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Reliable Sources

CNN Pays for Exclusive; Interview With Author of 'Uncensored Story of Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour'

Aired January 03, 2010 - 10:00   ET


KURTZ: When news breaks out, it's all about "the get." You know the drill -- the bookers, the correspondents. And in some cases, the big foot anchors work the phones, write the letters, send the flowers and try to land the first interview with a newsworthy figure. But what happens when money is involved?

Jasper Schuringa is by any definition a hero. He's the Dutch passenger on that Northwest Airlines flight who jumped on the Nigerian who was trying to detonate a bomb as the plane headed for Detroit. Schuringa sold the television writes to a grainy photo he took on board to CNN for a reported $10,000 and the print rights to "The New York Post" for $5,000. And he granted his first two interviews to CNN and "The New York Post."


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And as we've been reporting on this investigation, we've also been showing you an exclusive image.

Did you help take the image or did you also help subdue the suspect? Which is it?

JASPER SCHURINGA, NORTHWEST FLIGHT 253 PASSENGER: Basically, you know, I reacted on the bang. And then, suddenly, there was smoke piling up in the cabin. And so people were screaming, "Fire! Fire!"


KURTZ: ABC later got in on the action, landing interviews with Schuringa after paying $3,000 for another of his photos.

There was another high-profile case this week where NBC reached for the corporate checkbook. But let's start with the aftermath of the Christmas terror plot.

Joining us now for our first show of 2010, Jane Hall, professor of media and politics at American University, and Terry Smith, former media correspondent for "The News Hour" on PBS.

Terry, the networks say they don't pay for interviews. But when you buy something from a news source and then you happen to get the first sit-down, what is that?

TERRY SMITH, FMR. MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEWS HOUR": What a coincidence. Well, it's obviously more than a coincidence. And it's nothing New. This is checkbook journalism. It has gone on for a long time.

I would argue in this case CNN and others didn't get their money's worth because the pictures weren't very good, the interview wasn't very illuminating. It didn't add much.

KURTZ: It was exclusive. You could put that "exclusive" banner up there.

SMITH: It was exclusive. Isn't that wonderful? I wish they had taken the $10,000 and spent it another way.

KURTZ: CNN says there was no implicit or explicit quid pro quo. They say it was not more than $10,000. And it says -- the network says it does sometimes purchases video and photos in breaking news situations. And again, CNN winds up with the first interview with Jasper Schuringa.

JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, you know, you can't help but feel it diminishes "the get." When you say "CNN exclusive," and you don't disclose, as I don't think CNN did, that the man they're interviewing also was the man from whom they bought the picture, then you have a situation where it cheapens it. And you think, gee, it cheapens his heroism.

And also, what does it say about him that he was marketing this? It raises all kinds of questions that are left unanswered about a heroic act.

KURTZ: Well, it was a heroic act, and I guess he tried to cash in on it. But, you know, you make the point this has gone on for years and years and years. All the networks -- oh, we don't pay for interviews. Occasionally we'll buy photos. And somehow it doesn't really pass the smell test.

SMITH: I'm not sure the public cares. I think news organizations actually hate checkbook journalism because it raises the bidding price for things.

They do buy pictures. They buy it from a professional photographer, and a picture should be -- would be a lot better. But it is -- it's just a lousy use of money. Take it and spend it on real reporting.

KURTZ: Unless -- it's not a lousy use of money if you're competing with TMZ and "The National Enquirer," which do pay for information, and you feel like you have to get in the game.

HALL: Right. Well, and you have an instance where someone is in, basically, a seller's market. Everybody wants the interview, everybody wants to be able to say we have the exclusive. And this has been going on for some time.

I mean, when I was at the "LA Times," I did a story about how ABC got an interview with Michael Jackson after promising to air his video multiple times. It's a way of being a little bit pregnant. And, you know, the fact is it works for everybody to get the exclusive, but it doesn't really advance the journalism. And it makes everybody -- I think a lot of viewers are sitting there going, well, how often do they do this?

You know, it was very embarrassing correspondence to the Unabomber that came to light a few years ago where people were basically saying, I'm your friend, Mr. Unabomber. Come on and be on with me. It's unseemly.

KURTZ: Well, it's one thing to try to convince potential guests how wonderful and fair and high-minded you are, and it's another thing to check out the checkbook, checkbook journalism, as you say.

The Obama administration's spin in the aftermath of this Christmas Day plot evolved a little bit going back to last Sunday, particularly here on STATE OF THE UNION.

Let's roll some tape and show you how the message changed, shall we say.


JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: One thing I'd like to point out is that the system worked.

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: A lot of people don't think the system worked at all, that the only thing that prevented outright disaster was luck.

Can you respond to that?

NAPOLITANO: Sure. I think the comment is being taken out of context.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable.


KURTZ: So, Janet Napolitano says she was taken out of context when she was talking about how the system reacted once the attack took place.

SMITH: Afterward.

KURTZ: Yes. But the media, we saw they would not allow it. Just kind of dismiss that pathetic spin as being unrealistic?

SMITH: Well, it is unrealistic. On the other hand, I'm sure Janet Napolitano would love to take that statement back, even if she was referring, as I assume she was, to the period after the attack.

KURTZ: And I'm sure she was given talking points, as every cabinet secretary is, by the White House. In other words, this was not only her decision to come out there and kind of defend the administration last Sunday. And, of course, that spin quickly changed.

SMITH: Right. Robert Gibbs made the same point, and it was equally lame when he did.

HALL: You know, it reminded me, unfortunately, of, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." I mean, if it was meant to reassure people, it did not.

It looked completely out of touch. And then Obama catches heat for being out in Hawaii, and then he comes forward and goes from saying this is an allegation to saying it's a systemic failure.

KURTZ: Well, sometimes, you know, a politician will come on TV and say the sky is green. And journalists will say, well, some experts say it's actually blue.

HALL: Right.

KURTZ: Here, I don't think there was any attempt to do that. You know, this is a guy, Abdulmutallab, whose father had gone to the embassy saying he was an Islamic radical, he bought a ticket for cash, he didn't have any luggage, he boards with plastic explosives.

How can any experienced politician go on television and say the system worked?

SMITH: I mean, this thing evolved, and it evolved slowly. And everybody was slow off the mark -- news organizations, the administration, everybody.

I don't think they fully realized everything that had happened, all the connections that were there. And as it became more clear, the White House, the president, from Hawaii, started to escalate his statements.

KURTZ: It took a couple days for the pieces to fall into place. And there's a legitimate question about whether President Obama should have waited 72 hours to personally address the situation.

But then you get reaction like this from the media. Here's the "New York Daily News" cover: "Mr. President, It's Time to Get a Grip."

So, we sort of personalize these things right away. Do we not?

HALL: Well, and you know, Tom Kean, the head of the 9/11 Commission, just earlier on this network was saying Obama was distracted by health care. If he was supporting Obama, that was not a good thing to say. That is certainly going to be seized upon.

SMITH: Well, you know, President Obama likes to think things through, which I think you can make a case for.

KURTZ: Right.

SMITH: But he gets pilloried for it.

KURTZ: But in the world of 24-hour news and cable and blogs, we want a reaction in 10 seconds. We don't want to wait two days.

Let me turn now -- I mentioned at the top that NBC was also involved in spending some money for an interview. This was the case that got an enormous amount of attention -- a New Jersey dad named David Goldman, who finally, after a five-year battle, was able to bring his son back from Brazil after his late wife had taken the boy there. And NBC sent a private jet to Brazil to pick up Mr. Goldman and his son, and then the interview went to "The Today Show."

Let's roll it.


MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: Now to more of our exclusive interview with David Goldman, who just spent Christmas with his son Sean for the first time in five years.

DAVID GOLDMAN, REUNITED WITH SON: I just kneeled next to his chair and patted his head and held his hand, and just told him how much I loved him and that we're going to have some fun. And you're going to see your grandma and grandpa.


KURTZ: So, Jane Hall, is sending a private jet to Brazil -- one Web site estimated the cost as being $50,000 to $70,000 -- is that buying an interview as well?

HALL: I think so. You know, we're going to see this on "Dateline."

I mean, NBC has been invested in this story. They said they had a relationship with him.

Again, you look at this and you go, well, are we entertaining ourselves with this story, as important as it is to this family and human interest? You know, where's the part where maybe we look at the National Counterterrorism Center for $50,000 worth of reporting?

SMITH: Right. This was a Christmas Eve tearjerker. And it tends to show the tabloid tendency of "The Today Show," which has been really dramatic in the last year or so.

They have gone to the tabloid instead of the news. Once again, I wish they took the money, the $50,000 or $70,000, and sent a reporter to Yemen or Afghanistan instead.

KURTZ: But just to clarify, I mean, the other network morning shows have covered this story and similar stories as well. "The Today Show" was not the only one in this space, so to speak.

SMITH: Oh, absolutely. And they managed to cover it without paying that amount of money and providing that access.

On the other hand, the morning shows have been flying people into their studios and putting them up in hotels for years. KURTZ: Very nice hotels, I'm sure.

Let me move on to another incident that happened in Hawaii and ended up being covered by the White House correspondents who are with the president, and that was Rush Limbaugh, ,who was hospitalized with chest pains. We were glad that it turned out to be nothing serious.

Limbaugh held a news conference when he was released from that Hawaii hospital, and here's some of what he had to say.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Based on what happened to me here, I don't think there's one thing wrong with the American health care system. It is working just fine, just dandy, and I got nothing special.


KURTZ: Now, Rush Limbaugh didn't take questions, said he didn't want to talk about politics. But he certainly made a point there about the health care system, didn't he?

SMITH: Of course he did. You've got to love Rush.

He did an in-depth survey of how multimillionaire celebrity patients are treated. And they're treated very well, thank you. And so everything, he said, was fine and dandy.

I mean, it's ridiculous on the face of it. And yet, he made his point. He slipped it in there.

KURTZ: But, you know, maybe it's true that he didn't get any special treatment. But, you know, he has a $400 million contract. There are 50 million Americans, more than that, actually, with no health insurance.

SMITH: Well, you know, a friend of mine was yesterday in an emergency room with a heart problem and spent all day there. And he saw the other side of the health care crisis; namely, long lines and jammed facilities. So I think Rush maybe had a little special treatment.

HALL: Well, you know, you can argue that, and you don't want to be unkind. I thought the media commentator showed a lot of restraint for not saying, you know, how do you feel about the 47 million uninsured and do you have a pre-existing condition?

He has been outspoken about how this health care reform is going to bankrupt the country. And the fact that he didn't take questions, then he got to make a speech. Ed Henry was the only person who asked him a question.

KURTZ: Asked a quick question about...

HALL: Right, about, are you taking pain meds, which seemed to throw Limbaugh off. KURTZ: But you know what bothered me just briefly? Some of the reaction in the blogosphere, where some liberal commentators, when it appeared that he might have had a heart attack, were sort of rooting for him to have a heart attack. Whether you think Rush Limbaugh's views are hateful or not, that struck me as over the line. HALL: I agree with you. That's ugly. I mean, you don't do that.

Even when he's had other problems in the past -- I mean, you know, I think where people might want to question him is about his stance versus what he personally experienced. I think that's valid.

SMITH: Absolutely.

KURTZ: That's fair game. He actually introduced that into the debate by holding the news conference and talking about, absolutely nothing wrong with the American health care system.

Before we go, I want to give you my two cents on one other issue, and that is the Transportation Security Administration -- you may not know that this week -- in the wake of that Christmas Day plot, subpoenaed two travel bloggers. These are Steve Frischling and Christopher Elliott, because they had obtained a security directive, an internal document.

The TSA agents seized Frischling's computer. He now says the TSA later apologized for heavy-handed tactics. The subpoena was ultimately withdrawn.

This struck me as just bullying of a couple of small players. I question whether the agency would have issued a subpoena so quickly to a "New York Times" reporter, for example, who might have obtained an internal document.

Now, given the magnitude of this disaster and what went on, and all the failures that we now know crystal clear in letting this Nigerian would-be terrorist get on that plane, I would think that the TSA has more important things to worry about than a couple of bloggers.

Terry Smith, Jane Hall, thanks very much for stopping by this morning. We appreciate it.

When we come back, their television show pushed the limits of political satire during a tumultuous time until they were kicked off the air. A look back at why CBS pulled the plug on the Smothers Brothers.


KURTZ: The country may have been in turmoil back in 1969, but television was exceedingly cautious when it came to political dissent. There was no "Daily Show," no "Colbert Report," no cable channels with loud mouth commentators either denouncing or defending the president.

But CBS did have a show called "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." That, by the standards of the day, pushed up against the boundaries.



KURTZ (voice-over): Tom and Dick Smothers kept running into problems with the CBS censors, which they started poking fun at.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing funny in this. Hey, boys, we're through censoring your show.

KURTZ: Finally, after the third season, the corporate ax felt.

WALTER CRONKITE, "CBS EVENING NEWS": CBS announced that "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" will not return to the CBS television network next season.


KURTZ: Now, 40 years later, we have occasion to look back on that clash and what it said about television, American culture and dissent.


KURTZ: David Bianculli, former TV critic for "The New York Daily News," is just out with a book called "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.'"

He joins us now from Philadelphia.

That program became probably the most controversial show on TV, but the satire seems kind of mild by today's standard.

BIANCULLI: Oh, it really is mild. In retrospect, you wonder why they were upset about it at all.

But looking back on the '60s, that was when you had flying nuns and you had dreamy genies. There was nothing that was serious on TV in prime time. And the Smothers Brothers, in an entertainment variety show, were trying to talk about the war and talk about the presidential policies and sex and drugs and rock and roll. It was just the only place for a young generation to go to get that sort of information.

KURTZ: Right. Vietnam was a particular hot button.

How bad did the censorship get, as you went through the three seasons that did get on the air?

BIANCULLI: It got increasingly tense each season, where Tom Smothers, who was the one who fought most of the battles, would fight more and more and try and slip in more and more stuff. And the CBS censors would throw more and more rules and get more and more angry and intransigent themselves. Both sides were just sort of going at loggerheads. KURTZ: So, from your review, would you say now, in benefit of hindsight, that the CBS television network basically caved to pressure in yanking the show off the air?

BIANCULLI: I don't know if they caved to pressure so much, as they got really firm in saying these are our rules, and you either play by our rules or you're gone. And some of those rules were arbitrary and some of them, you know, Tom and Dick Smothers would not play by. And so they were gone.

They had been renewed for a fourth season. So they weren't canceled. They were fired.

KURTZ: Now, of course they did -- I had forgotten this. They did win $900,000 in a breach of contract suit, but they lost their primetime platform.

Did the press, once CBS made that decision, rally behind the Smothers Brothers? You quoted a "Life" magazine article at the time as saying that this had been one of the few programs on television with an independent and a reverent political point of view.

BIANCULLI: There were critics in lots of places that were for the Smothers Brothers and were supporting their fight. And when the program was actually given away to some stations in syndication to show -- this was a program that was never shown by CBS -- critics were very favorable about that program.

KURTZ: David, let me jump in here. Tom and Dick Smothers asked you to write this book. Why?

BIANCULLI: I think they wanted me to write the book because they had seen what I had written about them already and figured it would be an objective voice. And the great thing was they gave me total access, but total freedom, and that's something a journalist doesn't get very often.

KURTZ: But by doing this at their request, or at least at their instigation, do you feel in some ways you're taking their side in this 40-year-old battle?

BIANCULLI: Well, no. Actually, I think that I was pretty evenhanded and made sure that when I did the interviews, I would talk -- I got to the head CBS censor, I got to former CBS executives.

I'm interested in it as a TV historian. I love what they did in terms of entertainment. And CBS gets some credit for that, for putting it on the air, also. I think what the Smothers asked me to do was to be the right person to write the book, but it wasn't that I was favoring their side.

KURTZ: Right. Got about a half a minute here.

I was a Smothers Brothers fan, both of their albums and their television show. So I have to ask you, four decades later, are they still somewhat bitter about what happened?

BIANCULLI: No. They seem like they had their place and they had their time. Dick never blamed Tom, and Tom now says he sort of was glad that he went through all that, that he thinks the times made him as much as he made the times on that show.

KURTZ: It was an interesting cultural moment.

David Bianculli, thanks very much for a fascinating look back at what was a very hot show, a very controversial show at that time.

BIANCULLI: Thanks so much.


KURTZ: I spoke to him over the holiday break.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, carried away. Celebrity deaths and reality show scandals seemed to hypnotize the media in 2009. But after the year of "Balloon Boy," is it time to ground those wild and crazy stories?

Plus, a look back at some of our biggest guests and news-making moments from the past year of RELIABLE SOURCES.


BORGER: I'm Gloria Borger. And this is STATE OF THE UNION. Here are the stories breaking this Sunday morning.

President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser says human error allowed a terror suspect with explosives to board a U.S. airliner Christmas Day. Speaking earlier on this day, John Brennan said government agencies had "bits and pieces" of information on the suspect but failed to connect them together. Brennan says there was no deliberate concealing of information between different government agencies.

And Brennan says the U.S. Embassy in Yemen closed today because of threats by al Qaeda to attacks against U.S. interests in that country. It's still unclear when it will reopen. The British Embassy in Yemen is also closed, but may reopen tomorrow.

Yesterday, President Obama linked the air terror suspect to an al Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen.

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

And now to Howie Kurtz.

KURTZ: Gloria, before you go, let me get you in on this debate about the Christmas Day terror plot.

John Brennan told you this morning, last hour, the system didn't work. But, of course, Janet Napolitano, on this program just seven days ago, said the system did work. Do you think journalists just kind of rejected Napolitano's spin as being rather ludicrous?

BORGER: Yes. And I think she probably rejected it herself after she said it, the minute after she said it, because it was clear to everyone that the system did not work.

And as you saw today, the first thing practically that John Brennan said to us was, look, the system did not work, the system failed. So, it was one of those cases of spin that she probably wishes she could take back.

KURTZ: Changed the tune within about 24 hours.

All right. Gloria Borger, thanks very much.


KURTZ: As we look back at the press's performance in 2009, there were times when the news business was just swept away by strange and sensational stories. These ranged from the death of world famous celebrities to runaway reality shows to high-profile hoaxes. And they all became Category 5 media storms.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Michael Jackson had an extraordinary career and a troubled life marked by incredible highs and terrible lows.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": The child prodigy who lived through illness, a sex scandal and massive money trouble.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: He's enormously talented, Bret (ph), but there's also such a freak show associated with him.

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 his father's back yard. And now it's going around in circles.

VIEIRA: By the time there were all those rumors swirling about, about Jon with other women, when I sat down with you in May, had he already moved out of the house by that point, Kate?

KATE GOSSELIN, REALITY TV STAR: To be very honest, I don't remember. There's so much going on.


KURTZ: So why do journalists allow themselves to be hijacked by frivolous fair? Our year in review panel last week got so carried away, that we went into overtime.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Jessica Yellin, national political correspondent for CNN; Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media and a former managing editor of "USA Today"; Bill Press, nationally syndicated radio talk show host; and Chris Stirewalt, political editor and columnist for "The Washington Examiner."

Lauren Ashburn, let's start with Michael Jackson's death. Huge pop star, seriously weird guy. The covers went on for two solid weeks.

ASHBURN: I remember you complaining about that.

KURTZ: I'm still complaining about it.


ASHBURN: But, OK, so it went on for two weeks. Yes, it was overkill, but this was an icon of pop culture. I think that the country, in a way, needed to mourn.

Yes, it went on and on and went on too long. But, you know, we're talking ratings here. The ratings went through the roof for this network.

YELLIN: People were genuinely interested, too. And Michael Jackson was the most Googled term of last year. I mean, this is -- he was fascinating to generations of people. It's not a surprise he would get the coverage he got.

KURTZ: But how was the volume of the coverage by day 10, by day 11?

YELLIN: You know, Howie, if there had been something major happening in the world...

KURTZ: There couldn't have been anything major happening. It was all blacked out.


KURTZ: Bill Press, looking back in media terms, Michael Jackson's death was bigger than Ted Kennedy's passing or -- and certainly Walter Cronkite's.

PRESS: I know. I think the fundamental problem is, which we can never fix, is we have too much time in our hands in the media, particularly cable TV.

PRESS: You've got a lot of hours to fill. And I'm telling you, I've been there with the shows, and something comes along like a train derailment or a scandal. And boy, you just eat it up because that fills wall to wall. And then you get in the copycat thing. And as long as one cable channel is still covering it, all the others will still cover it. So there you go.

ASHBURN: Well, you have the overnights, too.

KURTZ: The overnight ratings, absolutely.

My problem, Chris Stirewalt, just to finish up on this, is that after the first day or two, the child abuse allegations, the sleeping with boys at Neverland, the dangling the baby over the terrace, that all kind of gave way to a lot of gushing praise.

STIREWALT: Well, that's right. There is definitely something macabre about Michael Jackson's life.

It's a -- it worked on two demographic segments. The whole story worked on two demographic segments -- people who were repelled by his life and what he symbolized about a decayed, corrupted society, and, on the other hand, people who -- it was part of their growing up, that they listened to "Thriller" 8,000 times when they were 13 years old and it meant so much to them.

But we failed in this regard -- and I think this is a fair criticism. We failed because we quit talking about the macabre part of his life and we let that drop and made this into hagiography. And it was not appropriate.

YELLIN: It's true. And that's what we seem to do with death in this country. As soon as someone dies, even Ted Kennedy, we have to lionize them. And we don't talk about them as nuanced, complicated people, that Michael Jackson may have been extremely talented and also troubled in this many ways. He has to be just perfection.

STIREWALT: And bygones can be bygones. With a politician, there's greater consequences.

ASHBURN: Death can be a good career move.

(LAUGHTER) PRESS: My first reaction with the Michael Jackson death was to be critical of him as a person for all those reasons. And then I got slammed by my listeners.


PRESS: And I realized that the music was really important to a lot of people.

KURTZ: Sure. Oh, absolutely. And I don't want to denigrate that.

PRESS: And that's what they wanted to hear about.

KURTZ: But let me move on to the creeping influence of the reality show culture. Jon and Kate became this media obsession, and they wound up being interviewed on "The Today Show." In other words, it began as a fun, entertaining thing, and "US Weekly" put it on the cover for six straight weeks, and then it ends up on NBC and every other channel in America.

ASHBURN: OK. Let's talk about Generoso Pope. Let's go back, OK, to the king...

KURTZ: Explain who that is.

ASHBURN: Yes, I will. He's the person who founded "The National Enquirer."

And in the beginning, he started in the '50s with these gory headlines and murders. And then all of a sudden, ding. He decided that people, the personalities, were the thing that were going to sell. And by the '70s, he had six million - - more than six million people were reading that magazine every week. And so, the point is here, it is what sells.

KURTZ: The media went crazy, Jessica, over the Salahis, the White House party crashers. Last week, "The Washington Post" did a million-word reconstruction of the whole event.

Michaele Salahi was, of course, trying to get on Bravo's "Real Housewives of D.C." And again, we see the merging of the two cultures.

YELLIN: It's the bubble inside the bubble. It's just too bizarre and fascinating that these people, in an attempt to gain fame, crashed the fame bubble, and then gained the fame they were seeking, and we're feeding it. It's so much about our culture, that it's almost worth covering.

PRESS: Almost.


PRESS: I was going to say, for me, the Salahis is sort of set aside a little bit, because that was a very serious security breach.


PRESS: I mean, we're talking about the president of the United States.

KURTZ: And a great Secret Service story for two or three days. And for two weeks it was all about them and their sort of checkered history.

PRESS: But I'll tell you -- but here's another problem, is you had the White House cover-up. They wouldn't send Desiree Rogers up to testify. And they were saying case closed. The Secret Service is going to fall on their sword. As always, I think the cover-up kept the story alive. STIREWALT: Well, and you also have at famous president. We have our first famous president in Obama, and we have a fame culture -- we have a celebrity president, we have fame culture in Washington. These people want to be a part of it.

KURTZ: A celebrity president in the sense that he goes on Leno, that he goes on ESPN and talks about college hoops.

STIREWALT: Instead of just being a political figure, he's a transcendent celebrity figure who is friends with Oprah and who is part of a celebrity society in America.

KURTZ: OK. So he's famous. I mean, all presidents are famous. He's really famous.


KURTZ: What about Richard Heene, the balloon boy's father, or Octomom? I mean, the media just seems magnetically drawn to these freak shows.

STIREWALT: Where are the child abuse charges? This is the one thing I still can't figure out, is, seriously, with the octoparents, with the balloon guy.


KURTZ: They threw up on two morning shows, "Good Morning America" and "Today."

ASHBURN: Two morning shows.

STIREWALT: Yes, this is child endangerment, that people are subjecting their kids to this. And I wonder where the prosecutions really are.

PRESS: These are cases of our covering stories that really are not worth the time of day, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe a quick mention and then move on. ASHBURN: OK. Come on. My 6-year- old daughter said, "Mom, did you know there was somebody who had eight babies?" I mean, Octomom became just something that swept through the culture. How can you say...

PRESS: Because we did it. I'm sorry.

ASHBURN: Bill, how can you say that a woman who has eight babies is not worthy of coverage? That's my point.

YELLIN: I also think more than at any other time, it's not media minds who drive what we cover. It's what people are following on Twitter, what they're Googling, what they're looking for on the Internet that creates some sort of feedback loop that...

KURTZ: I actually think that's a good thing, that we are no longer the sole gatekeepers and people can file online on their Facebook -- but it now seems that we have totally abdicated our leadership and we just follow whatever's hot.

ASHBURN: Well, there's no context either. I mean, just what you were saying, is that it's part of this society, a bubble within a bubble. Nobody is putting these things in context. And then all of a sudden, the story is done and, boom, it drops off this ledge and you don't hear from them again.

KURTZ: And something else comes along, the next hurricane.

But don't we -- this maybe goes to your point about filling up all the hours. Don't we try to dress up these stories as having some kind of cultural significance? In other words, it's not about the fact that she had eight babies and she's got 14 kids. It's that this is really about the taxpayers having to foot the bill for those children, because it gives it a patina of seriousness that perhaps it doesn't deserve.

PRESS: Of course we do, to justify covering it.

YELLIN: Is that what we're doing right now? I mean, come on. This is an excuse to talk about Octomom.


PRESS: But it's crazy, to me, Octomom. And also the balloon boy.

I mean, I thought it was pretty clear from the beginning that this couple was totally phony. And it took like two days to say that, to finally get around to it.

ASHBURN: No. But in the very beginning, I was sitting at my computer and my friends and other journalists and everybody were saying, "Did you see this? Did you see this? Did you see this?" It came at me from six different sides of my life, and...

KURTZ: It was a very dramatic moment at the time, when we didn't know whether a child was in danger. I had no problem with that point.

PRESS: For a while, right.

YELLIN: It's the follow-up coverage, right.

PRESS: Once we knew the kid was not there, boom.

STIREWALT: And then it's complicated. Then it has to be something complicated and nuanced and, what's this all about, as opposed to saying, OK, this happened, these people are prostituting their family for celebrity. And boom, we're done, we're moving on.

PRESS: I'm here to say right now this is not going to change. I mean, I'm telling you.

KURTZ: I was going to say, so it seems like what we've lost here is our ability to move on.


ASHBURN: OK. Let's talk about health care.

PRESS: And to make distinctions.

KURTZ: We're out of time.


KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Jeez -- sorry about that.

Jessica Yellin, Lauren Ashburn, Bill Press, Christ Stirewalt, thanks very much for joining me.

PRESS: There you go. We tried.


KURTZ: Out of time.

Well, up next, a reliably good year. Some of the biggest names in journalism paid a visit to this program in 2009. We'll take a look back in a moment.


KURTZ: We have relished the opportunity over this past year to sit down with some of the leading journalists and most provocative commentators around. So this seems like a good time to look back at these RELIABLE SOURCES moments.

Some of my favorite interviews took place when network stars got to reveal a bit more of themselves.

Here is CBS' Byron Pitts talking about how he grew up unable to read and about the father who abandoned the family.


BYRON PITTS, CBS NEWS: I often think, there but for the grace of God go I, because I was also angry when I felt abandoned by my father. We've reconciled to some degree in recent years as we speak now as men.

KURTZ: But now you're a successful network star. And now, when he met you, at least for the first time in a long time, he wanted something from you, didn't he?

PITTS: Sure.

KURTZ: What did he want?

PITTS: Oh, he wanted money.

KURTZ: And what did you say to him? PITTS: I said no. In fact, I used some choice words that I won't use on television. But it was my way to sort of pay him back for I thought ignoring me all these years.

Now, one of the things I learned -- learning in my own life and a point I make in the book is there's real power in forgiveness. That as long as I was angry with my father, it actually did me more disservice because he went on with his life.

KURTZ: Right.

PITTS: But when I told him I forgave him, that not only, some may say, let him off the hook, but it freed me. KURTZ (voice- over): It was a touching moment when ABC's Robin Roberts, a breast cancer survivor, talked about why she was especially happy to go to L.A. for the Oscars.

ROBIN ROBERTS, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": And this is part of the reason why I also accepted this. Because this time last year, completely bald, just finished chemotherapy. I was home on my couch. I couldn't be here, at the Oscars. I couldn't be anywhere, I couldn't travel.

So, I like the fact that folks know that, they see me here this year. If they're going through something similar, they know this, too, shall pass. And that will hopefully make them feel like whatever they're going through, that they can indeed get through it.

So, it's not something that I have wanted to do, be so open in public about it. But I am -- it's gratifying knowing that it's helping so many people. So that makes it more than worth it, Howie. More than worth it.

KURTZ: Lara Logan, back from Afghanistan, accused the U.S. military of lying about the war and talked about her decision to go back months after giving birth.

(on camera): If we were lied to, why didn't the American media make more of that?

LARA LOGAN, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, I know a lot of journalists who tried. I mean, 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 no 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: You have an 8-month-old baby. I just saw him. 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 has changed and I think about not coming home. I think about that child growing up without a mother. And that's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done.

KURTZ (voice-over): We've had our share of lighter moments, such as when I took the program to Los Angeles and chatted with Mariel Hemingway outside her home in the mountains about her addiction to Twitter.

(on camera): You are very candid on Twitter and also on your blog. I mean, you have written about difficulties growing up, your sister Margo's suicide, your divorce. MARIEL HEMINGWAY, ACTRESS: Yes.

KURTZ: What makes you feel comfortable sharing this in the digital world?

HEMINGWAY: You know what I do? Is because, actually, I believe there's not a problem that anybody hasn't had.

I mean, I believe that we all have the same problems. They just have different wrapping paper.

So, for me, it's saying, you know what? I know I'm in the public eye. Guess what? This is what I come from. This is what I deal with.

KURTZ (voice-over): And who better to ask about the changing world of gossip than Liz Smith, who, at the age of 86, has just been dumped by "The New York Post"?

(on camera): The paper was paying you $125,000 a year. Rupert Murdoch apparently signed off on this. It wasn't his idea.

Does this mean you were no longer in the "in" crowd as far as "The New York Post" was concerned?

LIZ SMITH, GOSSIP COLUMNIST: I don't think I was ever in the "in" crowd as far as their editor was concerned. I really wasn't his cup of tea, Howard.

I was too, you know, maybe laid back. He thought I was too friendly with my sources and I just wasn't -- I didn't have that killer instinct that they love on "The New York Post."

Also, I love New York, and I care about New York. And I don't think these Australians understand or love New York.

KURTZ: Now, I've heard that before about you, about, well, Liz Smith, she's just too nice to the people she writes about. Has gossip become meaner these days and maybe you're a little out of step with the new culture?

SMITH: It's become more obvious. I mean, more vulgar.

You can say more things. You know, you can say things you weren't able to say. I remember back when "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" was a big hit. I wasn't allowed to say that on the air. I had to say "Whohouse," and that was only about 10 years ago.

KURTZ: I don't think we'll bleep that.

(voice-over): It was a treat for me to sit down with David Frost about his famous series of interviews with the 37th president, what would now be branded checkbook journalism.

(on camera): A lot of people wanted to interview Nixon. You got the interview. You paid the former president $600,000. That would be more than $2 million today.

I think if you did that today, if the circumstances were today, you'd be criticized far more intensively than you were at the time.

SIR DAVID FROST, JOURNALIST: I don't think so, because there's a curious point from what I can remember. In terms of the Nixon interviews, I mean, NBC News were offering $400,000 or whatever. And questions about checkbook journalism happened during the 18 months between when we signed and when we didn't, and I would answer to it (INAUDIBLE).

But they really sort of came to an end when the first interview went out and everybody said this is history.

KURTZ: You mean, that you were not rolling over for Nixon?

FROST: Yes, exactly. And this is history and this is valuable. And so that controversy sorted of faded away.

KURTZ (voice-over): Fox's Bernard Goldberg and I went at it over his book accusing the media of conducting a slobbering love affair with Barack Obama.

(on camera): All right. There are generalizations in this book. Here's one: "Mainstream media writers hate O'Reilly and think MSNBC is just wonderful."

Well, I'm a mainstream media writer. I don't hate Bill O'Reilly. In fact, I was on his radio show last week. And I've repeatedly taken on MSNBC for lurching to the left.

BERNARD GOLDBERG, AUTHOR, "A SLOBBERING LOVE AFFAIR": Right. Obviously, I don't mean every single reporter. And I don't even mean every single reporter was in the tank for Barack Obama. I'm making a statement about the mainstream media as a whole.

KURTZ: But if you, as a critic, are upset about, for example, MSNBC's pro-Obama bias, Chris Matthews "thrill up the leg" and all of that, what about all the softball interviews that Sean Hannity did with John McCain and Sarah Palin? In other words, are you applying the same standards to somebody where you also a contributor on the right side of the spectrum?

GOLDBERG: By the way, the fact that I'm a contributor, if you know anything about me, Howie, I'll blast Fox News in a second if I think they deserve it. I don't care.

KURTZ: Here's your opportunity.

GOLDBERG: Well, no, this is not a good opportunity because I don't agree with the premise of the question.

KURTZ: All right.

(voice-over): My biggest news-making interview of the year was with Anita Dunn, then the White House communications director. That video went viral when she unloaded on Rupert Murdoch's cable network.

ANITA DUNN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATION DIRECTOR: I mean, the reality of it is that Fox News operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party. 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.


KURTZ: Is that the reason that the president did not go on Fox News Sunday, a few weeks back, when he did all the other Sunday shows? And will President Obama appear on Fox News again, let's say, this year?

DUNN: Well, you know, Howie, President Obama appeared on -- he did "The Factor," he did O'Reilly...

KURTZ: Yes. That was very interesting entertainment (ph).

DUNN: ... in the campaign last year, as president earlier this year when he met with news anchors, met Chris Wallace.

KURTZ: OK. But my question is, ,will he appear on Fox in the next couple of months?

DUNN: No, you had a two-part question. The first was, is this why he did not appear? And the answer is yes.

Obviously, he'll go on Fox because he engages with ideological opponents, and he has done that before. He will do it again.

KURTZ (voice-over): So far, of course, the president hasn't done that except for including Major Garrett in a round of interviews with network reporters.


KURTZ: And we appreciate those journalists who came on the program to answer questions instead of just asking them about their lives and careers.

Still to come, an air of unreality. How did these folks, Jon and Kate and Octomom and the Salahis, reach the point where real journalists were scrambling to interview them? A look at what makes those stories tick next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Once upon a time, we in the news racket chronicled reality, or as close an approximation of reality as we could manage. Now we get sucked into covering reality television and all the whack jobs who are desperate to be on it.


KURTZ (voice-over): The first reality shows, though no one called them that, were syndicated talk shows hosted by the likes of Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael and Jerry Springer. Suddenly, ordinary people with problems could get on national television and folks realized that the crazier the problems, the better chance they had.

But there were real world consequences.

On the "Jenny Jones Show" in the '90s, a gay man Scott Amedure confessed to his friend Jonathan Schmitz that he had a crush on him. An apparently humiliated Schmitz murdered Amedure, whose family sued the program, unsuccessfully, as it turned out, for failing to find out about Schmitz's history of mental illness.

Soon, grade B celebrities started getting reality shows, and we got to watch Ozzy Osbourne and Paris Hilton doing, well, not much of anything.

PARIS HILTON, SOCIALITE: A chai tea latte.

KURTZ: Along came "Survivor" and "Big Brother," where people would eat worms and otherwise embarrass themselves, or vie for the privilege of being canned by Donald Trump.


KURTZ: Seemingly harmless programs like "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" also masked backstage problems. Atlanta's Harper family, who received the show's biggest house, faced foreclosure after using the home as equity for a $450,000 loan. At least four other "Extreme Makeover" families have lost or had to sell the houses they won.

What won't people do to get on reality TV?

GOSSELIN: What planet do you live on?

KURTZ: Jon and Kate Gosselin basically exploited their eight kids and blew up their marriage on their way to tabloid fame.

Richard Heene came off as an angry and eccentric husband when he was on "Wife Swap," then concocted a scheme to make everyone believe his son was trapped in a runaway balloon. And cable television covered it live.

Nadya Suleman recklessly gave birth to 14 children, and having no way to support them, now has an "Octomom" reality show in development in Britain.

And Jaimee Grubbs, the woman who says she had an affair with Tiger Woods, had appeared on VH1's oddball dating show "Tool Academy."

Which brings us to Michaele Salahi, who is competing for a spot on Bravo's forthcoming "Real Housewives of D.C." It's no accident that a camera crew was trailing her when she and her husband crashed that White House State Dinner, turning them into instant stars and landing them on "The Today Show."


KURTZ: We're back live.

And there's a larger question here as we look back on the unreal reality of 2009. Why do serious or what used to be serious news organizations spend so much time on Jon and Kate and Octomom and Tariq and Michaele Salahi and "Balloon Boy's" crazy father who was just sentenced to 90 days in jail? Aren't we rewarding these strange and manipulative people by giving them the spotlight they so obviously crave?

Journalists can't stop this circus, of course, but they shouldn't be serving as ring leaders.

Still to come, trashing Twitter. Brian Williams thinks all of those short messages are a waste of time. We'll show you why he's -- what's the word? -- wrong.


KURTZ: Brian Williams is a talented anchor and pretty good comedian. But when it comes to Twitter, well, let's just say he's a tad out of touch.

The NBC newsman tells "TIME" magazine that, "I see it as a kind of time suck that I don't need anymore of. Just too much 'I got the most awesome new pair of sweatpants.'"

Now, I learn smart things from smart people on Twitter every day that have nothing to do with what pants people are wearing or not wearing. Here's just one example.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted an idea about improving the Sunday morning talk shows. He says the programs, rather than letting politicians get away with distortions, should offer an online fact check each week of exaggerations and lies. For the guests, says Rosen, the format beckons them to evade, deny, elide, demagogue and confuse, but then they pay for it later if they give into temptation and make that choice. I happen to think that makes a lot of sense toward holding officials accountable.

What do you think, Brian? Oh, you didn't catch that on Twitter? Pity.

Well, happy New York and a healthy 2010 to all our viewers. And now this is called a toss, I'm turning things back over to Jessica Yellin for more "State of the Union."