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Reliable Sources

NPR Fires Williams; Politicians Versus the Press

Aired October 24, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: It's a question that keeps popping up with controversial commentators -- how far is too far?

NPR fires Juan Williams for saying he gets nervous when he sees Muslim passengers on a plane. But was the firing really about his connection to Fox News, where some hosts are calling for an end to NPR's federal subsidies?

It dawned on me the other day, how did things get so bad between the politicians and the press? With some Republican candidates denouncing journalists, threatening journalists, and this week having a journalist handcuffed, how is this changing the dynamic of the midterm campaign? And has this political season turned into a tragedy or a farce?

We need a theater critic's eye for that conversation. A conversation with Frank Rich of "The New York Times."

Plus, with Jon Stewart having landed Barack Obama as a "Daily Show" guest, and staging his big Washington rally six days from now, is he expanding his portfolio from sharp satirist to political player?

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

Juan Williams is one of the most prominent African-American commentators out there and one of the most controversial. He's paid for his opinions, but one of those opinions this week prompted National Public Radio to dump in.

I have trouble seeing that as a firing offense, but it's no secret that some folks at NPR didn't like Williams' other role as a Fox News contributor. So it may be more than a coincidence that Juan made his remarks on "The O'Reilly Factor," where the host was seeking support for his comments on the view that Muslims attacked us on 9/11.


JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I've got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think they're identifying themselves, first and foremost, as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous.

Wait a second though. Wait, hold on. Because if you say, wait, Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say, first and foremost, we've got a problem with Christians. That's crazy.


KURTZ: NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller defended the firing and made a stunning reference to Juan's mental health.


VIVIAN SCHILLER, CEO, NPR: Juan feels the way he feels. That is not for me to pass judgment on.

That is really -- his feelings that he expressed on Fox News are really between him and his, you know, psychiatrist or his publicist, or take your pick. But it is not compatible with a news analyst -- with the role of a news analyst on NPR's air.


KURTZ: Schiller later apologized for the "psychiatrist" slur.

Now, the story exploded, hitting the ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts. Some Fox hosts were quick to savage the federally- supported radio network.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Ms. Schiller is a pinhead. In my opinion, Ms. Schiller should resign immediately because she's simply not smart enough to run a media company.



KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: They can't even take an honest liberal like Juan Williams and tolerate him. They have to cast him out in a particularly, I think, vulgar and pitiful way.


KURTZ: So what does this dismissal tell us about Juan Williams, Fox, NPR, and political correctness?

Joining us now here in Washington, Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune"; Terence Smith, former media correspondent for PBS; and in Dallas, S.E. Cupp, columnist for "The New York Daily News."

Clarence Page, you are a friend of Juan Williams.


KURTZ: You used to be -- PAGE: Everybody in Washington knows Juan. I mean, I'm not special.

KURTZ: You used to be a paid NPR contributor.

Did National Public Radio make a huge blunder in firing him?

PAGE: I think it was -- I've got to say, Howard, the same day Juan was fired, I was giving a speech in Chicago on how the civil rights agenda has been subverted by a new kind of scandal -- the gaffe, the goof, and the "gotcha." Here's a case where Juan made a gaffe. He did not transmit exactly the idea he wanted to transmit.

KURTZ: Although he later clarified it.

PAGE: He clarified it later. And I think NPR goofed by overreacting and immediately firing him without going through the regular due process. It was kind of like a Shirley Sherrod case. And then Fox came along and said "gotcha." They were after NPR, liberals, political correctness, and Roger Ailes, and a perfect opportunity.

KURTZ: And anyone could have predicted that.

Terry Smith, NPR says Juan Williams violated his standards for an objective analyst. But isn't that kind of code for saying he said something we didn't agree with?

TERRENCE SMITH, FMR. MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, NPR: No, I don't think so. I think the statement that Juan made was reprehensible. It was precisely the sort of stereotyping and profiling that Juan would complain about if it was said about African-Americans.

KURTZ: Well, let me just in. He wasn't saying all Muslims are terrorists. He wasn't saying we should profile Muslims. We wasn't say we should discriminate against Muslims.

He was saying these were his feelings. And don't you think a lot of people probably have those feelings on an airplane?

SMITH: Of course they do. I realize that. You don't say it. It's as simple as that.


SMITH: It is an abusive thing to say. On the other hand, I think NPR handled it about as badly as they could with a, you know, late-night firing over the telephone after a 10-year relationship. I think that was unfortunate, to say the least.

KURTZ: Bungling doesn't begin to describe it.

S.E. Cupp, let me play a very brief clip for you of Juan Williams talking about the firing on O'Reilly.


WILLIAMS: They were looking for a reason to get rid of me --

O'REILLY: They were looking. Right.

WILLIAMS: -- because I appear on Fox News.

O'REILLY: That's right.

WILLIAMS: They don't want me talking to you.


KURTZ: Do you agree that NPR was looking for an excuse to dump Juan Williams because of his Fox connection?

S.E. CUPP, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": I don't know. I mean, they have a number of relationships like that. Mara Liasson is another one. I don't know.

What I think is that what Juan said was neither reprehensible nor abusive. I think that NPR is so keen on and aware of the political correctness surrounding these kinds of conversations now, that they anticipated a firestorm surrounding Juan's comments that never happened.

In fact, I don't know anyone who watched that moment live and thought, oh, boy, this is going to be -- you know, this is going to be a big story. NPR made it a story, I think, preemptively, expecting it to be much more damaging than it was. And in doing so, NPR really just killed NPR.

KURTZ: All right.

Let me ask Clarence Page, because you write about this morning. Well, first of all, for people who don't know Juan's background, former "Washington Post" reporter and columnist. He's long ticked off fellow liberals and African-Americans for sometimes not being liberal enough. He supported Clarence Thomas.

PAGE: He's an independent thinker. And his book "Enough" took the Bill Cosby side in that great debate.

KURTZ: And what Terry Smith calls reprehensible, you write, "We all have prejudices. Everybody profiles somebody or another. What matters how we put our rational prejudices aside."

So, I'm thinking you didn't find the comments to be reprehensible.

PAGE: No. I think I would only disagree with Terry to the point of saying there's a right way and a wrong way to say it.

SMITH: Exactly.

PAGE: Because everybody profiles.

SMITH: We can acknowledge that people profile -- PAGE: Thank you. Thank you. Everybody profiles.

SMITH: -- but I wouldn't put it the way he did.

PAGE: Right. And, you know, what is it Frank Luntz says, it's not what you say, it's what other people hear? And that's what happened in this case.

KURTZ: Did the media wrench that sentence out of context and not -- you know, I tried to play the full clip where he talked about, well, we shouldn't do this to Christians, using Timothy McVeigh as an example. In other words, he seemed to be making -- after saying that one thing maybe indelicately, he seemed to be making actually the opposite argument.

SMITH: Well, I think the fundamental problem here is he had one role on NPR as an analyst and another role on Fox as a commentator, and even, you know, playing the Fox game, a bit of a provocateur. So those two things are not compatible. And NPR should have acknowledged that, and I would say that Juan Williams should have acknowledged it.

I looked up the NPR standards on their own Web site as for exactly this. And they say, "An NPR journalist should not participate in shows, electronic forums or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis."

KURTZ: The kind of thing you'd never see on CNN, punditry and --


KURTZ: S.E. Cupp, Sarah Palin getting into the act here, tweeting that -- addressing Juan rhetorically -- "You got a taste of left's hypocrisy. They screwed you."

Conservatives are loving this, and it makes Fox News, which, by the way, gave Juan Williams a three-year, $2 million contract in the wake of this firing, makes Fox News look open-minded.

CUPP: Right. I mean, Fox News defends their own like it's nobody's business. And if you've ever been around Fox -- I'm sure you know this, Howie -- you don't mess with Fox's people.

So you saw -- I mean, he's been on Fox seven, eight times a day in the past week, and even filled in for O'Reilly, which I suspect was not scheduled to happen before this story developed. So I think Fox is sort of clinging to Juan, protecting Juan, making a very big show of this.

And it's interesting. I mean, we've seen a lot of these public censurings. You know, you had David Shuster at MSNBC and you had Rick Sanchez at CNN.

KURTZ: Right.

CUPP: And Helen Thomas. I can't remember the last time Fox, you know, really sort of kicked out one of its own for saying something wrong. It's very interesting to watch Fox sort of embrace these, you know, heated moments and defend them, right or wrong, whether it's Glenn Beck or Juan Williams.

PAGE: Well, some people they don't invite back, like me. I don't know why they haven't invited me back since Barack Obama was elected.

KURTZ: You used to be on O'Reilly fairly regularly.

PAGE: Fairly regularly, yes. I mean, nobody said anything. I just haven't been invited back.

KURTZ: I'm a little short on time. Let me get to a larger issue with O'Reilly and Huckabee and others now saying that the federal subsidies for NPR, which only amounts to a couple of percentage points, should be either frozen or cut off.

What do you make of that?

PAGE: We've seen this before, Howie. Remember back in the '90s, Newt Gingrich Congress wanted to cut it back.

What was interesting to me, Howard, was that the biggest backlash did not come from big cities and college towns. They came from the same kind of small towns, rural America, Alaska to Nebraska, places where they don't have a whole lot of cultural outlets involved.

SMITH: And, you know, in 1994, when Newt Gingrich wanted to zero out the funding, federal funding for PBS, the individual contributions to PBS went way up.

KURTZ: My question for you, Terry Smith, as a former PBS journalist -- and I think the debate over federal subsidies should be decided separate from this Juan Williams incident, and there's a legitimate debate to be had there.

SMITH: And it will be.

KURTZ: Should National Public Radio this week -- terrible timing -- have accepted almost $2 million from the left-wing philanthropist George Soros to hire 100 reporters? Doesn't that reinforce the stereotype that the right loves to throw around about NPR that it's a left-leaning operation?

SMITH: Well, look, no, or it shouldn't, because they can accept George Soros' money and still maintain -- NPR can -- their professional standards and perform as the journalists they are. They took, what, $200 million-plus from Joan Kroc's estate? They didn't espouse her politics, whatever they may have been.

I mean, they have a standard and they can maintain it. But there's money as well as any other money.

KURTZ: Let me very briefly get S.E. Cupp in on that, on the George Soros donation question. CUPP: I mean, I don't know how they defend any sort of, you know, pretense of being unbiased and objective after Juan Williams. And with that in mind, I mean, it really is peculiar that they talk about an editorial standard.

And you saw their director say, well, I'm not going to judge Juan Williams. Of course you are. And they did. They are making judgments, ideological judgments. It's thought-policing, and it's very, very alarming.

KURTZ: Well, I disagree. I think that the --

PAGE: I think it's more of a personnel decision than an ideological decision.

KURTZ: Right. But I think that taking the Soros money is a big mistake.

Let me get a break.

CUPP: Yes.

KURTZ: When we come back, open warfare. It's always been a contentious relationship, but when did politicians and the press become mortal enemies?

And later we'll talk media and politics with "New York Times" columnist Frank Rich.


KURTZ: Somewhere along the way, the media became the enemy. Obviously, that doesn't apply to everyone in politics, but what we've seen on the Republican side of this campaign goes well beyond the traditional efforts to neutralize or manipulate the press.

We've talked in these last few weeks about how candidates such as Sharron Angle and Meg Whitman have walked away from reporters, how Christine O'Donnell has vowed to ignore the national media, how Carl Paladino, running for New York governor, threatened to "take out" a "New York Post" reporter. And this week, Alaska blogger Tony Hopfinger, covering Senate candidate Joe Miller, found himself in handcuffs.


TONY HOPFINGER, "ALASKA DISPATCH": I followed him into the hallway, continued to ask the question. He answered one of the questions, and then when I was trying to ask the second, he just turned around and went the other direction.

Suddenly, I was surrounded by these, I guess, security guards -- they didn't identify themselves as that -- as well as Miller supporters. And quickly, I was being chest-bumped, et cetera. Essentially, I mean, if there's any assault here, it was on me. They illegally detained me. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Terry Smith, what do you make of this hostility toward the media and kind of turning journalists into the opposition?

SMITH: Well, I think look at who's doing it, look at the candidates you just cited. They're all Republican, that's one thing, but they're all neophytes, they're all new at the game.

I think they're very awkward and uncomfortable with the media. They've been told by their media advisers that if you do answer questions, you're going to hurt yourself, you're going to get in trouble, and they have. So, you know, I mean, it's a -- I think a defensive maneuver.

KURTZ: S.E. Cupp, some of these Tea Party candidates and non- establishment Republicans with not that much experience in the game, as Terry points out, seem to view aggressive questioning or looking into somebody's past records as some kind of unfair assault.

CUPP: Yes. And, I mean, you know, it's complicated, because you want these newcomers to be vetted. I mean, thank God Carl Paladino looks great on paper, but I am very, very grateful that we have gotten to know him better through the press.

KURTZ: I don't want to get to know him any better than this given some of the things he's said.

CUPP: Oh, I know. Trust me, I'm with you. But, you know, so that is good.

However, I think these candidates realize that, you know, a lot of people in the media really dropped the ball in 2008. They remember that. They watched it happen.

They watched people attack Sarah Palin, for example, and turned sound bites into stories. And you're seeing that happen again.

I mean, the media has jumped on Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell's comments about church and state, and they've turned that into a story, taking it out of context. So I think these people are very reluctant to get too friendly and too cozy with the media because they don't trust them. And they feel like they can be better telegraphers of their messages themselves.

KURTZ: Well, nobody's saying they should be friendly or cozy. The question is whether they should engage and try to get their side out.

Clarence Page, has there been so much media piling on against candidates like Christine O'Donnell, like Sharron Angle, everything from witchcraft to evolution, the videos from Bill Maher, that it creates sort of a backlash, that it creates a certain amount of sympathy for these candidates who seem to be under siege.

PAGE: Well, that's what those candidates hope. They have somehow allowed themselves -- well, they're saying that the media are treating them unfairly by quoting them accurately. That's essentially what has happened here.


PAGE: It's terrible. You know, and their campaign advisers, all of whom read Machiavelli, know that one does not get in the way of one's enemy while the enemy is destroying himself. And right now there's an anti-incumbent mood out there among voters.

If you're a new face, then just show your face, don't say anything, just be the alternative, because there's this idea among some -- obviously, Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, they think the more they talk, the more trouble they get into. So this is a tactic.

KURTZ: Let me go to a specific example for you, Terry Smith.

Maureen Dowd wrote a column about "Republican Mean Girl." She went to Las Vegas for a debate between Sharron Angle and Harry Reid. And then in response we had the former Alaska governor saying this about "The New York Times" columnist --


PALIN: That's so funny, because I don't think I've ever met that gal, Maureen Dowd, O'Dowd (sic), whatever the heck her name is. I don't think I've ever met her, and I don't think that she probably hasn't met Jan Brewer or some of these other wonderful, pleasant, gracious, nice, hard-working mama grizzlies who are wanting to turn this country around.


KURTZ: Now, Dowd says she wasn't allowed on Palin's plane during the campaign, and Sharron Angle is not talking to her. So, how do you criticize a journalist for not personally knowing candidates who have no interest in talking to them?

SMITH: Yes. I mean, look, Sarah Palin is a gift. Christine O'Donnell is a gift.

I mean, there's an entertainment value to all of this. But there's also a serious point.

The public has a right to have candidates for statewide office seriously examined on what they think their background, what their positions are. And the media is one way to do that. So you think there might be a backlash for even a sympathy vote --

KURTZ: If it's excessive.

SMITH: I would disagree, respectfully, of course, Howie. I think that's wrong. I think the public, in the end, feels these folks are not being forthcoming, they're not leveling with them, and in the end I doubt they'll vote for them. KURTZ: Do you think there's any great outrage among the public, Terry, for candidates who are ducking the press? Nobody likes the press these days anyway.

SMITH: Indeed. But I don't think there's any great outrage. But they make a decision between now and Election Day, and I think it will be a negative decision for those candidates who seal themselves off. We didn't talk about Meg Whitman, but, I mean, you know, she's paid $140 million, most of it for advertising, and avoided any direct questions.

KURTZ: Largely avoided the press.

Let me come back to S.E. Cupp, because you made a reference to Christine O'Donnell and the Constitution, so, in an effort to inject a little substance here, let me play the answer that she gave that got a lot of attention during the debate in that Delaware Senate race.


CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (R), DELAWARE SENATE CANDIDATE: Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?



O'DONNELLL: (INAUDIBLE) separation of church and state is in the First Amendment?


KURTZ: So, isn't it fair for the press to point out that a candidate who talks about the Constitution seems pretty unfamiliar with the First Amendment?

CUPP: No. I mean, first of all, what she was saying was that the words "church and state" are not in there. She's absolutely right. And what she's arguing is that --

KURTZ: Come on.

CUPP: No. That's factual. It's not in there.

And what she was saying was a counter-response to this new liberal idea that the Constitution protects freedom from religion, when really it protects freedom of religion. And the idea that worship should be private and sort of kept to yourself, that's what she was reacting to.

But the liberal media jumped on that and said, oh, she has no idea what she's talking about, she doesn't know about the Constitution, she's a right-wing extremist. This is why.

And by the way, it's not just reporters. It's these debates. The way that the moderators, whether it's George Stephanopoulos or Wolf Blitzer, are handling these questions are making even, you know, the most sort of unfamiliar and politically unengaged viewer very aware that there is a bias in the media. I mean, it's blatant.


Let me get a brief response from Clarence Page.

PAGE: I invite everybody, first of all, to read the Fist Amendment and decide for yourself. Obviously, this is a pedantic argument about semantics, but what's more important is, blaming the media is usually a tactic of losing campaigns. So I'm rather perplexed that the Tea Party folks, who obviously have an advantage, according to the polls right now, are taking this tact. Let's see if it works or not.

SMITH: We'll find out on Election Day.

KURTZ: Which is not too far away.

S.E. Cupp, thanks very much, in Dallas.

Terry Smith, Clarence Page here.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, sizing up the circus. The New York Times' Frank Rich on the wild midterm campaign, the media's new negativity toward Obama, and why he's a little less worried about the future of newspapers.

Plus, the serious side of funny. As Jon Stewart preparing to invade the National Mall for a major rally, is it more about punch lines or politics?

And why is President Obama stopping by "The Daily Show"?

And coming up at noon Eastern, it's face-off in Florida: Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist, Kendrick Meek. Candy Crowley brings you the Florida Senate debate.


KURTZ: If the 2010 campaign was a Broadway show, it would have no shortage of colorful characters and sizzling subplots. The media lurch from one midterm race to the next, while anticipating a finale in which the old hero, Barack Obama, is brought low by the surging stars of the GOP and the Tea Party revolutionaries.

Frank Rich once had the power to make or break a play on Broadway before becoming a liberal columnist for "The New York Times." I spoke to him earlier in our New York bureau.


KURTZ: Frank Rich, welcome.

FRANK RICH, "NEW YORK TIMES": Thanks for having me. KURTZ: From a theater critic's point of view, is the 2010 campaign entertaining?

RICH: It's great. It's the circus and Broadway. And what, Worldwide Wrestling all rolled into one? You couldn't make this stuff -- it's incredibly entertaining. I don't know if it's good for the country, but --

KURTZ: You wrote last week, I guess it was, calling Christine O'Donnell the "brightest all-American media meteor since Balloon Boy and pure comic gold." It sounds to me like you're not taking her seriously.

RICH: God. Did it sound that way? I'm not taking her seriously. I mean, we've learned over the past few years you never know what not to take seriously, because what seems to be a joke one day can be what the country is doing the next.

But she's someone who doesn't seem to have a lot to say. She's spending most of her time telling us what she isn't. I mean, she isn't a witch rather than what she believes in, instead of certain, you know, talking points that could be said by anybody.

KURTZ: And explaining away the Bill Maher videos.

But you also write about homophobia --

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: -- and pointing out, for example, that Christine O'Donnell talks about homosexuality as an identity disorder. And Jim DeMint, the senator, wants to fire gay teachers.

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: Then you had Carl Paladino here in New York who doesn't like Gay Pride parades. And Ken Buck, the Senate candidate in Colorado --

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: -- comparing homosexuality to alcoholism.

But, is it fair to paint with a broad brush? I mean, all Republicans don't believe this.

RICH: Absolutely not. And, by the way, it's interesting that the Log Cabin Republicans, perhaps even to their surprise, successfully brought this suit that so far has led to "don't ask, don't tell" being thrown out by a court.

No, and I think there's been a history of Republican moderates on this issue, so much so that you would think it was subsidizing on the other side. But suddenly we've seen this spate in the past couple of weeks, all the examples you just mentioned, that are just weird. We keep thinking we're putting this issue behind us -- KURTZ: But it's very difficult to do.

Let me ask you about media double standards. In recent weeks, we've had Sharron Angle telling Harry Reid to "man up." Sarah Palin talks about cojones and impotent reporters, among other choice descriptions of journalists. And I'm thinking -- and nobody really seems to care. And I'm thinking, well, if a male candidate kind of talked about "little lady," or something like that, the press would be all over them.

RICH: You're so right. I don't know why. It's a very good point. I don't know why people haven't made more of it.

First of all, it's become such a cliche. At least get an original way for these candidates to phrase it. But you're right, it's kind of condescending. And didn't -- wasn't there a period, too, when Christine O'Donnell was saying that Mike Castle, when he was still in the race, was unmanly?

It's this whole weird thing going on. And someone, possibly, at some point should write about it.

KURTZ: Very possibly so.

Barack Obama, you know, once riding so high, certainly during the campaign, now getting kicked around, I would say, pretty well by the press.

Have journalists just soured on this guy?

RICH: I don't think you can generalize. I think that --

KURTZ: Have you?

RICH: No. I am --

KURTZ: Are you as excited about him as you were --

RICH: No --

KURTZ: -- in 2008?

RICH: No, I was not as excited. And I think, in that sense, I'm representative of a lot of people, not just journalists.

I do have -- I have very high expectations for him. I still think we'll see what happens. There have been some disappointments, disappointments in execution and weirdly, in communicating.

On the other hand, some real achievements, some of which he's completely failed to sell to anybody, including his own party.

KURTZ: Has he failed to sell them, or has the press failed to give him credit for them in the sense that, you know, we all focus on the legislative battle -- health care, financial regulation. And then a day after it passes, you know, we're on to the mosque.

RICH: Well, you're right, but that's true of every presidency. And so if he can't break through -- you know, The Times had an interesting story last week about how he actually gave 95 percent of the country a tax cut and no one seems to know about it. And that --

KURTZ: As part of that stimulus bill.

RICH: Yes, but --

KURTZ: Much derided, I should point out.

RICH: Right. But that he hasn't even made that case, you can't blame the press for that.

KURTZ: How much of a factor has Fox News been in this election?

RICH: I think Fox News is a huge factor, and not because it's not fair and balanced. But the fact is that Karl Rove is a regular speaker on Fox, and he is not just appearing in the way that, say, Carville might appear on this network. He is a full-time operative raising huge amounts of money in a cycle.

KURTZ: Raising over $30 million or $40 million.

RICH: Then you have several potential Republican candidates, like four of them, I think, who are actually on the payroll of one network, sometimes with exclusive deals.

KURTZ: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich --

RICH: Right. Rick --

KURTZ: Mike Huckabee.

RICH: Right. Rick Santorum --

KURTZ: -- and Rick Santorum, right.

RICH: -- hypothetically. Almost all of them except Romney. So you actually have a network that really is promoting a political brand. And --

KURTZ: Well, you have people at a network that are promoting it. You're saying the entire Fox News Channel operation --

RICH: Well, these are signature personalities. They cycle among the shows all the time. There's -- even on something like MSNBC, which, let's face it, tilts as a liberal network --

KURTZ: Absolutely.

RICH: -- but you don't have on staff actual presidential candidates appearing around the clock and --

KURTZ: But you do have some people who might have run for the Senate. Chris Matthews considered it. Harold Ford considered it.

RICH: Right. But they're not --

KURTZ: Ed Schultz was approached.

RICH: Right. But I think it's not quite the same thing --

KURTZ: Not the same thing.

RICH: -- as Sarah Palin and Huckabee.


Now, you're kind of known, Frank Rich, as a liberal champion on The Times op-ed page. Do you ever worry about becoming predictable?

RICH: Sure. I think any opinion writer does. And that's true in any job in opinion writing, whether you're covering politics or sports or the theater or anything else. And so you try to -- I mean, I try to hear the other side.

I try -- I'm certainly critical of the liberals, including Barack Obama, and try to find ways into things that are not the same old, same old. Because you get bored, too, as a writer if you're doing that.

KURTZ: You don't want to repeat yourself. And you don't want to be seen as in the pocket of either side.

RICH: Absolutely not.

KURTZ: Even though, obviously, you identify with one side.

RICH: I do. But I've been very, very tough on them. And most of my mail, some people are angry at me for being too tough on what is perceived to be my own side.

KURTZ: So you tick off some of the lefties.

When you look at the media coverage of, I don't know, the last year, the mosque here in Manhattan, the wacky Florida preacher, Balloon Boy, Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, is it depressing that we spend so much time on these sorts of things?

RICH: It is depressing. Look, it's always part of American culture. There's always been tabloid journalism, you know, for 100 years. There's always been -- you know, what, the Dionne quintuplets in the '30s is the equivalent of something like Balloon Boy.

If it's in balance -- what's shocking now is how, you know, we're still in -- well, we're in one war, arguably, still in two wars. And it's fallen out of the coverage. Maybe not "The New York Times" and major newspapers, and to some extent, the networks, but no one in this country really knows or cares what's going on in Afghanistan. Everyone knew about Balloon Boy. KURTZ: Is that partially our fault? I mean, certainly, as you say, half of the news organizations still have correspondents based in Kabul, still are risking their lives, by the way.

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: But it's not on the front page that often, it's not on the top of the network newscasts or -- and cable, it has almost disappeared, in many respects.

How can that be?

RICH: Well, some of it has to --

KURTZ: It's election time.

RICH: It's election time. Some of it has to do with the fact that the war involves, in the home front, a very small, self-selected group of people, volunteer service and their families.

KURTZ: So most families are not touched by Afghanistan directly?

RICH: Exactly, even though they are, but don't know it. But I do think it's not -- it can't all be blamed on the news media.

I think that the public, you know, has to be interested in its full civic menu. You know, we have a country where we get upset if there's E. coli in spinach, and everyone has a heart attack, but people don't examine their own news diet and take responsibility for it. And that's an obligation of citizenship, in my view.

KURTZ: Certainly stories about Afghanistan are available out there, it's just that --

RICH: Yes, if you wanted to find them.

KURTZ: -- but we're not necessarily pushing them out there.

Now, as you know, I recently left "The Washington Post".

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: This is my first week at "The Daily Beast."

RICH: Congratulations.

KURTZ: Thank you. "The New York Times" is soon going to implement a pay wall --

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: -- where you have to pay to access some of the stories on the Web site.

How worried are you about the future of newspapers? RICH: A little less worried than I might have been a year ago. I do think there are -- I don't know that The Times -- exactly how it's going to work. But I do think it's good that places like The Times -- and we're hardly alone -- were first -- look at "The Financial Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" -- are experimenting with the idea that maybe you actually have to pay for this very expensive-to-produce news.

KURTZ: Because we've all been giving it away.

RICH: Yes, we've all been giving it away. It was crazy. And it doesn't matter to me whether -- or anyone, I think -- whether it's on a page or on an iPad or, you know, you're getting it through your dentures via radio waves.

And so as they try to monetize it, we'll see what happens. But I do think there is a demand --

KURTZ: It did cut into your readership. And this happened before when there was a charge just to read The Times columnists, 50 bucks a year.

RICH: Absolutely. And that was incredibly annoying. I'm not sure that this system is going to do that.


RICH: I think it's a different system that will allow people to dip in and dip out and pay accordingly. But I do think we have to remember that there is a digitalization issue for newspapers, but also this huge economic meltdown. It was like two perfect storms happened at once.

I think if the economy recovers, which we don't know, we may see a somewhat brighter future for the news business, but it's going to change enormously. Your job switch is emblematic of it.

KURTZ: Right. And --

RICH: It's moving in a different direction.

KURTZ: And newspapers are having to make -- do more with less. And everybody has to have five jobs --

RICH: Right.

KURTZ: -- and they have to be blogging, and I'm in favor of all that. But it's still a very tough situation.

Before we go, you wrote last week about the Aaron Sorkin movie. Are you a Facebook guy?

RICH: I'm not a Facebook guy, but I'm a huge fan of that movie. I just think it's a wonderful movie.

KURTZ: Well, what about social networking? How have you resisted the trend?

RICH: You know, it's -- I'm interested in it. I also feel like I don't have enough hours in the day. You know, I just don't have enough time to update Facebook pages and --

KURTZ: Or Twitter.

RICH: Or Twitter. Maybe, you know, I'll be dragged into it.

It's interesting. But, you know, not everyone does it. I have two sons who are young, a cohort of the Zuckerberg era, both writers. They're not on Facebook or Twitter either. So it's -- maybe it's a family thing. Maybe it's a DNA thing that --

KURTZ: It sounds like you want to keep part of your life away from --

RICH: Yes, can you blame me?

KURTZ: -- your professional obligations.

On that score, I can't blame you.

Frank Rich, thanks very much for joining us.

RICH: Great to see you. Thanks.


KURTZ: Up next, the comedians cometh. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert heading to D.C. this Saturday, presumably bringing thousands of fan with them. But they say it's not about politics. Are you buying that?

We'll talk with "TIME" magazine's James Poniewozik.


KURTZ: In these final days before the election, the most important media figure out there may well be a guy who tells jokes for a living. Jon Stewart will host President Obama for a "Daily Show" interview this week. Remember when that would have seemed controversial? And six days from now, Stewart and his wingman Stephen Colbert will stage a rally on the Mall and appeal to moderates that may be sheer entertainment or something more.


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": This is for the people that are too busy, that have jobs and lives and are tired of their reflection in the media as being a divided country, and a country that's ideological and conflicted and fighting. This is for those people. Those people are going to come to Washington, D.C., on October 30th and say to the world --

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Joining us now from New York to talk about the serious side of Jon Stewart is "TIME" magazine television critic James Poniewozik.

And is there any danger with this rally that Jon Stewart will erode his street cred as a satirist?

JAMES PONIEWOZIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "TIME": Well, I think there's always the danger -- you know, the danger for a comedian is not being funny, and I think the danger in it is if it appears that he's taking himself too seriously or becoming some sort of messiah figure or a partisan telling people, you know, go forth, my mighty people, and vote XYZ and pursue such and such policies. But, you know, I also the see the reality, much of which we don't know exactly what it's going to look like, as kind of an extension of the show, which for a long time has kind of walked that line.

I mean, it's been a show that's tried to be really funny about, you know, fairly serious ideas. So, in a sense, I kind of see it as an extension of that project.

KURTZ: And that's precisely the point. It was originally framed as a joke.

You know, Jon Stewart was going to rally for sanity and Stephen Colbert was going to try to stoke fear in the country. But the more that Jon Stewart has talked about it -- and we just heard it there -- he seems to be trying to make a fairly serious point that much of the country not as polarized as the pundits in the polls would have us believe.

That's not necessarily a thigh-slapper of a message.

PONIEWOZIK: You know, and speaking of non-thigh slappers of a message, you know, we all recall back in 2004, when Jon Stewart came on this network and went on "CROSSFIRE," and railed against it and other cable shows for sort of creating this theater of professional wrestling in lieu of political discussion. And I kind of see -- I think you can draw a line, a through line, from that comment to this.

I think it's sort of a part of what has long been the message of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," which, in addition to all the comedy and crude jokes and stuff like that, has also been about really almost a kind of old-fashioned high-mindedness toward journalism.

KURTZ: But by what standards should we measure the success of this rally? Certainly it's not going to draw, you know, half a million people like Glenn Beck. If it's just funny and entertaining, will it, in some sense, have flopped?

PONIEWOZIK: You know, I think that -- I don't know what the headcount standard of success is, although I think if they're on top of their game, Stephen Colbert has already prepared his wildly inflated crowd estimate for the next day. Because that's part of the theater, right? He's going to have to say that, like, 50 million people showed up.

But, you know, I think the standard for success is that, you know, it's almost like Conan's live tour. You know, the standard for success is, can it translate the show on kind of an epic scale? Which is to say, make you laugh and make you think.

KURTZ: Right. Well, certainly "The Daily Show" often functions, as you were alluding to, as a sharp-edged media criticism wrapped in the guise of laughter.

Speaking of "The Daily Show," have we gotten to the point as a culture where President Obama, in one of his last interviews before the midterm elections, is going to go on there on Wednesday, and that's now become an important forum for a president of the United States?

PONIEWOZIK: Oh, sure. I mean, you know, there are few aspects of that, only one of which is, you know, the idea that "The Daily Show" has become a forum of ideas. There's also this notion just that the political media field has expanded. I mean, this seems a little less weird now that we've seen President Obama go on --

KURTZ: "The View."

PONIEWOZIK: -- "The Tonight Show" and "The View" and "Letterman" and ESPN. And, you know, "Nick Jr."? I'm not sure.

KURTZ: That's next.

PONIEWOZIK: But, you know, in a fragmented age, you've got to broaden your field of targets. And I think specifically on "The Daily Show," you're getting at a younger audience.

KURTZ: Right.

PONIEWOZIK: You know, something that Democrats are concerned about, not necessarily coming out to the polls the way they did in 2008. Maybe a decent chunk of the base. Maybe, you know, that vaunted liberal but disappointed in Obama viewer who he wants to get out for the midterm.

KURTZ: OK. I'll look forward to seeing what you write about it, James.


KURTZ: We'll tune in on Wednesday. Thanks very much for joining us.

PONIEWOZIK: Yes, thanks.

KURTZ: After the break, WikiLeaks unloads new documents about the Iraq War, and its founder takes exception to CNN's questions. We'll show you what happened.

And at noon Eastern, the Florida Senate race. The candidates square off in a special "STATE OF THE UNION" debate moderated by Candy Crowley.


KURTZ: WikiLeaks did a second major dump of Iraq War documents over the weekend, again with "The New York Times," "The Guardian," and "Der Spiegel," 400,000 pages on such issues as civilian casualties. But when CNN's Atika Shubert asked the founder, Julian Assange, about complaints form ex-staffers about his personal style, he demanded to know her sources. That's ironic for the founder of WikiLeaks.

She also asked whether Assange is concerned that criticism of him is overshadowing the work of WikiLeaks. Here's what happened.


ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But what I want to ask you is that, at one point, you said it was a dirty trick tactic.

JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER, WIKILEAKS: I don't know what you're referring to.

SHUBERT: So you don't want to address whether or not you feel this is an attack on you?

ASSANGE: It's completely disgusting, Atika.

SHUBERT: I'm asking whether or not --

ASSANGE: I'm going to walk if you're going to contaminate us revealing the deaths of 104,000 people with attacks against my person.

SHUBERT: I'm not. What I'm asking you is if you feel this is an attack on WikiLeaks.

ASSANGE: All right.

SHUBERT: Julian, I'm happy to go on to --


SHUBERT: In what sense? I have to ask that question.


KURTZ: So, Julian Assange thinks he should be able to discuss only the issues he wants to talk about, and if a reporter politely presses him about anything else, he takes his marbles and goes home.

"The New York Times" reporting today that, "Some of his own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior and a nearly delusional grandeur." A perfect description of what we just saw.

At the top of the hour, catch up with the Florida Senate debate. Candy Crowley moderating that one. And up next on this program, Rachel Maddow goes too far taking on a Republican congressman, The Tribune Company puts out the "Help Wanted" sign. And is a Las Vegas newspaper playing politics to help Harry Reid?


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.

Here's what I didn't like.

A newspaper owner is entitled to have political views, and at "The Las Vegas Sun," Brian Greenspun's opinions are no secret. He says Harry Reid is the obvious choice over Republican challenger Sharron Angle. But is that having an impact on The Sun's coverage. Sherman Frederick, publisher of the rival "Las Vegas Review-Journal," who backs Angle and calls Reid dumb, thinks it is.

When Sun columnist Jon Ralston, who was on this program two weeks ago, wrote about a face-off between the candidates, the original headline said, "Jon Ralston is aghast, still, at Reid's inability to control debate." But it was later toned down to say, "Will Angle win by revising history, slandering Reid?"

Slandering Reid? Hmm.

Then it happened again. Ralston's next day column was headlined "Reid Lost the Debate to Angle." Not much ambiguity there, but that was changed to the following mush: "Thoughts on the Reid-Angle Debate."

The Sun's owner can say whatever he wants, but editors shouldn't be messing with a column of the (INAUDIBLE) top political reporter.

By the way, could there possibly be any connection this week between "The New York Post" endorsing Andrew Cuomo in the governor's race and in the same edition depicting his six debate rivals as clowns? I mean, some of them are clowns, including a self-proclaimed madame, but that sure smelled like an effort to help Cuomo.

The Tribune Company has been in turmoil both over its bankruptcy and revelations about a frat house atmosphere among senior male executives, which last week forced the resignation of Lee Abrams for an e-mail linked to a satirical video called "Sluts."

And this week, chief executive Randy Michaels resigned from the company that owns "The Chicago Tribune," "L.A. Times," and a string of TV stations. Michaels is being replaced by a four-member committee.

I didn't like this either. Rachel Maddow is usually quite careful when she criticizes Republicans, but here's what she said this week on MSNBC --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: In 1994, in the first midterm election after the last Democratic president was elected, we got a slate of candidates that included Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and Steve Stockman of Texas. They two were so close to the militia movement in this country, that Mr. Stockman actually received advance notice that the Oklahoma City bombing was going to happen.


KURTZ: Now, that sounds to me like a suggestion that the former congressman knew that 168 people were going to be killed in that federal building and didn't do anything about it. Newspaper reports from 1995 say Stockman's office got a handwritten fax about the attack about 50 minutes after the bombing and passed it on to the FBI.

But here's what I liked. Maddow realized her mistake and owned up to it.


MADDOW: It wasn't in advance, it was right after the bombing. I apologize for the misstatement. It was an editing error and it was mine alone.


KURTZ: We all make mistakes. Good for Maddow for acknowledging hers.

Before we go, I want to apologize for the audio problems we had at the top of last week's program. Several people here worked hard to fix them, but it took longer than it should have. The perils of live television.

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'S Florida senatorial debate begins right now.