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Reliable Sources

Sawyer to Host 'World News'

Aired September 06, 2009 - 10:00   ET


KURTZ: She has interviewed presidents, prime ministers and Michael Jackson. She has been a star in the morning and in prime time, on "60 Minutes" and "20/20," and, for the last 11 years, on "Good Morning, America." Now Diane Sawyer is becoming a network news anchor, replacing her old friend Charlie Gibson. He took over "World News" three years ago, leaving his longtime part at "GMA."


CHARLIE GIBSON, FMR. HOST, "GOOD MORNING, AMERICA": Good morning, America. It's Wednesday, May 24, 2006.


DIANE SAWYER, HOST, "GOOD MORNING, AMERICA": ... practicing good evening. Let's hear it. Can you do it? Can you do it?


GIBSON: Good evening.


And they pay you money for that.


KURTZ: ABC did pay Gibson millions of dollars for that and got its money's worth.


GIBSON: Welcome to "World News," tonight up in flames...


KURTZ: Gibson's folksy style helped improve the second-place broadcast, but Sawyer has always had that indefinable quality called star power which helped her land plenty of big interviews over the years.


DIANE SAWYER, ABC ANCHOR, "WORLD NEWS": Have you personally killed someone who opposed you?

SADDAM HUSSEIN, (through translator): Never happened. Has never happened.

SAWYER: Did you murder your wife?

SCOTT PETERSON, CONVICTED OF KILLING WIFE: No. No. I did not and I have absolutely nothing to do with her disappearance.

SAWYER: "Junkie pothead, that's where I've been headed, getting high to put questions of who I was out of my mind." How close did you really come?


KURTZ: Sawyer's move will leave a gaping hole at GMA.


SAWYER: As many of you know and everyone here knows, Charlie is the reason I came here and you came here and it's just such an honor to be part of any team he's captained any time at all. But we have a lot of mornings ahead still.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Joining us now to examine the impact of Sawyer's move on the nightly news race and the television culture: in New York, Tina Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of the "Daily Beast;" and here in Washington, Rome Hartman, executive producer of BBC World News America on BBC America and Katie Couric's first executive produce on the CBS Evening News; and David Zurawik, television and media critic for "The Baltimore Sun."

Tina Brown after 50 years of white guys we will have two women in the network anchor chairs, of course, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer. Is this an important cultural moment of sorts?

TINA BROWN, FORMER EDITOR OF TATTLER, VANITY FAIR AND THE NEW YORKER: Well, I think what's exciting about it in a way is doesn't feel as exciting a cultural moment as simply an interesting news moment, really, because Katie in a sense was the first.

She was the one who got eaten by the lions because she was sort of thrown out there as the kind of great pioneer of this whole idea of -- a change in gender in the big news chair. But actually now I think people are much more interested in a sense of what this is going say about news and the whole GMA and -- rather than really treating it as a kind of phenomenon.

So that's good. That's good for women.

KURTZ: Right, the headline is really that it's not big news.

BROWN: Sure.

KURTZ: That we have another gender switch in at major broadcast network.

BROWN: Sure. KURTZ: David Zurawik, was there so much debate about Katie Couric coming out of morning television in the stead of Walter Cronkite during all that. Can anyone say that Diane Sawyer is not fully qualified?

DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION & MEDIA CRITIC, "THE BALTIMORE SUN.": No, no that would be an outrageous claim. She is so qualified it's unbelievable and she has been in some ways, such a good soldier for ABC News.

When people talk about this and say, oh what will it mean for "Good Morning America," my thought was and the folks I've talked to at ABC News said, put yourself in Westin's place, if Diane Sawyer wants this job and it's clear she did want the anchor job, how would you tell her no?

KURTZ: David, you're referring of course to ABC News President David Westin.

ZURAWIK: Yes, to David Westin -- I'm sorry, yes, absolutely. How would you tell -- and once you look at that of course, anything else is not a problem. She deserves this job. She earned it. End of discussion. I have no qualms. She is terrific.

KURTZ: And she was interested in the job before...

ZURAWIK: Yes, yes.

KURTZ: ...twice and basically stepped aside for her friend Charlie.

ZURAWIK: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Rome Hartman, you've been through this with Katie. Will Sawyer face a rocky transition from the rather free-wheeling two-hour morning show where you do all kinds of stuff to this 22-minute scripted newscast?

ROME HARTMAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, BBC WORLD NEWS AMERICA: I was thinking and watching your set-up piece. She's really had a career like nobody else, from Saddam Hussein to Scott Peterson. I mean, you put that juxtaposition.

KURTZ: There is the range.

HARTMAN: I think she can do anything. She has done everything, pretty nearly, every time of day, every kind of format. No. I mean, in a lot of ways the evening news is a piece of cake compared to some of what she's done. It is -- there's just not as much running room in an evening news format, 22 minutes, very much scripted.

KURTZ: So is it the best use of her talents?

HARTMAN: Well, I don't know. She's done every job that there is. This is the capstone of an amazing career. KURTZ: And on that point, Tina Brown, if Diane Sawyer, there seems to be a consensus here. She's done just everything and she's clearly earned this opportunity, but she's also something of a celebrity. Does that help her with this sort of intangible question of why people prefer one anchor over another?

BROWN: Absolutely. I think Diane's Sawyer's star power at this point is getting to be almost unique in the current kind of generation of TV moment people because -- she -- her stardom was made at a time when there were fewer distractions for the eyeballs so that it was firmly consolidated at a time when we were all focused really on three networks.

And you know, she's a great beauty. She's an incredibly accomplished woman, a great news woman and you know, it's a pretty explosive combination, all those talents in one package.

So I think that obviously her star power has been enormous help but it helped secure the big gets. Big people want to talk to big people and there's no getting away from the fact that Diane is a star and that actually helps enormously in the securing of the big interviews. KURTZ: So that's the secret? It's interesting, Tina, former ABC correspondent Judy Muller was quoted the other day in the "L.A. Times" as saying that there was one criticism of Diane is that, she veers into sentimentality. Do you think there's any validity to that?

BROWN: Not really, I think that Diane is quite honestly, she has to play the TV game when that's required. You know, she's been in the morning slot for the last ten years and that requires a kind of warm, friendly, over the breakfast table, slightly sentimental at times.

She's just a great role player. I think that when the role requires something else you'll see her not being that sentimental in that role. I mean, I'm pretty sure.

HARTMAN: There must be an adjustment because the evening news does call for, and that time slot calls for a different sensibility as Tina was saying. If not -- she's entirely adaptable.

KURTZ: You're reading stories about Afghanistan and Iran.

HARTMAN: It does require -- yes it's very, very different...

KURTZ: Yes, ok. But you know, sentimentality, maybe that doesn't fit the male model that we've all grown up with.


KURTZ: That's an interesting point.

Take a moment, David Zurawik, to assess Charlie Gibson's three years as anchor. He came in at a tumultuous time, Peter Jennings had died, then ABC went to two anchors. Bob Woodruff, badly injured in Iraq. Elizabeth Vargas just got pregnant, her ratings went down and they decided to bring in Charlie. How did he do? ZURAWIK: I thought Charlie did a fantastic job. He -- they were reeling. When he came in and took over that newscast they were reeling. He instantly brought stability and if you remember, a short time after he took over they actually started showing some ratings gains.

I mean, they were sinking. They were in trouble. He gave it a sort of journalistic anchor, first of all. It was a solid broadcast and I think you wrote about this Howie, about his years as a Congressional correspondent giving it a stronger Washington sort of sense immediately.

I think that really helped. But most important he really formed the foundation and you could feel ABC News, World News come together and it had been reeling since Jennings' death.

KURTZ: Right.

ZURAWIK: It was a huge void and you couldn't help it. And then the incredible events as you just chronicled with Woodruff and that he really -- you know, if he did nothing in his 34 years, but this last three years...

KURTZ: Right.

ZURAWIK: ...they got every cent out of him.

KURTZ: And always so calm and I hope you had a good day and all of that, but the fact that Sawyer will be the second female anchor, full time is obviously was Barbara Walters...


KURTZ: ...and Connie Chung and so forth.

It doesn't feel like such a huge deal, Rome Hartman, isn't that because of Katie as Tina was pointing out?

HARTMAN: I think it is -- I think in many ways Barbara Walters and Connie Chung kind of our asterisks partly because, they were paired with men who very clearly hated them on television.

KURTZ: I hate when that happens.

HARTMAN: And showed it on the air.


HARTMAN: Yes, Katie took a lot of grief that she didn't deserve when she launched and Diane will be largely spared that nonsense.

KURTZ: And maybe this whole debate about can women really be news anchors is one that's happily past us.

Tina, I want to play some tape because you know we're used to some former Democrats becoming anchor and host George Stephanopolous worked for Clinton, Tim Russert worked for Cuomo and Moynihan. Here's Diane Sawyer who worked in the Nixon White House and about five years ago she talked about that in an interview with Larry King.


SAWYER: I started at CBS News...


SAWYER: ...and one of the first people I met there was Dan Rather and Dan Rather came up to me and said I didn't think you should be hired. I fought your being hired and wanted you to hear it from me before you heard it from anybody else, because I worked in the Nixon administration.


KURTZ: Is it a sign of -- I don't know maturity or diversifications or tolerance that Republicans too -- people who has worked at one time in Republican politics can fill this role? BROWN: No, I just think that people have to have a life, you know? I mean, Diane -- I mean, right now there's a kind of movement to say that nothing you do, you know, everything you do disqualifies you from what you eventually do.

I think it gave her a wonderful insight into power, into politics, into how things work into presidential hopes, fears, dreams, tragedies that really only enhanced her. As a matter of fact, I think the great book that's out there to be written is Diane Sawyer's I mean, what a life she's led aside from anything else, the people she's known and the places she's worked.

And she's got some great stories tucked away but she also got some great observations and some deep wisdom and residencies (ph) from all of the life that she's lead, so I think it's -- I personally -- I am a big fan of past lives. I've had a few myself.

KURTZ: You have had a few. I've notice that -- you've had too much fun as a teenager, you're disqualified.

HARTMAN: But the line is less bright now -- in terms of what you've done in the past, whether it's political or whether you worked in another field or in PR, it used to be that the line between journalism and other fields, coming or going was brighter than it is you've had...

KURTZ: Or that you had to wait a few years.

HARTMAN: That's right.

KURTZ: And suddenly now I mean...

HARTMAN: I just think that -- and it's probably a good thing.

KURTZ: But Dana Perino steps down as White House Press Secretary and two and a half minutes later she's a Fox News commentator. HARTMAN: Yes.

KURTZ: You see the same thing on CNN and the other network?


ZURAWIK: You know, even though I agree with that, Howie and I do agree with that. I've always -- as a critic even I've always admired her working for Nixon, in the sense of Tina being that close to history and seeing the -- look back through the fence at the press.

KURTZ: She not only worked in the White House, she stayed with Richard Nixon in San Clemente in his years in exile.

Morning Television, Robin Roberts, very solid presence on "Good Morning America," but ABC now must decide, does it (INAUDIBLE) Chris Cuomo from the news anchor to be the co-host, go outside for big name -- this is going to have a big impact on the morning race.

ZURAWIK: Yes, the people I spoke to, though -- I don't know think that big a problem for ABC, and I don't know if she wants it. I absolutely don't. But a couple of people at ABC -- a couple of people outside ABC say they have Elizabeth Vargas ...

KURTZ: Absolutely.

ZURAWIK: And she's in primetime, she's pulling some numbers there. Her journalistic chops were good enough that they once made her co-anchor and she's faced this thing as a mom and as a high- powered performer of having to make decisions which I think the audience like about her. She could be very good, Kate snow also and Cuomo.

HARTMAN: Maybe not to ABC news, but "Good Morning America" is a lot more important to Disney than World News is because it makes so much more money.

KURTZ: Because the morning shows make a lot money.

Last question to Tina. Brian Williams remains number one at "NBC Nightly News." Do you think that Diane, not just with her presence, and her experience and her star power, but maybe what she'll do with that broadcast, she could make a run at becoming number one?

BROWN: I really think she could because the thing about Diane is that she's a very kind of gifted show runner is the truth. You know, she really does micromanage pretty much every aspect of her broadcasts, always has.

So I think she's going to bring a lot of imagination and a lot of insight and a lot of interesting thoughts and notions, really to how the broadcast can be really revved up. I think you're going to see a tough competition now in that slot. I think it's exciting.

KURTZ: We'll wait until she starts in January and then after a week, you can all come back and take your potshots. Tina Brown, Rome Hartman, David Zurawik, thanks very much for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we come back, embedded in Afghanistan, CBS's Lara Logan on reporting in that dangerous country and why the war has drawn so little media attention. And how far should the media go in showing graphic pictures of that war?


KURTZ: The forgotten war, overshadowed for years by hotter, sexier stories and declining public interest is making a media comeback with 68,000 U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan, rising casualty rate and the top military commander describing the situation as serious. The Afghan war is becoming harder for journalists to ignore even though few news organizations have ponied up to send correspondents to Kabul. It's an expensive and dangerous assignment as underscored by the roadside bomb that injured CBS' Cami McCormick.

But as the Obama administration considers sending even more troops, the shape of the debate on the air and in the newspapers may suddenly be changing from how to subdue the Taliban to whether we should be there at all; George Will breaking with more conservative commentators and calling for a withdrawal.

Lara Logan is just back from Afghanistan where she traveled with U.S. soldiers who were attempting to provide security for the country's elections.


LARA LOGAN, CBS NEWS, CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: The polls have just closed. Voting has now just ended and the marines haven't found a single person in this part of Helmand province who actually voted.

Exactly what the marines expected. (INAUDIBLE) They took some more rounds fired.


KURTZ: And CBS' news chief foreign affairs correspondent joins me now. Welcome, Lara Logan.

Based on your recent trip to Afghanistan and based on the spotty media reports we get back home, do most Americans have a clear picture of the obstacles and the conditions that the U.S. Forces face there?

LOGAN: No, I don't think they do. I mean, in spite of the best efforts of a lot of journalists, the Iraq war overshadowed Afghanistan for so long. Right after the Iraq invasion I went back to Afghanistan and lived there for over a year and did three stories for "60 minutes" when no one else was covering it, really. The problem is that until you're there it is so hard to describe the obstacles of just the physical conditions of trying to fight a war in that country are so overwhelming. It is very hard to communicate that even on television. You can't smell it. You can't feel the dirt. You can't feel the heat.

KURTZ: 47 American soldiers killed in August, the deadliest month since the Afghan war began. I mentioned earlier your colleague being injured. How dangerous a place is it right now for journalists? Is it like Iraq at the peak of that conflict?

LOGAN: It is more dangerous than Iraq at the peak of that conflict.

KURTZ: More dangerous?

LOGAN: I think so. Because in the years in which America's attention was turned to Iraq, that gave Taliban and al Qaeda all of the breathing room they wanted. The country was awash with land mines anyway. Now it's awash with land mines and IEDs and they're getting a lot of help from across the boarders and they're very, very dangerous; very deadly weapons that are being used there. There's a myth that deep-buried IEDs and all that technology migrated from Iraq to Afghanistan.

KURTZ: For years, news organizations have not been terribly interested in Afghanistan. I'm sure you tried to get some stories on the air and had difficulty with that. The last couple of weeks that seems to be changing. Why?

LOGAN: It's not just the last couple of weeks. I think it's been the last year, it's been changing. I never had any trouble getting a story about Afghanistan on the air once I'd done it.

It's doing it. It's getting there. It's overcoming the incredible cost of covering that story especially when you have two wars. It's changing now because, I think, with the Iraq war being seen in many ways as a failure, people's patience...

KURTZ: And certainly winding down, at least as far as U.S. involvement.

LOGAN: And winding down and the attention is thrown to Afghanistan and people are not so patient now. They're like, "Well, we've been 9 years. You mean to tell me it's worse now? Are you kidding? Why were we lied to for all these years?"

Because it was getting worse every year. From the day of the invasion we started making mistakes. And once that was successful and from there we started...

KURTZ: If we were lied to, why didn't the American media make more of that?

LOGAN: Well, I know a lot of journalists who tried. It's very hard to prove a lie. When commanders are telling you we have enough troops, you know they don't have enough troops. But now one will tell you that on camera or on the record. How do you prove that that's a lie? When commanders are telling you it's not that the Taliban's stronger. It's that we're more successful. All you can do is to try and prove that that's not the case.

KURTZ: On Friday a controversy exploded over an Associated Press photo of a 21-year-old marine who had just been hit in Afghanistan in Helmand province where you were on August 14th by a rocket-propelled grenade. This is Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard of New Portland, Maine. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, I am told, was livid and he's not a hothead. He was livid, his spokesman says, over the AP putting out this very graphic photo.

Gates called the president of the AP, Tom Curly; he virtually begged him not to run the photo which the family -- whose release the family had opposed. The AP stuck by its decision and sent the picture out.

Let me read to you and to our viewers from the letter sent by Secretary Gates to the AP.

KURTZ: "I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard's death has caused his family. Why your organization would purposefully deny the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling."

Should that photo have been released? I showed it to you earlier.

LOGAN: First of all, when you're embed with the U.S. military you sign a set of rules and those rules clearly state that if a soldier is wounded or dies from his wounds then you have to have the permission of the family in order to publish an identifying photograph. If you're not going to obey the rules you really shouldn't sign them.

On the other hand, there are judgment calls in everything that we do. We like to think that it's a purist form and the media isn't, and the AP made a judgment call. I guess they felt that freedom of speech was being violated and that's really their decision.

KURTZ: The director of photography for the AP says it was our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is. There are critics who say that the American media have sanitized both the Iraq war and the Afghan war; that we don't see enough pictures of these injuries. But on the other hand, you've got to think of the family of this 21-year- old kid.

LOGAN: It's a very difficult question, but one of the good things is that we can now show pictures of coffins coming back; those kind of images that were banned for so many years.

KURTZ: There was a long legal battle over that.

LOGAN: That was very important though.

KURTZ: Are you surprised that George Will and some other pundits are now saying let's pull out of Afghanistan? Afghanistan was always positioned as the good war. We went in after 9/11. We knew who we were fighting. It didn't have initially the controversy that surrounded the Iraq invasion.

LOGAN: I'm not surprised. It's purely political. He's a conservative commentator. You now have a Democratic President in power and he's suddenly against the war.

KURTZ: A lot of Republicans supported the war.

LOGAN: Sure because that was the position. But will George Will be doing this if it was still a Republican president? I don't know. I doubt it.

KURTZ: Is it hard for the American media to stay interested in a war that has dragged on now for more than eight years?

LOGAN: No, absolutely not. It's not hard to stay (INAUDIBLE) in Afghanistan. It is -- what the marines and the soldiers are going through there, what the Afghan people have been through is so overwhelming that it's not hard.

KURTZ: Do the Marines feel ignored by the fact that the networks don't have bureaus in Kabul the way they did in Baghdad. Do they feel like they're fighting, and in some cases dying.

LOGAN: Howie, the Marines are living without electricity, without water, without food? Are you kidding? They don't even have any idea what the media is doing. It doesn't even factor into their daily lives. Just getting through each day is so hard that that's the challenge.

KURTZ: As you say, it's hard even with the best writers and best television reporters to convey that reality. It's over 100 degrees there and just the conditions just sound awful.

You have an 8-month-old baby. I just saw -- very cute -- he looks very cute. Did you hesitate to go back into a war zone?

LOGAN: I didn't hesitate, but it is very hard. It is. I mean, everything is changed and I think about not coming home, and I think about that child growing up without a mother and that's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done.

KURTZ: And yet you felt compelled to go.

LOGAN: No question about it.

KURTZ: That's your job.

LOGAN: I'm going back tomorrow. KURTZ: You're going back tomorrow. Lara Logan thanks very much for joining us and sharing with us your reporting experience there.

And this program note, Anderson Cooper is in Afghanistan for a series of special reports that will be airing on CNN this week.

Coming up on the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, the whistle blower. It's been nearly 40 years since Daniel Ellsberg slipped the Pentagon papers to the New York Times. Now he says he waited to long and that other government employees should spill classified secrets when necessary. Really? Plus busted by the gossip cop: we'll talk with the guy making it his business to keep the tabloids and glossy magazines honest. Can this corner of journalism really be cleaned up?


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

White House environmental adviser Van Jones is resigning. Criticism of Jones was mounting for past negative comments about Republicans and for signing a petition that suggested high-level Bush era officials deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place. An Obama administration source says Jones didn't read that petition carefully.

President Obama returns from a weekend at Camp David today and faces a big week ahead. On Tuesday he gives that now controversial address to the nation's school children. On Wednesday, the President tackles health care reform in a big speech to a Joint Session of Congress and on Friday the President will attend a 9/11 memorial tribute at the Pentagon.

And encouraging news from the front lines against the California wildfires: the massive station fire near Los Angeles is almost 50 percent contained. Officials are offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever caused that blaze.

That and more ahead on "STATE OF THE UNION."

KURTZ: He is the most famous and notorious leaker of his generation. Daniel Ellsberg is the man who gave the top-secret Pentagon papers to the "New York Times," "The Washington Post" and other newspapers.

The Nixon White House went after Ellsberg during the Watergate era. Its operatives broke into his psychiatrist's office in an effort to dig up dirt, and the FBI wiretapped him without a court order, prompting the courts to throw out the charges against him.

Now, Ellsberg is calling on others government officials to follow his risky course. A new film by Ellsberg, "The Most Dangerous Man in America" debuts this week in New York, Los Angeles and at the Toronto Film Festival.


WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER ANCHOR, CBS NEWS: A name has now come out as the possible source of "The Times" Pentagon document, it is that of Daniel Ellsberg, the top policy analyst for the Defense and State Department.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wouldn't you go to prison?


KURTZ: I spoke to him earlier from the University of California at Berkeley.


KURTZ: Daniel Ellsberg, welcome.

ELLSBERG: Good to be here. Thank you Howard.

KURTZ: People either revere you or revile you for your role in leaking the Pentagon papers in 1971, but you say you should have started leaking much earlier, maybe 1964 after LBJ's Tonkin Gulf incident was trumped up incident that led to our involvement in Vietnam.

ELLSBERG: Yes. That took place on my first day and night in the Pentagon, August 4, 1964. And I knew by the end of that night that the president and my boss, Secretary of Defense McNamara were lying in many different respects, not just one single lie, but a whole series of lie which led to the Tonkin Gulf resolution by Congress and later led us to 11 years of war.

So I wish very much that I had exposed those lies to Congress with document as early as that.

KURTZ: In fact, you were pretty hard on yourself in "Harper's" magazine article, a couple of years ago. I want to read a quote from that. You said that, "Any one of a 100 official, some of whom foresaw the whole catastrophe", that, of course, being Vietnam, "could have told the hidden truth to Congress with documents. Instead our silence made us all accomplices in the ensuing slaughter."

So you feel some guilt for not speaking out earlier?

ELLSBERG: Well, I understand why I didn't. It didn't even occur to me. I think if I had thought about it and rejected it, I would feel even worse about it. But I don't let myself off the hook on that. Why didn't I think about it until much later?

It took really getting into the war to make me realize that there was a better way of upholding my oath to the Constitution, than by keeping my mouth shut to Congress. Yes. Many of us could have done that and it made us all complicit.

KURTZ: These days, of course, you could have just posted these secret documents on the Internet, but at that time the only way was to go to the press, so you went to "The New York Times", later "The Washington Post", other newspapers. But one of the reasons you might have had second, third and fourth thoughts, it seems to me, is that you might well have gone to prison.

ELLSBERG: Well, I expected to go to prison when I did go to "The Times". Earlier I went to the Senate and without pressure from the press, of making it an issue, the Senate just didn't -- Senator Fulbright, specifically, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, didn't want to take the political risk. He wasn't facing a legal risk, but political risk of crossing the Pentagon and the executive branch, by putting those documents out himself.

When I went to the press, I assumed I was breaking a law. I was not, in fact, by any prior precedent, but I assumed I was, and with 7,000 pages of top-secret documents that I was putting out, I thought I would go to prison for the rest of my life.

KURTZ: In 2006 -well, just for people who have not followed it -- one of the reasons you didn't go to prison was because of misconduct on the government's part, the investigation of you by the Nixon White House breaking into your psychiatrist's office and all of that.

But just to bring this up closer to the present. A couple of years ago, you called on Bush administration officials to leak what you called the secret war plans against Iran. Obviously, there was no U.S. military move against Iran. Were you wrong about that?

ELLSBERG: Well, I would like very much to know. And I think that people like -who did expose very important leaks, which I think may have prevented that horrible war, which would have been even more serious and more dangerous than the Iraq war. I think that the expose by Sy Hersh, from sources in the Pentagon and the White House, and by Philip Giraldi and others, that those plans existed. That Vice President Cheney had asked and was very (AUDIO GAP) for plans for attack on Iran, including possible use of nuclear weapons. And that he was continuously pressing for that until virtually the end of the administration.

I think those disclosures may have been among the most significant in history, more than the Pentagon papers, really, in preventing that war.

KURTZ: Right.

ELLSBERG: If there were other reasons, I'd like to know them.

KURTZ: Well -

ELLSBERG: That's a story, by the way, that's a story the press should be looking into. Why was there not any attack, or were the sources to Hirsch and Giraldi, and others wrong, after all? I doubt that.

KURTZ: Let's have a broader discussion about this. As a reporter, I love leaks, but how can a government function if it can't maintain secrets?

ELLSBERG: Well, governments will always maintain secrets and they'll always maintain excessive secrecy, so we don't have to worry about government being conducted in a goldfish bowl. Careerist impulses and feelings of loyalty to one's boss will keep people from revealing secrets -- that they should, in many cases.

KURTZ: But you're saying that a bureaucrat can undermine the president because he or she happens to disagree with a policy. What if an Obama administration official leaked information about say, a diplomatic outreach effort toward Iran. And that it sunk the whole initiative. In other words, it was something that that person didn't like, or maybe you agree with?

ELLSBERG: I think you're pressing me in effect to say there should be no secrets. I don't believe that at all. Of course there should be. There are things that should be kept secret and I kept a lot of those secret for a long team.

I also kept too many things secret that should never have been secret. And, particularly, at the time. I am say that an official who, like myself, and I'm sure there are many people in this position right now, who feel Congress is being, has been, or is being deceived in various ways and the Constitution violated, and they are violating their own oaths to defend the Constitution by keeping those secrets. They do have an obligation, I think, to obey the oath, not to obey their careerist motives. And that does apply to the Obama administration. With all his talk of transparency, Obama needs as much pressure from the press as any administration before that. We haven't seen much action on transparency in many respects. We could get concrete about that.

KURTZ: Do you think that the Obama administration is getting as much pressure from the press as it should, particularly compared to previous administrations, say the Bush administration?

ELLSBERG: None. No administration has gotten the pressure that it should from the press on this point. We got into Iraq with as much deceptions as occurred in Vietnam, a generation earlier. A performance by the press no better than we saw of pressing behind the lies of the administration than we got during the Johnson administration when I was in; nor did we get a single person within the administration, the Bush administration now, who saw that the adventure into Iraq was going to hurt our counter-terrorism efforts, hurt our security, and was violating the Constitution in terms of treaties. Another example would be treaties on torture and our domestic laws on torture. People who saw that clearly, not one of them leaked to Congress, or to the press.


KURTZ: Obviously, there were conflicting opinions and conflicting evidence, for example on WMDs. But let me come back to this.

ELLSBERG: No, pardon me.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

ELLSBERG: When it came to lying -- when it came to lying about the nature of the evidence that the evidence was unequivocal, that was as much of a lie as saying that evidence of the attack on August 4th, on our destroyers, was unequivocal. Yes, there was --

KURTZ: You're comparing the Bush's building of the case to go to war in Iraq, with Lyndon Johnson's Tonkin Gulf war incident, just to be clear.

ELLSBERG: I am, indeed. It's exactly the same in the performance not only by the president, but by all of the people who knew that it was a disaster. And I could name names there, if you want.

KURTZ: Let me -- let me jump in here, because we're short on time.

Let me take you back to this incredible period in American history when you were targeted by the Nixon White House, as I mentioned earlier. Your psychiatrist's office was broke into in an effort to dig up dirt, on Daniel Ellsberg. And on the infamous White House tapes President Nixon said, to one of his aides, "Just get everything out, get it out, leak it out, I want to destroy him in the press. Is that clear?"

What was it like to be on the receiving end of that kind of campaign from the president of the United States?

ELLSBERG: Of course, Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, were in exactly the receiving end of the same kind of operation from Rove and others in the administration of Cheney, Scooter Libby, and others. I felt very familiar with that one. Get that guy, destroy his credibility because Joe Wilson, former ambassador, had been telling the truth just as I told the truth with documents.

The lesson that I think is there right now, in the Obama administration, and any later administration, is if you, in the government, believe that your oath to uphold the Constitution is being violated by lies, by reckless adventures abroad, you should consider doing what I wish I had done in '64 and '65. Don't do what I did, wait until the war has started and the bombs have fallen. Do what I wish I had done earlier, go to the press, and to Congress -- not just Congress -- with documents, even though that may risk going to prison.

KURTZ: Let me ask you a last question here. "The New York Times" as you know, won a Pulitzer prize for exposing the Bush administration's secret domestic surveillance program, but Dick Cheney, among others, denounced the paper for doing that. Critics say that journalists who received and published classified information are every bit as morally culpable than the Daniel Ellsberg's of the world who actually leaked the material. ELLSBERG: Well, if you think it was culpable. By the way, people who do that unless it involves communication intelligence, or the identity of covert operatives, as in the case of Valerie Plame, are not actually breaking the law in terms of any prior precedent.

KURTZ: What about morally?


ELLSBERG: Morally, I would say they are very complicit in not putting out that information when they understand that lives depend on their revealing it. And I feel I was culpable earlier and that those who have led to so many deaths, Iraqi and American in Iraq, by not risking their careers, are morally culpable for that. You have to make your choice. You have to make your decision as to where morality lies.

KURTZ: Daniel Ellsberg, thank you very much for joining us.

ELLSBERG: Thank you.

KURTZ: After the break, policing a paparazzi press. A new web site fact checks the world of celebrity gossip. But do people really want someone spoiling the fun? The gossip cop is next.


KURTZ: Gossip is as old as civilization, but the explosion of outlets, "People", "US", "InTouch", "Access Hollywood", "Entertainment Tonight", "Extra", TMZ and gossipy columns in virtually every newspaper and magazine has made it hard to keep track of who has got the real scoop. After all, media watchdogs are usually busy tracking political lies. But now comes a new web site, Gossip, dedicated to policing hyperbole, exaggeration and outright fabrication, when reporting on celebrities. Is this something the world desperately needs? The site was founded by NBC's Dan Abrams. And I spoke earlier to the chief cop, Michael Lewittes.


KURTZ: Michael Lewittes, welcome.

MICHAEL LEWITTES, GOSSIPCOP.COM: Thank you so much for having me.

KURTZ: So with all the problems facing the world, you're devoting your time to policing bad gossip?

LEWITTES: Well, certainly there are a lot of problems in the world. But there are certainly a lot of readers of blogs, magazines, and people who watch different entertainment shows, because they want to hear about the celebrities. But they're entitled, as everyone else, to know the truth.

KURTZ: Sometimes you get denials from PR people for these celebrities, but don't some of the publicists, what's the term of art - lie, for their clients?

LEWITTES: We understand that people are going to spin the story. And that's why we call all of the parties involved, if it is a question about someone working on a movie, we try to find people on the set. And we also have a little thermometer that measures whether a story is real, or whether it's a rumor. We listen to all of the evidence and we make a decision based on that.

KURTZ: Let me run through a few quick examples that you reported recently on GossipCop. "InTouch" magazine reported that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were fighting, or as it was put in tabloid-ese, a shocking display of public anger. And then you had PR people for the couple deny that any fighting had taken place. But who really knows? Maybe they were fighting and they don't want to own up to it? LEWITTES: Well, you know, there were a lot of people who were on the set and there were certainly photographers who follow every move that Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise make. And those photographers really never caught them fighting. Those photographers found them sitting in a park relaxing, and maybe they weren't smiling, as if they were elated, but they certainly weren't angry. So we reached out to everyone. We found out there was no such fight.

KURTZ: You took on "Star" magazine for reporting that Jessica Simpson had supposedly been seven figures to write a tell-all book about her past boyfriends. That was not true?

LEWITTES: Complete nonsense. She has no desire to write about her past relationships. I think she would like her private life, private. And certainly she's not going to expose it to the world for what was deemed a $5 million pay day.

KURTZ: You also challenged Perez Hilton, the gossip blogger, for reporting that Michael Phelps, the Olympic champion, was to blame for a car crash that he was involved in.

LEWITTES: Well, Perez, in big letters, wrote that it was Michael Phelps who caused the crash. And then, of course, the Baltimore police said that he did not. It was the Honda that caused the crash. People like Perez Hilton, and some of these other bloggers, they prefer to be outrageous more than they prefer to be accurate.

KURTZ: Well, you kind of lead me into my next question. Certainly the track record of news journalists and political writers is hardly unblemished, but given what you're compiling, why there are so many mistakes, exaggerations, untruths, in this area of reporting about celebs?

LEWITTES: There are a couple of reasons. People would rather hear a more scandalous story about a celebrity rather than a more boring story about their everyday existence. But the other real reason is a lot of these blogs are written by people who just want to have a salacious story. And so they post it right away. But they don't fact check. And that's where is very different. We fact check. I'm a journalist. I've been in this business for 15 years. I know to call all of the sides, to call all of the sources, rather than just post a story without checking it. KURTZ: But it's not just bloggers, of course. You're taking on established magazines and television shows, but what about this argument that people kind of enjoy wallowing in this stuff, and they don't particularly care whether every detail is true?

LEWITTES: You know, one could argue that, and it is entertainment, and it is the entertainment industry. But at the end of day, I think people really want to know the truth. And if just judging from the comments you get from the site, people are happy to see the other stories, but then they come to GossipCop to find out if it really happened that way.

KURTZ: Which is probably good for your traffic. Now, you have worked at "Access Hollywood," "USWeekly," "The New York Post." So, are you kind of like a reformed alcoholic, here?

LEWITTES: I would like to say I'm a reformed muckraker.


KURTZ: But in other words, didn't you indulge in some of these - you know, obviously, you sound like a careful reporter, but you certainly are no stranger to the gossip industry, shall we say?

LEWITTES: Well, you know, at the time that I was at "The Daily News" right from the beginning my editor told me a tip is just a tip. It's just the tip of the iceberg, it's the tip of the story, and you have to call everyone, and you need to check your sources. You need to call both sides. And if it pans out, it pans out. If it doesn't, then it was a bad tip.

KURTZ: How unhappy are some of these gossip magazines, and gossip bloggers, and gossip shows with some of what you're posting? Are you getting any push back? Are you feeling the heat from any of your targets?

LEWITTES: I haven't really felt the heat yet, but they are feeling the heat. And they're uncomfortable with the fact that I'm checking up them. That they can't just post whatever they want now, that there is someone out there who is watching them.

KURTZ: I've got 20 seconds here. The fact that you knocked down some of these stories does that prompt these organizations to retract, correct, or are they basically ignoring you?

LEWITTES: No. Some of even the biggest outlets, who have put up big stories without fact checking them have pulled down those stories. And then have said, or attributed, to the fact that GossipCop had the right story.

KURTZ: All right. Michael Lewittes, patrolling the gossip beat. Thanks very much for joining us.

LEWITTES: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Still to come, the Pentagon rethinks its policy of barring war correspondents based on negative stories.

"Vanity Fair" pays Levi Johnston for his sleazy so-called revelations about Sarah Palin.

And could Spiderman, the Hulk, have an impact on ABC News under Disney's latest megadeal? Our media minute straight ahead.


KURTZ: As we reported last week the Pentagon initially denied that it was rejecting reporters who want to travel with U.S. forces in Afghanistan based on a private contractors' reviews of their work. Those denials didn't last long.


KURTZ (voice over): Soon the Pentagon admitted that, yes, these background checks by the Rendon Group, which rated journalist stories as positive, negative, or neutral, were a factor in turning down two reporters who wanted to become embeds.

Well, hours after we went off the air the military announced that it was canceling its contract with the controversial Rendon Group. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, told "Stars & Stripes" that Rendon's work "had become a distraction from our main mission."

KURTZ (On camera): It was a distraction because the Pentagon could not defend the practice of seeming to exclude journalists whose work officials perceived as negative. And why were taxpayer dollars wasted on media reviews anyway?

(Voice over): "Vanity Fair" scored a great scoop this week with a piece by Levi Johnston, right?

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: Now to Levi Johnston, the father of Sarah Palin's grandchild, speaking out about life inside the Palin home. And the picture he paints isn't exactly the same as the one the former governor has promoted.

MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ, CBS NEWS: Sarah Palin surely does not like the publicity she's getting today. The father of her grandchild, Levi Johnston, is talking about what he claims he saw in the Palin household.

KURTZ: After all, Bristol Palin's ex-boyfriend dishes all kinds of inside dirt about her mother. Sarah Palin didn't do any cooking. She watched daytime TV, found the governor's job too hard, and wanted to make far more money. She thought of claiming that Bristol's baby was her own. She didn't sleep in the same bedroom as her husband Todd, and there was talk of divorce.

(On camera): Pretty hot stuff, huh? This is a quality magazine paying a high school dropout, whose only conceivable credential is that he knocked up a governor's daughter, who has been called a liar by Sarah Palin, engaging in payback by trashing the family. This is supposed to be what? Journalism. I felt like taking a shower afterwards.

(Voice over): Don Imus is leaving RFD TV for a new television home. The controversial radio host doesn't have much to with business, but his show will be simulcast by the FOX Business Network. That can't hurt the fledgling channel, which is averaging just 21,000 viewers.


(On camera): Now, I was an early Marvel comics fan. I had Spiderman #1, and dozens of issues after that. I even had a letter to the editor printed in Spiderman 22, my very first published words. Marvel was an underdog company with heroes that, unlike Superman, were kind of neurotic.

(Voice over): So I was amazed that Disney this week paid $4 billion for Marvel and the rights to the Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the gang. Now, I don't really think this will have a huge impact on ABC News, although Ironman would come in handy during those breaking news events where you have to stay on the air all day. And who could argue with Captain America as a Sunday talk show host? No one's going to attack that guy's patriotism.

If ABC can co-exist with a company whose symbol is Mickey Mouse, it's not going to be harmed by the likes of Doctor Doom.

(On camera): Still, $4 billion, unreal. Mom, I told you not to throw out those comic books.

That does it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Thanks for joining us this Labor Day weekend. John King is back with more "State Of The Union" just ahead.