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Reliable Sources

Covering LeBron's Move; Internet vs. Television; About Michael Steele; Levi Johnston's Apology

Aired July 11, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: As a Major League Basketball fan, I was among the zillions who wanted to know where LeBron James would wind up playing. But when the whole thing got hyped into an ESPN primetime extravaganza, it seemed more like a bizarre reality show than a news event.

This morning, the man who was drafted to interview LeBron, ESPN's Michael Wilbon, on being at the center of this media circus.

How did journalists turn yet another gaffe by the Republican Party chairman into a week-long melodrama? Roger Simon on the never-ending saga of Michael Steele and on the personal battle that has kept Roger away from journalism.

Levi Johnston uses "People" magazine to apologize to Sarah Palin, but news organizations paid little attention when he admits he's been making stuff up. Is that fair?

Plus, a conversation with NBC's Dan Abrams on making the leap from television to the hyper-speed culture of the Web.

And a single Twitter message costs a veteran CNN editor her job.

I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.

It was a basketball story that became a cultural phenomenon, one that spread from the sports pages to Twitter, to a much-promoted, supremely-hyped ESPN special. The media seemed obsessed with whether LeBron James would leave Cleveland and where he would end up.


KATE SNOW, NBC NEWS: There is an intense battle under way by a slew of NBA teams to woo the biggest star athlete in the country, LeBron James, away from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

ELIZABETH VARGAS, ABC NEWS: Now to the LeBron-a-thon. That is what sports fans are calling the coast-to-coast courting of basketball superstar LeBron James.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: LeBron James, "The King," the megawatt superstar of the NBA, is up for grabs. And grown men, mayors, teams, entire cities, are doing anything to woo him to their town.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: On ESPN's rather breathless program Thursday night, veteran sportscaster Jim Gray conducted a surprisingly soft interview, killing time before popping the big question.


JIM GRAY, ESPN: Have you enjoyed this recruiting process? So the last time you changed your mind was yesterday?


KURTZ: Once King James announced that he's joining the Miami Heat, ESPN's Mike Wilbon tried to get him off the prepared script.


MICHAEL WILBON, ESPN: You've enjoyed overwhelmingly such great public relations. This is probably the first time -- and you heard that reaction in Cleveland -- where you're getting some backlash. How do you feel about that? Because that's going to be a little transition, a little different for you.

LEBRON JAMES, BASKETBALL PLAYER: Oh, absolutely. I know it's going to be a transition.

WILBON: You played the first seven years of your career in a place where you pretty much got unconditional love. How much more pressure is going to be on you to win now that you're part of this super team?

JAMES: It's not a super team right now.


KURTZ: So, have media organizations and especially ESPN gone utterly overboard over one basketball star's big fat contract?

Hours after the LeBron-a-thon, I sat down with Mike Wilbon, "The Washington Post" columnist and co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," at our old studio down the hall.


KURTZ: Michael Wilbon, welcome.

WILBON,: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: Was this decision by LeBron crucial as it was to the future of civilization, really worth a primetime ESPN special?

WILBON: I guess to television networks the answer would be yes. I mean, I've already heard about ratings for the Thursday night show, that it was more than 7 -- 7 plus. That means, if that's true, that more people watched LeBron James talk Thursday night than watched him play in the NBA finals against the Spurs three years ago. So I guess from that standpoint, they'd say yes. KURTZ: All right. Let's say some of the people watching don't care about LeBron James, don't care about pro basketball, just as an example of sort of the overheated media culture that we live in. This was basically 70 minutes, because it ran over, for one minute of news.

Was it not?

WILBON: Thirty seconds of news. I mean, contrast it with the previous day, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and that was sort of drawn out a little bit. I mean, we talked on SportsCenter" at 12:30 in the afternoon --

KURTZ: That they were signing with the Miami Heat.

WILBON: Yes. I think the whole thing took 15 minutes, the three of us.

KURTZ: All right. So, Thursday night, you're sitting out there on the set, and Jim Gray, the world-renowned sportscaster, is interviewing LeBron. He's taking 15 minutes to ask the only question anyone cares about. How's the family, and what do you think of this weather?

What were you thinking as he was stretching it out?

WILBON: I didn't like it. I mean, just as a reporter, I didn't like it. And I was saying to somebody at the time, there's one question here.

I mean, there's been enough drama, there's been enough buildup. Get to the chase. Because you know how this is.

You're thinking of this as a reporter. And we are old print, ink- stained people, and they were thinking of it as people in television. And then you're thinking of it as a viewer. Get to it.

That's what I want to hear. Let's start this. Let's go.

And people -- look, I mean, I know that people disagree with that. And I guess there are those who found building the moment necessary. I didn't.

KURTZ: OK. Now, we know that LeBron wanted to be interviewed by Jim Gray, and he wanted to be interviewed by you. Now, as flattering as that is to a big-time basketball columnist and personal friend of Tony Kornheiser, did that make you uncomfortable at all that a news subject gets to pick the reporters who talk to him?

WILBON: Well, I don't know that he picked. I mean, I know --


WILBON: I guess he could have, and then the network could have said no, either him or nobody. And that doesn't seem to happen on any network these days, does it? I've never had a situation in a locker room in private, on or off the record, on camera, or just with a notebook in my hand, where LeBron James said to me, "No comment." Even if he didn't really want to comment, he would talk around it.

KURTZ: You've known him for a long time.

WILBON: I've known him, and I've gotten to know him pretty well in the past two or three years. And especially, Howie, with this free agency thing going on, hanging over sort of everybody's head (INAUDIBLE).

I've never had LeBron James not answer a question or say, "I'm not going to talk to you about that," or say, "This is off limits." So, no, I did not feel uncomfortable because I had no contact with LeBron before the show, and I knew I could ask LeBron whatever I wanted to ask him.

KURTZ: And look, I have a lot of respect for Jim Gray. I thought that interview was as soft as melted ice cream. So you come on, you had about 15 minutes with the guy. You know a lot of people are watching.

Did you feel some pressure on your shoulders to ask sharp questions and make it a real interview?

WILBON: I didn't think about it contrasting it to what Jim was doing. I didn't really know what they were doing.

KURTZ: But just on its own terms.

WILBON: On its own terms I felt the need to -- there were some tough questions that had to be asked of LeBron. I'm not going to say tough. I mean, this was not a Mike Wallace moment.

This is still sports. I mean, people need to chill out when they start talking about how tough you have to be. This wasn't "60 Minutes." We're not talking about the situation in the Gulf. You're talking about --

KURTZ: Nobody died.

WILBON: Nobody died.

KURTZ: We're talking about a basketball player's decision to go to another team.

WILBON: Yes. And there's still, in the context of that, relatively speaking, pointed questions that have to be asked that I hope I asked.

As soon as you get off the set, as you do with anything, you think, I wish I'd asked him this, I wish I followed up there. And there are a couple of things where I wish I had been a little more pointed.

KURTZ: Well, you did ask him about the backlash in Cleveland. Obviously, that city very unhappy. You asked him about what it would be like to play in a place where there was no unconditional love as he had in Cleveland, the pressure of being on what you called a super team, which a lot of people are now saying about the Miami Heat.

What were you trying to elicit from him?

WILBON: You know, I never go into it that way. I just want to hear what LeBron James -- and I don't think it came off this way Thursday night. But LeBron James in a normal setting.

And again, I've interviewed him just all the time, constantly. This is what you do when you cover basketball, when you cover sports now in America. You talk to LeBron James.

He is forthcoming. He is thoughtful. He thinks about questions. He answers exactly what you're asking normally.

KURTZ: I found his responses to be pretty canned. He repeated certain talking points.

Were you disappointed by that?

WILBON: I thought -- I couldn't see him when I was interviewing him.

KURTZ: Yes. You should have been sitting next to him.

WILBON: I should have been. As far as I was concerned, I thought he was shaken. And I understand that.

I thought he would be shaken. I anticipated him being shaken if his answer was not Cleveland. If his answer was Miami, if his answer was Chicago, if his answer was New York, I thought he was going to be shaken because LeBron grew up there.

He's not some guy who came to northeast Ohio when he was 12 years old. He was born and raised there. He knew to some extent what the reaction was going to be and how crushed his friends and neighbors and those people in Akron, Cleveland were going to be. And I thought he was shaken by that.

KURTZ: Yes, but he's entitled to go wherever he wants. It's ultimately a business decision. But he is the one who helped orchestrate, along with ESPN and the rest of us in the media, this melodrama, who agreed to do the primetime special. So he had to know those Cleveland questions were coming.

WILBON: I think he did. I mean, it's not like they haven't come before.

In private conversations those questions and those topics have been gone back -- you know, batted back and forth. I think there's a different thing, though, Howie, when you have to sit there and you know this moment is real.

Here's the other thing. How soon? He said he decided Thursday morning, so 12 hours before the interview, before the announcement, that he was going to Miami. I'd like to press him on that again, if we were just talking even on background. I want to know how close he got. Because how long did he know he was going to go to Miami and have to deal with that reaction?

KURTZ: And you're not here as a spokesman for the network. But look, LeBron's people approached ESPN. The whole thing was co-presented by sponsors: Microsoft, Nike, McDonald's, University of Phoenix. The impression is that ESPN, you know, turned over this time to him, then staged a kind of bizarre reality show.

WILBON: Yes, that is the impression. That's a criticism the network has to live with. And that was talked about before. And if anybody didn't anticipate that reaction, then that was incredibly naive.

The question is, would any network have said no to that knowing -- I shouldn't say any network, but I mean television -- reality television, which I don't watch, steadfastly don't watch any of it, because I just -- I don't know, I just object to a lot of it on the principle that we're talking about now. This is what -- this is the culture we live in now.

And I object to a lot of it as a sort of old-fashioned news person. But you know what? I'm living in a different world from most of the people who watch television, and I don't know that people care about that as much as I do.

KURTZ: CBS sports blogger Gregg Doyel writes that "ESPN has gone to bed with more athletes than a groupie. What's one more?"

Is that fair or unfair?

WILBON: It might be fair, but how many have CBS gone to bed with?

KURTZ: In other words, any television network that pays hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the rights --

WILBON: They're all partners.

KURTZ: -- to telecast athletic contests, they make these people stars, but they have a vested interest in the success of personalities.

WILBON: Yes, they do. And therefore, ratings. And they're all partners on some level, and that's the world we live in as well.

I mean, now, they even have their own networks. You know, NBA --

KURTZ: NBA Network, absolutely.

WILBON: -- TV, the NFL Network. So I don't know that CBS can throw stones here without realizing they live in a glass house, too.

KURTZ: Friday morning's front page, "Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Gone." There's LeBron, and in tiny type it says, "Seven years, $62 million, no rings." What is it about sports -- this is the newspaper, not just some columnist saying he's a disloyal bum -- that makes journalists not just personalize these things, but argue so passionately for or against people who, after all, are paid performers to represent a given city?

WILBON: It's the number one way that communities define themselves now.

KURTZ: Number one?


KURTZ: The most important thing in Cleveland?

WILBON: We're major league.

KURTZ: Cleveland Cavaliers, the most important thing --


WILBON: Cleveland, New York. Did you see the tabloids in New York the day of?

KURTZ: Sure.

WILBON: I mean, offended. They were upset. New Yorkers were upset.

They were indignant because he's got to come here. Why? Because we're New York. It's the number one way that people connect in communities big and small, whether it's Oklahoma City -- they're now saying that Kevin Durant, who had no special TV hour, who just sort of said, yes, I'm staying, whether they're praising him for doing it the right way in Oklahoma City, this is how we are, or Green Bay or New York or Cleveland, it's all the same. It's the number one way that people have some sort of civic identity.

KURTZ: I've got 15 seconds. Will we look back a year or two from now and say boy, the media really went overboard on one free agent's decision?



WILBON: No, because we don't look back and think -- we know we're overboard. We're overboard while we're in it.

KURTZ: You're saying it won't take a year. We know it now.

WILBON: It won't take six weeks. And the next one will be -- I don't know who the next one will be, but there will be somebody else that comes along that gets bigger treatment than that.

KURTZ: All right.

Michael Wilbon, thanks for stopping by after the big extravaganza on ESPN.

WILBON: Thanks, Howie.


KURTZ: Jim Gray told me on Friday that a CNBC report that he'd been paid for the interview by LeBron's organization was totally false and irresponsible, and all he's gotten is airfare from ESPN. CNBC stands by the report, but could point only to a source saying Gray would get a stipend from LeBron's team, a bill for a few hundred dollars in expenses that Gray says he hasn't yet submitted to anyone.

When we come back, Politico's Roger Simon on the press's pummeling of Michael Steele and the personal ordeal that forced him to take a long leave from journalism.


KURTZ: There are some political figures out there who journalists just love, not for ideological reasons, but because they keep talking themselves into trouble. Michael Steele fits that bill, portrayed in the press as a virtual gaffe machine. But even conservative commentators threw up their hands when the Republican chairman was captured on tape saying that Afghanistan was a war of President Obama's choosing, somehow forgetting that it was George W. Bush who launched that war after the 9/11 attacks.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he will hang on, but if he wants to help the party he should resign.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: Steele will survive. He will survive because the Republicans have never had the guts to get rid of anybody who lies about President Obama.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Say what you will about Michael Steele, but in addition to swallowing his foot on a regular basis, he's also very stubborn.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this is Politico's Roger Simon.



KURTZ: So, why do journalists love writing and yakking about Michael Steele?

SIMON: It gives us something to do. And he is a gaffe machine.

I remember writing early on that even though he has just stuck his toe in the water, he is already over his head. There's nothing wrong with one's ambitions outstripping one's talents. But in Michael Steele's case, it really is dramatic.

KURTZ: But is the press piling on at this point, or was this particular comment about the war in Afghanistan just way over the top?

SIMON: It was way over the top because it was inaccurate, number one.

KURTZ: Start with that.

SIMON: It started with George Bush.

Number two, we didn't go into Afghanistan by choice. We went because we wanted to deny the al Qaeda another base of operations for, once again, attacking U.S. soil.

And number three, he was not expressing the policy of the Republican Party.

KURTZ: Of which he is chairman.


KURTZ: Now, briefly, you say he may be -- Steele may be running for president. How did the rest of the media miss that?


SIMON: I just figure when you goof up that much, you might as well run for president. No, he clearly has his mind on greater objectives than the chairmanship of the party.

The chairmanship of the party, your duties are to raise money and to stay out of trouble. Well, he's raised a little money, but he hasn't stayed out of trouble at all.

KURTZ: He can get a much more important job hosting a television show. He seems a natural at that.

Now, Rush Limbaugh also loves to stir controversy by design. And this week, he talked about the president and made a bit of news. Let's take a listen.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: That's exactly the same thing you could say about Obama. He wouldn't have been voted president if he weren't black.

Somebody asked me over the weekend why does somebody earn a lot of money, have a lot of money? I said because he's black. If Obama weren't black, he'd be a tour guide in Honolulu or he'd be teaching Saul Alinsky constitutional law or lecturing on it in Chicago.


KURTZ: Of course here we are talking about Rush.

But did you find those comments to be more than just the usual Limbaugh rhetoric?

SIMON: You mean did I find them to be racist and repugnant? Yes, I found them to be racist and repugnant.

KURTZ: Why racist? Can't a case be made just on part of this that if Obama was a white freshman senator, he wouldn't have beaten Hillary for the nomination?

SIMON: I think anyone who beat Hillary for the nomination had something going for him besides race. And let's be fair. His race was not going for him. We only said that after he won.

He had to win in states where there was almost no black population. If he had lost in Iowa, the first Democratic contest, he would have been through. There are no black people in Iowa. He convinced white people that he really was an agent of change.

KURTZ: That's a good point.

Now, you are the most frequent guest on this program in the last 10 years, according to your political colleague, Patrick Gavin, who we had a little fun with last week for calling us a kind of velvet rope club. But we haven't seen you, obviously, for about a year.

Tell us about why you've been out of the measure (ph).

SIMON: First of all, don't I get a little golden statuette, a Howie Award or something?

KURTZ: We will work on that.


I have been not anywhere for the last eight months or so because I got sick. I got an infection in mid October.

I went into a coma for about a month, was in the ICU at Suburban Hospital, where they basically brought me back to life. My legs were amputated, or rather my right leg below the knee was amputated. Most of my left foot was amputated.

My hands got a little screwed up, but they're much better now. And due to doctors at the Wound Center at Georgetown Hospital, and the therapists at the National Rehabilitation Hospital of Washington, I am here before you today.

KURTZ: How have you been coping with all this?

SIMON: Not badly. I mean, a lot of people very kindly have been sending me letters. My friends have come over and said, you know, "You've been very brave about all this."

And I said, and this is really honest, it's easy to be brave when you have no other choice. I mean, it was either this or sit in a lump in a hospital bed. Some things are bizarre. I got my right leg 48 hours ago, brought it home, and it was like, you know, parents seeing a child for the first time, an infant.

I counted the digits. There were five. The little toenails, the little cuticles. I haven't walked on it yet, but I've strapped it on. And I'm sort of looking forward to what's coming next.

KURTZ: You were not exactly above using this whole situation to get an interview with President Obama.


KURTZ: Talk a little about that.

SIMON: Yes, there's a terrible thing about using being -- losing your legs to your personal advantage, and that's called journalism.

David Axelrod, who I've known for decades -- we were journalists in Chicago together -- was one of the first people to write me and e-mail me when I was in the hospital. And he arranged a call from President Obama to the hospital room wishing me well.

I made sure that I bumped into David Axelrod at a party a few months ago, and he said, "Hey, you're looking great, you're doing well." And I said, "Look, no good deed goes unpunished. I'd like my first column back to be an interview with the president."

And he said, "I'll make it happen." And he and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, not only made it happen, but made sure it was an Oval Office interview, which is, as you know, the creme de la creme of interviews.

KURTZ: Absolutely. And how did Obama act when you were in the Oval Office?

SIMON: Very nicely. I mean, he -- my wife was with me, and then retreated. And he said, "Well, your wife should come in for pictures."

I brought my wife in. The first thing my wife said was, "I hate having my picture taken." And the president said, "Well, we'll do it anyway." He was very nice about it.

KURTZ: And then, of course, you proceeded to ask him some hard questions.

SIMON: I asked him the hardest questions I could think of. I had my own questions. I had questions from other members of the Politico staff.

But I certainly wasn't going to ask him, you know, softballs because he was doing me a favor. And I think he wouldn't have had respect for me if I had.

KURTZ: Absolutely. I can't tell you how glad I am to see you back, to see you back in action both at Politico and coming on the set here.

SIMON: Well, that's very kind of you, Howie.

KURTZ: Thank you so much, Roger Simon.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, from talk show host to cable news president to Internet entrepreneur, NBC's Dan Abrams talks about dissecting the media online and why he wasn't opinionated enough for MSNBC.

Plus, Levi Johnston apologizes to Sarah Palin. How are the media now covering this admitted liar?

And later, a CNN veteran loses her job over a single Twitter message about the Middle East.


KURTZ: Former correspondent, a cable show host, the president of a cable news network, and now a legal analyst for NBC. But Dan Abrams has another ambition in life -- Internet mogul. First he launched the Web site Mediaite and then a slew of others.

But how much harder is it to draw an audience online than simply by walking into a television studio? I spoke to him earlier in New York.


KURTZ: Dan Abrams, welcome.

DAN ABRAMS, FOUNDER, MEDIAITE.COM: Thank you. Good to be here.

KURTZ: You spent your whole career in television. Why did you want to go into the Web world?

ABRAMS: Because I think there's just enormous opportunity.

KURTZ: Enormous opportunity to make money?

ABRAMS: To make money, to create content. I mean, the idea that you can kind of put down a flag in an industry and you can become a leader in that industry if you do it well, you weren't able to do this in media before. You used to have to have enormous amounts of money to start a media company, to start a magazine. Lo and behold, to start a television network.

Now you can do all of that on the Web with a much more limited budget and with a lot more freedom. So I love it.

KURTZ: You started the site called Mediaite, which is about a year old now.


KURTZ: Three million visitors a month.

How did you attract that audience so quickly?

ABRAMS: Well, you know, I think that what no one else had quite been doing is treating media leaders as important, and almost celebrities, meaning there are a lot of political sites out there that when a senator says something, they say this senator said this, and that's news. We do the same thing with leaders in media. When anyone from, you know, Glenn Beck to Rachel Maddow to Katie Couric says something publicly about an issue --

KURTZ: Or has a contentious interview or something like that.

ABRAMS: A contentious interview, but the point is it's not just about them as interviewers. It's also about them as thought leaders. And I think that that's what's made Mediaite a little bit different, is that recognizing that the public at large is really interested, sometimes very angry, but interested in what these media leaders --


KURTZ: I like Mediaite. I think it's quick. I think it's vibrant. But the way that you throw up the video of "This just happened" and "O'Reilly said this," and have a short post, the analysis feels kind of thin to me.

ABRAMS: Yes. And sometimes it is.

Sometimes the analysis is a couple paragraphs. Sometimes it's just going to say, hey, here's what was said. And then other times there will be a much longer post which will say hey, you know, of those three posts that we posted before, here's a trend.

And so I think that there's room for both. I don't think that every post on the Web has to be a long, thoughtful analysis. Sometimes it can be just a quick hit, so to speak.

KURTZ: But does speed work against thoughtfulness?

ABRAMS: Speed doesn't work against thoughtfulness, but if it was just speed, if all you ever did was just post videos, I don't think that we would get the kind of traffic that we do. I think it's the combination.

KURTZ: Now you started these other sites. There's Geekosystem, There's Stylite, Sports Grid and Gossip Cop, which we talked about on our program when it launched because we like gossip. You told me that you've got 14 full-time people for all these sites.


KURTZ: So, is that the secret to making money online, have a tiny staff?

ABRAMS: In part. In part. I mean, I think that we're going to certainly grow over time. The goal in creating a media company I think online is to start small and to grow. And we're now seeing, for example, major advertisers coming to us in the last few months in a way that they didn't six months ago. And that's going to begin to allow us to grow a little bit and do more things.

But I think it's really important when you're starting a business on the Web to not overshoot it. You don't want to try to build up this huge, huge entity and then see how you do. See how you do and then grow it later.

KURTZ: You also have a public relations firm. And now you're advising big corporate giants like Coke and GE on social media.

ABRAMS: Yes. It's not really a PR firm. What it is --

KURTZ: I don't want to be charged for this advice. What do you tell them?

ABRAMS: Yes. No, I understand. I understand.

What it is, it is a digital media firm.

So, basically, we've seen that we know how to build traffic, for example, on the Web sites. How do you get people to stick around? There are little tricks of the trade, et cetera.

We're just applying those tricks now for businesses and saying to them, hey, you want to keep people in your universe online? Here are some things you can do.

You want to build traffic on your Web site? You want to keep people there? Here are some things that we think that you should do.

So that's now the exclusive foray of Abrams Research.

KURTZ: You were, of course, the general manager of MSNBC. You left that job, not voluntarily. And you also --

ABRAMS: It was voluntarily.

KURTZ: You stepped down voluntarily?

ABRAMS: Absolutely.

KURTZ: You say you were not forced out? You weren't asked in any way?

ABRAMS: Not in any way.

KURTZ: Why did you step down?

ABRAMS: Because I got the 9:00 show on MSNBC.

KURTZ: And you couldn't do both? ABRAMS: Right. So, I mean, there's no question. I mean, anyone would tell you at MSNBC that my general manager role ended because I asked to take the 9:00 show.

KURTZ: All right. Well, then you lost the 9:00 show.

ABRAMS: That's right. That's right.

KURTZ: And it was a show that I liked, "Verdict."


KURTZ: And you did a lot of media analysis, among other things.


KURTZ: You were succeed by Rachel Maddow and the ratings soared. What does that tell us about cable television?

ABRAMS: Well, first of all, I think she's doing a great job. Secondly, I think that her show is a better fit for MSNBC than was my show.

It just makes more sense with what they're doing than my show. They didn't need a legal show on MSNBC. I think that they were much better off with the type of political show that Rachel Maddow does.

Now, look, MSNBC and NBC were great to me. They offered me fill-in time on "The Today Show," they offered me an hour on MSNBC during the day. And ultimately, they let me do this, which is great.

KURTZ: But when you say that, you know -- look, she's doing a great job, clearly she's a great talent.


KURTZ: You say the direction MSNBC's going, and we're talking about going in a liberal direction. Since then, Ed Schultz, now Lawrence O'Donnell.


KURTZ: Yours was not an ideological show.


KURTZ: So you seem to be suggesting that non-ideological shows don't have much of a place in prime time and cable.

ABRAMS: Well, no. What I'm talking about is MSNBC specifically. I would have a different analysis of CNN.

KURTZ: We'll get to that.

ABRAMS: I think for MSNBC specifically, they now have a prime time that makes sense. One show leads into the next. And I think there's a consistent audience that can be built up there that stays with them from Ed Schultz, right through Lawrence O'Donnell. And I think it's very smart on their part.

Look, when I was general manager, I was part of establishing this --

KURTZ: Right.

ABRAMS: -- as the brand of MSNBC, which is the place for politics.

KURTZ: But didn't it go against a lot of your journalistic training? Because it is, you know, a lineup now in the evening -- I'm not saying during the day -- that caters to a liberal audience. And so it goes against the notion that you're supposed to tell both sides.

ABRAMS: But cable news in prime time is different. Let's just be honest and let's accept that. And I don't think that anyone is even faking it anymore.

I mean, no one is claiming we have to be down the middle on everything. The bottom line is, what works on cable in prime time is point of view. No question about it.

Fox has a point of view. MSNBC has a point of view. And CNN is trying to figure it out, I think.

KURTZ: Well, CNN has tried consciously, and maybe this has hurt CNN in the ratings, to be down the middle, to not put on hosts prime time or any time that are clearly ideological right or the left.

Is that, in your view, not a viable strategy?

ABRAMS: The way you characterized it, it is not a viable strategy. Meaning you don't have to pick an ideological side. Meaning point of view doesn't need to mean right or left. It's just got to be someone who, every day, people want to tune in to see what that person says.

And that's what Mediaite's about. Right? It's the idea that what these people say is interesting, and so you have to have interesting hosts who people care what they say.

It doesn't mean that every day they have to be on the left or the right. I think there are some people -- for example, Sheppard Smith at Fox, you never know exactly what he's going to say. That's interesting. He makes really interesting television.

KURTZ: You offered a point of view when you were a cable news host --

ABRAMS: I guess not interesting enough.

KURTZ: Well, but is it that it wasn't interesting enough because you would present guests on different sides of an issue, and then you would rule and you would say what you thought was not accurate or was not honest, or is it that you weren't catering to the liberal audience that MSNBC covers?

ABRAMS: You know, I don't know the answer. The answer is, look, yes, I think I was a pretty good cable news host. I think I have some of the sensibility that is useful in cable news.

But there's also no question that my show wasn't the right show for MSNBC in prime time at this time. So I don't view that as anything negative about me.

And again, as I said before, they were great. But it just -- it is. It is what it is. And I think that the management at all of these places have to accept that, that prime time cable news is different.

KURTZ: Well, I understand people already have digested the day's headlines, newspapers, online, on cable news itself, on the evening news, on the broadcast networks. But you seem to be almost throwing in the towel, that there's another way to do it.

ABRAMS: But throwing in the towel suggests that it's a bad thing, that we're giving up.

KURTZ: Well, how about this?

ABRAMS: We're creating something new, exciting and vibrant.

KURTZ: Are we not pushing -- are we not moving toward a country where people who are conservatives will turn to one channel, people who are liberals turn to another channel, and then not often getting contrary points of view?

ABRAMS: At night.

KURTZ: Same thing on the Web.

ABRAMS: Well, to some degree, yes. Look, at night in cable news you're right. You're not going to get on most -- on a lot of the networks a totally balanced point of view.

That's OK. I guess I give the viewer more credit than that. I give the viewer credit. I think there are conservatives who watch MSNBC at night to see what they're saying --

KURTZ: Sure.

ABRAMS: -- to disagree at times. And I know that there are liberals also who are watching Fox News.

I also don't think that all the shows are quite as ideologically driven as -- some of them are. But not all of them are sort of purely doctrinaire. But I think it's interesting what happened with "Hannity & Colmes" on Fox News.

KURTZ: Yes. It became "Hannity."

ABRAMS: That's right. That's right. And that's the point, isn't it? Which is that people weren't interested in this sort of back and forth. They wanted to hear what Sean Hannity had to say.

The Fox News -- KURTZ: And you don't think it was more interesting when Sean Hannity had somebody sitting next to him who would challenge him, as opposed to letting him just spout his point of view, his conservative Republican point of view?

ABRAMS: It's better programming to just have Sean Hannity on that program.

KURTZ: Would it be better programming for guests with a conservative point of view to challenge Keith Olbermann on "Countdown"?

ABRAMS: I don't think so. I think that they're doing the right thing there. And I think that, notice, single hosts are now the movement on cable news, and I think it's very smart. I think the days of the kind of -- what CNN pioneered with "CROSSFIRE," they were really trendsetters in that way. But that came and it went, and in my view it's gone.

KURTZ: All right. Dan Abrams, thanks so much for sitting down with us.

ABRAMS: Howard, great to be with you.


KURTZ: Up next, Levi Johnston admits he lied about Sarah Palin. So why aren't the media outlets that carried his claims making more of this stunning retraction?


KURTZ: Sarah Palin had something to do with it, of course, but we in the media are ultimately responsible for making Levi Johnston a celebrity. His sole claim to fame was that he had fathered a child with Palin's daughter, yet news outlets such as CBS's "Early Show" carried his attacks on the former governor well after the young man broke up with Bristol Palin.


LEVI JOHNSTON, BRISTOL PALIN'S EX-FIANCE: I think the biggest hit we've had on, like, "Vanity Fair," you know, people really look on as when she called her kid retarded. I mean, I've got a lot of people talking about that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How are they doing in their marriage? Because you say they constantly talked about divorce.

JOHNSTON: Yes, they talked about it. I mean, it's kind of crazy how parents would fight in front of kids about divorce.


KURTZ: Now, Johnston has apologized to the Palins, telling "People" magazine in a statement that he was "a little angry." And, "Unfortunately against my better judgment, I publicly said things about the Palins that were not completely true."

Which things? Levi isn't saying. So where does that vague statement leave the media?

Joining us now from Los Angeles is Sharon Waxman, the founder and editor of

So should "People" magazine have run that statement without -- good morning -- without pressing Levi Johnston to say precisely what he made up about Sarah Palin?

SHARON WAXMAN, FOUNDER & EDITOR, THEWRAP.COM: Oh, good. I thought you were going to wail on CBS, who also deserves their moments there. But, yes, I agree with you.

I read that story three times, and I read the permutations of that story all over the Web. He's apologizing, sort of, for saying lies but not saying what they are. But I do think that CBS doesn't get off free here, either, because they've not really taken the measure of what they might have put out on their show that was not true about Sarah Palin.

KURTZ: In fact, on Friday --

WAXMAN: So, it seems to me --

KURTZ: On Friday, Sharon, CBS's Erica Hill said this whole Levi apology thing was an underreported story of the week. Yes, underreported by CBS, which didn't broadcast it in the first place, as well as all the other media outlets. I mean, this guy was on "LARRY KING LIVE."

Don't they all have a responsibility now to say we put this guy on the air, we quoted him in our newspapers, and now he's confessing that he made things up?

WAXMAN: Yes. I think what they have a responsibility to do is, before they actually apologize, is to go after Levi Johnston and make him explain what he lied about and why, basically. Because there's also a report out -- I mean, I hate that I'm reading all these stories. It seems so poorly based in fact, but now his sister is saying that because he's reconciled with the Palins, he's not lying -- or he's lying about his apology.

So I think that the media really has the responsibility to get behind what's really going on there and find out who Levi Johnston is smearing and why. And then to come forth to their viewers and explain what really went on there and apologize if they need to.

KURTZ: Right. Sean Hannity did make a big deal about the apology. The rest, I think, just let him slime Palin and move on.

A more complicated story, but a similar question. A British panel this week cleared a group of scientists of the controversy known as "Climategate." This group had charges of hacked e-mails that they had manipulated their research to support their view on global warming. The British panel didn't completely let them off the hook, but basically said they didn't cook the books.

So, why has that received such scant coverage this week?

WAXMAN: I think that's just extremely complicated, A, for readers. And B, for journalists to comprehend.

First of all, this kind of thing gives scientists a bad name and it gives journalists a bad name, because for years now there's been this really politicized battle, as we all know, over global warming. And these Climategate e-mails have given those who are skeptics a reason to say, you see, it was a plot from the beginning and the liberal media has bought into it, and they're selling us a bill of goods, and et cetera, when there had been, or there has been -- and I believe there still is -- wide agreement on the science.

So when you find out that the scientists are not giving access to the other side, to the research, or that maybe the data that involves the temperature rises might not be so solid, I think it puts journalists who are trying to report on this in a weird position because they don't really know what to believe exactly. It becomes very complicated.


KURTZ: And yet, "The New York Times," to its credit put this British report on the front page. Most of the major papers I looked at stuck it inside. CNN's "SITUATION ROOM" did a full story on it, but there was not many mentions on cable news, nothing on the broadcast networks.

And here's my favorite. Glenn Beck didn't report on this at all. Last fall, when the e-mails were leaked, he called global warming a big hoax and he said, "Why has no network covered this global warming fix?"

Why has Glenn Beck and others not revisited it? And you're saying it's the complexity.

WAXMAN: I do. And what would be the headline for you? It says "Climate Scientists Cleared of Cooking the Books," but.

You know, it's a very mitigated kind of situation. And when there's complexity like that, I think that, you know, journalists, or editors, anyway, put stuff on the front page, are inclined to say you know what? We'll punt, which isn't necessarily the right thing to do.

KURTZ: Yes. Well, if I was one of those climate scientists, and I felt my reputation had been unfairly damaged, I certainly would not like anyone to punt.

We've got about a minute left. And I want to hold up a couple of New York tabloids here.

As you can see, Lindsay Lohan. There was a lot of coverage on cable when she had her court hearing this week and got a 90-day sentence, essentially for blowing off alcohol treatment classes. Why is this worthy of a lot of attention? Is this a significant story?

WAXMAN: Oh, I see. It's a juxtaposition between the entire planet melting down versus Lindsay Lohan going to jail for 90 days.

KURTZ: That's a very shrewd observation.


WAXMAN: Are you asking why we care about this?

KURTZ: Why do the media care?

WAXMAN: It's exactly for the reason why -- because it's easy, for the exact reason that the Climategate decision got almost no coverage, as you pointed out. She is ratings, and she is also -- she is a slow- motion train wreck. We've talked about Lindsay Lohan on this show before.

KURTZ: Yes, we have.

WAXMAN: And this is a girl who, you know, you can kind of predict the arc of her decline. You're watching it happen in real time. And people from the sidelines are sort of shouting at her saying, hey, Lindsay, get a clue, get some counseling, get some good advice, get some better management. And she --

KURTZ: It sounds like we'll keep banging that drum. We've got to go.

WAXMAN: Yes. Right.

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, thanks so much for joining us.

WAXMAN: Yes. Thanks.

KURTZ: Coming up next, Candy Crowley on the "SOUND OF SUNDAY" with administration officials out on the talk shows making their case.


KURTZ: I was talking with David Axelrod in the green room about LeBron James, but then the White House adviser had to come out here and answer much more important questions from Candy Crowley, who joins me now.

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": Well, you know, Howie, the White House doesn't send anybody out on the Sunday shows unless they have a message. And David Axelrod was on three of the Sunday shows, Robert Gibbs was on one of the Sunday shows. And the message is, because we've been seeing sort of signs of an economy that's not quite strong enough, is that, A, the economy is better than it might have been without them. And B --

KURTZ: But still not that great.

CROWLEY: But still not that great. But, B, they're not all that worried about their declining poll numbers.


DAVID AXELROD, SR. WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: It's not a big surprise. We're going through a very difficult time in this country.

Now, you know, it's not the same as where we were 18 months ago, in the six months leading up to the president's inauguration, the last six months of 2008. We lost three million jobs in the first three months of his administration. The economy shrunk by 6.7 percent.

Now the economy is growing. Now we've had six straight months of private sector job growth. But it's not nearly enough. The hole that was dug was huge, and it took a decade to dig it.



ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not here to unfurl the "Mission Accomplished" banner. OK? We've got a lot of work to do, and the president understands that.


KURTZ: But the challenge, Candy, is they all want to say things are getting better, but they are acutely aware that we have almost 10 percent unemployment.

CROWLEY: Exactly. And they all -- the other thing that interests me at this point is that it's the middle of an election year, so you have the president out there just pounding away at Republicans, while back in Washington he's saying, and what I'd really like is for us all to get together for immigration reform, which is something that Axelrod tried to explain.


AXELROD: Most of those Republicans are not willing to move forward now. And the president said what is obvious, which is if we're going to solve this problem in a comprehensive way, which is what the American people want -- I know from your open that you're enraptured by polls. If you look at the polls, you'll see that most Americans want a comprehensive solution to this, but we're not going to get it done without bipartisan support.


CROWLEY: And probably not likely to get it done this year.

KURTZ: Everybody knows that. Everybody knows that.

CROWLEY: Everybody knows that, but they keep saying that they want to push it. But it's a good thing to kind of look at Republicans and go, well, we'd have it, but it's the Republicans' fault. Meanwhile, the whole debate has gone to court, as you know, with the federal government suing the government of Arizona. And so some Arizonans were on today talking about that.


SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: And for the federal government to challenge this law on the basis that it has preempted the area and, therefore, the state of Arizona needs to butt out, I think is wrong. It would be one thing if the federal government had controlled the border already, but it hasn't.


CROWLEY: To be continued and continued and continued. I think we'll be talking immigration reform this time next year.

KURTZ: Right. This is not going to pass this year.

Candy Crowley, thanks very much.

Still to come, the tweet that ended a CNN editor's career; "The Economist" takes some liberties with a cover shot of President Obama; and a "TIME" magazine columnist who now says his own writing made him feel sick.

Our "Media Monitor" straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Monitor."

As I said before, this isn't a game of "gotcha." We all make mistakes. But a look behind some of the hits and errors in the competition for news.

In the latest sign that journalists better be careful about popping off on social Web sites, CNN this week dismissed Octavia Nasr over a single Twitter message. As the network's senior editor for Middle East Affairs, Nasr tweeted, "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah -- one of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot."

Hezbollah, you may recall, is a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel.

In a second message on a CNN blog, the 20-year veteran apologized for an error in judgment in writing such a simplistic comment. She said she admired Fadlallah for his support of women's rights.

Of course women have also died in Hezbollah's attacks against civilians. CNN expressed regret, saying Nasr's comments did not meet its editorial standards.

On another front, CNN contributor Alex Castellanos, a top adviser to the Republican National Committee, has returned a $12,000 check to the RNC, blaming the payment to his consulting firm on a mix-up.

CNN told the liberal advocacy group Media Matters that Castellanos did the right thing and "also demonstrated his independence from the party chairman by calling for Michael Steele to step aside."

The incident points up the inherent problems with cable networks using political strategists as on-air commentators.

"The Economist" is one of the world's classiest magazines, but "The New York Times" found the British weekly engaging in the kind of subterfuge I'd expect from a celebrity magazine slimming down a starlet. "The Economist" showed a forlorn-looking President Obama at a Louisiana beach. The real photo shows that Louisiana official Charlotte Randolph and Coat Guard Admiral Thad Allen were simply airbrushed out of the shot.

The Economist's lame explanation? "We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers."

Well, I'm puzzled that the esteemed editors didn't own up to their misstep and apologize.

Here's what I liked this week.

Marc Caputo of McClatchy Newspapers reporting that BP was snapping up lawyers and scientific experts who might otherwise wind up working for folks who want to sue the company. BP also presented fishermen and other workers with waivers, hoping they'd sign away their right to sue. That was good excavation on McClatchy's part.

Here's what I didn't like -- Joel Stein's "TIME" magazine essay on how his hometown, Edison, New Jersey, has been overrun by Indians. He even wrote that "The not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even less bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor."

"TIME" expressed its sincere regret to those who were offended, and Stein wrote, "I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people."

At least they recognized how misguided this piece truly was.

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.