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Reliable Sources

Obama Vs. Cheney?

Aired May 24, 2009 - 10:00   ET


KURTZ: Barack Obama remains the world's biggest newspaper, a media-certified celebrity as well as a president, which is why he's on the cover of "Newsweek" yet again this past week and his wife, Michelle, is on "Time's" cover for the third time as journalistic fascination with them shows no sign of flagging.

But as in comic books, every superhero needs a nemesis, and the press has now cast in that Darth Vader role a man who left office four months ago as a remarkably unpopular vice president. Dick Cheney has eagerly filled the Republican vacuum defending his administration's record in a series of interviews and this week in a speech attacking Obama again on terrorism. This just minutes after the president's defense of his national security record.


CHENEY: To completely rule out enhanced interrogation in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe.


KURTZ: Journalists, of course, couldn't resist casting the dual appearances as a televised showdown.


HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: And we have never seen anything quite like this -- the president facing off with a former vice president just minutes apart on national TV.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: What we saw in Washington today was an extraordinary and important debate.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: The unprecedented face-off between a sitting president and a former vice president.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: That is our headline this Thursday night: "Cheney Versus Obama."

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Leading off tonight, battle royal.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: Why are they doing this, Obama versus Cheney, in a surreal showdown right before our very eyes?

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this emerging Obama versus Cheney storyline and some other political topics, Karen Tumulty, national political reporter for "TIME" magazine; Chris Stirewalt, political editor for "The Washington Examiner"; and Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."

All right, Clarence, why is Cheney drawing almost presidential level coverage, with the media testing him pretty much at Obama's level?

PAGE: It's all an Obama plot. That's what it is.

I mean, figure it out. Cheney was scheduled at least a couple of weeks ago to speak to the AEI, the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Obama, just this week, suddenly announced he's going to make this speech on that same morning.

Is this coincidence? And then Cheney starts two minutes after Obama finishes, after watching him.

I think the White House is deliberately trying to replace Rush Limbaugh as the unofficial head of the party with Dick Cheney.

KURTZ: We'll get to Rush in a moment.

But, of course, even before Thursday's speeches, Chris Stirewalt, Cheney was getting a huge amount of coverage for his interviews.

Is there an undercurrent of resentment among some journalists, almost as if Cheney is hijacking this debate?

STIREWALT: Well, I think if there's any resentment it's the resentment at being proved wrong, because the assumption was so widely held that Cheney was toxic, that his attacks on the administration were going to be deleterious to the Republican cause -- were going to hurt everything that the remaking of the GOP was trying to achieve...

KURTZ: That he would just stay in the bunker.

STIREWALT: That he -- that's right. That that was -- the conventional wisdom was so closely held on Cheney, that when it was proven wrong and the Obama administration went on the defense against Cheney, and started attacking to the right, that that's where I think some resentment comes from.

KURTZ: Karen Tumulty, Cheney was quite reclusive as vice president, but he knows how to push our buttons and to deliver the sound bites that can write headlines, does he not?

TUMULTY: In fact, that is his entire value, at this point, as a media star, is that he was so reclusive. And, by the way, without the media and without cable TV, with its split screens, this wouldn't have been a debate, it would have been two speeches. But it was really as much the -- you know, the media buildup and the media hype around it, I think.

KURTZ: Because we can't resist? Because we like the idea of these two heavyweights squaring off? TUMULTY: And it was -- you know, the White House used the timing. They understood that it would be -- it would be played the way it was. But again, these were two separate speeches in two entirely different parts of town.

KURTZ: Let me play you a little bit...

STIREWALT: And you can't name a better story that was going on that day.

KURTZ: Or this week.

Let me play you a little bit of the president's speech, because he was not only criticizing the Bush administration, he had some other criticisms, as well.


OBAMA: It's no secret there's a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And it's no secret that our media culture feeds the impulse that leads to a good fight and good copy.


KURTZ: Is Obama blaming the media for forcing this debate on him? Obviously, he'd rather be talking about the economy and health care.

PAGE: Who else do you blame?


STIREWALT: No, really.


PAGE: He would rather be talking -- well, no but, he knows something...

TUMULTY: How about the United States Senate, you know?

PAGE: No, the fact is, this is a better story than the economy, health care on that day. Once again, and we're a daily business. And this is not something that Obama instantly fell into.

KURTZ: But Obama does this a lot, where he takes these swipes at cable television and the pundits, and you can tell that he likes to try to stake out a middle ground and kind of denigrate the press in the process, which is his right.

STIREWALT: Well, and Clarence pointed out earlier, rightly, that the administration teed up Dick Cheney. I believe the line from Gibbs was: "I guess Rush Limbaugh wasn't available today, so the other -- so Dick Cheney had to come forward," snark, snark, snark, and teeing up Cheney. They created Cheney and now they've got to live with him.

TUMULTY: But to blame the media for this, when it comes just a few days after a Democratic-controlled United States Senate had repudiated him on Guantanamo, I mean, he was not responding to the media here, he was responding to his own party and Congress.

KURTZ: And speaking of that, if the press was tougher on Obama, wouldn't the overriding issue right now -- wouldn't we be hearing more stories and seeing more stories about Barack Obama embracing some of the same Bush national security policies that he criticized during the campaign, whether it's continuing military tribunals or indefinite detentions of terror suspects , and he's even having trouble closing Gitmo?

Why isn't -- I mean, I'm not saying that's been ignored. Why isn't that more of a story?

TUMULTY: I wonder that myself, because those -- you are hearing -- if anything, the loudest criticism of Barack Obama after that speech came not from the right, but from the left. And you're not hearing those criticisms from the ACLU and from other organizations.

PAGE: But turn to the print media, Howard, turn to my column this week. Turn to David Brooks' excellent column on Friday in "The New York Times." I mean, that is a good story.

The fact is that Cheney was debating the second Bush term, because that's -- notice when Cheney began to lose his influence. His strongest policies, anti-terror policies, occurred during the first Bush term.

And then, after Rumsfeld, after Gates, et cetera, they began to move in a direction that Obama and John McCain could live with. That's why this thing emerged as a big issue during the campaign last year.

KURTZ: Does the media oversimplify this and make all the things that Bush did as if he were, you know -- as if hundreds of detainees were waterboarded? Whereas, on the other hand, Obama is painted as somebody who, you know, is completely using a broom to sweep out the old policies when, in fact, he's compromising on many things?

STIREWALT: Well, it's -- as the president himself would say, it's complicated. And when you get into office, it's very complicated. And I think we're seeing right now a press corps that really developed a big crush on Obama during the campaign is coming to terms with the difference between candidate Obama and President Obama.

KURTZ: Now, somebody here -- I think it was you, Clarence -- mentioned Rush Limbaugh. He made an interesting point on his radio program about his role. He says the press is casting him as a GOP spokesman.

Let's roll that. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I have been anointed to this position by members of the drive-by media and, of course, the Obama White House. And so I hereby, ladies and gentlemen, today announce that I am resigning. I am resigning as the titular head of the Republican Party.


KURTZ: Now, Clarence Page, you're not a Limbaugh fan, but the guy has a certain...

PAGE: Au contraire, Howard. I listen to Rush all the time. It's exercises in narcissism. It's fantastic. I mean., did you hear that?

KURTZ: The guy has a certain genius at promoting himself, does he not?

PAGE: Absolutely.

PAGE: I've learned a lot from him, by the way.



KURTZ: Limbaugh says the media have anointed him the Republican spokesman, but, come on, isn't he more than happy to fill that void?

STIREWALT: Well, he's happy to fill the ideological void in the Republican Party about who's going to talk about it. But the question for Rush right now, in terms of being a media celebrity, is how can he play himself against Michael Steele? How can he play himself against Colin Powell to set himself up as the Lone Ranger of the Republican Party, the conservative in town?

TUMULTY: I don't think it's the media that's anointed him. I think it's, in a lot of ways, the Republican Party. We've seen a series of Republican congressmen who say something to offend Rush Limbaugh and then come as supplicants begging his pardon.

KURTZ: And that builds him up?

TUMULTY: It does. But again, this is coming from his own party. It's coming from Dick Cheney, who's putting him in count/counterpoint against Colin Powell.

KURTZ: Well, come on, it's...


KURTZ: ... a big megaphone, particularly of cable, but also elsewhere, that takes everything that he says and many things that he says on his admittedly very popular radio program and makes it the issue of the day, the top talker. Don't you think?

PAGE: Well, no. What you're seeing here is a vacuum of leadership in the Republican Party right now. They will get over it eventually, but right now, Rush Limbaugh is the strongest voice on the right. He's not a party man, and he's become the Republican Party's burden. It's kind of like the -- I don't know, the tail wagging the dog -- where did that phrase come from?

Anyway, it's kind of like that, though, right now, because there is that vacuum of leadership. And Rush is camera-ready. He's microphone-ready.


PAGE: And that's Michael Steele's problem, too.

KURTZ: Michael Steele says the coverage of Barack Obama is rather fawning. And here we have "TIME" magazine, "The Meaning of Michelle." I think we showed this earlier.

Karen, you didn't write this story, but another cover story on Michelle Obama?

What possibly justifies this?

TUMULTY: Well, among other things, when the Obamas are on the covers of magazines, people go to the newsstands and buy those magazines in this difficult economic environment that we are in.

KURTZ: So, if the first family moves product, and as a result, they get more and more prominence in the media, I question whether that's true. But let's look at what was actually written in "The Meaning of Michelle."

Chris Stirewalt, here are some of the excerpts I jotted down:

"Michelle is the first first lady to make 'Maxim's' 'Hottest Women in the World' list. Former East Wing veterans marvel at the lovesick coverage she gets. She is a new American icon."

Your reaction?

STIREWALT: Hey, look, "TIME" magazine is -- as Karen rightly points out, it's tough times out there. You've got to move copies. You have to sell magazines.

"TIME" is coming to this, what, four months after "The New Yorker" did its Michelle front page cover?

Yes, it's fawning. Yes, people are into them. But that's the times we live in. That's where it's at.

KURTZ: Just 30 seconds here. With "TIME" and "Newsweek" again putting the Obamas on the cover this week, doesn't that enforce the impression that we in the media are just in the tank for this couple?

PAGE: You know, Howard, I recently visited NBC Rockefeller Center. Their gift shop -- I walked in the door -- the first thing I see is a whole rack full of Obama books. You know, NBC Obama books. And it's true, Obama sells newspapers, magazines, builds TV ratings. It's like the Kennedy days all over again, but that's not politics, that's just bottom line.

KURTZ: You're all saying it's a cultural phenomenon, but I question whether...

PAGE: And economic.

KURTZ: And economic. Well, but there is also a political aspect.

Got to leave it there.

Chris Stirewalt, Karen Tumulty, Clarence Page, thanks for joining us.

When we come back, prime-time polarization. With Fox News and MSNBC moving in to their partisan corners, is there still a place for down-the-middle news, or do you have to pick a side to survive?


KURTZ: Anyone with a remote control can see the polarization of cable news on just about any night. President Obama is routinely bashed on Fox News Channel and just as routinely defended on MSNBC, where the Republicans are often portrayed as the villains. In politics, it would be called playing to your base.


HANNITY: The water is creeping up towards the head of the speaker of the House tonight as it becomes more and more clear that Nancy Pelosi isn't being forthcoming about what she knew and when she knew it.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: We haven't seen many Democrats stick up for Pelosi. Now the loons, the far-left loons in the media, you know, of course.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: At the same time that Newt Gingrich was grandstanding against the philandering President Clinton, Speaker Gingrich himself was cheating on his wife with a House staffer more than 20 years younger than he was.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: One question that has not been asked of former Vice President Cheney on his seemingly endless "anything but true confessions tour," did you use torture in hopes of producing false evidence justifying the invasion of Iraq? (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: CNN, by and large, tries to play things down the middle, with liberal and conservative guests taking each other on.


HILARY ROSEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Did she have the power to change it? Did she have the power to do anything about it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's her own (ph). Why didn't she try?

ROSEN: No. Nancy Pelosi was the biggest advocate against the war among anybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why didn't she try? By her own admission, she did nothing, Hilary. She did nothing.

ROSEN: By her own admission, she asked...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She used it for political purposes.

ROSEN: ... the Democratic leader of the House Intelligence Committee to register objections.


KURTZ: That effort may fall short at times, but some critics are questioning whether it even makes sense as a ratings strategy. "The New York Times" recently wrote the following: "With its rivals stoking prime time with high-octane political opinion and rant, can CNN compete effectively with a formula of news delivered more or less straight?"

Joining us now to talk about the increasingly partisan nature of cable news, in Baltimore, David Zurawik, TV media critic for "The Baltimore Sun." And here in Washington, Lauren Ashburn, managing editor and executive producer of "USA Today Live"; and Matt Frei, anchor of "BBC World News America" on BBC America.

Matt Frei, when you look at Fox and MSNBC in prime time -- we'll get to CNN in a moment -- do you see opinion journalism or do you see people pushing an agenda?

FREI: I see a bit of both, actually, to be honest. I mean, in broad terms, what seems to have happened is that the stiff upper lip of journalism has been replaced by the quivering lower lip.

Now, whether you're quivering over emotion, whether it's Glenn Beck in torrents of tears over the TARP program, or whether it's Ed Schultz banging the table because he doesn't like people being angry with President Obama, emotion has become information, insinuation has become information on the whole. And you get -- you know, you just get the kind of stuff that, quite frankly, we were supposed to be doing when we started doing this a few years ago.

KURTZ: I'll get a little more emotional later in the segment. But David Zurawik, you also see this in the guests because, of course, on Fox you see Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, and they've just hired as contributors Dana Perino and Tucker Carlson. And MSNBC has a lot of liberal columnists.

Is it a smart ratings strategy for having O'Reilly on one hand and Olbermann and Maddow on the other and play to their core audience? ZURAWIK: Howie, it might be a smart ratings strategy, and that's exactly what is so troubling about this argument and the "Times" piece that you cited. Everybody in the media is feverishly trying to find a business model that'll work for us. And when the mainstream media, people like "The New York Times," come out and say essentially you need to do opinion journalism, not "journalism" journalism to survive, as that piece really implied, that's very dangerous because everybody says, oh, that's the model we need to go to.

That model works for MSNBC and Fox because they don't have to cover news when they don't want to. We saw MSNBC last week...

KURTZ: Let me jump in, David, because I want to get Lauren Ashburn, who is shaking her head off camera.

ASHBURN: No. I mean, this is ridiculous.

Mainstream media -- "USA Today" reaches 5.8 million people every single day. Al Neuharth's mission, which he wrote 25 years ago, was that "USA Today" hopes to be a forum for better understanding and unity. And we still have a mass reach, despite the fact that nobody is reading newspapers.

KURTZ: But is there a different set of challenges for cable news, where the argument that the president of MSNBC makes is that people hear the headlines all day long and at night they want raw meat?

ASHBURN: Yes, but how many of them do? I mean, how many really do?

What are the ratings compared to other prime time shows? They're minuscule compared to the other shows that people are watching like "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars".

KURTZ: Well, who can compete with "American Idol"?

ZURAWIK: And Howie...

KURTZ: Go ahead, David.

ZURAWIK: Howie, that's so convenient for MSNBC's general manager, Phil Griffin, to be able to say that. Oh, we won't cover on the weekends, we will show years-old documentaries about prison abuse inside a prison, and missing children, and we don't have to spend the money to staff bureaus and cover real news.

Isn't that convenient to say, oh, they get news everywhere, they get it from other people, it's their job, not ours? We'll just put on Keith Olbermann making faces at a camera, talk radio with a camera, and rake in the bucks. That's outrageous for MSNBC to be making that claim.

KURTZ: Matt Frei, so here's CNN, trying to play things down the middle with slogans like "No Bias, No Bull," and "The New York Times" says this is a questionable strategy. And given the fact that MSNBC has closed the gap in prime time with CNN, maybe it is.

FREI: I guess you have to decide what you are. You know, if you've got people crying -- anchors crying on television, if you've got them pushing agendas, if you've got them getting in touch with their emotional side rather than they're kind of cerebral side, that's fine. It's therapeutic, it's very entertaining but it's not news, but it's not news.

Don't call it news. News is something else.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Lauren Ashburn, if you have Democratic and Republican strategists squaring off, as often happens on CNN programs, you know, it's Paul Begala or Donna Brazile against Leslie Sanchez...

ASHBURN: Or Tucker Carlson.


KURTZ: ... and Alex Castellanos. Do you ever get to the reality of the situation, or does it become opposing people citing talking points?

ASHBURN: I think that you could argue right now that we don't have true debate in America. We have people on cable who are telling you what they think and trying to get you to believe it.

Now, I don't think that a true debate show exists right now where you pit one person on one side of the issue and the other on the other, and then you have a host actually asking intelligent questions. And that is a mess.

KURTZ: Why do you think that is?

ASHBURN: Because people don't want to watch it. I mean...

KURTZ: You're saying there's no ratings percentage in having actual substantive debate, but it is a ratings goal to have entertaining, flamboyant people who will...

ASHBURN: Of course.

KURTZ: ... kind of shout at each other?

ASHBURN: It's like rubbernecking on the highway; right? You know, you watch, you look, you sort of go by. It's eye candy, and then you forget about it the next day. But it is entertaining while you're there.

FREI: I think it doesn't need to be like that. I mean, maybe the problem is that when we've had that kind of debate in the "CROSSFIRE" format, it's been too formulaic. You know exactly what you're going to expect from either side. Maybe from a slightly more surprising about it, jumble different people together, it might actually have more of an impact. KURTZ: Well, I have often argued that the important thing is to have -- no matter what your strong views are -- and it's fine if you're a host, if you're a commentator, to have strong views -- to have people, guests on who have opposing views. I think Keith Olbermann would be more interesting and I think Sean Hannity, now that he's lost Alan Colmes, would be more interest if he had, they had people who flatly disagree with them. On rare occasions they do.

You've been talking about anchors getting emotional. We've compiled some videotape to make that point on all the different cable channels.

Let's roll some of that.


O'REILLY: You want anarchy! You want open border anarchy! That's what you want!

GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS: What I want is fairness. We have lured...

O'REILLY: Fairness? Bull!

JIM CRAMER, CNBC: Then these firms are going to go out of business! And he's nuts, they're nuts! They know nothing!

NANCY GRACE, HEADLINE NEWS: You know what, Kevin? I'm so glad they didn't miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like gang rape.

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: I just love my country and I fear for it.

OLBERMANN: You saved no one, Mr. Cheney. All you did was help kill Americans.

In the name of God, go.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: David Zurawik, what do you make of a cable culture where some of these anchors and hosts get really, really mad, or upset or emotional, and it seems to work for them?

ZURAWIK: Howie, they're speaking for a visceral response. And honestly -- I don't want to overstate this, Howie, and you know from time to time I do -- risk that. But it's really that path lies fascism.

I mean, what we need as a democracy is reliable information. This is the opposite of it.

And by the way, that clip of Olbermann just really, I think, encapsulates it. This is a bizarro world or cartoon version of Edward R. Murrow with the cadence and this arch rhetoric and all this, but he is saying madman stuff.

KURTZ: Well, he would say ...


ASHBURN: But I don't think any of us are disagreeing here. I mean, this isn't a debate.

FREI: No, absolutely. But I think -- and here's the point -- you can actually turn it around. You say this is really good for democracy because it's therapeutic, it's cathartic.

So if you're really mad, you watch these guys who are even madder than you, ,and you think, you know what? I'm going to -- it's like my kids. When my kids bawl in public, they see another child crying, they stop crying and they watch.

KURTZ: You're saying it's a therapeutic potentially for the audience, Lauren?

ASHBURN: No. No, I think it completely disagree.

ZURAWIK: Howie, it's not...

KURTZ: Let me get Lauren in.

ASHBURN: Hey, I think it completely riles everybody up, just like this. I mean, the more emotional you are, and the more passionate you are, the more you're crying, the more you're yelling, the more people...

FREI: I thought we were always like this.

ASHBURN: You and I are.

ZURAWIK: It's not therapeutic. They really target people, their opposition.

Even Rachel Maddow, who is the nicest, with her snide smile and arched eyebrow and mocking, they target people and hold them up for ridicule. It's exactly what happened in propaganda in the '30s in Europe. I'm not kidding you.

KURTZ: Some would say that the old model of -- you used the phrase (INAUDIBLE) -- the anchorman who looks into the camera and doesn't show a lot of emotion, and just does the news, that that can't exist anymore in a world where the blogosphere is inflamed with all kinds of opinion.

FREI: I think that's precisely why it has to exist. And, you know, you still get ABC, CBS, NBC, despite the fact that they are all trying to compete for slices of a diminishing pie, they still have the big audiences out there.

And I think audiences want news, they want a certain degree of judgment and sobriety. Some people don't, some people want to be emoted with, they want to be entertained, but not everyone.

ASHBURN: And I think that's true. I also think that the bottom line is this is not good for society. I mean, this constant inflammation and fighting on issues, you learn in kindergarten that this is the way you're supposed to behave.

ZURAWIK: You're absolutely right. I couldn't agree more with that.

The effect on society and on this democracy of this angry, polarizing, bitter kind of putdown conversation is dangerous. And it's from the very people who say they're news channels.

KURTZ: Well, before we get to carried away, I mean, people get the television that they deserve, because what gets the ratings are some of these programs.

Now, one last bit of videotape from "The View." Glenn Beck, the Fox News host, was on. There was a dispute about when they had all been on an Amtrak car and who saved seats for somebody else.

Let's take a look.


WHOOPI GOLDBERG, "THE VIEW": I wanted to make sure before I brought this up to you, we didn't reserve our seats. I don't know...


GOLDBERG: Let me just -- no, no, no, because -- wait a minute.

BECK: You're accusing me of lying. Let me telling you what...

GOLDBERG: You did lie. What do you mean I'm accusing you?

BECK: I'm sorry...

GOLDBERG: You sat there, and you are a lying sack of dog mess.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: That's entertainment, isn't it?

ASHBURN: Yes, because you were waiting for her to say something else, and she didn't.

FREI: It's a gift to Glenn Beck. He can go on talking about this for the next few weeks.

KURTZ: So it's good to be attacked?

FREI: Well, it's good for him and it's good for his ratings.

ASHBURN: Well, it's good for his ratings and it's good for him personally.

Is it good for America? I still say no.

FREI: But this is trench warfare. It's trench warfare.

Everyone is in their trench defending their positions. There's no real exchange of views. It's not great for democracy. It's a good thing it's a minority.

KURTZ: I am calling a cease-fire, because we're out of time.

Lauren Ashburn, Matt Frei, David Zurawik, thanks for joining us.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, CNN's Richard Quest on the London paper that blew the whistle on stunning spending abuses by British lawmakers.

And Maureen Dowd fighting off charges of plagiarism after borrowing some words from an unnamed friend.

But first we'll spend some "Real Time with Bill Maher." The HBO funnyman on everything from the media's treatment of Miss California, to why he gets booed -- yes booed -- when he goes after Barack Obama.


KURTZ: Bill Maher has always been politically incorrect. After ABC canceled the show of that very name a few years back, he bounced back with an HBO program called "Real Time," where his sometimes caustic humor and unabashed liberal commentary are pleasing his fans and ticking off his detractors.


BILL MAHER, HOST, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER": Miss California says that her answer in the contest opposing gay marriage and favoring opposite marriage is what cost her her crown. Well, let's see -- she's extremely Christian, she's kind of hot, and she's dumb. It looks like the Republicans have a new vice presidential candidate.


KURTZ: In taking the program to Los Angeles this past week, I dropped by the studio where "Real Time" is aired.


KURTZ: And we're here in Television City with Bill Maher.

Thanks very much for letting us stop by and sit in these directors' chairs.

MAHER: Literally Television City.

KURTZ: Literally.

MAHER: People may think you were just referring to L.A. in general, but this is a compound called Television City.

KURTZ: You have feasted for a long time on George Bush and Dick Cheney. We're in a new era now. On your program a while back you told a joke about President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MAHER: You know who's superstitious about Friday the 13th? Republicans. They say the country is having bad luck because we let a black cat in the White House.


KURTZ: Do you remember the audience reaction?

MAHER: Yes. Well, they boo me a lot when I talk about Obama.

KURTZ: Why is that? What does that tell you?

MAHER: It tells me that we get a very super-sensitive liberal audience. You know?

I mean, this is one of the reasons I always have trouble doing charity events. I'm all for charity, but the events, you know, it's always that limousine liberal crowd that just has their finger on the politically correct button. You know, they're just ready to like, ooh...


MAHER: Yes. I mean, that's what bugs me the most about liberals, is that they just -- they object before they even know what they're objecting to.

KURTZ: Aren't these your people, Bill?

MAHER: No. Not when they do that. I'm much more of a -- you know, I'm a free speech person. And I would say, especially on campuses in the last 10 or 15 years, the repression of speech has come more from the left.

KURTZ: But you were quoted as saying Obama is the new God, meaning that he's difficult to make fun of? Are you (ph) shying away?

MAHER: I think I said he was chocolate Jesus.

KURTZ: But are comedians treading lightly with this president?

MAHER: Oh, we have to stop asking that question.

KURTZ: Well, give me a good answer.

MAHER: I've been answering this question -- media has to stop asking whether comedians can deal with the new president.

KURTZ: Well, I don't see though Leno and Letterman and Jon Stewart skewering him.

MAHER: Well, watch my show.


MAHER: I do, and that's why I get booed. KURTZ: And you're willing to take those boos?

MAHER: Absolutely. Unless you're getting booed sometimes, you're not saying anything. You're just, you know, confirming what your audience already believes, and that's not really helping.

KURTZ: So you ought to challenge people and those boos are a badge of honor?

Let's talk about the media coverage of some things that have been in the news.

Swine flu -- I thought millions of people were supposed to be dead by now. What happened?

MAHER: I never bought it. When it first came out, I remember we said, you know, this is the latest nonevent that the media's going to hype. You know, Jimmy Breslin said a great thing once about television. He said, "The message of television is stay home and watch more television."

Swine flu was very good for CNN, wasn't it?

KURTZ: And the other cable networks.

MAHER: Everything.

KURTZ: And did they scare the hell out of people unnecessarily?

MAHER: Absolutely. And you know, there's a bigger problem, which is that people don't really, I think, in this country understand anything about health. I think the medical community is corrupt and ill-informed, and I don't think people understand that this is a flu.

All flus come from animals. They come from birds, they come from pigs. And you know, the regular flu, which has a much worst publicist than swine flu, apparently, as you know, kills tens of thousands every year.

KURTZ: It doesn't get much press.

MAHER: It doesn't get much press.

What are you, Cramer?


KURTZ: I'm trying to get in the mood here.

All right. Let me ask...

MAHER: And, you know, the answer is to have a strong immune system. But that would involve eating right and, you know, adjusting your lifestyle.

KURTZ: Boring. MAHER: Yes.

KURTZ: All right. Miss California, Carrie Prejean, you've had some fun with her. She of course gave that answer opposing gay marriage in the beauty pageant.

Why has she been such a target?

MAHER: Well, she hasn't been such a target for me, but, you know, she's unavoidable. She's certainly all over the serious news channels, and she shouldn't be. But, you know, I don't even understand why the question was asked of her.

Did we used to ask beauty queens these kinds of political questions?

KURTZ: No. But Perez Hilton thought it would be a great question to ask...

MAHER: Right.

KURTZ: ... perhaps get some attention for something he feels about.

MAHER: Right.

KURTZ: They usually ask them about world peace.

MAHER: Well, I thought her answer -- not the answer at the pageant, but later, when she said, "Satan was trying to tempt me with that," I think that says a lot about our country because, you know, here's a person who believes in Satan, as does, I would guess, 60, 70, 80 percent of this county. This dumb, dumb, country believes in demons and some creature with horns and a tail and a pitchfork who's going to make you burn in a mythical place if you don't believe in an imaginary friend. That's really the root problem of it, isn't it?

KURTZ: But since Carrie Prejean didn't ask to be put into this particular spotlight, she got asked a question, she answered as best she could, you're making fun of her breast implants. What, breast implants are so unusual here in L.A.?

MAHER: No, I just told you that to me, the root problem is that religion is stupid and dangerous. I'm not about the breast implants. Let's get to religion is stupid, because that's the bottom of it.

KURTZ: You seem not to be the most popular guy on Fox News these days. Sean Hannity...

MAHER: Really? What changed?


HANNITY: I say this with Bill Maher, for example. Bill Maher has become an angry, bitter guy.


MAHER: No, he's an angry, bitter guy. That's called projecting. That's called taking what you feel and giving it to somebody else.

I'm a happy, single guy. He's a repressed, typical Republican.

You know, I'm sure just terribly sexually repressed. And it comes out in all their sorts of hatred and vile and bile.

You know, bitter? Why would I be bitter? First of all, our side won. You know, their side is in a wilderness like they've never been before.

KURTZ: But you say hatred. I mean, he's arguing for what he believes in.

MAHER: Well, you watch it. I don't.

KURTZ: It's my job to watch everybody.

All right.

Another Fox host, Greg Gutfeld said, "One of the great things about Obama..."


KURTZ: Greg Gutfeld. He's on...

MAHER: Greg Gutfeld?

KURTZ: He's on late at night.

MAHER: Is that a real name? Is this a trick question?

KURTZ: No, no, no. I wouldn't do that.

MAHER: Come on. You're making up a Fox newscaster. It's OK. I'll go along with it.

KURTZ: "One of the great things about Obama is how it terminated the relevance of Bill Maher. His schtick is now just a smirk in a suit."

Are you getting under their skin?

MAHER: I guess so. Hey, when you piss off Greg Gutfeld, I think you're doing something right.

Who is Greg Gutfeld? I know more about Jon and Kate than this guy.


KURTZ: And after the break, more of my L.A. sit-down with Bill Maher, who reveals... (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: More now of my interview in L.A. with HBO's Bill Maher.


KURTZ: Do you ever tell a joke and say, gee, you know, I wish I could have that one back, maybe it went too far?

MAHER: Yes. Oh, absolutely.

KURTZ: How often does that happen?

MAHER: I never understand people who say, I have no regrets. It's like, really? Are you human? What are you, Mr. Spock? You have no regrets?

I have a regret every day. How can you not live your life without certain regrets? Yes, sometimes.

I must say, a nice thing about getting older is you regret less because you learn more and you get a little wiser. But, yes, I always have trouble sleeping Friday night because that's our tape day. And as the night progresses, after we finish taping it's like, oh yes, I could have said that better, or I should have, like, went longer on this. You know, if you're a perfectionist, it's very hard to square yourself with the end of the tape day.

KURTZ: "Oklahoma is out of ammo because they're afraid Obama and his Negro army are going to come and get you."

MAHER: Hey, you're stealing my act.

KURTZ: I'm reading it back to you, Bill Maher.

MAHER: I know.

KURTZ: All right.

MAHER: That's right. They are. Isn't that something?

This is despite the fact that Obama has not said boo, to his discredit, by the way about gun control. You see, this is my point about the Democrats. We don't really have a party that represents me or any progressives. The Democrats really are what the Republican Party used to be.

I think the Republican Party, which is at record low levels, that should go away entirely. The Democrats are what the Republicans used to be -- a corporatist party that represents big business and doesn't stand up for progressive issues. And then we need a whole new party that is what the Democratic Party used to be, because, again, Obama has not done anything about gun control.

Ever since Al Gore lost Tennessee in the year 2000, the Democrats have not had the... KURTZ: They have shied away.

MAHER: ... guts to stand up on this issue. But it doesn't -- what's interesting is it doesn't stop these yahoos from thinking that, as I said, his Negro army is going to come for your guns and then they're going to install a cabinet of Shaft, Dolomite, Blacula, Cleopatra Jones...

KURTZ: Is it harder for you, since you obviously worked the left side of the street, to get conservative guests for your program?

MAHER: I don't know about working the left side of the street. I'm more sympathetic to them. But, as I just said, I'm not really a big fan of this corporatist Democratic Party that is in power. It's just that the other party is super ridiculous.

Is it harder to get a conservative guest? Absolutely. And half the time when they come on, after they leave they whine about it.

You know, they come on our show and they have to write a blog about how terrible it was -- "He sandbagged me," which is ridiculous. I don't sandbag anybody.

You're supposed to be a speaker for a living, you have a microphone. Talk. If I said something so awful, make me look ridiculous. You have that ability.

It's interesting. The women guests don't do that. Ann Coulter never does that.

KURTZ: Well, you're friends with Ann Coulter.

MAHER: Absolutely. She never whines. Amy Holmes, she never whines. It's the men in the Republican Party who are such girls.

KURTZ: Last question for you.

Obviously times are tough, a recession, people losing their homes. Is it harder for a comic to get laughs in that kind of environment?

MAHER: No. I've had the best time on the road this year. You know, it's a whole new act in a whole new era. You know, George Bush was, as we all know, comedy gold for the longest time.

KURTZ: You miss him?

MAHER: I don't. Not even a little bit.

But it's a pleasure to have a whole new crop of subjects to make fun of. And there is no lack of laughter because it's Obama. It's just a different kind of humor, different targets. You know, bankers, economic stuff. But, no, it's a very good time for comedy.

KURTZ: It's a very good time to be here. Thanks very much, Bill Maher. MAHER: Thank you. I appreciate you coming out.


KURTZ: And up next, spending scandal. "The Daily Telegraph" humiliates some of Britain's most powerful politicians, but won't deny paying big bucks for the information.

CNN's Richard Quest joins our discussion. That's next.


KURTZ: Britain's biggest political scandal in decades began with an American freelancer, Heather Brooke, who began pushing to see the expense accounts of members of Parliament.

Then London's "Daily Telegraph" got hold of a pile of records -- precisely how remains a source of controversy -- that showed lawmakers charging the public for everything, from diapers to dog food, from porn movies to second homes, to clearing a moat at one of those country homes.

This week the newspaper stories prompted House of Commons speaker Michael Martin to resign, the first time that has happened in more than 300 years, boosting The Telegraph's circulation and making headlines all of the way across the Atlantic.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: There is a barnburner of a scandal under way right now in Great Britain.

ANDREW PIERCE, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "DAILY TELEGRAPH": What we've discovered -- I mean, we've created the political equivalent of an earthquake. And we don't do earthquakes in this country.


KURTZ: Joining us now from London to examine the press' role in this escalating and entertaining scandal is CNN International Correspondent Richard Quest.

And Richard, why did it take this American freelancer, Heather Brooke, a former sex advice columnist, no less, to lift the lid on the practices of the British parliament?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what happened, of course, was there was a freedom of information request put in that was then -- they tried to stop again and again and again within the House of Commons. Finally, it became clear that they would not be allowed to prevent the publication of these expenses.

So they did what they always do, politicians, they tried to scrub 'em clean. They tried to sanitize them. They went through them all, hoping to take out names and addresses -- homes addresses. In other words, put the best face on a pretty awful situation. Unfortunately, they hadn't bargained on the idea that somebody in that process would leak the whole lot of them. Disks, four years' worth of expenses, the original raw material, were all leaked to "The Daily Telegraph."

KURTZ: Right. Well, you use the word "leaked," but one might also say "purchased." There have been reports that The Telegraph spent about $140,000 to get those records, not denied by The Telegraph, so I assume it's true. And there are also reports that other newspapers, including two owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of them "The Times of London," was offered that same deal or some opportunity to purchase stuff, and turned it down.

Any clue as to why that would be?

QUEST: And that is the most delicious part of this story, because it seems as if the Murdoch papers said no. No one knows the reasons why. Some say it was because it was stolen property. Other people say that -- no one can quite get to the bottom of it.

The fact is, the dear old "Daily Telegraph," or as it's known, the dear old "Daily Torygraph," for its right-wing views, did decide to buy them. They put a team of 20 or 25 journalists sitting in what they call "the bunker."

Because once they got the raw material, exposing which was one house and which was the second, what had been bought, what had been claimed, they had to then research to make sure, A, the facts were right, and, B, to put it into context. So they have been doing that, and we're now on about day 16 of this crisis.

But Howard, it is difficult to really overstate just how deep this has gone into. For "The Daily Telegraph," this is their edition when Michael Martin finally resigned, a very British tradition -- revolution from a very British...


KURTZ: But let me jump in here, because there is a columnist for "The Independent" named Stephen Glover who writes the following about why the Murdoch papers may have turned this down, the money question, of course, but also "did not want to be accused of planting a bomb under the House of Commons."

In other words, were some British news organizations, which were also slow to pick up on those initial Telegraph stories, are they so cozy with the folks in Parliament and with the Labour government that they didn't want to roil the waters in this regard?

QUEST: I would say that. I'd use a particular word that one can't use on a family network to describe that. The Murdoch papers have got absolutely no qualms about putting rockets, bombs and nuclear warheads under government ministers in Parliament when it suits them, particularly if there is a large-breasted lady involved, and there is a sex scandal to boot. There is certainly more to the reason that we don't know about why they didn't go for it. I suspect they just maybe didn't think there was that much available to it. But the reality is that The Telegraph, which has now put on 600,000, it's believed, in its circulation, just imagine now being a Telegraph correspondent at Westminster, trying to get access to members of Parliament, to ministers.

KURTZ: Right.

QUEST: You would be run out on a rail.

KURTZ: Well, with all of these members of Parliament, some of them who are going to be knocked out of their jobs, or not be able to seek reelection because of the...

QUEST: Oh...

KURTZ: But let me just ask you, because here is one lawmaker, Nadine Dorries, who said she is concerned that some of these people may kill themselves. And she wrote that what The Telegraph is executing is almost a McCarthy-style witch hunt.

Is that fair?

QUEST: Absolutely fair. That's exactly what they are doing. They have gone through these expenses to be -- they've picked out one or two MPs whose expenses are on the low side, and they've trumpeted them up the flagpole as being good boys and girls of politics.

But the reality is, besides the most egregious cases of -- we had one yesterday. Oh, what a classic, the member of Parliament who bought a five-foot duck house for his lake in the middle of his estate.

KURTZ: Right. But let me jump in because I've got 30 seconds left.

You're saying you agree with the charges this is a witch hunt, this is not good, aggressive journalism by The Telegraph?

QUEST: I think it started out that way. I think we now know just how nasty, mean and malevolent the politicians were in the sleaziness of claiming expenses. But we know that now. There is not much more to be dug up other than just to smear even those who were basically following the rules.

KURTZ: All right. Well, newspapers have been known to flog stories past their prime. That seems to be going on here.


KURTZ: Richard Quest, thanks for joining us from London.

Still to come, lifting language, how a single sentence in her "New York Times" Column landed Maureen Dowd in hot water. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Maureen Dowd found herself in a heap of trouble this week. It all resolved around this single sentence in her "New York Times" column: "More and more the timeline raising the question of why; if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq."

Which was also a verbatim replica of this passage on Josh Marshall's liberal blog, "Talking Points Memo." "More and more the timeline is raising the question of why; if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq." Dowd said she never read the blog but had gotten the wording from an unnamed friend who obviously lifted it from what Marshall wrote. But she quickly admitted her mistake, The Times ran a correction. Marshall says he accepts her explanation that this was inadvertent and that we're too quick to hurl charges of plagiarism, but Dowd's critics had a field day.


BECK: "The New York Times" wonder why is it can't make a dime. How many times do you have to rip things off from people? How many times are you going to make up stories in "The New York Times"?


KURTZ: I don't believe that Maureen Dowd intended to plagiarize Josh Marshall, not when it would be so obvious that she'd be caught in a nanosecond. She often gives credit to other writers, and it's not unusual for columnists to ask friends and colleagues for advice.

But there's still something troubling here. Dowd was representing her friend's line as her own, without any hint that this wasn't an original thought. The Pulitzer-winning columnist has her share of detractors, and they're going to be scrutinizing every syllable from now on.

Maureen had better be careful.

Well, that's it for us on RELIABLE SOURCES.

Let's now turn things back over to John King for more "STATE OF THE UNION."