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Reliable Sources

Are Journalists Hyping Obama's Candidacy?; Conservative Talk Show Hosts Savage John McCain

Aired February 03, 2008 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Conjuring Camelot. The media gets swept away over Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama. Are journalists promoting the rookie senator as the next JFK? And did they hype his supposed Senate snub of Hillary Clinton?

Revolt on the right. Rush Limbaugh and other radio talkers savage John McCain as he heads toward Super Tuesday after winning Florida. But has the press all but declared McCain the Republican winner over Mitt Romney?

And a week of serious journalistic inquiries leading up to today's Super Bowl showdown.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the woman in the wedding dress.



KURTZ: Whatever.


KURTZ: The presidential campaign is a blur now, all sound bites and snippets, a 22-state dash to Super Tuesday just two days from now. John McCain has been boosted by winning Florida, by the backing of his formal rival, Rudy Giuliani, and by favorable coverage from the reporters he talked to for hours every day.

Hillary Clinton claimed victory in Florida, a beauty contest where no Democrats campaigned because of the a dispute within the party, but the press wasn't buying her spin.

And Barack Obama, well, the pundits have been comparing him to JFK since he first started flirting with running. And when Ted Kennedy and Carolina Kennedy endorsed him this week, the media somehow magically transported us to this moment in 1961.


JOHN F. KENNEDY, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let the word go forth from this time and place -- to friend and foe alike -- that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Every anchor and correspondent, it seemed, picked up that metaphor and ran with it.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: On the broadcast tonight from Washington, passing the torch.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Tonight, passing the torch.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: The torch gets passed, the Clintons get passed by.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Barack Obama touched by the legacy of Camelot.

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: Ted and Caroline set to hit the campaign trail after they announced the heir to Camelot.


KURTZ: Why have the media gone haywire over this Kennedy endorsement? Are they favoring Obama and McCain? And how will journalists measure who wins and loses on Tuesday?

Joining us now to talk about the McCain coverage in Bridgeton, Missouri, CNN senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley; in New York, Chris Cillizza, who writes "The Fix" blog on; and here in Washington, Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "TIME" magazine who interviewed Ted Kennedy in this week's issue.

Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media -- ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy.

It's a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I've spent in it, I don't think it's bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank -- this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline.

You see John F. Kennedy's daughter and his brother get up and say this person sounds, feels and looks like my brother or my father. It's a very powerful story. Ted Kennedy is more symbolic. He's not just a senator from Massachusetts, he's also the last one of the Kennedy brothers. So...

KURTZ: So you believe basically it deserves all this blowout coverage because of the symbolism involve? Brief answer.

CILLIZZA: You know, I don't know if it deserved it, Howie, but I do think it was an important story as it related to Ted Kennedy saying, yes, this person resembles my brother.


CILLIZZA: If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

KURTZ: Let me turn to Karen Tumulty, because you talked to Ted Kennedy moments after that endorsement at American University. You asked him about Bill Clinton's role and his decision, and he said, I have enormous respect for Bill Clinton, he's a fine American.

That wasn't the whole story, was it?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME": Oh, not at all. And of course, you know, word had gotten out weeks before that Ted Kennedy was quite angry with the Clintons on a number of fronts. You know, one...

KURTZ: How did the word get out? Was it carefully leaked? Every media account seemed to have an account of this phone call between Ted Kennedy and the former president.

TUMULTY: You know -- yes. Do I tell you my sources? No. But, yes, I think that the Kennedy operation, which again is very savvy, very clear in what its place in this process is, wanted the word to get out. And it was almost, you know, a warning to the Clinton that the lion was going to stir.

KURTZ: Candy Crowley, can anybody seriously argue that if Senator Kennedy had decided to endorse Hillary Clinton instead, there would have been live cable coverage, it would have led all the network newscasts that night, it would have been all over page one the next day?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I have to tell you that I agree with Chris on this, that the storyline was so good. I don't think it was so much that we fell in love with the story, but the fact of the matter is both Caroline Kennedy and Ted Kennedy invoked their father, brother's -- I mean, I'm sorry, their brother and their father's name. So, you know, did we go with that? Absolutely.

But I have to also say that one of the reasons this story was so big, Howie, was that this is an establishment Democrat. Obama has had trouble sort of collecting those endorsements.

So, it became big for that, because the natural flow of things might have had Kennedy going to Clinton. So it was a surprise, it was a nod from an established Democrat, and there was that whole Camelot feature. So, on many levels it was a good story.

To directly answer your question, I don't think it would have been as big a story with Clinton. KURTZ: All right. I was going to answer my own question, but obviously you agree.

Chris Cillizza, you know, Robert Kennedy, Jr. endorsed Hillary, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. No one cared. And Obama, by the way, doesn't court reporters the way that JFK did both when he was running and when he was president.

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, Howie, I think one of the fascinating things is -- to your second point, is the Obama campaign, he has gotten, I believe, very favorable coverage. Now, I think there are any number of reasons behind that. And again, I tend to fall back on the fact that I think Illinois state senator, a couple years in the Senate, he gives a speech at the Democratic National Convention, and all of a sudden he's this national figure, I think it's a very compelling storyline, but he's gotten good coverage.

And the truth is, is you talk to most reporters, they don't get a lot of access to him. Even Senator Clinton has opened it up a bit. Now, it's a little bit. I want to caution it's not like John McCain -- we don't have hours with Senator Clinton on her plane.

KURTZ: Sure.

CILLIZZA: But she's opened it up a bit. Barack Obama has largely not done that. And, you know...


KURTZ: And why hasn't he paid a price for that? You know, reporters get very ticked off when they can't get near a candidate.

CILLIZZA: You know, I don't know the answer to that. I know his campaign, though, is clearly comfortable with the coverage they are getting, because, look, all campaigns know that if reporters start grousing and grumbling, the best way to placate them is to give them a little candidate time. That's what we all want. We want access.

We want to be able to ask the candidate our special question. Forget whether he's been asked it 500 times before. But the point is, if they would need to do that, I don't think they even feel compelled to do that at this point, because the coverage in a vein that they are happy with. They don't feel like they need to change anything.

KURTZ: Interesting.

There's a front page story in "The New York Times" this morning about Barack Obama watering down his own bill to crack down on nuclear leaks. This, after there were leaks in a plant in Illinois run by the Exelon company which contributed $227,000 to his campaign.

I bet you that gets 1,000th of the media attention that the Kennedy endorsements have provided.

Let me make -- talk briefly about John Edwards, who dropped out of the race. And Joe Trippi, his rather colorful campaign adviser, had this to say -- if we can put it on the screen -- "When the press wants to cover a two-person race" -- meaning Hillary and Obama -- "it's very tough for the third candidate to break through in that situation. You have to get edgy, get harsher, be more strident -- and we did it and it would work for a few days and then the media would turn their heads the other way. What were we supposed to do, set ourselves on fire?"

Does he have a point, Karen Tumulty?

TUMULTY: He does have a point. I mean, John Edwards was running against history on two fronts -- the potential of the first woman president, the potential for the first African-American president --- and yes, the publicity matter.

But you know what? John Edwards spent a lot of time with voters in Iowa and within New Hampshire. And I think if he were getting traction with his new message, his new retooled persona, I think he would have gotten more coverage.

And the fact is, I don't think that John Edwards turning angry, as Joe Trippi suggests, was just to get the media attention. They were telling us this was the genuine John Edwards.

KURTZ: Right -- absolutely.

Now, Tuesday is also going to be a big day, some would even say a make-or-break day for the Republican race, John McCain versus Mitt Romney. Let's look at what some of the anchors and correspondents had to say about Senator McCain in recent days after he won the latest big contest in Florida.


WILLIAMS: The big victor last night, McCain is now then undisputed front-runner in the GOP race.

COURIC: Tonight, a whole new race for the White House. John McCain now officially the GOP front-runner.

BLITZER: John McCain still very much in. Arguably, the front- runner -- the clear frond runner right now.

ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: Senator McCain now as a Super Tuesday contest as the Republican front-runner.


KURTZ: Candy Crowley, front-runner, front-runner, front-runner. And there is a new poll out this morning, ABC/"Washington Post," showing McCain nationally -- and, of course, it's a state-by-state contest -- 48 percent to 24 percent over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Are the media just reflecting reality here that things are going very well for John McCain?

CROWLEY: I think so. It's the chicken and the egg story, obviously.

And you have kind of opposite ends of the spectrum between Edwards and McCain, but I think obviously when he won New Hampshire, when he won South Carolina and barreled into Florida, John McCain was on the verge of becoming a front-runner. And then the polls broke for him after Florida.

So I think he is the front-runner. I think there is no doubt about that. But I also think, to go back to the storyline, it's such a great story, because here's a guy that came from the very bottom, everybody wrote him off, blah, blah, and now here he is back again.

So, is there sort of a great deal of fun with the fact that he's a front-runner? Yes, but I think the facts show that he is.

KURTZ: And Candy, when you talk about McCain being a great story, he's also a great story in a largest sense because the media love these life-affirming narratives. And he, of course, was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years, he's on the cover of "Newsweek" today -- let's put it up on the screen. He was on the cover of "TIME" magazine last week.

"Becoming McCain" is the headline. And more than half the cover story piece is about that Vietnam experience. "He's endured the unendurable and survived," the piece says.

Karen Tumulty, how much does McCain's war hero background play into the way we in the press treat him and cover him.

TUMULTY: Well, you know, it is hard to imagine a more character- defining event to have had in your life. And it does -- and he also has talked about it quite a bit. And you would -- you know, you would be driving around South Carolina a few weeks back and listening to the radio, and these bio ads, and people talking about his time as a POW, it felt like they were coming up about every 20 seconds.

KURTZ: That's a change from eight years ago...

TUMULTY: Absolutely.

KURTZ: ... where I think he was more reluctant to talk about that experience.

Chris Cillizza, does McCain also benefit from spending all those hours on the Straight Talk Express talking to reporters?

CILLIZZA: Howie, absolutely. You know, in the end, reporters are about access, we're about trying to get, you know, unique storylines, trying to get inside of a candidate and trying to understand them. I mean, what we want to do is bring people who don't get to sit on a bus with a candidate, bring them inside and show them, what is this person really like?

I just wanted to make one quick point. You mentioned the difference between 2000 and 2008. I think that is really, really important. When John McCain was at his lowest point, he went up with ads in New Hampshire that blatantly played on that biography, that had the pictures of him talking when he's laying in a hospital bed. I remember distinctly talk to people after he lost in 2000, advisers of his, who said, we wanted him to do more with the biography, that, yes, people knew he was a POW, but they may not have known the extent of his injuries, that this guy is a real American hero. And he was more reluctant to talk about it.

KURTZ: Absolutely.

CILLIZZA: Clearly, that's not the case this time.

KURTZ: Yes. And I just don't see as much media sympathy for Mitt Romney, who doesn't have that kind of story, as the (INAUDIBLE) and all of that.

You know, I find it fascinating. The network always talk about how they're not going to call these races until they're absolutely, positively certain, and yet, South Carolina, the networks all called the races after the AP did. And then in Florida, MSNBC, Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, was going on about how they were going to make an independent judgment right after AP called it.

Look what happened.


CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Our elections division, we stay isolated from each other because they don't want to know what other news organizations have done because this is Florida, and nobody wants to get tricky with Florida. But there's a lot of vote still left to be counted.


TODD: We've done this before.

OLBERMANN: NBC News declares John McCain as the projected winner in Florida.

TODD: The second time.


KURTZ: So much for making an independent judgment.

All right. We've got a half a minute from each of you.

Candy Crowley, Tuesday, 21, 22 states voting. Let's take the Democrats, for example. If Hillary Clinton wins the key big states, but Barack Obama comes close or even matches her in the number of delegates, who gets the headline? How does the press play who wins and who loses?

CROWLEY: I think the press plays the race goes on. I think that's where it goes from here. If they split the delegates -- it looks likely that they may -- the storyline is going to be, on to the next place.

KURTZ: Delegates, is it all about delegates?

TUMULTY: Well, it certainly hasn't been. When Hillary Clinton won Nevada, she won the most votes. And everybody played it as a win for her, and yet, Barack Obama got the most delegates. So I don't know how the spin coming out of Tuesday is going to be.

KURTZ: My take, Chris Cillizza, would be the winner on Super Tuesday is whoever the media says it is.

CILLIZZA: As always.

You know, I think, Howie, one thing to look at, I do think McCain is likely to roll up a significant delegate lead over Romney. That will be at least half of the story, because that will be something definitive we can say in the stories.

I do, I agree with Candy and Karen. I think in the end we're going to be looking at a very small delegate differential between Clinton and Obama, and we'll be looking for the next February 5th.

KURTZ: All right. And here we all said it's going to be over February 5th. And maybe not.

Let me get a break.

When we come back, the cold shoulder debated around the world. Were the media reading way too much into a supposed State of the Union snub?


KURTZ: It may have been President Bush's last State of the Union, Congress may be divided over a $150 billion stimulus program to head off a recession, but the media chatter has all been about a bit of awkwardness between two Democratic senators.


BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: A snub or not a snub?

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: The so-called snub...

MATTHEWS: We don't know if 50 times down the hallway they snubbed each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think it's a snub.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think this whole notion of a snub is ridiculous.

GIBSON: In four photographs taken by a "New York Times" photographer, Clinton approaches the pair. Obama is now looking forward. Clinton extends her hand to Kennedy, but Obama deliberately, coincidentally, unknowingly turns away. She reaches for Kennedy's hand, Obama continues looking elsewhere.


KURTZ: Charlie Gibson doing his impersonation of John Madden with the telestrator.

Karen Tumulty, did he snub her, did he not snub her -- the whole thing seems silly.

TUMULTY: Well, what was that, the Zapruder tape, or what? You know?

It was -- yes, I mean, as presidential politics, you know, conflict goes, this was pretty small stuff. Of course, the fact that it happened during the State of the Union address, when both of these people should have been very, very aware that the camera was going to be on them all the time, suggests a little bit of political malpractice, but this was, you know, not quite the major event that the media seems to have played it out to be.

KURTZ: Candy Crowley, these are two very determined politicians running for the most powerful office in the world. Why is there so much journalistic interest in whether they like each other, they don't like each other, they're getting along?

CROWLEY: Because politics is about people and politics is about drama, and people vote on who are these candidates. They feel as though they need to get to know them.

So I think, as you know, it's that whole who do you want to have a beer with syndrome. People are going to see these candidates, should they become president, pretty much daily in their living room, so there is that component of personality.

Does that mean the snub was a huge story? I don't think so. It certainly played into the stories of the day.

She got snubbed by Teddy Kennedy when he gave his endorsement to Obama. That had just happened. There is, you know, all that feeling that there's tension between the campaigns. So that picture fed into it.

KURTZ: Right.

Well, who do you want to have a beer with? I guess it actually is, do the two of them ever want to have a beer again? And we saw all that politeness at the CNN debate in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Chris Cillizza, I don't want to snub you on this, so let me toss this question your way. For all of the two hours that they sparred, oh so politely, about the war in Iraq and health care, and mandates, and all of that, what seems to have gotten most of the attention was I believe the last question asked by Wolf Blitzer.

Let's watch.


BLITZER: Would you consider an Obama/Clinton or Clinton/Obama ticket down the road?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, obviously there's a big difference between those two.



KURTZ: Chris, a little, perhaps, ridiculously early to be trying to sign them up together or run as running mates?

CILLIZZA: You know, Howie, it is really early, but I will say, you know, I have this blog and I wrote about vice presidential potential picks on Friday.

KURTZ: You didn't? Can't you help yourself?

CILLIZZA: It got 500...

KURTZ: Can't you stop yourself?

CILLIZZA: I can't help myself. But let me say this -- it got 475 comments, so it's not just us.

I just want to say, we are not just creating this. People ask me all the time.

I was at dinner last night with my mother, a couple of my aunts, my wife, and a few friends, and they all said, "What do you think? Would Obama take a Clinton ticket? Would Clinton take an Obama ticket?"

Regular people do talk about this. I think it's the Democratic dream ticket.

I don't know if it will come to pass, but I think the thing that we love in politics, and I think the thing that average people in a lot of ways love, who aren't in the political world at all, not political reporters, they like speculation. They like, what about this one and this one?

KURTZ: Right.

CILLIZZA: Would that go together? And so I think it plays into that. You know, it's why we do fantasy football, it's why, you know, I always think, wow, if we just had this one guy on the Georgetown basketball team, we would be the NCA champions.

KURTZ: Fantasy football.

CILLIZZA: You know, speculation I think drives all this stuff. KURTZ: Yes. Well, I think it's the media's dream ticket, whether or not -- for example, if Obama were to win running as the candidate of change, and turning the page, whether or not Hillary Clinton as vice president really helps him. But it does seem to be -- the media doesn't want either one of these people to get off the stage almost.

TUMULTY: Although the polling suggests there is, at least among Democrats, very much of an enthusiasm for this idea, too. I mean, that's the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans this year. The Democrats like both of their candidates.

KURTZ: Candy Crowley, neither one of them could answer that question, because, you know, both of them are still clawing their way to the battle to the nomination, which may or may not get clarified two days from now.

CROWLEY: Well, absolutely. And who wants to lock themselves into anything?

I mean, basically, they had no answer there that was going to be very good except for a non-answer. They don't want to lock themselves in.

I will point out that Hillary Clinton, whenever she talks about what she wants in a vice president, talks about somebody that can take over right away. And her entire campaign is predicated on the fact that Obama is not ready.

KURTZ: Right.

CROWLEY: So, it seems to me to argue against that, even though, of course, Democrats love it, because they like both these candidates.

KURTZ: The only good answer was a joke. They both managed to get that.

We appreciate your helping us this morning.

Candy Crowley on the trail in Missouri.

Chris Cillizza in New York.

Karen Tumulty right here, heading back out on the trail.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, rush to judgment. Limbaugh and other conservative commentators mounting a last-ditch effort to derail John McCain. How much influence does talk radio really have?

Plus, the Super Bowl media circus. From marriage proposals to guys dressed like wizards, what happened to covering the actual game?


KURTZ: John McCain may have scratched and clawed his way to the head of the Republican pack, up from the political grave which journalists prematurely dug for him, but he still faces formidable opponents. Not just Mitt Romney, but Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and most of all, Rush Limbaugh.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: The same media that couldn't call New Hampshire right still shamelessly, in the prediction game, predicting my demise and your demise. Well, I say fa (ph).

Senator McCain has been able to cobble together enough votes to win in a few states. Fine, he deserves credit for that. But to pretend that Senator McCain is the choice of conservatives when exit poll data from every primary state show just the opposite, he is not the choice of conservatives, as opposed to the choice of the Republican establishment.


KURTZ: But some conservative hosts say the likes of Limbaugh are going too far.


MICHAEL MEDVED, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: The truth of the matter is, look, folks have to come to terms with the fact that McCain is very likely going to be the nominee. So, for nine months are we going to be attacking a Republican nominee every single day, and calling him McVain and calling him McLame and calling him McAmnesty?


KURTZ: So, is conservative talk radio emerging as a formidable force against the Republican senator, and could that change if McCain wins the nomination?

Joining us now in New York, Keli Goff, an author, blogger and political analyst. And in Irvine, California, Hugh Hewitt, radio talk show host who blogs at and is the author of a book about Mitt Romney called "A Mormon in the White House?"

All right, Hugh. What is it about John McCain that seems to arouse not just opposition, but almost a visceral dislike among you and some of your fellow conservatives on the radio?

HUGH HEWITT, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I wouldn't call it a visceral dislike. I'd call it a great distrust of his policy positions that goes back many years. And of course, the laundry list is well known -- McCain/Feingold, campaign finance law, the votes against the Bush tax cuts, the decision, his urging of the closing of Guantanamo Bay, his Gang of 14, and, of course, the McCain/Kennedy -- the Z Visa bill.

So, there's a long list of sort of serial offenses against conservatives, as well as a sort of glee in John McCain when he does it, that has set up this almost unified wall of opinion pundits against him on the right. It's not uniform. I mean, my friend Michael was just on, and Michael's a big McCain fan, but Michael liked McCain/Kennedy immigration reform.

KURTZ: Right.

HEWITT: And so that's what's going on. It's ideological. I don't think it's visceral. I think it's because we look at this stuff for a living, we do it every single day.

KURTZ: I don't know. It just seems to me there's something about McCain, you all feel like he keeps poking you in the eye.

Keli Goff, does this strike you as a stand-on principle by people who are on the air from the conservative side, or are they just ganging up on a guy who they've never liked because he doesn't tow the party line?

KELI GOFF, POLITICAL ANALYST: You know what strikes me as so interesting about this, Howard? Is it's sort of watching conservatives go after John McCain, the likely Republican nominee for president, it's sort of like watching a replay of the Democrats for the last decade in which they've lost every election. It's sort of been this amazing reversal of fortune, if you will, because usually it's the Democrats who sabotage their most likely -- the most viable nominee on "principle."

But as we all know, principle doesn't really matter a whole heck of a lot if you lose. And so -- you know, so I think its' going to be really interesting. I mean, Republicans sort of have to make the tough call here. Does Rush Limbaugh want to be right, or does he want to see Hillary Clinton or possibly Barack Obama in the White House?

So, I think that this is...


KURTZ: I'll get that to that in a minute, but I want to play this bite from Ann Coulter, who I never thought I would hear say anything remotely favorable about Hillary Clinton. Here's what she had to say the other night.


ANN COULTER, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Manifestly, if he's our candidate, then Hillary's going to be our girl, Sean, because she's more conservative than he is. I think she would be stronger on the war on terrorism. I will campaign for her if it's McCain.


KURTZ: Hugh Hewitt, would you rather see a President Hillary Clinton than a President John McCain? Are you in the Coulter camp on this one?

HEWITT: Absolutely not. I think she's a party of one and is very wrong on that. In fact, she was insane about that. And I can give you lots and lots of reasons beginning with the war on terror and six Supreme Court justices, 68 years and old.

John McCain will be a fine candidate. The question is, can he win?

I think in January, when you saw Barack Obama raise $32 million, when you see the tsunami that is building behind him, the realization that John McCain is a very, very weak general election candidate against a candidate of the future is another thing driving conservative talk radio to say, wait a minute, folks, we're headed towards a wipeout.

KURTZ: OK. Let me bring you back to the media role, because you believe, based on what I've heard you say and seen you write, that the mainstream media, the MSM, are rooting for McCain. But wasn't it the journalists from the same mainstream media who declared him dead, washed up, done, toast last summer, when he didn't seem to be doing well?

HEWITT: Actually, I don't think they did, Howard. I do believe that MSM is in love with John McCain and has been because of his opposition to conservatives over a period of many years. But I do think MSM noted he was down but not out, and he probably should have been out, and if we had paid more attention to him, he would have been out. But he wasn't being paid much attention to.

GOFF: I think -- I think you're simplifying the story just a little bit. I think that, you know, the fact that the mainstream media does love John McCain, or have a bit of a love affair with him, is one of probably the worst-kept secrets in politics.

I mean, even four years ago, you saw that he, you know, got a lot of positive coverage, but I think it's not just about the fact that he, you know, doesn't just kowtow to the conservative establishment. He has a great story.

And you know what? He's likable. I mean, John McCain is one of the few politicians who legitimately looks comfortable on "The Late Show With David Letterman" or "The Tonight Show," or even "The Daily Show," just as comfortable as he does in the presidential debate.


KURTZ: Which we all now know is a requirement for running for president. You've got to be comfortable on Jon Stewart's couch.

But Keli Goff, even if there is -- you call it a love affair. I've been on the bus, and clearly journalists love having the access almost 24 hours with this guy.

This week, journalists turned on John McCain when he made that charge against Mitt Romney claiming that the former Massachusetts governor actually had endorsed timetables for withdrawal from Iraq based on a secret understanding between the administration and the al- Maliki government. Look at how -- look at what Romney did when the subject came up in that CNN debate against McCain in Los Angeles on Wednesday night. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's not a single media source that I have seen that hasn't said it was reprehensible. Even the -- even "The New York Times" said it was wrong.

"The Washington Post" -- they endorsed you. "The Washington Post" gave you three Pinocchios for it. It's simply -- it's simply wrong, and the senator knows it.


KURTZ: So Keli, didn't the press blow the whistle on McCain's charge on that particular point?

GOFF: They did, Howard, but that's because of one key reason, I would say here, which is that the only thing the mainstream media definitely loves more than a good comeback story is a good horse race story. And as long -- and whenever there's a race that looks like there's going to be a huge front-runner, you notice that these sort of "gotcha" stories tend to sort of pop out there to tighten things up.

It's happens with Obama right now, with "The New York Times" story on his -- the legislation he passed in his home state of Illinois. And you kind of saw it happen there with McCain. The media needs a horse race because that sells papers.

And so I think that that's what we're going to keep seeing.

HEWITT: Howard, the blocking left tackle that is mainstream media is blocking for McCain this week because they're not focusing on this key story, what Rush Limbaugh said on Thursday, a vote for Mike Huckabee is a vote for John McCain. If media was truly covering this race as it should be, they would be covering the fact that Huckabee is fading across the United States, and that all he is doing at this point is giving support to John McCain.

He has no realistic chance of winning the presidency. Only Mitt Romney. And so by not reporting that story completely and repeatedly, and the fact that Rush has come out and said it, that Sean Hannity has endorsed Mitt Romney, that Laura Ingraham has endorsed Mitt Romney, they are covering for McCain's great weakness, which is he has got to keep Huckabee in the race in order to get the nomination.

KURTZ: Hugh Hewitt, you've written a book on Mitt Romney. Does Romney get a fair shake from the national press?

HEWITT: No, I don't think he does. But that's because he's not as well known as John McCain. It's not that they dislike Romney. The flip-flop stuff is tiresome and old.

GOFF: I would disagree.

HEWITT: But I do believe that the key here is that John McCain is very much the love affair that goes on. If there wasn't this love affair, we would be talking about two things this morning. There's a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby Poll out that shows Romney ahead in California, and there's a new poll out of Arizona that shows John McCain can't even get a majority in his home state. Here's the bottom line: McCain is a phenomenally weak general election candidate for a lot of reasons.


KURTZ: Well, we will see if that's the case.

Keli Goff, why is there not this great split on the liberal side among commentators between Obama and Hillary? Some people like Hillary Clinton, some people like Barack Obama. But nobody's trashing the candidates they don't like, the candidates...

GOFF: Well, I'd slightly disagree with that, Howard. I think that there has been a bit of trashing, actually the last several months. From the beginning.

I mean, there were early on lots of stories, as we've discussed here before, you know, on whether or not Barack Obama is black enough. There were stories about whether or not Hillary could ever win over female voters. So there was definitely some infighting. But, you know, as I said earlier, I think that the Republicans are sort of making the Democrats look like child's play at this point, which is why that's garnering a bit more press coverage.

And I just slightly disagree with Hugh just a bit, which is that I do think that there are a lot of members of the media who don't like Mitt Romney. A lot of times, you know, no one really likes Mr. Perfect, and we've seen that with previous candidates.

I mean, Al Gore was called boring. But I think the bigger issue with him is that he came across as the smartest kid in the class. And no one really likes that.

And Romney has a bit of that vibe himself. And you know, I hate to be a cynic here, but I also think that for some -- for some people, some people sort of look upon Mormonism the same way that they look upon Scientology, which is that they don't really know what it's about, and they're a bit suspicious of it, and the media has responded in kind by covering it a lot.

KURTZ: And I'm sure you would agree that's unfair.

GOFF: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Hugh Hewitt, I've got a half a minute for your to respond on the press attitude toward Mitt Romney.

HEWITT: I'd point out one thing. Talk radio has been unified twice in the last year. The first time was to defeat the McCain/Kennedy immigration bill. The second time now is to defeat John McCain in the Republican primaries.

Once it gets going, it's very, very powerful. And that message that a vote for Huckabee is a vote for McCain is getting out there.

So watch Tuesday. There are going to be surprises there, Howard. Mainstream media thought that Hillary was going to lose in New Hampshire and she won. The same thing could happen on Tuesday.

KURTZ: Oh, our prediction record is absolutely awful. We'll see how yours does.

Hugh Hewitt, Keli Goff, thank you for joining us this morning.

HEWITT: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: I want to deal with this late-breaking story which was mentioned in The Huffington Post.

Bill Bennett, the conservative author and CNN contributor, is neutral in the Republican presidential race. The Huffington Post reports that he's given the maximum $4,600 to John McCain. Bennett says he's donated to Mitt Romney as well.

It's hardly surprising that obvious partisans would give to candidates, but they should disclose that on the air and let viewers make up their minds. Here's a statement I've been given from CNN.

"Bill Bennett continues to appear on our political panel because he has not endorsed a presidential candidate and is not advising any one campaign. He has made contributions to both McCain and Romney, but he has stated again and again he does not know who he will vote for."

On the Democratic side, two of CNN's top Democratic contributor, James Carville and Paul Begala, obviously support Hillary Clinton and have donated to her campaign as well. CNN decided a couple of months ago to have them only on the air with advocates for other Democratic candidates now -- that would be Barack Obama -- at least until the Democratic race is decided. That change makes sense and is long overdue.

All right. Up next, two teams, one game, and thousands of journalists. With the Super Bowl just hours away, we turn our critical lens on the last two weeks of pre-game hype. Has it been a bust?


KURTZ: All right. Forget Super Tuesday. It's Super Sunday. And there are all kinds of plot lines surrounding tonight's Super Bowl -- the age-old sports rivalry between New York and Boston; the Giants' chance to spoil the Patriots' bid to be the first undefeated NFL team since 1972; the early season spying controversy over signals stolen by Patriots coach Bill Belichick; the glamorous social life of New England quarterback Tom Brady.

So, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of journalists, descending on the event, you would think there would be plenty of opportunity for good reporting, but the week's interviews have been, I don't know, less than enlightening.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What does Bill Belichick do after the season's over to regroup?

BILL BELICHICK, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS HEAD COACH: Well, one day I'm going fishing with Jimmy Johnson.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "The New York Times" this past weekend describing you as a nice down-home guy, dating his high school sweetheart. Brady is the stud of the NFL, with his supermodel girlfriend.

What do you make of those sort of comparisons?

ELI MANNING, NEW YORK GIANTS QUARTERBACK: You know, I don't read -- I don't read the paper comparing my life to his life. You know, it doesn't mean much to me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had one of these in fourth grade.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this is one of your old hairpieces?



KURTZ: Now, that's journalism.

Joining us now in Phoenix, near the site of the big game, Gregg Doyel, columnist for CBS SportsLine, and Will Leitch, editor of the blog and the author of "God Save the Fan."

All right.

Will Leach, you wrote -- and maybe this was after you saw the guy with puppets on both hands -- that, "Media day at the Super Bowl is pretty much the most vapid thing I've ever seen in my life."

What, you don't like to have fun?

WILL LEITCH, DEADSPIN.COM: Hey, listen, I would love for it to be fun, frankly. Everyone told me -- this is my first Super Bowl, and everyone told me before I got here, oh, media day, it's such a circus. But, like, circuses are entertaining. And, like, frankly, you've got thousands of journalists all going into -- you know, with every player on both teams with an hour to talk to all of them, and all that really came out of there was some lady in a wedding dress asked Tom Brady to marry her, which I think is a joke from like four media days ago, and Bill Belichick relaxed.

And that was pretty much all that kind of came out of there. And I really -- it was a very difficult thing to see for the first time, to realize, wow, this is actually so empty, it's not even pretending to be about anything anymore. And like, the fact that those were the jokes that came out of there, I would love for it to at least be entertaining, but it wasn't that.

KURTZ: All right.

Keep that picture up before I go to -- that woman, some lady, as you referred to her, is Inez Gomez Mont (ph). She's a reporter from Mexico's TV Azteca.

She asked Tom Brady to marry her. She said, "I'm better than Gisele." That's a reference to Gisele Bundchen, Brady's supermodel girlfriend.

So, Gregg Doyel, why does Tom Brady have to be subjected to this?

GREGG DOYEL, SPORTSLINE: Because he's testosterone greatness. I mean, the guy -- the guy's beautiful, he's a great quarterback, he's married to the richest, most beautiful woman in modeling. And he's perfection. So he's going to get that.

I think it's important to say something, though. That what passes for entertainment south of the border is really sad, because if you look at all those stupid jokes, the puppets on the hands, and the woman asking for the hand in marriage, and the guy wearing the turban telling the future, those are all people south of the border. And I say that -- my wife is from Chile, and my kids are half Chilean, so hopefully I'm grandfathered in and I can say that.

What passes for entertainment south of here, real said.

KURTZ: Well, you know, Gisele Bundchen was quoted as saying that if the Patriots lose this game and spoil their undefeated season, "I'll run naked down Broadway."

That could be next week's big media story.

Will Leitch, look, it's a big game, it's a big sporting event, it's an American cultural event. Reporters get access during this time to all the coaches and the big superstar players.

Why don't they get more out of them when it comes to these interviews?

LEITCH: Well, frankly, it's funny, because the thing about media day, as you kind of learn when you look at sports, it's not really that -- media is not that different than any other press conference. And it's really -- it's the exact same kind of thing. Everyone asks the same kind of questions, they give the same kind of responses.

The goal -- there's never any incentive for any athlete to ever say anything interesting. Because when you do, it inevitably becomes some sort of controversy.

So I think that -- basically, I think the athletes kind of treat a lot of the stuff on media day as an, OK, let's just get this over with, particularly the high-profile athletes, like your Tom Brady or your Randy Moss. But basically the goal is to like finish this up and then go back and do what you're supposed to do, which is knock other large men to the ground.

KURTZ: Gregg Doyel, you write, after, I guess, the Giants' defensive end, Michael Strahan, faced the press -- and I guess he's not a big fan of facing the press -- "Michael Strahan can't decide whether to charm the media or spit sandwich at them."

Is the attitude of some of these players that condescending?

DOYEL: Well, yes. They know when the cameras are on. They're kind of like Rick Majerus, the bozo basketball coach of St. Louis.

When the camera's on, they're going to act all nice and cuddly and charming, but when the camera is off, they become -- it's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And Strahan is no different than anybody else.

And one reason why you don't see hard-core reporting at this thing is none of us have access to anybody alone. So we all think we have good questions to ask, but I'll be damned if I'm going to ask my question with 50 other people around. So, the reality is, I never ask my good question.

I save it for never. So I've got all these great questions to ask. I'm not going to ask them so Will Leitch can write the stuff on DeadSpin and beat me on my own stuff.

And Will, I like you very much.

LEITCH: Thank you.

KURTZ: Bill Belichick, you know, the Patriots coach, was involved in that big cheating scandal in the game involving the New York Jets -- against he New York Jets, in which some of the signals were stolen. So, Will Leitch, exactly how many questions did Belichick get in the last week about that sleazy episode?

LEITCH: I think at the beginning of media day he got a couple -- he got a couple about that. And, you know, the thing that so much football reporting, it's so intense and happens so repetitive, that he got -- he basically was able to answer most of those questions.

But, you know, we've covered this most so far this year, which is true and yet still kind of (INAUDIBLE). A lot of these revelations have come since the media day and since some of the -- some of the access they've had to him. And I think he probably won't be talking before the game today. But I find it telling that most of the reaction to the stuff about Spygate is, oh, that's really going to motivate the Patriots. Now they're really going to be mad.

KURTZ: That's what politicians do. They say that's an old story.

LEITCH: Exactly.

KURTZ: Gregg Doyel -- I've got about half a minute. Which results in more hype, the fact that the Patriots could become the most -- the first undefeated team since the '70s, the Miami Dolphins, or the fact that the New York media are involved because of the Giants?

DOYEL: Oh, it's both. The New York media is a sickening thing.

In my nightmares I wake up writing for "The New York Post," covering the New York Mets. And that's a nightmare for me.

So the New York media gags me, but the Patriots -- still the crush of the Patriots going 19-0, that's a huge national story. The New York media is a huge New York story, but the Patriots 19-0, that's national. And thanks to Azteca, it's south of the border news, too.

KURTZ: All right. I was going to ask if either of you went to the Playboy party last night, but we're out of time. So you're off the hook.

LEITCH: I didn't make it.


Gregg Doyel, Will Leitch, thanks very much for joining us.

And if you've missed any of today's show, you can download our video podcast available on iTunes or at

Still to come, checkbook journalism, if you can call it journalism. The Heath Ledger video that proved too hot for TV to handle.


KURTZ: A rather breathless promo aired this week on "Entertainment Tonight."


KURTZ (voice over): The program was touting a video with the late actor Heath Ledger that cost "ET" a reported $200,000, "The New York Daily News" says. It shows Ledger at a Hollywood party where drugs were apparently being consumed. The "Brokeback Mountain" star is shown rolling some cigarette paper and heard saying, "I used to smoke five joints a day for 20 years."

But in the wake of Ledger's mysterious death in his New York apartment, "ET" and its sister show have gotten cold feet, saying in a statement, "Out of respect for Heath Ledger's family, 'Entertainment Tonight' and 'The Insider' have decided not to run the Heath Ledger video that has been circulating in the world media."


KURTZ: Where exactly was that respect when "ET" paid for the tape? Australia's Channel 9 showed no such restraint. It aired the Heath Ledger video on Thursday.

Well, it's been an open secret for a while, but this is Bob Schieffer's last campaign.


BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: That's the news. I'm Bob Schieffer.

KURTZ (voice over): CBS' chief Washington correspondent and former anchor plans to hang it up next inauguration day. Still doing part-time punditry, but giving up his coveted Sunday perch on "Face the Nation" after 17 years.

There should be plenty of jockeying for that job.

Speaking of CBS veterans, Mike Wallace is 89 and still going strong. The "60 Minutes" war horse is bouncing back from triple bypass surgery and reported to be doing well.


KURTZ: Nothing stops that guy.

Finally, if Nicolas Sarkozy wants to dump his wife and publicly parade around with Italian supermodel Carla Bruni, well, that's his choice. But yesterday reports came from French radio and then the British tabloids that President Sarkozy and Ms. Bruini had tied the knot.

There was initially no comment from the Elysee Palace, but an Italian news agency got confirmation from Bruni's mother and then finally a terse official statement.

Talk about thumbing your nose at the press. It's insulting. A president gets married and decides that journalists and the public have no right to know about it? This is the same man who walked out on "60 Minutes" interview with Leslie Stahl when she asked whether his marriage to Cecilia was breaking up, which, as it turned out, it was.

In this country there would be a media riot over a secret White House wedding. But in France, c'est la vie. They do things differently.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

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