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Reliable Sources

Is GOP Presidential Field Weak?; Oprah's Show Ends

Aired May 29, 2011 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Everyone's talking about it, so it must be true. This Republican presidential field is incredibly weak, and someone needs to ride to the rescue. But what if the media's conventional wisdom is wrong about Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman? And is the press falling for the latest Sarah Palin tease?

The Oprah era is coming to an end. The daytime queen goes out on top with a show that shattered the traditional mold. We'll look at her legacy and the struggles at her new cable network.

Being the producer of a fast-paced show like "Morning Joe" is plenty of pressure, but it was nothing compared to what happened when Chris Licht was hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage. He'll tell us what he learned when he almost died.

And CNN's Don Lemon, on why he decided to reveal he is gay and whether that should affect how he's viewed as a journalist.

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


KURTZ: Mitch Daniels is out, Mike Huckabee is out, Donald Trump is out, not that he was ever really in. So the press, in its collective wisdom, has decided that the Republicans running for president are like a sandlot team trying to play in the majors.

Pundits chattering about the need to draft a new prospect. Pretty amazing how we see into the future, isn't it?

Here, take a look.


JONAH GOLDBERG, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I think that the Mitch Daniels departure really opens up the space for Paul Ryan like nobody else. Ryan is the one guy who sort of has a rendezvous with destiny right now.



DICK ARMEY, FREEDOMWORKS: Frankly, we're disappointed. Now, obviously, we have to start looking, and I was just saying this morning, maybe it's time to start drafting Paul Ryan.



CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: I just find this the most boring list I've ever seen in my life. Pawlenty -- the name itself is like polenta.



HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Among Republicans, they're saying you've got to be kidding me. This is the 3.2 beer of American politics.


KURTZ: And how is the press treating those Republicans who are actually running?

Tim Pawlenty, who became an official candidate this week, got this question on "The Today Show" --


MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": People often look at you and they say, is there enough charisma there for Tim Pawlenty to beat Barack Obama?

What's your answer to that?

TIM PAWLENTY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not running for entertainer-in-chief.


KURTZ: So what should we make of the media's rush to judgment?

Joining us now here in Washington, Christina Bellantoni, associate politics editor for "CQ Roll Call"; John Aravosis, founder of; and in New York, Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at "National Review."

Christina Bellantoni, these ridiculously early judgments by you and your colleagues how do you justify them?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI, "CQ ROLL CALL": Well, I wouldn't necessarily justify them. And I will defend Pawlenty in saying that I like polenta and I don't think that's very fair, to criticize him based on his name.

But what this is about is the media is -- they're bored. They like to see new people jump in. They like a little razzle-dazzle. And, in the end, this benefits the Republican candidates, because they can go out to these early states and they can shake voters' hands and they can make connections on the ground without all the scrutiny of the press.

KURTZ: But how are journalists bored? The campaign is just getting under way.

BELLANTONI: This is just the game that we play every single year. And I don't necessarily think that we are good at that.

KURTZ: Are the pundits, John Aravosis, missing or perhaps ignoring the fact that one of these candidates could catch fire when spring training is over and the regular season actually starts.

JOHN ARAVOSIS, FOUNDER, AMERICABLOG.COM: I think they're ignoring it, but they're ignoring it on purpose to the degree that I think the media is reflecting what the public is feeling right now, and, frankly, what even GOP pundits are feeling, which you showed earlier.

There's a sense that these candidates aren't good enough to beat Barack Obama. The polls are showing that.

And when you look at sort of the top three candidates we've had in the news as far as name recognition, you had Romney, you had Gingrich -- not Romney. Excuse me -- you had Gingrich, you had Palin and you had Donald Trump, all three of which kind of come up a little nutty. And I think the public's reaction and the media's reaction has been not taking this seriously.

KURTZ: Ramesh Ponnuru, does it tick you off that the mainstream media is trashing this field?

RAMESH PONNURU, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I wouldn't say it ticks me off. I think it's understandable, as Christina was saying.

I think a lot of reporters want a shiny new candidate to play with. I think a lot of conservatives are never satisfied, because there's always a flaw with the actual candidates in the primary field. The grass is always greener outside that field.

And a lot of liberals what to say that it's a weak field because it helps, you know, demoralize the conservatives. So everybody has an interest in saying this is a weak field.

What it is, is a competitive field that has several candidates in it who are potentially quite strong. I Huntsman, in Romney, in Pawlenty, who I think are the three most likely actually nominees, you've got three Republican governors who outperformed their party in their states --

KURTZ: Right. Right.

PONNURU: -- who could go the distance.

KURTZ: But let me turn back to the journalism.

And let's take Romney, who everyone says is the frontrunner. "Mitt Romney has what may be called an Al Gore problem," writes Dana Milbank in "The Washington Post." "Even if he's being genuine, he seems ersatz.

I wonder if part of his problem is that many reporters don't particularly like the guy.

BELLANTONI: It could be. You know, I covered the Democratic field in 2008, so I didn't get to know him very well. But I think it's also -- it's this -- I hate to use the term "boredom," but they're familiar with Mitt Romney.

We've told Mitt Romney's story in 2008. Everybody is looking for the new thing to keep viewers and readers paying attention. And everybody knows that candidates -- flash in the pan candidates like Donald Trump or Palin -- get clicks. They get more readers to come. And we create this sort of false tension that really isn't fair to anybody.

KURTZ: Well, so that sounds like it's more about ratings and online traffic than it is about seriously covering this presidential contest. But let me stick with this Romney question.


KURTZ: And so the media have created this narrative. We've seen this before.


KURTZ: So if he goes out without a tie or he goes to a NASCAR race, the press questions it.


KURTZ: We wouldn't --


KURTZ: -- question of it somebody else.


ARAVOSIS: Well, wait. But I think this -- but I think the press is questioning it because they do know Romney.

Romney did a complete roundabout on gay rights. He -- I remember the '94 campaign. I worked on that campaign of Romney versus Kennedy. He was claiming he was better on gay rights than Ted Kennedy. Not today, he doesn't claim that.

Romney, this week, claimed he was for the auto bailout when he was against it two years ago. The media knows this is just --

KURTZ: So you're saying there's a policy basis --

ARAVOSIS: That there's a --

KURTZ: -- because he has changed his vision?

ARAVOSIS: There's a lack of genuineness in his track record, and you hear it from Republicans, too. The media is reflecting that.

ARAVOSIS: Look, there is plenty to criticize in Romney's record if you want go after flip-flops in authenticity. The problem is that the press has decided that's the narrative about Romney, and they're slotting things that don't belong there into that storyline, like what he's wearing at a particular event. That's the problem. Just as when the reporters decided that Gore was an inauthentic figure, or that he had a problem with the truth, every trivial little thing became part of that storyline and the candidate was never given a chance to break out of that.

BELLANTONI: But this is not unique to Romney. I mean, look at what happened with Barack Obama bowling in Pennsylvania.

I mean, the press creates these means around candidates, and their rivals play into that. You know, definitely, the other Republican candidates are trying to portray Mitt Romney as inauthentic and flip-flopper. So the press can sort of create that. There's this tension that's natural, that's fun to cover, and it's more interesting than trying to delve into what he would really do about --

ARAVOSIS: But he has been --

BELLANTONI: -- auto companies.

ARAVOSIS: I mean, but I think that to some degree, there is some truth there. I mean, it's not a bad as an Al Gore, where, you know, yes, you were kind of twisting his words a little, or Hillary Clinton, you know, she goofed up a Bosnia thing, but she's not a serial liar.

With Romney, you have seen serious flip-flops, again, this week on the auto bailout --

KURTZ: And I have --

ARAVOSIS: There is a track record there.

KURTZ: I have no problem with journalists pointing out every single position that he has changed or how he pushed through this Massachusetts health care plan, and now he's --

ARAVOSIS: But he's also not polling well, Howie.

KURTZ: I keep hearing these phrases -- I've got to call a timeout here. I keep hearing these phrases, "It's more fun to cover this," "we're bored." It sounds like this whole thing, which is a fairly serious contest, to choose the next president, is being conducted for our entertainment.

BELLANTONI: It's (INAUDIBLE). I mean, you have to be honest and admit that, that is how a lot of people approach this, particularly when it's such a competitive market, competing for clips, competing for ads, competing for those viewers. It's -- that's what it's about. And I think this is the dirty little secret among some networks, where they're afraid that if somebody like Tim Pawlenty, who is being asked about his amount of charisma as the nominee, that viewers will turn the channel and not pay attention to the presidential debates a year from now.

PONNURU: But it's more than just the ratings game. It's also -- and I think Howard was right about this -- it's personal feelings.

Reporters didn't like Gore as much as they liked Bush on the campaign planes. And reporters, I think, don't like Mitt Romney, partly because they think he's a phony, partly because they think he's, you know, the proverbial kind of rich kid trying buy the presidency.

KURTZ: And then you do, as we touched on earlier, have this almost -- journalists almost mesmerized by the people who are not in the race. Oh, I wish Chris Christie would get in, Paul Ryan would get in, Michele Bachmann, who probably will get in. And now we have Sarah Palin with this East Coast bus tour, stirring the speculation once again.

Is the press in danger of being bamboozled by somebody who, in the end, is probably not going to run?

BELLANTONI: I do believe so. And I noticed this morning that you had the Palin coverage on the front pages of some of the papers.

You had, you know, the bus tour. It's not really worthy of a front page story. You know, but you've got a good photo people like. They're going to turn to that story, they're going to read it because she generates traffic and interest.

ARAVOSIS: Well, and remember, the same thing, in a way, happened to Obama versus Hillary. For the first year, everyone said Hillary was inevitable, Obama couldn't get a fair shake. And then I remember coming on your show in, you know, the months before the election or -- excuse me, before the primaries were resolved, and the Hillary people were saying it's so unfair, the press is so for Obama, they're not for us. And I was like, you know, we spent a year anointing Hillary as the guaranteed winner.

So, I mean it's not -- all I'm saying is, it's not partisan, but I think it is a common thing that happens. The media kind of goes, in effect, for one guy or one woman and not the other.

BELLANTONI: And from a factual perspective, you talk about the liking the candidate or not liking the candidate. Hillary Clinton faced that in 2008, as well. And do you know what she did? She finally came back on her plane, and she did shots with the reporters and she danced with the reporters.



BELLANTONI: And do you know what? It worked.


BELLANTONI: The campaign particularly played into that media narrative and then responded to it.

KURTZ: But let me come back to Palin, Ramesh Ponnuru --


KURTZ: -- because, you know, we don't know whether she's ultimately going to run. She may not know whether she's ultimately going to run. But I personally have a hard time seeing her giving up this sort of lucrative celebrityhood that she has.

But she has been out of the news. She has been keeping low profile. So she organizes the bus tour. But she's still on the Fox News payroll, which means, almost by definition, she's not running now and she'd have to get off that payroll if she did run.

So what's your take?

PONNURU: Well, I think she loves messing with reporters. And apparently, reporters love being messed with, because it's a symbiotic relationship. It's a love-hate thing.

And I would not at all be surprised if she ends up not running. But I think she's enjoying flummoxing reporters. And I think she's also enjoying flummoxing the Republican establishment, which is probably having pretty serious heartburn right now about, is she going to run?

KURTZ: You say it's a love-hate thing. Which is the love part? Where the ratings go up and the traffic goes up? Is that the love part?

PONNURU: That would be the love part. And maybe loving the hating.

KURTZ: Speaking of interesting stories, and speaking of front page stories, I wanted to ask you about this "New York Times" piece that was on the front page the other day about the Tiffany's story. This is, of course, Newt Gingrich has owed -- had a revolving account where he owed up to $500,000 for jewelry for his wife Callista. So there's Callista Gingrich's picture again on the front page of "The New York Times," the second time in two weeks.

And I'm wondering, A, how many voters care about this jewelry thing? Reporters certainly care about it. And, B, does this start to look like a vendetta?

BELLANTONI: I think that something like Tiffany's resonates with people. Everybody knows what it is. It's sort of representative of something people might feel and might be telling pollsters anyway, that they --

KURTZ: Why can't Gingrich spend his own money the way he wants?

BELLANTONI: Sure. And of course he can.

KURTZ: There's no scandal here.

BELLANTONI: And in the end, that's -- it's probably not going to sway an election one way or another. But whoever dug out that opposition research, through the -- I will point out, through the filings that Callista filed as a staffer, which is very interesting in itself, basically wanted to push forward this idea that Newt Gingrich is not a man of the people. And that's something that may or may not resonate with people.

ARAVOSIS: Yes. I mean and Democrats always get accused of $400 haircuts, even though, in the end, they find out, well -- or who was it? Bill Clinton supposedly stopped an entire airport for a haircut?

KURTZ: Not supposedly. He got a haircut at LAX and the air traffic was stopped.


ARAVOSIS: But I think that was somewhat debunked. But my point is that, again, I'm not saying these are good things that happened, but Christina is right. I mean, they happen to sort of everybody.

The media does do this. And the public -- but you know what? The public likes it. The public likes these stories.

KURTZ: I'm not so sure about that.

ARAVOSIS: I think they're a bit goofy --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The public claims they want --


KURTZ: A quick comment from Ramesh.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, look, I think the problem for Gingrich is this -- the Tiffany's story is more easily comprehensible than a story about Medicare and some back and forth about what his position is. And this is a story that late-night comedians can latch onto and not let go of.

KURTZ: Let me get a break.

When we come back, Sarah Palin private e-mails published in a new book. And some rather derisive messages from a top Palin aide on Twitter leaked to a Web site. Should this sort of thing be fair game?




KURTZ: Frank Bailey, a former gubernatorial aide to Sarah Palin in Alaska, has just published a book filled with hundreds of her private, personal e-mails. And he's been making the television rounds.

Let's watch.


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Even though the book is called "Blind Allegiance," you weren't so blind. And it's tough, as a reader, to be very sympathetic.

FRANK BAILEY, FORMER AIDE TO SARAH PALIN: You know, Brooke, that is absolutely fair. And, you know, you go into something vesting so much. I mean, you look at this like a relationship that maybe isn't going so well.



SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: You say it's blind allegiance, but you did all these things.

BAILEY: I did. I did.

HANNITY: And so it -- and then you say, I shouldn't have done it. And I'm trying to say, well, the things that you say you did, because you got in a lot of trouble.

BAILEY: I did.


KURTZ: Ramesh Ponnuru, why should the media give this guy a platform?

PONNURU: Well, he's got something interesting to say. He's got information about Governor Palin.

I think he sounds like a disreputable character. I mean, I don't think what's he's doing is honorable. But if you're a reporter relating this information you've got, and it's not your responsibility to make sure that the person giving it to you is a person of upright character --

KURTZ: Right. I mean, the e-mails are authentic. No one has disputed that.

John Aravosis, Sean Hannity did the most hostile interview with him. Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC, I thought, was pretty easy on him, because Palin is the target.

ARAVOSIS: Right. Right. I mean, I think, you know, I don't know if it's fair, but I feel like it is fair game in terms of this, but also some of the other issues we're going to discuss, because I think you're dealing with potential presidential candidates. And, unfortunately, there isn't much of a protection of privacy, I think, when you get to that level. I just don't like it, but I think I probably would report on it.


Well, how about if it's not a presidential candidate, but an aide to a possible candidate? Rebecca Mansour, who works for SarahPAC, she wrote a lot of private messages on Twitter to somebody she thought was a friend. These are not public.

They were leaked to "The Daily Caller," a conservative Web site. And when she was quoted as saying all kinds of things -- so and so is a dumb ass, taking a swipe at Bristol Palin -- it's like the liberal journalists, the private e-mails among liberal journalists, that were also published by "The Daily Caller."

Would you have published this?

BELLANTONI: That's a good question. I think in this case, Palin has such a very small circle of advisers. I mean, this is like a campaign manager sending these e-mails.

I think you do have to weigh the individual who is sending them. And I think every single instance of this is a judgment call by, you know, editors or the news broadcasters. And in this case, because of her prominence within the Palin campaign, and because of how close she is to the former governor, I would have published that.

KURTZ: You would have published that?

ARAVOSIS: It's a bit like WikiLeaks, to some degree, meaning I think you need to go through the same analysis you would in writing about classified documents that are leaked. These are things intended to be private by the people who wrote them and exchanged them. But once the press gets them, should you report on it?

And I think you've got to weigh, right, the costs versus the benefit to the public.

KURTZ: But then you had a lot of journalists say in the same Web site, "The Daily Caller," which published this e-mail group called Journo-List, you had the same -- you had a lot of journalists saying this is really unfair, we thought we were off the record, and it was just like sitting and talking to friends in a bar. But they're not particularly upset that the Palin aide's Twitter messages got leaked because -- why? Because it's somebody from the other side.

BELLANTONI: E-mail is an e-mail is an e-mail. I think that you -- every time you send something out into the world, you have to recognize that it could get printed out or forwarded or, you know, posted, or in a direct case of a direct message, how many times have people accidentally posted that to their whole Twitter feed? It's -- you know, you have to be smarter than that if you're in politics.

KURTZ: Am I the only person, Ramesh Ponnuru, who finds this depressing, that anything you write at any time, to even somebody you think is a friend, can wind up splashed across somebody's computer screen?

PONNURU: Well, I think it's depressing that people value confidences so lightly. And I think that if you are Governor Palin, or her aide, you are reconsidering who you're putting your trust in. And maybe you need to put some of those filters up in your personal dealings with people.

KURTZ: Often, journalists who report on this, or interview the person involved, these days don't seem to worry very much about whether there's a personal betrayal involved. Just like, give us the goods, give us the really --


KURTZ: -- juicy, dirty, sleazy stuff and --

ARAVOSIS: Do you think in the past they wouldn't report on it? I guess that's an interesting question. Do you think things have changed?

KURTZ: Well, for example, when George Stephanopoulos left the White House back in the mid-'90s and wrote a book about Clinton, and it was kind of a tell-all --


KURTZ: -- and got $3 million for it, you know, he was widely criticized.


KURTZ: And now, nobody blinks. We just take it for granted.

The last question. Politico's Ben Smith actually was offered this collection of Twitter messages by Rebecca Mansour for money, and he wouldn't pay. And Tucker Carlson of "The Daily Caller" said that they didn't pay.

But there was this great e-mail in which the guy -- person, I should say -- "Sorry, Ben, it's going to take a lot more than a Happy Meal and a handshake to get me to betray someone's confidence," because just going to lunch wasn't good enough.


KURTZ: But I will betray somebody's confidence if you --

ARAVOSIS: For money.

KURTZ: -- send me a check.

ARAVOSIS: Right. That's pretty bad. That's pretty bad.

KURTZ: That's pretty bad?

ARAVOSIS: But, again, well -- but to Ben's credit and, frankly, "The Daily Caller's," too, if they didn't pay, that's great.

BELLANTONI: Well, and going back to paying for stories, I mean, that's what happened with this -- the Botox story of the woman who said that she had given her child Botox. I mean, it's a pretty good lesson.

KURTZ: We'll talk --

BELLANTONI: You shouldn't be paying for it.

KURTZ: What I've concluded from all this is that there are no rules anymore, anything goes. And, unfortunately, that's the world we live in.

Ramesh Ponnuru, John Aravosis, Christina Bellantoni.

And coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, the Oprah era ends. We'll look at her phenomenal popularity and whether she can revive her struggling cable network.

Plus, a very personal discussion with longtime "Morning Joe" producer about the ailment that almost killed him.

And later, CNN's Don Lemon on why he decided to come out of the closet.




KURTZ: She is one of the richest and most successful women in the world, after more than 5,000 episodes of her daytime talk show. But that doesn't begin to describe her influence.

By the time Oprah Winfrey signed off this week after a quarter century on the air, she had changed television and, in a very real way, the culture around her. Not bad for a woman who was little known when she began her program in Chicago in 1986.


OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: This show always allows people hopefully to understand the power they have to change their own lives. If there's one thread running through each show we do, it is the message that you are not alone.

Thank you all for sharing this first show.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Her farewell didn't involve big guests or giving away cars, just the host addressing the audience.


WINFREY: From day one, Chicago, you took me in -- into your living rooms, and into your kitchens and your dens -- and you spread the word to your friends. I heard you saying, have you all seen that black girl on TV named Ophrey (ph)?


WINFREY: I wanted to encourage you to be more of yourself, just as you all encouraged me and you cheered me on, and occasionally complained about my outfits.


KURTZ: So what is the Oprah legacy? And will her impact fade without that daily program?

Joining us now here in Washington, David Zurawik, television and media critic for "The Baltimore Sun," who writes the blog "Z on TV." And in New York, Lola Ogunnaike, a pop culture commentator and former reporter for "The New York Times."

Lola Ogunnaike, in a -- if you can reduce it to a made-for- television answer, why did Oprah become such a phenomenon?

LOLA OGUNNAIKE, POP CULTURE COMMENTATOR: I think Oprah became such a phenomenon because of two things.

One, she was willing to be so honest and forthright about all that she endured in her life. And, two, she was able to exhibit a level of compassion that hadn't been seen on TV before at all.

She was willing to talk about everything from her own sexual abuse, to her failed attempts at weight loss, to her relationships. And you felt like she was not only a girlfriend, but a sister.

And for a lot of people of my generation, she was the older auntie. She (sic) was when I -- when she came to air. And she has been a part of my life for the better part of 25 years. And it's going to be weird to not have her in my afternoon.

KURTZ: It sounds like you have a close personal relationship.

David Zurawik, you followed her career since she was in Baltimore. In the beginning, with the national show, she did a lot of sleazy topics. And then that changed, so she evolved.

DAVID ZURAWIK, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": She did. Oh, absolutely. And she admits that, that she started out and she had to find her voice.

She left Baltimore -- had a very rough time in Baltimore for about seven-and-a-half years when she was in her 20s. She left for Chicago just at about age 30. And she was just finding her voice.

But she struggled at first, and she started out with the kind of reality genre. She could have been Maury Povich, in a way. You know, a female Maury Povich.


ZURAWIK: But you know what?

She really found her voice. And the way she did that, it's true, is with the honesty and using her own life's narrative as programming material. She put it out there on -- for her audience and was -- and it's also absolutely right, the incredible searing honesty she had. That -- she didn't invent, of course, the talk show format.


ZURAWIK: But she brought --

KURTZ: And changed it.

ZURAWIK: Yes. She brought that kind of honesty to it and made it authentic, and became a force of moral authority in this country.

KURTZ: And Lola, you might have hinted at this earlier, but, you know, we take it for granted now because Oprah is such a household name and part of the culture. But was there a racial resonance to a black woman -- there weren't that many of them on TV 30 years ago -- becoming so powerful?

OGUNNAIKE: No one had ever seen anyone like Oprah. I mean, she talks about when she first appeared on the screen, she was this big black woman with a Jheri curl and a fur coat. But she managed to tap into something that Americans may have been longing for and they didn't even know it.

She was funny. She was honest. She was brash. And more than anything, she was willing to share all of herself with audiences. And I think that's the reason she's been managed -- she's managed to be so successful over the years.

KURTZ: Oprah Winfrey also, you know, became a big force in the publishing industry. She could put a book on a bestseller list with a single episode. But, you know, let's also be clear -- she made mistakes. She had James Frey --


KURTZ: -- the author on to promote the book that turned out not to be exactly accurate. There was that South African girls school that she financed that was rocked by sexual misconduct allegations.

But often, she would then have to own up to those mistakes.

ZURAWIK: That's exactly it. Howie, that's one of the things, I think, that gave her that authenticity and moral authority, is that she also brought her mistakes before the people. You know, she said she always wanted to be a teacher. In her final show, said, "I always wanted to be a teacher, and now I've wound up on the world's biggest classroom on this stage."

There is that about her. And I think that's the thing. When you think about her becoming this person who became a guide and a mentor, a person of color to a mass audience, I really think we can't overstate that.

I think she played a major role in preparing this country to elect Barack Obama president. I really do, because she was someone that could be trusted as a guide on how to live your life --


ZURAWIK: -- not entertain people anymore.



KURTZ: Beyond the fact that she also endorsed Obama --

ZURAWIK: Yes. Yes.

KURTZ: -- which not everyone thought she should have --

ZURAWIK: No, no. Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

OGUNNAIKE: And she was highly committed to making sure that her viewers lived their best lives.


OGUNNAIKE: I mean, if you look at the final episode, that's essentially the gift that she wanted to give away. It wasn't about a car. It wasn't about a trip to Australia. It was about the message that I still want you all to continue to live your best lives.

KURTZ: But what about --

OGUNNAIKE: That was her final gift.

KURTZ: What about this, Lola? And I had mixed feelings about this. She also helped create -- not single-handedly -- an Oprah-fied culture, I would say, in which the host --

OGUNNAIKE: I like that word, "Oprah-fied."

KURTZ: Yes -- in which the hosts were expected to share their innermost feelings, but also everyone -- politicians, athletes, everyone is expected to go on TV and make confessions about their personal lives. But maybe to an excessive extent, shall we say?

OGUNNAIKE: Well, the viewer in me obviously loved it. I mean, the more compelling the interview, the better for me. KURTZ: You eat it up.

OGUNNAIKE: I eat it all up -- the tears, -- yes, the crying, the confessions. I love it. That's why people tuned in for 25 years.

ZURAWIK: Howie, after I -- I interviewed Oprah for this finale --


ZURAWIK: -- and had a really great conversation with her. And one of my editors said, "Zurawik, I think you drank the Oprah Kool-Aid now." But I have been one of the cynics who -- I said, "No, I didn't drink it, I'm mainlining the Oprah Kool-Aid."


KURTZ: You admit that.

ZURAWIK: I admit it. There's a force about her. She talked about this in her final show, about positive energy. She really is uplifting in a way that no one I have ever seen on TV is. Now, it may be dangerous in our culture --

KURTZ: Let me come in --


KURTZ: Why has The Oprah Winfrey --

OGUNNAIKE: I've had my own Oprah IV drip for a few episodes.

KURTZ: All right, I'm the only here who's not on drugs.


KURTZ: David, why has the Oprah Winfrey Network on cable had such a hard time getting traction? And isn't her influence going to fade if there's going to be her outlet, besides the magazine?

ZURAWIK: Yes. Howie, I think it's complicated.

I asked her about that, and she said that, "The Oprah Winfrey Network is not where I want it to be, obviously. Give it three years."

And I think she can now turn her attention to that network and make that thing work. I think she may have been in too many places.

And I think this final season, Howie, was more emotional and involving than she knew. And so I think that's one of the reasons she hasn't focused on OWN, as she will in the coming years.

KURTZ: Lola?

OGUNNAIKE: I completely agree. It's hard to end a show and launch a network.

I mean, in the best circumstances, you need 110 percent focus to launch a network. And, frankly, I think she wanted to make sure that her viewers were left with an "Oprah Winfrey Show" that would be remarkable and memorable for this last season.

That was her top priority. And I think the network suffered as a result.

But she said she's going to focus her attention on her network. She wants it to be successful. But she's also been smart about managing expectations, and essentially saying it's going to take three to five years to really get this thing going. And she's taking a long-term approach --

KURTZ: Right.

OGUNNAIKE: -- to doing this.

KURTZ: And, look, it's very different to do an hour of television a day, where it's all about you, the star, Oprah Winfrey, and another to put on something with 24 hours of programming where you have to bring in a lot of other hosts and voices. And there's a lot of competition out there.

But with the void that she will leave in daytime syndication -- Anderson Cooper is starting a syndicated show. Katie Couric is going to be starting a syndicated show, most likely with ABC -- David, can there be another Oprah?

ZURAWIK: No, there won't be another Oprah. One of the reasons, Howie, is the world has changed. No one is ever going to have that kind of clout. So you have the landscape changing, viewer lifestyles, technology and communication, all of that change is out there.

But the one thing is no one is ever going to be as powerful as Oprah, who's ever going to bring that to it. You know, we didn't even talk about the Oprah factor, that she was so powerful from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., that any local station that had her show often won local news straight to 7:00.

Remember when they said Peter Jennings was number one in the '90s with the "ABC Nightly News?" Because he came on at 6:30 on stations that had her. Who is ever going to do that again?

KURTZ: It's a nice lead-in.

And Lola, I know you're going to miss her everyday, so I think you and David should get together and share a Kool-Aid drink and commiserate about the old times.


KURTZ: David Zurawik, Lola Ogunnaike, thanks very much for joining us. ZURAWIK: Thanks.

After the break, longtime morning show producer Christ Licht on his near-death experience and whether he can pump new life into CBS' "Morning Show."




KURTZ: It turns out that being in the control room at "Morning Joe" isn't always that much fun. Chris Licht, as the executive producer of the MSNBC show, describes a tension-filled existence with lots of clashes and loud arguments with the likes of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. And then, without warning, he suffered a brain hemorrhage.

Licht recovered. In fact, he just took a job as vice president at CBS News, and recounts the harrowing experience in the book "What I Learned When I Almost Died."

He joins me now here in the studio.

Chris Licht, welcome.


KURTZ: From your book, "I picked fights. I sent profanity- infused e-mails. My stomach was an emotionally ensnarled place, a big knot."

This is a job you liked?

LICHT: I loved it. Are you kidding me? Killer producer, right?

KURTZ: What about that stomach? Killer producer?

LICHT: Yes, it was an all-consuming job.

KURTZ: "Not a lot of time," you write, "for politeness or praise from Joe and Mika. They would say, 'Don't do this, don't do that.'"

It's not for the fainthearted.

LICHT: No, it's not. But we are a lean, mean machine. "Morning Joe" has about 16 people who do three-and-a-half hours of TV. So, it was a driving -- you just need to be driven every day. Hard.

KURTZ: Did the pressure wear you down?

LICHT: No, it was invigorating, actually.

KURTZ: You thrive on the pressure? LICHT: Absolutely.

KURTZ: You like being yelled at? You like yelling at other people?

LICHT: Sure.

KURTZ: Don't try it here. All right.

When the incident happened with the brain hemorrhage, you find yourself in the emergency room. What was your emotional state?

LICHT: Well, at first I was told I had a stress migraine. So, I kind of let --

KURTZ: That's not so bad.

LICHT: So, I kind of let my guard down. And then, they came back after a CAT scan and said, "You probably had an aneurysm because you have level three out of four bleeding on your brain."

And I will say unequivocally it's the most scared I've ever been. A complete loss of control, a complete loss of any sort of normalcy for the foreseeable future. And you now are wondering if you're going to get out of the hospital.

KURTZ: And Scarborough called Joe Biden?

LICHT: Scarborough told Mika, "Hey, you know what? Biden's been through this." And that's why they called him. "Who's someone that we know that's had one of these? Oh, Vice President Biden."

They immediately came to the emergency room and just took over. And it was an incredible relief, because my family was back in New York. So, they became my surrogate family.

KURTZ: You were where?

LICHT: GW, right here, down in Washington.

KURTZ: Right here in Washington, right.


KURTZ: And were you in a lot of pain at that time?

LICHT: Excruciating pain.

KURTZ: Excruciating pain. And the worst is the pain -- the emotional pain of not knowing what's going to happen next.

LICHT: Correct.

KURTZ: And that lasted for -- the not knowing part lasted for a while. LICHT: For a while, because this can -- a hemorrhage can kill you right away. It can incapacitate you. It can kill you in a couple days.

It can -- I mean, it's really the -- it was a while before I was officially out of the woods. So, it was a very tough time.

KURTZ: Your recovery was not easy, and you say that your wife Jenny bore the brunt of that.

LICHT: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Tell me about that.

LICHT: She's a CNN producer, by the way. So, she -- tough roles are nothing new. But she took over, was so strong, never showed the crying or "woe is me."

And she acted as a sort of traffic cop about who could come see me, and making sure that I was getting the right attention. And she just was amazingly strong. And you never get -- you hope that you never have to see your spouse in that situation, but it was just -- it was awe-inspiring.

KURTZ: And you're 38 years old and hardly expected to find yourself in this situation.

LICHT: Right.

KURTZ: It wasn't like you had been sick for a while or anything like that.

So, as you went through this harrowing experience, and as you started to recover, did you rethink your approach to life?

LICHT: Yes. I wouldn't say it was an overnight thing.

KURTZ: It wasn't like a thunderbolt?

LICHT: No, they let you go out of the hospital, and they give you all of these things that you can't do. You know, don't drive, you can't go back to work until you have this. But they don't teach you how to deal with almost dying.

And that was -- when you have nothing to do but sit around for weeks and think, it was very transformational, and it was a -- it was a slow process, which is what I go over in the book.

KURTZ: And what did you think about your -- the values in your life? And we all struggle with juggling work and family. But you suddenly had to decide what was important.

LICHT: Right. I think the -- what happens is, the bar becomes so much higher as to what matters, and what scares you, and what's going -- what gives you that knot in your stomach, because you almost died. KURTZ: Right.

LICHT: So, nothing is going to hit that bar.

KURTZ: So, if a guest is late, something goes wrong, you don't hit the brake on time, it can seem a lot more insignificant than what you went through.

LICHT: Absolutely. And it -- people make the mistake of, "Oh, you must have mellowed out and you're not as intense." And that's not it at all, you know? I still scream in the control room and am intense.

But you don't bring it home with you. And you don't let it consume you. And that de-clutters your brain.

And the next thing you know, you're spending time with your family and you're not on your BlackBerry. And you're not -- you're there, as opposed to there but not really there.

KURTZ: Better able to leave work behind.

LICHT: Absolutely.

KURTZ: So, difficult decision to leave "Morning Joe" for CBS. And how in the world do you fix "The Early Show" after so many years of third place finishing?

LICHT: Tough questions. The hardest decision I've ever made professionally.

KURTZ: Because you like --

LICHT: It is a --

KURTZ: -- Joe and Mika?

LICHT: Well, "Morning Joe" I helped create with Joe.

KURTZ: Right.

LICHT: I mean, I've been there since day one, when we used to drive through the tunnel to Secaucus and talk about what we were going to do on the show, and that was the rundown.

KURTZ: So why leave?

LICHT: It was an incredible opportunity and, I should add, a decision that Joe and Mika helped me make. We -- they were with me every step of the process and said this is just an incredible opportunity.

What David Rhodes and Jeff Fager are doing over there is a chance to really build something. And it was a chance that doesn't come along a lot in a career, so --

KURTZ: You ducked my original question. You have half a minute to answer it.

LICHT: I think the "Morning Show" is going to be the first place I focus on. It's a vice president job that's not just the mornings.

KURTZ: Right.

LICHT : But it's something that needs some help.

KURTZ: Does Meredith Vieira leaving "The Today Show" provide an opening for you?

LICHT: I'm sure everything provides an opening.

KURTZ: All right. Well, we're glad you're still around to worry about these things. Best of luck at CBS.

Chris Licht, thanks for joining us.

LICHT: Appreciate it.

KURTZ: Up next, CNN's Don Lemon on the challenges he faces in the news business being black and gay, and why he disclosed a dark secret from his childhood.



KURTZ: Don Lemon knew what would draw attention in his new book. And he was right.

The CNN anchor disclosed that he is gay, which he had never discussed before, and also wrote about problems in his childhood. Lemon says this was a difficult step for him, made all the more difficult because he is black.

I spoke earlier with the author of "Transparent," Don Lemon, from Los Angeles.


KURTZ: Don Lemon, welcome.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: There are gay members of Congress, there are gay business executives. Is it especially hard to come out in television news?

LEMON: Well, how many people are out? I'd have to ask you that question.

There's not even a handful of us, really, in the national media. And so, yes, I think it's really hard to come out, especially since, you know, you don't know what's going to happen.

You don't know if you're going to turn some viewers off, or if you're going to get people to watch you more. I don't know. But, yes, it's really hard to come out. I think otherwise, we'd have more members of the media who are out.

KURTZ: Do executives fear that part of the audience would be turned off? And is that a reasonable fear in 2011, when recent polls show more than half of Americans support gay marriage? In other words, is this an old stereotype, or is there actually reason for concern?

LEMON: Well, I think there's always a reason for concern when you reveal something about yourself that is personal and that people have been ostracized for in the past and even now. So I think there is a concern.

And the first part of your question, you said, are executives worried? I don't know. You'd have to ask one of those executives. But I do have to say at CNN, the executives here, have been very supportive to me. I don't know what happens and what's said in the offices and the boardrooms, but outwardly, everyone's been extremely supportive.

KURTZ: You say in your book that it's doubly hard to be public as an African-American and gay. Explain why that is.

LEMON: Well, because of the church. The backbone of the black community for such a long time has been the church, and the church teaches against homosexuality.

Not all black Americans, not all black people have those beliefs about gay people, but it is a big part of black culture. And I felt that that was a conversation that needed to be had. So I talk about it in the book and I talk about it in all these interviews that I'm doing.

KURTZ: I know that your friends and family and maybe some of your co-workers knew that you were gay, but obviously the wider world didn't, the people who watch you on the tube did not know this.

Was it uncomfortable for you maybe in the last couple years to hide that part of yourself from the audience?

LEMON: It is uncomfortable. And sometimes you get used to it and you don't realize the discomfort because you're used to it.

It's one of those things that you don't talk about. But I have to tell you, from experience, just having done this a couple of days, it does feel like the cliche, like the world is lifted from your shoulder. And you can be completely transparent, and I can be myself, and I don't have to dance around things, and I don't have to figure out, oh, my gosh, how am I going to talk about this issue, or does this person know I'm gay, do I have to disclose this to this person?

Everyone knows now, so it's not a big deal. Let's move on.

KURTZ: Do you think this might have an impact on others who might be considering, particularly in journalism, whether to go public about their sexuality?

LEMON: Well, if there are any gay people in journalism who are watching, and if they have seen the reaction just over the last week about me coming out, then if anyone who is of sound mind would certainly think about it -- and I think it would cross their minds -- whether or not it's going to cause anybody or push anybody to come out of the closet, I don't know. But I think every little bit helps, and I think the more people who come out and who are gay and proud, and who own it, I think it will be better for everyone.

KURTZ: You also reveal in your book that you were sexually abused as a child by somebody close to you. You've mentioned this on the air once during a story. Was that an even more difficult thing to divulge about your past?

LEMON: No. You know, it's something -- I was having a conversation as I'm having with you with members of a church, and they were describing what they thought an abuser should look like. And I just wanted them not to be naive, because people don't walk around with an "A" on their forehead for "abuser" or "M" for "molester."

And so it just sort of came out. I didn't realize it would have the impact that it did have, but I'm certainly glad I said it.

And after that, Howie, I got phone books, you know, size from people who said, "Thank you so much. You're telling my story." And we need to be aware of that. So -- but it was more difficult actually to come out as gay than it was to talk about molestation.

KURTZ: One other thing that struck me in your book, you used the phrase "black box thinking," and you tell the story about the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated, Wolf Blitzer was interviewing you. And you said, "As an African-American male, I am absolutely overcome to see the first black president."

And some people might react to that as, well, maybe you're not completely objective person on this question because of race.

LEMON: Yes. Well, I think that's absurd.

I think that if we -- when we finally have a woman president, I would expect all women to celebrate that, and all men and all people. And so if we have anyone who is doing anything that's a first, whether it's a Jewish American, whether it's an Hispanic American, or a black American, as someone who is a black person, I can identify with what President Obama had to overcome to get where he is.

But that doesn't take my brain away. It doesn't make me -- it doesn't, you know, take my objectivity away, because I do have a brain, I'm smart enough, I've been doing this for a long time, I realize the country is progressing. So I think that's an absurd statement.

KURTZ: Don Lemon, thanks very much for talking to us about these very personal matters.

LEMON: Thank you, Howie.


KURTZ: Still to come, MSNBC's Ed Schultz gets himself in hot water with a stunningly sexist slur.


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

Ed Schultz has a way of talking himself into trouble. The MSNBC host used to brand his conservative targets as "psycho talkers" until management asked him to tone things down.

Schultz went too far again this week on his radio show with this rant against Fox News commentator and radio host Laura Ingraham --


ED SCHULTZ, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: But you know what they're talking about? Like this right-wing slut, what's her name, Laura Ingraham? Yes, she's a talk-slut.


KURTZ: That's right. He got down in the gutter and used a sexist slur. MSNBC president Phil Griffin, to his credit, responded by suspending Schultz for one week. And Schultz, to his credit, offered a full and rather emotional apology.


SCHULTZ: On my radio show yesterday I used vile and inappropriate language when talking about talk show host Laura Ingraham. I am deeply sorry, and I apologize. It was wrong, uncalled for, and I recognize the severity of what I said.

I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness.


KURTZ: Ingraham has accepted the apology, but clearly wasn't happy about the episode.


LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I wasn't all that surprised. This is what I think conservative women and, to some extent, African-American men who happen to be conservative, and even Latinos who are conservative, routinely deal with.


KURTZ: You know, Griffin told me last fall that he's warned Schultz before about crossing the line. Ed Schultz is a fiery liberal who sometimes gets burned by his own incendiary words. I hope he'll live up to his own promise to stop the nasty language.

It was a sleazy story to begin with. Did "Good Morning America" really have to work Kerry Campbell, the woman who claimed to have injected her young beauty pageant daughter with Botox? Even worse, the ABC program agreed to pay her 10,000 bucks -- excuse me, a $10,000 photo licensing fee to get the scoop.

Here's what it looked like.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": -- the San Francisco mom who is injecting her 8-year-old daughter with Botox to get rid of wrinkles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. You're shaking your head. It does sound unreal.


KURTZ: You know, you're right about that. It does sound unreal. But that didn't stop ABC.


SHEENA UPTON, CLAIMED TO GIVE DAUGHTER BOTOX INJECTIONS: And they were just telling me about the lines on her face and how, you know, a lot of the moms are giving their kids Botox, and it's pretty much like the thing.


KURTZ: Well, as you've probably heard, the woman, who's real name is Sheena Upton, admits it was a hoax. She was paid $200 by the London tabloid "The Sun" to perpetrate the scam. And ABC now says it won't pay her the $10,000.

Well, 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 for another critical look at the media.

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