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Reliable Sources

Interview with Tina Brown, Sidney Harman; George W. Bush on a Book Tour; Conan's Comeback

Aired November 14, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: I gave up print journalism after 29 years, and now, four weeks later, I'm going to be writing for a magazine? "Newsweek," the ailing news magazine, is merging with "The Daily Beast," the Web site I joined just last month.

Tina Brown, who will be editor of the combined operation, will be here to explain how she plans to save "Newsweek" without sacrificing her two-year-old digital venture. And "Newsweek" owner Sidney Harman will be here as well.

He's been off the media radar screen for two years, a rare disappearing act after leaving the White House, but George W. Bush emerged this week with a television blitz for his memoir. How did the likes of Matt Lauer and Oprah Winfrey handle those interviews?

Plus, Conan makes his cable debut, but really went on his battle with Jay Leno and NBC? Bill Carter of "The New York Times" has written the definitive account. We'll talk to him.

Howard Kurtz here, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.

It's no secret that "Newsweek," at the ripe old age of 77, is in difficult shape. When businessman Sidney Harman bought the money- losing magazine from The Washington Post Company over the summer, he paid only a dollar, plus the assumption of millions in liabilities. And most of his journalistic stars have left in recent months.

Now Tina Brown will be taking over as editor-in-chief under a deal announced on Friday. The one-time editor of "Vanity Fair" and "The New Yorker," Brown runs a two-year-old news and commentary Web site financed by Barry Diller called "The Daily Beast," where I now work.

In a marriage of old and new media, "Newsweek" and The Beast are merging into a combined company that has jokingly been called "News Beast." But can these newlyweds rescue the money-losing magazine?

Joining us now from New York is The Daily Beast's Tina Brown, the new editor-in-chief at "Newsweek." And from Los Angeles, "Newsweek" owner Sidney Harmon, who waited 92 years to get into the media business.

Tina Brown, I'll start with you. "Newsweek," I think it's fair to say, is a somewhat damaged brand. It lost $40 million last year, and most of its big-name writers have left.

How are you going to revive it?

TINA BROWN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AND FOUNDER, "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, I regard "Newsweek" as a fantastic, legendary brand, and I have this tremendous weakness for fantastic, legendary brands, as you know, with "Vanity Fair" and "The New Yorker." And the DNA of that magazine, of "Newsweek," is really a great, great one.

And I'm very excited about it, because I think that with the adrenaline and news metabolism of "The Daily Beast," joining forces with Newsweek's terrific deep culture of news and quality, it's a great combination. And the two things are going to animate each other.

KURTZ: Now, most magazines, as we know, are edited by men. Are you going to try, when you take over, to lure more female readers to "Newsweek"?

BROWN: Well, I'm very excited about that, I have to say. You know that in the 1970s, the women of "Newsweek" actually launched a lawsuit against the management --

KURTZ: I read that.

BROWN: -- headed by the great lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton, where they actually said that they ad to do something about the fact that women were actually barred really from the writing editorial process. So, of course this is a little bit of a sweet revenge.

You know, at "The Daily Beast," we've brought on a tremendous amount of new women, sort of op-ed writers, if you like, and we will be getting a lot of great women at "Newsweek," a lot of great men, too. But I have to say, the DNA will just slightly shift.

I'm sorry to warn you about that, Sidney, but I know you're in favor of strong women since you're married to one.

KURTZ: Well, I think you'll be getting some inquiries now from women who might like to work there.

Sidney Harman, you've invested a significant chunk of change in this magazine. How difficult do you think it will be to turn "Newsweek" around?

SIDNEY HARMAN, BOUGHT "NEWSWEEK" FROM THE WASHINGTON POST COMPANY: It will be difficult. It will be manageable. It will be done.

KURTZ: All right.

BROWN: Excellent words.

KURTZ: Tina Brown seemed to be your first, second, third, and fourth choice for editor. Why was that?

HARMAN: I need hardly tell you, Howard, since you work for her. This is an indomitable force.

This is the unique talent in journalism, thoroughly established, still gloriously curious, and to use her favorite word, totally "animated." That's an irresistible combination.

KURTZ: Let me ask you financially, though, with 250 people working at "Newsweek," 70 at "The Daily Beast," now a combined company, is it inevitable, Sidney Harman, that there will be some job cuts?

HARMAN: It is inevitable that if we merge two organizations intelligently, there will be some modification. I so dislike that emphasis on job cuts. What we're here to do is to produce a stunningly effective combination and to save as many jobs as possible.

KURTZ: Tina Brown, these negotiations with you and Sidney Harman and, of course, Barry Diller, the chief executive of IAC, your parent company, went on for quite a while. There was a lot of jockeying over who would control what. It fell apart, you said the prenup was too difficult for this marriage, and yet here you are this morning.

How was this marriage saved?

BROWN: Well, I have to say it was really saved by Sidney, because, you know, one of the great common denominators in all the discussions, really, was our sense that Sidney was a person who really cared about journalism. You know, that we know that in taking over "Newsweek," he really has done something amazingly courageous, because he's basically stuck his neck out and said, I believe in great journalism and I want to protect it. That was always very appealing to me, I have to say, and something that all of us respected hugely.

Trying to work out these kind of mergers and things is very complex, whatever companies they are. It is difficult to figure out, you know, into already existing operations with its own way of doing things, its own culture, how it's going to work. But actually, we did work it out very amicably, and it really actually -- you know, people have said it was difficult, it fell apart, but I have to say, I think it was pretty speedy for something as complex as this.

HARMAN: And I would add -- I would add that it was one of those gentle, slight interruptions. It is seen by many in the media as a reuniting. I don't think we were ever, ever separated.

What I like about all of this is that we've had an opportunity to come to really know each other. That's a crucial first step. I think it's fair to say we're all a great deal more comfortable now than when we began. That's very promising.

BROWN: You know, Howie, when we had that final meeting on the Tuesday where we all got together in the same room for really the first time, as opposed to various members of the team getting together, it was such a great dynamic and such a great sense that, here we all are, professionals, all of us really wanting to make this work. And it was very thrilling, the whole sort of atmosphere in the room.

KURTZ: In terms of your own role, Sidney Harman, you've said all along you wanted to be a hands-on owner. What assurances have you gotten that you'll have that kind of role?

HARMAN: I'm totally comfortable with my role now, Howard. We are a trio, Tina, Stephen Colvin, and I. We will work together as a team.

I have little concern about how well that teamwork will go. And as for hands-on, I can't imagine any one of the three of us not wanting to be thoroughly engaged every hour, every day. That's the excitement in this for me.

KURTZ: You talk about every hour, wait until you start getting those 6:00 a.m. e-mails from Tina. And, by the way, Stephen Colvin was the president of "The Daily Beast." He will now be the chief executive of this combined company.

Tina, as we mentioned earlier, you were editor of "Vanity Fair," which is a monthly. You were the editor of "The New Yorker," which is a weekly. But the magazine industry was healthier then.

Do you now have to do more with less given the economics of a business in which a lot of magazines have either gone by the wayside or shrunk dramatically?

BROWN: Absolutely, but that's really where having done -- edited "The Daily Beast" for the last two years has been such a fantastic shifting of the mindset. You know, we've really operated in a completely different economic structure, the kind of structures we used to have in the old kind of days when a magazine was such a rich business.

KURTZ: Right.

BROWN: We really got used to working with younger writers, with writers on a different scale who make writing part of the several things that they do in terms of budget. And also, I think what's great about having worked exclusively online with really hardly a thought for print in the last two years is that we kind of look back on the world of print almost with the eyes of an expatriate, sort of looking at the old country.

We understand very much what we miss. We understand, also, what it didn't have and what has happened since. And so I think we can bring the kind of energy that we've developed at "The Daily Beast" and all the sort of multimedia platform sense, as it were, to the reinvigoration of "Newsweek."

And I think to have that experience is really quite invaluable, to have such a different range of skills as represented by The Beast staff, which we can actually then integrate with the terrific talent at "Newsweek." And there really is a lot of talent. You know, one of the things that I love since having gone over there on Friday, I can already sense the people in the room. There's so many good people there, and I hope to do what I did at "The New Yorker," which was really to uncover very often people who have been doing perhaps one thing at "Newsweek," who could suddenly do something quite different and really thrive.

KURTZ: Right. The metabolism of being on the Internet, it's just a much faster-paced existence, as I have learned in the brief time since I left "The Washington Post."

Let me get a break in. We'll talk more about the Internet and the impact that this whole merger will have on "The Daily Beast" in just a moment.


KURTZ: We're back talking about the merger of "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast."

And Tina Brown, as somebody who has now worked for The Beast for all of one month, I've been struck by the fast pace of the operation. Are you worried that in swallowing these 250 or so employees from "Newsweek," that this will change the character of the Web site? Big institutions -- and I worked for one for 29 years at "The Washington Post" -- tend to move a little slower than do smaller operations.

BROWN: Well, not at all, because --

HARMAN: But don't speak of swallowing anybody.

KURTZ: Wrong verb. All right.

BROWN: We're not swallowing at all. I'm not at all daunted by having, you know, two operations in this sense at all.

I mean, the fact is that "The Daily Beast" has its own great momentum, and it will continue to have that momentum, and nothing will change that. All that will happen, actually, is that the two merged staffs will have a chance to work for both. And that, I think, is exciting to everybody.

There will be new writers and old writers at "Newsweek" who now have a very thriving digital outfit for their material, and there will be editors who come from print at "The Daily Beast" who will be able to develop ideas at greater length that can see their way into "Newsweek."

So, as I see it, it will be a very much more -- it will be as nimble as ever, bringing some of that nimbleness to the print side. And the print side, of course, is going to bring a great deal to the Web site.

So I'm not at all daunted by that at all. In fact, what's great about it is it kind of fixes one issue right from the beginning, where so many print magazines are struggling to think, well, what is their Web site piece of it going to be? That part of it is fine.

Now I can really focus on turning around "Newsweek" and bringing this magazine back to its glory, really. I mean, it is a great global magazine. People forget that. You know, it has an amazing whole worldwide imprint, "Newsweek."

KURTZ: That's right.

BROWN: It really does, and it's very exciting. In fact, I met with the editors of Polish "Newsweek," which is an enormously successful magazine, the most successful. They are so talented on Friday. I mean, I was blown away by what they showed me. It really showed me the richness, the depth, the global reach that "Newsweek" is as a magazine.

KURTZ: Let's leave a little time for Sidney Harman.

HARMAN: Howard --

KURTZ: Go ahead, Sidney.

HARMAN: -- I've been around long enough to see the premature burial of such renascent giants as Apple and Ford, and I believe that with Tina and her partners, great Barry Diller and this cool cat, this kid of 92 years of energy and curiosity, we look to a very bright future.

KURTZ: Do you spend much time on the Internet yourself, Sidney Harman?

HARMAN: I spend a great deal of time on the Internet. It's been clogged recently by bulletins and e-mails from my editor-in-chief, but I'll get through that. After all, I think of "Newsweek" as a national institution. I think of myself as a national treasure. I ought to be able to manage some Internet activity.

KURTZ: All right. Well, you've got a modest partner there, Tina Brown. We've got to --

BROWN: I have to say, keeping up with Sidney is going to be my issue. This guy is a dynamo, I tell you.

KURTZ: All right. Well, it's an interesting courtship to follow. Everyone, including me, is going to want to see how the marriage works out.

Tina Brown, Sidney Harman, thanks very much for joining us.

And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, the Bush book blitz. Two years after leaving the White House, George Bush breaks his silence. But are the media giving the decider a fair hearing as he defends his presidency?

Plus, behind the scenes as Conan O'Brien returns to the air with his new cable program. The New York Times' Bill Carter gives us a blow-by-blow of the epic NBC meltdown that cost him "The Tonight Show."

And later, it's Kurtz versus Olbermann on MSNBC.


KURTZ: This was the week when the media revisited some of the biggest controversies of the Bush presidency: 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, the Wall Street meltdown. The former president, breaking his self-imposed silence to promote his new book, "Decision Points," sitting down with Matt Lauer, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Oprah, and in an interview you'll see tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern with CNN's Candy Crowley.

But Bush hasn't always wanted to get into a detailed defense of his White House decisions. On NBC's prime-time special, Matt Lauer asked him about approving the use of waterboarding against terror suspects.


MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?

GEORGE W. BUSH, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because a lawyer said it was legal.

LAUER: So, if it's legal, President Bush, then if an American is taken into custody in a foreign country, not necessarily a uniform --

BUSH: Look, I'm not going to debate the issue, Matt.

LAUER: Your words: "No one was more sickened or angry than I was when we didn't find weapons of mass destruction."

You still have a sickening feeling when you think about it.

BUSH: I do. I do.

LAUER: Was there ever any consideration of apologizing to the American people?

BUSH: I mean, apologizing would basically say the decision was the wrong decision, and I don't believe it was the wrong decision.


KURTZ: So how are the media treating the former president as he steps back into the spotlight?

Joining us now here in Washington, Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post," also the author of a new book about Glenn Beck, "Tears of a Clown." Also, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun-Times" and a columnist for "Politics Daily," Lynn Sweet. And in Austin, Texas, Mark McKinnon, former media adviser to President Bush during his campaigns and a contributor to "The Daily Beast." A lot of "Daily Beast" this morning. Mark McKinnon, I'll start with you. Have the media treated George Bush fairly this past week, or is there something of a collective chip on the shoulder?

MARK MCKINNON, FMR. MEDIA ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BUSH: I think they did. I think the media, like many others, were surprised, Howie. You know, for those of us who worked -- or know President Bush, it was tough to see him reduced to such a one-dimensional character. And we all appreciate the diplomacy that he's shown President Obama over the last couple of years by staying off the radar screen.

But it's been great for us to watch him come out so that others can see the side of President Bush that we all saw for many, many years behind the scenes. And I thought he got pretty good treatment this week by the press, frankly. I thought it was a good rollout, and people got to see the -- you know, they got -- the bottom line for people, I think, when they saw these interviews, or if they read the book, is that you can question his politics -- you can question his politics, but you really can't question his motives, his character, or his heart.


MCKINNON: So I thought it was pretty good overall.

KURTZ: But some people, have, of course, asked those questions, Dana Milbank. In fact, "TIME" magazine had an image, if we can put it up, of George Bush holding -- reading his book upside down. A Joe Klein column calling him "impatient, petulant and shallow."

So what kind of treatment do you think he's gotten?

DANA MILBANK, COLUMNIST "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think for President Bush, who's out there to sell a book now, any press is good press. And he's gotten a whole lot of it. So he's got to be very pleased with what he got.

And he's been self-deprecating himself, saying people didn't know he could read, much less write a book. And so I think he's -- I think it's been -- with the passage of time, the media become fonder. I actually found myself writing this week that I missed George W. Bush. Never expected to put those words into writing.

KURTZ: Or maybe you miss kicking him around.


KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, what did you think of the Matt Lauer interview? I mean, I guess it was inevitable, obviously, that the book would re-ignite controversy and criticism over his tenure.

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, it was. And it was -- no disrespect to Matt -- he had the first bite at the apple, so he went over some ground that you would want to cover. And he asked some of the more predictable, low-hanging-fruit questions about waterboarding. Actually, I thought Bill O'Reilly had done a pretty good job, because he was not at the top of the pecking order.

So, the interview covered ground, it was important, but a lot of these interviews really are just going over and amplifying what's in the book. So, to amplify what Dana just said, this is part of a marking ploy. And I think people should understand that these hosts and who get interviews are picked by Bush because he's a very big "get."

I was invited to a Bush speech in Chicago a few weeks ago, a paid speech that he was giving to people who paid for it. He invited me and some other reporters to come. But when I got there, I was banned from there because the people who paid for the speech didn't realize that the contract forgot, you know, ban the press.

So what this is, is a marketing device. They pick hosts that they want to talk to because they think they can have a more controlled interview.

KURTZ: Got it. Lynn, you're a dangerous property if they had to ban you.

Mark McKinnon, you wrote in your column that the George Bush that you know personally -- and obviously you worked with him for years -- is "very different than the distorted public image many have come to accept as accurate."

Why is there that distorted public image? Is that because of the press coverage?

MCKINNON: Largely, yes, I think. And I think it relates not just to President Bush, but to any public figures, including and especially presidents. And I'll add Barack Obama to that list.

There's just a tendency to want to reduce our leaders to the simplest common denominator, to make them one-dimensional, cardboard figures because it's easy. You know, it's easier to portray somebody in the easiest light rather than to reflect the nuanced characters that they really are.

And by the way, just to respond to your guests, I'll say, you know, this is -- every president gets to write a book, and they get to go out and sell the book. And, you know, I don't think that anybody would have suggested that Matt Lauer or Oprah Winfrey were necessarily Bush fans.

KURTZ: That's a good point.

And speaking of Oprah, I want to play a little bit of that interview. The subject turned to Katrina, where the former president acknowledged some mistakes. And, of course, that criticism by Kanye West about he doesn't care about black people.

Let's roll that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: Do you not understand how you flying over and that picture of us -- of you looking out of the helicopter, and all of these being black, mostly black, disenfranchised, poor people, and the reaction not being sooner, can you see how the perception would be that you were racist?

BUSH: No, I cannot see that. I can see how the perception would be maybe Bush didn't care. But to accuse me of being a racist is disgusting.


KURTZ: So, Oprah, who campaigned for Obama, thinks the perception is at least plausible?

MILBANK: Yes, although I think he came out pretty well in that interview overall. And, you know, he had to know that these sorts of questions would come up.

He brought it up himself in the book. And I think that we're raising these issues again -- I say "we" in the press, but it's in sort of a gauzy way. We're looking back at history, and it's sort of interesting now, and I think there's more affection. It's no accident that every time a president leaves office he becomes more popular, because he's not in the public.

KURTZ: He's out of the firing line.

So -- and here Dana is writing that he kind of misses George W.

Lynn Sweet, are journalists now engaging in a bit of Bush nostalgia? Maybe he looks better after two years of Obama?

SWEET: Well, yes. And you have more information out there, because now you're hearing things from his side and his perspective. And that's only natural, that -- when you get his take on matters.

You know, there's that story that came out on how his abortion views were impacted by his mother go to the hospital, and he sees the aborted fetus, which was a bit graphic, but --

KURTZ: When she had a miscarriage.

SWEET: Yes. But if this is what influences him, that helps you just understand something.

He said in one of these interviews that what he's really looking forward to is time to pass so a professional historian can really see if they get him right. And he's just providing his take for that historian.

KURTZ: Well, as any former politician would.

I wanted to turn now to something that's getting a lot of buzz this week. It's Sarah Palin's so-called Alaska reality show starting this week on TLC. Let's play a little bit of that.


SARAH PALIN (R), FMR. ALASKA GOVERNOR: That whole misperception about being a diva, it kind of cracks me up.

There's a gnat stuck to my lip.

On a really clear day, you can see Russia from here. Almost.

I'd rather be doing this than in some stuffy old political office. I'd rather be out here being free.


KURTZ: All right.

Mark McKinnon, is TLC putting on a reality show, or a really long campaign commercial?

MCKINNON: Well, it's both. I mean, Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her, has become the absolute glittering object for the media. And she keeps reinventing her -- not only herself, but ways to control the media message these days.

She's -- you know, she's mastered Twitter. She's become the Twitter queen in terms of controlling her message. And now she's sort of reinventing political reality television.

And she just keeps bending the envelope. So -- and she creates this wonderful contradiction I think in all of us who watch her, whether we're, you know, in politics or media. She's just an object of ongoing fascination, and you have got to give her credit for that.

KURTZ: How much reality, Lynn Sweet, is there in this reality show?

SWEET: Well, you know, it's her version, so it would be -- it's not like we're waiting for an ending. The show will not end with a decision on 2012 or not, which is what a lot of people might want to know. But it is genius.

She is doing everything right. You know, she has a book. This show is coming up just as she's about to go on a second book tour. She has made herself into this very brandable person. But even ostensibly it's not about politics. She still has a problem to address, her low favorability ratings. Maybe this will do it.

MILBANK: I think there's some complicity here in the media because when you mention Sarah Palin you get a lot more hits online.

KURTZ: That's why we're doing it right now.

MILBANK: That's exactly right and I think if you could look honestly, I think most of us in the media if you poll us, we want her to run for the presidency because it would be a much more interesting race.

KURTZ: There's your lead. Dana Milbank endorses Palin run. Before we go to break, there was a joke made about you, a couple jokes by Bill O'Reilly this week, prompted you to write a column. I want to play what O'Reilly said. We'll get your response on the other side.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: I think you and I should go and beat him up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Listen, with all due respect to Dana Milbank --

O'REILLY: No, no, no. He doesn't deserve -- does Sharia law say we can behead Dana Milbank? That was a joke, you Media Matters people out there.


KURTZ: You wrote a column taking exception to that joke and then O'Reilly accused you of taking it literally.

MILBANK: Well, he came back the next night on the show, someone had complained about the joke, one of his readers and he followed up by saying if I went to Iran, I'd be turned into humus. I'm not sure that's better or worse than being beheaded.

KURTZ: Did you overreact?

MILBANK: Well, look, I think it's a serious issue when people are suggesting violent imagery as Glenn Beck does, as Bill O'Reilly did. He went after me again on Wednesday night after the column and he can take issue with the column. He can say I'm full of it.

KURTZ: His issue was that you were writing about Fox on election night and you said that said Doug Schoen, the Democratic pollster, had appeared. You didn't say he was the only guest, but you didn't mention that there had been Bob Beckel, Juan Williams, and other Democrats.

MILBANK: That's a fair argument. Maybe I should have written it differently, but let's not talk about cutting off heads. Say I'm a lousy journalist. I can take it. Go ahead and do that, but let's drop the humus.

KURTZ: He may take you up on that. Let me get a break here. When we come back, serious satire. Jon Stewart continuing his indictment of cable news by taking his act to MSNBC and challenging Rachel Maddow. We'll examine that hour-long showdown in a moment.


KURTZ: In this corner, Jon Stewart, the sultan of satire, who's been throwing punches at MSNBC and arguing that a leading liberal leaning network is guilty of some of the same excesses as to the right-leaning Fox news. In the other corner, Rachel Maddow who swings back by arguing that she and others at MSNBC may have a strong point of view but are not partisan like that other network owned by Rupert Murdoch. In the way wake of his big Washington rally, Stewart stopped by Maddow's studio this weekend and dispensed with the jokes as he made his case against cable news and in particular, MSNBC.


RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: I think what happened is I think the media, having have been derided for so long as being liberal and biased and being very afraid of that charge, when Keith spoke out the way he did, he essentially came out of the closet as a liberal and nothing bad happened. It was OK. He grew his audience if anything and so I think it gave network executives some courage to say people who are liberals can be on TV as long as they call themselves liberals.

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": I think that (inaudible) executives work on courage -- I think what they did is they went, why is Fox news kicking our asses? We need to fight this with a similar or sensational -- this is an arms race.


KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, does Jon Stewart have a point about MSNBC being part of polarization of cable news?

SWEET: I think he has a point because we now have a network that is seen as right wing and left wing, liberal or conservative, whatever words you want to use on it and he put it, though, in the context as if this was a negative and Rachel Maddow made it seem more evolutionary. That's the big difference there. Stewart interestingly sees himself more as an umpire I think than a player himself, though he of course is a player.

KURTZ: He's a sharp umpire in the sense that he doesn't like foreign (ph) punches, to continue the boxing metaphor. Mark McKinnon, Jon Stewart, what he did in that appearance I thought was try to puncture the notion that MSNBC basically reports the facts with a point of view. I know people at MSNBC see themselves as journalists and hate being lumped in with the opinion hosts at Fox, but Stewart took that on, did he not?

MARK MCKINNON, CONTRIBUTOR, THEDAILYBEAST.COM: He did and rightfully so. I was on that network with one of the hosts, and we went to a break and they said, could you cut the bipartisan crap and just give us some red meat? So, you know, listen, it's all about ratings. And, you know, lean forward should probably lean leftward. And let's just tell it like it is, news is news and opinion is opinion, which I think is fine. Let's have some editorial opinion, but call it what it is.

KURTZ: Were you being offended by being asked to cut the bipartisan crap?

MCKINNON: I wasn't surprised.

KURTZ: Did you change what you were saying? Did you change your tone?

MCKINNON: No, I didn't change a thing. I'm going to keep fighting for the middle and for dialogue that I think the vast middle of America really wants to hear.

KURTZ: Mark, of course, a former Democrat. Do you want to tell us who it was that said that?

MCKINNON: I don't.

KURTZ: Make some headlines here. Dana Milbank, you were a contributor at MSNBC for a while. Did the opinion hosts have blinders on when it comes to how partisan they can sometimes seem?

MILBANK: I think so, and I think happens on both sides. I don't understand this reluctance to say yes, we're ideological, we're partisan. What's the big deal? That's how they're perceived. Why not just on both sides just give into that? There seems to be a running argument about who's worse, who's more partisan, who's fairer to the facts. That changes from day to day and it changes with the swing of the political pendulum. I don't understand this allergy to saying as when I covered Fox's election night coverage, why not say of course we were happy that the Republicans won? It just seems so manifestly obvious. Why can't both networks do it?

KURTZ: Briefly, Fox's election night coverage was anchored by Bret Baier and Kelly whereas MSNBC went with that all liberal lineup and we heard Rachel Maddow say that Keith is out of the closet, Keith Olbermann of course as a liberal. But the question is, they do sometimes criticize Democrats, but they tend to criticize Obama from the left.

SWEET: And Fox criticizes from the right, which will make the new incoming Congress quite interesting. And you're right. The difference is though when they have a big news night, they probably should just have more news anchors than --

MILBANK: Or give up the news anchors and just have an opinion.

SWEET: Yeah.

KURTZ: I am dying to know who said that to Mark McKinnon, but I was not able to beat it out of him so we'll have to say good bye.

MCKINNON: Off camera, Howie.

KURTZ: Mark McKinnon, Lynn Sweet, Dana Milbank, thanks for joining us.

Up next, Conan's comeback. How much damage have he and Jay Leno sustained from their bitter battle for the "Tonight Show?" Bill Carter on whether Coco can make it on basic cable.


KURTZ: He climbed to the peak of the comedy mountaintop only to take a very public and humiliating fall. Conan O'Brien took the $32 million he got for giving up the "Tonight Show," disappeared for a while and this week he resurfaced on cable. Here's Conan making his debut on TBS.


CONAN O'BRIEN: People asked why I named the show "Conan." I did it so I'd be harder to replace. I'm going to be honest though, it's not easy doing a late night show on a channel without a lot of money that viewers have trouble finding. So that's why I left NBC.


KURTZ: There's still huge interest in just what happened between Conan and Jay Leno and NBC when Jay wound up reclaiming his late-night franchise after his prime time program was a total bust. Bill Carter of "The New York Times" has produced perhaps a definitive behind-the-scenes account with his new book, "The War for Late Night." And he joins me now from New York. What does Conan need to do to succeed on TBS which I should mention is part of CNN's parent company, Time Warner. Obviously we're not talking about a "Tonight Show"- sized audience here.

BILL CARTER, "NEW YORK TIMES": No. I don't think he has to get a "Tonight Show"-sized audience. I think he has to get an audience that's competitive with Jon Stewart, not with Jay Leno. I think his main goal will be to be what he is, which is a funny guy, doing a very successful and upbeat show every night. I think he can do that and make a lot of money for TBS.

KURTZ: But is Jon Stewart a more difficult potential competitor for him particularly since part of Conan's, part of his sales pitch he has made is he's going to attract younger viewers, also the kind who like to watch Comedy Central?

CARTER: There's no doubt. They're going for kind of the same audience, the college and slightly older audiences, the core for both guys. I think Conan's audience may be not as politically oriented, not as into the news. He can carve out a nice niche there. It's not going to be gigantic numbers, not going to take down Leno or Letterman, but he's a talented guy. I think he'll figure it out and do well.

KURTZ: He did beat Leno and Letterman on that first night when there was this huge curiosity factor. Let's talk about the battle that you chronicle. The public perception -- and I argue against this almost every week on this show. It's funny people feel so passionate about it - is that Leno was a scheming bad guy who plotted to get rid of Conan and reclaim his old job . Did you find anything to support that?

CARTER: Not at all. I mean obviously Jay is a guy who's single minded and he wants to do one thing, which is a show where he tells jokes every night. But in order to figure that he's a schemer, you'd have to guess that in advance he decided to go on at 10:00 and fail and humiliate himself. That just doesn't make any sense, because I do think he was damaged by that.

KURTZ: I don't think there's any question about that. You report that Jay was willing to go along with the two-show compromise, Leno at 11 to 11:35, Conan at 12:05. Conan of course didn't go along with it. And he even spoke at one time whether he should call Conan during that red-hot dispute and was talked out of it. That doesn't sound like someone who is trying to sink Conan O'Brien.

CARTER: The thing about Jay, Jay wants to go and get along. He never wants to burn bridges and get people angry with him. It tends to happen anyway, by the way. It seems to be that he winds up making people feel like he's doing all these things behind their back. I think he's just single minded a obsessed with one thing. When they came back to him and said would you go back to 11:35, he snapped at it, yes, of course, I will even in a half-hour format, just to stay on the air. That's what he wants to do.

KURTZ: Shouldn't Conan have accepted some responsibility for his lousy ratings? I know he feels like he was dealt a bad hand, but on the other hand he had the show. He got advised about broadening his appeal, he wasn't on at 12:35 in the morning anymore. Do you think he really came to grips with the fact that he partially failed?

CARTER: I think everybody has to take responsibility for the show. I mean, I think he does in a way think, you know, it's all on him in a way except he has this feeling that, A, he never fully got the show because they moved Jay ahead of him to 10:00 to begin with.

KURTZ: Right.

CARTER: And then, you know, on the air against Dave he didn't get as good a promotion, as much backing because they were then launching this 10:00 show. I think there were factors but, yes, really cut away all the factors, it does come down to the guy. And I think we got to say about Conan, he may not have started out big. I think he didn't start out big in his late-night show, would he find the show, if it left him in place, if Jay had not been there, if Jay had gone to ABC, they would have had to leave him in place, I think Conan is a talented guy and he might have found something. He'd always have a core audience. He'd never lose money. I think he'd still be strong, but it would be a question whether he'd be the number-one guy on the "Tonight Show" which NBC expects the "Tonight Show" to be number one.

KURTZ: I miss those days because they were all very funny when they were sniping at each other. Let's play a little bit of the monologues from that period of time.


O'BRIEN: Hosting the tonight show has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me and I just want to say to the kids out there watching, you can do anything you want in life. Yeah. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.

JAY LENO: Even Dave Letterman taking shots at me, which is a surprise. Usually he's just taking shots at interns. I couldn't believe --


KURTZ: Now, what was -- was Conan O'Brien really wounded by the whole turn of events?

CARTER: Definitely. I spoke to Conan not that long after the events had taken place and this was a guy who was shattered. I mean, he had, you know, dreamed about doing this and clearly put off his career for five years so he could maybe get the "Tonight Show." And then when it fell apart that fast, it really affected him. I have to say that joke he told, though, that one joke was the only joke he really told about Jay and it really was significant. Because until that joke was told, NBC still thought still maybe there was a chance to keep this thing together and after that, Jay called up and said, I can't work with this guy. This is not going to work out.

KURTZ: Is it fair to say that you had the cooperation of all the major players on this book?

CARTER: Yes, absolutely.

KURTZ: It reads that way. Why didn't Letterman jump in and start bashing Jay? Is he still ticked off about hosting the "Tonight Show" in 1992?

CARTER: Yes, he is. I think that's a scar that Dave has never been able to heal. I think he had always felt he was a better talent than Jay and he had put in the time and he deserved to have the show and NBC went with someone else and it's been in his craw ever since. And then when Jay, the same thing was happening with Jay and Conan, he just couldn't resist.

KURTZ: To what extent did Jeff Zucker, the chief exec of NBC play hardball with Conan when everybody's rating were bad and in looking for some kind of compromise?

CARTER: Originally Zucker stepped back from the process and let Jeff Gaspin (ph), his head of entertainment run the show and give the word to Conan. But really the decision had to be made by Zucker, because he had made the first decision five years earlier to make this long transition to Conan. So I think he was in the middle of this and he was defensive. Because let's face it, NBC was about to go through a change of ownership and this was a very awkward situation that Zucker found himself in. And I think the one thing he blames himself for, and certainly, I think --

KURTZ: Just briefly.

CARTER: It was not himself stepping in and saying to Conan, here's what's going to happen to you. He didn't do it personally. He let someone else do it.

KURTZ: Bill Carter, thanks very much for joining us from New York.

Still to come on this program, Sarah Palin clashes with the "Wall Street Journal," Glenn Beck's sad attack on George Soros and I challenge Keith Olbermann over those political donations on "Countdown." The media monitor, straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the media monitor, our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.

I'm all for politicians challenging mistakes by the press, so did Sarah Palin catch one by "the Wall Street Journal"? The former Alaska governor criticizing the Fed's latest big move to stimulate the economy when she warned about inflation. Here's what she said. Everyone who ever goes out shopping for groceries knows that prices have risen significantly over the past year or so. Uh, not really, Journal reporter Sudip Redy (ph) said in a blog post. The increase has been less than 0.6 percent. But did the lame stream media get it wrong? On her Facebook page, Palin notes that the Journal reported on grocery prices just last week. Quote, the article noted that an inflationary tide is beginning to ripple through America's supermarkets and restaurants. Prices of staples including milk, beef, coffee, cocoa and sugar have risen sharply in recent months. Now, I realize I'm just a former governor and a current housewife from Alaska, but even humble folks like me can read the newspaper. I'm surprised that a prestigious reporter for the "Wall Street Journal" doesn't.

Except here's what Palin left out in that ellipses. Here's how it should have read. An inflationary tide is beginning to ripple through America's supermarket and restaurants, threatening to end the tamest year of food pricing in nearly two decades. The Journal was right. If you're going to quote an article, don't leave out the part that contradicts your argument.

We talked last week about MSNBC suspending Keith Olbermann after the anchor violated network rules by donating money to three Democratic candidates. As you probably know by now, Olbermann returned to the air on Tuesday, his suspension from "Countdown" have lasting all of two programs, basically a long weekend. Olbermann offered his regrets in a statement that did not hide his pique at the network bosses, saying he quote, mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule. The next day he spoke to his viewers.


KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: I owe you three apologies, foremost, for having subjected you to all this unnecessary drama, another for not having known by observation since it's not in my contract that NBC had rules about getting permission for making political donations even though and rule like that in any company is probably not legal.


KURTZ: The third point, Olbermann said he hadn't yet made the contribution when he interviewed Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva on "Countdown," but then he made another blunder involving his donation to Arizona Congresswoman Gabriel Gifford.


OLBERMANN: The day after the donations, I included the opponent in the race against Congresswoman Giffords in the old "Worst Persons" segment. I never made the connection that he, Jesse Kelly, was running against her.


KURTZ: But that wasn't the end of it. Olbermann had me and "The Nation's" Greg Mitchell on and posed this question. Is it ever OK for journalists to donate to politicians?


OLBERMANN: Is it yes or no or sometimes?

KURTZ: It's absolutely not and here's why. I believe you made a serious mistake, Keith, with these Democratic donations, beyond the question of whether you knew about the NBC policy. There has to be some kind of line separating journalists and I know you consider yourself a journalist, from partisan players. I would put giving money to politicians on the wrong side of that line. If it's not, how about raising money for politicians, how about advising politicians, how about writing speeches on the side for politicians. At some point if you cross this line that I'm talking about, you're no longer one of us. You become one of them.

OLBERMANN: If you and I and Greg can't donate, can our bosses donate? Can our boss' boss donate? Can Rupert Murdoch donate? Because surely, no matter what you might think of what I did, he must have more influence on what appears on TV news than I do? Or if it's not Rupert, what about the chairman of GE or Comcast?

KURTZ: One of the reasons that I think you left your vulnerable, Keith, to charges of hypocrisy, is because you have been banging on Fox news over the News Corp donations from Rupert Murdoch or steered by Rupert Murdoch and people like Sean Hannity who has raised money for GOP politicians.


KURTZ: Corporate executives I went on to say are in a different category. Now Keith Olbermann is a smart guy, who, as I said, made a mistake. A bigger mistake would be for television networks to decide there don't have to be any boundaries at all.

Glenn Beck stepped up his attacks this week on liberal activist and philanthropist George Soros and he has every right to criticize Soros, but what was truly pathetic was when the Fox news host said that at the age of 14, Soros quote, used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. Beck said Soros didn't have a choice and he wasn't calling him an anti-Semite, but I think we all see what's going on. Invoking the holocaust is the lowest blow I can imagine.

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 begins right now.