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Reliable Sources

Journalists Scrutinize Candidates' Families; Interview With Steve Coll

Aired May 15, 2011 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Running for public office these days means subjecting your family to a whole lot of journalist scrutiny. From Bill Clinton's marriage, to Sarah Palin's kids, to the pain of Elizabeth Edwards, the media glare can be harsh, as we saw again this week.

Should Newt Gingrich's third wife -- you know, the one he had the affair with -- be on the front page of "The New York Times"? What about Mitch Daniels divorcing and then remarrying his wife? Front page news? Should Arnold Schwarzenegger split with Maria Shriver be all over the airwaves?

Are journalists trying to probe our political leaders or just play the gossip game?

In life, Osama bin Laden was portrayed as a fearsome figure. But was he something of a media myth? We'll ask the author of two books on the terrorists, Steve Coll.

Plus, Meredith Vieira leaving "The Today Show" after five years and Ann Curry moving on up.

And the strange spectacle on Fox News last night with Mike Huckabee bowing out of the presidential race.

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

One day before he jumped into the presidential race, Newt Gingrich was greeted by a front-page picture of his wife Callista. She is, according to "The New York Times," perhaps best remembered for the six-year affair that contributed to her husband's downfall, when he was speaker of the House, of course, and pushing to impeach Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. But now, says the paper, he is counting on the third Mrs. Gingrich for his political redemption.

Another page one story in The Times this week zeroed in on Mitch Daniels' wife Cheri, who divorced him in the '90s, married another man, and then remarried Daniels. And the Indiana governor hasn't decided even whether to run for president.

The "Los Angeles Times" reported this week that it had approached Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver about their deteriorating marriage and gotten a statement saying the movie-star-turned-governor and his wife had separated. Given their star power, the coverage quickly exploded.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: It was the news that broke overnight, and it had a "say it ain't so" aspect to it, the "L.A. Times" report that Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, longtime NBC family member, and her husband, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have split.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Well, they put out a statement saying they weren't going to give any interviews, their family and friends weren't going to give any interviews.

CHRIS WRAGGE, CBS: Well, the couple had been married for 25 years before they announced on Monday they were separating. So everyone is now asking, what exactly happened here?

JEFF FLOR, CBS: Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke in public about his marriage last night for the first time since he and wife Maria Shriver separated. He told a dinner audience in Los Angeles he hopes they can reconcile.


KURTZ: So how much of this is exactly the media's business?

Joining us now in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the "San Francisco Chronicle." And here in Washington, Sally Quinn, co-founder of "The Washington Post" "On Faith" blog; and Michelle Cottle, Washington correspondent for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast," author of the new "Newsweek" cover story out tomorrow, " The Good Wife 2012."

Sally Quinn, so, Mitch Daniels' wife, Cheri, she leaves, she marries another guy, she comes back. She marries her husband.

How or why is that a front page story?

SALLY QUINN, "ON FAITH": Well, you know, that's going to play really well one way or the other with the Evangelicals. This is a whole issue that I think people haven't figured out.

KURTZ: But should it be an issue?

QUINN: With these people it is an issue. You know, Hillary Clinton once said, you know, I had hoped that there would be a certain zone of privacy when I got to the White House.

KURTZ: Yes. What happened to that?

QUINN: Forget it. There is no such thing as a zone of privacy.

And with Mitch Daniels and his wife, people are going to look at them and they're going to say what a great dad he was. He was there for three or four years.

KURTZ: Bringing up the kids on his own, yes.

QUINN: Bringing up the kids on his own, this is great. Or they're going to look at her and say what kind of a woman would abandon her children for four years?

So the family values issues is going to play. It's going to be a big deal in this election if he decides to run.

KURTZ: Now, I confess, Michelle Cottle, when I heard about this from a reporter two days before The Times story, I ordered up a story for "The Daily Beast" for two reasons. I thought it was fascinating, and I said Cheri Daniels holds the key to whether or not her husband runs for president. But at the same time, I'm a little uncomfortable with all the attention it's getting.

What's your take?

MICHELLE COTTLE, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": I think no matter how much we like to say, oh, it doesn't matter about the family, it's the candidate, especially when you're electing a president, people are picking somebody. You know, the joke is that they're a boyfriend. You're not picking a president, you're picking a husband or a boyfriend or a father to run the country.

And people want a glimpse. You know, talking to Republican consultants this week, you know, you hear constantly that they want a glimpse into the candidate's personal life, what he is like, values. And they look to the wives for that.

KURTZ: And today's "New York Times" has a piece about all of this, and says "Voters are hungry for details." Come on. Is it voters who are hungry, or is it journalists who are looking for a juicy storyline?

COTTLE: Journalists don't make up kind of what people read. We follow the stuff really --

KURTZ: We make decisions about what to put on the front page and what to put on the cover of your magazine and my magazine.

COTTLE: Yes. But we pay very close attention to what people are interested in and what catches their attention. I mea, this is a business on some level, and we know what they like to read.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, in this case of Mitch Daniels, there is no scandal here. They split up, they got back together. Is this the kind of journalistic intrusiveness that drives people out of politics?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, I don't know. I sort of wonder if we in the media are being played. I mean, I don't have any inside information on this, but Mitch Daniels' candidacy, if he runs for president, is based on the fact that he's the guy who can win, he's the heavyweight. And so, you know, the Ron Pauls, the Rick Santorums, the Haley Barbours, they can't win. Mitch Daniels has this inevitability.

But he can't say hey, I'm not sure. He looks like Hamlet.

So what do the Daniels people say? They say, well, we are waiting to hear what Cheri wants to do. And, of course, that puts a lot of attention on her.

Now, we know that there is a story about how she left him and married somebody else for a couple of years. And I think this humanizes her, it makes her look less political. So I don't know that this is a strategy, but I should hope it's a strategy, because it's a really good one. And I think we in the media in a way are sort of being led by a leash.

KURTZ: It hasn't occurred to me that this might be a grand play by the Daniels' forces.

Let's turn to Newt Gingrich. And as I mentioned at the top, Callista Gingrich is often at his side. He talks about her a lot. She helped him convert to Catholicism.

Does all of that add up to a front page story the day before he announces?

QUINN: Well, of course. And because, again, you know, these guys are running for president, they have a base. And the base is a religious base, a religious right base that they have to appeal to in order to get the nomination.

So, he converts to Catholicism, which is a little iffy from the standpoint of the Evangelicals. And then he finds God. And he says, you know, I found Callista. She has brought me back to the fold. I converted, I found God.

And again, it's a whole family values issue. Now, whether people are going to buy that, and whether they buy the fact that he, given the way that he comported himself in his last two marriages, is suddenly reborn, is a whole different thing. But it is going to be an issue.

KURTZ: After Gingrich announces his candidacy on Twitter, actually, he gave his first interview to Fox, Sean Hannity. And this question about his personal life came up in a very, shall we say, indirect way.

Let's roll it.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: But already, the media, you know, they are going after you. They're going after your personal life. You have been divorced, all these things that they keep bringing up.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, if you are a conservative, you have to start with the assumption that you are not going to get an even break from the elite media. And that's just reality.


KURTZ: So, the former Speaker of the House is turning this into an attack on the media for bringing up these parts of his life.

Michelle Cottle, what do you think about that?

COTTLE: Boo-hoo-hoo-hoo. I'm sorry. This is always the last desperate refuge of somebody who knows they have a problem. Blame it on the media. I mean, this is what Sarah Palin has taught us as well. But I'm sorry --

KURTZ: It doesn't mean the media are blameless.

COTTLE: I'm sorry, neither is Newt Gingrich in this thing. I mean, we're talking about a man here who was carrying on a long-term affair in a party that prides itself on being the family values party.

KURTZ: During the same time --

COTTLE: -- and at the same time, we (ph) are trying to take down Bill Clinton. So, if he doesn't think that's going to be a legitimate issue going forward, he is nuts.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, let me play for you a clip from this morning's "Meet the Press," where David Gregory did raise this question in a more explicit fashion. He started out by talking about how Gingrich's personal image might be hurting his poll numbers.


DAVID GREGORY, "MEET THE PRESS": Some of that, Mr. Speaker, has to do with your own personal life. In fact, you have been married three times, you had extramarital affairs, one of -- during which the time that the Republicans were pursuing President Clinton for impeachment, the label of being a hypocrite. And I wonder how you are going to deal with this.

GINGRICH: I have made mistakes in my life. I have had to go to God for forgiveness and to seek reconciliation. And I asked him to look at who I am today.

Look at the strong marriage that Callista and I have. Look at the close relationship that I have with my two daughters and their husbands.


KURTZ: Debra, I see you shaking your head. Does this look like "The New York Times," first, and "Meet the Press," second, and probably the rest of us by this afternoon, are trying to tarnish Republicans by going after their wives?

SAUNDERS: Well, you can't help it with Newt Gingrich. I mean, it's like Cyrano de Bergerac expecting you to not look at his nose. You know, the truth is, "The New York Times" has done Newt Gingrich a favor by making this an issue now, because it makes people be less likely to look at him.

I have to say, I don't think that this is a campaign. It's like a cult. And while I was talking about Mitch Daniels before I think having a savvy strategy, what Newt Gingrich has done is he keeps making the same mistakes over and over again and trying to aggrandize them by putting this wrapping around it, and he wants everybody to follow it. Well, it does not work that way.

KURTZ: Wait. How has The Times done Gingrich a favor? I mean, obviously, Gingrich would prefer a story that would talk about what he's running on, his criticism of President Obama. He doesn't want the first big exposure of this week to be about Callista.

SAUNDERS: But in a year, it's old news. We have been through that.

I mean, he can say you guys have been writing on this story for so long, come on, let's move on. That's the only way I'm saying that it's a favor, because he's got to get this stuff out of the way.

It is just a bizarre decision on his point to campaign with his third wife, who he was dating while he was married to his second wife at his side all the time. I think he believes that people are going to look at them and think they are a wonderful couple, and it just doesn't work that way.

KURTZ: Sally?

QUINN: Howie, of course he wants it to be about Callista. Callista is his wife. They are together. They are a couple. They are a "happily married couple."

KURTZ: She is shielding him from the --

QUINN: That's right.

KURTZ: -- difficult task?

QUINN: I mean, she is all he has between him and oblivion. And so he's -- and by the way, let me point out, where are you seeing him? On television and in the newspapers. He is using the liberal elite and secular media to get all of this attention to show how he and his wife have -- together have a great relationship and have found God.

KURTZ: And by the way, I mean, again, I am always sympathetic to family members being dragged into the spotlight. But, in effect, Callista is running for first lady. So would Cheri Daniels, if her husband, the governor of Indiana, would decide to run. They have not -- or certainly Callista has not given any interviews.

I mean, is she going to be forced by media pressure to address what happened when she was on the House payroll and carrying on?

QUINN: Yes. Of course she is. Absolutely.

SAUNDERS: There's nothing Republicans like more than a victim. I mean, they can play this up, they can play the victim card, and they will play it to the hilt.

KURTZ: All right.

Let me turn to that "L.A. Times" story about Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has only been out of office as governor a few short months, and Maria Shriver.

Obviously, that's a local story for the local paper. But why this avalanche of national attention?

QUINN: Well, because they are huge celebrities. I mean, Arnold is a big movie star, and Maria, as Arnold reminds us, is a Kennedy.

KURTZ: Not just a Kennedy, but a journalist who was on NBC and at least one other network for 25 years.

QUINN: Right. And not only that, but she had to give up her role as an NBC correspondent when she married him. And, of course, this is another issue, which is the role that wives have to take. And I say wives. Good husbands don't usually get into this situation.

They have to sort of step back and let their husbands be the primary figure in the relationship and the campaign. And I think that that was very hard for Maria, to have to put herself in second place and not be able to do the kinds of things that she was used to doing. And that's really a killer for a marriage.

COTTLE: And this is a big deal because, on some level, it's very rare when that kind of thing happens. I mean, it's not like they did this five years in or 10 years in. I mean, they have been together for a long time. And so people understandably were like, what finally happened now?

KURTZ: And that reminds me of all the attention that the Al and Tipper Gore breakup got.

But is there a certain amount of media pandering here? I mean, all this sort of churning, Michelle, about what really happened, and was there another woman, and why now?

COTTLE: Well, but this is what happens with celebrities in particular. I mean, if you have a run of the mill politician who no one cares about --


COTTLE: But does anybody care why Gray Davis -- you know, what his personal life is like? But we are talking about a man in particular -- the governor is famous for all the rumors about his inappropriate touching or whatever on the movie sets. And she stood by him during that period of time. So people want to know, kind of now, what happened?

KURTZ: On that point, Debra Saunders, I talked to Mark Barabak of the "L.A. Times," who broke that story, and he said it had just come up in political circles, and then he just went to the family and asked about and got that statement.

He says he feels that the "Los Angeles Times" had a special responsibility to report on this because it had broken the story back in 2003, when Arnold was running for governor, about 15 women accusing the then-candidate of different kinds of sexually inappropriate conduct.

So what's your take on how much of a story this is or should be?

SAUNDERS: You know what really surprises me about this story? The Times reports that Maria left in January. In March, she does this video where she basically practically shouts out that they are separating.

She's not wearing a wedding ring. She's talking about a transformation. Their anniversary, their 25th anniversary is in April. The couple that's always tweeting about each other, not a word, radio silence.

They are seen at events coming and going separately. And the story doesn't break until May. That shows what happens when someone isn't in power anymore.

You know, two years ago, Maria Shriver was seen talking on her cell phone with her hands, violating state law. It was up on the Web within hours. And now they break up and it takes months for this to be a story. That's what I find really interesting about this.

KURTZ: Well, it wasn't a story because we didn't know. And even when there are rumors, you have to document something, and that's what the "L.A. Times" did here.

And you are all right on this score. This is a huge politically famous couple, celebrity -- Arnold, "Terminator" and all that -- and so the story is not going to fade, I think, anytime soon.

Let me get a break.

When we come back, Mike Huckabee using his Fox News show to announce his decision for 2012. The suspense was almost unbearable.


KURTZ: Mike Huckabee, who was at or near the top of the Republican presidential polls, has been keeping the press guessing about whether he would mount a second White House campaign in 2012. So I tuned in last night on Fox News at 8:00, along with some other political writers, to find out what he was going to do. And he wouldn't tell us until the entire hour had almost lapsed.

And finally, in the last moments of the show, he said this.


MIKE HUCKABEE, FOX NEWS: The past few weeks, the external signs and signals and answers to many of the obstacles point strongly towards running. And when I am with people encouraging me to run, it's easy to feel the strength of their partnership and commitment to help me to the finish line.

But only when I was alone, in quiet and reflective moments, did I have not only clarity, but an inexplicable inner peace, a peace that exceeds human understanding. All of the factors say go, but my heart says no.


KURTZ: Debra Saunders, should Huckabee have used his Fox News show to orchestrate this mini drama?

SAUNDERS: Well, why not? Let me just say, good for Mike Huckabee. He has got a good thing going, and he recognizes it and he's staying with it.

I mean, I think -- I watched, too. I'm glad he gets to play bases with Ted Nugent and everything else. But it seemed pretty clear that he wasn't going to run because Fox kept him on air when it shoved Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich out the door because they were thinking of running for president. So I think we knew this was going to happen.

And, you know, he used the situation, got everybody to watch for an hour.

KURTZ: Probably got a little bit of a ratings bump.

I'm watching Michelle Cottle. And he's not only playing bass with Ted Nugent, he's interviewing Mario Lopez, the old "Saved By the Bell" guy, about a diet book. And I'm thinking, OK, after this he's going to come out and say, and I declare my candidacy for president of the United States? I don't think so.

COTTLE: It's not going to happen. He's having the time of his life. He's got the life he's always wanted. he doesn't have to worry about anything.

And I thought it was actually very clever with his clip explaining why he's not going to run. He talks about the peace that surpasses human understanding.

This is kind of a nod to Evangelicals. Basically, what he is saying is, God told me not to run, on some level. And I think that he is just going to continue tearing it up on the TV.

KURTZ: Huckabee mentioned his belief in Jesus Christ. He didn't mention his $500,000 Fox News salary. But he says he likes having a comfortable life.

But the role of Fox News in this whole preseason, Gingrich and Santorum were essentially forced off the payroll, and they both are now running. Huckabee, not.

It just shows you how much of a factor Fox has become in this Republican primary.

QUINN: Fox is huge, but so is Twitter. You know?

KURTZ: Fox is huge, but Fox also has employed several people who either could or, in this case, didn't become serious White House contenders.

QUINN: Right. Yes. Well, I mean --

KURTZ: Is that an uncomfortable position for a network?

QUINN: Clearly not for them. I mean, they are making a lot of money off of these people. And, you know, if Sarah Palin, when she announces whatever she is going to do, I'm sure it will be on Fox.

And, you know, I wasn't at all surprised about Huckabee. I mean, look at Haley Barbour. No fire in the belly. You know, clearly, he didn't have fire.

And then when you talk about peace, it's not just God is telling you not to run. You look at the crowd that you are running against, and then you look at Obama, and there's no peace there.

KURTZ: When Sarah Palin makes here decision, it will be like LeBron James and that ESPN special about what team he's going to play for. I think that will get a little bit of attention.

Debra Saunders, Michelle Cottle, Sally Quinn, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next on RELIABLE SOURCES, a blogger blows the whistle on a Facebook farce. And a CNN host addresses his private meetings with President Obama.

That and more ahead in our "Media Monitor."

And later, shaping Osama bin Laden's media image in life and in death. Journalist and author Steve Coll, on a decade of coverage of the world's number one terrorist.

And Meredith Vieira, leaving "The Today Show," and Ann Curry moving into her spot. Will the shakeup hurt the top-rated network morning show?


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

This one is a really bad idea. With Richard Daley stepping down as mayor, some Chicago anchors thought it would be a fine idea to heap praise on the man they have covered for more than two decades. And they appeared -- I am not making this up -- in commercials for a furniture company.

Here is what the likes of Walter Jacobson, Bill Kurtis and Rob Johnson of the CBS station, and Allison Rosati of the NBC station had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Mayor Daley, for 22 years. It's a long time, and we have loved watching you go through it.

ALLISON ROSATI, NBC: Thank you, Mayor Daley, for being authentic and for traveling the world, bringing the back best to Chicago.

BILL KURTIS, ANCHOR: Richard M. Daley, best mayor, best city in America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's been an honor covering you.


KURTZ: Now here is what Chicago media blogger Rob Feder has to say.

"Excuse me while I throw up. When did it become OK for television news people to appear in ads outside of those for their own employees?"

The CBS station says it thought the staffers were taping a farewell video to be given to Daley and never gave permission for them to be used in an ad. The Walter E. Smithe furniture company has apologized.

When a journalist has private meetings with the president it invariably raises questions. That's what happened this week when "The New York Times" reported that President Obama has held such off-the- record sessions with CNN's Fareed Zakaria and Times' columnist Tom Friedman.

Zakaria was asked about this on Eliot Spitzer's show.


ELIOT SPITZER, "IN THE ARENA": It said the president of the United States called you for wisdom and advice about issues around the world. So, first, when he calls you, what does he say, "Hi. Barack, calling for Fareed"? What does he do?

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA, GPS": Mostly it has been face-to-face meetings. You know, it's usually organized by Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.


KURTZ: Glenn Beck took a whack at Fareed. And the Web site Mediaite called it a "-- stunning revelation for a working journalist to admit that he has private discussions on policy with a sitting U.S. president."

Friedman says his policy is not to discuss private meetings. Zakaria told me yesterday that he never gave Obama advice or counsel on any aspect of administration policy, that he is a commentator and "TIME" magazine columnist, not a reporter, that the two meetings he's had with Obama in recent months give him a sense of the president's thinking, and that he used to have the same kinds of meetings with, for example, Condi Rice.

I agree with Fareed's last point, that part of what he's getting at the White House is high-level spin. That's why I think the fact of the meetings should have been disclosed. Zakaria says that's not part of the arrangement, but it should be. Otherwise, people will inevitably have doubts when word leaks out.

Now, I don't want to be culturally insensitive here, but a Brooklyn newspaper crossed an ethical line when it airbrushed Hillary Clinton and another woman out of that instantly famous Situation Room photo of the president and his aides watching as the Osama bin Laden mission unfolded. Here. Take a look.

"Di Tzeitung" is a paper for Hasidic Jews, and here's what it had to say. "In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos in women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status." "This," says the paper, "has to do with the laws of modesty."

Well, the editors are certainly entitled to their beliefs. But then don't run a White House photo where you have to alter history by excising the secretary of state.

The paper has apologized to the White House and the State Department.

And here is one I liked. A tech blogger named Chris Soghoian blowing the whistle on one of the country's biggest PR firms, Burson- Marsteller.

John Mercurio, a former CNN contributor who now works for the public relations outfit, was trying to plant anti-Google stories in the press. Here is what he e-mailed Soghoian.

"I wanted to gauge your interest in authoring an op-ed this week for a top-tier media outlet on an important issue I know you're following closely. The topic: Google's sweeping violations of user privacy. I'm happy to help place the op-ed and assist in the drafting if needed." "For media targets, I was thinking about 'The Washington post,' Politico, 'The Hill,' 'Roll Call,' or 'The Huffington Post.'"

The blogger asked who Mercurio's client was, and he wouldn't say, so he posted the e-mails. "USA Today" also wrote about this ham- handed approach after Mercurio and another Burson-Marsteller staffer tried to peddle the anti-Google material.

And Dan Lyons reported in "The Daily Beast" that Burson's secretive client is Facebook. That is just plain dirty fool from a rival company.

Good for the journalist who exposed him. Burson-Marsteller says it won't happen again. After the break, now we learn there was porn at the bin Laden compound. Author Steve Coll on the battle to shape the terrorist's image.


KURTZ: It will come as no surprise that the killing of Osama bin Laden dominated the news, accounting for 69 percent of the stories across the media and 90 percent on cable news. That, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It's a testament to how large a figure he was not just as a fugitive terrorist, but also in the media culture.

"60 Minutes" took the unusual step of devoting the entire program last week to Steve Kroft talking to President Obama about the mission and its aftermath.


STEVE KROFT, "60 MINUTES": This was one man. This was somebody who has cast a shadow and has been -- cast a shadow in this place, in the White House, for almost a decade.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn't lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the coverage over the years is Steve Coll, a contributor to "The New Yorker," president of the New America Foundation, and author of two books on this subject "Ghost Wars" and "The Bin Ladens."



KURTZ: This story, which was broken by Mark Hosenball of Reuters, about there being pornography found at the compound -- we don't know whether it was Osama bin Laden's personal stash -- is that a significant story? And why would U.S. officials leak it?

COLL: Well, I think they are trying to shape his image after his death in order to prevent his legend from growing in any way. And, you know, in fairness to them, they have been on the receiving end of Osama's media strategy for a long time.

KURTZ: All those videotapes.

COLL: Haven't been able to -- all those videotapes, constantly back-footed and surprised by his sort of release strategy. And now that they have possession of the material, they are selecting that which would diminish him in releasing it.

KURTZ: There's no accident. This is a deliberate strategy, you believe?

COLL: I believe, no doubt, that there is a team looking through this material for that which would diminish him in the aftermath of his death.

KURTZ: It also led to a lot of bad headlines, puns in the media, X-rated and otherwise.

Now, obviously, Osama bin Laden will live in infamy as the mastermind of 9/11. But especially in recent years, and given what we know now, did the media built up bin Laden into something he was no longer?

COLL: I think he was always -- first of all, let's be clear, he was always a media creature. His whole strategy was premised on his effect in the media. In fact, he's the heir to a tradition of terrorism that's very much driven by television and the way television amplifies. So, in that sense, he was always a media figure.

KURTZ: I thought his whole strategy was premised on killing people.

COLL: Well, terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman put it very well. Referring to the Palestinians who pioneered television-based terrorism, they wanted a lot of people watching, but not a lot of people dead, because a lot of casualties actually undermined their political cause. The difference with Osama was he wanted a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead, because he did believe that mass casualty killing was justified under the theory that he was pursuing.

KURTZ: So, in a way, was that a successful strategy in the sense that -- I mean, did he play us because -- you know, even putting aside the enormity of September 11th, there was an utter transformation in the country and in the media in which terrorism, terror alerts, investigations, plots, every time a videotape would come out, every time a color code change in the alert would take place, it just changed the tenor and the nature of what we do in the news business.

COLL: Right. Well, television, first of all, and the media are a fact of life. So you can't wish them away. And when 3,000 people are killed in a surprise attack, the aftermath of that is going to be appropriately running the story for a long time.

KURTZ: Huge, yes.

COLL: But I do think that there was a persistent real threat. To go back to your original question, was he a menace in the last years of his life? Yes, I think he was.

There were a series of significant, not existential, not 3,000 people, but a significant series of terrorist plots -- the Christmas bombing on the U.S. airliner a year before last, the attempt at Times Square, several other cases in Europe of similar character, where, if they had been successful, there would have been dozens, perhaps a few hundred people, killed. And I think that there is evidence in a number of those cases that the conspiracy traces back to the border region, to Pakistan, where bin Laden was still the emir of al Qaeda.

Now, what we don't know is exactly what his operational role was. The White House has been putting out the notion that the materials they seized suggest that he was more hands-on than we thought. But I don't know how to evaluate that absent the evidence.

KURTZ: You write in this week's "New Yorker," "It was apparent during the last several years that wherever bin Laden was hiding" -- and we had no idea -- "he was watching a lot of television news, reading political books, and growing a little cranky."

How is that apparent?

COLL: Well, he put out statements about half the time -- half a dozen times a year. And if you read them all the way through, they were kind of rambling commentary of the sort that you might get on certain cable news networks with a man who believes he is speaking to his followers about important issues of the day, ripping off the headlines. But what was evident, if you read the text, was --

KURTZ: He wanted his own show, didn't he?

COLL: He did. But he was reading, clearly, in English, and he was following the news carefully. And he was following the news in a way that suggests he had continuous access to satellite news coverage.

And he was kind of talking back to events and to personalities that irritated him. And he was also commenting about more secular matters than in the past -- climate change, banking crises, the mortgage scandal, and so forth.

KURTZ: Like a guy sitting at a bar, except he has access to the media.

COLL: Exactly.

KURTZ: You write in "The New Yorker" -- and this really struck me -- that looking at his legacy, that in many ways, Osama bin Laden failed. But I would say that's not the media consensus.

Explain what you meant.

COLL: Yes. Well, he was a revolutionary who sought political change, and he did not achieve any of the political change that he sought. Other revolutionaries who fashion themselves as vanguards -- Lenin, Castro, name others -- at this point in their careers had actually changed the world. They had seized control of a state, they had started a movement that crossed borders, that mobilized people.

Al Qaeda failed, Bin Laden failed because he had no political program. He isolated himself in Muslim public opinion because he had nothing to deliver.

Even Hamas and Hezbollah run hospitals, labor unions, they provide social services. They may be radical, they may be sort of horrifying in some of their ideas, but they are a political entity. Bin Laden never figured out politics, and so he never achieved any of his goals. He died an isolated man, not just physically, but politically in his own constituencies.

KURTZ: Bin Laden's son Omar was quoted the other day of saying that he and his brothers refused to become suicide bombers, which their father would have liked. He said, "My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons."

What drew you to the family members and to write a book about his family?

COLL: Well, I was interested in where he came from, and thought that the story, having traveled to Saudi Arabia over the years, was more complicated, more generational, and a more modern story than the standard portrait of Osama in a cave allowed us to understand. He came of age in the '70s, when oil -- the oil shocks began, and he was not alone in having the money to go out into the world and reinvent his identity. He did so in a radical, backward-looking, ideological way.

KURTZ: Just to bring this back to the journalism, was it hard for to you piece to piece this together? Was it hard for you to get access to those around him?

COLL: Yes. It was very difficult subject. It required a lot of travel.

What was interesting about it is that the Bin Ladens, and Osama himself, in many ways, was a global character. He crossed a lot of borders, he settled in a lot of places. So, the story was accessible through travel that required time and resources. But I was fortunate to be able to do.

KURTZ: On your broader point about his failure, in your view, I think Western journalists had a hard time understanding him because, what did he want? It wasn't like somebody takes hostages on a plane and has a set of demands. And also understanding how cavalier he was about human life. In war, you know, you try to kill the other side, but here's a guy who specialized, perhaps even delighted, in mass murder of innocents.

COLL: Its' true. And I think that was ultimately a puzzle about him, that he could be, on the one hand, quite sophisticated and in touch with contemporary discourse and debate. And on the other hand, lack the understanding of how his own ideas about death and killing resonated even among the people he was trying to reach. So, I mean --

KURTZ: And he killed plenty of Muslims.

COLL: He killed more Muslims than non-Muslims. And ultimately, his sort of willingness to have death itself be an end, martyrdom, and his reliance on a theological narrative, that ultimately this war would be settled -- one reason why he was hard to understand was that in his mind, this was a war that would end at the end of human time, not in territorial terms of a traditional time. KURTZ: Well, he was a fascinating journalistic subject. And your point about him being media figure as well, as the world's number one terrorist, is a very good one.

Steve Coll, thanks very much for dropping by this morning.

COLL: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: Up next on this program, Ann Curry taking over as Meredith Vieira ends her run at "The Today Show." Does this give the other morning programs a chance to gain some ground on Matt Lauer and company?


KURTZ: "The Today Show" has ruled the morning airwaves for a decade and a half, from the days of Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric, to the current team of Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira. But Vieira announced this week that she is leaving the NBC program with news anchor Ann Curry, who was passed over five years ago, tapped to succeed her.


VIEIRA: It's a difficult day for me. I'm going to try to hold myself together here.

But after months of personal reflection and private conversations with my family and my friends, I have decided to leave "Today" in June. And even as I say this, and I know that it is the right thing, I'm really sad, because for the past -- I'd like to say 10 years, but -- this has been my second home.

ANN CURRY, "THE TODAY SHOW": I feel like the high school computer nerd who was just asked to the prom by the quarterback of the football team.


KURTZ: Asked to the prom.

So, could the move give the other morning shows -- CBS is about to blow up its program once again -- a chance to close the gap with "Today"?

Joining us from New York, Adam Buckman, founder of and a former television editor for "The New York Post"; and Glynnis MacNicol, editor of Business Insider's media page, "The Wire."

Adam Buckman, Meredith Vieira had the tricky challenge of following Katie Couric. How much has she meant to that show?

ADAM BUCKMAN, FOUNDER, TVHOWL.COM: She's meant a lot. And replacing Katie was almost seamless when they chose Meredith Vieira.

It's very difficult to bring that about, and Meredith seemed to have kind of the same background, kind of sort of the same level of notoriety and sort of likeability in public mind. And in my mind, Ann Curry will be just about as smooth a transition. It ought to be anyway.

KURTZ: Well, we'll get to that in a moment.

Glynnis MacNicol, I happened to bump into Al Roker, who was telling me that he loves Meredith Vieira. He didn't know how it would go when she came to the -- you know, it's an ensemble show, and so all the pieces have to fit together. One of the challenges she faced was not just to be a good journalist, but to play well with Matt Lauer and the gang.

GLYNNIS MACNICOL, EDITOR, "THE WIRE": Absolutely. I think there was a lot -- when Katie Couric left "The Today Show," I mean, there was so much speculation, will "Today" survive, how is Meredith Vieira going to fit in? She was coming from "The View."

As you said, an ensemble cast. All the pieces have to fit together. And then it worked so smoothly.

So, in some ways, I think they are setting themselves up for a slightly easier transition. The entire "Today" audience already knows Ann Curry. She's been there for so long. She has a presence on social media.

So I think they're not introducing sort of a strange element into the scenario. They are introducing a familiar face who's simply going to be getting more air time now.

KURTZ: Right. Well, one of the things you have to do on morning TV is talk about yourself and your family, so people knew that Meredith Vieira's husband, Richard Cohen, suffers from multiple sclerosis, and that, of course, a factor in her decision.

So, since you both brought up Ann Curry, I'll turn to you, Adam.

Look, she is a very seasoned journalist who has reported from around the world.


KURTZ: But is she the right choice? Is she somebody you would pick if she hadn't already been part of that cast?

BUCKMAN: Well, I don't know if we'd pick her if she had not been part of the cast. And I think the fact that she has been part of the case is the really great reason to pick her.

She's been substituting for these anchors for years. That gives her a lot of face time.

I mean, they take vacations. And so she's been on "The Today Show" in that hour, on weekends, and in mornings, during the weekdays, for years. And yes, she's a newsperson by trade, but she involves herself in the usual morning show banter. And I think that it's very, very logical.

It doesn't shake anything up in the least. And I think that's what the number one show has to do, make as smooth a transition as possible. Plus, I suppose they must have thought, what would be the consequences if we didn't promote Ann and she went to some other network, and perhaps that would wind up hurting them in the end?

KURTZ: Right. I doubt she would have stayed if she had been passed up for a second time. But you've hit on the point that I wanted to pursue, which is, it kind of came up with Stephanopoulos going to GMA, because she is such a good reporter.

And I mean this as a compliment. She's not your typical happy talk morning host, Glynnis.

MACNICOL: Absolutely. But I think what we see on the morning shows right now, and just on cable in general, is we're skewing to more news coverage. The TV audience is interested in harder news, more frequently. And so bringing --

KURTZ: I still see a lot of cooking segments, I see a lot of fashion. I see dancing and concerts.

MACNICOL: I'm certainly not suggesting we're going all news on morning shows in the least. But I think, you know, with George Stephanopoulos at "Good Morning America," which I think has worked out better than some people anticipated, you are seeing morning shows make news with their interviews with political figures and news figures. So, bringing in Ann Curry, who has a history of hard-news journalism, certainly skews to that and plays to her strength in that.

KURTZ: If this means more minutes for news and serious subjects, I am all for it. But, of course, they have two -- actually, three -- hours to fill in the case of "The Today Show."

Is there, Adam Buckman, an opportunity here for the other morning shows? I mean, CBS reports it's going to shake up "The Early Show" once again. This is just a few months after bringing in Erica Hill and Chris Wragge. I wonder if there's an opening here for the competition.

BUCKMAN: I think this transition figures to be so smooth, that in fact it's not going to be one of those golden opportunities for one of the two competitors to swoop in and somehow improve their ratings and somehow pass "The Today Show."

Certainly, "Good Morning America" lags behind in second place by not that much on ABC, but CBS is far in the cellar, getting about half the audience of either of its two competitors. So I'm not sure they have an opportunity here.

KURTZ: And that's been the case for about 30 years.

But I have to wonder, Glynnis, you know, how do you build an audience if you're constantly changing, as CBS has done, the anchors, the format, the set, the graphics? It seems like nobody gets much of a chance to settle in.

MACNICOL: You know, I think that's the eternal question over at CBS. I think they need to focus on relevance as much as ratings.

With relevance hopefully comes ratings, but I think they're just not relevant in morning scene. No one -- you don't find when you go online that people are posting clips from their show. They're not, you know, newsy, they're not water-cooler talk. And I think they need to focus on sort of playing to that as much as the concern just simply about ratings.

And, you know, when "GMA" brought George Stephanopoulos in, he was a big name in the news game. CBS has a huge news operation behind it. You know, "60 Minutes" has been breaking enormous stories for the last few months. So, you wonder if maybe they want to pull in a harder newsperson into that morning show lineup, but, I mean, at this point probably they could throw anything against the wall just to see what sticks.

KURTZ: Yes. Even Bryant Gumbel, who had been so successful on NBC's "Today," didn't make it at the CBS "Early Show." It's an awfully tough timeslot for CBS.

But your point -- I think your salient point here is about the morning shows becoming a little newsier, in which case maybe making news, breaking news, is the way to go, and the ratings will always follow.

Glynnis MacNicol, Adam Buckman, we're out of time. Thanks very much for joining us from New York.

MACNICOL: Thank you.

KURTZ: Still to come, some thoughts on Jim Lehrer giving up the PBS anchor chair after more than three decades.


KURTZ: The thing about Jim Lehrer, unlike most people in television news, is he never made it about him. He never used the little tricks of the trade to score points or create a confrontation during an interview.

Lehrer is stepping down early next month as the anchor of the "NewsHour." He joined the PBS broadcast in 1975, and soon had his name on what became known for years at the "MacNeil/Lehrer Report."

We talked about TV news on this program four years ago.


KURTZ: Don't you, in addition to having an hour, as opposed to 30-minute broadcast networks, also have the luxury of working at PBS, where perhaps you don't have to be as acutely sensitive to ratings pressure as do some of your friends at CBS, NBC and ABC? JIM LEHRER, "NEWSHOUR": Well, that's probably true, but I would argue that if somebody really wants to improve their ratings in commercial television news right now, they would get into the serious news business. That's where the need is, and that's where the growth is.


KURTZ: Now, sometimes Lehrer let guests drone on without pressing them hard enough, but he was a model of journalistic fairness.

More than that, he moderated 11 presidential debates. Again, in self-effacing fashion.

The guy even found time to write more than two dozen novels. How did he do that?

On Friday, his old partner, Robert MacNeil, talked about how Jim brought in a rotating group of co-anchors.


ROBERT MACNEIL, FMR. CO-ANCHOR: First he took his name off the program. Has anyone ever done that before, voluntarily?

In 2009, with his full approval, the program ceased being "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and became "The PBS NewsHour."


KURTZ: And he'll still be hosting a panel on the "NewsHour" most Fridays. At 76, Jim Lehrer is not quite ready to hang it up.

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.