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Reliable Sources

Protesters Disrupt Health Care Town Halls

Aired August 09, 2009 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Thanks, John. It's one of the oldest rituals of democracy. Election officials getting an earful from the voters, but a handful of high decibel critics at a spate of town hall meeting on health care reform have turned out to be a magnet for the media. You know how it works. The meeting might be dull, 99 audience members might be civil, but one screamer draws the cameras. You have probably seen some of this footage constantly replayed on television and across the Web.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The cash for clunkers program is --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're lying to me!


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you waiting for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't have sophisticated language. I recognize a liar when I see one.

CROWD: Just say no! Just say no! Just say no! Just say no!

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST: When they could no longer ignore the anti-Obama voters, Democrats began to dismiss them and demonize them as the hired guns of the insurance companies or Brooks Brothers protesters.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: When Hamas does it or Hezbollah does it, it is called terrorism. Why should Republican lawmakers and the AstroTurf groups organizing on behalf of the health care industry be viewed any differently?


KURTZ: Now the press trying to unravel allegations that the Republicans have planted some of these protesters and countercharges that the Democrats are trying to discredit legitimate dissent.

Joining us now to talk about the coverage of President Obama's health plan and whether he's getting a bit overexposed on television, in New York, Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and senior political analyst for "TIME" magazine, and author of the blog "The Page." S.E. Cupp, blogger and the co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right." And here in Washington, Ana Marie Cox, national correspondent for Air America Radio and a columnist for "Playboy" magazine.

Mark Halperin, are the media playing up the loudest and the angriest of these protesters to the point where it distorts what's what's going on at most of these town hall meetings?

HALPERIN: Yes, it distorts it and it's also bad for America. I'm embarrassed about what's going on as an American. I'm not an advocate for any position on the president's proposals, but I think this is, Howie, something you have written about and seen for years, the lowest common denominator, people taking video that is meaningless.

Yes, there should be discussion. Dissent is fine. I don't care why the protesters are showing up, but this is a horrible breakdown of our political culture and our media culture to allow people who are going in with the intent to disrupt to become the story. The biggest issue in the health care debate, things like, should there be a public plan, completely ignored by all media and crowded out the discussion by stunts and gimmicks, and the White House has exacerbated it by attacking back on the same style.

KURTZ: Ana Marie Cox, Mark Halperin says this is a breakdown in the media culture, but we couldn't not cover these people, and they do have a right to be heard, don't they?

COX: Right, they do. And I actually do not think it's a breakdown of democracy. I think that it's a wonderful expression of democracy. I'm not sure if they're AstroTurfed or not myself. I think they probably aren't, but I think that's almost a worse sign for the Republican Party.

I think this is actually the death throes of a dying Republican Party, or at least in this forum, and the not sort of the start of something new.

KURTZ: S.E. Cupp, you have to admit, if you want to look at the media's performance here, that the various outlets, and particularly television, are giving these critics ample air time.

CUPP: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it makes for good TV. But, you know, it's a really arrogant position.

Anyone on Madison Avenue will tell you, you don't win new consumers by insulting them. So, it's really, from a business standpoint, I think a really dumb move for both the liberal media and maybe even the Obama administration to start insulting and criticizing average Americans who have concerns about a sweeping health care program.

KURTZ: How are the liberal media insulting people who are showing up -- except to the point where they are shouting down members of Congress and not giving them a chance to speak. That seems worthy of criticism.

CUPP: Well, sure. But when Keith Olbermann calls them terrorists or Paul Krugman calls them crazy, I mean, that's really dismissive and, like I said, arrogant. You know, there's a way to talk about the policies and the arguments that they're making, but the liberal media is making this very personal. They are talking about the protesters, not the protests.

KURTZ: All right.

Let me read a memo that -- one of the memos that we have seen in recent days. This one appeared on the Web site of TEA Party Patriots, giving people advice on how to behave at these meetings.

"You need to rock the boat early in the rep's presentation. Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the rep's statements early. The goal is to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda. If he says something outrageous, stand up and shout out and sit right back down."

Now, Mark Halperin, you said you don't particularly care why people are showing up, and obviously some of them are passionate, but it does seem like there's an effort here by some in the media to say, well, this is all being ginned up by the right wing, and therefore it doesn't mean very much.

HALPERIN: Again, I could careless less why they're there. Of course we want a full debate. Of course we want people who have dissenting views from the administration and Congress to have a full hearing. But that's not what this is about.

That's not the intent of most of these people. It's not the way the press is covering it. What we're having is a freak show display because there's video on YouTube to talk about the protests, say what cities they've occurred in, to show the most violent disruptions or the most antagonistic. There needs to be a debate in America on whether we should have universal health care. There needs to a debate on the president's ideas.

If these protesters have ideas, great. Let's hear them. But if they are just stunts to cause a disruption that gets the media tripped in every time, again, I think it's bad for the country whether you want the president's plan or not.


Just stunts, Ana Marie Cox? We love stunts in the media.

COX: I love stunts. And also, I mean, I don't agree with what -- the kind of things these protesters are saying, but I'm appalled that Mark is calling it something other than what it is, which is a raw democracy.

I also think they give us time -- we'll start ignoring them. In the media, we'll start ignoring these people as much as we ignore Code Pink now. This is actually really interesting in one way, which is that being in the minority and having an unpopular stance has forced the Republican Party into Saul Alinsky tactics.

KURTZ: I've covered a million town hall meetings, and often there are -- not on this subject, but often there are protesters, and you have to decide, do you give them a paragraph, or do they become the story? Do they then, in fact, hijack the story?

Let me show a few seconds of footage of a town hall meeting in Tampa. This was on Thursday night, where members of the Service Employees International Union showed up, and a lot of people couldn't get in. It was a big shouting match.

Let me turn to S.E. Cupp.

It seems to me that what we have now playing out on the media battlefield is a fight for the control of the images, and right now the media seem to be conveying a sense that much of America is rising up against the Obama health plan.

CUPP: Well, when they're covering it at all. Like we saw with the TEA parties, you know, if you read "The New York Times," they simply didn't happen. When these are covered by the liberal media, they're covered in a very, I think biased way.

You know, as someone who writes about liberal stereotypes against Republicans a lot, usually Republicans are called crazy or stupid. Now I think the worst indictment I can find here is that they're organized. It's a really sort of, you know, interesting and almost desperate, sort of paranoid-sounding attack.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Ana Marie Cox, you can't blame the media if some of these protesters seem overly angry or confused, like the woman who said, "I don't want the government getting involved in my Medicare."

COX: Well, and also, it's novel to have Republicans act this way. I mean, that's one of the reason why this is getting so much coverage, is that we aren't used to seeing Republicans take on, as I said, sort of Saul Alinsky-type tactics.

KURTZ: So you're saying if Democrats had shown up to be angry or perhaps...

COX: Have you seen...

KURTZ: ... disrupt meetings during the Bush administration, that would not be as newsworthy?

COX: Well, no. Well, I just think it wouldn't be treated as newsworthy. I think that in the media, because it's novel to have the Republicans sort of behave in this way, that that's why we're covering it. If this becomes commonplace, we'll stop doing it. You know?

KURTZ: Let me turn to the role that President Obama is playing. He, of course, on TV all the time, particularly talking about health care, among other issues. And the question that's starting to be asked, about whether we are seeing too much of the president, or the salesman in chief.

Let's roll a montage that we've put together about some of his appearances in recent months.


OBAMA: I do think in Washington it's a little bit like "American Idol," except everybody is Simon Cowell.

You know...

As commander in chief, I hereby order you to shave that man's head.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Oh my God. It's five guys.

OBAMA: That's where we're going.


OBAMA: Look, the...

I hate to say this, because my brother-in-law is in the PAC-10 right now, but the PAC-10 has been looking pretty weak this year.

We've got a gym right over there.

The world is a better place for the world you create on "Sesame Street."


KURTZ: And Mark Halperin, is the president out there a bit too much? And are the media complicit? I mean, every program wants to put him on including, apparently, "Sesame Street."

HALPERIN: He is a great content provider, and he's going to continue to do it. There is this debate about whether it's too much. Yes, I think it's a relatively meaningless debate in the sense that he's not going to stop.

He is a fantastic performer and his consistency is extraordinary. Unlike past presidents, even in the case of Ronald Reagan, when Barack Obama goes out, he generally hits his mark. the problem I think he has is, because he's out so much, he can go 99 for 100, and that one mistake like we saw a few weeks ago at the press conference, when he called the action of the Cambridge police stupid, that's I think his problem.

He's going to have to keep going out. They have no other asset that strong, but it is a problem when he makes a mistake.

KURTZ: But at that press conference, Ana Marie Cox, he spent 40 minutes talking about health care and didn't make any news. So, if he's going to be giving all these interviews and primetime press conferences and speeches, is there a point where there are diminishing returns in terms of what we cover?

COX: For them or for us? See, I actually really don't understand why we're having this debate. It may be one of the rare occasions I agree totally with Mark.

Like, if he's being covered too much, then we should stop covering him. But he keeps doing stuff, they keep putting him out there. If the president does it, it is news.

And also, I want to say that he said that Cambridge cops behaved stupidly. He didn't actually call the cops stupid.

KURTZ: Right. But just to clarify, ,yes, if the president goes out and speeches or has news conferences, of course we're all going to cover it. But at the same time, behind the scenes, producers and executives are clamoring to get the president to appear with Katie and Meredith and everybody else.

COX: OK. And I think they'll stop doing that. Some of these things are just -- I mean, sort of as with the coverage of the protesters, they'll stop doing that when he stops getting the ratings. You know?


And S.E. Cupp, does it seem to you that the media, which you seem to insist on calling the liberal media at every turn, are more hungry for appearances by this president than for, example, President Bush? CUPP: Well, yes. I mean, to Ana Marie's point, he rates. But at the same time, this is a deprecating currency.

You know, we make fun of Hollywood celebrities like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, who are overexposed because they end up losing credibility. I'm not comparing President Obama to Paris Hilton.

KURTZ: I'm glad you clarified that.

CUPP: Believe me. But at the same time, you know, the more he goes out with these beer summits, and Jay Leno, and at ball games, I mean, this is war time. This is not an economic boon time.

I think the American public wants to see a serious president. And as someone who may criticize his policies, he's still my president. I would like to see him get serious, too.

KURTZ: All right.

HALPERIN: Howie, I totally agree with that point.

KURTZ: You totally agree with that point. Thanks for clarifying that.

Mark Halperin, S.E. Cupp, Ana Marie Cox, thanks for joining us this morning.

When we come back, the White House launches a video counterattack after "The Drudge Report" features clips of President Obama singing a different tune on health care reform. Communications Director Linda Douglass joins us next. And as we go to break, CNN's "National Report Card" has been asking people on the streets what they think of the first 200 days of the Obama administration. There was also a question, what do they think about the media?

Let's show you a little bit of that.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They really like the president right now. I think the Republicans have kind of gotten little attention.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the media has been inconsistent. It's hard to decipher what's true from what's not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're the media and I'll be honest. I would say D minus. I mean, the media just takes everything that's a small nugget and makes it into the nightly news story.


KURTZ: Naked Emperor News is not exactly a well-known Web site, but when posted a video featuring some of Barack Obama's past comments on health care, it was trumpeted by "The Drudge Report," which, in classic faction, boosted it into the mainstream media. But the administration, rather than ignoring the thing, decided to take on Drudge. Linda Douglass, the former journalist who now works for the White House, weighed into this YouTube war with her own video.

We're going to show you part of the attack video and then the White House response.


OBAMA: And my commitment is to make sure that we've got universal health care. I would hope that we set up a system that allows those who can't go through their employer to access a federal system or a state pool of some sort.

There's going to be potentially some transition process. I can envision a decade out or 15 years out or 20 years out.



DOUGLASS: Hi, I'm Linda Douglass. I'm the communications director for the White House Office of Health Reform. And one of my jobs is to keep track of all the disinformation that's out there about health insurance reform. And there are a lot of very deceiving headlines out there right now such as this one. Take a look at this one.

This one says, " Uncovered Video: Obama Explains How His Health Care Plan Will Eliminate Private Insurance."


KURTZ: And joining us now to talk about the White House media strategy is Linda Douglass.


Why did you decide to take on Matt Drudge and put up that video, which, of course, calls more attention to the original attack video?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, one of the things we learned during the campaign was that if you give people all the facts, they become better informed. You know, there were all kinds of myths and smears that were used against then-Senator Obama during the campaign.

And what we discovered is, if we encountered them with the real facts, people really paid attention. They understand what the truth is when they seek it. And in this case, this was a bunch of clips that were taken out of context with a headline that said the president wants to eliminate private insurance. Well, that is the absolute opposite of what he's talking about doing.

KURTZ: Well, hold on. When you say taken out of context, that video featured clips of Barack Obama before he was president. The dates were given. He was talking about health care. It's his own words.

How is that illegitimate?

DOUGLASS: Well, as you know, you can take a sound bite here and a sound bite there. They took pieces of sound bites from different periods of time, they put a chyron -- that's the words on a screen -- that says "wants to eliminate private insurance" to go along with these sound bites that they cobbled together.

And our point is that he is saying exactly the opposite. The health insurance reform that we're talking about is built upon the current private insurance system. That's what it is.


KURTZ: Right. That is not his current plan. So, you can say well, it misrepresented or perhaps suggested that this is his position now.

DOUGLASS: His current plan...

KURTZ: But apparently he did have a different position when he was senator, and that's legitimate to throw out there.

DOUGLASS: He didn't have a different position when he was a senator. But the point is...

KURTZ: What do you mean he didn't have a different position? He talked about -- first he talked about single payers, supporting that. It was years ago. And then he talked about making a transition over 10 or 15 years to fully government insurance.

DOUGLASS: What he talked about early on was, look, if we could start over all again, maybe it would be fine to have a single payer system. But we're not going to start all over again.

There's legislation that is being written in Congress that will become the law that he signs. That is legislation that is built upon the private insurance system. If you like the coverage you have at work, you can absolutely keep it. It doesn't change except you're protected from onerous insurance regulations. So, that's the legislation that's going through Congress, and that's what he's promoting as president.

KURTZ: The woman behind this Naked Emperor Web site is Pam Kish. She's a 42-year-old California mother and a children's book illustrator who has this very anti-Obama side. She's not affiliated with any large or political group.

Doesn't she have the right to speak out?

DOUGLASS: Of course she does. And we have the right to correct the information.

You know, one of the things we're going to be doing this week is making available a Web site where people can go to get the facts about health insurance reform. There's a lot of misinformation, and there is, as I said in the video, a lot of disinformation. That's information that's meant to mislead you.

So, we're going to have a new site where people can go, they can get the facts, they can share it with family and friends. They can look at some videos. We're going to have some fact sheets and we're going to make it possible for people to get the answers to the questions that they're seeking.

KURTZ: OK. Well, I'm still skeptical on whether using someone's actual words is disinformation, but another thing that the White House did in recent days that has drawn some flak, particularly on the right, is to ask people in this effort by you to collect what you had called disinformation to send in e-mails of those who perhaps are not representing adequately the president's health care plan. That was talked about on a number of programs, including "The O'Reilly Factor."

Here is Bernie Goldberg and Bill O'Reilly talking about this effort.


BERNARD GOLDBERG, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I'm really glad you used the word "hypocrisy," because that what runs through all of this.

Yesterday, somebody in the Obama administration, Linda Douglass, who I know and I think you know, said that if you have any fishy -- her word, fishy information, misleading information about Obama's health care plan, send it to us at the White House.


KURTZ: He went on to say that if the Bush administration had tried this, it would be a page one scandal story in "The New York Times."

DOUGLASS: Well, as I said before, there's a tremendous amount of misinformation, disinformation, myths, rumors that are being circulated all over the place for people who are trying to scare -- this happens every time you try to do something with the health care system. There's tons of special interests who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. So, there's a lot of effort to scare people, and what we've asked people do is, if they're worried about something they've heard, send in the information.

We don't have a list. We're not keeping any of the sources of information. I mean, those are all crazy charges.

KURTZ: Well, you're not keeping it, so why is it crazy? Republican Senator John Cornyn has asked the White House to stop this, and he says this could raise the specter of a data collection program.

DOUGLASS: Well, we're not -- there's no list being compiled. The information is not being retained. The sources are not being tracked.

But if there's a rumor going around, as there have been many rumors going around, we say let's take a look at the rumor and see what the truth is. And so, the information is all around and examined and looked at. And we provide the truth for people on a Web site that I think they're going to find very helpful as they try to get the truth about health insurance reform.

KURTZ: By the way, what did you make of Rush Limbaugh saying that the health care logo in the administration resembles a Nazi swastika?

DOUGLASS: I just don't even know what to say about something like that. I mean, you know, people are saying crazy things right now.

You know, here's the thing -- Americans are suffering under the rising costs of health care, they are paying 30 percent more out of pocket than they did. It's threatening their jobs, they are being denied insurance coverage by all these crazy rules.

KURTZ: And we're debating that.

DOUGLASS: And so, trying to discuss that in a civil way right now is extremely important for people's lives.

KURTZ: You were a journalist for three decades. You worked for ABC, you worked for CBS, "National Journal." You were a guest on this program many times.

Is it at all uncomfortable to be pushing an administration line on health care on people who are your former colleagues? DOUGLASS: Absolutely -- pushing an administration line? You mean trying to promote -- trying to advocate on behalf of health insurance reform is a very gratifying thing to do. This is the country's greatest need. They have been waiting for decades for the government to act. KURTZ: Oh, it's an important issue. But if you were still a journalist, you would be sitting in this seat, you'd be asking many of the same questions that I am. Instead, you're a saleswoman. You have to sell the president's plan, right?

DOUGLASS: Well, it's something that all of us in the administration believe in deeply. I mean, as it happens, as a journalist I covered the last effort to try to bring health insurance reform to the country. And I saw how the special interests just crushed the effort, and people now have seen their insurance premiums double over the last 10 years since there's been no...


KURTZ: You had a longstanding interest in this.

DOUGLASS: So, I had a longstanding interest in this. I feel very privileged to be able to work on this.

KURTZ: OK. I've got a half a minute.

Thirteen journalists by one count have now joined the Obama administration. Jill Zuckman, formerly of "The Chicago Tribune," was one of them. She was a guest on this program.

So, some people are saying, well, you were all a bunch of closet liberals just waiting for a Democratic administration so you could cross over.

DOUGLASS: Well, as you know, Howie, because we've known each other a long time, I retired from ABC News back at the end of '05, and I joined the Obama campaign last year because I wanted to be an advocate for his candidacy. And as I say, I'm privileged to be able to help with this effort in his presidency. And it's a different stage in life, it's a different career, but I'm really gratified to be able to do it.

KURTZ: And we're gratified to be able to have you.

Linda Douglass, thanks very much for stopping by this morning.

DOUGLASS: Thank you.

KURTZ: We appreciate it.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Clinton's comeback. Bill Clinton brings back two journalists from North Korean captivity and the talk is about the Clintons' marriage? And do Laura Ling and Euna Lee bear some responsibility for what happened?

Plus, Twitter trouble. ESPN slaps severe restrictions on what its sportswriters can say in their tweets, and some NFL teams ban it altogether.

Can brief messages really be so dangerous?

And coming up at noon Eastern, John King gives the last word of Sunday talk to Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.


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

A strong earthquake has struck off the south coast of Japan. The U.S. Geological Survey measured it at 7.1. Japanese media say the quake jolted Tokyo and wide areas of eastern Japan. No immediate reports though of damages or injuries. A tsunami warning was not issued.

Crews are resuming their search for victims of an air collision in New York. Nine people are believed to have died when a small plane and tourist helicopter collided yesterday over the Hudson River. This morning, divers recovered what appeared to be a fourth victim. Three bodies were pulled from the water yesterday. Autopsies are scheduled today.

President Obama leaves for Mexico this afternoon for a summit of North American leaders. He'll meet with the leaders of Mexico and Canada in Guadalajara. High on the agenda, the global economic crisis and strategies to contain the H1N1 flu virus.

That and more ahead on STATE OF THE UNION.

Now though -- for now, let's turn things back over to Howie Kurtz.

KURTZ: Thanks very much, John.

They were journalists far from home, arrest by a rogue regime, sentenced to hard labor. So, when Laura Ling and Euna Lee returned from North Korea this week, under a deal brokered by Bill Clinton, it was one of those highly emotional TV moments. But the plight of the women who work for Al Gore's Current TV had not been a high-profile affair. The coverage briefly spiking only once when television celebrity Lisa Ling made the rounds on her sister's behalf.


LISA LING, LAURA LING'S SISTER: All we can say is that they are journalists, and they were doing their job. My sister has been a journalist for years.

KURTZ (voice-over): This week, as the cameras rolled and the world looked on, the two journalists were reunited with their families.

LAURA LING, JOURNALIST: We saw standing before us President Bill Clinton. We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end.

KURTZ: But there was an irresistible storyline for the media. Bill was back. He was in the spotlight and Hillary wasn't.

And what did this mean for President Obama's foreign policy?

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN: A big victory for the U.S., but is the former president upstaging his wife?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: Does former President Bill Clinton going to North Korea, does it in any way upstage President Obama at all or not?

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: There is something iconic about big Bill Clinton. In a way, he's his own Thanksgiving Day float. I mean, the guy is bigger than life.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Was his presence in North Korea and his face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-il exactly the propaganda victory that North Korea was looking for, and was a quid pro quo likely exchanged for the journalists' release?


KURTZ: So, has the coverage been responsible or almost a pretext to feed our fascination with the Clintons?

Joining us now Julie Mason, White House correspondent for "The Washington Examiner,"; Terence Smith former media correspondent PBS' "NewsHour"; and Kimberly Dozier of CBS News, who was badly wounded by a bomb blast in Baghdad in 2006 and now covers national security issues at the White House and Pentagon.

I should mention that the last time I talked to you, that you wrote a book last year. My wife spent a few weeks working on publicity for that book.

Julie Mason, what is this enduring fascination, even in this international context, with the Bill and Hillary soap opera?

JULIE MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER": They are catnip. They're journalistic catnip to us. They're so interesting. They're such outsized personalities.

Of course, when he got involved in the story, it just blew up. And, I mean, he brought it to a conclusion, so it did become news. But you're right, there's something about the Clintons' involvement in it that even makes it bigger.

KURTZ: But Terence Smith, here you have Clinton undertaking this delicate rescue mission. He doesn't even speak when he brings these two journalists home. And then some pundits say, there he goes again, hogging the limelight.

TERENCE SMITH, FMR. MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, PBS "NEWSHOUR": Imagine, Bill Clinton didn't have anything to say? KURTZ: That was the news.

SMITH: That was the news. You buried the lead. It was extraordinary.

Actually, he conducted himself very well. It's interesting that all the fears on the -- at the outset of the administration that Bill Clinton would be this loose canon, rolling around the world exploiting his situation and his wife's office have proven not to be the case.

KURTZ: And those fears were constantly amplified, Kimberly, particularly on television, all the pundits saying the guy's just going to overshadow his wife and all that. And so, were the media just wrong about that? I mean, up until now, he hasn't exactly hogged the spotlight.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CBS NEWS: Well, I think what they underestimated was the Obama's administration ability to use tools at its disposal. It's all a situation where the tension was ratcheting up in North Korea, and it had a crisis that it could take advantage of. And it used this in a very smart way.

It used the prestige of a former president to bring down the tone after months of nuclear tests, missile tests. This changed the atmosphere and gave the North Koreans the media victory they needed to maybe take a step back.

KURTZ: It was a media victory.

What about the journalistic chatter about whether, based on this mission, there would be a thaw in U.S. relations with North Korea, the nuclear talks would resume? Do we really know? Isn't that so much journalistic speculation?

DOZIER: At this point what the administration is saying is that it is not changing its tone. Its six-party talks or nothing. This isn't an overture to direct talks with North Korea. But what a lot of analysts think is that what we were seeing out of North Korea, all of these belligerent statements, they were about bolstering the position of Kim Jong-il's successor, Jong-un.

KURTZ: But what about my point about the speculation? This hasn't stopped journalists from wondering about what might happen.

DOZIER: That's their job, to wonder what's going to happen.

KURTZ: Oh, OK. You hit on that.

Now, of course there's also a comedic subtext to some of this. Let me just play a little bit of a routine from Craig Ferguson.


CRAIG FERGUSON, COMEDIAN: Clinton agreed to go as soon as he found out that the mission was about picking up chicks. He was like, I'll go. I'll do it. I will find these young ladies and I will -- I will rescue them.


KURTZ: You can't stop the comedians from doing their thing.

But let me turn to a slightly more serious chronology here.

Until this rescue, these women were in North Korea for almost five months. This was not a front burner story for the media, even though Lisa Ling is a very prominent journalists and this was her sister.

Why was that? Why didn't it get more coverage?

MASON: It's because they were did detention and there was nothing new to report. Everything that was happening that we were hearing about was very back-channel. No one in officialdom would comment on it at all.

You know, we had heard that Al Gore was trying to negotiate some kind of release. There was speculation that he was going to go in and do it. But it was all happening behind the scenes, and there was nothing changing with their situation. So, we cover the news. And when there's no news, there's not much coverage, and I think it just got stuck.

SMITH: Well, and it's a closed society in North Korea. Very little comes out about it.

I looked it up, and the coverage was about the same as Roxana Saberi, the woman who was held in Iran for several months, the journalist. And so, it wasn't, I don't think, less than it might have been, although there always is a question in an editor's or producer's mind, is coverage helpful or hurtful for the individuals who are incarcerated?

KURTZ: I think that may be part of the subtext here. I think we are past the stage when the media are going to make a daily drumbeat over these hostage crises. SMITH: Right. Not a conspiracy...

KURTZ: No, no.

SMITH: ... of silence, but some delicacy.

DOZIER: With all of the journalists or aide workers, et cetera, taken hostage by al Qaeda, by the Taliban over the past years, one of the things we've learned is the more attention you give to this, the more profile you give to the hostages, and the more you strengthen the hand of the hostage-takers. And that's in the back of your mind.

SMITH: There are three hikers right now being held in Iraq.

KURTZ: And a "Newsweek" correspondent, and that has not become a front page story as well.

SMITH: Exactly. No. So it's a judgment call, I think, for editors and producers.

KURTZ: Would it have been different if these had been two "New York Times" reporters? I mean, I don't think most people know what Current TV is, seriously.

MASON: That's a good question. I don't know.

DOZIER: Yes, but there was a "New York Times" reporter being held for months in Afghanistan. We all knew. We said nothing.

KURTZ: But that was an explicit agreement among news organizations, at the request of "The New York Times," not to report this so as not to endanger his safety. Dave Rohde, of course, finally released him a few weeks ago.

In this case, it wasn't like news organizations got together. And also, you know, you have been in some of these countries where -- obviously, like Iraq -- where American journalists are at risk. If you were held in North Korea, would you want a lot of coverage to keep your case in the news?

DOZIER: I would want back-channel negotiations. I now can see in the past how some of our coverage has played into raising the price on the head of people being held. And now it is in the back of my mind when I get a tip, when I get a piece of video, such and so is being held. Do I report it?

And this has had a cumulative effect, I think, for all of our editors. Just like the way we all cover the military now since the start of the war in Afghanistan, since the start of the war in Iraq. You start getting to see behind the emerald curtain how the military works, how some of their thinking goes.

KURTZ: So, sometimes you don't report it or sometimes...

DOZIER: Sometimes you internalize. Sometimes you go, not yet, later. Will this serve the public interest by reporting it now, or is there something going on behind the scenes that will get these people out sooner?

KURTZ: One other factor, it seems to me, is the Obama White House, we now know, was working very hard behind the scenes, was not making this a public issue. The president was not out day after day talking about it.

I want to finally turn to what responsibility, if any, Laura Ling and Euna Lee have for this. John Podhoretz, writing in "Commentary" magazine, wrote the following: "Ling and Lee deserve to be held accountable for the unthinkably bad judgment they displayed in their preposterous, vainglorious and astoundingly naive venture."

They did cross the border into a very dangerous regime, so...

SMITH: Well, that's what the North Koreans say.

KURTZ: I have not heard that disputed, that they crossed the border.

SMITH: No. And it could have been inadvertent.

I'm glad John knows what happened, because none of the rest of us do. The facts aren't clear. But, yes, sure, you have a responsibility for yourself, and this does raise the bar. You send a former president to bail them out.

KURTZ: Right.

And Kimberly, I mean, they took some risks. They were out there with a camera crew reporting on North Korea.

DOZIER: They did, but they did this to bring attention to the plight of North Korean refugees. I applaud them for taking a step back and not going straight out to the press and making themselves the story in the aftermath of their return.

They're taking a little bit of time to think about this. And I hope and I bet they're trying to think about a way to take the focus off of them -- because let me tell you, it's really uncomfortable when you become the story -- and put it back on the original reason they went there.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Julie Mason, they have some responsibility, do they not, to publicly answer questions about what they were doing there, what happened and how...


MASON: Absolutely. But you have to wonder, is a lot of this castigation because they got caught? If they had gotten in and out and then did their story, would they be celebrated and not criticized?

SMITH: I mean, did you invite them on here?

KURTZ: I would be happy to have them on this program. I will invite them right now. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, we would love to have you here to talk about your experience.

But we are out of time.

Kimberly Dozier, Julie Mason, Terence Smith, thanks very much for joining us.

After the break, has Twitter suddenly become scary? ESPN sends the staff a detailed warn about tweeting, while some pro-football team takes the ball out of their players' hands.

What are they afraid of?


KURTZ: Twitter may be fun, fanatical, penetrating, pointless, or all of the above. But is it a threat to major league sports and to sports writing itself? Several NFL teams have now barred their players from using the social media network to communicate with their fans.

What, these guys face 300-pound linemen with shoulder pad but they have to swear off 140-character messages? And ESPN, which is, yes, a news organization, has issued a memo that says it's OK for employees to use Twitter or Facebook. That is, if they follow a very detailed list of policies and prohibitions, any deviation from which could result in them being fired.

What is going on here?

Joining us now in Las Vegas is Will Leitch, contributing editor for "New York Magazine" and creator of the sports blog "Dead Spin."

Will Leitch, you have said that Twitter is like your morning newspaper. How do you feel about ESPN toning done your sports section by slapping all these restrictions on its people?

WILL LEITCH, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NEW YORK MAGAZINE": Well, you know, on one hand, I kind of understand the idea behind it. I'm sure it's probably frustrating for them sometimes to pay their reporters to break stories that they end up breaking on Twitter. And I do kind of understand that on one hand.

But, you know, it's been fun for me and I think a lot of -- millions of fans to learn more about -- like, to actually have that interaction. It's kind of a logical thing. And you know, it's funny.

If you look at Trey Wingo, for example, one of their anchors, has a very entertaining Twitter. It's funny that, like, basically they're asking to take all the NFL stuff out now, which is shame, because, really, he mostly talks about Nicolas Cage movies. And I like his opinions, but I'm not sure that's what we need him for.

KURTZ: Well, let me read from this ESPN memo so our viewers can get the flavor of what we're talking about here.

This is telling the staff, "You are representing ESPN as you would in any other public forum or media. And you should exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for your colleagues, business associates, and our fans. All posted content is subject to review in accordance with ESPN's employee policies and editorial guidelines."

Then it goes on to say, "Incomplete, inaccurate, inappropriate, threatening, harassing or poorly-worded postings may be harmful to other employees, damage employee relationships, undermine ESPN's effort to encourage team work, violate ESPN policy, or harm the company, which may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination."

Now, if you got that memo, would you be a little bit careful about what you would write?

LEITCH: That would slow me down if "New York Magazine" sent that over to me, yes.

KURTZ: I mean, it sounds like it was written by a bunch of lawyers who are trying to make sure that none of the people who work for ESPN ever says anything remotely interesting or a tad controversial.

LEITCH: Yes, and it's a shame, too, because it was fun. It really has been fun to learn the other side of this stuff.

And listen, the people at ESPN talent, as they use the term, the on-air talent, or the columnists, or so on, they are grownups. You know, I think -- I follow a lot of those guys, and there's never been a moment where they have gone over the top or I have been, like, oh, they shouldn't be saying that. It seems like a preemptive strike against something that really wasn't in a lot of danger of happening.

KURTZ: Well, here's the reaction on Twitter, of course, from a couple of the folks at ESPN who didn't sound that thrilled about this new policy. Ric Bucher writing that, "This is prohibiting tweeting information unless it serves ESPN," and Kenny Mayne saying -- calling it a "Taliban-like decree."

I mean, you're taking people who are creative for a living and telling them really to kind of zip it.

LEITCH: Yes. It's strange, too, because it was very exciting for me to see people like Bob Ley, who's been with ESPN forever, really embrace this and really have a lot of fun with it. And from Bob Ley to Bill Simmons, the popular sports columnist who has really turned Twitter -- as a follow columnist, it's kind of humiliating how good he got at it very quickly.

And it's been very entertaining to watch and have that happen. And the dialing back of that, I think -- you know, ESPN has always had this idea that they are almost up in the castle kind of looking down at the fans. I think they've worked real hard to try to improve on that, and I think they've done that, but this is the type of thing that I think fans are pretty justifiable frustrated with. They had a chance to connect with people and now they're kind of losing it a little bit.

KURTZ: Right. Now, Rob King of had agreed to come on and talk about this with us, Will, but unfortunately, we have had trouble getting the shot out from Bristol, Connecticut. So we apologize for that.

He has certainly defended this as not being any kind of Taliban- like decree, but just an effort to have people be more careful about what they write.

I think it's more about control. It's like news organizations that tell reporters, you know, go out and collect the news, but don't talk to any other reporters without clearing it with our PR department.

Now, what about football teams, the NFL, such as the Green Bay Packers and the Miami Dolphins, who have eliminated Twitter for their players? What are they afraid of? LEITCH: You know, I think it really is a lot about control. You know, and I think that so much of sports is based in kind of like a military idea any way, and the idea that we are all one, we're all together, we are all one team. No individual.

And Twitter is all about individuals. It's all about personal expression.

And I think, you know, it's something that teams can't control. It was easy in the past to say. OK, here's your 10 minutes with this beat reporter, or here's your -- so on. And now, all of a sudden, Darren Williams (ph) and Shaquille O'Neal can say whatever they want at any time.

And I can understand why that scares the NBA, but I also understand why players would embrace it. I'm sure they are probably tired having to have those 15-minute conversations when they're sweaty after a game.

KURTZ: The San Diego Chargers fined Antonio Cromartie $2,500 for writing on his Twitter feed that the training camp food was pretty lousy. Now, I think that fans likes this glimpse -- we just have about 20 seconds -- fans like this glimpse of what the players really think, as long as they don't go totally haywire, don't you think?

LEITCH: Yes. You know, I do. And again, I think it's a matter of trying to control something before something necessarily needs to be controlled. And it shows a lack of trust in the players because fans like this. Fans like being able to find this information about players that they never have otherwise.

KURTZ: And interestingly, the U.S. Marines are now in the process of banning Twitter and Facebook and MySpace. They say it's about security for their fighting men and women. I suspect it's about information control as well.

All right. Will Leitch, thanks very much for playing with us this morning from Las Vegas. And you can check us out on Facebook, the RELIABLE SOURCES page. You can become a fan, get an early look at some of the topics and guests we'll be featuring on Sunday mornings.

The men who run NBC, GE and Fox all try to stop the feud, but Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly still going at it. And how did a "New York Times" reporter become the "Worst Person in the World?"


KURTZ: The seemingly endless feud between Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly has been fascinating in a car wreck kind of way and sometimes downright nasty. "The New York Times" tried to declare the hostilities over earlier this week. That turned out to be a tad premature.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ (voice-over): I reported last year that the top executives at both corporations tried to get their talk show hosts to cool it. After all, Olbermann was attacking O'Reilly on MSNBC almost every night, while O'Reilly was on Fox slamming Jeff Immelt, the top honcho at NBC's corporate parent, General Electric.

OLBERMANN: Bill O'Reilly, today's "Worst Person in the World."

O'REILLY: Jeffrey Immelt is a despicable human being.

KURTZ: But the effort by Fox's Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, NBC's Jeff Zucker and Jeff Immelt fell short. The verbal combat continued.

Last weekend, "The New York Times" said a cease-fire had been reached, but Olbermann was quoted as saying that he wasn't part of any deal. He had announced weeks earlier that he was ending his mockery of O'Reilly because of the seriousness of the Fox host attacks on George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was later murdered.

Fox's Roger Ailes and GE's Jeff Immelt did privately hammer out an agreement of sorts last spring, but it wasn't for a cease-fire, just an understanding that O'Reilly and Olbermann would stick to the issues and tone down the personal invective. But when The Times quoted a GE spokesman as praising the agreement, Olbermann felt he had to demonstrate that he hadn't been muzzled by the corporate bosses.

Forty-eight hours later, he did just that, bestowing his "Worst Person in the World" awards, starting with The Times.

OLBERMANN: The bronze to Brian Stelter of "The New York Times." What problem? Mr. Stelter asked me at least twice last week if there was such a deal, and I told him on and off the record there was not.

KURTZ: Next, the liberal firebrand went after Fox.

OLBERMANN: Tonight's runner-up, Bill-O the Clown.

Our winner, Rupert Murdoch.

How would like to be Roger Ailes right now, or Bill O'Reilly, or anybody else they think they decide what goes on even for a minute on Fox News Channel?

KURTZ: O'Reilly responded two days later, aided by a legitimate news story that GE had just paid $50 million to settle federal allegations that it cooked the books to mislead investors.

O'REILLY: GE defrauds the public, has to pay $50 million in fines, but could conceivably use taxpayer loan money to do it. Amazing.

The situation directly touches the president because NBC News, owned by GE, has been perhaps Barack Obama's biggest supporter in the media. And Jeff Immelt was rewarded for that when President Obama appointed him to his Economic Advisory Board. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Here we go again.

Now, there's nothing wrong with network commentators taking each other on over issues and their own rhetoric, but the extraordinarily personal nature of this Olbermann/O'Reilly slugfest is making both sides look bad, as their bosses know all too well.

Still to come, the curtain comes down on "Mouthpiece Theater." How two of The Washington Post's top pundits ended their brief video career with a tasteless joke.


KURTZ: It was called "Mouthpiece Theater" with two of The Washington Post's most prominent pundits, Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza doing their thing in smoking jackets.

We told you last week that they got into trouble with a bit about what kind of beer they would recommend for public figures.



CHRIS CILLIZZA, "MOUTHPIECE THEATER": Swine flu swims, Isolation Ale.

MILBANK: And for the host of "Mouthpiece Theater," two cans of Jackass Oatmeal Stout.


KURTZ: Now The Post's editor, Marcus Brauchli, has canceled the video series, calling a crack in that routine about Hillary Clinton drinking "Mad Bitch Beer" a serious lapse that is beneath us. My Post colleagues have apologized, with Chris Cillizza saying the joke was inappropriate and over the line, and Milbank saying he'd be honored to have a chance to apologize to the secretary of state over a beer.

I'm all for having some fun with the news, but journalists have to be careful about stepping over that line.

And John King, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, have you ever engaged in any on-air humor that boomeranged on you a bit?

KING: Nothing at that level that I can recall, Howie, and that's why I have my beer off the job.


KURTZ: Well, I've done it once or twice, but fortunately nobody has noticed.

All right, John. Back over to you.

KING: Howie, enjoy your day.