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Reliable Sources

Coverage of Obama's Trip Examined; Pundits Blame Barack for Mockery Gap

Aired July 20, 2008 - 10:00   ET





HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Obama's excellent adventure. Katie, Charlie and Brian are all headed across the Atlantic as a frenzy builds over the Democratic candidate's trip. Is this another love fest in the making? And why do the networks barely cover McCain's international travel?

The laugh factor. Comedians complain that while McCain is older than dirt, Obama is hard to make fun of. And some pundits are blaming Barack for this mockery gap.

Stand by your woman. Obama blames Sean Hannity and "National Review" for going after his wife, but isn't a campaigning spouse fair game?

Plus, fantasy football. "The Wall Street Journal" reporter who tried to tackle the NFL.


KURTZ: Sometimes the big, sprawling, undisciplined beast we cal the media have an impact just by showing up, the cameras magnifying everything in their view. Now, Barack Obama's overseas trip was always going to be a journalistic sensation, but the Illinois senator's campaign wasn't taking any chances.


COURIC: By the way, I'll be reporting next week from the Middle East. We'll have the first one-on-one interview with Senator Obama.


KURTZ: Actually CBS' Lara Logan getting the first one-on-one interview today. But by dangling the offer of exclusive interviews with the candidate, exclusive for one night a piece, that is, the Obama team persuaded Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams to trek halfway around the world to cover this trip. What that means, of course, is that the "CBS Evening News," "NBC Nightly News" and ABC's "World News" will be broadcast from Europe and the Middle East this week, throwing an even brighter spotlight on Barack's excellent adventure.

John McCain, meanwhile, was accompanied by zero anchors on his three foreign trips since wrapping up the Republican nomination in March. And that has the pundits debating whether the sheer volume of airtime and ink is tilting rather dramatically in Obama's direction.


BERNARD GOLDBERG, FOX NEWS: If need any more proof, Bill, that the networks were on the Barack Obama campaign team, this is it.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: What's the point if all three are there? Where's the differentiation. Going to be a different take on how much they love Senator Obama?

TONY BLANKLEY, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: How can you not cover this event? This is going to be one of the great world media events.

MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC ANALYST: And the Obama campaign coverage is going to be 5-1 to what McCain gets. I mean, the inequity of this thing is really...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, it's bizarre.


KURTZ: So, is this trip going to be covered as if President Obama were visiting world capitals?

Joining us now in New York, Michael Crowley, senior editor of "The New Republic." And here in Washington, Martha Raddatz, ABC's chief White House correspondent. And David Frum, columnist for "National Review Online" and a former speechwriter for President Bush.

Martha Raddatz, from the moment I broke the story about the three network anchors going, there's been criticism that your network and CBS and NBC are just getting on the Obama bandwagon.

MARTHA RADDATZ, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS: Oh, great, I get to answer for all the networks. That decision is not made by me. That decision is made by other people.

But let me say one thing about that. Obama goes over there, he gets all these great photo-ops. He gets photo-ops with the troops. In many ways, the only way he can make news or be nailed down on something is because people are interviewing him at each stop.

And I know lot of people have said there's great potential for mistakes here. I don't see a great potential for a mistake in a trip like this, that is so organized, but where he could really get pinned down is some of those interviews.

KURTZ: And I will not be shocked if CNN and Fox correspondents or anchors get interviews as well.

David Frum, the media in general, not just the networks, are -- seem to me to be covering Obama as if we already president.

DAVID FRUM, COLUMNIST, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": Right. Well, just in defense of the networks, I'd have to say, compare to the news weeklies, they're paragons in objectivity.

There's no question he's benefiting from enormously favorable publicity. I think two things come into focus here.

One is the big media's inherent partisan bias for the Democratic Party. That's always a factor. And that fuses then with their ideological bias in favor of the first African-American candidate. That is, if there's anything that the media organizations believe in as institutions, they practice affirmative action internally, probably more enthusiastically than almost any corporations in America. This is a core ideological commitment for...

KURTZ: Boy. Are you saying that the media are treating Barack Obama as an affirmative action hire for the presidency?

FRUM: That they are very excited about the prospect of the first African-American candidate, serious candidate for president. And that's to some degree understandable. It's also a major ideological commitment. Combined with their partisan commitment in favor of the Democratic Party, or bias in favor of the Democratic Party, it creates this storm. It should be said, however, it is not necessarily going to him because I think viewers are very sophisticated and they can sense they're being sold.

KURTZ: Michael Crowley, often these trips are about the picture, so early this morning our time you had Barack Obama meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. No questions from reporters, no sound there, but everybody gets to play the video. He looks very presidential. You also have Obama meeting with the troops.

So how can it not help Obama when everyone is clamoring to run what are essentially these photo-ops?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, SR. EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, I think Martha made the right point. I mean, the photo-ops, the staged events, are clearly going to be very helpful for him. And I think that, therefore, there is an obligation on the part of these media stars who are flocking there to ask him tough questions. I mean, that should be the tradeoff.

I think David, respectfully, I would say, like many conservatives, overstates the ideological and partisan bias at work. I think this is just a great story.

When McCain goes overseas, it's sort of dog bites man. There's not really that much of an interesting angle to it. This is an incredible story, the first African-American nominee going abroad after a long period of anti-Americanism, promising a new start and a new direction for the country. There's so many fascinating angles, whereas McCain is sort of offering somewhat more of a continuation of what we already know. So it's just a great story, but I would say that if the media are going to give Obama this platform and this pretty easy photo-op opportunity, they have an obligation in any sit-down interviews to really press him on the sort of soft points of his policy, things he hasn't delineated sufficiently.

FRUM: Very briefly, John McCain went to Ottawa and then Mexico City, back-to-back, to defend free trade in the face of polls showing that the American public has soured on trade deals, and in the face of a Democratic candidate who has campaigned as probably the most explicitly protectionist candidate since Walter Mondale in 1984.

Now, that is an act of tremendous political courage. It actually advances the story. It sharpens the contradictions. Everything you would think media would like -- one man against the system, intensification of conflict, and yet it did not rate (ph) his story, his powerful defense NAFTA in the capitals of America's important trading partners.

KURTZ: Well, I started fulminating about that trip. ABC sent a correspondent. CNN did not. No anchors went.

How can that imbalance be fair?

RADDATZ: Well, first of all, let's talk about what John McCain has made a focus of his campaign, and that is national security, that is Iraq, that is Afghanistan. And he also is one the people who said Barack Obama has not been over there for years.

So, Barack Obama goes over there, and John McCain is back here wishing he had that coverage. Now, he has to figure out a way to seize that national security agenda again, to say this is my strongest suit here. And...

KURTZ: But he can seize anything he wants. If he is traveling with fewer correspondents, with no anchors...

RADDATZ: Absolutely.

KURTZ: And we all know what happens when anchors travel.

RADDATZ: No -- yes, we do.

KURTZ: It means that you get bumped up to the top of the broadcast, and it seems like a very big deal.

RADDATZ: Yes. Yes, there's no question about that. And I think the McCain campaign really does have to try to figure out how to get this back, how to get that national security agenda back and have people look at John McCain as the candidate who they trust.

KURTZ: Michael Crowley, liberal pundits sometimes talk about the media's love affair with John McCain. Certainly, there was a lot of that coziness in his 2000 presidential run. But now I would say they're cheating on him. They don't want to hang out with him anymore.

CROWLEY: You know, I'm glad you mentioned that, because I was going to jump in and say this, that there's a great irony here. I mean, it's sort of -- it's sort of amazing to hear the McCain campaign, people around John McCain, say, you know, the press isn't interested in us, we can't get your attention, because you were probably doing similar shows a few years ago where McCain's rivals were complaining that he was getting this cushy treatment. And it drives him absolutely crazy. But I think this is a function of McCain having been around for a long time, and I think he feels like a familiar story to major media reporters.

They just feel like there's not that much more that's new to say about him. And, you know, it's driving them up the wall, but I don't know how -- what he can do about it.

RADDATZ: You know what else is happening here, too? And the thing that I -- why I think it is so important with those anchors and reporters who are with Senator Obama ask tough questions, is these are really complex issues. And what you get this week is precisely that, those pictures with the troops.

He's there. Is he a leader? Is he a foreign leader? Can he do this?

We cannot let that be the whole story. We just can't. They have to be tough questions. It is a complicated issue.

You saw the White House talk about time horizons on Friday. What does that exactly mean? You saw Maliki talk about that with a German magazine and say...

KURTZ: Let me come back to that.


KURTZ: Let me ask David Frum, because it's interesting. John McCain, like most Republicans, opposes the old government rule called the Fairness Doctrine, mandating equal time for different views. But at the same time, his tough strategist Charlie Black came out and said the networks that are sending these anchors on Obama's trip should give McCain equal time. Not a government mandate. He's really saying they have a moral responsibility.

Is that a good argument?

FRUM: Well, I think it's a very good argument. We say this all the time, that the president will go on TV and say parents should spend time reading to their children. That if he passed a law requiring you to read to the children, that would be pretty totalitarian in the same way that you can recognize an ethical and professional imperative in journalism without making it into the law of the land.

KURTZ: You know -- go ahead, Michael. CROWLEY: Howie, it's also just an imperfect science here. I mean, you know, think back to maybe 2001, 2002. Liberals were going crazy because every time George Bush so much as sneezed, it got wall- to-wall live coverage. Democrats felt like they couldn't get a word in edgewise.

I mean, it's just the nature of the beast that there are these swings, that people get this sometimes excessive coverage. I don't know how you fix it, but I do agree there's a responsibility to try to balance it out. My point is just that it's not like the shoe hasn't been on the other foot in the recent past.

KURTZ: Right. But look, the president of the United States owns the megaphone, always gets more coverage. Here we have two people who are running to be president. And the question is, can there be some balance.

But there's one aspect that we haven't quite gotten to. A couple of commentators brought it up in recent interviews. Let me roll that and we'll talk about it on the other side.


JAY CARNEY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: The complaint is legitimate, although it's, in a sense, market-driven. It's driven by reader interest and viewer interest.

ELLIS HENICAN, "NEWSDAY": The deeper reality here is that one campaign this year has been really, really interesting, and the other's been a snoozer. I don't believe in affirmative action for journalism. Let's cover what's interesting, huh?


KURTZ: Martha Raddatz, the imbalance is justified because Obama is a more interesting story.

RADDATZ: I don't find that. I just don't find that.

I mean, it is our responsibility to try to find a way to cover this fairly. It truly is. And we have to do this.

I know we ask ourselves questions about this all the time -- are we doing this fairly? Are we giving McCain a chance?

It's also, as I said before, the campaigns have to rise to this as well. This is a test. This is a test about how you govern. The campaign is part of that.

FRUM: It also should be said that that statement you quoted, which is from admittedly a left-wing person, is itself an amazing confession of bias. I mean, if you listen to what Barack Obama says...

KURTZ: All my friends think Barack Obama's more interesting. FRUM: Barack Obama is one of the most -- maybe he used to be interesting, but in this campaign he's been one of the most boring candidates ever. Content-free speeches, (INAUDIBLE).

Meanwhile, in contrast -- and if, by the way, the shoe were on the other foot, every journalist in America would see it. Here you have one of the -- the oldest man ever to run for president, winning his party's nomination against the odds through sheer hard work and tenacity, and getting up earlier and campaigning harder than men 20 years his junior? That's a pretty exciting story.

KURTZ: And triumphing over many conservative pundits who did not want John McCain...

FRUM: Yes.

KURTZ: ... to be the GOP nominee.

Michael Crowley, get in on this. David Frum says that this idea that Obama is more fascinating, therefore deserves more coverage, represents the epitome of liberal bias.

CROWLEY: Again, well, I don't think it's liberal bias. I do agree with the diagnosis that I think he's a more interesting story. I think David makes a good case for why people should be more interested in McCain, but the reality is, I just don't think it flies.

I mean, even Obama has trimmed his sails and is being a little more cautious in what he says, he brings out this interest in other people because you have sort of identity politics around him, which is just so fascinating and unprecedented. But one more time I would say that the media's obligation is, if there's a great story here, I don't expect them not to cover it. This trip is fascinating. The obligation is to ask tough questions, give a lot of response time to McCain and his campaign surrogates, and let this be a really informative -- an opportunity for an informative debate and discussion for people to actually learn something about American foreign policy and not just a pageant and a photo-op.

KURTZ: Well, we'll have a report card on that on next week's show. But let me give you my two cents.

When you have one candidate whose trip is covered by the three anchors, and the other candidate, whose foreign travels are barely covered, when you have one candidate who gets twice as much airtime on the network evening newscasts since early June, since the Democratic contest was over -- that being Obama versus McCain -- when you have one candidate, Barack Obama, on the cover of "Rolling Stone" with his wife on "US Weekly," with his family on "Access Hollywood," and when you have one candidate, Barack Obama, getting more than twice as many covers, "TIME" and "Newsweek," then John McCain -- and just look at some. We pulled out some "Newsweek" covers here.

Look. Obama. Obama. Obama.

It's a small picture. Obama. Obama. At that point, there is clearly an imbalance. The sheer volume becomes an imbalance. And I think that we have inadvertently or otherwise put our thumb on the scale and there could be a big backlash against news organizations if this trend continues.

When we come back, the great flip-flop debate as McCain and Obama square off on Iraq and Afghanistan. Are journalists holding them accountable or pushing their own agendas?


KURTZ: John McCain and Barack Obama delivered dueling speeches on war this week, both the media's back burner war in Iraq and the off-the-radar-screen conflict in Afghanistan. But the coverage sometimes seemed to depend on the views of the commentators.

From the left, here's Rachel Maddow on MSNBC's "Countdown," playing some video of McCain, first from last February, and then from 2006.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... as any president that follows one has different views on particularly specific issues. But I am proud of this president's strategy in Iraq. It is succeeding.

I have confidence in the president, and I believe that he is well aware of the severity of the situation.


KURTZ: From the right, the blog "Power Line" rolled out excerpts of Obama predicting failure for the surge, including this appearance last year with Larry King...


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Here's the thing, Larry. Even those who support the escalation have acknowledged that 20,000, 30,000, even 40,000 more troops placed temporarily in places like Baghdad are not going to make a long-term differences.


KURTZ: Michael Crowley in New York, are we locked into a crossfire mentality here where the liberals are only going to attack McCain's shifting rhetoric on Iraq and ignore, as we just saw, Barack Obama moving away in part from what he had said earlier about Bush's surge?

CROWLEY: Well, as far as partisan media goes, you know, blogs and cable shows with an outright slant, I don't think anyone should expect much balance. I mean, I think we've established pretty clearly at this point that, you know, that there are cocooning media outlets that reinforce their own views and are selective about evidence, and they fight battles that they want to fight and ignore inconvenient and contradictory evidence. But that's OK as along as people are sampling from both sides.

I actually think it's useful, because they dig a little deeper, they hone in on points that get glossed over in other media outlets. But the key is, you have to be getting it from the left and from the right.

KURTZ: Opposite question for you. Are conservatives going to concentrate their fire (ph) on calling Obama a flip-flopper and give McCain a pass, for example, on now he's echoing Obama's call for more troops in Afghanistan?

FRUM: I don't think you can accuse the conservative media of excessive enthusiasm for the McCain candidacy. One of his big problems is that he's got this weaker relationship with his party base, and that gives him less room to move away from it. And in fact, he has, in many ways, less room for even some necessary flip-flops because his supporters, core supporters, view him so mistrustfully, whereas Barack...

KURTZ: But the past conservative criticism of McCain that we saw during the primary seems to be somewhat muted here.

FRUM: It's somewhat muted, but when you look at the polls, you can see there's much less enthusiasm for his candidacy. You can certainly see it in the fund-raising, which has been a big problem. And that means that in areas where he has to move away from some of the conservative orthodoxy, he can't, because Barack Obama is, at least on international affairs, beginning to genially discard the one after the other. I'm still waiting for him to say that Al Gore's speech is based on bad science.

KURTZ: Martha Raddatz, you had mentioned earlier in the program that the Bush administration and Iraq have now agreed on this "general time horizon" -- I love the ambiguity of that phrase -- for reducing U.S. forces in Iraq.

Should the press play this as the administration, belatedly, without admitting it, moving toward Senator Obama's position on Iraq, or is it just semantics?

RADDATZ: Well, I think there's a little bit of both in that. And I think this is truly the first time we'll see dates.

I mean, this document, if they finalize it within the next few weeks, will have dates, aspirational goals on when they want Iraqi security forces to take over. There'll be no troop reductions in those documents, but you can sort of do the math there and say, OK, if the Iraqi security forces are taking over, it is return on success, which the White House has said again and again, if they take over certain areas, than we can return, and that's successful. So I think that certainly is moving toward a timetable, although they're calling it a time horizon.

On the other hand, it is conditions-based, and that is what the president has said again and again, that he insists on the conditions being right for troop reduction.

KURTZ: And what about -- you've been to Iraq recently to talk to people there about Obama's withdrawal plan. He also leaves himself this door ajar that, well, of course it all depends on the facts on the ground.

RADDATZ: Well, I mean, but when you look at the Web site -- and this is what I did before I went over to Iraq -- the core of Obama's plan was to start drawing down immediately and take out up to two combat brigades a month. What I found over there not only logistically, did commanders tell me off camera, that there's no way that can happen, because in normally in redeployments you leave a lot of the equipment there, and in something like this, obviously you'd have to bring it all back, unless you wanted to leave it there for the Iraqis, that is a huge choke point. It all has to go out -- 90 percent has to go out the port in Kuwait.

And not only that, they talk about sustainable security conditions on the ground. And those are people on camera saying that.

KURTZ: All right.

Real briefly, are the media holding Obama accountable for his evolving position on Iraq.

FRUM: They are not. And I think that they are also disregarding the larger context, which is that, all right, this whole discussion is (ph) current in the context of a more successful outcome that would have been impossible had people listened to Obama's advice in the first place. It's a big difference to talk about this now than it would have been to talk about it in 2006.

KURTZ: Michael Crowley, I've got 15 seconds for you to respond.

CROWLEY: Look, Obama's plan was always much more nuanced I think than the media described. In the primaries, his rhetoric got ahead of the fine print of his plan. And I think it does bear a lot more scrutiny. And I think we're going to see -- that's going to be the campaign debate for the next several months. I'm not too worried that there's not going to be a conversation.

KURTZ: All right. We've got to go.

Michael Crowley, David Frum, Martha Raddatz, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Up next, a familiar Fox anchor is stepping down, Dan Rather's on- air flub. And when is "Entertainment Tonight" going to tell viewers it blew the story of the Brangelina twins?

That's ahead in our "Media Minute."


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

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: Welcome to Washington. I'm Brit Hume.

KURTZ (voice over): Brit Hume, a key cog in the Fox News machine, is stepping down as an anchor and executive at year's end. A one-time legman for columnist Jack Anderson, and former White House correspondent for ABC, Hume has been part of Fox since the channel launched a dozen years ago.

He will continue as a part-time commentator and panelist on "Fox News Sunday." No word on who will succeed him on "Special Report," or whether the Washington-based program will continue.


KURTZ: You'd think we'd have it straightened out by now, but some anchors and correspondents keep tripping over the names "Obama" and "Osama." The latest culprit, Dan Rather on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."


DAN RATHER, HDNET: I have a great respect for Jesse Jackson, that he was an important figure in paving the way for an Osama bin Laden to appear.


KURTZ: The funny thing is, no one reacted at all.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "Entertainment Tonight."

KURTZ (voice over): "Entertainment Tonight" caught up with the big Brangelina news on Monday.

MARK STEINES, "ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT": Brad and Angelina's twins have arrived. ET is on the ground in Nice with all the details of the births the world is talking about.

KURTZ: Curiously enough, there was no mention of that much- ballyhooed "ET" scoop of a month ago that Angelina Jolie had her twins then. Two girls, the show said. Actually, it turned out to be a boy and a girl.


KURTZ: "ET" did fess up on its Web site to airing bad information, but if you only watched the show, you never saw the program acknowledge its whopper of a mistake. That's just shoddy.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, serious business. The media accused Barack Obama of not being funny enough. And he's not laughing about Sean Hannity's attacks on his wife Michelle. And later, a "Wall Street Journal" reporter turned NFL play sticker (ph) talks about his time on the gridiron.


KURTZ: Candidates may deal with weighty matters of war and peace, and promises they can't possibly keep, but politics is also supposed to be fun. It's no laughing matter then that Barack Obama is being accused of being just so darned eloquent and inspiring that he's hard to make fun of.

Yes, the senator who has drawn criticism for not being experienced enough, not being down to earth enough, not being black enough, is now being charged with spoiling our fun. Of course, that hasn't totally stopped the late-night comics from aiming their barbs at Obama and John McCain.


CONAN O'BRIEN, "LATE NIGHT": Barack Obama called for African- Americans to be better parents. Obama said not all black children can be raised by Angelina Jolie.

JAY LENO, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Some people are saying that the media is biased toward Barack Obama. You know, I don't know if that's true, but he does get the better magazine covers. Have you noticed that?

He's on the cover of "TIME." OK. "Newsweek." "Rolling Stone."

McCain, he's on the cover of "Codger Beat," "Barely Living" magazine. That's not -- a kidney stone. You see what I'm saying?


KURTZ: So, is it Obama's duty to provide a fatter target for the media mockery set? I put that question earlier to our panel.


KURTZ: Joining us from New York, CNN's Jeanne Moos, who covers, shall we say, the quirky side of the campaign. In Los Angeles, Eric Deggans, media critic for "The St. Petersburg Times." And here in Washington, radio talk show host Blanquita Cullum.

Jeanne Moos, you poke fun at people for a living. Are you having a hard time with Obama? Are you staying up nights and tearing your hair out?

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Obama is practically mock-proof. I mean, I'm having a really tough time.

He is not a bumbler. He doesn't bumble when he talks. He doesn't bumble when he walks. He's graceful. I mean, he's one of the most graceful politicians I've seen in my lifetime. It is really hard. And it sounds like I'm raving, but I'm complaining, because, I mean, this is killing us. This is really tough for us.

KURTZ: All right. Don't get too down about it. It's a long campaign.

Eric Deggans, let me read to you from a Maureen Dowd column the other day in "The New York Times." She writes: "At first blush, it would seem to be a positive for Obama that he is hard to mock. But on second thought, is it another sign that he is trying so hard to be perfect that it's stultifying... he does not want the take on him to be that he is so tightly wrapped, over-calculated, and circumspect that he can't even allow anyone to make jokes about him."

So if we have trouble finding ways to mock Senator Obama, it's Obama's fault.

ERIC DEGGANS, MEDIA CRITIC, "ST. PETERSBURG TIMES": I know. I thought that was just amazing. Blame the guy for being too perfect a political candidate.

You know, I'm not sure that I buy this line that he is really hard to mock. Joel Stein, The "L.A. Times" columnist, had a great column on Friday, talking about how there's lots of things to make fun of in terms of Obama.

You know, he's a nerd. He's a metrosexual. He's way too thin. He has got a funny name.

I mean, there's a ton of things you can make fun of him for. The one thing that I think that is stymieing people is that the biggest, you know, aspect of what Obama is doing is the fact that he is a successful African-American politician, and that can be treacherous ground for people.

KURTZ: So you're suggesting that there is a certain race sensitivity here that is keeping the would-be comics on edge?

DEGGANS: I think the most obvious jokes. You know, the most obvious jokes for McCain are that he's old. And the most obvious jokes about Obama might be that he's black, except that that's some touchy territory these days and you just -- you've got to be careful.

I also think it shows how un-diverse the ranks are of the people who are making fun of him, because, frankly, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle and a lot of comics have been cracking jokes about black candidates for president for years. But I think it is much harder for people who aren't black to make those jokes.

KURTZ: Blanquita, is it that the "liberal media" doesn't want to make fun of Obama as the great messiah, the guy who is floating above it all and going to solve all of the world's ills?

BLANQUITA CULLUM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I mean, I'm not even sure if it's the liberal or the conservative. They're all kind of just walking this careful road so that they don't look like they're bigots. They're so afraid that if they say something that can be translated or interpreted, it backfires.

For example, the first person that came out to blast "The New Yorker" was John McCain. So you know...

KURTZ: For the satirical cover on Obama, yes.

CULLUM: For the satirical cover. And we're afraid to make fun of ourselves. But it's -- but even he is afraid to even venture in that water because he doesn't want to look like he's going to be the big bad racist.

KURTZ: Although the JibJab folks released a new cartoon, we can put up some video of it, showing Obama as, shall we say -- there he is, just prancing along above any worldly cares the rest of us might have.

Jeanne Moos, when you do make fun of Obama, or at least try to, do you get some heat from liberal bloggers and true believers?

MOOS: Well, as mentioned there, you can make fun of his funny name. His name is the third rail of political humor. You cannot make fun of that man's name. I mean, it is like the last thing you can make fun of.

I did a piece where we were actually making fun of body language that the candidates have when they come up on stage, how they point and oh, you know, I know you, I know you, and we're -- we were doing a piece on that and having a field day with it. But then I made the mistake of saying, now, we can't see who they're pointing at, so let's just use our imaginations.

And we showed Hillary pointing, and we cut to a shot of Monica Lewinsky. And then we showed McCain pointing, and we cut to a shot of Ann Coulter, who was his nemesis at the time. And then we showed Obama pointing, and we cut to Osama bin Laden. I mean, you can't imagine how I was lacerated, scalded and scolded on the left-wing blogs.

CULLUM: But you know, the problem with that is, Jeanne, you know, you're exactly right. The problem with that is it's like the elephant in the room. People are thinking it, and people are afraid to talk about it. And what happens when we can't talk about it, it makes it worse.

KURTZ: All right. Well, maybe we should...

DEGGANS: I've got to tell you again, I'm not sure that I'm buying that, because "Saturday Night Live" has been making fun of Obama for months, for -- you know, for quite a while. They made fun of the media's, you know, kindness to him. They made fun of how he might freak out if he was president and call Hillary Clinton for advice.

I mean, those jokes are there. But they have to be good. I think the lesson of "The New Yorker" cover, for example, is that it wasn't great satire. The point that they were trying to make was tough to decipher, and it didn't seem particularly humorous or insightful. So I do think it has to be good.

KURTZ: Let's take a look at the candidates' own senses of humor, or alleged senses of humor, or lack thereof.

First, Barack Obama made this joke, which I happen to remember from a debate in the Democratic primaries. Let's watch.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would have to, you know, investigate more, you know, Bill's dancing abilities and...


OBAMA: ... some of his stuff before I accurately judged whether he was in fact a brother.



KURTZ: He was of course talking about Bill Clinton as the first black president, as he was sometimes dubbed.

Now, John McCain, he likes to mix it up on the campaign trail, or on "Saturday Night Live." Let's take a brief look at the comedy stylings of Senator McCain.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I ask you, what should we be looking for in our next president? Certainly someone who is very, very, very old.



O'BRIEN: We've all agreed...

MCCAIN: You got one on me.

O'BRIEN: ... on a take on you which is your seniority. And I'm curious, because I speak for all the late-night comedians. We're...



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... course to Iran increased by tenfold by the Bush administration. The biggest export was cigarettes. Give that the -- yes, that the -- supposedly that...

MCCAIN: Maybe that's a way of killing them.


KURTZ: Now, Jeanne, McCain sometimes gets in trouble with some of the jokes he has told. He once told a very utterly tasteless joke about Chelsea Clinton. And the liberal blogs are now talking about a joke he told in 1986 involving an ape and the rape of a woman, which his campaign says -- they're not denying it, but they say he can't recall it.

So does it hurt him when he gets a little bit too out there on the comedy edge?

MOOS: Does it hurt him? Yes, I guess it does. But I think people at home actually like it. I mean, I think the press jumps on him, but I think people at home probably like the jokes.

I have to say I'm really conflicted these days because, you know, I come from a hard news background where you try to balance things. But in this case, you can't balance. I mean, Obama is just so much harder to mock than McCain.

McCain now, you know, says he can't use a computer, and we know he can't read a teleprompter very well. And then the other day he had that Viagra moment, where he stared at the camera for about eight seconds with his hands on his face.

I mean, it is just -- you know, this is like meat for us. And Obama just isn't giving us that same meat. And I mean, I honestly feel conflicted.

CULLUM: That's tragic, because really and truly, you know, it's the old line, you can take your job seriously, but you can't take yourself so seriously. And the fact of the matter is, are we going to become a nation of journalists who are afraid to be -- have a satire? Are we going to sit there with a microscope saying it wasn't funny enough under who's conditions? I mean, who makes the determination about how funny things have to be to be satire?

KURTZ: Well, sure, but, I mean, look, rape jokes sometimes...

CULLUM: No, no, but...

KURTZ: Not sometimes. Rape jokes go over the line, period. Let's just be clear about that.

CULLUM: Well, of course, but I'm not talking about a rape joke.

KURTZ: I understand that.

CULLUM: I'm talking about, for example, "The New Yorker" cover.

KURTZ: Right.

CULLUM: I mean, look at "South Park." "South Park" insults everyone, including themselves.

KURTZ: Let me jump in because I want to get to something that Barack Obama does not find so funny. In an interview with "Glamour" magazine this week, he said the following -- let's put it up on the screen.

"What happened was that the conservative press -- FOX News and the 'National Review,' and columnists of every ilk -- went fairly liberally at her in a pretty systematic way." He's talking about his wife Michelle. "So it took a toll. If you start being subjected to rants by Sean Hannity and the like, day in and day out, that will drive up your negatives."

Well, Hannity immediately responded on Fox News. Here's what he had to say.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": So let's get this straight, Senator. Your wife campaigns for you, does public speeches, and says things like she's finally proud of her country and that America is a downright mean country in 2008, and she should be immune from criticism?


KURTZ: Eric Deggans, who is right?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, you do expect a spouse to go out there and defend, you know, their wife when they're being attacked. So I'm not surprised that he is out there saying these things. I do think it's unreasonable to expect that if you're going to send your wife out on the campaign trail, that she's not going to be challenged and that she's not going to be criticized a little bit.

I am surprised though, because I don't think Cindy McCain has gotten the same kind of scrutiny or the same kind of stringent scrubbing from pundits that Michelle Obama does.

CULLUM: Boy, she certainly has.

DEGGANS: Well...

CULLUM: She certainly has. They've got...

DEGGANS: I have not seen the kinds of comments questioning her patriotism, I've not seen the kind of comments...


DEGGANS: I've not seen very much of that. I've not seen very much of that in the mainstream press, certainly not to the extent that we've seen with Michelle Obama. And we haven't seen...

CULLUM: But the fact of the matter is... DEGGANS: And we haven't seen Cindy McCain have to go on some kind of friendliness tour, hitting all these TV shows and such to repair an image because...

CULLUM: You and I can sit here...

DEGGANS: ... people have been critical of her for things that she hasn't even said.

KURTZ: All right. Let me get Blanquita.

CULLUM: You certainly -- you certainly -- I mean, you're going to disagree with me on this, but Cindy McCain has really been under the gun as well She has for a long time. It's not the first time.

And frankly, when you go on to becoming a candidate -- the wife has to understand it's going to be tough. And I feel sorry for both of them.

KURTZ: But just briefly, Jeanne Moos...

CULLUM: But that's the nature of the business.

KURTZ: "National Review" puts the cover up, "Mrs. Grievance." So -- but Michelle Obama is out there campaigning. So where do you come down on this question of whether she is fair game?

MOOS: Jeez, I don't know with these two. I have had, I must say, a hard time doing much with Cindy McCain. You know, we started to do a little Stepford wife kind of thing with her. But then, you know, you just -- everyone is so touchy these days that you have to just, you know, back off. It's really a problem.

KURTZ: Boy, I have renewed sympathy for your plight in life and trying to have a little -- bring a little humor from the campaign.

Jeanne Moos, Eric Deggans, Blanquita Cullum, thanks very much for joining us.


KURTZ: After the break, a longtime "Wall Street Journal" reporter suits up and tries out for the Denver Broncos. What was he thinking? We'll tackle that next.


KURTZ: Most of the time, Stefan Fatsis has been a mild-mannered reporter for "The Wall Street Journal." But two years ago, he got a chance to put on a uniform and a helmet and see if he could cut it as a professional football player. He spent the summer at the Denver Broncos training camp and lived to tell the tale, which he does in a new book, "A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5'8", 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL."

I spoke earlier to the not-so-impressively built (ph) journalist.


KURTZ: Stefan Fatsis, welcome.


KURTZ: Why did you want to do this? Is this some kind of long- running boyhood fantasy?

FATSIS: Now, we've all got boyhood fantasies. But actually not.

I mean, it was really sitting at my desk one day thinking, it has been 40 years since George Plimpton did "Paper Lion." It's time for an update.

The NFL is a vastly different world. It's a world that's endlessly fascinating to fans and to readers. And I just thought this would be fun to do.

KURTZ: But what made you think that you could get out there on the gridiron and compete with these big, well-trained, well- conditioned athletes? What was it like training?

FATSIS: I spent a year in advance hoping that a team would let me do this. And then I found a kicking coach in the D.C. area where I lived, and worked month after month, you know, week after week, two or three times a week with him, trying to learn to be good.

I wanted to be credible when I got out there. I didn't have any expectations that I could compete with an NFL kicker or that I would ever get hit, because I would have been killed if I'd gotten hit.

KURTZ: But you didn't want to be laughed off the field, either.

FATSIS: Exactly. In order to get inside this kind of culture, I think you need to -- I needed to present that I was credible, that I was trying, that I understood what they were going through. And I wanted to really experience what they experienced. And that's how I got accepted.

KURTZ: One of the things you did was you spent a lot of time with the coach of the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan. You say he doesn't give the media very much. What did you observe? Why is that?

FATSIS: Well, I talked to him about this, actually. And his view really is that it is part of his job to speak with reporters, but it's not part of his job to reveal everything that's on his mind or everything that is in his plans for this team.

I mean, there is intense interest in cities like Denver in what the Broncos do. I mean, it is a firm part of this city's culture, a dominant part of its sports culture. Shanahan views the media as sort of an exigency. I mean, it's on his to-do list, but he's not going to give very much. KURTZ: He's like preparing for an opposing team?

FATSIS: It is in a way. I mean, for him, it's just -- it's just -- it's merely the -- the P.R. guy for the Broncos said to me one day, the reporters will leave here thinking that what they -- that they got what they wanted, but they will actually be leaving with what Mike gave them.

KURTZ: Now, you got a chance to actually kick in practice. You were all suited up. I assume you were wearing a helmet. And there was something riding on it.


FATSIS: There was. There were 30 minutes of practice riding on it.

If I made a field goal, the players would be dismissed 30 minutes early. And this is kind of significant, because when you're working 14, 15-hour days, and standing in 95 degree weather for six hours, it kind of means something, because these meetings are also like incredibly boring. So...

KURTZ: Who decreed that that was going to be the stakes for your...

FATSIS: Mike Shanahan decrees everything of the Denver Broncos. He's in charge.

KURTZ: He's the coach and he's in charge.

FATSIS: Exactly.

KURTZ: So the moment arrives. And to quote from your book, you use a technical sports term here. You said, "I am totally freaking out."


FATSIS: I've never felt more pressure in my life. I've written stories on deadline. I have spoken on television. I have -- my work has been scrutinized in the national media. But I have never, ever, ever felt more pressure. And it helped me understand what modern athletes go through.

The scrutiny that they face from the fans, from the media on a daily basis, and from their very overbearing coaches, is overwhelming. They've got their jobs on the line every second. I only had 30 minutes of meeting and my pride.

KURTZ: How long a kick was this?

FATSIS: This was -- first one was a 30-yard kick, and after I missed that one, it was a 25-yard kick.

KURTZ: You got a second chance? FATSIS: And then I got a third and a fourth chance later in camp.

KURTZ: But what happened on the first one, on the second one, where everything was really riding on it?

FATSIS: Well, on that one, the first kick went under the crossbar. I slipped when my foot planted in the ground, and I started falling backwards, and I knew that it wasn't going to be good.

And then the second one was even worse. I was panicked, I was hyperventilating. I had forgotten everything that I had been trained to do. And I kicked the ball far to the left of the goalpost.

KURTZ: Is that why we can't get the video of this? Because we wanted to play it for our viewers.


KURTZ: Now, you know, look, sportswriters can be a cruel bunch, and we always write about somebody choked, they clanked a game-winning shot off of the iron, or they missed the kick, or they struck out with bases loaded.

Do you have a different view now about professional sports and pressure?

FATSIS: Yes, I do. I mean, once you have experienced something like that, you can't help but have more respect for what athletes do and how much scrutiny they face and how much pressure they are under constantly.

And these are extremely hard things to do. I mean, it's hard to kick a football 30 yards or 40 yards on a consistent basis.

And it's hard to do that under the glare of so many people and so many interests and so much money. I mean, the NFL is this $6 billion, $7 billion-a-year institution. And these players know that their careers are very short, their lives are governed by what they do in the next split second.

So it's overwhelming for them. And that's, I think, was the revelation for me, what kind of stress these guys face and how they were willing to talk about it.

KURTZ: Right. You could have a whole very successful career, and everything comes down to one moment, do you make the catch, do you not make the catch? And everybody in the sports-writing business sits in judgment.

So I'm glad you kept your day job.

Stefan Fatsis, thanks very much for joining us.

FATSIS: Thank you, Howie.


KURTZ: Still to come, that "New Yorker" magazine cover on Obama and my take on the limits of satire.


KURTZ: It was breaking news when we came on last Sunday morning. And within hours, everyone had something to say about that "New Yorker" cover.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Barack Obama and John McCain agreed on one thing today: a magazine went way too far when it printed a satirical cartoon of Senator Obama and his wife Michelle on its cover.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Today's cover became instantly famous just during the course of this day, because a whole lot of people didn't find anything funny or artful about it.

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC: The only thing that could have been much worse for them to do would to have been to depict Barack Obama as Sambo and his wife as Aunt Jemima.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: So what we have here is the magazine exploiting Obama to sell copies. That is not fair.

KURTZ (voice over): ABC's "World News" went looking for people to pontificate as well.

(on camera): What seems to editors in Midtown Manhattan to be such an obvious over-the-top satire may not read that way to lots of people, some of whom consistently, despite what the media report, believe that Barack Obama actually is a Muslim.

(voice over): Even the candidate himself weighed in.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do think that, you know, in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead.


KURTZ: So, what exactly was it that put a cartoon at the center of the presidential campaign? Obviously the image of Barack and Michelle as gun-toting, Osama-loving Muslim terrorists was -- and there's no other way to put it -- offensive. But the magazine says it was mocking the false and ugly smears circulating about Obama.

Now the pundits had something to fight over. Was the satire effective? Did average folks, as opposed to what everyone called sophisticated "New Yorker" readers, realize it was a satire? Can something be a satire and still spread a racially-tinged libel?


KURTZ (voice over): "New Yorker" editor David Remnick, who thought everyone would get the joke, found himself on the defensive.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There are going to be a lot of people who are not sophisticated "New Yorker" magazine readers who don't necessarily appreciate the satire, who will simply look at this and say, you know what? This couple, they're a bunch of terrorists.

DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR, "THE NEW YORKER": I don't think so at all. I think you underestimate the intelligence of the American people, to be quite honest.


KURTZ: Well, maybe. But Remnick would have been better off writing an essay explaining the artist's satiric intent, because not everyone gets it. Not everyone is immersed in irony. When you're playing with comedic fire, even smart New Yorkers can get burned.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

We'll see you here next week.