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Chaos in Egypt; AOL Buys HuffPo
Aired February 13, 2011 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: News was on television, on the web, everywhere, Hosni Mubarak was about to step down. And then he didn't. An Egyptian official he wouldn't, and then the next day he did. Have journalists been too quick to pass on unconfirmed reports and did they get swept by the jubilation on streets of Cairo?
AOL buys the "Huffington Post" for $315 million with Arianna Huffington becoming its news czar, but will life inside a big corporation change the essence of what made the liberal site so popular?
Keith Olbermann joins forces with Al Gore, becoming the chief news officer and primetime host at tiny Current TV. Is this a step down for MSNBC's liberal lion?
Plus, Gawker runs flirtatious e-mails from a shirtless congressman, and before the rest of the media can agree whether it's news, the lawmaker resigns. We'll talk to the reporter who cracked the case.
I'm Howard Kurtz and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
The street protest that produced a revolution in Egypt had been remarkable to watch, but the chaotic nature of the story has often left journalists scrambling for information and sometimes getting ahead of the facts. That was the case on Thursday when many news organizations agreed that the drama of Hosni Mubarak was coming to an end. Here's what it looked like.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Breaking news coming out of Cairo. There in Egypt, live pictures at the moment. We have had two separate sources telling us that President Mubarak may be stepping down tonight.
JOHN KING, CNN: I'm also told by a senior official that privately they have received word from ranking officials in the Mubarak regime that generally give them reliable information that the plan is in place for President Mubarak to yield power to the vice president. But I will add, as the source I spoke to added with me, a little bit of caution and skepticism.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS: We are hearing stronger than that from two independent sources close to the president, that President Mubarak will likely step down. Two separate sources close to the president say President Mubarak will step down.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a fast-moving situation right now on the streets of Cairo and we're getting information that President Mubarak may step down as soon as this afternoon.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Victory, victory, that may be soon at hand for Egypt's pro-democracy protesters. President Hosni Mubarak expected to announce on Egyptian television within this hour or next hour, but very soon we're told, that he is stepping down and ending his 30 years in power.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: The only thing clear in the long statement from President Mubarak was that he's not leaving Egypt. No indication that he's giving up power. It seemed defiant in a very sad way.
BLITZER: All right, there you just heard the president of Egypt at least, according to that translation, I did not hear him utter the words that I am stepping down.
KURTZ: Because he did not utter those words. But, on Friday, of course, came word that Mubarak finally had resigned, setting off utter jubilation across the country, and correspondents that got caught up in the celebration.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: There's a state of euphoria, a state of disbelief. People are almost afraid to believe what they know in her hearts is true, that Mubarak is gone.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, everybody in the world. Thank you!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But did journalists rush to judgment before that? Joining us now here in Washington, Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for the Atlantic. And in Jerusalem, Janine Zacharia, the bureau chief there for the "Washington Post." And in Paris, Christopher Dickey, Middle East regional editor for "Newsweek," who just got off a plane from Cairo about an hour ago.
And Chris Dickey, so many news outlets as you saw, as you heard reporting on Thursday that Mubarak had resigned. In such a chaotic situation, shouldn't journalists have been more cautious?
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, NEWSWEEK: Yes, I think people should have been more cautious. As I was starting to get those reports, I kept saying to myself, hold back, because the characteristic of the Egyptian revolution has been the ability of the people and the government to surprise us again and again and again.
Everything that we thought was predictable in Egypt has been unpredictable. So this seems like another possibility, and in fact it was not what anybody thought was going to happen. People around the president really did think he was going to resign, and then he didn't.
KURTZ: And Jeff Goldberg, however we try to rationalize it, and this was sort of like watching the journalistic sausage being made, but those stories were wrong.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, THE NEW YORKER: The stories were premature, let's call it that. They were wrong, and that's an excellent point. I don't know if Mubarak knew what he was going to do. And this whole notion that two sources in the palace, we have it independently confirmed, it was utter chaos from what I've seen. I've been in those situations before. No one knows anything about anything. So a great deal of caution is necessary.
KURTZ: So relying on sources to provide a definitive account of something that has not yet happened is very dangerous.
HURTZ: Janine Zacharia, the Egyptian military announcing this morning without warning that it has suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, and has set up a six-month transition government. With that and with what's happened in the last three weeks, how hard is it in the Middle East to separate rumor -- to separate fact I should say from rumor and speculation?
JANINE ZACHARIA, WASHINGTON POST: Well, it certainly has been very difficult. Certainly over the last 18 days when you don't really have, as Jeffrey pointed out, you don't really have any official spokesman -- you don't have -- everybody is sort of hiding from NDP, Mubarak's party, and it's very hard to really confirm anything.
It seems like the military, however, is taking a different approach and being very direct about what they are saying. On the early reports, though, Howie, I think a lot of people got caught up, remember in that press conference or that statement that the military had made, and interpreted from it that that meant Mubarak was leaving. Then you had the Leon Panetta thing on the Hill, which misled a lot of people, but certainly jumping the gun like that was really irresponsible.
KURTZ: Just to explain, the CIA director said that he expected Mubarak to step down and he later backtracked and said he was reacting to media reports. Let me play for you something CNN's Anderson Cooper said after that bizarre Mubarak address on Thursday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: What we heard were the same lies we've heard from him and his regime for more than two weeks now. What we heard is a man who clearly believes that he is Egypt. He kept repeating this lie that this is all some sort of foreign interference.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Chris Dickey, Anderson Cooper repeatedly using the word lies. Now I think most journalists would agree with him, perhaps most Americans would agree with him. But should an anchor and correspondent being taking sides on this kind of story?
DICKEY: I think Anderson sort of -- that's part of the soul of his show is to take sides and be passionate and come across as someone who's reasonable, but committed to a certain vision of the story.
In fact, I don't think lies is an exaggerated word to use in this context. I mean, when you have a head of a state who's telling one untruth after another and they are certifiable, and then we come into the situation where he really is lying not only to the country but probably to himself. I think Anderson can be forgiven for using that word in that context.
KURTZ: And of course, Anderson Cooper was repeatedly punched in the head when he was covering the demonstrations during those couple of days when they turned violent and when journalists were not just attacked but targeted for attacks.
Jeff Goldberg, a lot of euphoria in the coverage. I'm wondering whether or not there was another side of the story. "Time" magazine, for example, quoted a couple of Egyptians as saying they didn't want Mubarak to leave or at least not so quickly, because they valued stability in the country. And there's also the argument, of course, that Mubarak staying was better for the U.S. because we don't know what's going to come next.
So what did you make of that aspect of the coverage, where the journalists really seemed to swing behind let's get rid of this guy?
GOLDBERG: Well, don't forget. During the Bush administration, there was a period when Bush and Condoleezza Rice were speaking out very strongly against -- at least rhetorically opposed to the Mubarak regime and talking about the necessity for democracy. And there was a great deal of skepticism in the American media about this line of attack on Mubarak, and everybody was then a foreign policy realist and saying Mubarak has been a stalwart ally of the U.S., which is true, helped us in the war on terror, which is true. Keeps peace with Israel, which is true.
Now everybody has sort of swung the other way, probably over simplistically as well, and said this is the only storyline, that Mubarak was an evil dictator and he's gone and it's better for everyone. Now, it's true. It's probably better for Egypt, but what that's missing is all of the complexity of this.
Egypt has not experienced democracy before. It's been one dictator after another, and I think we're losing sight of the fact that now comes the interesting and hard part for Egypt.
KURTZ: If you throw too much complexity in, will you ruin my storyline here? I want a simple storyline. Janine, what these protesters accomplished in 18 days was just extraordinary. They changed history. But is it possible that there are also millions of Americans (sic) who stayed home, who had a different view of whether this regime should be toppled in this dramatic fashion?
ZACCHARIA: Well, you know, I think as you were saying, Howie, I mean, some of the breathless coverage that we saw and the fact that all of the pictures, as Frank Sesno said last week, we're just addicted to the picture. All of the reporting for television was from Tahrir Square, like the size of the meadowlands basically in New York.
I mean, there was not any reporting from anywhere else in the country that day. It was very hard to get some sort of quote/unquote, "balanced pictures," and people just got very swept up in it. So I think maybe in retrospect perhaps that was another thing, but it wouldn't have been as exciting as being there in this sort of post Super Bowl atmosphere.
I think one of the other things we have to do when we look back at the coverage is sort of the way that rumor as you mentioned earlier was used. I mean, it was sort of like any guy with a laptop.com was enough to then run with the story without any kind of confirmation. That was enough to propel the story forward. So I think (inaudible), but on a plus side, when was the last time that the U.S. domestic audience was focused on a foreign story for 18 days? I mean, it is historic like President Obama said.
KURTZ: Well, that is absolutely true. Project for Excellence in Journalism finding that 32 percent of Americans following the story very closely, that doubled from the previous week.
But this post-Super Bowl atmosphere that you referred to. I want to play a clip -- let me say first of all, I think CNN, you know, which has a great international network, did a superlative job during this crisis. But NBC's Richard Engel, I thought, you know, really kind of typified the enthusiasm because has so often reported from the middle of those crows. Let's play a brief sound bite of Engel on Friday.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Many Egyptians never thought that they would live to see this day. This is certainly a turning point in this country and, Brian, it could be a turning point for the Middle East.
KURTZ: Chris Dickey, is it possible to stand in that sea of humanity, people screaming, crying and just joyous and not get swept away and lose any sense of objectivity?
DICKEY: Yes, it's possible. But on the other hand, when you're in the middle of a moment like that and you're reporting it live on the air, you want to catch the sentiment that exists around you. You can step back when that moment passed and it's over already. And you can take a look at the context that created it and what's going to come after.
You can even take a look at the Mubaraks. I have a long piece in the new edition of "Newsweek" about the tragedy of the Mubaraks who probably really did think that they were doing good all these years but were totally out of touch with their people.
On the other hand, if you're in Tahrir Square, you are in touch with hundreds of thousands of people sharing the same emotion and you'd look like kind of silly if you were crossing your arms and saying, well, it's not really as great as all that.
KURTZ: Jeff Goldberg.
GOLDBERG: Well, no, exactly the point I wanted to make which is that you're being hugged and kissed and there's euphoria all around you. And it might not be the moment to say, of course, foreign policy challenges remain and we don't know, of course, if the army is going to, you know -- you're not going to be able to deliver that level of analysis in the heat of the moment.
But, you know, the entire -- you have a structure around you. You have a network and you have other reports who can sort of introduce those questions pretty quickly.
KURTZ: Well, we'll have a chance to do that in the coming days when we don't have the pictures of people celebrating and/or protesting in Tahrir Square. That will be a harder story as you were alluding to earlier.
GOLDBERG: But this is the problem. I mean, that once Tahrir Square is empty, now the hard part begins and Egypt's direction is now being settled. And I'm afraid, of course, that we're going, you know, in two weeks or three weeks people are going to barely remember that there was this revolution in Egypt, or two or three days.
KURTZ: That is the challenge for journalism. Jeffrey Goldberg, Janine Zacharia, Christopher Dickey, thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, AOL's big get. What is buying "The Huffington Post" mean for the company and for Arianna's very popular and very liberal side?
KURTZ: It began nearly six years ago at Arianna Huffington's L.A. mansion with a bunch of her liberal friends. The idea: to create a Web site that would help Democrats by offering a lefty alternative to the Drudge Report. But through smart packaging, a strong dose of culture and entertainment and aggressively linking to other people's work, The Huffington Post grew into a blockbuster now drawing nearly 25 million readers a month.
This week, Huffington announced a deal with AOL's chief executive Tim Armstrong, the Web site, that always touted its independence from the corporate media, was being sold or sold out, some critics complain, to a major corporation.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KARA SWISHER, "BOOMTOWN" COLUMN WRITER FOR ALLTHINGSDIGITAL.COM: Why did you sell "The Huffington Post" besides the giant pile of money Tim is shoving your way?
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: And I had just made new year's resolution already for the end of the year --
SWISHER: Which was to sell your (INAUDIBLE) for a giant amount of money?
HUFFINGTON: -- which was for us to accelerate everything we were doing. To going to lockout (ph) in time for the presidential election, to go to Brazil where I had just come from and where we wanted to launch Huffington (INAUDIBLE) to go global.
So the way that our vision came together. Classified (ph) that we both believe in real journalism or regional reporting and hiring a lot of both established journalists.
KURTZ: So what does all this mean, not just for Arianna and AOL, but for the growing clout of online media?
Joining us now here in Washington, Mark Potts, Internet Media and Strategy Consultant and a former "Washington Post" reporter.
In New York, Felix Salmon, the business blogger for Reuters.
And in San Francisco, Kara Swisher, co-executive editor of "All Things Digital," the journalist who broke the story and conducted that interview we just saw with Arianna Huffington.
So Kara Swisher, what does this deal tell us about the value and influence and clout of online media sites?
SWISHER: Well, it was a couple of things going on. Obviously, it's a lot of money for a site that doesn't make a lot of money. So that says a lot. Meaning "The Huffington Post" is just like other Internet companies. But I think it says that Tim, for one, AOL really needs something exciting. And to them, "The Huffington Post" was the exciting, sort of, addition to their strategy of premium content.
And for online, I think it's probably a little bit of a hype that it means something for online content. Online content has been developing for a long time and here's the first example of one of the biggest sales of it. And I don't think it means that it's growing in power, it just means that people are using it and therefore the more prominent ones are going to be sold for a lot of money.
KURTZ: Felix Salmon, more original reporting in recent years, but it's know more, if you look at the sign as I know you have, for aggregation of other people's work, packaging more than original journalism. How is that worth 300 million bucks?
FELIX SALMON, FMR. WRITER FOR EUROMONEY MAGAZINE AND PORTFOLIO MAGAZINE: It's actually not a particularly high valuation. If you look at what lugs (ph) of value that when there are acquisitions like this, it's normally in the sort of five to six times revenues range or -- and if you look at any of the ratios here, they're pretty much in line. If anything, it's a little bit low. Back in December, people were saying that "The Huffington Post" was worth somewhere between $300 and $450 million. And this is the lower end of that range.
So if you just look at the financials, it's a pretty justifiable price, I think. And the fact is the page views and audience and loyalty are what "The Huffington Post" has. It's not really a matter of who broke the story in the first place. That has some value, but there's a lot of value outside that.
HURTZ: Loyalty very important online, Mark Potts, and Arianna Huffington also becoming the editorial director for all of AOL's content.
What exactly does she bring to the company we used to call America Online?
MARK POTTS, CO-FOUNDED WASHINGTONPOST.COM: That's a good question. I'm a big fan of Arianna. I think she's done a great job as an impresario, a promoter, building "Huffington Post." I'm not sure she brings that much to AOL as an editorial brain. I think there are others at "The Huffington Post" who contribute a lot to the success of what the site is now, in creating what it is editorially. And I wonder if Arianna actually is one who did that and how much she brings to AOL.
KURTZ: Well, she brings a name, obviously, and personality.
Kara Swisher, you know, "The Huffington Post" has its own very distinct personality and always had its independence. How will being part of a big corporation change that? Or will it?
SWISHER: I don't know if she'll it at all. I think actually she does bring that. She's a lightning rod. She attracts attention consistently. She's on television all the time.
You know, AOL has no personality whatsoever in terms of editorial. And this brings a personality to it, who manages to bring in some excitement. So, I don't think that's necessarily not unimportant for them. I mean, you'd rather be -- If you're Tim Armstrong, you're the guy who's selling AOL content and I don't even know what that is, or you will be the guy that bought Arianna Huffington's blog. And so, I think she will be much more involved than you think.
KURTZ: Would I be more likely as a reader to click on any of the other blogs that AOL has, whether it's "In Gadget" or "Tech Crunch" because it's got Arianna?
SWISHER: No, no, no. But I say -- but it brings attention to AOL as an editorial property. Just like any prominent editor would. I mean, that's -- it's so easy to think that because she is so interesting as a personality in journalism. At the same time, you know, some of those sites are actually pretty good. They are very in and of their own right. I think it just brings cohesion, I guess, of what they're doing and I think a lot of people have been confused about what Tim Armstrong is doing at AOL and the stock has reflected that.
KURTZ: Felix Salmon, an "L.A. Times" columnist described "The Huffington Post" as a galley rowed by slaves commanded by pirates. This is, of course, a reference in the business model in which most of the outside contributors are not paid a dime. Is that a good business model?
SALMON: It's a fantastic business model if you can get content for free.
KURTZ: What about if you're a writer?
SALMN: These are people who are contributing for their own reasons. And actually Nate Silver has a great column in "The New York Times" explaining that they don't account for a huge proportion of "The Huffington Post" total. He's paying it's about 4 percent. It might be a little bit more than that, but not much. They provide a base and a voice.
And I think one of things that Arianna wants to do is to plug into AOL's local network or patch, and use all of those extra people around the country to do reporting in the 2012 campaign and that kind of thing. And voice is incredibly important online, it's the reason that people come back. And, of course, the other reason which you haven't quite touched on yet is that Tim Armstrong was buying technology. "The Huffington Post" is a incredibly sophisticated technology company and that technology is very valuable to AOL.
KURTZ: It, also, Mark Potts was a well deserved representation as being on the left. As I said, it was founded in order to be on the left. Most of the columnists are liberal. Most of the lawmakers who have posts are Democrats.
But Arianna Huffington told me this week, well, she wants to move beyond these left/right debates. And she is de-emphasizing politics, or at least it makes up only 15 percent of her total traffic.
But I'm wondering whether being part of AOL will accelerate that process and people who are liberal and who like the liberal voice of "Huff Post" will feel that it's been lost or faded.
POTTS: I think it's a fair question. I think she risks diluting her own brand by moving more towards the center and she's definitely saying all the right things about trying to be more centrist that she's now with a news company rather than an opinion company. And with AOL, she wants to -- she wants to toe the middle line.
But there are people who come to "Huffington Post" because they like the left-leaning. And if they like it going away, and has been drifting away from that, has been drifting more towards the center, if they feel like it going away, it won't be the same product for them. (CROSSTALK)
KURTZ: Go ahead.
SWISHER: I'm just saying, she's been doing -- she's been attacking the Obama administration. She's one of the most prominent critics in the past year. So, she does what she feels like. I don't think she's -- I don't think -- she likes to say she's not left or right. She's obviously more left-leaning. But I mean, I think she likes to do what's interesting and dramatic. So, I think you're going to see that more than anything else.
POTTS: But let's face it, over the career, she's been both left and right.
KURTZ: Yes, she once was a -- somebody who was a confidant of Newt Gingrich, married to a Republican congressman.
KURTZ: But you said earlier that AOL didn't much for identity. You've written a book on AOL. Why does it seem, at least until now, as kind of a hodge-podge of different sites without a real strong brand?
SWISHER: Because it's a hodge-podge of different sites without a definite band. That's why. You know, I think he's been trying to pull it out. I think Tim has been trying to pull it out and make something of it. And actually, they're doing what actually Yahoo! probably should be doing, create a sort of a premium content destination on the Internet.
I mean, someone has to be the Conde Nast of the Internet. It's not right now, it's not Conde Nast. But someone's got to form this thing and it's not like a gigantic business in the same way. It's got the same issues about advertising and making money and bringing audience to it.
But someone's got to do this. And so, he's trying with this company that's gone through so much history to give it -- to give it a personality and give it a definition. And people like a story and he's trying to build a story here and this certainly adds to the excitement of that.
KURTZ: You know, I've been asking for a couple of years, Felix Salmon, why "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" or CNN or any other major media company didn't start something like "The Huffington Post." You did something interesting. You compared the front pages of "The Huffington Post" and "The New York Times" in terms of their layout, in terms of how many comments they attracted. What did you find?
SALMON: Well, actually, what I did is I took a "New York Times" story which they broke and I compared to "The Huffington Post" reblog of that story, where they basically took the news from "The New York Times" and said, "Look, 'The New York Times' has this news." And "The Huffington Post" page was much more interesting, had many more exit points, had the stories that my friends were reading on Facebook, had great pictures. It was loads of stuff which you want to click on and you want to interact with and had thousands of comments and likes on Facebook and tweets and retweets and all the rest of it.
Whereas, "The New York Times" original story which is where the real meat was had none of that really. It was very dull. It was gray, had a few links, no pictures. You had to sort of navigate around by clicking on something called sports or something like that.
And the reason why "The Huffington Post" has been so much more successful in many ways in terms of getting loyalty and reader engagement is because it has this technology, this architecture, which is very good at that. And "The New York Times" report is putting up this pay wall which is just getting to make it ever harder to get somebody who aren't already subscribers to click around and explore.
KURTZ: But, of course, Mark Potts, as we go to break, "The Times" had the pay the reporter to get the story in the first place.
POTTS: Pay the reporter with the story, but all "The Huffington Post" ran was a couple of paragraphs of "The Times" story. All you need was two paragraphs of "The Times" story. That's fine. You'll never read the rest of "The Times" story.
KURTZ: And if (INAUDIBLE) is better and it got more people to like it on Facebook, then, obviously, it accomplished something and --
POTTS: And "Huffington Post" probably drives more traffic as "The Times" story, "The Times" itself does. So, "The Times" is getting to cut that off (ph).
KURTZ: All right, got to go. Mark Potts, Kara Swisher, Felix Salmon, thanks very much for joining us.
And coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, Keith Olbermann heading to Current TV. Can the former MSNBC star put Al Gore's network on the map?
Plus, Gawker gets its man. We'll talk with the gossip reporter about, a story about a congressman's shirtless pictures on Craigslist and how they cost him his job.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEITH OLBERMANN: There were many occasions, particularly in the last two and a half years were all but surrounded the show but never the show itself was too much for me. With your support and loyalty, and may I use the word insistence, ultimately required that I keep going.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: When Keith Olbermann and MSNBC had their bitter break-up, everyone in the media world wanted to know what's Keith is going to do next. We got the answer this week when the liberal commentator joined forces with Al Gore.
The former vice president is the co-founder of Current TV, where Olbermann will not only launch a primetime program this spring, but serve as chief news officer. Current TV is not exactly high profile offering such programs as "Bar Karma" and "Kill It, Cook It, Eat It."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Six volunteers, one Devon farm, they are here to find out where meat comes from -- to look the animals in the eye.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the deadliest killers in the world is something no one likes to talk about. It's (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Nearly half of the world's population is without access to toilets.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So will Olbermann's new cable home diminish his clout or put Al Gore's operation on the media map? Joining us now here in Washington, Matt Lewis, blogger and political analyst for Politicsdaily.com. In New York, Rachel Sklar, editor at large for mediaite.com. And in Chicago, Aaron Barnhart, television critic for the "Kansas City Star" and editor of TVBarn.com.
And Aaron Barnhart, Olbermann cast this as a move towards media independence on his part, away from the corporate media that employed him at MSNBC, and you challenged that on the conference call that he had with reporters.
AARON BARNHART, TVBARN.COM: I thought it was particular that I would choose that note to launch his venture on Current TV. Because if you look at what he has done in those two and a half years he was talking about, he launched a free health clinic. He did a number of-- you know, he was his own man. He ended his worst persons in the world segment kind of on his own accord. But really if you go back to his entire eight-year relationship with MSNBC, when did they not play -- when did they not march to his tune?
Here's a guy who came along, and from a humble perch of an 8 p.m. show, watched by a few hundred thousand people, basically helped NBC find its voice for its cable news channel. He also said on the conference call, he's the most restless man on television. He's like a shark. So at some point, it clearly got boring for him.
KURTS: Well, now that the shark has moved to Current TV, Rachel Sklar, which averages about 23,000 viewers, I'm told, in primetime, is this a bit of a step down for Olbermann?
RACHEL SKLAR, FORMER SENIOR CONTRIBUTING EDITOR FOR THE HUFFINGTON POST: It depends how you're looking at it. I mean, I think Olbermann likes to fashion himself as someone who's a builder, you know. He enjoyed the fact that he got to go to MSNBC and take credit essentially for the fact where that the network is where it is today.
So at Current, he gets to take on that role again. You know, Current is in what is it, 60 million households have access to it, and there's not only that, but there's the Current channel and then there is also the clips that will then go forth to the Internet.
And so Olbermann has been very smart so far in how he deployed himself because he's got one basic channel -- one basic target, and that's the Fox News Channel. Like, you know, he's got his, FOK, Friends of Keith, and that's his target. He hasn't really been --
KURTZ: You're referring to guys that he now assumes on Twitter.
SKLAR: Right, yes.
KURTZ: Let me turn to Matt Lewis, because not only is, as I mentioned at the top, not only is Olbermann going to be the star of Current TV, he's going be the chief news officer. Does that kind brand this Al Gore founded channel as a left-wing outfit?
MATT LEWIS, LEAVING AS A COLUMNIST FOR AOL'S POLITICSDAILY.COM: I think it might. I mean, look, first of all, you talked about the break-up with MSNBC. This struck me as a rebound thing, right, where you can't be single for long. You have got to jump into a relationship with the next big thing.
But, you're right, if you look at what Current TV is, it's left of center, but it's kind -- it's like a young network, it's MTV meets NPR. It's kind of cool, not overtly political. Certainly left of center. This makes it overtly political. To me it makes it a little bit less cool, but I'm not their target audience probably.
KURTZ: Speaking of political, before I move on to the next topic. You announced this week that you are leaving AOL Politics Daily and joining Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller web site, and you said this is because of Arianna Huffington becoming the editor and news director of AOL. And you called her a far left liberal. Did you think she was going to dictate what you write?
LEWIS: Well, look, here is the deal. If you're in the business of making widgets, it doesn't really matter who your boss is, because widgets are not ideological, right, you're working for a paycheck. But when you're an opinion writer, it matters very deeply, the political philosophy of the editorial department.
My thing is, I do not have to work for a conservative outlet, but I will not work for a liberal outlet, and that certainly was a prime consideration for me.
KURTZ: All right. Don Rumsfeld making the rounds this week pushing his book, his version of what happened during his tenure as defense secretary. First interview was done by ABC's Diane Sawyer. Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, the French intelligence, the British intelligence, the German intelligence. It was uniform across the board that -- that it was reasonable to assume that he had chemical and biological weapons.
DIANE SAWYER: But you were wrong.
RUMSFELD: My goodness, the intelligence was certainly wrong.
SAWYER: If you had known he did not have them --
RUMSFELD: I didn't know.
SAWYER: If you had --
RUMSFELD: I didn't.
SAWYER: If you had --
RUMSFELD: I have no idea. I have no idea.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Aaron Barnhart, what did you make of Sawyer and others who tried to pin down the former Pentagon chief on how much he was wrong about Iraq? And I've read his book. He doesn't say he was wrong about very much.
BARNHART: No, it doesn't. And Stephanopoulos probably came closest to nailing him on some points, but -- and I thought Sawyer's segment was kind of weird because it starts out with his up close and personal thing where we found out about some family tragedy that was going on, which I thought was completely irrelevant to his making a decision to send 4,500 men and women to die in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's been four and a half years since he's addressed the media, wasn't really interested in that. You know, this is part of the -- you know, the legacy of the 1980s and '90s when the big thing was to have a get with an author who is coming out with a brand new book.
But in the Internet age, it seems to me like we've all kind of moved on from that. I mean, I would be much more interested in seeing your old colleague, Tom Ricks, who has written a couple of books very critical of Rumsfeld's management of these wars, engaging him, but of course --
KURTZ: Well, the book leaked out early, as it always does. I got a copy, other reports did too. But it's still I think useful to have somebody put the guy in the chair, cameras rolling, and try to hold him accountable. Let me get a break here. When we come back, Bill O'Reilly's Super Bowl sit-down with Barack Obama, was the lack of fireworks good for Fox News?
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Bill O'Reilly said it would be the most watched interview of all time. OK, It wasn't. But the setting was fascinating: Barack Obama in the White House on Super Bowl Sunday with one of the most opinionated hosts from the network that his administration had once declared war on. So O'Reilly faced something of a balancing act. Here's a bit of the interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Does it disturb you that so many people hate you? It's a serious question.
OBAMA: You know, the truth is that the people -- and I'm sure previous presidents would say the same thing, whether it was Bush or Clinton or Reagan or anybody, that the people who dislike you, don't know you.
O'REILLY: They hate you.
OBAMA: Even -- the folks who hate you, they don't know you.
O'REILLY: That's true.
OBAMA: What they hate is whatever funhouse mirror image of you that's out there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Rachel Sklar, O'Reilly took issue with me, saying he didn't put points on board in that interview. Well, it was Super Bowl Sunday. I used a lot of football metaphors. What I meant was that this famous aggressive interviewer didn't really get the president off his script. What was your thoughts?
SKLAR: Well, honestly, watching that, my thought was I really wanted to hear Obama speak more. O'Reilly interrupted him mid-thought a lot of the time. You know, there have been -- there's been a lot of criticism, saying that that...
KURTZ: I don't think it was that bad. There was a lot of back and forth. It wasn't like he was cutting him off.
SKLAR: I hadn't seen it...
KURTZ: I have to cut you off now.
SKLAR: I hadn't seen it when it aired, and I -- when it started, I was like, "Oh, this isn't so bad." Towards, you know, when they got into the thick of it, he really did. He would interrupt Obama before he had a chance to actually answer the question. That's just -- that doesn't serve the audience. That was actually my overarching thought.
SKLAR: But I liked the interview. I enjoyed it.
KURTZ: Get an overarching thought from Matt Lewis. O'Reilly came off as reasonable.
KURTZ: And as he pointed out a couple days after that, that's good for FOX, right?
LEWIS: I think it is. And I think there's a distinction to be made. Bill O'Reilly, I think, is different than Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann. I think, you know, he certainly can be incendiary, but I think he is also more of a newsman.
And let me say, I kind of disagree with you and Rachel both. I thought the interview was fabulous. I thought that both President Obama and Bill O'Reilly deserved an A plus. And I also think...
BLITZER: What was fabulous about it?
LEWIS: Well, first of all, you have to interrupt. You have to interrupt people because that is when you get to the real person.
KURTZ: So by interrupting, what did he get?
LEWIS: I think what you saw is the actual President Obama, instead of the talking points, instead of the stuff he rehearsed. And you know what? I think it was likeable. I think when he interrupted and you got to him off message, people probably liked it.
KURTZ: Aaron Barnhart, O'Reilly doesn't usually do live interviews. He tapes his program every night. And to me he seemed rushed, just a little off his game. How did you see it?
BARNHART: Yes, I disagree with that, Howie. I thought it was excellent. Count me in with Matt on that.
KURTZ: All right.
BARNHART: This was the Bill O'Reilly I remember from 11, 12 years ago when he was, you know, not the 800-pound gorilla.
Look, Bill O'Reilly every night has a challenge, which is to find somebody to talk to who's as formidable and who is as influential and who is as powerful as he is. And most nights you don't get it. And I think that's led to somewhat of a distortion of his image over the years.
Here with the president, he has somebody that he can really go mano-a-mano with, and both guys think -- you know, I thought were clearly invigorated by it.
BARNHART: Look, you know, everywhere else in the world, the head of state expects a vigorous sort of questioning. I remember that Irish reporter who, you know, started interrogating President Bush back in the day, and he sort of looked at her this way, because he was not accustomed to that type of treatment from the American press. KURTZ: OK. All right.
Let me close with one exchange between the -- O'Reilly and the president that I did like. Let's roll that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: How much damage do you believe the media is doing by participating in this rancor? And people have accused me of that.
OBAMA: I don't think it helps. And the media, unfortunately -- if I have a nice talk with John McCain and we're agreeing to do something...
OBAMA: ... nobody is going to report on that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: That was a good question, and the president is right.
Matt Lewis, Aaron Barnhart, Rachel Sklar, thanks very much for stopping by.
Up next, the Gawker article that brought a congressman down. We'll talk to the reporter who wrote the story.
KURTZ: I was debating with my staff the other day whether a titillating report by Gawker, the online gossip site, was worth discussing on this program. I voted yes, but before we could resolve it, Congressman Christopher Lee settled the matter: he resigned.
The married Republican congressman from upstate New York had sent some flirtatious e-mails to a woman on Craigslist, describing himself as a divorced lobbyist. There were also some shirtless photos of himself.
Legitimate story? Well, joining us now from New York, Maureen O'Connor, the Gawker staff writer who broke the story.
Three and a half hours from the time you posted that piece to Congressman Lee's resignation. Did you surprise you, that he quit and that he quit so quickly?
MAUREEN O'CONNOR, GAWKER.COM: It most virtually surprised us, especially that the e-mails we had were relatively tame. He had never actually met this woman. There was no evidence of an actual affair. It was really just a sort of PG-13 embarrassing but ultimately not terribly racy picture and flirtation.
KURTZ: Something about the online culture I think now that you are -- some cases forced to resign before anything actually happens of this actual nation. And this woman, and she since identified herself to "The Washington Post," as Yesha Callahan, she just contacted you? What was her motivation? Why did she come to Gawker?
O'CONNOR: We received an e-mail in our like firstname.lastname@example.org, our tip line, from somebody. And it was a brief email that said I had a chance encounter with a congressman, do you want to hear about it?
And, you know, we almost missed this e-mail because it was so small. And, so, of course, I said, yes. And do you have actual proof of this?
And lo and behold, she actually did. She provided us e-mails that were from the confirmed personal e-mail address of Christopher Lee. We were able to -- his staff confirmed that was his personal e- mail address, after we realized it was the e-mail addressed that he created his personal Facebook account with. So, honestly, the dots were not that hard to connect.
KURTZ: Did this woman tell you her name?
O'CONNOR: I did know the woman's name and her background, although I did promise her anonymity.
KURTZ: You didn't push her to go public? Because, obviously, she decided to go public after the story broke.
O'CONNOR: No -- well, we worked with her. And I sort of can't go through the details of that.
O'CONNOR: But I definitely, you know, I knew -- I looked into the identity and background of the person. We, you know, looked over the e-mails and we looked at the digital evidence to prove that it was, in fact, a real correspondence. So, we sort of had that every step of the way and then, of course, Christopher Lee probably is the person that made this the really big story and ultimately proved it was important when he resigned.
KURTZ: And, importantly, you gave the congressman's office a chance to resign.
Now, I worked for "The Daily Beast." We probably would have run the story. "Politico" might have run this story. But do you think if this woman had contacted, you know, CNN, "Washington Post," "New York Times," "L.A. Times," "Wall Street Journal," that any of these mainstream outlets would have felt comfortable going with a story about some congressman, you know, sending a woman shirtless photos?
O'CONNOR: You know, I think it may have been presented differently. I mean, what we really do is sort of -- we fill a different niche of reporting essentially. We are a gossip blog. And whereas, say, a beat report on the Hill could know everybody in Christopher Lee's staff and they might have sources all over the Hill. This kind of story does not come necessarily from that. Christopher Lee was -- it seems like, had a secret double life that he was leading on the Internet. So, what we do is we sort of provide a way for people to -- just regular, private citizens to say, here's my story and then we reported out from there. So, it's a little bit of a sort of a different way of getting at what it -- well, it's ultimately similar because, of course -- I mean, "The Washington Post" followed up on this story and they have done plenty of reporting on it after we broke it. You know, "The New York Times," like you said, also went with this story.
O'CONNOR: So, we certainly weren't the only one.
KURTZ: Right. The key phrase is -- after you broke it. Of course, after he resigned.
I got less than a minute. I mean, he was not carrying on with a lobbyist or somebody on his staff, from the public payroll. No legislation involved. They didn't have sex.
So, why is it a story in your view?
O'CONNOR: Because it's interesting. I mean -- my job is to find interesting stories, report them out, and then put it out there. I didn't tell him to resign. I didn't say whether, you know, the degree to which we should freak out about this -- to me, it was here is an interesting story -- that's remarkable that in this day and age that a congressman is corresponding in this manner.
This is the way people meet each other online. This is the way congressmen act when they're living in D.C. That's interesting. And it's an interesting story. And that's why we covered it.
KURTZ: I can't contradict you. It was very interesting story.
Maureen O'Connor, thanks very much for joining us.
KURTZ: And still to come on this program, Katie Couric's future at CBS, a bogus magazine piece about Sarah Palin, and the Angelina Jolie rumors that spread around the world. That's all next.
KURTZ: Some musical chairs this week at CBS News. Sean McManus is out as president of the news division. The son of a legendary sportscaster Jim McKay will return to his other job running CBS Sports. That's some consolation prize going to Super Bowls and final fours.
Meanwhile, Jeff Fager, who has made a mark in the last half dozen years as executive producer of "60 Minutes" is the new chairman of CBS News, but he's not giving up his old job. Fager will still oversee the news magazine show as well.
On this program, a year and half ago, he talked about the awkwardness of succeeding the show's founding producer, the late Don Hewitt.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFF FAGER, CBS: It was really a tough time. I mean, he didn't want to go. He said it at one point, "I want to die at my desk," which was tough for everybody. It took him about a year to really get used to it and probably two years to realize that it was probably a good time, and a good moment for him to step down. But it was difficult. And you could understand why.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, Fager is facing a huge decision. Should Katie Couric stay on as anchor when her contract expires this spring? And if not Katie, who? "The CBS Evening News," after all, remains mired in third place.
A knowledgeable source told me this week that CBS Chairman Les Moonves has sent word to Couric that he wants her to remain in the anchor chair, that's something less than her $15 million a year salary through the 2012 elections. If they strike a deal, that would buy time for both sides while they figure out the future.
Well, this was a heck of a story, wasn't it? Sarah Palin, there she goes again. "Us Weekly" reporting that after Christina Aguilera botched the national anthem at the Super Bowl, Palin said spicy Latin princess shouldn't get such a gig. "Unemployment is at 9 percent," the magazine had Palin telling Sean Hannity, "Yet we have to suffer through a performance by a foreigner with a poor grasp of the English language."
Well, as the Web site gossip "Cop" reported, the whole thing came from a satire piece. I'd say that's worse than forgetting a few star spangled words.
And get this -- "London's Daily Mirror" had a big scoop and lots of media outlets picked it up. Angelina Jolie was going to adopt again, this time a 4-year-old girl from Haiti. But Jolie's spokesman told me the story is flat wrong and the actress never even met the girl when she visited the country after that devastating earthquake.
You know, so much gossip is published about Angelina that some reporters don't even bother to check.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.