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Helen Thomas Retires After Inflammatory Comments About Israel; Should Government Subsidize Media Outlets?
Aired June 13, 2010 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: As we survey the media landscape, there were plenty of stories for us to choose from this week -- the endless oil spill, the primaries that defied journalistic attempts to find a theme, the hype over the Washington Nationals' sizzling new pitcher, Stephen Strasburg.
But one story stood out.
Helen Thomas, a Washington institution for a half a century, caused an uproar with some inflammatory words about Israel. We'll look at whether the media have been protecting her, and we'll talk to the rabbi whose video camera ended her career.
Also, everyone knows the news business is in trouble. But are government subsidies the answer? The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission on whether his agency should bail us out.
And all these gadgets -- iPhone, iPad, cell, BlackBerry, IM'ing and tweeting -- are they changing the way we live?
Plus, we'll debut our new fact-checking segment.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
It came as a shock to much of the country when Helen Thomas, a White House fixture and icon, a trailblazer for female journalists, self-destructed before the cameras -- a single video camera wielded by a rabbi, to be precise. The reaction to her anti-Israel diatribe was so overwhelming, that Thomas resigned this week as a Hearst newspaper columnist. But why was it such a stunner to so many people?
Helen Thomas has been saying all kinds of questionable things in that press room for the past decade, but her colleagues, for the most part, had given her a pass until now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: A legendary career in journalism ends over some angry words about Israel.
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: What happened to the 89-year-old fixture in the front of the briefings?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a very creepy and slightly chilling statement.
RICK SANCHEZ, CNN: Helen Thomas seems to side with Hamas when it comes to Israel. With Hamas.
KAREN HANRETTY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This is a woman who thinks that Jews should go back to the place where they were eliminated, where they were liquefied, and it's Germany.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The words that abruptly ended Thomas' career were recorded by Rabbi David Nesenoff during a White House celebration of Jewish Heritage Day.
RABBI DAVID NESENOFF, RABBILIVE.COM: Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today. Any comments on Israel?
HELEN THOMAS, FMR. HEARST COLUMNIST: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestinian.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any better comments than that?
THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany and it's not Poland.
NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?
THOMAS: They go home.
NESENOFF: Where's home?
THOMAS: Poland, Germany.
NESENOFF: So you think Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?
THOMAS: And America and everywhere else.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this sad finale for Helen Thomas and what it says about Washington journalism, Dana Milbank, who writes "The Washington Sketch" column for "The Washington Post"; Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of "The Chicago Sun-Times" and a columnist for PoliticsDaily.com; and Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for "The Atlantic."
Dana Milbank, has the White House Press Corps, where Helen Thomas' views have been no secret, been protecting her for years?
DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, protecting here in the sense that there was a great deal of fondness for her because of her history, because she was such an institution. I don't think she's ever said anything quite like this before. I think people will tolerate a stand against Israel as distinct from an anti-Semitic stance, basically, against Jews, which we heard her say there, so it was just shocking to hear that. Now, it wasn't surprising that she held those views, it was shocking that she actually said it, I think.
KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, I know you like and admire Helen Thomas. Do you think she was cut some slack because she was in her '80s?
LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, no, because she ended up losing her job over this --
KURTZ: But before this incident?
SWEET: Well, before this incident, she was a singular person in the White House. People might not know it, but organizations are given seats in the press room, as you know, Howie, not individuals. And she had that seat as a recognition of her career as a trailblazer. So, yes, she was cut slack.
KURTZ: Well, because she had worked for UPI --
SWEET: She had this seat.
KURTZ: -- but then she was a columnist, which ordinarily would not warrant you a front-row seat.
SWEET: Ordinarily, it wouldn't warrant you a seat. You always would have entree (ph). You know, Dana could go to the press room anytime he wants, he just stands on the side. It was very special for Helen to have the seat that was part of her identity.
MILBANK: ABC, NBC, CBS --
MILBANK: -- Helen Thomas.
KURTZ: Dana stands on the side of a lot of events.
SWEET: Right, which is why the debate over who gets the seat is really not one that is parallel to Helen's seat.
KURTZ: The debate over the seat is of interest to about 10 people, and I wish the media would get off of it.
Jeffrey Goldberg, were you surprised by the intensity of the reaction to those anti-Israel remarks to the point where she was basically pressured into retiring?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC": Not really, because these remarks marked the first time that a philosophical concept advanced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, had been voiced by a seemingly mainstream figure in America. This is not -- as has been pointed out, this is not merely anti-Israel criticism of an Israel policy. This was --
KURTZ: People criticize Israeli policies all the time. You have.
GOLDBERG: Even I have. But this is something completely different. This is an idea that the most anti-Semitic figures on the world stage have advanced. It's a kind of a --
KURTZ: The Jews have no right to be on that land?
GOLDBERG: Not only the Jews have no right to be on that land, but they should "go back" to Germany and Poland, which is almost -- not only absurd, but almost sort of comically cruel. It betrays either a profound ignorance of history or a lack of caring about history.
KURTZ: But let's take a look at some of the things that Helen Thomas has been saying and asking during the past 10 years in her role as a columnist in that White House press room.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
THOMAS: Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression? It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis.
TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't think so, Helen.
THOMAS: We have collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.
SNOW: No, what's interesting, Helen --
THOMAS: And what's happening -- and that's the perception of the United States.
SNOW: Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view.
THOMAS: Mr. President, you started this war, the war of your choosing. And you can end it alone today. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don't you understand?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, she's there representing Hearst. What correspondent or columnist gets to say things like that?
MILBANK: Nobody else, I think, with the exception of her. In fact, often, you'd get the answers, "We'll take a break for this moment for Helen to do an advocacy minute," or, "Thank you, Secretary of State Helen Thomas."
KURTZ: So you're saying that press secretaries used her as a kind of comic relief?
MILBANK: Well, yes. Just this nice, old lady. She's saying some wacky. People -- the rest of us would sort of roll our eyes and say that's Helen being Helen. But there were also times when she would hold the president's feet to the fire on very serious issues that had nothing to do with the Palestinians.
SWEET: Well, particularly in Iraq. She kind of had another chapter of her life when the U.S. went to war with Iraq, because she was very skeptical of it and she was holding the then Bush administration's feet to the fire on that.
KURTZ: More skeptical, many would say, than many of the mainstream journalists who a lot of people think rolled over during that period.
SWEET: Right. No, she had a lot of questions that turned out that people weren't asking at the time. That's why this is, I think, a bit -- I think you used the term in your column, "a tarnished icon," and that is why this is complex. She ended a career with a few-second statement that had all this background to it.
KURTZ: But, see, if you look at some of the sound bites we just played, some of the questions that she's asked over the years, I would agree, to some extent, she basically didn't care what people thought of her. She was there to ask the kind of questions, particularly to President Bush, who she did not like, that she called one of the worst presidents ever. But is it the role of the journalists, even opinion journalists, to denounce the war in Iraq, to accuse the administration of killing civilians?
GOLDBERG: Well, there's two sides to this. I mean, no. Obviously, you're not supposed to be in the press room advocating for a Hezbollah opposition. On the other hand, her lack of awe, the lack of awe that she felt for the presidency, certainly for press secretaries, was useful and a good part of democracy, and people should adopt that general pose more frequently.
SWEET: Well, I think you need to separate out, because this is a journalism show. Almost anyone could go to a White House briefing. You can't always get to a White House press conference and get called on. I'm often surprised on why more columnists don't show up and just ask their questions, whether or not they (INAUDIBLE) advocacy or not.
MILBANK: And as it is, there are all kinds of opinionated people in that room, and I often find that it's one of the far right or far left people who ask that question. They say, oh, wait a second, wee didn't know about that, and it starts the debate in a different direction with the mainstream reporters.
KURTZ: But, Lynn, did it ever make you uncomfortable when Helen Thomas would talk about the brutal military occupation by Israel, or talk about the U.S. inflicting collective punishment against Lebanon and Palestine? Did that ever bother you?
SWEET: Yes, it bothered me, but the -- whether or not it bothered me, yes. Any time anyone says or makes a reference to the Holocaust in Germany in the way she did, one of the most horrible, horrible things that ever have happened, yes, it should bother not only me, by the way, but everybody that the Holocaust happened. So let me clear on that -- sure. But having a debate about the Mideast situation, even in terms that aren't pleasant to hear, is something that you hear all the time when you cover the White House and when you cover Washington.
MILBANK: People ask ridiculous questions all the time about Obama's birth certificate, about pedophilia. I mean, it is a circus if you actually watch --
GOLDBERG: But I think we did discover this week a true red line. I think we did discover a true red line -- don't bring up the Holocaust, OK, in that way.
SWEET: And that's why, frankly, people often just rip off comparisons -- oh, he's a Nazi. Even the food Nazi bothered me because how can you compare -- the soup Nazi. All those things, I think, really, people should think a little bit about what they're talking about.
KURTZ: But I wonder -- here you have this room full of journalists, and they write about everybody else, and yet they don't write about colleagues who do this sort of thing.
Let me throw this back to you, Jeffrey Goldberg. You know, some critics out there say -- I'm sure you've heard this -- that this shows the U.S. press is pro-Israel and you get in trouble when you criticize Israel. And if Helen Thomas had said the opposite thing about the Palestinians, she'd still have her job.
GOLDBERG: A, I don't think that last point is necessarily true. If you gave this long diatribe about the Palestinians don't exist, which is sort of the equivalent argument, I don't think you're going to last that long in the mainstream press.
No. You know, I always refer to this discussion as the taboo that won't shut up. Everybody argues all the time that you can't say anything you want about Israel. If you've looked at "The New York Times" op-ed page over the last month, I think there have been 15 different denunciations about Israeli policies and behaviors by a plethora of regular columnists and guest columnists, and that's fine.
That's fine. We're talking about a different subject.
KURTZ: Let me play a few words in the aftermath of this controversy by Fox's Sean Hannity, who had this to say about the aftermath of Helen Thomas's ouster --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Yet, for decades, the left-leaning White House Press Corps embraced her, even rewarding her with a front row seat in the briefing room.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, it's all the fault of you liberal reporters? MILBANK: Well, I think that's just silly. Let's point out that I think it was two or three years ago, Helen Thomas wrote a book excoriating the White House Press Corps for being a bunch of pansies and too soft on President Bush. So, I mean, we can't have it both ways in this situation.
So, the notion we're protecting her, I mean, we're protecting her in the sense that it was like the crazy uncle. It's like, oh, that's Helen being Helen. But nobody agreed with her.
GOLDBERG: We all have or have had grandmothers who occasionally say wacky things. And when you reach the age of 89, you know, you do get some slack.
GOLDBERG: Well, and there are always lines.
KURTZ: And the wacky grandmothers don't have a seat in the press room and here on television.
KURTZ: Do you think, Lynn Sweet, that the media are allowing this unfortunate controversy -- and it is unfortunate -- to overshadow this storied career that Helen Thomas has had?
SWEET: Perhaps not. Stories unfold, Howie, in chapters. The first chapter had to be the news of what she said. And I think in time there will be a balance. You know, she had this seat because she was a trailblazer, not because of her views on Mideast relations.
MILBANK: I think it will be -- the Germany remark will become the second half paragraph now, but not the first.
GOLDBERG: But let's be real for a second. Helen Thomas has excoriated generations of White House officials, congressional leaders. She cut them no slack when they made a gaffe.
KURTZ: And therefore?
GOLDBERG: And therefore --
KURTZ: The same standard should apply to her?
GOLDBERG: The same standard should apply to all journalists.
KURTZ: All right.
Jeffrey Goldberg, Lynn Sweet, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
When we come back, we'll talk to the rabbi who is being deluged with hate mail over his role in ending Helen Thomas's career. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
KURTZ: He has a camcorder, a Web site and a 17-year-old son who knows how to post video online. That proved to be a dangerous combination for Helen Thomas during her brief encounter on Jewish Heritage Day at the White House for the Long Island rabbi.
David Nesenoff joins me now from New York.
NESENOFF: Hi. Hi, Howard.
KURTZ: Did you have any idea when you took out that video camera and asked Helen Thomas that question that she was hostile toward Israel?
NESENOFF: I didn't approach her thinking that. Now that I see a lot of things in the news, I certainly can review and see that she's had a lot of different thoughts. But, of course, they might be anti- Israel or pro-Palestinian. That's very different than anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish and wanting to cleanse a piece of land.
So, up until this point, just an individual who is pro- Palestinian. People should look out for the Palestinian rights. Everybody should look out for everybody's rights, and there's nothing wrong with that.
KURTZ: As you know, Helen Thomas has been a longtime institution here in the Capitol. She's a heroine to many female journalists. And some people are blaming you for ending her career.
NESENOFF: Yes. You know, I received 25,000 hate e-mails. And more shocking than even that is the hate media that I'm beginning to learn about.
You know, in TV and newspaper and blogs and talk shows and entertainers. And they're accusing me of being some right-wing ambusher.
It kind of rocked my world a little, because I have to kind of reevaluate my life and my standing and the agendas, because I'm a New York Democrat, Jewish, liberal, supporter of Obama, donated to his candidacy for a year. Said give him a chance, give him a chance, defended, watched all the liberal media.
And now I have to reevaluate. I have to speak -- I have to now speak to people with all different agendas. Because if I was part of a team where their agenda was that Israel and the Jewish people don't have a connection, which is exactly what Helen Thomas has said, there is no connection, why are they even there --
KURTZ: Let me interrupt you. What do you mean when you said "hate media"? I mean, obviously, you find yourself in the middle of this firestorm, but you feel that journalists, programs, commentators have been personally unfair to you? And can you explain how? NESENOFF: You know, I find people that don't cover the story or people that cover the story, but are so upset they don't know what to do, so they have to attack me and maybe we'll say he did something on purpose, or he filmed it a certain way, or we'll find out, well, what did he do in his past, I mean, they don't know what to do with it. But why don't they actually ask me and find out, maybe I liked Helen Thomas and I was actually for the fact that she went ahead and spoke to President Bush and said, you know, watch it with the Iraq War. Although, now understand, and we have to reevaluate, that maybe when she was protesting the Iraq War, I was saying that because I didn't want our soldiers to be in harm's way, and it turns out she didn't want the Iraqis to be in harm's way.
So, I have to really reevaluate liberal and conservative, and really find out where I stand, because I think I've been a little blind.
KURTZ: Well, I have to say, you asked her the least loaded question of all time -- any thoughts on Israel? On the other hand, you find yourself now questioning whether the media can be fair, particularly on this sort of charged issue involving the Middle East. You clearly feel put upon.
NESENOFF: Sure. Look, I didn't hear anybody speak about -- instead of reviewing Helen's career, why don't we review all the things she reported on and see how it was affected by what she said about Israel and the Jewish people not having any connection? What are they doing there? So, now when we start with that core that they have not relationship, now we should back up and look through what she's been telling the American public.
KURTZ: What about all this electronic hate mail? You've posted some of these on your Web site, talking about dirty Jews and Hitler. What's your reaction to all this ugliness that you seem to have inadvertently unleashed?
NESENOFF: Right. You know, it's interesting, because RabbiLive.com has on it some really uncensored material right now that's very strong.
What it does, first of all, it stops, a lot of times, people from sending hate mail. It shows us what's on people's minds out there. And it has caused a lot of beautiful Christians and Jews and people throughout the entire world, all over, to send beautiful mail saying, hey, don't get the wrong idea. There are great people and wonderful people in this country, and there are great people around the world that love the Jewish people, that understand there is a connection between the Jews and Israel, we will not deny that.
And so there's a mixed bag. It's kind of some good feelings have come out of it, also. Certainly, the security issues are being taken care of.
KURTZ: Right. I'm glad there's a positive aspect as well.
I've got about a half a minute. What was your personal reaction when you found out that Helen Thomas had resigned as a result of the videotape?
NESENOFF: You know, I have absolutely no issue or relationship with Helen Thomas. My relationship is with justice, integrity and honesty, and with Israel, and the fact that the Jewish people and Israel have a relationship, and that anybody that denies that relationship cannot begin the communication and the conversation about how to begin the other problems.
How can we talk about Gaza or East Jerusalem or Golan or anything else anybody wants to talk about if the core issue of Jews in Israel is denied? And Jeff Goldberg said it, that our existence isn't even around.
KURTZ: All right. Rabbi David Nesenoff, thank you for coming in this morning. Nice to have a chance to talk to you.
NESENOFF: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, does journalism need a government rescue? The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission will explain why his agency is examining a wide range of ideas, including a tax hike.
Plus, from BlackBerrys to laptops, to iPhones to iPads, are we overdosing on high-tech gadgets?
And later, the return of something many of you like, our new, fully refurbished, high-mileage fact-checking segment.
KURTZ: Friends, has this ever happened to you? Do you go to sleep with an iPhone on your chest, blow off dinner with your family to fool around with your iPad, sneak away to play video games? That describes the behavior of Cord Campbell (ph), the star of a front-page "New York Times" article on electronic overload. And is the paper right that many of us are hooked on high-tech gadgets?
Joining us now in Los Angeles, Sharon Waxman, founder and editor- in-chief of TheWrap.com. And here in Washington, veteran journalist Mark Potts, who's now the CEO of GrowthSpur.com, which provides assistance to local Web sites.
Sharon Waxman, by focussing on one rather tech-crazed family, did "The New York Times" convince you this is a widespread phenomenon?
SHARON WAXMAN, FOUNDER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THEWRAP.COM: Well, it's going to be worse in early adopter families like the one they're describing, but it's definitely a trend that we're seeing all over society, which is that we are now divided, our attention is divided, between gadgets. And we see this all throughout the advertising community and in the television world, where they're trying to figure out who is focussing on what. So, it's definitely true that we're watching television while we're on our laptops, while we're on our mobile devices, whatever that may be. And we all know that our kids are on their computers while their listening to music, while they're ichatting. You know, they've got four or five different things going on at the same time. So, there's no doubt that, A, we are getting hooked on electronic gadgets, and certainly some segments of society more than others. And that our kids are growing up with their attention divided in ways that our generations say did not.
KURTZ: Mark Potts, there was a lot of material on brain research in this Times article, about how all our synapses are getting rewired, but the narrative was, basically, we're becoming maniacal multitaskers with the attention span of a gnat.
MARK POTTS, GROWTHSPUR.COM: I'm sorry, I was checking my e-mail. What was the question?
KURTZ: You want me to repeat the question?
POTTS: I think that's an issue. It's we're doing so much more, there's so many more things to consume our time, although I think we can over-exaggerate this a little bit. It's replacing other things.
You know, it's taking away from our television viewing time. Television, in turn, took away from our radio listening time. We're reading newspapers less. We're just moving our media consumption to different devices.
KURTZ: But this kind of reminds me of when television first became popular and there were all these experts who said, you know, this is going to fry your brain, and nobody's ever going to read a newspaper again.
Is this something, Sharon, to be alarmed about? I mean, look how much more information is available at our fingertips at any given moment.
WAXMAN: Yes. I mean, I really think it's a mixed blessing, and I think alarmism is completely ridiculous.
By the way, television did indeed fry the brains of many of us, so let's be honest about that. I mean, we kind of become couch potatoes. And you can also say that the kind of information revolution has moved us on from the couch potato phase to a point where we're more engaged with the information, we're actually interacting with it.
We're commenting. We're hitting the "like" button.
So, I think that, first of all, the human organism is ultimately adaptable. And we are adapting to this like we have adapted to way more radical changes in whatever -- over the thousands of years of human revolution, the challenges we've had to face. So, if our brain is being rewired, then, fine, our brain is being rewired. I'm not worried for the future of society as a result. KURTZ: There was a study, Mark Potts, in that Times article of office workers who changed screens to different Web sites or different programs 37 times in an hour. That sounded low to me.
POTTS: Very low.
KURTZ: But could we all be becoming so distracted, that we can never again sit down and read a good novel?
POTTS: You know, that's an interesting question. I find myself reading less and less long-form kinds of books and things, and I can't tell if that's just that I have less time or I'm getting older, or I'm so used to spending an hour on the computer switching sites 37 times or more.
WAXMAN: I agree with that. I'm the same way, actually. And I thought a lot about that because, like you, Howie, I write books and I find that I'm now writing shorter and reading shorter.
* WAXMAN: So, I think that -- but I also think that this might be a phase that we're going through. In other words, we are adapting as a society to this new way of being given information, which is -- and as a Web site that I write, I'm always telling our reporters and our writers, write shorter because the Internet is a short medium. People want it short. That's the phenomenon of Twitter.
But this might be a discreet moment where we go through that and then we get tired of it. And then we say, you know what? I want to spend time with a piece of material that tells me something deeper and will go back to books. I don't think this is necessarily a permanent change, but the shift from where we were to the availability of information is so -- we're in that period of change right now, I think.
POTTS: And Sharon raises something important, I think, also, which is we're interacting with the information in ways that we didn't. The information really came at us one way in television or in books, or in newspapers, and it was a very solitary pursuit. It was solitary because you were on the couch with three other people who weren't talking to each other. Now we're using this to interact.
KURTZ: You can post comments. You can say what you think on Twitter. People can say what they think to you, particularly in the journalism business.
But if the Web is conditioning us all to just click, click, click, and find different items and a photo gallery, and all this stuff that's fun and interesting to look at, and the gossip, what about in-depth journalism? It sounds like that is becoming harder to do on a screen like this and harder to sell to the public.
POTTS: Well, define "in-depth journalism." If in-depth journalism is a 30-inch story, yes, that's hard to do and hard to read. But if in-depth journalism is video, and is interaction, and is the ability to get access to a whole ream of documents that support the story and other supporting facts, then I think that's far more in- depth than what we've got with a traditional news story.
KURTZ: Sharon, what about the impact on your personal life? For example, it used to be that you were -- you were going to say, what personal life? If you were with your husband, and the office needed something, you had go away and take a phone call. Now you can send a short e-mail message. But, on the other hand, you're always on deadline, you can always be blogging, you can always be tweeting.
Does that take a toll?
WAXMAN: Well, I've been talking about this with your wife, Howie. She's very concerned about it.
Yes, that's true. You're always on. So, again, it's a mixed blessing. And it's now on us to put up the boundaries in our lives and say the technology is making my life more manageable, but I'm not going to let technology run my life.
That's on us, to sort of put up those boundaries and say now we're done, we're going to put these devices away, and I'm not going to be connected. Just because I can be connected all the time doesn't mean I need to be.
But, at the same time, if something urgent does happen, then I'm available to do it, and I don't have to get in my car and drive, you know, 20 minutes. I can take care of it in a shorter period of time.
KURTZ: All right. Got to jump in. I've got 20 seconds.
Do you feel at times that your life is out of control thanks to technology?
POTTS: Yes, I think it is. But there are times I do, but I also feel there are times when it's controlling. I can use it to control my life. But I can find out what's going on, I can communicate with somebody who I wouldn't otherwise be able to get in touch with.
It's very handy. I think this is just an evolutionary phase and we're involving into a more connected forum.
KURTZ: It's both empowering and overwhelming.
Sharon Waxman, Mark Potts, thanks for checking it out and putting down the BlackBerrys to talk to us this morning.
Up next, why is the Federal Trade Commission spending your tax dollars studying how to prop up struggling news organizations? We'll ask the chairman.
KURTZ: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Yes, people have become rather wary of that particular line, and much of the news business is reacting skeptically to a potential offer for help from the Federal Trade Commission. The chairman Jon Leibowitz, testified on the Hill this week about a staff study of ways to reverse what it calls a significant loss of news coverage. And the agency holds another hearing on the subject Tuesday.
But do we really want the feds riding to the rescue?
I spoke to the chairman earlier here in the studio.
KURTZ: Jon Leibowitz, welcome.
JON LEIBOWITZ, FMR. FTC COMMISSIONER: Glad to be here.
KURTZ: It is no secret that print journalism is in trouble. The first question I get on this initiative is, why is the federal government involved in this at all?
LEIBOWITZ: Well, going back to 1915, when the Federal Trade Commission was created, we were given a policy function to look at issues and write reports. And so, in the last 10 years, we've written reports on pharmaceutical competition, we've done entertainment industry marketing reports.
KURTZ: But journalism is -- it sounds like an unusual departure for the Federal Trade Commission.
LEIBOWITZ: Well, no. It really isn't. It's about consumer protection. It's about competition policy and the way in which competition is changing.
And, you know, obviously, news journalism is vital to democracy and we think it's a very important public policy issue. We're going to take a look at it.
KURTZ: The biggest criticism you seem to be getting -- and I understand this is a draft by your staff, there's no recommendation that's been adopted yet, the commission hasn't acted. But the tone of the report seems to be one where you're talking about preserving and propping up the aging structure of journalism, as opposed to embracing bloggers and new digital media.
LEIBOWITZ: Well, in fact, it's not even a report. It is a compilation of all the -- we want to be a very transparent agency. And this is a compilation, really, of all the ideas that have been proffered at our two previous workshops.
KURTZ: But it doesn't even mention blogging, for example.
LEIBOWITZ: But we had many, many bloggers that are -- it does mention blogging, but we had many, many bloggers at our workshops. We had -- we opened with Arianna Huffington and Rupert Murdoch, so we like to think we had a range of views.
KURTZ: That's a pretty broad range right there. LEIBOWITZ: Josh Marshall from "Talking Points Memo." And a lot of people who have been thinking about this -- economists, academics, reporters, journalists, investigative journalists. And really, the whole idea of the FTC, in all of these workshops that we do, is we bring in all the stakeholders, all the people who are interested, all the consumer groups, and we try to work through issues.
KURTZ: The report, the study, the document has a lot in there about government funding. Now, look, let me tick off some things -- establishing a journalistic division of AmeriCorps, tax credits to companies for hiring journalists, and creating a national fund for local news. I understand that the government has always provided indirect subsidies like postal subsidies, and there's funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I personally think it's a horrible idea for the government to give any kind of funding, because it carries the aura of politicization.
Do you agree that's a danger?
LEIBOWITZ: Well, I certainly agree it's a danger. And, you know, again, the commission hasn't recommended a single one of these ideas. Really, it's just the process we always go through.
KURTZ: But you've kind of put it on a table, just like this table.
LEIBOWITZ: Well, no, because it's a report. You know, you can read it, it's on the Internet. But it's not really like a solid table.
But, having said that, look, we want to get a broad range of ideas. We want to get a broad range of ideas. From my perspective, for example, I think the idea of taxing anyone or anything or electronic equipment to subsidize journalism is a terrible idea. We think -- we're an antitrust agency. We think antitrust exemptions, which some have proposed, are bad ideas.
But the great thing is --
KURTZ: A five percent tax on consumer electronics to prop up "The New York Times," probably not going to be that popular.
LEIBOWITZ: It's probably not going to be that popular, and it's a really bad idea. But, you know, as between suppressing people's ideas, or accepting them all, going through them and separating the wheat from the chaff, we'd rather take the latter approach.
And, again, if you look at that -- and I know you have, Howie -- if you look at that report -- and it's not even a report, it's really, again, a compilation of ideas -- it says right on top, this does not express -- "None of these ideas express the views of the staff or the commission." And this is the way we usually do it.
But I understand there's been a little bit of a hubbub. Let me assure you, if we come up with a couple of good ideas for the future of journalism, we'll be very, very happy. KURTZ: So, you feel the commission is being unfairly criticized at this stage of the game for -- you've put this in play, but you haven't embraced any particular proposal.
LEIBOWITZ: Well, I would say this -- if you're the Federal Trade Commission, you know, we're big boys, we can take some criticism. On the other hand, yes, for those few people who haven't read the very clear disclaimer right at the top, who have said the FTC is supporting a tax on electronic equipment, I mean, that's just silly. And we hope to put it behind us and have a really good, thorough discussion.
KURTZ: The document talks about possibly changing copyright laws to limit aggregation. Aggregation being Web sites taking material from publications, other Web sites. But, you know, newspapers themselves rely on aggregation when they repot the news, and Google carries my work to a worldwide audience.
So, why --
LEIBOWITZ: Well, again, we're not endorsing any of these ideas.
LEIBOWITZ: All we're doing is collecting the ideas that people have, that people have proposed, at our two previous workshops. And, again, it was a range of people. You know, from new media folks to old media folks, from the Rupert Murdochs of the world to the Arianna Huffingtons of the world, to the Josh Marshalls of the world, who runs "Talking Points Memo," to just a lot of people who have set up these new community journalism sites.
But let me just say this. As you know, the world of journalism is changing. Now, this may be the kind of creative destruction that ends up being good, but it may also be the kind of creative destruction that ends up being not so good. And we want to make sure that there's a future for investigative journalism, people investigating government corruption, that's there's a future for giving information to consumers in a way they need it.
KURTZ: I have ink in my veins, so I believe whenever journalists get laid off, whenever news organizations shut down -- but I have to think to myself, if it's a choice between that and government intervention, maybe some of these organizations that can't make it in the marketplace should shut down.
LEIBOWITZ: Well, I think that that's absolutely right. I think that's absolutely correct. But on the other hand, if there are some things that, you know, could be done to ensure the future of journalism, maybe even not by government, by the way, you know, people ought to look at them.
KURTZ: A couple of bloggers have suggested maybe you're inspired by the fact that you're married to Ruth Marcus, an editorial writer for "The Washington Post." KURTZ: As a General matter, I'm inspired by the fact that I'm married to Ruth Marcus, who writes for "The Washington Post." On this issue, and on almost every issue, we have sort of a Chinese wall between us.
KURTZ: You can certainly understand, because a lot of what you've said here to me today is, we haven't adopted this, we're putting out ideas and we're sifting through. Understood.
But we know how government works. And once something becomes part of the public debate -- and you're driving the public debate with this document -- eventually, you and your fellow commissioners are going to vote on something. And once it's part of the discussion, it becomes a little bit more likely that some of this could become policy. So you can't neglect (ph) it forever.
LEIBOWITZ: Well, I think it becomes far less likely that some of the bad ideas will become policy if we don't adopt them. Right? And we'll write a report, we'll finish it up sometime later this year, hopefully, and we'll go from there. But I think simply to criticize us for collecting other people's ideas from a broad political range of platforms, I think -- you know, I think it's a little bit unfair, although we can handle it.
KURTZ: I've got half a minute.
Do you think that Congress has the political appetite to take on this problem at a time of massive deficits, at a time when President Obama has asked for cutting spending, anything that might involve any financial impact?
LEIBOWITZ: Look, I think anything that would have a financial impact is clearly -- if it's up to Congress, would probably be a nonstarter. But I also think, again, the nature of journalism is changing. We want to preserve a future of journalism. I think everybody does.
And that was the one unifying theme at our first two workshops. We think through the ideas that people have proposed, separate the wheat from the chaff, and see which ones are good.
KURTZ: Some of those journalists whose jobs you might be helping might criticize the commission.
LEIBOWITZ: You know, that's the nature of the First Amendment. We just want to avoid government entanglement with journalism.
KURTZ: All right.
Jon Leibowitz, thanks very much for joining us.
LEIBOWITZ: Thank you, Howie.
KURTZ: After the break, a top White House official out there playing defense on the oil spill issue this Sunday morning. Candy Crowley joins us, next.
KURTZ: The White House decides every Sunday whether to put somebody out on the talk circuit.
And this week, Candy Crowley, the administration decided to play.
CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": Yes, they did. You can kind of tell when things begin to reach critical mass because the White House does put someone out there.
This time, a political person, basically. David Axelrod, really arguably the closest adviser to the president, he came with his offensive game.
The president's going to the Gulf Monday and Tuesday. He's going to give a nationwide address Tuesday night.
KURTZ: That's breaking news.
CROWLEY: That's breaking news. And added that when the BP executives come Wednesday, the president's going to say we need an escrow account, we want BP to pay into it, then I'm going to have a third party giving out money to damaged parties, businesses or individuals.
The problem, of course, is that the administration has been on the defense, and so he had to play that game as well. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SR. ADVISER: Our mission here is to hold them accountable in every appropriate way, and that is what we're going to do. I'm not -- I don't consider them a partner. I don't consider them -- they're not social friends, they're not -- I'm not looking to make judgments about their soul. I just want to make sure that they do what they're required to do.
DAVID GREGORY, "MEET THE PRESS": Do you trust them to get the job done? Yes, no or maybe?
AXELROD: We're going to make sure they get the job done.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: It's not the end of playing defense, obviously, because this has been -- you sort of watched this snowball rolling since we first learned that the oil was leaking out of the bottom of the Gulf Coast. And the criticism now, "The New York Times" editorial page --
KURTZ: The administration is really stunned by this.
KURTZ: And so, it's ramping up the public efforts. CROWLEY: It's ramping up its public efforts. The problem is it's going to be a little while before they silence the critics.
Here's a couple samples from today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MIKE PENCE (R), INDIANA: He could have picked up the phone and called the CEO of BP sooner than 50 days. I'm glad he's meeting with the chairman of BP next week, but I think the fact that he never spoke to the CEO of British Petroleum for the first 50 days of this incident is emblematic of the kind of detached style of leadership that we're seeing here. Look, and this business about the president looking for somebody's ass to kick this week, you know, as "The New York Times" said this morning, I think everybody in America new on day two whose ass ought to be kicked.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: Governor, it sounds as if you are as frustrated with the Obama administration and the lack of coordination and commonality of purpose as you might be with BP.
GOV. BOB RILEY (R), ALABAMA: Well, absolutely, because you can't have a committee making the decisions that are going to impact this entire coastal area. You can't have someone come in and say, well, if it gets onto the beach, we'll clean it up, and we'll clean it up rapidly, and then OSHA will come in and say, well, the people can't work but 20 minutes out of an hour or two hours a day and get it cleaned up.
Someone is going to have to be in charge of each one of these operations. They are going to have to make a determination about what we're going to do. And they're going to have to set priorities.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: The reason they have to have this full-court press is because they have an ongoing crisis, they have all of these people, these governors down there, that are looking at horrific economic impact. And then you've got the politicians back in Washington.
KURTZ: And the pictures of the birds and the pelicans are awful.
CROWLEY: Yes. And just, you know, it hits you in the soul.
KURTZ: In the soul.
KURTZ: Candy Crowley, thanks.
Still to come, Karl Rove on Helen Thomas and Matt Lauer's butt- kicking sit-down with President Obama. We'll turn our critical lens in that direction with our new media monitor.
KURTZ: We're going to try something new on this program. A while back we got a strikingly positive response for fact-checking all five Sunday programs. But now we want to widen that net to include cable news as well. We are not going to examine every statement on every program, obviously, and we're going to train our critical lens on the journalists and commentators, both for what they say and what they let politicians get away with saying.
This is not an exercise in "gotcha." We all make mistakes, and whether something was inaccurate or misleading often falls in a gray area. But it's a small step toward accountability.
During an interview with Sean Hannity this week, Fox's Karl Rove had this to say about Helen Thomas's anti-Israel remarks --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KARL ROVE, FMR. BUSH ADVISER: It was the typical vile-filled remark that she has increasingly tended to in recent decades. I think the Hearst papers did the right thing by cashiering her.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But that's wrong. Hearst Newspapers did not cashier Thomas or show her the door. The company ducked, merely issuing a statement saying it deeply regretted her remarks.
Helen Thomas resigned. Whether she would have ultimately been forced out is an open question.
When President Obama sat down with Matt Lauer this week, "The Today Show" put out advanced excerpts that got plenty of attention thanks to the president's use of a certain street term when he spoke about consulting experts.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We talked to these folks because they potentially had the best answers so I know whose ass to kick. Right?
KURTZ (voice-over): But the NBC excerpts didn't show and the early stories didn't reflect that Lauer had directed Obama's attention toward the posterior.
MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": This is not the time to meet with experts and advisers. This is a time to spend more time in the Gulf. And I never thought I'd say this to a president, but kick some butt.
(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Of course, the president chose to use an even more graphic term, but the context shows he didn't just announce his butt- kicking intentions out of the blue.
Meanwhile, Lauer failed to challenge Obama on a blatant misrepresentation about whether his response to the oil spill was too slow.
OBAMA: I'm going to push back hard on this because I think that this is just an idea that got in folks' heads and the media has run with it. I was down there a month ago before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf.
KURTZ (voice-over): Actually, the talking heads were doing a lot of talking. The president went to Louisiana on Sunday, May 2nd, and that morning's programs were all over the oil spill, along with the next day's evening newscasts and cable talk shows.
Here's just one example from that Sunday.
CROWLEY: How happy are you with the performance of BP at this point?
ADM. THAD ALLEN, NATIONAL INCIDENT COMMANDER: Well, as I told everybody, BP is the responsible party and they need to be responsible.
KURTZ: By and large, though, Matt Lauer did a good job of pressing the president.
We're also going to try to spotlight examples of good journalism, as well as lousy journalism.
In "American Journalism Review" this month, Jodi Enda documents how "Media coverage of vitally important federal agencies has declined. At least until there's a major disaster and we all rush in and focus on backwaters like the Minerals Management Agency."
The only Washington-based newspaper reporter who covers the Mine Safety and Health Administration works for the "Louisville Courier- Journal," and he's a one-man bureau who has to do lots of other things.
And a thumbs down to Reuters for unfairly cropping photos of that Israeli raid on the flotilla headed for Gaza. In the original picture, you see that one of the passengers has a knife. But as the Israel paper "Haaretz" reported, the knife mysteriously vanished in the version distributed by Reuters.
Now, the wire service said this was inadvertent, and it later restored the full image. But this isn't the first time Reuters has had a problem with altering a picture involving Israel. You can suggest journalistic examples for us to look at my e- mailing us each week at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.