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Reliable Sources

Coverage of Presidential Debate Examined

Aired September 28, 2008 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The debate that almost wasn't. After McCain threatens to pull the plug, how are the media framing the first presidential face-off? Which mistakes and missteps are getting big play? And is the coverage more about sound bites than substance?

Silent Sarah. Palin holds photo-ops with foreign leaders and tries to ban reporters, even from the small talk. Plus, Katie Couric tries to pin her down.

Taking on The Times. McCain aides rip the New York newspaper as in the tank for Obama. Why are they running against the press?

And war over Wall Street. The press flips on the treasury bailout plan after liberals and conservatives begin denouncing it. Were journalists too slow to ask the tough questions?


KURTZ: When I left the debate hall in Oxford, Mississippi, Friday night, I thought I had seen a serious, substantive debate that was pretty close to a draw. But when I got to the media tent -- that's right, thousands of journalists fly thousands of miles to watch the thing on TV in a massive tent -- there was a very different debate going on, reporters asking about the body language between Obama and McCain, and why did Obama keep saying he agreed with McCain on this or that? A storyline that was pushed hard by the Republican side.

There was less talk about the clashes on taxes, on health care, Iraq, Iran, Russia. But those were the subjects that dominated the 90-minute face-off.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate. It's hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: John mentioned me being wildly liberal. Mostly that's just me opposing George Bush's wrong-headed policies.


KURTZ: The second the candidates shook hands, the pundits took over.


BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: How many had times did Barack say, "John is right," John is right, Senator McCain is right"? And how many times did McCain say Obama is wrong, "Senator Obama is wrong"? McCain was the sheriff.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: If McCain is the guy who looks you in the eye, why didn't he look Obama in the eye?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: It did appear that John McCain at times was looking a little more washed out than you might expect.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Barack Obama made an intentional strategy of looking at McCain, addressing his remarks over there. McCain that I saw never looked at him.


KURTZ: So how are the media covering a debate that almost didn't happen until McCain made a last-minute decision to leave Washington for Mississippi?

Joining us now here in Washington, Chris Cillizza, who blogs at "The Fix" at; Jake Tapper, senior political correspondent for ABC NEWS; and in Detroit with the Obama campaign, CNN's Jessica Yellin.

Jake Tapper, because this was such an issue-laden debate, there was no, "There you go again," or "You're no Jack Kennedy," I had the impression that journalists didn't quite know how to score it.

JAKE TAPPER, SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS: Well, that's right, because I think, as you say, it was pretty much a draw, but at the same time, the media, especially cable, not to curse cable, but want a winner, and they want to say, so and so won. I personally thought that they both did it fine. There were things about either of them that I didn't like and things that I liked. But I think the media, that doesn't work in the vacuum of cable TV news.

KURTZ: What we like, Chris Cillizza, is, who landed the big blow? Who got off the best one-liner? And we were kind of left with parsing, who got the better of these lengthy exchanges on the economy and foreign policy.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Absolutely. You know, I think it's -- to Jake's point, they were trying to do different things in this debate. I think Barack Obama was intentionally trying not to sort of get the zinger off, or, you know, go for the swing -- because the problem with swinging big is if you miss, you're off balance. And I think Barack Obama wanted to stay on balance, show that he was sober and serious.

So I think his goal...

KURTZ: And we don't quite know how to deal with that.

CILLIZZA: Right. His goal in some ways was to make this hard for us to cover. His goal was to be substantive, policy-oriented, and not attack John McCain in these ad hominem attacks. So it complicated the way that we typically score this, were it sort of, you know, check box here, check box here, and add them up at the end.

KURTZ: Clearly a misstep to make it harder for us to cover. Forgot (ph) about the media constituency here.

Now, there were a number of times when McCain was on the offense. Let's take another look at Friday night's debate.


OBAMA: We're also going to have to, I believe, engage in tough, direct diplomacy with Iran.

MCCAIN: So let me get this had right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says, we're going to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and we say, no, you're not? Oh, please.


KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, almost all the journalists I talked to either thought the debate was a draw, or some gave a slight edge to McCain. But these instant polls done by CNN and CBS gave Obama an edge anywhere from 13 to 18 points.

Do these quickie polls mean much?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they do because people continue to hear who the winner is as a result of those polls, and it tends to shape conventional wisdom. So even if folks are undecided as they initially come out of the debate, the more they hear that, oh, Obama is the winner, the more they feel maybe Obama is the winner.

And I'd add to this conversation by saying, look, Howie, we've been hearing from these two men for a year about their policy positions. And folks out there have heard a lot about where they stand on taxes, whether they think we should go into Pakistan or not. What they haven't seen are these two men side by side, facing each other, and the energy and dynamic between the two of them.

And that's one of the reasons like these remarks like, "I agree with John," calling him "John," and then John McCain constantly saying, "I disagree" with Barack Obama, actually do resonate so much because it shows their different approaches to interaction. And it does seem that increasingly, people, the Independents, those swing voters, want a sense of agreement, a sense of somebody who can get along and get things done. And that's why even though the pundits thought it was ineffective for Barack Obama to continually say, "I agree," a lot of those swing voters liked it.

TAPPER: But just one other point I wanted to make is, you know what's interesting is I think voters like both these guys. They both have very high approval ratings.

And I was watching this debate and I personally -- and I know I'm not supposed to have personal opinions -- I like Barack Obama. I like John McCain. That's not to say I think either one of them should be president or should not be president. But I don't have a problem with them.

I think that's a difference from previous debates, where people in the media and also people in the audience, based on approval ratings, didn't like the candidates. I think that also complicates things for the media.

KURTZ: Well, since Jessica raised this point, let me show some tape. And let me tell the control room I'm going out of order here.

Because when I was in what's called "Spin Alley," where all of the Republican, Democratic advocates and surrogates come out and tell the press that their guy one, the main point that the Republican side, the McCain side, was pushing was Obama said he agreed with McCain 11 times. It was 11 times. And they rushed out a Web ad, and this got picked up, particularly Friday night by FOX and by MSNBC, which we'll show you right now.


OBAMA: John's right that we've got to make some cuts.

Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced.

John, you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent.

Senator McCain is also right that it's difficult.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Hey, Robert, what's with the amen chorus tonight? Every time that McCain said something, your candidate said, absolutely right. What was this, rope a dope?


KURTZ: That was McCain spokesman Robert Gibbs.

So my question is, so what that Obama said this? And yet, it really drove part of the television narrative.

CILLIZZA: It drives the television narrative, without question. I don't -- I think Obama is making a calculated gamble here. And he's done it I think throughout this entire campaign, including the primary, which is people really do want a different kind of politics. They don't want that, this guy is wrong all the time because he has an "R" after his name, and this guy is wrong all the time -- or this guy's right all the time because he has a "D" after his name.

The Obama campaign, frankly, came back and said, we're thrilled that John McCain went up with this Web ad. We think that people out in the country like the idea that just because one is a Republican and one a Democrat, and they happen to be running for president, they don't have to disagree on everything. Disagreeing on everything has got us to where we are, it's got Congress a 15 percent approval rating, it's got George Bush a 29 percent approval rating.

People think Washington is broken, and they think maybe this is a way to fix it.

TAPPER: I think Chris is exactly right. And Democrats say...

KURTZ: So you agreed with him.

TAPPER: I agreed with him.

KURTZ: You're supposed to agree with him.


TAPPER: Chris is right. Chris is right.

CILLIZZA: It's bad for ratings.

TAPPER: Chris is right. You can put that in a YouTube.

Democrats say that their focus groups, their dial testing, showed that people loved it when Obama agreed with McCain. They like that. And they didn't like it...

KURTZ: But look at the way the commentators reacted, like it was some...

TAPPER: I don't care what they say. And here's the other thing.

KURTZ: And probably America doesn't care either.

TAPPER: Yes, but this is the thing. This is the concern that Republicans have about the McCain campaign, that he's focused on winning news cycles and he's not focused on winning the presidency.

And when you put out a YouTube video saying, oh, look at how cute this is, Obama agreed with McCain 10 times, 15 times, 20 times, yes, you get on Chris Matthews' show and you get these little quippy things. But at the same time, what's the larger picture?

And Republicans are concerned that McCain makes too many decisions based on winning the new cycle, as in boycotting the debate and then not boycotting the debate, his selection of Governor Palin. That is what Republicans are worried about.

KURTZ: Jessica, let me come back to this question of the dichotomy that I see between the way the people in the press score these things and what people at home may think. I mentioned I watched it in the hall. And in the hall, McCain seemed as vigorous as Obama.

When I watched it on TV later and saw the close-up shots, well, you know, McCain looked his 72 years. But you said we've been watching these candidates for a year, or in some cases two years, so we know what they think on taxes, et cetera.

A lot of people have not been paying so much close attention, so I'm wondering, when they're watching this, if Obama just holds his own, then maybe they get a favorable impression, whereas we're thinking about, well, how come he didn't hold a subcommittee hearing, and McCain is going to tax health insurance benefits, and all of the minutia?

YELLIN: I think that's a fair statement, Howie. I mean, the assessment of this is Obama had a lot to lose here. If he looked like the weaker man on national security, that would have been an issue because that is John McCain's great strength.

And the other obvious consideration here is they don't -- most of the public doesn't know what Barack Obama looks like in the big chair, as everyone says. And so he seemed comfortable, he seemed at ease. And so a draw, in a certain sense, goes to Obama. In another -- because people feel comfortable with him. In another sense, at least this turned the page for John McCain for a very off-kilter week for him. So that's a plus for John McCain.


YELLIN: But in the final analysis, it does look like Barack Obama comes off as seeming, you know, more presidential than a lot of people thought he could be. And so it's a big advantage for him.

KURTZ: Let me turn to the third man on the stage, Jim Lehrer. I think he was moderating his 10th presidential debate. And he did something several times, particularly in the first half-hour, that we're going to take a look at right now.


OBAMA: Ten days ago, John said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. I do not think that they are.

JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR: Say it directly to it him.

OBAMA: John, 10 days ago you said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound.


KURTZ: It was funny the first time as well.

Now, this format was touted, Jake Tapper, as something where the two candidates could actually debate each other. And yet, despite Lehrer's urging, that barely happened.

TAPPER: Well, I think Mr. Lehrer was clearly trying for a remake of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, which we all fantasize about as political dorks. But, you know, he tried. And I think to an extent we got that.

We saw some of the mix-up that you showed earlier with Ahmadinejad, with McCain taking Obama on on that. But it's not easy.

These guys have been conditioned for years to deal with a totally different kind of media cycle, which is why, by the way, Obama was focused, looking at McCain and talking to the camera, and McCain, who is more groomed in the Sunday morning chat show, was focused on talking to Jim Lehrer.

KURTZ: How did Lehrer do at pinning down the candidates, particularly on some of those answers where they just tried to slide by with generalities?

CILLIZZA: Here's where I thought he did well in what he always, to my mind, does well. He sort of stays out of it.

He is not injecting -- I've thought sometimes -- Jake and I, and Howie, I think I saw about 275 primary debates, and so you got to pick and choose there. A lot of times the moderator, right as it appeared to be getting good, that the candidates were going to mix it up, the moderator would say, well, we have to move on to the next question.

Now, Jim Lehrer, to his credit, is comfortable enough he doesn't do that. But we also didn't see, in my opinion, a lot of breaking out of the talking points. Now, I'm not sure we can blame Jim Lehrer for this. Jake is exactly right.

These guys have spent two years -- John McCain spent longer than that, Barack Obama spent longer than that -- getting ready for a debate like this to not get off their talking points. So it's not an easy thing that I think the moderator's job should be.

KURTZ: Right. Well, I think Lehrer has become like...

YELLIN: He sounded like...

KURTZ: Go ahead, Jessica.

YELLIN: He sounded like a marriage counselor -- turn to your partner and share with them how you feel.

KURTZ: Share your feelings. That's a good point.

Now, you know, the Obama campaign did -- let slip, perhaps, a little bit of media bias when it sent out a text to all supporters, saying, "Watch the debate on CNN." The other networks didn't like that and they changed the message.

All right. When we come back, McCain's big gamble. Did the press paint the senator's dramatic parachuting into the bailout talks as maverick or Machiavellian?


KURTZ: When John McCain announced rather dramatically this week that he was suspending his campaign, going to Washington, getting involved in the negotiations over the huge federal banking bailout, and might well skip the debate, Jake Tapper, were the media kind of sucked into a phony drama that McCain created?

TAPPER: Well, this goes to the point I was making before about them always trying to win the media cycle and not having a larger strategy. This was their strategy for that day.

They had a bad poll from ABC News/"Washington Post," and there was this economic crisis which does not do well for McCain. They decided, OK, he's going to suspend campaign operations, including the debate, and go down to Washington. And that became the focus, that became the lead story on NBC News, "World News" that night.

KURTZ: Right.

TAPPER: But then the next day, when it became clear that his presence really wasn't having an effect one way or the other, even though Democrats were blaming him for...


KURTZ: Right.

TAPPER: ... then, of course, he had to go to the debate. And...

KURTZ: Well, he didn't have to go. When I went to the airport, I didn't know if he was going to be there.

TAPPER: Right.. But the point is he was going to be there.


TAPPER: And this is -- but this is -- this is why Republicans I talk to in Washington are worried about with this guy, is it's all winning that day and not about a larger strategy.

KURTZ: Chris, was there sufficient journalistic skepticism this might be kind of a ploy, that he was campaigning without campaigning?

CILLIZZA: I believe there was. I mean, I can speak to my own -- in "The First," what I wrote, I said, you know, "In what will turn out to be either a big win or a big loss, John McCain made a political gambit today."

The idea that anything -- and this include Barack Obama's response, Harry Reid's response -- the idea that anything 39, 38, 37 days before the most anticipated presidential election in modern history will not have to do with politics is patently ridiculous. Of course it has to do with politics.

Do I think John McCain saw an opportunity? Yes. Do I think what he wound up getting what he wanted out of it? No.

The McCain is going to say, but when the deal is done, people will look back and say, John McCain brought House Republicans to the table. But he didn't get that big moment leading into the debate.

KURTZ: It's great to have somebody so prolific they can quote themselves.

CILLIZZA: Prolific or self-absorbed.

KURTZ: Jessica Yellin, I want to play some tape for you of Sarah Palin this week, McCain's running mate. She was at the U.N., she was going to meet with some foreign leaders. These are called photo-ops.

At first they tried to bar reporters. We're looking at it now. A CNN cameramen and a couple other pool reporters were then ushered out of the meeting between Governor Palin and Hamid Karzai.

What do you make of the vice presidential nominee, who I think, by any standard, has been the least accessible to the media of anyone I can remember in modern history?

YELLIN: This is one of the most amazing aspects of this race, in my view, Howie. Since I've covered Sarah Palin -- I spent about two weeks covering her in Alaska -- she is such an enormously polarizing figure. I have gotten more hate mail covering Sarah Palin than I've gotten in my entire journalistic career from both sides.

People saying that the media is so mean her, that she should never take interviews. This from people who are well educated, engaged, people who believe in a free press.

And on the other side, people insisting at the very same moment that the press isn't pushing her hard enough. Why aren't we doing more?

It is remarkable the reactions people have out there. And the McCain campaign knows that a certain percentage of the audience really does feel the media has been mean and has been using that, exploiting that, as a political tactic quite successfully. Whether it's responsible, you know, that's left to history to decide.

KURTZ: Is largely stiffing the press a viable strategy for a vice presidential candidate?

CILLIZZA: Yes, because I think most people don't care about process. Most average voters are not engaged in the idea of, is Sarah Palin or is Sarah Palin not talking to the press?

They see her at events, they see her on TV, they say, oh, she's out there. She's doing things.

I do think it's a mistake though, whether it's viable or not, I do think it's a mistake, because what it does is puts so much emphasis on the interviews she does give. The interview she gave to Katie Couric, which, to my mind, John McCain got lucky in some ways that the bailout was dominating.

KURTZ: Overshadowed that.

CILLIZZA: Because that was...

KURTZ: We're going to talk about that in the second half. But this whole week drew a bit of a blast from CNN's Campbell Brown. Let's take a look at that.


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, I call on the McCain campaign to stop treating Sarah Palin like she is a delicate flower that will wilt at any moment. Free Sarah Palin. Free her from the chauvinistic chains you are binding her with. Sexism in this campaign must come to an end.


KURTZ: Well, is this all just media whining, or does she have some responsibility? It's not that we want to talk to her because we want to hang out with her. We want to ask questions that presumably the public want to ask of her.

TAPPER: Jessica was talking about the two lines of attack that you're getting from Republican partisans and Democratic partisans -- the press has been too mean to her, the press is not being tough enough on her. It's possible that those are both correct.

But the difference is the press defined largely, as the McCain camp did early on, which is liberal blogs, tabloid media, "US" magazine. They were mean to her. They were inappropriate to her. But that's not to say that the mainstream media was.

But I think that the McCain campaign has successfully taken all of the inappropriateness of that initial coverage of Palin and turned it around so that the media is now boxed in and can't really push back to say, well, I don't understand what she's saying here, or I don't understand, is this person actually prepared for this job?

KURTZ: All right. Jake Tapper, Chris Cillizza, Jessica Yellin in Detroit, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, David Letterman eviscerates John McCain after the senator bails on his show. Nobody does that to Dave.

Plus, why the media did an about-face on the $700 billion bank bailout.

And Katie Couric's big interview, as we mentioned, makes Sarah Palin look awfully uncomfortable. Was this a turning point for both women? It looked suspiciously close to this...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Did you enjoy your week in New York City?

TINA FEY, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": You know, I did, Katie, and I wasn't sure I would at first. New York is, of course, home to the liberal media elite. (END VIDEO CLIP)


KURTZ: Her showdown with Charlie Gibson was the most hotly- debated interview since Monica Lewinsky sat down with Barbara Walters and provided premium fresh material for Tina Fey. Well, now Sarah Palin went toe-to-toe this week with Katie Couric in only her second broadcast network interview, and let's just say it wasn't pretty. Couric was armored with plenty of questions, and Palin seemed stuck with a limited set of talking points.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: I'll just ask you one more time, not to belabor the point, specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you.

COURIC: You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?

PALIN: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia. And on the other side, the land boundary that we have with Canada. It's funny that a comment like that was kind of made to -- I don't know. You know, reporters.

COURIC: Mocked?

PALIN: Yes, mocked, I guess that's the word. Yes. As Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic," and Amy Holmes, CNN political contributor.

Michelle, some people found Charlie Gibson's approach to Sarah Palin a tad condescending. I was not among them.

How did Katie couric do? And does she have a little more leeway as a woman interviewing a female governor?

MICHELLE COTTLE, SR. EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Yes, she did. I mean, if you watched Katie, she was very careful when she asked her questions not to come across as condescending. But at some point she did actually kind of look like she was speaking to a very slow fourth- grader.

I mean, she was very patient, she would repeat herself. She was kind of speaking almost slowly. But I do think that because this is Katie Couric, she is America's sweetheart. She has this reputation as every woman. I think she had a lot more leeway. KURTZ: But she was not exactly throwing hardball pitches at Palin's head. I mean, she asked -- I mean, do you think the questions she asked were reasonable?

ANY HOLMES, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know what? Actually, I thought the question she asked about reform, I thought Palin's answer was perfectly legitimate. And when Katie Couric said, "But you're not giving me another example," and pressing her and pressing her, you know, off the top of my head I could say campaign finance reform, tobacco legislation, for example. But I think that to say that Sarah Palin's answer was not adequate was a little bit unfair, and I thought that it was.

KURTZ: Why do you think that some of your fellow conservative columnists have been saying this was a train wreck, they are cringing, or that Palin looked unqualified? I mean, it wasn't because...

HOLMES: Because there were certainly moments where it was, you know, that she had that sort of brain freeze, deer in the headlights sort of response. And these are really high-stakes interviews.

I think part of it is because she's not very well known. These are her first introductions on the national stage.

COTTLE: I think the bigger thing is, this is a woman who nobody expects to have all of these facts at her fingertips. But what she has had previously is she's had this incredible confidence. That's what she brought to the table.

HOLMES: Even with Gibson she seemed very poised.

COTTLE: She didn't necessarily know all of the details, but she could kind of tap dance around what she didn't know. And she came across as kind of self-confident and spunky, and whatever. And she just felt apart with Katie.

KURTZ: Well, and of course the reason these interviews get so much enormous attention is because it's the only interviews that she's doing. If you were giving interviews every day, I suppose it would be a little bit less focus on it.

Now, as I mentioned, this did, again, last night, provide some fodder for Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live." Let's take a brief look at that.


TINA FEY, ACTRESS, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Ultimately, what the bailout does is help those that are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy to help -- it's got to be all about job creation, too.


KURTZ: So is this the liberal media once again making Sarah Palin an object of mockery? HOLMES: No, I don't think it's the liberal media. I think that Sarah Palin, she did go off the rails on that answer. But Michelle makes a really good point. We see that Joe Biden, he slips on those banana peels, but he does it, I guess, with such panache and confidence, that it gets called a gaffe instead of, you know, a disastrous performance.

KURTZ: But Biden's gaffes have gotten some coverage in the last week or two.

COTTLE: Sure. And they get covered as gaffes because, let's fact it, people know Joe Biden. Joe Biden has been on the national stage for years.

He has run for president more than once. Sarah Palin has not. So nobody really knows if it is kind of a temporary brain freeze or if she's just clueless. I mean, they need to get her out there more if they don't want every individual interview parsed to death.

KURTZ: Biden's also gone on "Meet the Press," and we haven't seen that on Sarah Palin's schedule yet.

That same day that Katie Couric was sitting down with Sarah Palin, there was this incident where John McCain was supposed to be on "The Late Show." And instead, he abandoned David Letterman and he went over to another CBS building to talk to Katie Couric.

Let's look at Dave's reaction.


DAVID LETTERMAN, "THE LATE SHOW": You heard it here first, this doesn't smell right. You know? This just doesn't smell right, because this is not the way a tested hero behaves. Somebody is putting something in his Metamucil.



KURTZ: And he went on for a couple of days.

Is it kind of dangerous? This is a half-serious question. Is it kind of dangerous to have David Letterman as your sworn enemy?

COTTLE: Well, yes, because David Letterman's audience is huge. It's bigger than all of the cable chat shows that John McCain could run to. And Letterman has a lot of leeway to poke fun.

And what these guys make their entire living out of is finding a sore spot and digging at it and digging at it and digging at it. And it's what they're good at.

Now, is it going to turn the election? No. But it makes a point. HOLMES: But I think the problem here is, John McCain not showing up, this is an emblematic of John McCain. This is in a way that you define him.

Where comedians can be so successful is they find that, you know, Achilles heel. They find that sort of weak point and they enlarge it and create a character around it.

I thought Dave went totally over the line on this. I mean, nine minutes of ranting? He came back and he did it again for a second night? I mean, hell hath no fury like a talk show host scorned. It's ridiculous.

And, you know, I would also say between actors and musicians that he books on his show every night, he's never a cancellation? I mean, give me a break.

KURTZ: Yes, but this was a cancellation -- I mean, it's sort of double-pronged thing, where not only was McCain blowing off David Letterman, supposedly because he had to get back to Washington, to the bailout negotiations, but then he goes and hangs out with Katie.

COTTLE: Well, that's why it was dangerous. It's not that this is emblematic of what McCain does, like running away. But he was doing all kinds of politicking and trying to maneuver these days.

You know, is he going to move his debate? Is he going to show up for this? Is he going to try and get Sarah Palin's debate cancelled so they can move their debate to that day? And it just made an opening that he was a guy kind of in disarray who didn't really know what he needed to be doing.

KURTZ: But McCain also got chewed out by a couple of the liberal ladies on "The View" over some of his TV attack ads.

COTTLE: Indeed.

KURTZ: And so I'm wondering whether pop culture shows, Letterman, "The View," and others, are playing a slightly more serious role this year than just the usual come on and go cooking with Rachel Ray kind of thing.

HOLMES: Oh, I'm not so sure about that. I mean, we see every four years that pop culture tends to support the liberal candidate and take their shots at the conservative candidate.

Back in 2004, I think I remember Cameron Diaz, she said on "Oprah Winfrey" that if George Bush were elected, that women would get raped. I mean, it was totally bizarre and off the wall.

I think that these types of things, the public, they take kind of it with a grain of salt. They're making up their own minds.

KURTZ: Well, maybe McCain can make up with Jay Leno and give Leno the exclusive rights to all future late night comedy. One more point that I wanted to touch on here is a piece of videotape that surfaced on YouTube. And it's of a guy named Thomas Muthee, who was preaching -- this was three years ago -- at the Wasilla, Alaska, Assembly of God Church with Sarah Palin. This has gotten a little bit of play. I want to talk about it on the other side.


BISHOP THOMAS MUTHEE, WORD OF FAITH CHURCH: We come against every hindrance of the enemy, standing in her way today. In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, every form of witchcraft is what you rebuke. In the name of Jesus.


KURTZ: Now, I had not realized that witchcraft was an issue in this presidential campaign, but look, on a semi-serious note, given the endless looping of Jeremiah Wright and his rants, MSNBC has played this a few times, it hasn't got much attention. Is this fair to question Palin's interaction with one of her preachers?

COTTLE: Well, it may be fair, but it's very dangerous for Democrats. Democrats have kind of a reputation for being anti- religious, which is not fair, but they have to be extremely careful.

KURTZ: But what about journalists? Should this be played on every political talk show, or is it unfairly exploiting someone's religion?

HOLMES: Well, what was different about Jeremiah Wright was that there was a political component. He said "God damn America."

There was rebuking witchcraft. I mean, where's the news in that? That's a much more religious story about her church and the types of religious messages that they're talking about. This wasn't about politics and where do you stand on the issue of America's culpability in the world.

KURTZ: Is it potentially offensive to witches?

HOLMES: Maybe...

COTTLE: Well, they're going to lose that vote, I think. They'll lose the Wiccan vote.

HOLMES: They'll take you around.

KURTZ: In 20 seconds, all of this pop culture stuff, Letterman, Tina Fey, and so forth, does it, at the margins, change the way we think of these candidates?

COTTLE: Sure, absolutely, because that becomes not necessarily the big conventional wisdom, but it definitely shapes our view of what you can satirize. HOLMES: But do remember that the media took after Dan Quayle that, you know, he was an idiot, he shouldn't be vice president, et cetera, et cetera. He became vice president when George Bush was president.

KURTZ: I do seem to remember that.

All right. Amy Holmes, Michelle Cottle, thanks for joining us this morning.

After the break, bailing on the bailout. At first, journalists seemed to hail Henry Paulson's plan to rescue the banking plan. Now there's plenty of criticism. Did they fumble on the big play?

Two top financial commentators next.


KURTZ: When Henry Paulson unveiled his massive nearly trillion- dollar bailout plan a week ago Friday, the initial media reaction was that it was bold, risky, and absolutely necessary.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's the most far-reaching financial rescue plan since the Great Depression, and it just got a big thumbs- up from investors.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: It may be the only remedy to avoid again what our own government feared was a financial collapse.

JIM CRAMER, CNBC: This was necessary. I've been a relentless critic of this administration. Not today. This was well done.


KURTZ: But as liberal and conservative pundits began attacking the treasury secretary's scheme as a giveaway to reckless Wall Street titans, and lawmakers of both parties followed suit, the tone of the coverage quickly changed.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Even if and when Congress passes the bailout package, will that solve the problem? And by the way, who pays for all of this and where does the money come from?

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: No failed CEO should receive any kind of bonus payment. That should be made illegal.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about why the coverage of this unprecedented federal bailout has turned negative, David Brancaccio, host of the news magazine show "Now" on PBS. And in new York, David Cay Johnston, former "New York Times" reporter and author of "Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense and Stick You with the Bill."

David Cay Johnston, you said that in the opening days of the debate on this package, which might actually reach some agreement today -- there might be agreement between the negotiators -- "Journalists were in danger of repeating the failed lap dog practices that so damaged our reputations in the rush to war with Iraq."


DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, AUTHOR, "FREE LUNCH": Well, it was immediately assumed that there really is a crisis. And that because the president said so, this must be the fact. And the coverage went to questioning around the edges of the plan instead of the premise.

The first rule of journalism is, check it out, and then crosscheck it. And journalists weren't doing that. They were accepting as revealed truth that there was a crisis. And while this coverage has gotten better during the week, it's still pretty gullible and naive.

KURTZ: David Brancaccio, I saw journalists right away questioning whether the plan would work, whether it was too risky. What I didn't see was asking, how do you give one man so much power without oversight? Something that's been much debated in recent days.

DAVID BRANCACCIO, We journalists have had a long history with accepting what the smart people hand down to us, especially on complicated stuff like, oh, climate change. The scientists do this. And in this case, financial stuff.

And reporters who cover business matters start to absorb the values of the people they're covering. There's long research about this. So that's what -- business reporters were not inclined to ask the tough questions.

I'll tell you who should asking a lot of the tough questions. This is almost less a business reporter's beat. It should be a money and politics beat, because as we go forward -- and this bailout apparently will pass later today, or soon -- the big issue is, how are market going to get re-regulated since you and I, the taxpayer, are now paying for all of this kind of risk, right?

KURTZ: Right.

BRANCACCIO: And how are they going to do that? Well, it depends.

I was sitting in Senator Charles Grassley's office about 18 months ago on just this issue, should hedge funds get regulated a little more? And he said -- you know, he said a couple quick, little words about a little bit more regulation for the hedge fund industry. In the Senate, his phone starts ringing off the hook, presumably with contributors to campaigns.

KURTZ: Both parties bear a big share of this. But let me go back to New York, because David Cay Johnston, another thing you wrote on Jim Romenesko's media Web site was that the questioning on the Sunday talk shows -- this was last weekend -- was all softball, and you said, "ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, shame on your anchors and panelists."

But let's look at some of that questioning right now.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Can one person handle this, and is it right for one government official to have this much authority?

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: I know that it's urgent to do something, but don't taxpayers deserve more answers than they're getting about, first of all, the value of what you're going to have in terms of mortgages?

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Mr. Secretary, is this going to fix the situation or is this a Band-Aid, something that's going to stop it from getting worse?


KURTZ: It didn't seem to me like they were tossing softballs at Henry Paulson.

JOHNSTON: Well, I disagree with you. First of all, Tom Brokaw started off by stating as fact, not attributing to the president, but stating as fact that there's a crisis. And I don't think they've made the case yet that there's a crisis.

You know, the stock market is in a deep dive. Goldman Sachs' stock has gone up 50 percent in had the last 10 days. It was on its way down the day this decision was made.

And they didn't question the premise. Is this the only way to do this? Why aren't you making a market solution to this? Show us the evidence of exactly what's going on here. The TED spread, which is a technical measure of the market, isn't even at a record level, although it is one that should cause some concern.

The news has been full of anecdotal evidence that this or that company, or individuals having trouble getting a loan close, well, McClatchy newspapers, and a business that surely is not doing well, the newspaper industry, got its money reworked last week. And what came out this morning in Gretchen Morgenson's column in "The New York Times?" That when they were in the room deciding to bail out AIG, the current chairman of the board of Goldman Sachs, the job the treasury secretary used to have, was sitting in the room.

I mean, do the rules not apply to these people? And by the way, Goldman was on the hook for $20 billion from AIG, which is half its shareholder equity.

And Howard, where are the stories that say a study that came out this week by two economists at the International Monetary Fund who examined banking crises all around the world, England, Japan, other countries, in the last 27 years, they found that bailouts like this don't work, they don't solve the underlining problems, and they only represent basically a transfer of wealth from ordinary people to bankers.

KURTZ: I'm going to leave that to the economists.

But in terms of the media coverage, one of the reasons I think that the package, even before we knew what the heck the package was, got such good press is that when word of it leaked to CNBC late last week, the markets shot up 270 points in less than an hour.

And to your point, David Brancaccio, about, you know, to what extent did journalists even who covered this area understand credit default swaps and collateralized bid obligations, to some extent we are at the mercy to people who I think themselves don't understand the exotic mortgage instruments that were created here.

BRANCACCIO: Well, what helped the media a lot is, late last week, 200 experts and economists signed a letter that a lot of the Republicans were also sharing, this letter, saying, hold on a minute. We don't know if this will work, we don't know how much this will cost.

I mean, you and I are talking here Sunday morning. State-of-the- art understanding of what the bailout package will cost you and I, the taxpayer, right now is, not really sure. I mean, it's a real failure of our democracy. We are making this momentous decision as you and I are talking, and we don't know answers to very basic questions.

KURTZ: What about this, David Brancaccio? One of the big sticking points in the package pushed by the Democrats, but also by liberal commentators, was, you know, the guys who got us into this mess, the big banking CEOs and Wall Street executives who are now going to ask Uncle Sam for money, or guarantees, or whatever it is, and they're going to go off with their $50 million golden parachutes, why didn't the press jump on that? It seems like such a populist issue.

BRANCACCIO: I'll tell you, it's very interesting. Even our guest in New York, David Cay Johnston, has very strong opinions on that. He thinks it's almost a side issue, that the CEOs, no matter what gets placed into law -- I hate to speak for you, David, but he was on my show on Friday.

JOHNSTON: No, no. Go right ahead.

BRANCACCIO: What did you say, David?

JOHNSTON: I said it's window dressing. These guys are going to get paid what they're going to get paid. And government can't regulate it.

If the government wants to deal with this, then let's tax the money away after they've decided to pay it, if that's what the government wants to do. But let's get to the core issue here of, is there really a crisis?

Look, I don't think to this day the government has made the case. Joe Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist, many other economists, are saying, excuse me?

And we have to...

BRANCACCIO: But Howard, you know what we did miss? There's another part of this, not just the CEO compensation issue, which is help for people who can't pay their mortgage because it's suddenly going up.

KURTZ: Right.

BRANCACCIO: That is something that's being pushed but is not getting much traction. Even Barack Obama is not quite sure about that implementation. And where is the press in really focusing on, OK, we're trying to work on fixing Wall Street, but what about people on Main Street?

KURTZ: To your point to the reliance on experts -- and of course we all think it's a crisis because we see senators going in and out of the White House having important meetings.

JOHNSTON: And we all know what experts they are on the economy, right? How is it that Pelosi and Reid are constantly described as not knowing anything about the economy and suddenly they're experts, we should rely on their word about this?

KURTZ: But I was just going to say that it's because it takes an awful lot of gumption for even the most experienced financial journalist to say, no, no, they are all wrong, this really isn't a crisis.

BRANCACCIO: You know what used to get me? When I would cover these very issues, right, about problems with regulation, problems with, is this a disaster waiting to happen, people would say, well, young man, you don't have an MBA like I do. Trust us. We went to business school. And reporters have to resist that by asking tough questions.


JOHNSTON: And Howard, the issue isn't saying they're wrong. It's asking, make the case. Be skeptical. Show us that there's really a problem. Show us the number.

KURTZ: And on that note, we've got to go.

David Cay Johnston, David Brancaccio, thanks for enlightening us this morning.

Still to come, shooting the messengers. John McCain goes to war with the media. You know, the same media he used to call his base.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: There was a time the press was accused of having a love affair with John McCain. These days, the two sides are practically in divorce court.


KURTZ (voice-over): The latest target? "The New York Times." The newspaper had the temerity to report this week that McCain campaign manager Rick Davis was paid nearly $2 million by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lobby against tighter regulations for the mortgage giants.

The McCain campaign didn't challenge the facts, but chief strategist Steve Schmidt unloaded on the paper.

STEVE SCHMNIDT, SR. MCCAIN ADVISER: Whatever "The New York Times" once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization. It is it a pro-Obama advocacy organization. This is an organization that is completely, totally, 150 percent in the tank for the Democratic candidate.

KURTZ: The next day, The Times and other news outlets reported that Freddie Mac was still making payments to Davis' lobbying firm through last month. Davis has left the firm but still has an equity stake.

When Politico's Ben Smith challenged some of Schmidt's and Davis' comments, a McCain spokesman e-mailed him that, "You're in the tank."

This isn't a new tactic. McCain aides have called a "Newsweek" article "offensive" and "scurrilous." A "USA Today" piece, "Shameful" and a "smear job." And MSNBC, "An organ of the Democratic National Committee."

Long-time confidante Mark Salter took to National Review's Web site to label a "Washington Post" story "99 percent fiction," which I guess was slightly better than Elizabeth Bumiller's Times piece on the vetting of Sarah Palin, which Schmidt called "an absolute piece of fiction."

Sometimes such reports can seem unfair. When The Time tried in February to link McCain to a female lobbyist based on the suspicions of two unnamed former aides, the story was rightly criticized as flimsy.

Schmidt really let loose at the Republican convention, telling me the media were on a mission to destroy Sarah Palin.

SCHMIDT: I've been asked questions when her amniotic fluid started to leak with regard to her last birth. Smear after smear after smear. And it's disgraceful and it's wrong.

KURTZ: What happened to the days when McCain spent endless hours schmoozing reporters on the Straight Talk Express? That's history.

McCain hadn't held a news conference for more than a month before he had a brief availability with reporters this week. The couch installed on his plane for media chats remains untouched by journalistic backsides.


KURTZ: Bashing the fourth estate plays well with Republican voters, and the McCain team is convinced that most of the media lean heavily toward Barack Obama. But at some point, fair-minded folks are going to ask, can every one of these stories be wrong? Or is McCain trying to demonize his former pals in the press?

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

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