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Reliable Sources

Hillary, Obama Campaign Together; Interview With Jann Wenner

Aired June 29, 2008 - 10:00   ET


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She rocks. She rocks. That's the point I'm trying to make.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): The media's dream ticket. As Hillary and Obama campaign together, why are some journalists swooning? And is the press giving Obama a pass on another flip-flop, this time on gun control?

Barack and roll. "Rolling Stone" publisher Jann Wenner on why his magazine is treating the candidate like St. Obama.

Ralph's race card. Ralph Nader accuses Obama of acting white. Should journalists pay any attention to this guy?

Plus, rebel with a cause. Three decades after the late George Carlin broke the barrier, why can't we say those seven dirty words anyway?


KURTZ: There was a breathless quality to the coverage of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday. Anchors chattered about whether they had color-coordinated their clothing.

MSNBC aired footage of the two Democrats actually talking to each other on the plane ride there. CNN had exclusive cell phone footage of Clinton introducing Obama to her donors the night before.

This was, after all, a routine political ritual. The winner and the loser coming together on the trail for one day. But the cable networks at least treated it like two heads of state holding a summit meeting with the future of the work at stake.


ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: She certainly brought a lot of warmth and enthusiasm to the table today.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Boy, they certainly were chummy, weren't they?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. This whole day has been pretty chummy. TRACE GALLAGHER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: For a week running -- building up to this, and John McCain can't get to the -- can't get above the fold.


KURTZ: The appearance in Unity, New Hampshire, was big news just about everywhere.


LEE COWAN, NBC NEWS: It was really the picture of the two of them standing there, as you say, shoulder to shoulder that may have actually been worth more than whatever words they could have said.

DEAN REYNOLDS, CBS NEWS: After what they've been through, it was striking to see them together today.

RON REAGAN, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: If they keep doing this over and over again he may have to pick Hillary.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: So we've got this so-called Unity rally. They hate each other.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the campaign coverage, Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker"; Christina Bellantoni, national political reporter for "The Washington Times"; and Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for Politico.

All right, Roger, we had nice pictures, we had nice speeches. They joked around. About what you would expect. Why did the media treat this like an earth-shattering event?

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: Because this is one of the set pieces we demand, the piece of political stagecraft where they're reviewed as if they are actors on a stage. Or as we just showed, all of these could be theatrical reviews.

How well were the optics done? He sat while she stood, so their eye lines were even. The only odd thing to me was why they chose a town called Unity. They each got 107 votes there. It should have called Deeply Divided New Hampshire, because this is a town where half the people aren't talking to the other half.

KURTZ: Could it be me that the media mob was just frothing at the mouth for a chance again to cover Hillary, who had been off stage for all of three weeks? And we love talking about Hillary Clinton.

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORKER": That's part of it. I think also it's a tale of two mediums.

If you watch the TV coverage, look, all you can do is cover the event as presented by the campaigns. So it's tough to sort of interview voters, some of the skeptics. If you look at the print coverage, it was sprinkled through -- a lot of the print coverage was a lot of cynicism, was a lot of quotes from some of the Hillary supporters who were yelling the word "Nobama" and who didn't -- you know, and who weren't on board with this Unity ticket. There's a great Maureen Dowd column today, who -- she has a great riff on a woman who literally puts her hands over her ears because she couldn't stand Obama.

KURTZ: I saw that woman in a lot of pieces.

LIZZA: She was sort of this...

KURTZ: So more skepticism in the print coverage?

LIZZA: More skepticism in print coverage than live TV coverage.

KURTZ: When John McCain was endorsed by his closest rival, Mitt Romney -- and they had said some bitter things about each other in the Republican primary -- it was a half-day story at best.

How do you explain this contrast?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": Well, you know, Hillary Clinton demands a lot more coverage from all of us. And everybody knows the Clintons very well in the media. People have been covering them for years, and so this was, you know, a pop event, where everybody would cover it like a rock concert.

KURTZ: You say Hillary sells? That there was just a...

BELLANTONI: Absolutely. They sell papers.

KURTZ: ... appetite for her in a way there isn't for a "normal" candidate or ex-candidate?

BELLANTONI: Absolutely, yes. And everybody quoted that same person who put the tissue in her ears, but really, I mean, if you talk to her, there's 10 voters who say, oh, sure, I love both Clinton and Obama.

KURTZ: Yes. I'm sure that woman will be on Larry King this week.

You know, I mentioned this this week, that in the last two and a half years, Obama has been on the cover of "TIME" or "Newsweek" 11 times, McCain five times. At what point does the sheer volume of coverage become unfair to McCain?

SIMON: Well, he would say we've passed that point. I mean, he has been fighting for a lot of oxygen.

The Democratic race has been more dramatic. You had three larger-than-life candidates this year. They were all going to get a lot of coverage. But the Democratic battle was just more ferocious. You had to balance... (CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But it's over now and we don't have that excuse anymore.

SIMON: Well, we had to get past Unity, New Hampshire. Now I think he is going to demand and he'll probably get greater coverage. And he has a good story.

LIZZA: As a matter of fact, talk to the editors of magazines. He's -- when you put Barack Obama on the cover for the last year and a half, two years, those issues have sold better than others. They sell better than a McCain issue.

BELLANTONI: And Michelle Obama. I mean, her "US" cover sold more copies than ever before, right? I mean, this is -- they're definitely selling.

KURTZ: And this is why I think the cable networks used to take those 45-minute speeches on primary nights by Obama, because he was seen as good for ratings.

Let me move on to the Supreme Court decision this week knocking down as unconstitutional the D.C. handgun ban. Now, this is fascinating.

"The Chicago Tribune," last November, Obama aides said on this very issue that Obama believed that the D.C. gun ban was constitutional, was fine. The morning of the Supreme Court decision, an Obama press aide says, well, that was inartful, an inartful comment. Actually, Obama thinks that the District of Columbia went too far with this gun ban.

Why isn't the press all over him on this?

BELLANTONI: There's no video. I mean, that's the main reason.

If you had him in a debate saying, "I love the D.C. handgun ban," and then him saying on camera now, "Oh, actually, I'm OK with this decision," that would be everywhere, just like with the public financing issue. I mean, he said it multiple times, that he was (INAUDIBLE) John McCain and didn't. So, the fact that there's no video, this doesn't become as big of a story.

KURTZ: I'm sure that's a factor, but is there also an ideological factor? Conservative bloggers, as you would expect, have been all over Obama on this for flip-flopping. And liberal bloggers have largely been silent.

LIZZA: They should be. And this isn't the first time he's changed his position on guns, or there's been an apparent contradiction.

He filled out a questionnaire in 1996 when he was first running for office saying that he wanted all guns to be banned. Now, the campaign has said he didn't see that questionnaire, a staffer filled it out. All right? So this is the second time that a staffer has sort of been blamed for explaining his gun position. And the danger is that this -- that the narrative changes about Obama.

We now have two very recent examples of him changing his mind on very important issues, one on campaign finance and one on guns. And the huge danger is that his brand, this sort of independent change -- you know, the guy who wants to change politics -- is -- that brand is getting diluted.

KURTZ: But if you look at some of the headlines a couple of days later, "The New York Times," "A Pragmatist Shift Towards the Center." "LA. Times," "Obama Shifting Toward the Center." "The Washington Post" did used the "FF" word, "One Man's Shift is Another's Flip- Flopping."

It doesn't seem to me that the press is doing what it usually does, which is to calling candidates out when they flip from a primary position to a general election position.

SIMON: Well, I think Obama has decided he wants to be a different kind of Democrat, one who actually wins. And he is selling I think somewhat artfully to the press the notion that America has been in trouble because we follow these dogmatic ideological positions rather than following some kind of reasonable pragmatism.

When he talks about Iraq, he says, look, we're in Iraq not because we had a pragmatic reason to invade, but because neocons in the Bush administration wanted to invade. I'm going to be the kind of kind of candidate who judges things based on their merits.

Has he flip-flopped? Yes, he has. What helps him a little bit is that John McCain has done similar flip-flops.

KURTZ: Some other stories, Christian, said McCain accuses Obama of flip-flopping, most recently on this gun ban. But then the journalists don't go the next step to help us sort it out -- well, is that true or not? Is there some evidence of that or not?

BELLANTONI: Well, and it's this back-and-forth talking point. I mean, but the problem with Obama is he also -- he'll say -- if you call him on this, he'll say it's a distraction that doesn't help the American people with an issue. But...

KURTZ: Since when does that deter reporters? And why aren't they calling him on it?

BELLANTONI: It shouldn't. It shouldn't.

KURTZ: You're saying he has a way of kind of waving it away?

BELLANTONI: Absolutely. And he also -- FISA is another example with the eavesdropping bill. I mean, he said one thing, said he would do one thing, and he didn't. And...

LIZZA: Here's the test of a great politician. If you do something political, does the press call you on that and criticize you, or do they say, what a great political move that was? And with Obama right now, the press is calling him a great politician. And the reason why is because I don't think people don't previously -- Obama -- one of the problems with Obama...

KURTZ: He has this image as being above politics.

LIZZA: Exactly. Exactly. But, no, no, no. He also had an image of not being political enough...

KURTZ: Right.

LIZZA: ... not being tough enough.

KURTZ: Right.

LIZZA: So now people are cheering when he's being political.

BELLANTONI: And the press rewards savvy. I mean, that's the big issue as well.

LIZZA: Right. John Kerry, when he did something political, people did not say it was savvy. They said, this is just another politician.

KURTZ: Some people think the press is rewarding Obama because a lot of journalists like what Obama stands for. And that is going to be a big debate in this -- in talking about the coverage of this campaign.

Let's move to the big controversy of the week involving John McCain. That was, of course, Charlie Black's comments to "Fortune" magazine. Charlie Black being an experienced political hand, key McCain adviser.

He said that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December was an unfortunate event but it helped ups, helped McCain burnish his image as a commander in chief. And then asked about if there were another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, "Certainly it would be a big advantage to him," John McCain.

This caused some chatter on the airwaves. Let's take a listen.


JONATHAN CAPEHART, "THE WASHINGTON POST": You just do not wish harm on the United States and then try to use it for political gain.

ALAN COLMES, FOX NEWS: It's good for John McCain when Charlie Black said that?

HANNITY: That's not what he was said.

COLMES: He did say...

HANNITY: That's not what he was saying. JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: The consensus seems to be that what Charlie Black said was true. The offense was that he said it.


KURTZ: Was this -- should there have been a big story?

SIMON: It should have been a big story. It's amazing to me that the people who devise the talking points can't deliver the talking points.

Also, I totally disagree that the black statement was true and made some kind of sense. You could argue just as easily that it would have hurt McCain.

But the talking point is we don't talk about the political upside and downside of thousands of Americans being incinerated. We say John McCain would be better able to protect the United States from terrorist attack. That's the talking point. Charlie Black totally blew it.

KURTZ: But the problem is that he said out loud something you're not supposed to say out loud.

BELLANTONI: Right. That's what political insiders will say. A lot of people recognize that. But it's also -- can you imagine if David Axelrod from the Obama campaign said more deaths in Iraq would help Senator Obama be elected in the fall? I mean, people would be absolutely outraged. This was a big deal.

KURTZ: Charlie Black apologized. John McCain instantly disavowed the comments, but that didn't really seem to defuse it very much.

LIZZA: Well, we talk about the politics of everything, right? No matter what happens in the world, we talk about it from a political perspective.

KURTZ: What tie you're wearing or whether you're wearing a flag pin.

LIZZA: Exactly. But there are some red lines you can't cross. And there's some red lines we have to think about the merits and not the politics. And he crossed, you know, a red line. So it was just an easy -- it was easy for the press to jump all over him because on the merits, the press was right and he was wrong.

KURTZ: Before we go, John McCain is visiting Colombia and Mexico this week. Barack Obama yesterday confirmed that he'll be going to Europe and the Middle East. Obviously they both want to be covered as a visiting head of state, as a commander in chief.

Will they get that kind of coverage? Just briefly.

BELLANTONI: Probably. I mean, Europe seems to really love Obama. I'm sure he'll get a lot of glowing coverage there that will make our coverage look negative.

SIMON: Yes. And Obama is well aware that Americans who have traveled to foreign countries in the last eight years know how America's issues -- image has suffered. And he intends to burnish that image with cheering crowds, which he probably will get.

LIZZA: Interesting to see how much things have changed since 2004. I don't think John Kerry ever would have gone to France or stepped foot in Europe and sent pictures back home of adoring crowds. But...

KURTZ: But are journalists being used in this exercise, or is there no other way to write the story if, in fact...

LIZZA: We're using every exercise.



KURTZ: In other words, get over it.

All right.

Ryan Lizza, Roger Simon, Christina Bellantoni, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

When we come back, "Rolling Stone" catches Barack Obama's good side -- look at that cover -- with an article that focuses more on iPods than policy. I'll ask Jann Wenner about his interview next.


KURTZ: Jann Wenner, the publisher and editor of "Rolling Stone," is a big Obama fan. Make that a huge Obama fan. The magazine has endorsed the Democratic candidate, put him on the cover, and this week put him on the cover again, an incredibly positive photo matched by the positive interview inside.

I spoke to Wenner earlier from New York.


KURTZ: Jann Wenner, welcome.

JANN WENNER, CO-FOUNDER, "ROLLING STONE": Thank you. Good to be here.

KURTZ: Now, this is the second time you've had Barack Obama on the cover of "Rolling Stone," a glowing cover portrait with no headlines, no words. What message is that cover trying to send?

WENNER: History in the making. History is here. There's not -- you know, the statement in and of itself is so powerful that it needn't be elaborated. KURTZ: Now, in the interview you asked Obama about Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Springsteen, rap, what's his favorite Stones song -- which, for the record, is "Give me Shelter" -- what's on his iPod.

The guy is running for president. Why spend so much time on his musical taste?

WENNER: Well, I mean, for one thing, that was the smallest part of the interview, was the musical stuff. But I think you learn something about the individual and about the person and about how intelligent they are according to their musical tastes. But I think especially you learn how connected are they to what's going on in culture around them.

KURTZ: Well, certainly culture is one way we make judgments about public figures.

Now, you did ask Senator Obama about the war on drugs. You asked him about gay marriage. And you also asked him this -- you told him, "There's little doubt that you're going to be swift-boated in this campaign, and in the past you said Democrats have cowered in the face of such attacks."

Why did you phrase it that way?

WENNER: Well, it was spontaneous phrasing, but I think we've seen a record of behavior in the United States Senate. I think we saw some of it in the original Swift Boat accounts, where they are afraid to stand up to Bush or to Rove because they are afraid that they are going to be tagged as cowards or bad on national security or left wing or liberal, something like that. And I call that cowering, you know, and I think that the public doesn't respect cowering or want cowering.

KURTZ: Now, last week, Jann Wenner, you had Barack and Michelle on the cover of your magazine "US Weekly." This week, of course, on "Rolling Stone."

What role does "Rolling Stone" play in a presidential campaign? Is there a special connection here with younger voters that you feel is going to help Obama?

WENNER: Well, I think after all these years with the kind of coverage and (INAUDIBLE) we've had in our history, and people have come to respect "Rolling Stone's" point of view, our coverage, our access. And I think that we are able to articulate for our readers a lot of ideas and thoughts that they have.

We have a very -- we do have our very particular constituency that is, you know, either culturally-oriented or baby boom-oriented. But I think we have a tremendous amount of readership among the press and among professional politicians.

So I think we kind of have an outside influence, and I think in this interview with Obama what you get out of it is something you don't really generally get out of interviews with him, which is a sense of who he is as a person and the way he thinks, you know, and how he feels about, you know, slightly more subtle things. And an opportunity just to hear his voice outside of the response to, you know, the kind of day-to-day stuff about whatever the current brouhaha in the campaign is, or questions that, you know, are about an issue today but die tomorrow. But, you know, really about who you are as a human being.

KURTZ: Well, certainly interviews about policy positions and polls do tend to provide very similar answers, and I guess you were trying to get beyond that.

WENNER: Exactly.

KURTZ: But you closed the interview -- you closed the interview with these words: "Good luck. We are following you daily with great hope and admiration."

It sounds like you're getting ready to write him a check.

WENNER: Already done that.

KURTZ: You're an Obama donor.

WENNER: I put that in there because I -- I left that in there because of his answer to that thing, in which he says, "Don't worry, we'll get this done."

KURTZ: Now, if you didn't consider his musical choices to be cool, would you reconsider your enthusiasm for Senator Obama?

WENNER: If he was an Abba fan, honestly, yes. I mean, look, the guy knows his Dylan really well.

There's a particular type of person who knows Dylan really well and likes Dylan. To like that kind of lyrics, to like the statements of Dylan, to like that kind of voice, it's not being a cultural snob. It's that he is at a -- as I said, an intellectual and cultural level, and he has a -- shares a kind of mutuality of insight with Dylan, who I think is, you know, the leading literary figure of our times, you know, and one of the leading literary figures of the century.

To appreciate that and get it at that level I think is important. I think that sensibility is what I'm looking for.

KURTZ: All right. So apparently he passed the Wenner test.

Last question. In the past you've interviewed John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton for "Rolling Stone" cover stories. I don't see any Republicans on that list. If John McCain called you up and said, "I would like to come and sit down with you and be on the cover of 'Rolling Stone,'" what would be your reaction?

WENNER: Well, I think we might take him up on it. We had Bush on the cover recently. It was a cartoon of him sitting on a stool with a dunce hat on his head, and it said< "The Worst President in American History?" by...

KURTZ: Not exactly the kind of cover that you did for Obama.

WENNER: Well, I'm just trying to say that McCain will have to take his chances when he comes.

KURTZ: But you would be open to interviewing John McCain?

WENNER: I would, very much so.

KURTZ: All right. I'll pass the message to his campaign.

Jann Wenner, thanks very much for joining us.



KURTZ: Up next, how your tax dollars are paying for pundits.

Plus, Nightline's newest correspondent, and he happens to be a movie star.

And how did the late Art Buchwald wind up the target of Hoover's G-Men?

Our "Media Minute" straight ahead.


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


BEN AFFLECK, ACTOR: This is the Congo River.

KURTZ (voice over): "Nightline" deserves credit for examining the plight of the Congo, one of the most devastating and most undercovered stories on Earth. And Ben Affleck deserves credit for making three trips to the African nation. But should "Nightline" have used the actor as a correspondent for this week's report?

AFFLECK: I'm not affiliated with any aid agency, I'm not any kind of an ambassador. I'm not going to give you a history lesson. Among other reasons, I wouldn't be qualified. I simply want to share what I've seen.


KURTZ: Fine, but Affleck is an advocate on the Congo, not a journalist, not even close. And would ABC have spent the money on this story if he wasn't a big-time celebrity?

Some prominent journalists, it turns out, are accepting money from the government.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ (voice over): The payments are for appearances on Al-Hura, the Arabic news service funded by Washington. According to Pro Publica, a new nonprofit focusing on investigative reporting, the recipients include Mort Kondracki of Fox News and "Role Call"; David Corn of "Mother Jones"; Bill Gertz of "The Washington Times"; and Bill Sammon of "The Washington Examiner." Those who commented said they don't see any problem with being compensated for their time.

Was Art Buchwald a threat to national security? CBS obtained the FBI file compiled on the late humorist which shows that J. Edgar Hoover's boys took seriously some of his satiric invention such as saying that 20 percent of the 8,500 registered communists in America were undercover FBI agents. Hoover described Buchwald as a "sick comic," and the G-Men tracked his poker games and hunted down a 1965 cope of "Playboy" in which Buchwald had been interviewed.


KURTZ: A sick comic? It's the bureau's behavior here that's sick.

Well, Tom Brokaw began his temporary stint on "Meet the Press" this morning, but he wound up pre-taping the show in Wyoming.

Hey, Tom, the secret to success of this thing is you've got to work Sundays.

And welcome back to Jim Lehrer who returned to "The NewsHour" this week a couple of months after taking off for heart valve replacement surgery.

We're glad you're back.

Coming up on the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Ralph Nader finally grabs some media attention with a racial attack on Barack Obama. Should we be paying attention to this guy?

Plus, Don Imus says he was misunderstood. Were his comments about a black football player with a rap sheet out of bounds?

And later, George Carlin. Do the late comic's seven dirty words still hold shock value in today's freewheeling media culture?


KURTZ: It's been easy to forget that Ralph Nader is running for president for, what is it, the fifth time? The man has very little support and the media have been mercifully ignoring him. Until the other day, that is, when Nader threw this stink bomb in an interview with "The Rocky Mountain News."


RALPH NADER (I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I haven't heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos -- payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead, you know. What's keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn't want to appear like Jesse Jackson?


KURTZ: Nader talking there, of course, about Barack Obama, who he also accused of appealing to white guilt.

A reporter asked Obama about the drive-by at a news conference.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ralph Nader is trying to get attention. He's become a perennial political candidate. What better way to get some traction than to make an inflammatory statement like the one that he made? It is what it is.


KURTZ: Suddenly the talking heads were talking about Ralph Nader.


MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: I think the best way to characterize Ralph Nader's statements today is verbal vomit.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: I think his comments were unfortunate and I think he should just apologize. That's my opinion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he should take his medication.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: To point out the race issue, Nader is nuts.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this and a few other things, in New York, Keli Goff, political analyst, blogger and author of "Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence." And here in Washington Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for "National Review Online" and the author of "Liberal Fascism," which was number one on "The New York Times" bestseller list.

Jonah Goldberg, Nader ended up on George Stephanopoulos' show this morning. Should the media give Ralph Nader the time of day considering he's basically a non-factor?

JONAH GOLDBERG, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": Well, I mean, you're right, he is sort of the Harold Stassen of our generation. But at the same time, when he does say sort of outlandish, outrageous things, or at least newsworthy interesting things, a little coverage is not, you know -- and I think one of the reasons why it's getting so much coverage is he's actually hitting on a nerve about a subject that the rest of mainstream media doesn't want to talk about in those sorts of terms. I think the white guilt part does have legs, and I think Nader gives people an opportunity to get that out in the open. KURTZ: Keli Goff, was Nader's slam so racially offensive that the media really had very little choice but to cover it?

KELI GOFF, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, actually, I think that they gave him exactly what he wants, particularly George Stephanopoulos. I mean, he gave him one of the largest Sunday morning platforms, which is precisely what Nader probably wouldn't have gotten without throwing, as you called it, a stink bomb into this conversation.

I think the bigger thing though, is I actually give him zero points for creativity. As I said in my book, any African-American of a certain age who actually has a college degree has either been called "articulate" or "talking white" at some course over the course of their lives and career, including myself. So I think that, you know, again, to sort of give into this and give it the attention that I think it doesn't merit is sort of giving him what he wants.

GOLDBERG: But I think it does merit some attention. I mean, look, we just saw this long segment about...

GOFF: Talking white merits attention?

GOLDBERG: Well, the talking white stuff -- the talking white stuff I agree was stupid and a stink bomb, I agree with that. But the white guilt part, I mean, we just had this long segment on here on your show about "Rolling Stone's" objectively sycophantic coverage of Barack Obama and the idea that somehow, something -- whether you want to call it white guilt or something else -- doesn't play a part in this sort of cultural (INAUDIBLE) that we're having in the mainstream media. And Senator Obama seems to me a relevant subject to get to.


GOFF: But there's a big distinction there that I have to draw for you with all due respect here. I think there's one thing to talk about sycophantic coverage of Obama, if that's what you want to call it that, but to simply accuse it of being based on white guilt because he happens to be black I think is a big jump. And that's why Nader's comments caused -- warranted so much attention, is that to simply assume that if a white person is supporting Obama and if a white journalist is covering Obama and it's somewhat favorable, that therefore it must be due in no part to his own accomplishments but has to be based on white guilt is inflammatory, and it's also a little insulting to him, I think.

GOLDBERG: I don't disagree with that at all. I don't think it's all about white guilt, but we -- you know, we slice and dice media coverage to such an enormous degree these days, the idea that Barack Obama's race isn't a huge part of the story, particularly among white East Coast establishment liberal reporters, just strikes me as -- to ignore the elephant in the room.

GOFF: Who might like him as a person.

KURTZ: But, Jonah, nobody...

GOFF: Who might like him as a person, Jonah. And that's what I'm saying again is a stretch here.

I think that the bigger story is that conservatives, perhaps, in their coverage find it so hard to believe that people might just be supporting a candidate who happens to be a black man because they like him as a person and they like his politics, therefore the only reason they could be supporting him is because he's guilty is a bigger new story here. I've heard so many conservatives say that.

GOLDBERG: I never said the only reason. I'm not saying it's a factor.


GOLDBERG: I'm not saying it's the only reason.

KURTZ: If I can get back in here, I don't think anybody is suggesting that Barack Obama's race as a factor in this campaign shouldn't be covered. The question is, if you toss around terms like "talking white" and it's coming from Ralph Nader, obviously trying to get some media attention, whether we took the bait there.

Well, let me turn to another racially-tinged controversy. Don Imus, who, of course, lost his radio job last year with that crack about the Rutgers' women's basketball team, back on the airwaves, back on cable television network, and back in the news this week for some comments he made about Pacman Jones. He's a football player with the Tennessee Titans who's had a number of arrest warrants for drugs, for nightclub brawls.

Let's take a look at what Imus said talking to Warner Wolf, and let's take a look at what Imus said the next day after this kind of blew up on him.


WARNER WOLF: He's been arrested six times since being drafted by Tennessee in 2005.


WOLF: He's African-American.

IMUS: Well, there you go. OK. Now we know.



IMUS: The points was, in order to make a sarcastic point I asked Warner what color he was, Warner tells me. What people should outraged about is that they arrest blacks for no reason.


KURTZ: You're shaking your head. I take it you're not buying Imus' explanation. You think the criticism was fair? GOLDBERG: I think the criticism was fair. But I have to confess, never have I been so torn about an issue I care so little about. You know?

I think Don Imus truly deserves to be ignored. His explanations have no credibility with me. Maybe he was telling the truth, maybe he wasn't. But this schtick, you know, this is -- he got himself into this mess by playing these games for so long, I think he should be entirely ignored.

KURTZ: But Keli Goff, while I thought that what Imus said last year about "nappy-headed hoes" was reprehensible, as he would be the first to admit, I mean, this seemed to me to be ambiguous at best. Do you take it as some kind of racial insult?

GOFF: Well, first of all, I give Imus or his publicist or his crisis consultant a huge "E" for effort, because the defense here that he was somehow trying to stand up and be an advocate for all the tens of thousands wrongfully accused African-Americans in the judicial system was -- has got to be the most creative attempts at a defense that I've ever heard as someone who's a former communications person and publicist myself. But you know, that being said, you're completely right, Howard, that because there is no specific gender or racially-based epithet, there was enough gray area that it really did in some regards neutralize the media coverage.

I think the best headline I saw was from Market Watch that wrote, "Imus Rants, America Yawns," because there was so little sort of to work with there that as much -- as disingenuous as we may find his defense, there wasn't really a lot of wiggle room to prove, a-ha, he did it again.

KURTZ: So the people who said, boy, you know, that he should be suspended, he should be kicked off the air, you thought that was a little overblown?

GOFF: That will probably happen due to his ratings soon enough. I mean, I think that that's sort of the direction things are heading. And I agree with Jonah that, yet again, we have someone else who probably needs a little press coverage and went a little overboard for him.

KURTZ: All right. Well, I understand his radio ratings aren't bad, although he obviously doesn't have MSNBC as a television outlet.

All right. Want to talk now about a story that began in "The National Enquirer." It has to do with CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, who, according to "The Enquirer," had an affair with a State Department staffer in Iraq.

Lara Logan has been going through a divorce for some time and was almost divorced. The staffer supposedly was also getting separated from his wife. But the wife blames Lara Logan for breaking up her marriage. So this then ricochets from "The National Enquirer" to the front page of "The New York Post," if we can put that up, "Sexty Minutes." And so I ask you, Jonah Goldberg, is this news?

GOLDBERG: Not really, no. It's not that surprising though.

I mean, this is the era -- it's only going to get worse in this kind of stuff, not better. We're turning all of these sort of television creatures into true celebrities these days. This network does a lot of this sort of thing in terms of celebrifying (ph), if that's a word, its anchors.

You know, Anderson Cooper is sort of portrayed as sort of an "Esquire" kind of sex symbol kind of guy. And when you sexualize your media, you know, spokespeople, your reporters, you're going to get the same kind of coverage you would get for Paris Hilton.

KURTZ: Well, Keli Goff, these stories also said that Lara Logan had had a fling with a CNN correspondent. CBS isn't commenting on any of this.

My question is, you know, if you made a list of male foreign correspondents who had had affairs at one time or another, probably it would take the rest of the program for me to read the list. Is this sort of gossip being reported because a female journalist is involved?

GOFF: Howard, I'm so glad you made that point, because as you well know, I've been very vocal in saying that I believe that the whole accusation that media sexism cost Hillary Clinton the presidential nomination has been way overblown. That being said, I'm also the first person to admit that when it comes to coverage of high- profile women, it's just different. I mean, whether it's discussing their wardrobe choices, whether it's discussing their personal lives.

I think what's interesting is that there's been excessive coverage of Katie Couric's personal life and who she is or is not dating. And I'm completely there with you that I have a hard time believing that this -- that after a male correspondent who is risking his life every day in war zones was given a huge promotion, that the lead on the story would be who he is or is not dating.

I think there definitely is a bit of a double standard. And look, it's not just about gender. It also has to do with, you know, she's incredibly beautiful. I think that Jonah tapped into something when he mentioned Anderson Cooper. It helps to be good looking, and it tends that -- people tend to focus on that...


KURTZ: It helps to be good looking, but let me get Jonah back in.

But you said sexualize the anchors. I mean, this is a woman who has gone out with the troops again and again, risked her life, is an Emmy Award-winning reporter, or award-winning reporter. So I think we ought to be careful about trivializing that.

GOLDBERG: That's a fair correction. I'm not saying that they sexualized her. I'm saying that as a class, we've created these people to be celebrity. I mean, they are in "People" magazine, they're in "US Weekly." They are...

KURTZ: They're stars.

GOLDBERG: They're stars.

KURTZ: Right.

GOLDBERG: They're stars broadly defined. And once they become stars, you create -- you know, the paparazzi culture goes for them. And I think it's a shame and "National Enquirer" shouldn't be airing divorce ugliness and The Post shouldn't have picked it up. But, you know, that's the world we're in.

GOFF: But Jonah, you just tapped on that really important distinction in the story, right? Which is, when did "The National Enquirer" become a credible source for major news stories in major national publications? That story was covered internationally.

GOLDBERG: "The Enquirer" has broken a lot of stories.

KURTZ: There have been times when "The Enquirer" has...

GOFF: But very rarely are they cited as the source.

KURTZ: We've got to cut it short.

All right. Keli Goff, Jonah Goldberg, that's for a spirited discussion this morning.

After the break, obscenity on the airwaves. Could the death of George Carlin help fuel a new debate about what you can and can't say on TV and radio?


KURTZ: Just about everyone has been remembering George Carlin this week as a very funny guy in the wake of his death. But the atmosphere was very different in 1927, when Carlin did a routine about the seven words you can never say on television.


GEORGE CARLIN, COMEDIAN: So they talk about (EXPLETIVE DELETED) all they want. They just don't call it that. They don't call it what it is.

They call it other things. They call it making love, which is fine. They call it going to bed with someone, having an affair, sleeping together. But they don't call it (EXPLETIVE DELETED).


KURTZ: Carlin was arrested and prosecuted after doing a version of that routine in Milwaukee. And while he beat the rap, a New York radio station was later charged with playing the same expletive-filled jokes.

The Supreme Court ruled that the government has the authority to ban certain obscenities from the airwaves because children might be listening. But is that law totally outmoded in the satellite radio age?

Joining us now from Jeff Jarvis, former critic for "TV Guide" who blogs at And in Philadelphia, David Bianculli, former television critic for "The New York Daily News" who now blogs about television at

Jeff Jarvis, was George Carlin an effective rebel? Did he make his mark talking about society standards against indecent language?

JEFF JARVIS, BUZZMACHINE.COM: I think he absolutely did, Howie, because the seven dirty words were in no way sexual or indecent or exciting. It was political speech. It was political speech that was then censored by the FCC and the Supreme Court.

It's a crime what happened to our First Amendment that year. And the law that was put in place by the Supreme Court in 1978 has not been tested since, so a lot has changed. Community standards have changed. Technology has changed.

I went to Google and looked up Google trends to find out how many searches there were for the "F" word versus the "G" word, and by that I don't mean Google. I mean God.

The searches for the "F" word and God are equivalent. Except for the day after Carlin died. His searches were three times more.

So our community standards have changed. We use this language. It's not a big deal.

KURTZ: Right.

JARVIS: And for the sake of one word or seven words, we tore apart the First Amendment on broadcast, and that remains the crime.

KURTZ: Thanks to the search engines, we now have a way of measuring it.

David, Carlin had a way of skewing the boundaries. He would say, well, you talk about pricking your finger, but you can't talk about the other use of the word.

David BIANCULLI, TVWORTHWATCHING.COM: Right. You know, he's got to get credit for picking the right seven words, which wasn't just pulling them out of hat, because here we are, you know, more than 25 years later, and there's only been one of them that was acceptably used on broadcast television in the entire interim. So he really got the right one.

KURTZ: I want to play some tape, Jeff Jarvis, of Joan Rivers not long ago appearing on a British television show. And she apparently thought this was taped. Here's what she had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOAN RIVERS, COMEDIAN: You get someone like Russell Crowe and you want to say to the camera, "He is a piece of -- get ready to bleep this -- (EXPLETIVE DELETED)." He is just...


KURTZ: And, of course, they didn't bleep it because it was live. But in this country, Jeff, the FCC, Federal Communications Commission, is still fining networks, sometimes millions of dollars, when somebody blurts out the "F" word or a similar word.

JARVIS: Yes, the expletive. We have had one court case recently that said to the FCC that you can't really smash people for something that someone else says in a fleeting moment. But I think it's time to test this more, and I think we'll see tests of this, because finally TV stations and radio stations are fighting up against the FCC.

The FCC really had them over the barrel because they had the license, but now what's happened, as you said at the beginning of the segment, Howie, technology has changed. We have satellite. We have the Internet.

The Internet is the First Amendment brought to life. You can't play Whack-a-Mole with words all day. Government can't do that. And in fact, we should be standing in the forefront of the world and trying to spread the First Amendment and not show what nannies and Georgians we are.

KURTZ: But David Bianculli, when it comes to the medium that most easily comes into your living room or your bedroom -- and that, of course, is television -- why shouldn't there be decency standards? Not only can kids be exposed to rough language, but doesn't it contribute to the coarsening of society?

BIANCULLI: Oh, I have no problem with there being decency standards. The problem is not having a context for them or not having them fairly applied.

NBC on "Saturday Night Live" late at night has to do "D" blank, blank, blank in a box with a Justin Timberlake musical skit, but on you get it unedited. So they are not even clear.

KURTZ: So should there be adjustments, for example, for the time of day? If something is happening at midnight, then maybe there should be a little looser standard than something that's on at 7:00?

JARVIS: There already are.

BIANCULLI: There already is.

KURTZ: There already are.

But your point, David, is contrasting it to the Internet. In other words, the Internet is basically an anything goes medium. I mean, nobody is going to stop somebody using any words they want, but the same organization tries to do it with television cameras. And you can get a hefty fine from the federal government.

BIANCULLI: Yes, it's tricky. And there's a big question about what's going to happen once it's digital, once it's not necessarily airwaves anymore. If that's going to change things.

KURTZ: Also, Jeff Jarvis, obviously HBO used this kind of language. Cable is not, at least technically speaking, under the FCC umbrella when it comes to this question. So we could use it right now, we won't. We probably...

JARVIS: You told me not to, yes.

KURTZ: I told you not to.

JARVIS: And I'm being a good boy.

KURTZ: All right. But as you would be the first to point out, Howard Stern goes on Sirius Satellite Radio to say whatever the bleep he wants. So it's your view that this sort of regulation is simply outmoded or it needs to be more carefully applied?

JARVIS: It's absolutely outmoded. Howard Stern was forced off broadcast and on to satellite. And yes, I'm a big fan of Howard Stern, and he can be say anything he wants there. And he didn't say -- he wouldn't say all of that on broadcast.

You told me not to use the "S" word. I asked you whether I could say BS, and you said OK. So you have standards.

You executed those standards on your airwaves. You don't need the FCC to tell you what to do.

I trust you and CNN to come up with decent standards because it's good for business. The marketplace of ideas will determine this. And for the idea that the government should ever, ever regulate our speech is abhorrent in America.

We've got a First Amendment. Read it again, and it says there shall be no law that restrict our freedom of speech and press. And so the fact that there was a safe harbor for censorship set up on TV is just un-American.

KURTZ: Well, I should point out that nobody forced Stern to negotiate a $500 million deal with Sirius, and that was voluntary. But clearly he was tired of the battles with the FCC.

David Bianculli, some people would say, you know what, it's not the bleeping words, there should be other kinds of standards, that perhaps there is too much sex on television on a lot of these primetime dramas, and that does influence teenagers.

BIANCULLI: Well, what happens is sex usually becomes a big issue, sometimes violence, sometimes language, whenever there's an election year, because politicians love to actually go and attack television for just these things, because nobody is going to take the other side and say I want more sex on television or more violence on television. But it's all about context. The idea that -- you know, the words in "Saving Private Ryan" are OK, but then not OK a few years later on broadcast TV because the FCC has tightened things, that is absurd.

KURTZ: Well, people may not say they want more sex on television, but they do vote with their remote controls.

But just very briefly, Jeff Jarvis, the fact that there's Google and can you do these searches we have a better feel now for what the community standards really are, don't we?

JARVIS: Exactly. There was a case last week in Florida of a lawyer who was using the Google search to prove the community standards are not what governments say they are. And you know, BS is the best political speech there is, because how best can we describe what goes on in Washington by using the full word that I won't use now, BS?

KURTZ: All right. That case involved an obscenity prosecution, and the defense lawyer was using Google.

Jeff Jarvis, David Bianculli, thank you very much for joining us.

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

Still to come, you may not know the name of this newspaper editor, but you know his work. "The Washington Post" loses its leader.


KURTZ: He wasn't anywhere near as famous as Tim Russert, but he probably had just as great an impact on journalism.

Len Downie announced this week that he's stepping down as editor of "The Washington Post." Now, when most people think of that job description, they think of this man portrayed in "All the President's Men."



JASON ROBARDS, ACTOR: What else you working on?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN, ACTOR: What we're after, a list of employees.

ROBARDS: Where is it?

ROBERT REDFORD, ACTOR: It's classified.

ROBARDS: Well, how are you going to get is it?

REDFORD: We haven't had any luck yet.

ROBARDS: Get some.


KURTZ (voice over): Ben Bradley was the most famous newspaper editor of his era. His gravely voice familiar to people who watched television.

When Downie succeeded Bradley 17 years ago, he decided to avoid the limelight and concentrate on editing the newspaper. He was editing people like me.

When The Post broke the story of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, that bore the mark of Len Downie. President Bush tried but failed to talk him out of it at a White House meeting.

When the paper exposed the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed, that was Len Downie. When The Post broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal after "Newsweek" had spiked Michael Isikoff's report on the subject, that was Len Downie. When Bob Woodward broke stories about Bush at war, his editor was Len Downie, who was also his direct editor and Carl Bernstein's back of the days of the third-rate burglary at the Watergate.

Downie had his weaknesses. He admits he and The Post should have done a better job of challenging the administration during the run-up to the Iraq war. And I thought he sometimes held controversial pieces too long, such as a report that Oregon Senator Bob Packwood had made unwanted sexual advances to 10 women. It ran three weeks after he was reelected. Packwood was forced to resign, but not for another two and a half years.


KURTZ: Editors come and go, and the speculation is already under way about who will succeed Downie at The Post. But some really make a difference, even if they never become household names.

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, another critical look at the media.