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Reliable Sources

Furor Over Limbaugh's Bid to Buy NFL Team; Balloon Boy Coverage Examined

Aired October 18, 2009 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: From the moment we learned that Rush Limbaugh was part of a group bidding to buy the St. Louis Rams, I knew the pundits would come charging onto the field and debate his fitness as an NFL owner. And there was an added twist to this high-decibel argument. A bogus quote about slavery attributed to Rush that started with a book, made it to Rupert Murdoch's Australian newspaper last month and then to ESPN, CNN, MSNBC and some major newspapers.

Now that the media furor has prompted Limbaugh to withdraw from the group (inaudible) by the football franchise, this question remains -- should a penalty flag be thrown on some of the journalists who tackled this story?

I spoke earlier with Mike Wilbon, "The Washington Sports" columnist and co-hosts of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption."


KURTZ: Mike Wilbon, welcome.

WILBON: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: Let me play for you something you said on "Pardon the Interruption" soon after the news broke that Rush Limbaugh was part of a team trying to buy the St. Louis Rams.


WILBON: I don't know whether Rush Limbaugh is a straight up bigot or he simply plays one on TV and radio, but he is universally reviled by black people in this country.


KURTZ: So, maybe a straight up bigot, universally reviled by black people. In retrospect, do you think you went a little too far?

WILBON: Universally reviled by African-Americans. That's no surprise. Anybody who wants to walk down any boulevard in predominantly African-American communities will find that out very, very quickly, Howie. No, that assessment is a very easy one to make.

KURTZ: But when you say he may be a straight up bigot, you're saying he doesn't like black folks. WILBON: He may be. I mean, if you listen to what he says on his show -- and I stopped a long time ago, and I can't tell you specifics of what he said. Meeting him in person is one thing. I have. Communicating with him one-on-one is one thing.

His radio persona, which is all that most people have of Rush Limbaugh, particularly black people in this country, that's a different perception. And I would not back away from that comment at all. KURTZ: All right. Let's talk a little bit about this alleged "slavery" comment.

Now, this was purported to have been said some years ago by Limbaugh: "Slavery built the South. I'm not saying we should bring it back, I'm just saying it had its merits."

Let me briefly run through the chronology here. This was published in a book about three years ago. It made it on to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and then it was picked up once the Rams story broke by Bryan Burrwell and "The St. Louis Post-Dispatch," Drew Sharp in "USA Today," CNN's Rick Sanchez, and then you mentioned it on your ESPN program.

What happened then?

WILBON: I did. I got an e-mail.

Again, I have met Rush. And while there's not necessarily a relationship there, we know how to reach each other. He reached out and said hey, didn't say this, do not believe it, don't know how this got started, although I'm trying to trace the origin of this statement. Don't believe that. It doesn't reflect what my beliefs are about slavery.

And I read the e-mail, e-mailed him back, and we had an exchange. Then I said I took him at his word.

I was not going to be able to sit down and verify everything that is said, because as you know, Howie, there's a lot out there that's said that is attributed to Rush. I have listened to his show. I've heard a lot of things. I'm not sitting there with a notebook writing them down.

KURTZ: Right.

WILBON: So, I cannot verify that he said that.

KURTZ: But in this case there's no evidence that he made this particular "slavery" comment. Do you think you should have checked before putting it on the air?

WILBON: No question. And I told Rush that. That's a journalistic no-no.

But, if I had checked and found out the information that we had basic access to every day on deadline, I might have done it anyway. Still, that's wrong and a journalistic no-no, and I said that to him. KURTZ: All right.

Let's take a look at what Limbaugh had to say about this whole slavery business and the coverage of his now-defunct bid to be part of the Rams ownership. Let's take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: This kind of stuff, this reporting, mal-reporting, lying, repeating the lies while also saying "Limbaugh denies," repeating the made-up quotes, the blind hatred -- and believe me, the hatred that exists in this is found in the sportswriter community. It's found in the news business.


KURTZ: Does he have a point?

WILBON: He had a point in that smaller area about that quote. Let's not make it seem like Rush Limbaugh has not insulted black people on his radio show. He's done it for years and years and years.

And it's not just black people that know that, Howie. I mean, the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, knows it. Otherwise, he wouldn't have made the statements he made.

Jimmy Irsay, owner of the Colts, he knows it. Otherwise, he would not have come out and said publicly, "I would not vote for this guy."

Millions of black people know this, which is why they feel about Rush Limbaugh the way they feel. This is not arbitrary. People just didn't pick out Rush Limbaugh and said, oh, let's be mad at Rush because of nothing.

KURTZ: Right. But on this point -- on this point about the slavery, and there was also another alleged quote for which there is no evidence about saying something nice about James Earl Ray, I don't think it's enough to come back the next day and say, well, here's Rush's denial. I think if you don't have evidence to back it up, you need to retract it and apologize.

But let's talk about something that Rush Limbaugh did say famously.

WILBON: And by the way, I agree with you why I did that.

KURTZ: You did, but not everybody has done that. I just wanted to make that point.

Let's talk about something Limbaugh did say famously six years ago when he was briefly an ESPN commentator, and that was about Donovan McNabb. And he said, "I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well."

A lot of people pointed to that as evidence that, well, he's some kind of racist. Wasn't he really talking there about the media? WILBON: It's his interpretation. That is not in the top 300 things that I would object to, that I would find objectionable or offensive that Rush Limbaugh has said of somebody of African-American descent. So, I mean, that was one thing that people who, in the sports context, all of a sudden were exposed to Rush Limbaugh who may not listen to his show, may not be as familiar with him, and went, wow, this seems a little off center of what we normally hear. And they held on to that.

Again, that is not probably in the top thousand things, if I can go back and chronicle the shows, that I would find offensive of his comments.

KURTZ: Right. Well, he said a number of things over the years, inflammatory things that I disagree with. But when this whole debate erupted about, you know, was he fit to be even a minority owner in the St. Louis Rams, I'm thinking the National Football League, Michael Vick gets to go in the National Football League. There are a lot of owners and players who have done things that are not exactly stuff we heed praise on.

WILBON: I would agree with you there, Howie. My take on his whole ownership bid was this: The market will determine whether or not you wind up being an owner. And if the club you're trying to get into, if its members say, no, we don't want you, you have to live with that.

Rush Limbaugh is out there every day judging, passing judgment, turning thumbs up or thumbs down on whether somebody is fit or worthy to be involved in some activity in this country. He is subject to the same rules, if you will, in that context. And in this case, the market said no, it didn't want to sell what Rush was buying. And he has to live with that, and I would defy anybody to tell me that that's not fair.

KURTZ: But to what extent -- I've got about half a minute here -- did the media uproar over this -- and it's being debated on every cable show and every sports radio show -- contribute to a climate where the NFL just felt it could not touch Rush with a 100-foot football field?

WILBON: Plenty.

KURTZ: Couldn't let him on the football field, I should say.

WILBON: Plenty, Howie, just like he helps -- remember, Rush is the media. Rush is mainstream media. So, just like any other debate, Rush and his conversation on his show contributes to that same sort of...


KURTZ: And he loves to stir up controversy.

WILBON: Yes, he does. That's what I'm saying. You can't all of a sudden say, wait a minute, I'm outside of controversy, when you help create it every day, and very successfully and very smartly, by the way, for those who listen to Rush's show. No, you can't then say the rules don't apply to me.

I don't think, to be fair, that Rush is saying that. In our conversation, that that was not what I sensed. So he, again, put himself out there, subject to national debate, and the debate said no, we don't want it.

KURTZ: Right.

Well, the St. Louis rams story is over, but the controversy very certainly is not.

Mike Wilbon, thanks very much for joining us.

WILBON: Thanks, Howie.


KURTZ: And after we taped that interview, CNN's Rick Sanchez apologized for using the "slavery" quote. A little late, but good for him. MSNBC's David Shuster also retracted the quote but offered no apology.

Coming up, the media gets swept away by the balloon boy who wasn't.

But first, Fox fallout. Last week on this program, Anita Dunn ripped into Fox News. Beck and O'Reilly fired back. Much of the media world weighed in.

Did the White House wind up giving Fox a boost?


KURTZ: There's no other way to put it. Our program went viral this week. My interview with Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, was picked up by so many Web sites, blogs and cable shows, that I quickly lost track. And it wasn't hard to figure out why.

Her blunt attack on Fox News sparked a debate about the president and the press, about political hardball, and, of course, about Fox itself.

We begin with what Anita Dunn said right here and the sharp reaction at Rupert Murdoch's network.


ANITA DUNN, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: What I think is fair to say about Fox, and certainly the way we view it, is that it really is more a wing of the Republican Party. Take their talking points, put them on their air. Take their opposition research, put them on the air. And that's fine, but let's not pretend they're a news network the way CNN is.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: So, if you're going to be in a seat of power in Washington, if you're going to be in the White House, and then you want to pick an ongoing fight with Fox News, number one, it empowers Fox News, no doubt about it.

MONICA CROWLEY, PH.D., MONICAMEMO.COM: It is an abuse of power when you're the president of the United States to use the White House and the full weight of the White House to single out a single news organization and castigate them and try to delegitimize that.

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: Here is the map of New York, and the enemy is right -- got to go down 6th Avenue. There's Times Square. The enemy is in this building right here.

That is the enemy. Look out, America.


KURTZ: So, are the White House attacks actually helping Fox News?

Joining us now in New York, Marisa Guthrie, programming editor for "Broadcasting & Cable" magazine. And here in Washington, David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, and John Aravosis, the founder of

John Aravosis, Fox is just reveling in this. Did Anita Dunn's attacks have the unintentional effect of actually give Fox News a boost?

ARAVOSIS: Oh, I'm sure it gave Fox News a boost with its own viewers, but that's not really the point. The point was Democrats had finally had enough with Fox being a political operation, not a news network. And frankly, I applaud the Obama administration for speaking out, because during the election they catered to Fox.

Obama went on O'Reilly after Fox pushed the madrassa story about him growing up in Muslim schools, which is false. They still went on Fox. So, I think Obama bent over backwards to try to help them, and now they finally said...


KURTZ: Well, and to help himself as a candidate.


KURTZ: David Brody, Chris Wallace, on "Fox News Sunday" this morning, saying the White House wouldn't give that program to anybody, on any subject. But does this now enable Fox to position itself as the only news outlet that gets under the administration's skin?

BRODY: Well, sure, to a degree. And the ratings will increase, and the White House will look petty in the short term. But look, I mean, if you're in the White House's shoes, if you will, what are you going to do here? I mean, you've got three million-plus folks watching Beck every night, as well as O'Reilly. And, of course, a couple of million and change in the middle with some other folks. I mean, look, they understand that they've got to have some sort of strategy to combat this.

KURTZ: But do you hit Beck and O'Reilly and Hannity for specific things they've said, or do you slam the entire network, which includes reporters?

BRODY: Well, here's the issue, Howie. It's not just Beck, O'Reilly and Hannity. What Fox seems to be doing -- and take the czar story, for example. They'll take the czar story in that 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. hour, and then 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with some of their main day side anchors, that will also be the theme of their coverage as well.

KURTZ: They drive certain stories.

BRODY: They drive...

KURTZ: And I'm going to come back to that. But first, let me ask Marisa Guthrie, is there a downside for Fox when a top White House official says it's not a real news network and just spews Republican talking points?

GUTHRIE: Well, they're not -- Fox News doesn't thrive on access from the administration. They're the opposition. They thrive on agitation. So, there hasn't been any downside in this debate, in this fight at all.

I mean, as Roger Ailes said, don't pick a fight with people who like to fight. And administrations have tried to do this going back to Grant and Washington. I mean, it's not -- you're never going to win this battle. And you're just going to, as your other guest said, look petty doing it.

ARAVOSIS: I don't think that's totally true, only because I think it depends how the politician does it. The Bush administration was very effective, I would argue, at controlling the media, at kowtowing them and saying we cut off access, we're not going talk to you.

It depends how well the politician does it. And in this case, I think Fox has, as David said, had a bit of an agenda. Fox created its own protests and then covered its own protests, Howie.

KURTZ: Well, we talked about that on this program.

Let me play something that Glenn Beck said on his radio show this week, and I want to get your reaction on the other side.


BECK: When they're done with Fox and you decide to speak out on something, the old "First they came for the Jews and I wasn't Jewish," do you really think they're going leave you alone if you want to ask a tough question?


KURTZ: Do you find that Holocaust reference offensive?

BRODY: Well, any time you invoke the Holocaust in any sort of context, you run the risk of offending quite a few people. So, you know, obviously it's going to be subjective.

Howie, I think what's going on here -- and this is the big media story going forward -- you know, has the White House, by doing this, in essence created a new frontier here? In other words, if there's a Republican administration in 2012, 2016, or beyond, will that Republican administration call out MSNBC on the other side?

KURTZ: Well, on that point, wait a second. Last year, when Ed Gillespie was the Bush White House's communications director, he complained -- I wrote it down here -- about blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann and said that NBC News seemed to be blurring into the more liberal pundits on MSNBC. So, this is not unprecedented. That didn't get that much attention.

BRODY: Right. No, you're absolutely right. And I think this is the problem going forward. I mean, in essence, they've opened up a can of worms here, because what you're going to see in the future is, this could just go to what we've talked about all of the time, that some of the journalism going on Fox and MSNBC and other places can be a problem.

ARAVOSIS: The problem, I would argue, is that I think Fox opened a can of worms by finally going too far. Even opinion journalism on the other networks doesn't get into this, we're going to root out the communists in the Bush administration, and here are the names, and here's a blackboard with Mao's picture on it.

Fox, I think, has gone too far. Beck talked about poisoning Nancy Pelosi. Yes, it was a joke. Who in opinion journalism jokes about killing the Speaker of the House? They're going too far.

BRODY: But Olbermann and Maddow have also gone pretty far, too. I mean, in other words, you can make...

ARAVOSIS: Absolutely not to that degree, no.

BRODY: Possibly not. Possibly not.

ARAVOSIS: Olbermann is strong in his views, but you watch Keith do his special comments, and he is strong about the Bush administration. He may say that he's thought they committed war crimes, he doesn't talk about poisoning Bush, he doesn't talk about, we're going to have a McCarthyite investigation of the administration. They've gone too far.

KURTZ: Well, let me jump in here, because last hour Rahm Emanuel talked to John King, and John asked him, the White House chief of staff, about this offensive against Fox, the White House not backing off.

Let's take a look at Emanuel's comments.


EMANUEL: It's not a news organization so much as it has a perspective. And that's a different take. And more importantly, is not have the CNNs and the others in the world basically be led and following Fox, as if that -- what they're trying to do is a legitimate news organization in the sense of both sides and a sense of valued opinion.


KURTZ: Marisa Guthrie, do you think Rahm has a point when he talks about CNN and others following Fox and the suggestion here Fox kind of helping to set the news agenda for everyone else?

GUTHRIE: Well, I think you certainly saw some of that with the ACORN story. Fox was first with that. And... KURTZ: And it was a legitimate story, as it turns out.

GUTHRIE: And it was a legitimate story. So -- but I think what's missing from this is that, you know, this is a president -- and where this is really backfiring -- is this a president that campaigned on a platform of unity. He has made a point of reaching across the aisle. He has said he wants to talk to the wider world. He has been celebrated for that intention, and he can't talk to Fox News.

I mean, he can talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he can't talk to Chris Wallace. So, I think it really undermines his unity credibility. And if he's not on the network and administration officials aren't on the network to counter some of the stereotypical caricatures, then, you know, where do you go from there?

KURTZ: Well, Anita Dunn did tell me that the president would go on Fox eventually. She certainly didn't set a date.

But, you know, you have rhetoric like Sean Hannity saying the White House is keeping an enemies list here. This, of course, in reference to the Nixon White House, which actually wiretapped and audited some journalists. But clearly, the White House has made a decision here.

My two cents is we appreciate Anita Dunn coming on this program. She was delivering a message which we saw reinforced this morning by Rahm Emanuel. And if they want to punch back against Hannity or Beck for certain things they've said, absolutely, that's their political right. But by going after the channel as the opposition, as Anita Dunn put it, I question what the White House gets out of that.

Let me turn to Rush Limbaugh, who was on "The Today Show" this week. He's got his own media offensive going.

I want to play some comments when he was asked about his comment earlier this year that he wants Obama to fail.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your critics say it's unpatriotic.

LIMBAUGH: Oh, it's quite the opposite.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then why don't you say it that way? Is it for ratings?

LIMBAUGH: I just did.


LIMBAUGH: I do every day. I say it every day.

I -- when I now say I hope he fails, it's to tweak the media. I know how to do it. I know how to yank their chain. I know how to send them into insanity. I know how to make them spend the next two days talking about me.


KURTZ: John, he's right. He knows how to yank the media's chain. ARAVOSIS: Yes. He unfortunately yanked the NFL's chain, too, and lost his franchise.

I mean, that's the problem with Rush. You know, live by the excess, die by the excess. He likes to shock people. He also likes to use racially-tinged language -- I'm being polite even calling it that -- to shock people. And now the fact that that stuff's bitten him in the behind, he's saying, oh, look at me, the victim.

KURTZ: Limbaugh on the cover of "Newsweek" earlier this year. Does the liberal press play into his hands as some try to tear him down? I mean liberal pundits and liberal-leaning news organizations.

BRODY: Well, sure. And I also think there's a double standard. It's this moral supremacy double standard.

You know, he's a conservative. He's been outspoken. And so, therefore, you know, they're going to hold -- look what they did on the whole prescription drug story with him.

I mean, you know, it was like, wow. Wait a minute. He's a conservative, he's a Republican, and he's got moral problems? Oh, we're going to have issues with that.

KURTZ: Although that would have been a story for any major radio talk show host.

BRODY: Yes, but they made a huge deal about it.


Marisa, Rush Limbaugh seems to be more accessible these days. I mean, he goes on "The Today Show," he was on -- he cooperated with "The New York Times" magazine cover story. He e-mails reporters for Politico and elsewhere when they ask for his comment.

Is he trying to break into the mainstream here, not just in football terms, but in media terms?

GUTHRIE: Well, I think he is in the mainstream. I think, you know, the mainstream media covers him. And the White House has tried to make him the face of the Republican Party.

So, I mean, he's already in the mainstream, but, you know, you can't use a comment like -- you know, compare a football people to the Crips and the Bloods and court controversy, and make that your shtick, and then, you know, when it comes back to bite you be surprised. I mean, he knew that this was going to happen. And (INAUDIBLE) got squeamish and let him go, cut him loose. And I'm sure he expected that.

KURTZ: Right. Well, I don't know if he expected that, but clearly, he knows that when he throws out this inflammatory language, that the debate will be -- will revolve around Rush Limbaugh. And I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing for Rush Limbaugh.

We've got to go.

Marisa Guthrie and John Aravosis and David Brody, thanks for stopping by.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, up, up and carried away. Should cable news have poked more holes in the story of a 6-year-old floating in a runaway balloon over Colorado? And should TV shows keep putting this strange family and their stressed-out son on the air?

And later, CNN's Soledad O'Brien on special challenges for journalists of color and on her latest assignment chronicling the Latino experience in America.


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

President Obama's chief of staff says the key issue in determining a new strategy in Afghanistan is whether or not there is a legitimate and credible government in Kabul. Speaking earlier on the program STATE OF THE UNION here, Rahm Emanuel said that issue must be settled before the president decides whether to deploy more U.S. troops.

A suicide bomber strikes in Iran. At least 29 people are dead, ,including the deputy commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard, and four other top commanders. The bombing happened during a conference today in the southeastern city of Sarbaz (ph).

The speaker of Iran's parliament blames the United States. A State Department spokesman says the accusation is completely false.

Hurricane Rick is churning up dangerous surf off Mexico's Pacific Coast. The hurricane is now a Category 5 storm, with top winds of 180 miles an hour. Forecasters expect it though to lose steam as it heads for Baja California later in the week.

Those are your top stories here on STATE OF THE UNION.

KURTZ: It's all too easy to make fun of what cable news did on Thursday afternoon. It took the country on a heart-stopping ride with the tale of a runaway hot air balloon that we were told had a 6-year- old boy inside. Except, as we now know, it didn't.

And the story has been blown now in a very different direction, from a happy ending melodrama, to a reality show family behaving strangely, to now the likelihood of criminal charges. But if you were anywhere near a TV on Thursday, you were most likely transfixed by what was happening in the Colorado skies, even as the anchors were operating on very few facts.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Pretty hard to believe that a 6-year- old boy is inside this, but this is basically what we're getting from officials in Larimer County right now.

SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS: We believe there is a little boy in this balloon, and it's been flying now for about an hour, at least. It was attached in this father's back yard and now it's going around in circles.

KURTZ (voice-over): What a relief to find out hours after the thing came down that Falcon Heene had been hiding in the rafters of the family's garage. Then the hours and hours of yacking began, and people realized that the father had already made a spectacle of himself on "Wife Swap."

RICHARD HEENE, "WIFE SWAP": Wait a second. Did you not sign up to swap lives with another woman? Did you? Did you?


HEENE: No, I'm talking. I asked a question. Did you or did you not -- there you go.

Jesus. You're impossible! What I'm telling you right now, that I need you to pass out these flyers!

KURTZ: And this was bizarre. Hours after learning that their son was not dead, the parents began hitting the TV circuit from "LARRY KING LIVE," to the morning shows on ABC, NBC and CBS.

HEENE: He's asking Falcon, did you hear us calling your name at any time?



R. HEENE: Well, why didn't you come out?

F. HEENE: You guys said that we did this for a show.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: What did he mean, we did this for the show?

R. HEENE: I have no idea.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: What did Falcon mean when he said we did this for a show?

R. HEENE: Well, first of all, let's clarify he's 6. And I don't know that he really understood the question that was being asked.

F. HEENE: No, we had...

R. HEENE: One of the guys told him it was for some TV show, so that's what he was referring to.

SAWYER: You had said, "We did this for a show"?

R. HEENE: I think he's queasy.

Should we take you to the bathroom or something?

F. HEENE: Yes.



R. HEENE: Go, buddy.



So, should television have been more cautious from the outset? And are journalists now turning this whole thing into a circus?

Joining us now in Chicago, Phil Rosenthal, media columnist for "The Chicago Tribune." And here in Washington, Lisa Bloom, legal analyst for CNN; and Dana Milbank, who writes the "Washington Sketch" column for "The Washington Post."

Lisa Bloom, everybody now saying the media jumped to conclusions. If you had been on the air while that balloon was still racing across the sky, would you have said let's take a break and we'll come back when we no more?

LISA BLOOM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No. In fact, I was on the air on HLN for two and a half hours, following it live on Thursday afternoon. At that point, it was a dramatic human interest story very much like Baby Jessica down the well in the 1980s. We had a child apparently at risk. We had amazing video of the balloon floating across the sky. We, like everyone else, were following it. Then when the balloon landed and the child was not in it, it became more interesting of a story. What's happened to this child?

KURTZ: But when you look at it in retrospect, the anchors were going and on about this poor 6-year-old boy inside the balloon.

BLOOM: Well, and now we've been going on and on about this poor 6-year-old boy in a very different way. I think there's a real concern about this family, about a father with apparently such an anger problem, that a child, by his own story, would have been hiding for four or five hours silently, a 6-year-old boy hiding in the rafters from his father's anger. So, it's turned into a very different kind of a story.

KURTZ: This whole story is starting to make me angry.

Dana Milbank...

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": We have a cup here if you need it, Howie.

KURTZ: Do the cable news channels look foolish now that we know the balloon was empty and the sheriff is saying he is going to file criminal charges, unspecified criminal charges, at some point in the future?

MILBANK: Well, in retrospect, I suppose. But I don't think we can say that anybody did anything wrong in terms of the media coverage. They did exactly what they were supposed to do, which I happen to think tells us everything that's wrong with the media culture.

This is exactly what's expected of them. We want our news immediately now. It's more important to get it right away than to get it right. And that's not the fault of CNN or Fox or any of the Web sites doing it, it's just what people have demanded. And this is what you're going to get.

BLOOM: But we didn't get it wrong. We reported accurately what we knew at the time. In fact, we were very careful to say...


KURTZ: You say we knew what we knew at the time. We didn't know.

BLOOM: Well, we knew that the police had been called and that two little boys had said that their third brother was up in the balloon. We didn't know if he was in there or not. We knew that the balloon was floating across the sky and the other child was missing. That's what we knew. MILBANK: It's incomplete. This happens on all the time. On September 11th, we, for a brief while, thought the nation was under attack because the Coast Guard was having a drill on the Potomac.

KURTZ: You're referring to the anniversary of the September 11th attacks this past couple of months, back this September.

Let me turn to Phil Rosenthal.

Should the anchors during those heart-stopping hours -- and everybody I was watching was just gathered around television, just -- you know, their jaws were dropping at this drama. Should they have at least qualified that they didn't really know whether or not there was a boy inside that balloon?

PHIL ROSENTHAL, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I think they probably should have. I think you played a clip that indicated they did.

The only thing I would say is that when it became clear there wasn't a child in the balloon, you heard all these guys saying -- you know, who hadn't necessary been front and center -- saying, you know, when this was going, "I was doing the mathematics calculations, and I had some questions about this, whether this was even possible," or "The way it was flying, it was pretty clear to me there was not a child aboard."

And I would have liked to have heard a lot more of that when it was going on. On the other hand, no one who was glued to their sets and watching this narrative play out can say it was overplayed because it was so captivating.

KURTZ: No, I certainly don't think it was overplayed. And yes, you're right, the networks were bringing on hot air experts, literally.

Lisa, what does it say to you that hours after this poor Falcon Heene went through this ordeal, they go on "Good Morning America," the kid throws up, and then they proceed to do an interview on "The Today Show" and the kid barfs again?

BLOOM: That's right. Now, keep in mind, this is from Colorado, so this is the predawn hours they're doing this morning shows...

KURTZ: It's 4:00 in the morning, yes.

BLOOM: ... with the child. And the second time they bring a bowl so the child can throw up into it. I mean, I think that shows the lack of regard for this child. That only enhances to me the concern about his child hiding from his father's anger in the rafters silently for so many hours. And I think that's why this story does have some interest.

Like Octomom, we have a couple of factors here. We have a parent who apparently is not paying close enough attention to his child, to put it mildly. And we have a gross waste of government resources. And I think that's what gets people angry and very involved and upset about this story.

KURTZ: It seems that the family, regardless of what actually happened -- and let's make it clear, no criminal charges have been filed, although the sheriff, whose name is Jim Alderden, in Colorado was having a news conference at 1:00 Eastern today. CNN will carry that live.

But regardless of what actually happened, it seems these parents were very, very interested in having this family be on TV.

MILBANK: Right. I mean, they were already on "Wife Swap," and now...

KURTZ: "Wife Swap" is a reality show. This is the ultimate reality show.

MILBANK: Right. They have created a new reality show.

You know, I think there's two episodes here. One is the frightful time when somebody thought the kid's in the balloon. I would actually like to say I was in a House hearing on Afghanistan, so I...

KURTZ: You were oblivious.

MILBANK: I came out into this completely bizarre world. But then what happens after the fact? And you can fault the press for dragging the kid out there, but I think this is a story about the parents and the child, not about the interview.

KURTZ: But that's an interesting question. I would like to throw that to Phil Rosenthal.

Should any of these programs just say no, we're not going put these people on, we're not going enable this, we're not going to be part of the circus?

ROSENTHAL: I don't know. You know, you talk about the parents, you name your kid "Falcon," you're not necessarily looking out for the kid's concerns.

I would say as far as the resistance to putting them on the air, you know, the thing is it's a story, and people wanted to see how the story played out. And now they wanted to see a happy ending. Now they kind of want to see an unhappy ending. And I think that -- you know, it plays into, again, the overall arc of this story.

Should they say no? I don't know. And the real question isn't whether the media screwed this up. Clearly, the sheriff's department seems to be having trouble deciding what to make of this.

KURTZ: Right. It's kind of odd to have a sheriff come out and say we're going to file charges, but we're not going to tell you exactly what they are or when they might be filing. It's just an unusual circumstance. BLOOM: And it's also tough for we in the media to criticize people for showing up for interviews when we're the ones hounding them to do the interviews. Doesn't it? KURTZ: Yes. Well, that's my point. I mean, there were all kinds of bookers and producers camped out on that lawn. Let's face it.

All right. Let me get a break here.

When we come back, more hot air discussion of the balloon story.

KURTZ: And we're back talking about the hot air balloon saga, which seemed to go from life and death drama to soap opera.

Lisa Bloom, it kind of reminds me of the runaway bride story. Remember Jennifer Wilbanks? Everybody on television because said she was kidnapped, and it turned out she had cold feet and walked out on her wedding.


KURTZ: I mean, we kind of enjoy in a kind of sick way when these stories turn into something else.

BLOOM: Well, I think we've seen a real blurring of the line between reality shows and news. I mean, look at the Anna Nicole Smith story. She was a reality show star, and then we in the news followed her story after that show was over.

Jon and Kate.

KURTZ: Jon and Kate.


BLOOM: Same thing.

And these are people, the Heenes, who have been trying to sell reality shows, have been on two reality shows, and who maybe did it for the show, as little Falcon said. So, we've completely obliterated the line, I think, in this story.

KURTZ: And speaking of the line with reality shows, Phil Rosenthal, this woman from "Wife Swap" who was on that show with Heene -- Sheree Silver is her name -- she's been making the TV rounds.

What does she know about this? It just seems like it is kind of a surreal thing now where you can't tell what's real and what's staged for the cameras.

ROSENTHAL: Yes. Well, I mean, if you watch the footage from "Wife Swap," you begin to wonder just how real that reality was. It seems almost like a performance piece.

You know, you talk about perhaps being a little more disciplined about booking interviews and that sort of thing. Where I think the real discipline has to come is in creating these reality shows. You know, it seems to be the only talent you really need to have these days, or skill or thing that makes you unusual, is an unusually high threshold for embarrassment. And these guys were clearly playing into that, even if it had been a real, regular news story and it played out exactly the way everyone thought it did at first.

KURTZ: You have to be impervious to shame.

And you know what drives me nuts, Dana, is these child psychologists who got trotted out, and they've analyzing -- they've never met this family and they're analyzing, well, they seem to be acting out, well, there weren't any real tears here.

I just don't understand we...


ROSENTHAL: Well, there's a lot of money in being Dr. Phil.

KURTZ: Dana?

MILBANK: Yes, there is.

ROSENTHAL: It's a lot of money.

MILBANK: I mean, we've talked about a line or blurring a line. I would submit that there really is no line anymore and that news has become entertainment.

KURTZ: Or infotainment.

MILBANK: Yes. I mean, this is just one example of it.

Think about all the important thing that are going on with health care, with Afghanistan, with Iraq. And the fact that we're all -- I mean...


MILBANK: Of course. We belong doing this, but everybody else talking about this, it's -- I mean, who's going to step back and actually tell us what news is?

KURTZ: In the half-minute we have left, shouldn't we be embarrassed that we've been sucked into this vortex?

BLOOM: Here's the bottom line. The balloon boy story got enormous ratings, and I have said many times I would love to see more international coverage of the important issues in the world.

KURTZ: Right.

BLOOM: That's not going happen until the viewers decide that's a priority to them, and they're going to tune into it, and tune in less to stories like balloon boy or Anna Nicole or Jon and Kate.

KURTZ: And not just when the balloon was in the air, but the aftermath which has now gone on for several days.

BLOOM: And it's going to keep going on, I predict, Howie, for the next week or so as more revelations come out about this family and as charges come.

KURTZ: Lisa Bloom, Dana Milbank...

ROSENTHAL: Look, the important stories get covered.

KURTZ: They do get covered. But sometimes...

ROSENTHAL: The important stories get covered.

BLOOM: Not enough. Not enough.

KURTZ: ... they get overshadowed.

We have to go. Thank you all for stopping by.

After the break, "Latino in America." CNN's Soledad O'Brien uses her own story and many more in the network's latest venture into racial and ethnic reporting.

We'll talk with her next.


KURTZ: Journalists of color often face a special set of challenges in their own careers, as well as in their reporting. Few understand this better than CNN's Soledad O'Brien, whose father is from Irish and from Australia, and whose mother is black and Latina and from Cuba. That may explain why she took on the series "Black in America" and why this week she anchors and reports the two-part program "Latino in America," which is also a new book.

I spoke to her earlier from New York.


Soledad O'Brien, welcome.


KURTZ: Now, you write in this book that during the Obama campaign, you started on this project, and that your editorial meetings were uncomfortable and even unpleasant. You say people hesitated to have frank discussions about race.

Why is that?

O'BRIEN: Because I think people would rather have a fork stuck in their eyeball than talk about race. I think people feel very defensive on all sides. I'm not saying white people or black people. I think across the board, people are judged on what they say about race. And so I think even in editorial meetings, that's exactly what happens. So, nobody says anything, which is, as you know, in any editorial meeting is the worst thing that can happen. You actually have to have very frank conversations about race.

KURTZ: Right.

O'BRIEN: But I think everyone was very worried about speaking frankly about what beliefs that they held very close to their hearts.

KURTZ: It is a sensitive subject, obviously, and therefore a very interesting one.

You have something in common with the president. Your parents were not able to legally get married in the state of Maryland, and I guess this left you with some confusion about your identity, because you write, "Was I black; Latino; White, pretending not to be white; black, pretending not to be black?"

This is something you had to sort out in your life?

O'BRIEN: You know, it really wasn't for me. Those were the questions that people would think and sort of put on to me.

My mother -- as I say, my dad did, I thought, a very brilliant thing, which is to explain to me all of the time from the time I was tiny what I was. My mother used to say all the time, "Don't let anybody tell you you're not black. Don't let anybody tell you you're not a Latina. Don't let anybody tell you you're not Cuban."

And so, my identity had always been very much all of the above. I didn't think it was something that had to be this or this or that. And so, when people would put that on me...

KURTZ: And yet, did news organizations try to pigeonhole you? For example, when you got to the NBC affiliate in Boston, you were a TV writer, and you say, "I was the other, the person tapped to cover the community," meaning black and Latino stories, which you say were not as important.

O'BRIEN: Oh, they absolutely weren't. I mean, you could tell, because they were always in the D block. And also, the stories weren't thoughtful, nuanced stories, they were community stories, meaning there is a health center opening up in Roxbury. And the fact that they were sending me, who was the youngest person and least experienced to go cover it, was a pretty good indication of what they thought about it, plus where it was in the lineup of the newscast.

But the bottom line I think is, and as a journalist of color, I think sometimes you sort of navigate, how do you both tell those stories that -- frankly, I'm good at telling those stories because I know the people who are part of that story. But also, I want to tell...

KURTZ: But you don't want to be...


O'BRIEN: ... the Iraq story. You know, at the time, we were in the first Iraq War, and I remember the people who were going to get promoted were the people who were working on that story.

So, how do you navigate that? You know, what has happened is those stories about race, about communities have actually -- people now realize that those are actually really important stories. And so things, I think, have flipped. You get to tell those stories and those are the most important stories.

KURTZ: Didn't an executive actually ask you to change your name?


KURTZ: From?

O'BRIEN: Not at NBC. No, no, no.

We never really got that far. I mean, he didn't offer out any solutions, but when I was looking for my first reporting job early on, a million years ago, I was. I was told -- what he said was, "'Soledad' is a very tricky name."

O'BRIEN: I said, well, I grew up in an all-white community. People really didn't have problems with my name.

I did the typical Long Island girl, you know, S-O-L-I with a heart, E, because I was 15 and that's what you do. So, people didn't really have problems with my name. My nickname was Solie, and that's what I was called.

KURTZ: Right.

O'BRIEN: I think he felt that people wouldn't be able to handle my name.

KURTZ: I am glad you stuck with it.

Now, when you got your first on-air job, and this was at the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, you heard people in the hallway talking about the new affirmative action hire, maybe she didn't deserve to be there, and that, of course, was you.

O'BRIEN: That was me. Yes.

KURTZ: But is the flip side of that, in some ways, you know, when you got to the weekend "Today Show" or CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING," did it help you a little bit?

O'BRIEN: You know, I think that, at the end of the day, you just have to me good. On both fronts, you have to put your head down and do the work, because if you can't do the work, it's not going to help you at all. And if you can't do the work, regardless of how you've gotten there, it's not going to get you. So, my strategy has always -- my mother used to say, you know, better to get into Harvard because you're black than not to get into Hartford because you're black, which was very realistic for her; right? Unthinkable the things she did not get to do because she was black in this country.

KURTZ: Right.

O'BRIEN: Her point being, don't worry about the "affirmative action" label. That is the way it is. Now what you need to do is go and beat everybody on stories and do a great job.

KURTZ: That's a good motivation.

O'BRIEN: And really, what happened to me in San Francisco, after that conversation, I ended up becoming the bureau chief in San Francisco after a very rocky start.

KURTZ: I guess you proved yourself.

But now, when word got around town -- around the country, I should say, that you were working on this series, did you hear from other Latino journalists?

O'BRIEN: Oh, yes, absolutely. Oh, absolutely, yes.

Yes, I think people are really interested and intrigued by this project, partly because of the way we do them, that the scope is so big. And we're only going to be able to tell a tiny, you know, sliver of some of the stories, obviously, in the Latino community.

KURTZ: But did some of these journalists want you to do stories that they, for whatever reason, were not be able to do themselves?

O'BRIEN: Yes, absolutely. We got tons of help.

I mean, think about that. That never really happens. People don't call up and say, I've been working on this story, this is an amazing story, you should do this story. I mean, that's an indication of how sometimes these stories are never told.

We -- whenever there's a hate crime, we fight to get those stories on TV. Regardless of whether you're talking about a hate crime against Latinos, a hate crime against people who are gay, whatever hate crime, against people who are black, because sometimes people like those stories to be, eh, who wants to tell that story?

KURTZ: Right. Right.

O'BRIEN: And we go into meetings saying, this is an important story. So, it was important for us to do the she Shenandoah story, for example.

KURTZ: I've got half a minute here.

Do we in the media sometimes make too much of race, whether it's the Duke rape case, or the Skip Gates arrest, or Rush Limbaugh trying to buy the St. Louis Rams? That becomes sort of nitroglycerin for journalism?

O'BRIEN: You know, I think that's an interesting question. It's hard to give a right answer to that, because I think some people like to say race doesn't matter.

I remember in the O.J. Simpson case, people used to say that to me all the time, that it's not about race. And it is about race.

You're talking about the court system? Of course it's about race.

So, I think being an American is about navigating those conversations about race. This country has such a really incredible racial history. And it cannot be denied. You can't just say, oh, it doesn't matter.

And it also isn't everything. So what is it? I think we're constantly trying to figure that out.

KURTZ: We will look forward to your navigating through this tricky subject.

Soledad O'Brien, thanks very much for joining us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you for having me.


KURTZ: And "Latino in America" premiers on CNN this Wednesday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, with part two on Thursday night.

Still to come, paparazzi problem. Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to terminate the practice of photogs chasing down celebrities. Maybe he should have warned his wife.


KURTZ: You may recall a controversy over the summer about The Washington Post Salon. This was a plan for off-the-record dinners at publisher Katharine Weymouth's home, underwritten by corporate sponsors for $25,000 a pop.

A big black for my newspaper, no question about it.

"The New York Times" reported yesterday on a possible contradiction involving The Post's editor, Marcus Brauchli. The paper, The Times, had quoted him as saying he didn't know the dinners would be off the record and thought reporters could make some use of what they learned from influential guests at these dinners, which never happened.

Now The Times has a letter in which Brauchli says he knew the proposed dinners would be off the record. Brauchli says The Times reporter just misunderstood him, that he hasn't changed his account, and that he should have fought harder against this idea.

I've got more details on this at

Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger may have signed a law this week cracking down on excesses by the paparazzi chasing celebrities, but where does this incident fall? TMZ snapping photos of Maria Shriver driving while holding a cell phone, violating a state law signed by her husband.

The governor vowed to take swift action against the lawbreaker. His wife has apologized.

And John King, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, your interview with Rahm Emanuel last hour, not backing off the White House criticism of Fox News as not being a real news organization. Rahm telling you that CNN and other organizations are sometimes following Fox in the news business.

Do you think that's true?

KING: Do I think it's true that we're following Fox? I certainly hope not here at CNN.

We try to cover all sides of the news. He said both sides. I think we try to bring all sides, and you'll see a lot of that in our next hour.

But there's no question the White House, once it settled on this strategy, it has decided to dig in its heels. And it is essentially saying that Fox is out there with a partisan opinion and they don't consider it a news organization.

Some Democrats, Howie, think it's risky. We'll see.

KURTZ: And a lot of people at Fox News seem to be enjoying it because it brings more attention to that channel.

All right, John. We're handing it back to you.

KING: Howie, you take care today.