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Reliable Sources

Culture Wars in the Media; Blagojevich Verdict

Aired August 22, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Wherever you turned this week the media seemed to be engulfed by a culture war, one that keeps inflaming passions on all sides.

There is the mess over the mosque, the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero that suddenly erupted into an angry confrontation over religion and terrorism. There's the resignation of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, under fire for using the N-word and chiding a black caller to her radio show. And there's Glenn Beck's big Lincoln Memorial rally this coming weekend on the anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech, which critics are calling an insult to Martin Luther King's legacy.

Is the press in all these things playing a polarizing role?

Top Obama aides blame our crazy media culture for the president's troubles. And a "Vanity Fair" writer says they have a point.

The Blago verdict. Did journalists rush to judgment about whether the constantly cursing governor was corrupt?

Plus, the white-hot women's Web site that took on Jon Stewart. The editor of "Jezebel" is here.

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

By all rights, the week's major story ought to be the withdrawal of the last American combat troops from Iraq more than seven years after the start of that bloody conflict. But the media thrive on argument, and since the pullout was expected, more heat has been generated over Dr. Laura, over the Glenn Beck rally, and most of all -- it only needs a single word -- the mosque.

The battle over the Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site may be largely symbolic, but it has consumed the media's attention up to and including the president.


NEWT GINGRICH, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: This happens all the time in America. You know, Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: It is sick politics, and I pray to God sincerely that some Republican on the national stage, some elected leader will have the courage to call Newt Gingrich out.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Now, if you think building a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero is inappropriate, you are intolerant, an anti-Muslim bigot.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: There is in fact no Ground Zero mosque. It isn't a mosque.


KURTZ: So is the war over the so-called mosque and these other controversies worth all this ink and air time, or just an August diversion for the news business?

Joining us now, Margaret Carlson, chief political columnist for Bloomberg News and Washington editor of "The Week" magazine; Michel Martin, host of "Tell Me More" on National Public Radio; and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at "National Review."

Michel Martin, have news organizations -- are they basically responsible for whipping this mosque story into a frenzy?

MICHEL MARTIN, NPR: When you talk about news organizations, you have to wonder who exactly you're talking about. I mean, did a wonderful timeline of just how this controversy got started, and he pointed out -- the author of the piece pointed out that in December of 2009, Laura Ingraham, who's not exactly a liberal, was appearing on "The O'Reilly Factor," sub-hosting, and interviewing one of the co- founders of Park 51, this community center, and had no problem with it.

So what happened five months later, that all of a sudden this became -- it was the blogosphere, along with other conservative leaning media outlets, who for some reason just decided this was -- this could not be? So when we talk about the media, who are we talking about here?

KURTZ: Well, now we're talking about everybody. I mean, here's the cover of "TIME," "Is America Islamophobic?" "The New York Times" has yet another front-page story today.

Do you think the media went wild because this became a legitimately hot New York political dispute, or do you agree with Michel that this was pushed hard by political pundits and, to some extent, Fox News?

MARGARET CARLSON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, BLOOMBERG NEWS: It was definitely pushed hard by conservatives. Listen, cable needs to make a mountain out of a molehill, especially in August. The major newspapers all covered the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, but --

KURTZ: For a day. This story has been going on for a month.

CARLSON: Well, the mosque has been going on for a month, but you have the president getting involved. You have the heated rhetoric of Gingrich and O'Reilly and others. And so it does become a big story.

I would have recommended -- if I were in the White House, I would have told the president, listen, you can tone it down. Instead, to the Ramadan dinner, he does the thing. And then the next day he must have read the polls and pulled back. So that even makes the story go on longer.

KURTZ: Well, they deny pulled back, but with CNN's Ed Henry, he said, I was just talking about religious freedom, I wasn't talking about whether this particular project should be built.

MARTIN: But just to clarify, Howie, this is not the only place in the country where communities have become very interested and concerned about the building of a religious institution or an Islamic community center or something of that type. It isn't the only place. It just has special resonance.

KURTZ: It has special resonance because of 9/11, and, of course, it's New York, where much of the media are headquartered.

Ramesh Ponnuru, do you think that news coverage has suggested, implied or insinuated that if you are opposed to this project, as O'Reilly claimed, that you are some kind of bigot?

RAMESH PONNURU, SR. EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Not all the news coverage, by any means, but certainly I think that there has been a tendency to jump a little too quickly to the idea that opposition is based on bigotry. Not just that some opposition is based on bigotry, but that opposition per se is bigoted. And you had on this reference to opposition being driven by bigotry, politics and ignorance.

KURTZ: Those are the only choices?

PONNURU: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: Well, politics. I mean, politics, what is politics? And besides which, there's a countervailing narrative here, too, which is that the mainstream media, however broadly defined, like we have some meeting to get together to decide these things, right -- we wish -- That have been not quick enough to define the terms.

I mean, in fact, in my experience, the mainstream media is highly reluctant to call anything racist or bigoted. It isn't until people are actively saying I don't want this here because of the religion that it is that the R-word ever gets used.

CARLSON: You know, in part, building a mosque is building ratings. And so cable is going to keep covering it, and now "TINE" magazine, for as long as that's the case.

And the only thing we didn't have last week was sex. We had religion. We had racism on the part of Dr. Schlessinger. And this one is grabbing a part of the public that doesn't like being called Islamophobic, but thinks it's not wise to build the mosque. KURTZ: But even if you're right, usually these things sort of flare up for a few days, and they run out of gas and something else comes along. And I understand it's August and all we have got is Roger Clemens' indictment, not a lot of other hard news going on out there other than the situation in Iraq.

Why has this gone on and on and on?

MARTIN: Because it taps into a narrative of fear around Islam, for example. I mean, you can see that the polls show -- the Pew Research Center poll shows that there's been a gradual increase in the number of people who say they are very concerned about Islamic extremism in the United States. I think the Ft. Hood shooting certainly played a role in that.

And the fact that -- sure, it is August, but I actually disagree with the fact that this isn't important. At some point we have to define what we are. And this is a cultural conversation. It taps into people's deepest sensitivities.

And so I don't think it's inappropriate to talk about, just like I don't think it's inappropriate to talk Dr. Laura Schlessinger. People think maybe that's a ridiculous argument. To me, it is appropriate to talk about who gets to use what language and when. If the culture matters, then we have to talk about it.

PONNURU: And as Margaret pointed out, the president gave the story legs.

KURTZ: A huge boost.

PONNURU: Yes. And the sort of clarification, and the clarification that the clarification wasn't the clarification. He just kept adding fuel to the fire.

MARTIN: The right-wing blogosphere has been pushing this, and the fact is that there is a symbiotic relationship, I don't think that's unreasonable to point out, between the right-wing blogosphere and media outlets which are mainstream, right-leaning.


PONNURU: Conservative media scoops the mainstream media by recognizing that this was going to be a story that interested people.

MARTIN: But then how do you explain Laura Ingraham on "The O'Reilly Factor" saying she had no problem with it?


CARLSON: When they saw that building the mosque would build ratings, then they jumped on it heavily.

KURTZ: So this is pure box office --

CARLSON: No, it is not pure. It is not pure. They feed on each other.

KURTZ: But Michel makes the point that this went on for months and nobody really cared, and suddenly somebody lit a match.

MARTIN: But then again, people light -- a match can only be lit if people care about it. And the fact is people do have an anxiety about Islam. And I don't think it serves any purpose to pretend that they don't. And that's what conversation is for.

KURTZ: Well, here's my two cents on it. I find this to be an enormous waste of national energy.

I understand the raw feelings involved because of what happened on September 11, 2001, but this is ultimately a symbolic battle. It's not even a mosque. It's a cultural center with a prayer space. It's two blocks away.

What if it was 10 blocks away? What if it's 10 miles away? At what point does it not become something that we all need to argue over?

And as all of you have said, I do think it fits into the argument culture of cable TV, of the Internet. And that is why it hasn't been a weeklong controversy, it hasn't been a two-week-long controversy. It has gone on and on and on. This thing is never going to be built, but I wonder if we're ever going to talk about it for the next six months.

MARTIN: In 10 years from now we won't be talking about this, but it's an issue for right now.

CARLSON: Right. And wouldn't it be a great thing if they moved it a few blocks, and Muslims and Americans who still worry would be talking to each other? Let's compromise. Well, why don't we compromise?

MARTIN: Should anybody move a Catholic church? Did anybody move a Christian church after Timothy McVeigh, who adhered to a cultic -- white supremacist cultic version of Christianity, bombed --


CARLSON: Even now if somebody tried to build a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor, I think there would be a negotiation over, well, how far away?

KURTZ: I want to come back to the media's role, and I want to talk about this question issue of location, because the same issue comes up with this rally next Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial, Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin's going to be there.

The question is, he has absolutely every right to get as many people to come to Washington as he can and to speak to that crowd. Should he do it on the anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech, August 28th, at that site, or should he do it somewhere else?

MARTIN: I'm not in the should business. You're in the should business. I mean, I do credit him --

KURTZ: Does it bother you?

MARTIN: Well, I credit him that he says he doesn't know, that he didn't remember the date, that the date had no particular meaning to him. And I credit that, because people's knowledge of history and historical events is often very much driven by what's meaningful to them. And what he's told us is that is not a meaningful date to him. So I credit that.

CARLSON: If when he found out, had he reconsidered it or treated it or dealt with it, I think then I would believe him a little bit more. But it seems like he now relishes a rumble between the Sharks and the Jets on the Mall.

MARTIN: Sure, he does.

KURTZ: Well, that's what I was going to ask. Is this a -- should the press cover this as a major story, or is a lot of this about Glenn Beck being a lightning rod, and just about whatever he does generates a lot of controversy?

PONNURU: I think there's been actually less coverage than one might have expected, I think partly because there's only so much room in the national mind for a polarizing controversy about symbolism. And the mosque has taken up all of that --

KURTZ: So the mosque has taken up all the oxygen.

PONNURU: -- all of that space. But perhaps as the date moves closer, maybe as people get tired of the mosque controversy, should that ever happen, we'll get more controversy on it. But yes, I think it's an absolutely legitimate story.

KURTZ: Let me turn now to Dr. Laura --

MARTIN: And just remember that the first Iraq war was launched, the air war was launched on January 15th, which was Martin Luther King's birthday, and that was very painful to a number of people given who Dr. King is. And the fact is that we are, in a very big country, going to bump up against people's sensibilities. And it seems to me that the thing to do is to witness to your own values on that day.

KURTZ: Let me turn now to Dr. Laura. And I want to play for you some of what she said on her radio show. This is preceded by her using the N-word. And then her explanation on Larry King of why she is now giving up that program.


LAURA SCHLESSINGER, "THE DR. LAURA PROGRAM": Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is (EXPLETIVE DELETED). I don't get it.



SCHLESSINGER: The reason is I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what's on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates and attack sponsors.


KURTZ: Michel Martin, Dr. Laura says --

MARTIN: Let me dry my eyes. I'm sorry. Forgive me. I just need a minute.

KURTZ: OK. So you're not feeling a lot of sympathy. But she makes the point, and this has come up before, how come some African- American can use the word with each other but a white person can't?

MARTIN: You know, does any serious person who -- anybody who claims to be a serious person still credit this argument? Have we not gotten away from the notion that all African-Americans are responsible for what any African-American does? This is a standard not applied to any other group in this society, except perhaps Muslims.

Are white people -- random white people called to account for what the cast of "Jersey Shore" does? Are white people saying, well, their kids can over-tan, drink too much, and act ridiculous because of the cast of "Jersey Shore"? And --

KURTZ: Well, some Italians have complained about the portrayal, yes.

MARTIN: That's what I'm asking, is what other area of life is she taking direction from black comics on HBO?


MARTIN: So, the notion that we -- that they're dictating the culture and that they set the cultural terms for -- particularly for a conservative is so ridiculous, that it is striking to me that a person making that argument is not laughed out of the room. Let us not even address the First Amendment argument. There is no First Amendment right --


CARLSON: Look at her ratings. Let's look at her ratings and see what she needed to do for her show.

KURTZ: Well, the First Amendment -- in case you haven't read it lately, the First Amendment talks about government making no law involving speech or religion. And so what happened? She said something controversial and she got criticized. What First Amendment rights?

PONNURU: Right. There's no First Amendment right to be free from criticism, to be free from calls for boycotts or any of the other things she talked about. So she doesn't need to regain her First Amendment rights. She never lost them. She's always had them.

And the other point I'd make about the use of the word is I think it is legitimately more offensive coming from non-blacks than coming from blacks. And I don't think that's a really complicated, difficult thing to understand.

KURTZ: Quick thought on that?

MARTIN: But I don't recall her rallying around the Dixie Chicks when people complained that they did not appreciate their criticism of President George W. Bush during the run-up to the Iraq war, during the Gulf War. I don't recall her standing for their First Amendment rights. Frankly, I don't recall George W. Bush standing up for their First Amendment rights.

So, given the fact that we are allowed to -- people are allowed to not like what she said and they're allowed to act accordingly.

CARLSON: The First Amendment didn't come into play. The free market came into play, which, by the way, Laura Schlessinger believes in.

KURTZ: And she may have been trying to make a point about the N- word, but she used that word 11 times.

Thanks very much, Michel Martin, Ramesh Ponnuru, Margaret Carlson. Appreciate your coming by this morning.

When we come back, Blago back on the talk circuit and claiming victory. Were journalists too quick to assume the impeached ex- governor was guilty on all counts?


KURTZ: It seems a tad unusual that a convicted felon is going to appear on "The Daily Show" tomorrow night until you realize it's Blago. Yes, Rod Blagojevich back on the talk show circuit this week after being convicted of lying to the FBI and declaring victory because the Chicago jury was deadlocked on 23 other charges.


ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FMR. ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: From the very beginning when this all happened, I told them that I did not let them down, I didn't break any laws, I didn't do anything wrong. The government, the federal government, and this particular prosecutor did everything he could to target me and prosecute me, persecute me.


KURTZ: There he goes again.

Joining us now to talk about this seemingly endless Blago saga, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun-Times" and a columnist for And in Chicago, Phil Rosenthal, media columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."

Lynn Sweet, we've all heard those tapes so many times. "I've got Obama's seat and it's (bleeping) golden."

Did many people in the press -- not all, but many people mistakenly assume that Blago would be found guilty because those tapes were so incriminating?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, I think some of my colleagues in the press did think that this was the slam-dunk case. By the way, I never did. I don't think I ever thought that.

And when you take a step away, you see that there can be some ambiguity in the tapes and what they mean. And all along, these whole months of the media circus and the traveling tailgate party that Rod's been presiding over, we've been saying what turned out to be true -- all you need is one. And in the charge of the selling of the Senate seat, he found one holdout.

KURTZ: Meaning one her, one juror who did not vote to convict on that central charge about selling the vacant Senate seat.

Phil Rosenthal, in the Chicago's "Beachwood Reporter," Steve Rhodes writes that the pundits, for all the blather about this, don't want to come out and say one thing, and that is the jury screwed up.

Do you agree?

PHIL ROSENTHAL, MEDIA COLUMNIST, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I think that's a distinct possibility. Juries are as human as the people on them. And I think they do make mistakes.

You know, in this case, I think, you know, what happened was the Blagojevich legal team, you know, did some gamesmanship. The feds held back certain witnesses thinking they were going to have to rebut things that the defense put on. The defense said that's it, we're done.

And that was it. Things didn't come into evidence and testimony didn't come up that would have come up otherwise.

KURTZ: Well, people always forget in these cases, these white collar criminal cases, that they get complicated. And the jury found this to be a very complicated case.

I want to play for both of you -- Blago, of course, did dozens and dozens of television interviews after he was impeached, after he was indicted. I want to play for you some sound of him on "The Today Show" this past week, and it begins with a montage of something that drove me crazy. And that was he would do all these interviews and he wouldn't talk about the case, and he gets asked about that.

Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BLAGOJEVICH: I expect to be fully vindicated and clear my name.

I can't wait to take the stand and testify and get the truth out.

Every day goes by, I get closer to taking that stand myself.

I will prove my innocence and I will testify.

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC: There have been reports since then that your defense team, they did sort of a mock trial with you to put you on the stand to see how you did. Let me just finish for a second. That you did not do well, and they figured you would be clobbered by the prosecution and that's why you did not take the stand.

You are saying that is not true at all.

BLAGOJEVICH: They threw everything but the kitchen sink at me. The power of the federal government, with millions and millions of dollars that they can spend of taxpayer money, they failed to convict me of any corruption charges --

VIEIRA: Why didn't you take the stand, though, when you said I'm going to take the stand?

BLAGOJEVICH: -- without us putting any defense.


KURTZ: This whole talkathon, did it help Blago in some way?

SWEET: Yes, it did, because he wasn't convicted. He has -- now, that is not the same thing as an acquittal. He's the most cheerful convicted felon I've ever dealt with -- I've ever seen.

KURTZ: Right. Lying to the FBI is not some minor charge.

SWEET: And he's still facing years in jail -- in prison. Here is his point, though, that he will continue -- he will continue what has worked for him so far. I don't think this is very hard.

He had a successful ploy this time in a case that was weighted against him. And when he -- you know, two things could be true at once. And I wish the questioning had been a little more sharper. Yes, he could have failed at his mock questioning, and yes, they then felt that they didn't have to push him into testifying.

KURTZ: Right.

Phil Rosenthal, how would you rate how Meredith Vieira handled that interview? As we saw just a little bit of it, I mean, Blago kept talking over her, not answering her questions. How did she handle it?

ROSENTHAL: Well, I think it's a terrible situation when you're the first person. I mean, it's great to be first, and it's great to be able to promote that you have this first thing. But being the first person in, you have certain obligations that the next few people don't.

I think she did OK. I think once you heard what the talking points were, I would frame the questions or go to another area that he's not saying those same things over and over again about, you know, the prosecutor turning persecutor, et cetera, et cetera.

I think with Meredith, at some point you back off and you say, OK, look, your own legal team called you an idiot, said you weren't smart enough to pull this off, and yet you're still talking about doing -- you know, having a public career. What are you talking about? You know, talking about the things his own people said.

KURTZ: Right. He kept spewing the standard applause lines.


SWEET: Well, part of it was is that -- and there is a good interview that Chris Wallace did on Fox today. And he got to what is something new here that you are hearing. It didn't come out in the NBC interview, that Blagojevich is now raising the ante by hinting and teasing that somehow President Obama's being dragged into this.

He did that on an ABC interview. He was asked about it today. And then, when Chris Wallace did the follow-up, saying, "What do you mean" Blagojevich said, "Well, I can't talk about that."

Now, this is a pretty serious point in the storyline where there are no things going. I think "The Today Show" had their get and --

ROSENTHAL: And it may not be true. That's the other thing.


SWEET: But Phil, I'm saying that there are some new things now that Blagojevich is mentioning. He's brought up Rahm Emanuel's name more than he had before. He brought up the name of another Illinois congressman today.

KURTZ: Let me jump in, because I want to get one more --

SWEET: He's bringing out stuff because he knows that he can't keep on saying the same things forever.

KURTZ: I want to get one more question to Phil.

Patrick Fitzgerald, he was not popular with the Washington media when he was going after journalists in the Valerie Plame case, sent Judith Miller to jail. Is the press -- but he's gotten a pretty good ride in Chicago. Is the press now turning on him for not doing more than getting the one count conviction in this case?

ROSENTHAL: Look, this is a city where people, you know, have tolerated a lot of losing for a lot of years for a lot of things. I think if you look at the big picture, I think people are tolerant of him. I think, you know, after a big loss, people will start asking questions. And that's going to happen. And you're seeing it in the national press, and I think you'll see more of it locally.

But ultimately, you know, do people think he was wrong to bring this case? I don't think so.

KURTZ: So, it's sort of like, Lynn, if you're playing for the Cubs or the White Sox. If you lose, then you get kicked around by the papers?

SWEET: You are. And in the national press room, where there's residual dislike of him because of the way the Plame case went out and going after reporters. But a quick point here.

KURTZ: Very quick.

SWEET: Patrick Fitzgerald doesn't mind going to court. He doesn't mind losing. He wants to bring the case again. And a lot of prosecutors aren't like that.

KURTZ: And I wonder how much media attention a retrial will get.

Phil Rosenthal, Lynn Sweet, you'll certainly be covering it. Thanks for joining us.

SWEET: Thank you.


KURTZ: Coming up in the second half of "RELIABLE SOURCES," have the media gotten so loud and so boisterous they can drown out a president? Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum on why he thinks the press is out of control.

Plus, it's the women's Web site that took on "The Daily Show." Jezebel's editor on why she picked a fight with Jon Stewart.

And later, Richard Engel and Rupert Murdoch on the radar screen in our "Media Monitor."


KURTZ: The most common refrain about the nation's capital these days is that Washington is broken and President Obama regularly blames the 24/7 media culture. Now a top "Vanity Fair" writer seems to agree. How, asks Todd Purdum, can a president get anything done in this atmosphere? He writes that Obama "faces the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-out, combative media environment ever."

Well, maybe, but doesn't that come with the job, even in this digital age?

I posed that question earlier here in the studio.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Todd Purdum, welcome.

TODD PURDUM, "VANITY FAIR": Thanks, Howie. Nice to be here.

KURTZ: This souped-up, trucked-out media is a fact of life, the Internets and all that.

Hasn't a president and his job always been to break through the static?

PURDUM: I think that's true. And I think, you know, we saw presidents -- FDR adapted beautifully to radio. JFK was really in the first television president. His funeral was the first live television event of any consequence in some ways. So, yes, each president has had to do it.

And I think, you know, the Obama White House, you know better than I, look what they do on their own Web site every day in terms of the way they try to get around the traditional media by doing their own blogs and their own video feeds and their own kind of updates.

KURTZ: And that's the thing. You talked to Rahm and you talk to David Axelrod, and you seem to be buying into their argument in this piece that this wild and crazy media culture is undermining the administration.

PURDUM: No, I don't think -- well, I think the wild and crazy media culture makes it very difficult for anybody, for this president -- and it would apply equally to President Bush, with the one exception of Fox, which was not quite the same thorn in his side that it has been in Obama's

KURTZ: Sure.

PURDUM: But I think the thing that struck me about them, they don't really complain about it. They just note it.

I mean, they say this is the way it is. Axelrod said, "We can't put the genie back in the bottle of modern communications." Their task, they realize, is to adapt to it and to live within it.

KURTZ: But the president has got the biggest megaphone as president.


KURTZ: He doesn't hold many news conferences, but he's on TV every day, Leno, Letterman, he does "The View."

PURDUM: And he's given all these interviews, yes.

KURTZ: So he can harness all the same forces as anybody else, and I -- you know, we constantly hear him talking about the 24-7 media culture and so forth. And I wonder if it struck your ear as being a little whiny. PURDUM: It really didn't, because they talked more about how they have to live with it. I think what is unusual is the pace of it. I mean, you and I are --

KURTZ: Old enough.

PURDUM: -- analog guys. We're old enough to remember when there really was such a thing as a news cycle.

And 15 years ago, when I covered the Clinton White House, we liked to say there was a 24-7 news cycle. But there really wasn't.

There was 24 hours of 22 minutes being represented over and over. And a single blogger with a laptop didn't have the power to start a story that would go around the world instantly, just like a single person with a laptop didn't really have the power to create a terrorist attack.

So I think that that's all a little bit different.

KURTZ: But as infuriating as that can be, particularly if that's a story that's not particularly well documented or is trivial or whatever -- I mean, we've all been through those cycles -- it's a healthy thing to have other voices out there --

PURDUM: Oh, absolutely.

KURTZ: -- than just to have some networks and newspapers controlling the dialogue.

PURDUM: Oh, I think the multiplicity of voices is probably a really healthy thing. I think the problem that some of Obama's advisers, Valerie Jarrett and others point out, is the multiplicity of unreliable sources.

You have to be really careful. You have to be a discerning consumer of the news, because it's all out there jumbled together, and if you don't really read skeptically, you may believe something, you know, from some totally tainted or partisan source, you know, that's all presented kind of in some one endless stream.

So, for example, when one out of five Americans say they think the president is a Muslim, and 60 percent of the people say they learned that from the media, I wonder -- I don't think that means they're watching your program or, you know, Wolf. They're confusing in their whole mind the media, everybody's Twitter or something. The media is --

KURTZ: All the e-mails that go around.

PURDUM: Exactly. Their own, you know --

KURTZ: But in this piece, you keep coming back to the theme that Washington is broken, almost an ungovernable place. At the same time, Obama has gotten through health care reform --


KURTZ: -- financial reform, you know, nearly a trillion dollars in stimulus spending. But a common lament is that that media haven't given him credit for that, or that the public hasn't given him credit for that, because it's not the issues that everyone cares about, which is basically this broken economy.

PURDUM: Well, there's a strange disconnect. And Obama finds himself in the unenviable position of making achievements that have to do with government doing things at a time when the public doesn't trust government or the press or institutions generally to deal with the problems in their lives. But, of course, as we know from the BP oil spill, when something goes wrong, the public does want government to be able to fix something and fix it fast.

KURTZ: So you don't think it's that the media -- the mainstream media, in this case -- have given short shrift to what this president has gotten done, although we certainly focused a lot on all the things where he has not been able to accomplish things or has been stymied by the Republicans?

PURDUM: No, I think the media has given him plenty of credit for the things that he's done, from health care to financial regulatory reform or whatever. I think, again, it has to do with the sheer volume of coverage, so that whatever is new for any given two-hour period trumps whatever might be more important six weeks or six months down the road. And we're constantly in this position of the new crowding out the old, whether the old was more important or not.

So I think it's hard. The Reagan administration, they used to famously be able to, you know, drive a story for days at a time. They could choose to make the media focus on something. I think it's been very, very hard for the Obama administration.

KURTZ: Now you're lucky if you can drive a story for half a day.

PURDUM: Exactly. Exactly.

KURTZ: So do you think there's too much short-term mentality in this business? I mean, it's got to be driven, in part, not just by the Internet, but by cable, which everything is, like, breaking news, developing story, because you don't want to have the same story you had that morning.

PURDUM: Exactly. Well, you can look at the way our corporate mentality works in terms of the quarterly results emphasis of Wall Street.


PURDUM: And so, in some ways, the media is under the same kind of pressure and the presidency is under there's some kind of pressure to, you know, as Mike McCurry used to say, feed the beast and deliver the goods. And I think it's very hard for any administration these days to keep public attention focused on a single topic. KURTZ: You point out that in 1993, "The New York Times" had the following people covering the White House: Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Gwen Ifill, Rick Berke, and Michael Kelly. Now you say many of the younger correspondents, it's their first big assignment.

Is that hurting the coverage?

PURDUM: I think it makes a difference in the coverage if people -- if it's their first trip to the fair. I mean "The New York Times" has a very distinguished current team now, so that's not meant to --

KURTZ: But there's a little bit of a tone in here where you're kind of saying these kids today, they don't do it the way we do.

PURDUM: I'm fifty. I'm fifty. I mean, you know, I'm an old fart.

So when you get to a certain point in life, I do think you look back -- and there's a tendency, and I have to be careful in this piece not to say that, you know, there was some golden age in Washington, because there were a lot of problems in Washington 50 years ago, as we know, and a lot of injustices and a lot of corruption.

KURTZ: And a lot of gaps in the coverage.


KURTZ: "An entire generation of Beltway journalists" -- quoting you now -- "has come of age being taught that the way to succeed is to be a smart, if not smart-alecky, young thing."

So do you think there's too much attitude in the way Washington --

PURDUM: Well, you know, in the past 20 years, there's been a lot of emphasis on snap, crackle and pop, and a kind of a sizzly approach to things, and the sort of "just the facts, ma'am" mantra has, you know, faded in favor of a kind of more attitudinized, stylized journalism.

But I think that the real problem is not the quality of the reporters. I think there are many excellent reporters today. I think it's the patience of the public, the patience of reporters, the pace of life, the notion that just because something seems like a big deal on Tuesday afternoon, you really should think, will it be a big deal next February? And I think we don't think about that enough.

KURTZ: It's a minute-by-minute news cycle.

Todd Purdum, thanks very much for stopping by.

PURDUM: Thanks for having me, Howie.


KURTZ: And Todd Purdum's piece appears in the September issue of "Vanity Fair." He didn't get the cover, though. That went to Lady Gaga.

Up next, "Jezebel" serves up celebrity sex and fashion, and women are clicking like crazy. Editor Jessica Coen explains it all in a moment.


KURTZ: A Web site called "Jezebel" bills itself as providing celebrities, sex, and fashion for women without airbrushing. The staff also has a knack for stirring up controversy, as they did with a recent piece on "The Daily Show," calling the Comedy Central program "a boys' club where women's contributions are often ignored and dismissed, and where female correspondents other than Samantha Bee have had a tough time."

That got the host's attention.


JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": I know we're working on a book and we're exhausted, people are frazzled, we haven't had a break in months. "Jezebel" thinks I'm a sexist prick.


KURTZ: And joining me now from New York is Jessica Coen, the editor of "Jezebel."



KURTZ: "Jezebel," which is part of Gawker Media, is getting 200,000 visitors a day.

What are you giving them that they can't get elsewhere?

COEN: We are a general interest women's Web site, and we cover everything from news and media, to celebrity and gossip. And we do it through a lens that's more irreverent and a bit more critical than traditional women's media. And we appeal to readers who are not necessarily satisfied by the current offerings from the traditional women's media establishment.

KURTZ: Right. As we just saw, you ticked off Jon Stewart there with that piece.

After your piece ran, "The Daily Show" had about 30 or more female staffers sign a letter saying, you know, we feel very valued here and that Jon Stewart and the program are not sexist.

What was your reaction to that little bit of playing defense?

COEN: You know, we were really happy to see them speak up. And we were not dismissing in any way the contribution of female staffers behind the scenes. But we're talking very specifically about on-air talent and creative talent. And the women who were signing that letter, there are plenty of women who work there, but those aren't the positions we're talking about.

KURTZ: And some of the women in your piece who were critical or said they hadn't had the best experience on "The Daily Show," they went on the record. So this was not just a bunch of anonymous sources.

COEN: Absolutely not.


You had a piece this week that's caught my eye. You posted unretouched photos -- how often do we see those of movie stars -- of Jennifer Aniston. And then "Jezebel" got a letter from a photo agency demanding -- it's called a cease and desist letter in legal terms -- demanding that the photos be taken down.

What was your response?

COEN: Our response was that we absolutely are not going to take those photos down, because we believe in fair use and we are protected under fair use. And the fact that those photos exist, that's news in and of itself. Usually, when we see celebrities it's in one of one or two contexts.

First, it's the polished version, it's the red carpet version, or it's the airbrushed version that you see in magazines. Alternately, traditional tabloid media shows us pictures of celebrities without their makeup on. And women don't really need to see that.

We know what women look like without makeup on. But to see what a woman looks like with her makeup on at a photo shoot, and what she looks like without the Photoshopping and without the airbrushing, that's interesting, that's news. And that's important to women see that.

KURTZ: And then you posted the letter of -- from the lawyer and your response. So you let people know that there was this dispute going on behind the scenes.

COEN: Absolutely. I think it's also important that we show readers not only our images being manipulated, but there's a great effort to control those images being released.

KURTZ: Because clearly it would be a national scandal if we saw what these women really looked like.

COEN: Right. God forbid.

KURTZ: Now, you worked for Gawker before, and then you left. And about three years ago you wrote a piece for "Glamour" magazine about that which I am now going to quote.

You said, "I've been called a bitch, a hack, a wannabe, a fake and a freak, but never once to my face. I have no doubt that by job change" -- leaving Gawker -- "kept me from a minor emotional breakdown. The unmitigated and unintelligent nastiness has to end."

So, it sounds like that had a pretty searing effect on you at the time.

COEN: Absolutely. I mean, in one way it's very important to build a thick skin, and I have. But it was very eye-opening to see just how far people would go behind the cloak of anonymity.

KURTZ: But you obviously poked a lot of people in your role at Gawker. So it wasn't a one-way fight.

COEN: Certainly. And in a way it's -- I didn't poke people by calling them fat, and I didn't insult their appearance. But I also -- whatever, you know, perhaps unpleasant things I said in that position I said it with my name. You knew who was saying it.

KURTZ: That's true.

COEN: I wasn't afraid to put my name on things.

KURTZ: All these anonymous comments drive me crazy, because people hurl all kinds of invective, and they don't have their name attached.

Now, since you have a thick skin I'll ask you this question. A former Gawker writer, Emily Gould (ph), wrote on Slate that "Jezebel exploits women's insecurities," that "it produces petty jealousy cleverly marketed as feminism."

Your response?

COEN: I think that's terribly unfair. I think that is insulting to any woman who is not your traditional lady mag audience.

We are not exploiting jealousy. And to say that -- what's terrible about that is it's saying our concerns and issues that we want to talk about are being raised simply because we're jealous. That's insulting.

KURTZ: Given what you wrote earlier, do you try to avoid an overly snarky tone at "Jezebel"?

COEN: We aren't -- snark is not our default voice, but sometimes things need to be treated with a certain grain of salt and irreverence, and when that's merited we're not afraid to go there.

KURTZ: I'm totally pro-irreverence.

I've got about 20 seconds.

Ninety-seven percent of your readers I've read are women. Don't you want guys like me reading it too?

COEN: Well, you are because I'm here. But of course. Of course. And we are working on that. But it's women who are not getting to have the discussions that they want to have. KURTZ: All right.

Jessica Coen, thank you for bringing your thick skin into the studio today. We appreciate it.

COEN: Thank you for having me.

KURTZ: Good to talk to you.

Coming up, the pullout from Iraq of U.S. combat troops may have been a minor story for the media, but it was big on Sunday morning.

We'll be back in a moment with Candy Crowley.


KURTZ: President Obama hasn't had very much to say about this week's pullout of the final U.S. combat traps from troops from Iraq, at least so far, but some of the people involved in the war were talking about it to Candy Crowley, and she joins me now.

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION" You know, the big question -- I think the picture we saw this week, or at least that I saw the most, was a soldier leaving, going, you know, we're going home, we won, it's over. And, of course, he is going home, but we haven't won and it's not over.

There's 50,000 troops still in the U.S.(sic). So when --

KURTZ: Still in Iraq.

CROWLEY: I'm sorry, still in Iraq. And so when I spoke to the commander there, Odierno, I asked him whether when those 50,000 leave, scheduled for the end of 2011, whether Iraq will be able to fend for itself.


GEN. RAY ODIERNO, COMMANDING GENERAL, U.S. FORCES, IRAQ: My assessment today is that they will be. I think that they continue to grow. We continue to see development in planning, in their ability to conduct operations.



ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: The question for me is whether next year we're drawing the entire force with some residual training elements perhaps remaining, whether the Iraqis will be ready then. And I believe that's a tall order.


KURTZ: Given those caveats and qualifications, maybe Barack Obama is trying to avoid a "Mission Accomplished" moment? CROWLEY: He absolutely is. And he even said, look, there still -- there may still be more deaths. In fact, we had a U.S. soldier die today in Iraq.

And I think the question is, we're also hearing from the Iraqis this great angst about what's going to happen next. And we heard from some top level Iraqis that if, in fact, the head of their joint chiefs, if in fact they waited until the Israeli -- I'm sorry, if they waited until the Iraqi military was ready, that would in fact be 2020.

So I asked Odierno whether 2020 was doable.


CROWLEY: Can you foresee a scenario like that, that there would be some U.S. military presence, albeit much smaller, in 2020?

ODIERNO: Yes. I think -- I don't know. I think it depends on what kind of presence you're talking about. If the government of Iraq requests some technical assistance in fielding systems that allow them to continue to protect themselves from external threats, we could be here.


KURTZ: There's also the question of the president's role as campaigner-in-chief with the midterms coming upon us. And you spoke to a former presidential candidate and former head of the DNC.

CROWLEY: Yes, Howard Dean. Also Mitch McConnell, head of the Republican Party on the Senate side, was out.

The big question now is we see the president's popularity falling. We see all of these predictions that it's going to be a wave election and the House will be taken over by Republicans.

So both of them kind of talked about that today.

KURTZ: Which Joe Biden denied.

CROWLEY: Yes, right. Exactly.


HOWARD DEAN, FMR. DNC CHAIRMAN: Here's the deal. It's not the coattails. We know he doesn't have coattails from the '09 elections and the governor's race.

What he does do is set the tone for the Democratic Party in a way that nobody else can. For the president to be out there fighting as he has been for the last two or three weeks and sounding like Harry Truman, people love that stuff. They want to see a fighter. They want to see strength in their leaders.

And I think President Obama is showing that strength.



SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: The American public has taken a look at this administration. They think it's spending too much, borrowing too much, taking over too much of the private sector, and now raising taxes on top of it. I think we're going to have a very good day.

DAVID GREGORY, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": But you cautioned against irrational exuberance about your chances in the Senate.

MCCONNELL: Yes, I think irrational exuberance is not appropriate. There are 70-some-odd days between now and the election. I'm optimistic.


KURTZ: Candy, when you asked Howard Dean whether Democrats would retain control on Capitol Hill, he said definitely for the Senate. And then there was kind of a pause when it came to the House.

CROWLEY: Pause, yes. I mean, that's where everybody is at. I don't think there's anyone at this point predicting that there's a good chance Republicans will take over in the Senate. Certainly, they'll gain some seats, but all eyes are on the House.

KURTZ: And our eyes will continue to be there.

Candy Crowley, thanks very much for stopping by.

Still to come, Richard Engel's exclusive footage of the U.S. combat withdrawal from Iraq. And Rupert Murdoch's company gives a big, fat gift to the GOP.

That and more in our "Media Monitor" next.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our look at the hits and errors in the news business. Here's what I liked.

NBC's Richard Engel embedded again in Iraq, chronicling the pullout of the last U.S. combat forces this week. Engel, who covered the 2003 invasion as a freelancer on an illegal visa, was there at the end.


Richard ENGEL, NBC NEWS: I'm standing right at the border crossing, and you can see the headlights of the last American convoy of combat troops coming through the border right now.


KURTZ: Now, of course this was a symbolic moment with the war still going on and 50,000 American troops still there. But Engel's real-time reporting provided a perspective on the bloodshed of the last seven and a half years.

Here's what I didn't like -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. giving $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. It was only four months ago that Murdoch said this --


RUPERT MURDOCH, NEWS CORP.: I didn't we should be supporting the Tea Party or any other party.


KURTZ: Now, there's a fair amount of hypocrisy surrounding this question. Other media companies make political donations.

NBC's parent, General Electric, has given $245,000 to the Democratic governors and $205,000 to the Republican governors in this cycle. Time Warner, CNN's corporate parent, has given $100,000 to Democratic candidates and groups, $43,000 to the Republicans. And News Corp. has given a bit more of its other donations to Democrats than to Republicans.

So, there's no basis for arguing that the donations compromise Fox News more than the other networks. But Murdoch, who's famous for meddling with his newspapers, had to know that an eye-popping seven- figure contribution to help elect GOP governors would attract plenty of attention, especially when News Corp. gave zip to the Democratic governors. And he did it anyway.

That seems to me a self-inflicted wound.

And "The New York Post" messed up in accusing former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers of hypocrisy. Why? Because, as we learned from "The Daily Finance" Web site, she's become the CEO of Johnson Publishing, which puts out "Ebony" and "Jet." And after all, said The Post's "Page Six" gossip column, Robert Johnson, who was the founder of Black Entertainment Television, has been a sharp Obama critic. Except Johnson publishing is run by Linda Johnson Rice and has never had anything to do with Robert Johnson.

You'd think "Page Six" would recognize it's a pretty common last name. Its editor is Richard Johnson.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

If you missed any of our program, you can download our podcast at, or on iTunes.

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.