and, you know, we're the new, the news.

So it's what gets -- it gets you on air, and it gets people paying attention. And some of the latest issues though are sort of, frankly, dull. We've heard it so many times before, it would get painful for all of us to keep hearing about their positions on healthcare. How many times can you keep reporting that?

KURTZ: Is that a problem, sort of the repetitious nature of campaign trail reporting?

MILBANK: Yes. And some of our reporting is self-fulfilling.

Barack Obama was supposed to come out with a major new reintroduction of himself the very day this -- the Bhutto assassination broke. He got drowned out. So, in that sense, it is self-fulfilling and it does make it relevant. It made Giuliani more relevant because we all started talking about him while he's sunning himself down there in Florida.

KURTZ: You were there as well.

MILBANK: I much prefer Florida, I must say.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, with four days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Roger Simon, how important is the media expectations game, by which I mean the following: a month ago, Mike Huckabee would have been hailed for a strong second place finish in Iowa because he had no money and was kind of seen as the longest of long shots. Now if he doesn't win, I bet you and your colleagues will say he failed.

SIMON: Well, the expectation game is the entire game. It's not just who wins now, but how much.

On the Democratic side, where it seems to be a three-way tie, if a candidate wins by one point, are we really going to call that candidate the winner? At dinner table conversations, whether it's over drinks or not, the talk now is that the winner has to win by four points or by six points, which is probably impossible.

What might happen here is just that we'll all go on to New Hampshire and play this game out once again.

KURTZ: Well, who exactly anointed the press to be the arbiter of what's a win, what's a good win, what's a strong win, what's a respectable second place finish, and what's a surprising third place showing? How did we get so much power in this process?

SIMON: It's what we do. We got it by default. No one else is going to do it. We're going to let the candidates choose who's the winner? Hey, it's what we exist for.

KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, if you and hundreds of your colleagues were not suffering through the cold temperatures in Iowa right now, would a small state caucus with a turn out of less than 10 percent, pretty weird rules about who can vote for the second place candidate at the neighbor's house, would it be such a political bombshell?

YELLIN: No. It's nuts. The amount of attention that Iowa gets is remarkable, because this state really is not representative demographically of America.

You know, two percent African-American, about three percent Hispanic. So the amount of attention we give it, especially considering how many people turn out to caucus, very few, is out of proportion.

But you know the beauty of Iowa is that you do get to see the candidates in these small settings where they're talking to rooms of just 30. And so sometimes you do get a real sense of who they are if you leave Des Moines.

One of the problems is sometimes people don't leave Des Moines. They sit here and report from here, and you've got to get out there and see what's going on. My producer likes to call it Beltway High School here in Des Moines, because you get that mentality if you stay in the city.

KURTZ: I had the impression it was a camp reunion when I was out there in Iowa. And it is great, the retail campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. It is fun to cover and it is real, but it's -- when the votes are counted and we decide who did well -- for example, Hillary Clinton, let's say she doesn't win Iowa. Let's say she gets edged out by 1,000 votes.

Is the press going to savage her as a loser?

MILBANK: The press will savage her no matter what, pretty much.

KURTZ: If she wins?

MILBANK: Well, obviously if she wins by any great margin -- the press with Hillary Clinton, it's a poisonous relationship. And I visited the various campaigns out there. It's a mutual sort of disregard. And they really have their knives out for her, there's no question about it out there. So...

KURTZ: And to what extent do you think that is affecting the coverage of Senator Clinton?

MILBANK: I think it unquestionably is. And I think Obama gets significantly better coverage than Hillary Clinton does, and given an equal performance he'll come out better for it.

KURTZ: Is this because journalists like Obama better than Hillary or...

MILBANK: It's more that they dislike Hillary Clinton. There is a long history there, her antagonism towards the press. It's returned in spades. And it is a venomous relationship that I see out there.

KURTZ: Interesting.

All right.

Jessica Yellin and Roger Simon out there in Iowa, thanks very much for joining us.

Dana Milbank, we'll see you a little later in the program.

When we come back, more on the media's Iowa obsession with the ultimate insider. David Yepsen of the "Des Moines Register" helps walks us through the process.

But before we go to break, a few words about Benazir Bhutto.

Interesting to me that she knew so many of the journalists who had to tragically report on her death. This is a woman who wrote for Slate and The Huffington Post, who even covered sports for "The Harvard Crimson."

And so when she was murdered, some news organizations replayed news they had done with her fairly recent about the very dangers and risks that she was facing in returning to Pakistan. Let's watch some of that.


BLITZER: How scared are you though? Because as you know, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, they have attacked you in the past and they clearly would like to go after you now.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, FMR. PAKISTAN PRIME MINISTER: Yes, of course they would like to go against me. There is a lot of threats because on the military dictatorship and, an (INAUDIBLE) situation has developed which the terrorists and Osama have exploited.

ANN CURRY, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS": What if you die here in this effort? What if your life is taken from you and the suicide bombers are successful? Will it have been worth it?

BHUTTO: Well, everybody has to die one day.



KURTZ: Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to meet the most important political journalist in America. At least until this Thursday.

David Yepsen is a columnist for "The Des Moines Register" and dean of the Iowa press corps, meaning that every four years all matter of presidential candidates make sure to kiss his ring. His impact on the caucuses through his writing and his blog is beyond debate.

I spoke to him earlier from Des Moines.


KURTZ: David Yepsen, welcome.


KURTZ: If you were the dean of the political press corps in, say, New Jersey or Connecticut or Missouri, would you be having private dinners with Hillary Clinton?

YEPSEN: No, is the short answer, absolutely not.

KURTZ: When the candidates court you in such a personal fashion, does it sometimes seem like overkill?

YEPSEN: Oh, it -- perhaps. But I mean, it is an important political story.

Political reporters all over the country have dinner and drinks, breakfast with their -- with the sources and the people that they cover. So that part of it is not out of the ordinary. And I'm under no illusions that they do it because I'm a charming dinner companion. There is work to be done.

They have things they want to talk about. I have things I want to talk about. And that is what happens.

KURTZ: Well, let's not minimize your charm. But look, the Iowa Caucuses have been very, very good for David Yepsen. What about the complaints, and you have heard this since 1976, when you started covering these things, that it is a relatively small group of voters, a couple of hundred thousand, it is an unrepresentative state, and the media hype the hell out of the results?

YEPSEN: Most of that is true. It is an atypical state. There is a huge media contingent here. And it is a media event. It feeds on itself. The media people say its important, so politicians say its important, so more media come. And the technology of the media business today enables even more people to be involved in covering this, your bloggers, YouTubers.

I mean, there are all kinds of media today that just wasn't here back when I started doing this in the '76 campaign. And that is largely a function of the technology. KURTZ: What about the crystal ball aspect that inevitably creeps into the coverage? For example, if Mitt Romney were to lose Iowa on the Republican side, if Hillary Clinton were to get edged out on the Democratic side, it would be -- there will be all of this media -- as you say, all of these thousands of journalists, commentators, pundits, bloggers all talking about how badly they have been wounded. Does that have a distorting effect?

YEPSEN: Oh, it can. In fact, there is something they call the bounce that comes out of Iowa into the New Hampshire primary.

There is an effect on subsequent contests of the results in Iowa. The best example of that was in 2004, John Kerry came out of nowhere to win the caucuses. He got a huge media bounce that really helped him run the table and capture the nomination. But here is where this -- these caucuses are defensible.

This is the first time that political activists around the country have a chance to have their say about who ought to be president. Media people have had our say. The money people have had their say. Now this is grass roots activists. And that is, to me, one of the things that is defensible about this caucus is that it is not typical voters, it is party activists.

They go out on a cold January night. They stand up. They sit around. They talk politics. And so it really is the core of each party. If you look at the kind of people that go to a precinct caucus, they look an awful lot like the same sort of people you see at the national convention.

So while Iowa is not a typical place, the kinds of people who participate in these events, who are interested in politics, do reflect their political parties.

KURTZ: Right. And they take the process seriously. But let me just move along...

YEPSEN: And that becomes an important story for us to cover.

KURTZ: All right.

You mentioned 2004, the morning of the 2004 caucus you wrote, as I'm sure you remember: "If organization is as important as caucus lore tells us it is, Howard Dean should win the Iowa Caucuses tonight." So even you who lived there can obviously be fooled by the arcane nature of this process.

YEPSEN: No question about it, Howard. And you would have to dig up that one clip for me. I appreciate that.


YEPSEN: But that is true. I mean, that is -- these are difficult events to predict. And certainly this cycle, in both parties, it is a great story, because nobody knows who is going to win. So you won't see me or probably anybody else writing a column like that this time.

KURTZ: You did write a column this week in which you said the polls, the unbelievable avalanche of daily -- sometimes it seems hourly polls, are worthless predictors in this process. Why are so many stories written about Obama has a 2-point-lead on Hillary even when that is within the margin of error?

YEPSEN: Well, because I think it does give us some scientific basis to start looking at this race, other than just your own gut opinion. But you are right, there are way too many polls. I have often said there ought to be a polling cartel where we pool all of this money that is going into these individual polls and news organizations are doing and try to do us a huge tracking poll each night so that we can really get some data that is outside the margin of error that makes it clear what is going on.

I find the polls most useful in terms of telling us something about turnout, the kinds of people who show up.

KURTZ: Right.

YEPSEN: They are -- and the issues that people care about.

KURTZ: I have got half a minute. You also wrote this week that the third-place finisher for the Democrats, not the Republicans, will be severely wounded. And yet you say that not knowing whether that might John Edwards or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. How can you be so sure?

YEPSEN: Because the expectations game. You have got three frontrunners. They have all got a reason they have to win. The way the media will spin this, the way the political community will spin it will be that that third-place finisher will be damaged goods heading out of here on the Democratic side.

On the Republican side, it is still worth something, and there is a real fight going on right now for that third place.

KURTZ: Who knew the media had that much power?

David Yepsen, who will turn into an ordinary mortal after Thursday's vote, thanks very much for joining us.

YEPSEN: Thank you for having me.


KURTZ: Coming up, a blogger recklessly links a presidential candidate to neo-Nazis. Not some pajama-clad blogger, but one with a major media company.

A TV station in Chicago winds up with a new definition of breaking news.

And Elmo gets an unexpected visitor from network news.

The "Media Minute" is next.


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

Are mainstream journalists rushing to judgment when they post stories online? A "New York Times" blog reported this week that presidential candidate Ron Paul seems to have Nazi problems, saying he was meeting with neo-Nazi groups and taking money from a white supremacist organization called Stormfront. But a correction says that Stormfront didn't donate to the Texas congressman and that Paul didn't meet with these groups.

An editor's note says, "The post should not have been published with these unverified assertions and without any response from Paul."

You know what they say about bloggers.

In local TV you generally have to go chasing after stories, but sometimes the story comes to you, which is what happened at Chicago's WLS last weekend when a Mazda minivan crashed into the street-level studio during the 10:00 p.m. news.

Just watch the anchor's reaction.


RAVI BAICHWAL, ANCHOR, WLS-TV: And the weather made the rescue work all that much more -- oh!

You're looking at our studios from the outside. We have had a major accident happen right here about eight minutes ago.

Some onlookers saying again that this seemed to be an intentional act by the driver of this minivan. As you can see, it's come right through the window, happening right at the top of our newscast.


KURTZ: Police say that Gerald Richardson (ph), who was hit with a felony charge of criminal damage to property, wanted to be on the news. Well, he got his wish, sort of.

Here's a story that captures the holiday spirit. We already knew that Charlie Gibson, who made a seamless transition from morning host to evening anchor, is a man of many talents. But who expected him to show up on "Elmo's Christmas Countdown?"


ANNOUNCER: And now Charles Blitzen, with another Christmas countdown report.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS (voice over): Mass hysteria was broken out around the globe as word spreads that Stiller (ph) the elf has ruined Christmas for everyone.

Heck of a job, curly shoes. Heck of a job.


KURTZ: I'd know that voice anywhere. Charlie's not the first. Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper have all done stints on "Sesame Street."

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, he could be the country's first black president, but are the media making race a nonissue for Barack Obama?

Plus, Dana Milbank returns to talk about the strange ways of Washington's media world.

And we'll look back at some of our most memorable guests from 2007.


KURTZ: From the moment that Oprah threw her weight behind him, Barack Obama seems to have garnered nothing but favorable headlines. As he's moved into a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, the press has been talking up his candidacy while turning out various "Hillary in crisis" stories. But unlike when Jesse Jackson ran for president and Al Sharpton ran for president, one element appears to be largely missing from the media chatter, any talk about Obama's race.

Joining us now to talk about the coverage of Obama and the presidential campaign, Keli Goff, author, blogger and political analyst. She joins us from New York. And in Los Angeles, Amy Holmes, political commentator and CNN contributor.

Keli Goff, what is it about Barack Obama that has made race, by and large, a nonissue in the media?

KELI GOFF, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I would slightly disagree with you, Howard. I mean, just yesterday "The New York Times" ran a story on its home page titled "A Biracial Candidate Walks His Own Fine Line." And if that's not, you know, covering race, I don't know what is. What I would say, however...

KURTZ: Yes. And let me just jump in here, because what struck me about that is that there have been so few stories of that nature. That was a good and lengthy look at the possible complications that an African-American candidate might face, but I've seen very little of that.

GOFF: Well, again, I would slightly disagree with you, because, you know, remember, back in the spring and the summer, it seemed like every other newspaper I picked up had a story questioning is Barack Obama black enough? And it seemed like the media was slightly obsessed with that. What I would say though, Howard, is that it's not that they're not covering the racial issue, they're covering it differently because he's different. Generationally, he's different from his predecessors and he is, as "The New York Times" article notes, he's biracial. So I think he relates to white Americans differently than his predecessors, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

I mean, to be quite blunt, instead of leading protest marches on civil rights every other day, he's focused on running for president. And that's why the media coverage is different, because he's different.

KURTZ: All right. Let me get Amy Holmes in here.

I mean, Keli is exactly right, there were all of these articles about is he black enough for the African-American community, but that seems to have faded. If it's OK to ask that question, is it OK for reporters? Or are they too skittish to pose questions about white attitudes toward an African-American presidential candidate?

AMY HOLMES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I agree with Keli, but up to a point. I think that the issue of Barack Obama's race, the media covers it insofar as it's controversial amongst Democratic voters. If you look on the other side, say Mitt Romney's Mormonism, they cover that, you know, in great detail because it's controversial amongst Republican voters.

I would submit to you that if Barack Obama were to become the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, you k now, the very first week you'll see the headline "Is America Ready for a Black President?"

KURTZ: But why do we not we see that headline now?

HOLMES: I think because right now the contest is a primary contest amongst Democratic voters and the Democratic constituency, which by and large has not made race for Obama or gender for Hillary Clinton an issue in their decision making.

KURTZ: Oh, I would disagree with that. And let me get -- turn back to Keli Goff.

I mean, it seems to me, even though this is a primary, you know, either the subtext or the explicit text of many stories about Hillary Clinton is, you know, about her being a woman, the gender card, American attitudes toward a female leader, and Mitt Romney is constantly dogged by the press about his Mormon religion.

GOFF: Well, I think that there are a couple of things at play there, Howard. I think, one, you know, number one, I think that, you know, Senator Clinton has really focused on being an advocate for women's rights and for being, you know, the big feminist first if she makes it to the White House. And I think that Barack Obama's candidacy, I think that he's actually drawn more media comparisons in the public mind to someone like Colin Powell than someone like Jesse Jackson. And what I mean by that is Colin Powell's leadership and the reason everyone wanted to see him run for president is because all Americans look at him as someone who is attempting to be a leader for all Americans, not just attempting to be a "black leader." And so I think that the reason the coverage has been different of Barack Obama versus, you know, Senator Clinton and the gender card is again because Barack Obama is viewed very much as someone whose leadership is not tied exclusively to his being a minority.

HOLMES: And sure. And if I could elaborate on that, going back to the previous point, is that his race has not been a source of intense tension among Democratic voters. But again, if he's in the primary, I think the media will be rushing to exploit racial tension.

You'll see some guy from somewhere in the Midwest or the South being asked, "Are you ready to vote for a black man?" And you'll get probably a negative answer from the sound bite that the media is going to put up on the news, and it will be a huge controversy. But right now amongst Democratic voters, Barack Obama's race is not a huge controversy.

GOFF: Howard, can I say one last thing, too, that I think we're all forgetting? Is don't forget, no one thought he had a shot up until about six months ago. So I think a lot of coverage, remember, it was sort of this idealistic notion of, oh, here's this young senator, fresh face that's running, but no one thought in a million years, even six months ago, that he really had a shot of beating Senator Clinton.

HOLMES: And if anything right now, he's being compared to JFK.

KURTZ: I think it would be wonderful if we get through this whole campaign and just judge Barack Obama on his strengths and weaknesses and not about race, but I don't think that's very likely to happen, especially -- I mean, look, since reconstruction, there have been exactly two African-Americans elected to governors positions and three senators. So this is very unusual.

GOFF: Howard, one last thing though that I think it's really important for people not to forget, too, is that, you know, a lot of the reporters who are covering the day-to-day campaign coverage, you know, the ones who are actually in the trenches on the ground, are in their 20s and 30s. And I think that that is also playing a role in the media coverage, because their outlook on race in America is much more like "The Cosby Show," not -- I mean, that's who they grew up with, as opposed to growing up during the civil rights movement. So I think a lot of the media, white and black, have a different political outlook than they did when Jesse Jackson first ran, and I think that's also at play.

KURTZ: Interesting point, especially since Obama is positioning himself as somebody who transcends partisan divisions, and maybe even the racial divisions of the past.

Let's turn to Mike Huckabee. He went pheasant hunting this week and took a whole lot of reporters with him. Let's watch.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These three birds all said they would not vote for me on caucus night. You see what happened to them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that positive campaigning?

HUCKABEE: It's very positive. It's very positive. You vote for me you live. You don't, there you go.


KURTZ: Keli Goff, did journalists get suckered by this photo-op? I mean, he had a lot more reporters out there than he would have if he had just had a news conference in a hotel ballroom.

GOFF: Look, I think all the reporters were just thanking their lucky stars he's a better shot than the vice president. You know, look, these are great photo-ops. The media loves these types of photos. You know, Pat Buchanan with his shotgun leading up to New Hampshire. You know, John Kerry in a spacesuit. And let's not forget Dukakis in a tank.

You know, it never gets old watching politicians try to up their macho street cred.

KURTZ: And on that point, Amy Holmes, though, I did see some pundit types poking fun at Huckabee and talking about his Elmer Fudd cap and so forth.

What did you make of that?

HOLMES: Oh yes. I think that's a media perennial. If you're a Democrat and you're out there hunting, then you are an insincere phony. That's what happened to John Kerry back in 2004.

If you're a Republican out there hunting, then you're a dangerous gun nut. We see it every four years.

I think -- you know, I agree with Keli that these photo-ops, the visuals are just irresistible. He is wearing sort of a funny costume. And let's face it, the mainstream media has very little personal experience, knowledge of or interest in hunting as a sport.

I was listening to NPR this week and I had to laugh out loud when the reporter said, "Oh, and then Mike Huckabee held aloft his game and it was very beautiful and very dead," which was, well, of course it was. He was hunting. He wasn't out there reading Beatrix Potter.

KURTZ: That is sort of the point. And Huckabee is a lifelong hunter, so he wasn't just putting on the costume.

Want to turn briefly now to the role of newspaper editorials in this campaign. The "Union Leader" of Manchester, New Hampshire came out with an anti-endorsement of Mitt Romney. The paper has backed John McCain.

It says, "There is a reason Mitt Romney has not received a single newspaper endorsement in New Hampshire. It's the same reason his poll numbers are dropping. He has not been able to convince the people of this state that he's the conservative he says he is."

Keli Goff, do newspaper editorials matter in these closely- contested primaries, particularly in small states?

GOFF: They can. I mean, they can as part of, you know, a number of other issues.

I know that here in New York -- and I'm just giving it as an example -- I know that when it comes to more obscure offices -- you know, judgeships, things that people don't follow as closely -- people actually take "The New York Times" endorsements into the voting booth with them. I think for a presidential race it probably matters less, but an anti-endorsement, I would say, is much more -- has more of an impact on a campaign than an endorsement.


GOFF: Because that's the equivalent of someone calling your supervisor that you are interviewing with for a job and saying, I think this person is so unqualified, I felt the need to call you and warn you not to hire this person.

KURTZ: Right.

GOFF: Can you imagine that?

KURTZ: Amy Holmes, John McCain is running an ad in New Hampshire, just basically quoting from all the newspaper endorsements he's received.

HOLMES: Sure, it definitely -- it has raised John McCain's profile considerably. And, you know, six months ago, the media thought John McCain's campaign was dead, and now he's getting these endorsements. It's giving him a media bump, it's raising his profile.

But I would go back to that Concord anti-endorsement.

KURTZ: Just briefly.

HOLMES: Here I am, I'm 3,000 miles right now outside of the beltway. And a friend of mine who is an avid Democrat, she pointed out that while the media wrings its hands over negative advertising, when they wanted to come out and, you know, stick the knife in Mitt Romney, they didn't hesitate. So good for me, but not good for thee.

KURTZ: All right. Well, newspaper editorial pages are pages of opinion.

Amy Holmes, Keli Goff, thanks for joining us. Up next, the strange inhabitants of beltway culture include some big-shot, big-ego journalists. Dana Milbank is back to examine what makes them tick.


KURTZ: There are all kinds of strange characters in Washington. And one columnist seems drawn to them like a magnet.

Dana Milbank writes about the city's tribal ways in his book "Homo Politicus," and the fact that he waited around to rejoin us shows us why three-quarters responding to a poll on described him as a publicity whore.

All right, Dana Milbank. You write about the media being the chorus in the Washington drama, and you say that one chorus champions Republicans -- FOX News, "Washington Times," "Weekly Standard," "Wall Street Journal" editorial page. Then you say "The New York Times," CBS, other major newspapers, networks and magazines, are broadly assumed to be friendly to the Democrats.

Assumed by who? Is that fair?

DANA MILBANK, AUTHOR, "HOMO POLITICUS": Well, assumed by the general public out there. It has very little to do with what we actually do in our world, but we're -- everybody in Washington is forced into a particular category or tribe.

There is a Republican tribe and the Democratic tribe, and political figures or bloggers or whoever else out there will force everybody into one of those. Some people force us into both at the same time.

KURTZ: But you seem to equating, you know, mainstream organizations, which, you know, many people think lean to the left, but we should at least try to be fair with outfits like "The Weekly Standard," and "Wall Street Journal" editorial page, which are journals of opinion.

MILBANK: That's right. But for that matter, you can throw in Jon Stewart, you can throw in -- you know, there is a variety of opinion shows, and some often a mix when you look at something like FOX News.

KURTZ: Let's talk about some of the journalists that you write about.

Bill Kristol, he is the editor of "The Weekly Standard," FOX News commentator, former Republican strategist. Just announced today he's going to become a weekly columnist for "The New York Times." And a strong advocate of the war.

And you write, "With each false prophecy" -- meaning about the Iraq war -- "Kristol became only became more certain of success."

How does that work? MILBANK: Well, I look at it -- the press, I call them the Greek chorus, which in turn is sort of from the cult of Dionysus. If you know from reading the Greek plays...

KURTZ: Is there going to be a pop quiz here?

MILBANK: Well, there will be at the end. But basically the chorus is always jumping in and singing and dancing and drawing attention to itself instead of the actual figures in the action. So that's what I call -- the Washington journalists are the chorus.

KURTZ: But you're singling Kristol out as an Iraq war cheerleader and kind of suggesting that he doesn't deserve his success. But there are a lot of other people who supported the Iraq war, even on the liberal side.

MILBANK: Absolutely. No, no, no, I picked many. I picked some from the conservative side, everywhere from Jeff Gannon, speaking of a particular kind of prostitute, but to Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol at "The Weekly Standard" in a much more respectable way.

But what happens is the Republicans have their favorites, the Democrats have their favorites, and they talk to that side and they give them their side of the story. And that element of the chorus just parrots back or repeats back what that -- you know, what either the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe is saying.

KURTZ: With no critical judgment whatsoever?

MILBANK: Frequently there is no critical judgment whatsoever. But you have to consider that Washington -- I call it Potomac Land -- is a very primitive place, very -- you know, there's -- human sacrifice goes on and all kinds of barbaric rituals.

KURTZ: Political sacrifice.

Bob Woodward, you write about him as kind of the ultimate beltway insider. And you note that he was much more favorable to George W. Bush in his first two books about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, a much harsher portrait of the president in "State of Denial."

What was your point?

MILBANK: Well, there was no coincidence that the president and the White House were cooperating with Woodward in the first case, the second case of his book. They were not cooperating with him in the third. No accident that it became a whole lot more negative there.

A lot of people in this town, in the Greek chorus part of it, rely on access to people, and they are friendlier to the people who are friendly to them. So that's only to be expected.

KURTZ: Of course Woodward says that he found out new things as the war went on and as things did not go so well.

Judy Miller, recently of "The New York Times," she of course reported a lot of the stories that turned out to be erroneous, or some of the stories, I should say, about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Then she got caught up in the Scooter Libby case, went to jail, ended up leaving the times.

You write, "In her loyalty to her patrons over her newspaper, she had become bad news."

Loyalty to her patrons?

MILBANK: Yes. Her patron was being Chalabi from...

KURTZ: Ahmed Chalabi.

MILBANK: Yes, we may have forgotten his name over the last couple of years, but one of the figures who -- the expatriates who led us into Iraq there. She was very faithful he was being a secretive source to her, but because he was giving her those scoops they turned out to be wrong. But that wasn't important at the time that he was -- his side of the story was being very favorably presented. So that's a common element of the Greek chorus.

KURTZ: Aren't 99 percent of Washington journalists hard-working folks who aren't whack jobs or cheerleaders for one side or the other?

MILBANK: I don't -- not sure it's 99 percent, but there are a lot of hard-working...

KURTZ: More than a majority?

MILBANK: There are a lot of hard-working, honest journalists in this town, by I would exclude them from the "Homo Politicus" frame I'm using here.

KURTZ: They're not members of the tribe...

MILBANK: No, they are not admitted to the tribe. If they are fair and balanced, they are not going qualify as a Potomac man.


Well, I'll close by reading a blurb on the back of your book. Senator Barbara Boxer says, "Dana Milbank taking trash journalism to new heights."

Why did you include that?

MILBANK: Well, she is included in my book as one of the Amazon warriors. So that may give you something. We did lift some notes out of a -- that were torn up at the end of a hearing. So she did have a point there.

KURTZ: She clearly has a high opinion of you.

All right. Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us this morning. Still to come, from Tom Brokaw to Tina Brown, it's been a very reliable year for provocative media guests. We'll look back at some of our most memorable moments in 2007.


KURTZ: Time now for a look back at some of our favorite RELIABLE SOURCES interviews. We've sat down with some fascinating media people in 2007. People like Tom Brokaw, who talked about Katie Couric's leap from NBC's "Today Show" to the CBS anchor chair, where she struggled in the ratings.


TOM BROKAW, FMR. NBC NEWS ANCHOR: I said to her before she left, "Katie, it's a dive off the high board." And see said, do you think I'm going to -- "Does that mean you think I'm going to fail?" And I said, "No." Having gone from the "Today Show" to the "Evening News," it's a different DNA, and the public looks at it in a different way.

Katie wanted to change the tenor of the evening news when she arrived, and she arrived just as the country was really beginning to pay attention to serious issues again. In the fall of 2006, we had the congressional elections coming out, there were a lot of worries about the war and education, about healthcare. And she took the "Evening News" in a slightly different direction.

So you don't get a lot of second chances. You know, they take a look, they make a decision, and they move on.

KURTZ (voice over): I asked Tina Brown if she helped create modern celebrity culture as the editor of "Vanity Fair."

TINA BROWN, AUTHOR, "THE DIANA CHRONICLES": Guilty as charged. You know? But the fact is that when we began doing it at "Vanity Fair," we were doing that, putting celebrities on the cover, in contrast to and in opposition to the rest of the media culture, which was all kind of very gray.

So, you know, the amazing thing is now, the proliferation of outlets, everybody's putting celebrities on the cover. There really isn't a difference between the "Vanity Fair" kind of cover and everybody else's cover. So that's the difference really today, the incredible acceleration of it.

KURTZ: ABC's Bob Woodruff, who was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, talked about his ordeal in Iraq and his recuperation.

BOB WOODRUFF, FMR. CO-ANCHOR, ABC'S "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": I was filled with guilt from the beginning of what this was doing to my family, to my wife, to my children. And I feel even to this day badly about that.

I'm lucky enough to have recovered better than a lot of the military guys that I've met. I've done a little bit better than a lot -- than some of those that were injured in this war. KURTZ: NBC News president Steve Capus took plenty of heat for showing that sickening videotape of the Virginia Tech gunman after his network received it in the mail.

STEVE CAPUS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENT: Sometimes good journalism is bad public relations, I understand that. But we also -- we spent hours -- hours, all day long. We didn't reveal to the world that we had this material as we worked on the editorial decisions.

It's just shameful for someone like Hugh Hewitt to say we're going to have blood on our hands. That's diversionary talk from someone who wants to put the focus on the media instead of on very difficult issues to deal with, like mental illness.

KURTZ: We had a candid chat with CNN's Carol Costello about whether female correspondents have to look sexy to stay on the air.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN: OK, I have felt pressure to be attractive on the news, but there's a difference between being attractive on the air and using your sexuality to sell the news. And I think that many women in the news business right now have drank the Kool-Aid and said, you know what? I can't beat them, so why not just join them? And they are overtly using their sexuality to sell the news, and I think that's hurting women in the business overall.

KURTZ (on camera): How exactly do they do that?

COSTELLO: Short skits, crossing and uncrossing their legs, glossy lipstick.

KURTZ (voice over): Case and point? Lauren Jones, a bikini model who did a stint at a Texas TV station for the reality show series "Anchorwoman."

LAUREN JONES, "ANCHORWOMAN": I don't think there's anything wrong with multitasking. I mean, while, yes, I am hanging up the bikinis and I am going in a more serious direction, I am going to continue being an anchorwoman. But why not a model on the side, or have an acting gig on the side? I don't see why someone can't multitask.


KURTZ: Well, maybe. "Anchorwoman" lasted exactly one episode before being cancelled.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Happy and healthy new year to all of you.

Please join us again next Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.