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Reliable Sources

Coverage of Henry Louis Gates' Arrest Examined

Aired July 26, 2009 - 10:00   ET



If it has just been an average African-American arrested by Cambridge police for disorderly conduct, even in his own home, the case wouldn't have rated a paragraph in "The Boston Globe." But the fact that it was Henry Louis Gates made it a huge national story, especially when the celebrated Harvard professor the white police officer was responding to a burglary call with racism. From that moment "The Harvard Crimson" disclosed the Gates arrest, you had the combustible mix of race, class, bias, law enforcement. And is it any more kerosene was needed for this media blaze, some blunt words from the nation's first African-American president.

At the outset, though, the racial angle meant that many journalists were treading carefully. Just look at the way some network anchors initially framed the story.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: A case of mistaken identity has raised questions about civil rights and racial profiling. A 58-year-old black man was arrested at his own home by police looking for a suspected robber.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Police say Henry Louis Gates was disorderly. Gates says the police were guilty of racial profiling. The charges against him have been dropped, but gates says he's due an apology.


KURTZ: To Skip Gates it was clearly a matter of black and white, but to Sergeant James Crowley race had nothing to do with his decision to arrest the professor.


PROFESSOR HENRY LOUIS GATES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: What it made me realize was how vulnerable all- lack men are, how vulnerable all people of color are, and all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policeman. And this man clearly was a rogue policeman.

SGT. JAMES CROWLEY, CAMBRIDGE POLICE: I was continuously telling him to calm down during this whole exchange because I really didn't want this either. Nonetheless, that's how far Professor Gates pushed it, and provoked, and just wouldn't stop. (END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: So, are the media covering this sensitive story fairly, or was there a rush to judgment that Cambridge cops must be biased?

Joining us now in San Francisco Callie Crossley, media commentator who works at Harvard University. And here in Washington, Lauren Ashburn, managing editor of Gannett Broadcasting, and Roger Simon, chief political columnist for "Politico."

Callie Crossley, many people initially reacted to the Henry Louis Gates arrest with a sense of outrage. Should the anchors and correspondents who introduced this story before it really blew up have done so in neutral he said/he said terms?

CALLIE CROSSLEY, MEDIA COMMENTATOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, I think, yes. I think, absolutely, they should do that. But at the same time, they have to take in the context, and the context were twofold.

First, there is a history of racial profiling of black men in this country. So that has to be dealt with.

And also, the phone call that came in injected race into that at the beginning. The phone call said two black men with backpacks are breaking into a house. And so right away that, you know, sets the framework for what we're dealing with here.

And the other thing is, I live in Cambridge, and there is a tension between both the Harvard University police and persons of color and the Cambridge police and persons of color. So you've got all of that going on, and I think you can introduce it in a neutral tone, but you need to put the context and the framework around where this incidence fits.

KURTZ: That's why I think you can't just handle it as a police blotter story.

Lauren Ashburn, was there an assumption on the part of many media people in the first 24, 36 hours that this had to be an instance of racism? And was it unfair to Sergeant Crowley?

LAUREN ASHBURN, MANAGING EDITOR, GANNETT BROADCASTING: Well, it's interesting. "USA Today" actually on Friday decided to play it, the policeman, the professor and the president. And so, I think in the beginning, you're right, people thought this could be racism. But by the next day, the next news cycle, I think everybody was culpable. And that's why we decided to play all three of them above the fold.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, the morning after the Obama press conference this week, which was roughly 40 minutes on health care and, what, three minutes on the Skip Gates arrest? I turned on the set, "Good Morning America," "Today Show," leading with the Gates arrest. That's when I said to myself, this is going to be the narrative.

For the media, how irresistible was this story? ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST "POLITICO": It was irresistible. And the president made it so. And frankly, he booted it. No president ought to begin a sentence with the words, "I don't have all the facts..."


SIMON: ... and end the sentence with, but the police "acted stupidly." You know, he was briefed on this question. The president answers about a dozen questions or less at each press conference, but he practices 20 or 30 or 40 questions.

KURTZ: But you still have a judgment that has to be made by media professionals about whether health care, this huge debate facing the country, that the press conference was devoted to until that last question, whether that deserved at least equal billing with the Gates arrest. And, of course, it blew away health care.

SIMON: Well, we can't protect the president from himself. I mean, the president really through gasoline on the flames with something that he walked back to the next day, handled properly the next day, and called it what all disasters are called, a teachable moments.

KURTZ: It took -- go ahead.


ASHBURN: All I'm saying is, "USA Today," we put the cover, which was on Thursday, health care. And then halfway through on the front page we said, "In other news." And I think that that...

KURTZ: And that lasted one day. And by Friday there was no health care.

ASHBURN: But Howie, it lasted one day, but it didn't on the networks. You know, we at least framed it what the news of the day was.

The news of the day was health care. You said that you didn't think that it made any big news, but the fact that he got an hour on prime time is news.

KURTZ: Sure.

Callie, go ahead.

CROSSLEY: I have to say that I think more that more than the president kicking it up a notch, which he did, you had to also think, hey, this is the first black president talking about race from a position of understanding and having experienced racial profiling. Now, I think that deserves a little coverage.

KURTZ: A little coverage, absolutely. Let me come back to a word you used, earlier, Callie Crossley, and that is "context." When Charlie and Brian and Katie and other anchors and other correspondents are handling this story, they don't have a history, it seems to me, of ever having been pulled over by the police or asked for an I.D. the way so many African-American journalists have. And isn't that -- doesn't it make them view this story differently?

CROSSLEY: Well, absolutely. I mean, and that's why we saw the kind of discussions that are going on in online comments and on talk radio. It's absolutely experiential. And that's where the president was coming from, albeit he probably shouldn't have said what he said, but he was coming from a place of history and a place of personal experience.

KURTZ: But let me stick with the question of how journalists handle it.

I have been so struck, Lauren Ashburn, by -- just yesterday, for example, The New York Times' Charles Blow, an editorial writer, wrote about how when he was in college in Louisiana, he was stopped. He and a friend were stopped by police officers who said, well, you know, "We could shoot you and leave you on the road here and nobody would ever raise a question."

It seems like almost every African-American journalist who has spoken about this, who have talked about this, they have a story. And that has to affect the way we look at it.

ASHBURN: Right. But I was talking to people all across the country this week, and so do Caucasians, and so do Hispanics with police officers who are also white, African-American or Hispanic. I mean, I think that that there is a natural clash there.

However, in this instance, I think that the president is the one who really did inflame it. Take a look at the past history of presidents.

Nixon said basically that he is for the silent majority; right? Bush, the plain-talking guy from Texas. This is the first time that we have had a African-American president with real-life experiences, as he outlines in "Audacity of Hope," his book where he's saying he's being tailed in stores and being thrown keys as a valet person. But we have never had somebody who can speak from actual experience.

KURTZ: Right.

We're going to come back to this topic later this hour, but I want to turn now to The Birthers. These are the people -- they are a fringe -- or fringe of a fringe, I would say -- who make the claim that Barack Obama is not an American citizen. And in the last week or so, they're getting a lot of air time.

Let's roll that tape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: Our third story in the countdown, some people still say President Obama is not an American citizen.

LOU DOBBS, CNN: A lot of questions remaining. And seemingly, the questions won't go away because they haven't been dealt with, it seems possible, straightforwardly and quickly. RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Barack Obama has yet to have to prove he's a citizen. All he'd have to do is show a birth certificate.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: No. No. You are feeding the whacko wing of your party. Do you believe that Barack Obama is a legitimate native born American or not?

REP. JOHN CAMPBELL (R), CALIFORNIA: That is not what this bill is about.


KURTZ: Republican Congressman John Campbell getting the treatment from Chris Matthews.

These are ludicrous claims. There is no factual basis for them.

Why give The Birthers any air time, Roger Simon?

SIMON: Well, that's a good question. The most difficult thing for the media to do is divert its eyes from the car wreck, is to not make the clown show go on even longer.

Journalists, too many times, used a fig leaf in this. They said, well, there's a bill in Congress introduced by these elected officials saying presidents ought to present their birth certificates, or the other fig leaf is this is a huge story in the media, so we're going to cover it as a media story. And it's just an excuse not to act responsibly and not to use any judgment of our own.

ASHBURN: One of the only newspapers -- and here I am, you know, shilling for "USA Today," essentially -- to not cover this since the election is "USA Today." Why?

KURTZ: Yes, why?

ASHBURN: Cottage industry of conspiracy theorists is basically what we're seeing here. And why do you give a voice to that. You know, why not help drive the dialogue forward on issues that are important to Americans like health care and other things that need addressing?

KURTZ: Callie Crossley, Lou Dobbs, on his radio show, said, "I believe the president is a citizen of the United States." But he keeps raising these questions. He's complaining about criticism from "limp-minded, lily-livered lefties."

Is it responsible for Dobbs and others to go on the air, talk about these claims, demand proof, when we have seen a copy of the birth certificate, when Hawaii officials say that Barack Obama was born there in 1961?

CROWLEY: It absolutely is not responsible. But here's where I think there is a story to report, if anything, about this, because I'm open-mouthed that it's gotten this much attention. And that is the pressure that's being brought to bear my certain Republicans, by some of the people in these groups, to address this. That, to me, is an interesting story.

You know, is there pressure from these groups brought to the Republicans who are struggling to try to find where they are going to go in terms of leadership and where they want to be as a base and as a party? And that to me is a story. But the rest of this is crazy, and for people to keep raising it as if it's legitimate to even think about, I'm open-mouthed about it. I really am.

KURTZ: Right.

And Roger Simon, just to come back to CNN's role. Jon Klein, the CNN president, put out a an e-mail -- a memo saying it seems this story is dead. But the Dobbs show keeps raising it, although Kitty Pilgrim, filling in for Lou Dobbs, read a statement on the air saying, "There's overwhelming evidence that proves his birth certificate is real."

So, does this amount to giving air time to flat Earth people?

SIMON: Yes, it does. But it's more than that.

I mean, some people are flat Earth people. They believe that we never landed on the moon. But there's a racial element to this story, too.

Some people, quite frankly, cannot accept the fact we have a black president. And so they are seeking -- not all of them, but some of them are seeking to de-legitimatize his presidency by claiming he didn't fulfill the constitutional mandate to be -- to have been born in the United States.

KURTZ: And with some assistance from the media, you would say?

SIMON: With much too much assistance.

ASHBURN: I would go even a step farther to say that it's unethical. It's unethical of the media to be taking this issue and putting it front and center when all of the proof is there to the country.

KURTZ: All right.

SIMON: I agree with that.

KURTZ: Got to get a break.

Roger Simon, we'll talk to you later this hour.

Up next, video outrage. A peephole tape shows ESPN's Erin Andrews naked in her hotel room. And some news outlets are so outraged, they feel compelled to keep showing you the tape.

USA Today's Christine Brennan joins our discussion. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The story is deeply creepy, and some of the media's behavior isn't much better. In an almost unimaginable invasion of privacy, some moron drilled a hole in an adjoining hotel room and shot video of ESPN's sideline reporter Erin Andrews. The blurry nude video was bouncing around the Internet -- YouTube had it taken down -- and drew some chatter on the sports blogs.


KURTZ (voice-over): Then "The New York Post" gave a front page splash to the tale of the peephole pervert who had inflicted "a nightmare on Andrews," making sure to include no less than three still shots of the very same nightmare with small banners covering the key parts. We, by the way, are not going to play that game and show the full pictures on this program.

Next, "Fox & Friends," owned by their tabloid parent company, showed some shots that were only slightly obscured which we've now covered up almost completely. And for a briefer period, so did CBS's "Early Show," which pixilated the photos a bit more.


KURTZ: So, are the media exploiting this sick act even as they supposedly decry it?

Joining our panel now, Christine Brennan, sports columnist for "USA Today" and a contributor to ABC Sports.

Christine, should "The New York Post" and "Fox & Friends" and others reporting on this outrage have used those screen shots of a very nude Erin Andrews?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, "USA TODAY": Absolutely not. It is despicable behavior. It's what I said on the first radio interview I did, that what happened to Erin was just gross and despicable.

And, you know, it seems to me that what they're doing -- and I got dragged into it by being quoted completely out of context -- what they are trying to do then is create a story line so that then they can show it again. And, of course, what they'll do in the case of Fox is say, oh, this is terrible, this is awful, get that off the air, as they've shown it again and again.

And think about poor Erin Andrews and what she's going through. And that, to me, is just shoddy journalism. ASHBURN: It's prurient; right? And we're not as journalists in the porn business. And, well, even if we were, we couldn't find the video right away. It was pulled.

KURTZ: Remember the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction that was shown 10 million times on television and everybody tore their hair out?

ASHBURN: All right. But it shouldn't be. Let's go back to that.


Callie Crossley, Bill O'Reilly, who, in fairness, showed the video for only a few seconds, said he was putting it up on the screen to establish criminal intent on the part of whoever did this.


CROSSLEY: OK. I'm sorry. I just think showing it is disgusting, and everybody knows if they show it, you know, exactly what kind of viewership they're going to get. It's ridiculous.

At the very least, it's a cautionary tale for women travelers, it's an invasion of privacy story, absolutely. But to put any of these pictures up is really just about what folks do when they want to look at the centerfolds of the magazines. It's really bad.

KURTZ: All right.

Christine, you mentioned an interview that you did this week that drew some controversy. This was with a Raleigh, North Carolina, radio station. It was replayed on "Good Morning America."

Let me roll some of that and we'll talk about it on the other side.


BRENNAN: If you trade off your sex appeal, you trade off your looks, eventually you're going to lose those. She doesn't deserve what happened to her, but part of the shtick, seems to me, is being a little bit out there in a way that, then, are your encouraging a complete nutcase to drill a hole in your room?


KURTZ: Some people jumped on that, as you know, and said it was some version of, well, she kind asked for it.

BRENNAN: Right. There's a sound bite there that's missing, Howie. I said, "And I want to have a long career." I was talking about myself. That was taken out of those clips.

KURTZ: Yourself as a female sportswriter...

BRENNAN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: ... and you're covering a male-dominated sports world?

BRENNAN: Exactly. I mean, so, that first part of that, I was talking about myself. And that was literally taken out of the clip.

Also, if I may say, that in the course of that interview, nine minutes and 20 seconds with that North Carolina station, the first words out of my mouth were that this was gross and despicable. And eight times in that nine and a half minutes I said she didn't deserve this, it's wrong, it's terrible.

KURTZ: But what about the part about creating a climate that encourages the nut cases of the world? Creating a climate by flaunting sex appeal?

BRENNAN: I was again talking about myself. The question was about the larger issues of women...


KURTZ: Do you feel that you're in that position of having to flaunt your sex appeal?

BRENNAN: No. What I'm saying is, for women -- I've done this, as you know, for 28 years, and I talk, for example, in the interview about how when I cover the Washington Redskins for "The Washington Post," if I said hello or gave a quick little hug to, say, a sportscaster who was a friend of mine, all the Redskins would talk to him about, was he dating me? So, what I said in a very, very kind way, very concerned about Erin -- I've always been very concerned about Erin in this -- I was talking about the pitfalls and problems in this country today for women in sports media.

KURTZ: Lauren, we can all agree, Erin Andrews in no way deserved this. But it can't be an accident that the networks always pick attractive women to be their sideline reporters on the field.

ASHBURN: All right. Let's talk about the ugliness of beauty. All right?

If you're a beautiful woman, are you supposed to deserve something like this? Are you supposed to be treated as a sex object?

I mean, beauty is easy, Howie. Right? As you know. But reading on TV is really difficult.

So that means that you have to have skills to go along with this. And this is 2009. Why are women still being treated like this in the media? This is a media person being treated by the media as an object.

KURTZ: Callie Crossley, ESPN reacted to this story -- we showed the cover earlier, although we have skewed it a bit -- by banning "New York Post" reporters from appearing on the sports network, and then The Post retaliated with this page six gossip item. I'm just going to read it, if we can put it up.

"No one would have known that a sick voyeur had secretly videotaped ESPN reporter Erin Andrews nude in her hotel room if the Mickey Mouse sports network hadn't sent a letter to an obscure Web site demanding that it take down its link to a fuzzy video of an unidentified blonde."

So now the media outlets are sniping at each other.

CROSSLEY: Well, that was going to be inevitable. I think that ESPN had to do something and make a statement about these pictures in some way. Whether or not it's toothless doesn't matter. You just needed to make a statement about it in a way, in a definitive way of expressing that this was really a disgusting way to proceed. And that had happened.

KURTZ: Christine, you've done some work for ESPN over the years. Is banning the "New York Post" an appropriate step in this?

BRENNAN: Sure. Absolutely.

KURTZ: No problem with that?

BRENNAN: I have no trouble with that. The network ESPN controls what it airs, and they have every right to do that.

KURTZ: All right.

I've got one more ESPN controversy to throw at you, and that's the story involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was suddenly confronted with allegations from a woman who filed a civil suit against him saying that he sexually assaulted her a year ago. She never went to the police. This is a year later. Who knows whether it's true.

Lots of news organization reported it. ESPN initially did not and told its talk show hosts not to talk about it.

Can you really ignore a story like that?

BRENNAN: No, I don't think so. When you have a civil suit, I think you have to jump on it. It think that's Journalism 101. You know, everyone knows that. The public domain, it's out there.

Having said that, I also feel that because ESPN is so involved with networks -- and of course we understand that -- that the reality is that you have to make sure to bend over backwards, perception being almost more important than reality in journalism.

KURTZ: Roethlisberger strongly denies those allegations. We're looking at a brief tape of him doing that there. And then, after a couple days, ESPN took its head out of the sand and reported the story as well.

BRENNAN: They did. And to their credit, now they're reporting it very, very vigorously, and I think that's important. And I think -- you know, who knows all the story lines behind that, Howie. But I would say this, that they did jump on it and they will now cover it the way they should.

KURTZ: One other quick question about Roethlisberger, and that is, usually we don't in the media report the identity of those who are charging sexual assault. But this woman, whose name I'm not going to mention, her name has been everywhere, her picture has been in "The New York Daily News."

Does that trouble either of you? BRENNAN: Yes, it troubles me. But after the week I've had, and then think of poor Erin Andrews, this is a whole different world, Howie. And what does it say about journalism in the 21st century?

ASHBURN: Well, I think it says that we're playing to the lowest common denominator. And if it drives ratings -- we talked about this last time I was on the show -- you know, if it drives ratings, we're going to talk about it. We're going to have the food fight. And we're going to do that.

Is it right? Is it ethical, as I said before? No.

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

Lauren Ashburn, Callie Crossley, Christine Brennan, thanks very much for stopping by.

And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, "The Accidental Billionaire" is a new book that breaks down how a couple of college kids turned Facebook into a billion-dollar social media empire. Author Ben Mezrich joins our program a little later.

But first, getting sidetracked. Health care, as I mentioned, was supposed to be the story of the summer, the most crucial issue facing the nation. So, how did one answer to one question derail the media's attention so completely?

And then at noon Eastern, John King. We'll see him talking about the health care debate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.


KING: I'm John King, and this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in the hospital undergoing medical tests this morning. The presidential palace said Mr. Sarkozy became ill while jogging with his body guards. No word yet on his condition. The 54-year-old president underwent a physical earlier this month, and aides say his cardiovascular and blood tests were normal.

Moscow says it's perplexed by controversial comments made by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden told "The Wall Street Journal" that Russia has a withering economy and a leadership that's clinging to the past. His remarks came just weeks after a summit meeting between the United States and Russia that was intended to promote a thawing in relations.

It's Sarah Palin's last day in office. The Alaska governor official resigns tonight during a ceremony in Fairbanks. Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell will be sworn in as her successor. Palin says she's leaving office midterm largely because of a slew of ethics complaints against her. She says the complaints cost the state millions to investigate and distracted her from her job.

That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

Now let's get right back to Howie Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES -- Howie.

KURTZ: Thanks very much, John King.

The media were in rare agreement -- health care was the preeminent issue facing America. Barack Obama's news conference was a make-or-break moment, and the fate of his presidency was hanging in the balance. But journalists found the prime-time press performance almost unbearably dull. That is, until the final minutes, when Lynn Sweet of "The Chicago Sun-Times" changed the subject, and, boom, you could almost hear the journalists pumping their fists and plunging into a maelstrom of coverage about race and privilege and law enforcement.

Sweet's question, of course, was about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Obama's friend, at his home near Harvard.


LYNN SWEET, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": What does that incident say to you, and what does it say about race relations in America?

BARACK H. OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.


KURTZ: The next day, as the president's sharp edge comments dominated the airwaves and the front pages, he told Nightline's Terry Moran that, hey, it wasn't his fault the media were obsessing about this minor little arrest in Cambridge.


OBAMA: I have to say I'm surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that, you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man, who uses a cane, who is in his own home.


KURTZ: Excuse me? You wade until a racially-charged debate on national television and it's the media's fault? Well, that lasted until Friday afternoon, when Obama walked into the briefing room, announced that he had called the police officer who arrested Gates for disorderly conduct, and accepted a bit of the blame.


OBAMA: To the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.


KURTZ: So, what on earth happened to health care?

Joining us now in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the "San Francisco Chronicle." Here in Washington, Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine. And back with us again, Roger Simon, chief political columnist for "Politico."

Ryan Lizza, Obama tried to blame the press there, at least briefly. Did journalists basically refuse to let him get away with that?

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORKER": Yes, they did. Everyone recognizes that it was essentially a newsless press conference until the last question. And I was there, and on the way out all the conversations were about two things. One, frustration in that he took a really long time to answer all the health care questions.

KURTZ: Thereby making fewer opportunities to ask questions.

LIZZA: Right. And the second thing was -- and you know, often, sort of what the news is at these press conferences is formed by these conversations that journalists have at the very end, and everyone's saying, "Hey, what do you think the headline is? What do you think it is?"

KURTZ: That's when the conspiracy goes down.

LIZZA: Exactly. And on the way out, everyone agreed -- this was an easy one -- the conspiracy was very easy. It was easy to reach this consensus. Everyone agreed this was going to be a huge issue that was going to dominate the rest of the week.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, a day or two into this, Obama said you may have noticed health care isn't getting much attention. But was that the media's fault?

SIMON: No, it wasn't the media's fault. I've been a White House reporter at the 57-minute mark in a press conference. You're thinking, oh my God, what's my lead going to be?

Well, if you want the lead to be health care, then stick to health care. If you want to it be race, mention race. That's exactly what the president did. KURTZ: Debra Saunders, I think ordinarily I might be critical of the media for kind of jumping off the health care bus given its importance as an issue, except in that prime-time press conference, what did the president say that was exactly new?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, he didn't say anything that was exactly new. When he talked about health care, he basically said it won't cost much and it won't change much.

But -- and like you, I sort of get sick of these kinds of stories in a way. There's sort of -- there's an umbrage industry where when a president of one party says one thing, there's a group of people who just can't wait to jump up and be offended. And they live for this sort of thing.

But in this particular case, I think it was a teachable moment for Barack Obama, because he found out as president, he can't recklessly talk about an incident involving a police officer without having real consequences to that man. And Officer Crowley fought back, and when he fought back, that showed that the president has to be more careful when he talks about things like this. He has to do his homework more.

KURTZ: Right. It's one thing for pundits to pop off.

But now, he didn't just hold his fourth prime-time news conference of his presidency on Wednesday night, he gave a whole bunch of TV interviews to various anchors to drive his message on health care.

Let's take a look at some of that and listen to these questions that these journalists asked.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You say it's not about you, but Mr. President, this is now the Obama push for health care reform in this country, is it not?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People look at that, Mr. President, people who are paying already high costs for medical care, and they think it's a joke.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Are your concerned at all that if health care reform fails, it will be a huge and devastating setback to your presidency?

OBAMA: The easiest way to keep your poll numbers up and to garner good press is to do not that much here in this town.


KURTZ: Not much may be true.

Roger Simon, does the president get much out of doing all these network interviews? Did he get one inch closer to health care, as opposed to sitting down with Katie et al?

SIMON: Oh, sure he does. I mean, politics is personality- driven. And the president, when he dominates the stage, as he does in every one of these interviews, helps not only get his message across, but he fills the airwaves with him instead of his opponents.

He has given many more interviews than previous presidents at this time in their presidency. Peter Baker points out in "The New York Times" he carpet-bombs the media. He fills the vacuum, because his communication team knows if he doesn't fill the vacuum, the other side will fill the vacuum. KURTZ: Yes. Well, of course, it raises the question of whether or not he does too much of that is overexposed.

But let me ask you this, Ryan Lizza. This is an incredibly complicated subject. We're talking about employer mandates and public option and whether there should be a MedPAC war (ph) to set Medicare reimbursement rates.

Is the press coverage reflecting the nuances of this big, complicated, sticky issue?

LIZZA: Not always. I mean, there is a tendency to move directly from the substance to the political implications for Barack Obama himself. Not that that -- that's a very legitimate question. It's true that this is sort of make or break. But look, the more complicated the issue, the less -- especially the television media, where it's a little harder to get into the very detailed policy nuances -- the less they're going to cover it.

KURTZ: I think some of the newspaper coverage out there, as you know, has been really substantive and really detailed if you're into reading that.

But Debra Saunders, we have to cover the politics to some degree. Republican Senator Jim DeMint says this could be President Obama's Waterloo and cripple his presidency if health care goes down. That's part of the story. But how would you rate the substance of the media's coverage on the issue of health care?

SAUNDERS: Well, it was nice to see at this press conference that there were finally reporters who were asking President Obama about the sacrifices involved and what people will have to give up. I still don't think that we have gotten through that at all. And I notice that you, Howie, and Roger and I, we've all talked about this analogy the president had at the press conference where he talked about how there's a blue pill and a red pill, and they are just as good, but there's no incentive for insurers to make you use the red pill, which is -- I don't know what universe he lives in.

I mean, has he ever been to an HMO? They always make you take the cheaper stuff. And that's just what it is.

And so, I think that we've got to start finding out what exactly are people going to have to give up? And reporters were trying to find that out at the press conference, but, of course, we don't know which bill we're talking about. It makes it hard to be as substantive as we want to be because we don't know what the package will be.

KURTZ: And one of the reporters asked the president at the news conference, what will Americans have to sacrifice? And he basically said very little -- treatments that don't work or make you healthier.

At a fund-raiser a couple of days ago -- this was after the Gates arrest had blown up -- Barack Obama was quoted as saying that "The media's lack of sustained focus on facts" makes it difficult for him to sell this legislation. Isn't that like complaining about the weather? He got elected in this media environment.

SIMON: Yes, of course it is. And it's also more than that.

I mean, the media, as you've pointed out, especially the print media, have spent an awful lot of time on health care. I mean, read the Sunday papers today. Read the opinion sections. Read the editorial pages.

It is laid out, I might say, in a better fashion than the president laid out at his press conference, exactly what's at stake, exactly what we think it might cost us, exactly what the public might and might not get out of it. In fact, the media is helping the president in making his argument that the status quo won't work, that we need health care reform.

KURTZ: But at the same time, Ryan, is there a preoccupation with the congressional sausage making, which committee didn't meet its deadline, the Blue Dogs, that August deadline? But, of course, you have to deal with that because it impinges on whether or not there will be bill.

LIZZA: You know, it's good. And actually, I think all of the hand-wringing over this being the make-or-break moment for Obama is actually sort of the prerequisite to getting something done, anyway. So, in a sense, they'll look back and see this as a moment when it created the pressure to get the Blue Dogs in line, to get the Senate Finance Committee to start moving. And, you know, these crisis moments always help push the process along because it creates that pressure.

KURTZ: Do you agree with Roger's point that the media are helping the president by drawing this contrast with a system that -- nobody likes the system now. People tend to be somewhat happy with their own health care, a little frustrated with insurance companies.

LIZZA: That's right. Most of the media coverage takes as an assumption Obama's point of view that reform is necessary and that the system is broken. So that's a victory for the president.

KURTZ: Is that bias?

LIZZA: I don't think it's bias. It's not bias if it's factually true.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, do you want to weigh in on this?

SAUNDERS: Yes. I think that there are a lot of people who may tell a pollster that they are not happy with the system, but they're happy with their coverage. And if their coverage changes, they're not going to be happy.

I mean, the real question about this health care package for most people is, hey, I have coverage, what are you going -- how much more am I going to have to pay for other people? And what your going to take away from me? Am I going to be paying for more less?

KURTZ: And Debra -- I didn't mean to cut you off, but what about the broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, giving air time -- which means they give up a lot of advertising money -- to the president for his fourth prime-time press conference in six months? That's as many as George W. Bush had in eight years.

Is that favoritism? Is he going to keep getting that kind of free air time?

SAUNDERS: I don't see how that -- first of all, I think that this press conference showed an arc for the president in that a lot of people, a lot of conservatives I hear from, think that the press are too nice to him. Well, he's a new president. It's a clean slate. You're giving him a chance.

But I think with this press conference -- and I do think the networks are going to think twice about airing the next prime-time one...

LIZZA: Yes, I agree with that.

SAUNDERS: ... you're seeing people realizing, wait a minute, this blue pill/red pill thing, that's not telling me anything. The fact is that if you're actually going to get your reform two-thirds with savings, people are going to have to give something up, and it's time that we found out and reported what is it.

KURTZ: Got to wrap it up.

All right.

You also agree that he's going to have a harder time getting prime time?

SIMON: Yes. It costs the networks $9 million an evening every time he does this.

KURTZ: That's a big bill.

All right.

Roger Simon, Ryan Lizza, Debra Saunders, thanks very much. When we come back, "Founding Facebook." A new book promises sex, money, genius and betrayal. That's quite a package. And chronicling the launch of the biggest brand in social media.

We'll talk to the author next.


KURTZ: It sometimes seems that Facebook has taken over the planet. When I joined, more than a year ago, it was still largely the province of teenagers and recent college grads. Now I get friend requests from politicians, journalists, and businessmen of all ages. But how did the invention of a couple of college geeks get so big, and is its impact entirely positive?

Joining us now from Boston is Ben Mezrich, author of "The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal."



KURTZ: You say in the book that this is -- the development of Facebook is one of the most important developments in sort of the history of civilization. I like Facebook, but that sounds a bit grandiose.

MEZRICH: Well, you know what? I actually think it is the next step in human evolution. I know that sounds really big, but college kids, high school kids, there's a whole generation that spends three, four hours a day on Facebook. And everyone who joins it, you know, they stay on it, they meet their friends through it, people meet their wives through it. It's really a next step in social evolution.

KURTZ: I thought Twitter was the next stage in social evolution.

MEZRICH: Twitter is like the "Macarena" of the Internet. You know, Twitter is really fun. It's got its moment in time right now and it has its purposes. But Facebook is something you actually live through. I mean, it's actually your real social network placed online, which is something very new.

KURTZ: All right. Well, all my Twitter followers are going to come after you for that dismissive remark. But let me talk about the book.

MEZRICH: Hey, I love Twitter, too. Don't worry about that. Yes.

KURTZ: OK. All right. There's your disclaimer.

You say that Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder when he was at Harvard, kind of started this as a list to help him get girls. And then you have this scene, this very dramatic scene, where Zuckerberg breaks into a Harvard dorm to hack into a computer server, you report. Hiding behind a sofa wall, a couple is making out.

Now, who are that couple? Did you talk to them?

MEZRICH: No, no. I didn't talk to the couple.

What that scene is, is -- so Mark Zuckerberg, late one night, hacked into the computer systems at Harvard to make this "Hot or Not" Web site. To do that, there were certain houses that he couldn't get inside of. So, I talked to a bunch of different computer people and engineers, and they basically told me that the way he would have to have done that was to go to different houses, get inside, use an Ethernet chord and sort of steal photos off the houses.


KURTZ: So you didn't talk to anybody -- you didn't talk to anyone who was actually there? Because Zuckerberg did not cooperate with you.

MEZRICH: Not for that scene. And I was very clear on that one scene to start if off by saying, this scene, this is how it probably happened based on my information.


MEZRICH: So, I go back and forth in the book between scenes that are definite, exactly the way they happened, and scenes where I say this is probably what happened. It's conjecture just like in any other form of nonfiction.

KURTZ: All right. Well, let me read an author's note that you have at the beginning of the book, and we can talk about the way that you report and wrote this.

You say -- you write, "In some instances, details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagined, and identifying details of certain people altered to protect their privacy. Some of the conversations recounted in this book took place over long periods of time in multiple locations, and thus some conversations were re- created and compressed."

So, if some things were re-created and compressed and changed or imagined, how can I have any confidence that this is the real deal?

MEZRICH: Well, you know, my -- the way I write -- you know, my style -- a lot of journalists have trouble with it, and I understand that and the controversy about it. It's fun. And what I do is I interview the people, I get the thousand of pages of court documents, and then I write it in this thrilleresque entertaining style.

It's a true story. Anybody in the book would read it and say, you know, if they weren't surrounded by their flacks (ph), they would say this is what happened. But when I do the dialogue, I've got multiple people with multiple points of view who said what happened there, and then I choose sort of what the most true, the most real conversation that happened there is, and I write it in a conversational style.

I could simply, if this were an article for "The New York Times," just say a conversation appeared here that said this. But because I'm a narrative nonfiction writer, I choose to write it in a dramatic and cinematic way.

KURTZ: Right.

MEZRICH: And I'm very clear. I've always been very clear about my process.

KURTZ: Right. But the key word is "nonfiction." And when you say that some of the details are imagined or re-created or compressed, it sound like you're writing more of a novel.

MEZRICH: No, absolutely not. I mean, it's a true story. The story is true. I've written it in a cinematic way.

There's various forms of nonfiction out there, everything from, you know, Jon Stewart's "Fake History of America," which was number one on the nonfiction list, which is all fiction, which he says so in the beginning, but it's satire, all the way to narrative nonfiction, which is what I do, Michael Lewis does, Sebastian Junger. There's plenty of writers all the way back from Tom Wolfe to Hunter S. Thompson days who do this form of journalism.

KURTZ: Right. But who don't necessarily say...

MEZRICH: I get attacked a lot, but...

KURTZ: Well, I understand, but who don't necessarily say that they were imagined -- I mean, that word "imagined" really jumped out at me.

But let me ask you this. Mark Zuckerberg had another co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, and they had a falling out. Saverin talked to you. Zuckerberg, as you acknowledged, would not.

Doesn't that kind of tilt your account toward the guy who gave you access?

MEZRICH: Not at all. And I'm very clear also -- I know that Eduardo was angry. He was angry and felt betrayed.

He was one of the sources. There were numerous sources in the book.

The fact that he's angry doesn't necessarily mean that everything he says is not true. He was angry, and then I have to go inside everything he says and find where the truth is.

But, yes, I didn't talk to Mark. He opted not to talk to me after about a year. I spent a year trying to talk to him.

KURTZ: Right.

MEZRICH: And had he talked to me, he would have given a point of view that I also would have had to fact-check. You know?

KURTZ: Sure.

MEZRICH: So, it's not that when you talk to one and you don't talk to one you can only have one story.

KURTZ: I understand.

MEZRICH: I had numerous stories. But one of the people who drove me was angry. KURTZ: I've got 20 seconds here. Kevin Spacey made a movie, "21," out of your last book.


KURTZ: I understand he's also interested in "The Accidental Billionaire." So is this going to make it to the silver screen as well?

MEZRICH: Yes. Spacey is co-producing with Rudin, his partner, Dana Brunetti and Mike DeLuca. And it's going to be a big Sony picture, and Aaron Sorkin of "The West Wing" did the screenplay.

KURTZ: So, when you said the book was cinematic, you weren't kidding.

All right.

Ben Mezrich, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

MEZRICH: Not at all.

KURTZ: Up next, the long good-bye. After losing Walter Cronkite and Tim Russert and Peter Jennings, are we also losing the kind of journalism they championed?


KURTZ: We in the news business have spent a fair amount of time saying good-bye lately, good-bye to several titans of television who shared so much history and touched so many viewers. But is it good- bye as well to the values they represented?


PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: People have been casting their ballots.

KURTZ (voice-over): Four years ago, we joined in the tributes for one of the most sophisticated and globe-trotting anchors of the modern era, Peter Jennings.

JENNINGS: Good evening. The fate of Korean Airlines Flight 7 continues to anger but also to mystify vast numbers of people.

As some of you now know, I have learned in the last couple of days that I have lung cancer. Yes, I was a smoker.

KURTZ: Last summer, it was Tim Russert, the political junky and tenacious Sunday morning inquisitor.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: People were sent to the convention center. There was no water, no food, no beds, no authorities there. There was no planning.

We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one's going to dispute it.

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: I'm Tom Brokaw, NBC News, and it is my sad duty to report this afternoon that my friend and colleague, Tim Russert, the moderator of "Meet the Press" and NBC's Washington bureau chief, collapsed and died early this afternoon while at work at the NBC News bureau in Washington.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: Well, the shock waves cannot be fully expressed. Tim was our friend, our leader, our cheerleader, our teacher, my mentor.

KURTZ: And, of course, the country has just mourned the passing of the plainspoken man who practically invented the role of anchorman just as television news was coming of age.

WALTER CRONKITE, CBS NEWS: Good evening from our CBS newsroom in New York on this, the first broadcast of network television's first daily half-hour news program.

KURTZ: At a funeral service this week, one of Cronkite's oldest friend grew quite emotional.

ANDY ROONEY, CBS NEWS: He's been such a good friend over the years. Please excuse me. Thank you.

KURTZ: These were all journalistic giants, but are they irreplaceable? There is no shortage of talented anchors and correspondents today, but they operate in an environment far different from Cronkite, one where cable news and blogs and Web sites and twitterers bounce from President Obama to Michael Jackson, to Octomom, to Chris Brown, to Meghan McCain, to Mark Sanford, to Mark Sanford's Argentine girlfriend, always in breathless pursuit of the new and the novel.


KURTZ: No one wants to go back to the days of just three networks, but Cronkite and Jennings and Russert remind us of a more serious brand of journalism, one that we worry, with good reason, may be submerged beneath the sea of infotainment.

Up next, heir apparent. An online poll comes up with an unusual successor for the legacy of Walter Cronkite.


KURTZ: Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, America is demanding to know -- who is our most trusted newscaster?

Twenty-nine percent pick Brian Williams in a "TIME" poll; 19 percent said Charlie Gibson; and seven percent, Katie Couric. But trouncing them all with a whopping 44 percent is Jon Stewart.

Now, I can totally understand that. Here's a guy who isn't afraid to tackle tough issues, as he did just the other night with the administration's cap and trade proposal. With has a shrewd grasp of politics and pop culture, Stewart regularly offers analysis that borders on the brilliant.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": The government set the cap for carbon emissions for companies at, say, 100 metric tons per year. If you produce less emissions, you can sell the remaining cap room to...


KURTZ: The problem here for "TIME" is that this is an online poll. It's bogus, scientifically meaningless. It only counts people who are on the Web and choose to participate, and half of them could be late-night comedy addicts.

And John King, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, I have no doubt that lots of people, particularly lots of younger people, would pick Jon Stewart, who has taught our business a few tricks, as their most trusted news figure.

KING: I saw you online the other day, Howie, voting in that poll. Who did you vote for?

KURTZ: Well, look, I've been on "The Daily Show." Jon Stewart is actually a very incisive media critic, and he has pioneered the use of videotape in a way that sometimes really drives home a point when somebody is just reading talking points or has changed their story.

All right. We're turning it back over to you.

KING: Thanks, Howie. Have a great Sunday.