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Reliable Sources

Showdown in Wisconsin; Unrest in Libya

Aired February 27, 2011 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The drama of the budget showdown in Wisconsin is tailor-made for the media -- protesting crowds, lawmakers in hiding, threats to lay off thousands of union workers. But why haven't national news organizations spotlighted public employee pensions and health benefits until now? Does the press really cover unions anymore? And are the cable channels taking ideological sides in the Madison maneuvering?

Reporters facing a treacherous time in Libya, where the government is killing protesters, and unauthorized foreign journalists are considered al Qaeda collaborators. We'll look at that and the "Rolling Stone" story on whether the military used psy-ops to manipulate senators into backing funding for the Afghan War.

Plus, has Google become so powerful that it has wormed its way into more and more of what we do? We'll ask an author who's worried about "The Googlization of Everything."

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

There are high-stakes issues at the heart of the Wisconsin budget theatrics, issues that much of the press is treating seriously. Have benefits for state and local workers gotten so expensive, with so little contribution by the employees, that they are threatening to bankrupt governments? What's the fairest way to fix these problems? And has Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, gone too far in trying to severely limit collective bargaining by state employees?

But I couldn't help but notice that MSNBC kept airing interviews with Democratic state senators from undisclosed locations, while Republican senators kept popping up on Fox News. Many of the hosts and commentators taking sides as well.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: And many observers are beginning to see this as a showdown, and this is showdown is a watershed moment.

Wisconsin has reached a boiling point. Protests are growing after Governor Scott Walker stepped up and made it very clear to unions that they have eaten their last free lunch in his state.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: The playbook here is clear. The priority is to get rid of the unions, to break them up. The pretext to do that is financial, but it is clear that it is just a pretext.

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I mean, this is a governor who doesn't just want to balance the budget, he wants to break the union.

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: And I think the 29 Republican governors who all have fiscal problems, this is going to be a road (ph) model.


KURTZ: There are other questions as well, including the coverage of that prank phone call to Governor Walker we'll talk about in a moment.

Joining us now, Amy Holmes, co-anchor of the syndicated radio show "America's Morning News"; Steven Pearlstein, business columnist for "The Washington Post"; and in Chicago, Jim Warren, former managing editor of "The Chicago Tribune," who now writes a column for "The New York Times."

Amy Holmes, has the media examination of the core issues here, government worker benefits and the right to collective bargaining, on balance, has it been fair?

AMY HOLMES, CO-ANCHOR, "AMERICA'S MORNING NEWS": I don't think it's been fair. While you are scrupulously using the world "public unions" and "state employees," what you saw in both of those clips is the conflation of unions, private and public. And I think that's for ideological purposes. And when you saw on MSNBC the last bit, this is union-busting, not pointing out that public unions actually occupy a very different space politically and ideologically than private unions.

KURTZ: Steven Pearlstein, you say in your column that Scott Walker overreached with what you describe as union-busting. Is that how the story has largely been played in the press?

STEVEN PEARLSTEIN, BUSINESS COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, it has, and this is why he lost control of the conversation. If he had kept his focus on what I think most of us would agree were kind of benefits that most private sectors workers don't get, he would have won that conversation. In fact, he did win the conversation. The union, within a week, said, OK, we give in. Be he allowed the unions to change the conversation.

KURTZ: Well, was it the unions that were changing the conversation, or was it the coverage of the unions that helped change the conversation?

PEARLSTEIN: No. I think that he gave them the opening to say, well, that's not enough. Those concessions aren't enough. I need to get rid of all collective bargaining for a public sector worker, and he allowed basically the unions to -- he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. HOLMES: Well, I have to give it to "The Kansas City Star." They had a really great piece on Friday where they laid out the very tumultuous history of public unions, and that not all states give public unions the right to collectively bargain. Even FDR was against the right of public union employees to collectively bargain. It's a different issue than private unions.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, as an old labor reporters, you're the perfect person to ask this. Why on a national basis -- not the state and local contract negotiations that are always a big local story -- why has there been such miniscule coverage until now of this whole issue of public employee benefits?

JIM WARREN, FMR. MANAGING EDITOR, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I think, first of all, there's an absolute lack of knowledge of the history of American unionism. There's a tremendous ignorance about basic economics, particularly pensions and taxes.

And I think what you're seeing here, mainstream media, left or right or centrist, whether it's The Associated Press or "The New York Times" or even places like Politifact, which we rely on for supposedly neutral fact-finding, I see you have a lack of perspective. They have reference to watershed moments in labor history from people who have no clue about true watershed moments in labor history, places like Ludlow, Colorado; Flint, Michigan, Homestead, Pennsylvania. But then something that Steve may have picked up on, woeful ignorance of economics.

For instance, just in the setup to the piece, you mentioned about whether public employees there are contributing too little to their pensions. The fact is when folks continually refer to the issue of the employees "contributing more" to their pensions, they are ignorant of the fact that every single penny of those pensions comes from the Wisconsin employees. They've been collectively bargained, money diverted from, knowingly by them -- knowingly diverted from their wages into their pensions. And so the suggestion when you talk about contributing more --

KURTZ: Let me go back --

WARREN: Howard, just one second. When you talk about contributing more, there's a suggestion that there's other revenue streams. Every penny comes from those workers.

KURTZ: Most newspapers, "The New York Times" an exception, don't have labor reporters anymore.

PEARLSTEIN: No longer.

KURTZ: And isn't that hurting the coverage of this whole area? I mean, I understand unions are a shrinking part of the American workforce, but still an important force.

PEARLSTEIN: This is one of my bugaboos, as you know, Howie. These issues tend to get covered by political reporters, by White House reporters, by congressional reporters, whether it's trade or this. And they bring to it a sort of he said/she said. You know, it's this interest group versus that interest group, and they don't have the time or the experience or the knowledge to dig into it, to read the report of the pension trustees, and find out about this, or to say, well, gee, someone is contributing X to their health care.

Well, first of all, it's two parts. It's premiums, and then there's the deductibles and the co-pays. So you really want to look at the total employee contribution to the total amount, and then you compare it, public versus private, and you can get a story out of it. But nobody does this anymore.

KURTZ: Let me move on to the coverage of what has been this prank call. This was Ian Murphy, of "The Buffalo Beast," which is an alternative news site, getting a call through to Governor Scott Walker, pretending to be one of the billionaire Koch brothers. And it was really striking to me the way this was covered.

We're going to show you part of that call, and then an interview with Ian Murphy with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell. Let's roll it.


GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), WISCONSIN: Sooner or later, the media stops finding it interesting.

IAN MURPHY, "THE BUFFALO BEAST": Well, not the liberal batters on MSNBC.

WALKER: Oh, yes. But who watches that? And I went on "Morning Joe" this morning --

MURPHY: Joe's a good guy. He's one of us.

WALKER: Yes. He was fair to me. I mean, the rest of them that are out there --


LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: The governor seemed very comfortable and eager to talk to you. Were you surprised that it went as smoothly as it did?

MURPHY: Just getting on the line with him with was a feat in itself, I think. And I think he's just oblivious, generally. So it didn't surprise me.


KURTZ: Amy Holmes, MSNBC led with this hour after hour. The focus was on the embarrassment of Scott Walker. Nobody seemed to mention that this guy lied, that he committed a journalistic fraud, pretending to be someone else. Why?

HOLMES: Right. Well, I think because it fits their ideological framework. And I looked at this, and he was hailed as "Most Intriguing Person of the Day" by CNN. And you didn't see the hand-wringing over journalistic ethics like you did, say, in the ACORN case, when those two young people used the same sorts of tactics of being an impostor and sort of -- some people would say tricking people into participating in this. And there, there was a huge discussion about journalism and is this fair, is this right?

In this, it was, like, he's a hero. He accomplished a feat, as you just heard.

KURTZ: I was also struck by CNN saying he was the "Most Intriguing Person." If anybody who worked for CNN did what this guy did, they would have been fired.

Jim Warren, you want to get in on this?

WARREN: Yes. I mean, on one hand, I thought it was fascinating and revealing, what was going on in the governor's mind in a certain sort of cynical pragmatism that was playing out on his side.

At the same time, I didn't see this guy as performing any vaguely legitimate form of journalism. He was perpetuating an absolute hoax, starting with misidentifying himself. Although I think there are times when mainstream legitimate journalists can misidentify themselves. But, boy, it has to be for higher causes -- maybe saving lives or actually revealing some huge systemic government fraud. In a case like this, just to embarrass, no.

KURTZ: And Steve --

PEARLSTEIN: He's not a journalist. He's a blogger. That doesn't mean there's not two overlaps between those two, but there is a difference between them, and you just identified one of them.

KURTZ: Well, look at the way it was picked up. We talked about MSNBC playing this. Fox News barely mentioned it, although Greta Van Susteren was interviewing Governor Walker, so she asked him about the call.

And as Amy points out though, when the ACORN sting happened -- you remember James O'Keefe and the pimp and the prostitute -- liberal commentators all attacked them, but Fox News played them up and that story up in a way that was much more favorable.

So how much of this is ideological.

HOLMES: Right. And the ACORN folks, they said that they were activists. They were very explicit about their point of view, where, in this case, oh, well, maybe he's a blogger, maybe he's a journalist. It doesn't really matter and he doesn't get any kind of criticism for his methods.

KURTZ: Are you giving -- saying we should judge people like this by a different standard because they are not card-carrying newspaper journalists, they're just bloggers, or they have online news sites? PEARLSTEIN: Well, Howie, you sort of dismiss it with the question, well, they are not card-carrying. He's not a journalist because he doesn't behave like a journalist.

How do I know he doesn't behave like a journalist? He does pranks like that. Journalists don't do that. I'm not saying there's not a legitimate function for it, but that's not what journalists do.

KURTZ: Another thing that was striking in the Fox News coverage is when Fox's correspondents, not opinion people, went to Madison and tried to report on this, you probably have seen the footage of the crowd shouting them down saying, "Fox lies! Fox lies!"

A day or two after that, Fox News' Jesse Watters confronted one of those protesters. Let's take a look.


JESSE WATTERS, FOX NEWS PRODUCER: Can you name an example where Fox has been unfair?


WATTERS: Can you name one?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every day, we could be here for hours.

WATTERS: Can you name one? I have five minutes. Name one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They lied about the Iraq War.

WATTERS: What did they lie about?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They lie every day.

WATTERS: You can't name an example of one lie Fox is saying and you're out here calling us liars.


KURTZ: Jim Warren, no journalist should be shouted down by a crowd. But when I looked at that bit of tape, it seemed to me that Fox covered the Tea Party protest a little bit differently than the Madison labor protest.

WARREN: Yes, you're right. I mean, I think you do have to differentiate between sort of the street level reporters like that guy and the great CNN alum, long-time CNN reporter, Jeff Flock, who has been up in Madison for Fox covering a lot about that, differentiate their reporting from their show hosts.

It was interesting. The other night, Jeff told me that at one point, he just sort of got so annoyed with all the shouting, he asked everybody around him to shut up unless they heard him say something they felt was inaccurate. He did his standup, and not a word out of anybody. So you've got to differentiate between guys like that and the opinion makers.

HOLMES: And I would say Fox is enjoying, like, making itself the story with these protesters, "Fox lies! Fox lies!" But I think --

KURTZ: They keep playing it.

HOLMES: Right. Of course.

But I think you could also point out that the mainstream media covered the Tea Party far differently than it covered the Wisconsin protesters. You don't see the mainstream media pointing out that it's a largely white crowd, or that these are folks who make more than your median private employee. Sop, the media didn't seem to have any problem with those demographics where they did with the Tea Party.

PEARLSTEIN: Well, I don't know about the fact that the media doesn't point out that they make more than the average person. I mean, there's a robust debate on that question, and that's been reported on.

But the other thing I would say is, what you just saw was also not journalism. Journalists do not call attention to themselves except in rare circumstances.

That wasn't journalism. You could call that nonfiction entertainment, but it wasn't journalism. So, let's understand -- you know, there is a tradition in journalism, and it evolves with different media, but that wasn't journalism.

KURTZ: No shortage of theatrics on this very important story.

Jim Warren, Amy Holmes, Steven Pearlstein, thanks for joining us this morning.

When we come back, a look at the media watchdog known as Politifact, which Jim mentioned, which has waded into the middle of the Wisconsin budget battle.


KURTZ: All newspapers are supposed to be in the fact-checking business, but "The St. Petersburg Times" has built a franchise around it. Politifact, which labels claims on a scale from true to false to pants on fire, has made its mark on the media business and now has branches in partnership with local newspapers in eight states.

But those who are accused of peddling untruths, most recently in the Wisconsin budget battle, sometimes fight back.

Joining us now is Bill Adair, the editor of Politifact.

Now, I did the fact-checking on those 30-second ads in five presidential campaigns, and it is complicated stuff. Isn't it difficult to label something true or false, or mostly true or mostly false, when you're dealing with often conflicting interpretations and nuances? BILL ADAIR, EDITOR, POLITIFACT: Well, I think you've explained how we do it. And the way you get over that difficulty is by recognizing that the truth is in shades of gray. So, by rating something half true, I think we give readers and viewers a good view of the relative accuracy of something.

KURTZ: Why don't more newspapers do this? "The Washington Post," a couple months ago, designated a reporter to have a fact- checking column. But most, except maybe in campaign time, aren't in this business.

ADAIR: Well, it takes a lot of resources. It takes a real commitment. And not only "The St. Petersburg Times" has been willing to do that, but as you noted, our eight state partners in Wisconsin and Texas and Ohio have also done that.

But it takes a commitment. They have to be willing to commit reporters and editors to journalism. That takes longer because this is not something you can do quickly.

KURTZ: Or that you just call up, or say one side says this, one side says that. You are trying to resolve it.

And speaking of resolving something, as you know, this week MSNBC's Rachel Maddow took vigorous exception to a Politifact fact check that said she had been false in saying that there's no budget short fall in the state of Wisconsin.

Here's some of Maddow's response.


MADDOW: Maddow lied. She said there is no budget shortfall. Red lights, bells and whistles, meter to red.

Maddow lied. She said there's no budget shortfall in the state of Wisconsin. Roll the tape.

There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall.

Politifact, you are wrong here on the facts, and bluntly. And you ought to correct it. Putting the word "fact" in your name does not grant you automatic mastery of the facts.


KURTZ: Did you make any mistakes here?

ADAIR: No. What she just said did was mislead everybody.

She played a nine-word clip without putting in context. If you look at what she said, both the longer claim that Politifact Wisconsin checked, plus that claim that she said Politifact Wisconsin should have checked, you can see that we made the right call.

We checked the right fact. She made a claim that Wisconsin tonight has a budget surplus. That's false.

KURTZ: She said it's on track for a budget surplus. And then she said $137 million deficit, which we saw. That's the brief clip. And then she followed by saying, coincidentally, Governor Scott walker has given away $140 million in business tax breaks.

She didn't say that caused the deficit. She -- you could say she suggested it, maybe.

ADAIR: Yes. And I think there was a clear implication.

You know, here, what we're trying to do, Howie, is to answer readers' curiosity. Viewers who saw her original segment would come away with the clear point that Wisconsin was on track to have a budget surplus. So that's what we fact-checked.

KURTZ: But that seemed like a thin read to -- I mean, saying that somebody said something false, not that maybe she should have said it better, or maybe it was misleading, or she didn't put enough emphasis on it, that's a very serious charge to hurl at a journalist. And it seems that's where we get into this, you know, you brand somebody, in effect, a liar by saying they said something false.

ADAIR: Well, you know, I think this is what the news media should have been doing long ago. I think we need to fact-check not just the politicians, which is mostly what we do at Politifact, but also to fact-check people like Rachel Maddow and Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

KURTZ: And you do ABC's "This Week" as well.

ADAIR: And we fact-check anybody who is on "This Week."

KURTZ: And does your outfit make mistakes? Do the fact-checkers sometimes get their facts wrong?

ADAIR: Oh, absolutely. And as we acknowledged in our response to Rachel Maddow's statements, we have a corrections policy. And if we find that we've made a mistake, we correct it.

We made one just the other day with Politifact Oregon, and made a correction that actually was praised by the person who we had said originally was wrong. So we will correct our mistakes. But in this case, I think we were fact-checking the right thing and we came to the right conclusion.

KURTZ: A little disagreement there on the part of Ms. Maddow, but thanks for stopping by to talk about it.

Bill Adair, we appreciate it.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, as the violent uprising continues in Libya, we'll look at the danger for the small number of journalist who have defied the Gadhafi regime by getting into the country.

The "Rolling Stone" reporter who toppled one general takes aim at another. Does this new story stand up to scrutiny?

Plus, an author who says we ought to be very afraid about "The Goolization of Everything."


KURTZ: The remarkable uprising in Egypt unfolded on our TV screens day after day, but the situation in Libya darker, more dangerous, and much harder to cover. Most Western journalists have not been allowed into the country, although some, led by CNN's Ben Wedeman and NBC's Richard Engel, have made their way in. What they have found is very ugly.


KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi vowed today to fight to his last drop of blood.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're hearing -- I mean, it's very hard to get real reliable figures, certainly when it comes to the situation in Tripoli. We're hearing, for instance, that bodies of people who were killed in those protests, in Tripoli, are being taken out of the morgues and being buried on the beaches to conceal the actual death toll.

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS: From Benghazi, this is the unofficial capital of the rebel movement. The city is now being administered by the rebels themselves, and people here say Tripoli next.


KURTZ: So how has the banning of most Western journalists changed the coverage and our perception of what's happening in Libya?

Joining us now, Fred Francis, former national security reporter for NBC News and the co-founder of And in New York, Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large for

Fred Francis, it's got to be extraordinarily difficult to report in a country where there's a shooting war going on, where you're not being allowed in. The regime considers journalists to be there illegally. And, in fact, just the other day, Gadhafi said that any journalist who hadn't been given permission to come into Libya would be considered an al Qaeda collaborator.

What message did that send?

FRED FRANCIS, FOUNDER, 15SECONDS.COM: Well, I mean, this is a display by American journalists and others of the purist form of raw courage covering this kind of story. It's like going down an interstate on the wrong way at night, in the opposite direction, with your lights out. You just don't know crossing that desert what's going to happen, and that's what's happening.

And we have Ben Wedeman, we have Richard Engel, and some other journalists who have gone in there, not really knowing what's ahead of them, and anything could happen. So it's very difficult, and we're not getting the whole story because it's so difficult.

KURTZ: Some newspaper journalists as well.

And Fred, in the last couple of days, the regime seems to want to get some positive coverage. So some journalists were brought in for a tour of Tripoli, although it didn't turn out very well for the Gadhafi government. And Christiane Amanpour of ABC was -- this morning aired an interview with Gadhafi's son, that obviously she had been allowed access.

So, are they now suddenly worried about their image in the rest of the world.

FRANCIS: Well, they have to let somebody in. And selectively picking Christiane Amanpour is a really good thing for them to do, the only good thing that they've done.

But frankly, this is the kind of coverage that makes careers, and nobody is trying to make a career here. They are just trying to stay alive. You'll notice that nobody has gone from Benghazi, Ben Wedeman or Richard Engel, to Tripoli. It's too dangerous a trip.

KURTZ: I think they would like to.

FRANCIS: They would like to. It's just too dangerous.

KURTZ: Well, I predict they will get there.

Rachel Sklar, for the most part, we're not seeing journalists, even those that have gotten in, interviewing protesters in the street and providing those kind of pictures. How is the lack of that kind of video affecting the coverage, in your view?

RACHEL SKLAR, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, MEDIAITE.COM: Well, there isn't that much of a lack of video, actually. You know, people on the ground in Libya are using YouTube as a tool to get their images out.

And I've read reports of people smuggling, like, information cards between protesters and refugees to get out of the country so that they can do it -- not only upload those images into the cloud, but actually having them transported physically. And the upshot being that they are managing to get snippets of video out and up, and out into the world. So we are definitely seeing, no question, the value of YouTube.

KURTZ: But even with that YouTube presence, is there less of a sense, certainly compared to Egypt, of a citizen uprising, and it's being portrayed perhaps more as a civil war between two armed camps, and doesn't have any of that sort of romance that got Americans glued to their sets during the revolt in Egypt?

SKLAR: You know what? It's not meant to be romantic. People are dying. Gadhafi is firing on his own people. It's brutal.

One of the main comments that came out about Egypt was the remarkable lack, comparatively, of violence in that situation. And, you know, alas, like you said at the beginning, this is much darker.

This is an authoritarian dictator doing every thing he can to hang on to his power. This his son saying, like, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C is to live and die in Libya. I mean, there's really no other way to slice it. This isn't romantic. This is a brutal, authoritarian regime.

FRANCIS: Yes, nothing romantic about this. The fact is that this is going to get a lot more dangerous before it gets over for American journalism.

We are going to see more bloodshed in the streets. He's not going to -- I remember interviewing him 20 years ago, and he was glassy-eyed at the best of the times. I can't imagine the kind of situation that journalism has to face going against his people, his generals right now, trying to get into Tripoli, which, of course, they will try to do, as you say.


FRANCIS: But it will be the most dangerous chapter in what we're seeing.

KURTZ: If I realized you had interviewed Gadhafi, I would have led with that.

Let me turn now, Fred, to this "Rolling Story" by Michael Hastings. He, of course, the reporter who essentially cost General Stanley McChrystal his job by reporting those off-color remarks the general had made.

The new story says that a three-star general in Afghanistan had used a so-called psy-ops unit to utilize propaganda techniques to win backing from visiting to VIPs.

And my first reaction was, you're going to brainwash John McCain and Joe Lieberman and Admiral Mike Mullen when they go to Afghanistan?

FRANCIS: That's right. This is preaching to the choir.

Eight months before, McCain and Carl Levin went to Afghanistan to see General Caldwell. They voted for more money for the troops. So this is another assassination story, another assassination piece by Michael Hastings and the "Rolling Stone."

KURTZ: That's a very strong word. Did you say character assassination?

FRANCIS: It is a strong word, but it suits this story. It shows that Michael Hastings doesn't know anything about how a general officer runs his staff, especially in a war zone.

When important visitors are coming into your -- all hands on deck. This wasn't an attempt to do psychological operations against United States senators, this was an attempt to craft and shape the message that they would hear. That's not psy-ops. KURTZ: But it's important to point out that the source -- and I'll throw it to Rachel in a minute -- was an on-the-record source, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Holmes.

FRANCIS: One source.

KURTZ: OK. Well, on the record, and Hasting was asked about this on MSNBC.


MICHAEL HASTINGS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "ROLLING STONE": I believe he finally went public with this, was because right from the beginning, he -- right from the beginning, when he was first ordered to do, he had said, it's a bad idea, it's a bad idea, it's a bad idea.


KURTZ: So, Rachel Sklar, if your on-the-record source is saying, "I didn't want to do this," he's a lieutenant colonel, and he was retaliated against, doesn't that give you some justification to publish?

SKLAR: Of course it gives justification to publish. I have to clarify what you said at the beginning. You know, Michael Hastings didn't get Stanley McChrystal fired. Stanley McChrystal got Stanley McChrystal fired by using poor judgment in front of a reporter ongoingly.

KURTZ: About whether it was on the record. And here, there is no dispute that these comments were on the record.

SKLAR: That's a story from a couple of months ago that -- disagreements about what constitutes "on the record."

I think that what's important to note here, this is a fact- checked story from "Rolling Stone." I think that, you know, in the case of whistleblowers, people are always trying to bring down the whistleblowers that retaliate against them, so their only recourse is to go public. So, I think the issue is, you know, the Pentagon is not exactly innocent in terms of trying to use propaganda with respect to their --

KURTZ: Rachel, I've got to go to break here. So hold that thought.

And up next, Roger Ailes, on the front page of "The New York Times" for what he said or didn't say to Judith Regan about covering up an affair



KURTZ: -- this was to avoid hurting Ailes' friend, Rudy Giuliani, who had appointed Kerik and was running for president. But, Rachel Sklar, we don't even have the transcript of the phone call. We have a former Regan lawyer saying this happened.

Was this worthy of a front-page story?

SKLAR: I think it's definitely worthy of a front-page story. Roger Ailes runs a very powerful network, and this would have been telling Judith Regan to lie about something to protect a potential presidential candidate who was going to get favorable coverage on his network. I think this is front-page news, just like I think the Pentagon psy-ops story is front-page news.

FRANCIS: If this allegation is true -- if it's true -- this gives substance to the charge that Roger Ailes is more a Republican king maker than he is a news executive. And he could be in some serious trouble if it is true.

KURTZ: It is an allegation, and News Corp says that the company has a letter from Judith Regan saying that Ailes did not -- quoting here -- "Ailes did not intend to influence her with respect to a government investigation, didn't release the whole letter." So, again, there's a lot here we don't know.

Now, on Friday, it was announced that Kathleen Parker is leaving the "PARKER SPITZER" show on CNN. It's going to continue with Eliot Spitzer. It's going to be called "IN THE ARENA," with a rotating cast of panelists or co-hosts.

Here is her final words on the show.


ELIOT SPITZER, CO-HOST, "PARKER SPITZER": And thank you for watching. Goodnight from New York.

KATHLEEN PARKER, CO-HOST, "PARKER SPITZER": On a personal note, today is night last day on the show, and I just want to thank you, the viewers, for tuning in. I look forward to seeing you down the road.


KURTZ: Rachel Sklar, a lot of people thought it was kind of an awkward TV marriage. Was this a good solution?

SKLAR: Well, they all say it was a good solution. I would have preferred to see -- in light of Eliot Spitzer's history, I would have preferred not to see his co-host, who is a woman, sort of inelegantly pushed out. But everybody is saying that they are happy about it.

So, the ratings weren't very good. So I think that what they have come up with, the new "IN THE ARENA" show, might be an improvement. But the whole thing was just uncomfortable, and it was very uncomfortable that she was given all of nine seconds to say good- bye, as my friend Glenis Pickle (ph) pointed out online.

KURTZ: Kathleen Parker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for "The Washington Post." She didn't have a lot of TV experience going up against Spitzer, who had been a governor and used to be in the spotlight.

FRANCIS: Yes. This is the most unbalanced pairing since Penn & Teller, frankly.

I mean, she had no wattage. He was very, very expressive, very hard-driven. And even though she's a conservative columnist, and a conservative writer, you never saw that fire and spark going up against Eliot Spitzer.

So, it wasn't just the chemistry, it's just that she just didn't know how to project. You k now, when you're on the set with somebody, a high-wattage person, if you're on the set -- we teach you if you're on the set with a guy like Jim Cramer, you've got raise your game. If you're on the set with Fareed Zakaria, you sort of --

KURTZ: In that case, I've got to break it in and thank you, because you're pretty high wattage, and you're kind of blinding us all.

Fred Francis, Rachel Sklar, thanks for joining us this morning.

After the break, Google has its corporate claws in just about everything we do online. Is that too much power for one company? My next guest says yes.


KURTZ: I use Google, I don't know, 10, 20 times a day. If I want to find someone, so me articles, some facts, some picture, I type a couple of words into that little box on the computer screen or on my pone and it usually works. That's why Google has become a mega corporation, as well as a verb. It's now worth $200 billion.

But how big is too big? And how is it changing the culture in the news business?

To answer that question, I sat down with the author of a new book, "The Googlization of Everything and Why We Should Worry."


KURTZ: Siva Vaidhyanathan, welcome.


KURTZ: I should tell you that I Googled you when we were trying to decide whether to book you. I got to watch a video of you, so I thought you'd be pretty good on TV. I got your contact information. So, clearly, there are some benign benefits to Google.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Certainly. I mean, Google's improved our lives in so many material ways, so many measurable ways.

KURTZ: And yet, you say you're worried about the power this company has amassed. You even liken it to Julius Caesar at one point in this book. But I would tell you, you know, that's because of the free market.

People like it. People use it.

VAIDHYANATHAN: It is. They've succeeded because they're very effective at what they do.

But as consumers and as citizens, I think that it would be a wise move for us to try to understand better how Google works and what it does and what it hides. Right? So that we have a sense that while Google provides so many important services for essentially no money to us, it also doesn't do so as a flat plane of glass. It's a lens that chooses some things and hides other things without censoring.

KURTZ: We'll get to that in a minute, but you do quote a lawyer for the company as saying competition is a click away. And indeed, if Google vanished from the earth tomorrow, we would all start using Yahoo! or Microsoft's Bing or something else we've never heard of as a search engine.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Well, Google does much more than search, for one thing.

KURTZ: Sure.

VAIDHYANATHAN: But secondly --

KURTZ: G-mail and Google Maps and a whole host of applications.

VAIDHYANATHAN: -- this argument that Google is just -- that Google's competition is just a click away, it ignores the billions of dollars sunken into glass and steel and cable that actually make up the infrastructure of Google. Vast server farms, tremendous bandwidth, that's why Google works so quickly, that's why it works so comprehensively, and that's why it satisfies so many of our needs with very few interruptions. And that actually is something heavy and expensive.

So competition is actually not so close.

KURTZ: Does Google help or hurt news organizations that actually pay reporters? You don't have to, if you're not so inclined, go to "The New York Times" Web site or You can search for the one thing on the one story whether it's Egypt or the Wisconsin budget battle, and you can find it through Google.

Does that hurt news organizations?

VAIDHYANATHAN: I think, ultimately, that sort of environment helps both citizens and news organizations in the long term, largely because there's certain organizations -- particular news organizations that will do well in this environment are those that choose to understand Google. So look at how organizations like "Huffington Post" have excelled. Even "The New York Times" have excelled in terms of getting Web readership since search engines, Google in particular, became the dominant way we find information.

Those organizations have learned to master the environment. Now, that has positive and negative effects.

KURTZ: By which you mean, for those who are not computer savvy, they have learned to use certain phrases, keywords, headlines that will attract, that will lift them up in the Google rankings, and attract traffic, which is how they sell advertising.

VAIDHYANATHAN: And the bad way of looking at that is that "Huffington Post" is gaming the system. The good way is "Huffington Post" has figured out a model to attract a lot of attention.

Of course, I think the biggest threat in journalism is actually "Huffington Post," because it's actually taking and attracting attention for its advertisers and repositioning the work done by local news organizations. That 's a very different environment.

KURTZ: So Arianna is a threat to us all?

VAIDHYANATHAN: I think "The Huffington Post" is a much stronger threat to local journalism and to independent journalism organizations than Google is. Google actually does nothing but help, as far as I can see.

KURTZ: Well, maybe that's why AOL paid $350 million for "The Huffington Post."

Now, Google's strength, as you write in this book, comes from harvesting information about us and then using that to attract advertising. A lot of people like ads that are tailored to, if they're interested in sky diving, sky diving stories, or the town that they live in, but others can opt out.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Right. So part of the problem is most of us don't understand what it takes to opt out. Most of us don't understand that it might be in our best interest opt out.

When you're just interacting with Google and you haven't read widely on how Google works, then you're likely to not even to know there might be a problem. And even opting out takes several steps, and having that sort of burden on the user I think is basically unfair.

KURTZ: You think that should be easier.

Now, Google likes to position itself as being basically a collection of algorithms. In other words, this is all done automatically. Whether you have a great store or newspaper or site that sells socks, it makes the rankings based on who links to you and things like that. But as you point out, sometimes human beings get involved, so that, for example, the number one link at one point, if you Googled "Jew," was an anti-Semitic site called Jew Watch, and Google stepped in and changed that.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Well, Google did its best in the United States to keep its distance so that Jew Watch news actually still pops up for searches for the word "Jew" and for other Jewish-related sites. And that's one of those things that Google has been hesitant to censor, although it censors it actively in places like Germany and France, where, of course, the law prevents people from presenting anti-Semitic information -- or propaganda, rather.

And under those situations, though, Google is being a little bit duplicitous, because Google will tell the organizations that complain about that, that it can't do anything in the U.S. because Google doesn't interfere. But we know of 100 different cases in which Google took an active decision to either hide something or make something higher.

KURTZ: Now, another thing that troubles you is you say that potential employers, somebody who's applying for a job, can access your past indiscretions through Google or lots of other search engines. Have you looked at what people voluntarily put on Facebook?


VAIDHYANATHAN: Yes. And one of the things I know from dealing with young people at my day job at the University of Virginia is that young people are actually highly aware of this challenge right now. There's not a high school in America that doesn't discuss the issue of sharing too much in the wrong context.

But both Google and Facebook do rip us out of our contexts. They let us assume comfortably at one point that we're dealing with a set of people, let's say our friends or let's say our family.

And they -- it's not quite easy to unpack for people, especially this early in the evolution of the digital environment, that five, 10 years down the line -- and it's not just a problem for kids, it's a problem for all of us -- our presentation of self within one environment will be misinterpreted in another. That's the real danger, and I don't think we've figured out -- mostly, we haven't figured out the behaviors and norms to deal with this.

KURT: And you can be defined by the single-most embarrassing or stupid thing you've ever done because that's what comes up number one.

Now, I also want to touch on books. You believe that Google is going too far in digitizing books. In effect, becoming the world's library. And there are copyright issues involved. As an author, I worry about that.

But the positive side is that this can also make obscure and out- of-print books accessible to all of us that we would never be able to get access to.

VAIDHYANATHAN: That's true. And let's also remember, though, that Google is not necessarily the best agent to do that kind of work. It's certainly the agent that was willing to put up the money, and I'm not sure that that's a good enough excuse.

KURT: So you want Google to stop? You want to pull the plug on this effort.

VAIDHYANATHAN: I actually think Google should do whatever's good for Google. I would rather that the libraries that are assisting Google ask some harder questions and be more strong negotiators when it comes to things like user confidentiality. Right?

If you're a library user, and you're in a library system, you know that the library is not sharing your information. But there's a quick flip to the Google system where Google is gathering your information and keeping a record of where you go. Those are the sorts of hazards that I'm afraid that libraries have not been aggressive enough about.

KURT: Since this is television, I need a short answer.

Google's motto, as you know -- it's motto is, "Don't be evil." Does it live up to that on balance?

VAIDHYANATHAN: That motto distracts us from all the things that it must do as a company. And so I'm not willing to say that Google does evil or does not do evil. I know that Google causes friction, trouble and stress all over the world in various different ways. And so some people might call some of its actions evil.

I think a much more interesting question is whether we buy into the question of whether Google does evil or does not. And I think we should rise above that and recognize that Google's just a company. It's going to do what's best for the company. It might do what's best in the long run, and that might coincide with our interests, but it might not always.

KURT: "The Googlization of Everything."

Siva, thanks very much for joining us.

VAIDHYANATHAN: Appreciate it.


KURTZ: Google changed its secret sauce formula this week to favor high-quality sites over these cheap sites that try to game the system.

Still to come, the news outlets that protected a CIA spy now accused of murder. And MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan in the tank for a sponsor.

The "Media Monitor," straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Monitor."

Now, it's always difficult for news organizations to decide whether to identify a covert operative. "The New York Times," "The Washington Post" and The Associated Press knew of one such man, Raymond Davis, a former Special Forces soldier who has now been arrested in the shooting deaths of two people in Pakistan.

The three news outlets said this week that they had withheld the information that Davis was a CIA operative working for the firm previously known as Blackwater. They acted at the request of the Obama administration, which argued the disclosure would put Davis' life at risk.

All right. Tough call. But the three organizations continued to sit on the information after President Obama, in the uproar over the shooting, called Davis our diplomat in Pakistan, and that meant they were going along with an official misstatement.

That is pretty troubling.

Administration officials lifted the request to withhold the information this week, but only after London's "Guardian" revealed that Davis was a CIA spy. The Times ombudsman defending the paper this morning, saying that printing this information would have endangered Davis' life, and that would have been reckless.

Now, I was reluctant to bring this up because we have already noted that MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan was talking up the sponsor of his road trips, the Nucor Steel company. But he was so effusive in a report this week, that it almost looked like an infomercial.


DYLAN RATIGAN, MSNBC: A perfect example, Nucor Steel partners with us in the "Steel on Wheels Tour." And we had the opportunity to tour their steel-making facility and learn about the incredible process that transforms piles of scrap metal, shredded cars, washing machines into valuable steel products that builds American bridges, reinforces buildings in earthquakes, and even will hold your pool lining together.


KURTZ: This went on for five minutes. And Ratigan had promised earlier, "I won't talk about Nucor on the air. Absolutely not."

Well, he was right the first time. No television journalist should be flacking for a sponsor.

Bill O'Reilly made a valid point the other night about CNN's coverage of the Wisconsin budget battle, though I found it a little less valid when I went to the videotape. Fox was very tough on what it called fraud involving teachers in the state who called in sick to protest the Republican governor's anti-union proposals.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Some of those teachers got bogus notes from doctors saying they were sick when they weren't. Reporting the same story, CNN spun it this way --

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have been told that doctors are writing notes for some of those teachers so they won't be penalized, fined by staying away from school. So they are helping out the teachers.


KURTZ: Helping out? It is in fact lying.

But here is a more complete look at that report by CNN's corespondent Casey Wian.


WIAN: We have been told that doctors are writing notes for some of those teachers so that they won't be penalized, fined, to -- by staying away from school. So they are helping out the teachers, and there's some concern that some of those doctors may be putting themselves in jeopardy because they are writing notes for teachers who obviously aren't sick.


KURTZ: "The O'Reilly Factor" just stopped the tape in mid- sentence. But even with that additional comment, I still think Wian was too soft on those doctors.

Finally, there has been a sea change this at "The Wall Street Journal." You will be no longer be reading about Mr. Derek Jeter or Mr. Brett Favre or Ms. Anna Kournikova.

The paper has decided to drop these so-called courtesy titles in the sports section. Journal columnist Jason Gay admitting that, "We have all heard from readers who find them an outdated, fussy distraction." But he says, "A little something will be lost in covering the messy crude business of sports."

Well, count me with those who find the titles business an obsolete affectation, especially if you're talking about football, basketball and the rest. So I'm glad The Journal is tossing these titles out of bounds.

Thanks, Mr. Murdoch.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, another critical look at the media.

"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.