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Reliable Sources

Debt Ceiling Debate

Aired July 31, 2011 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Most reporters are working overtime on this steamy Washington weekend covering the scramble to avoid a government default just two days from now. But with reports of a possible deal this morning, after so much partisan sniping yesterday, how do the media keep up with all the backroom maneuvering? How badly is the press being spun by the White House and the Republicans? And are journalists so immersed in the short-term politics, that they're losing the sight of the impact of trillions in budget cuts?

Blogger Jeff Jarvis stirs up a Twitter storm by hurling an obscenity at Washington. Did he tap into the anger that most journalists missed?

Plus, the reporter whose story prompted Oregon Congressman David Wu to resign over a sex scandal. Should he have relied on unnamed sources?

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

It would be comical if it weren't so serious, Washington at its worst, as all of us in the news business try to keep up with a story that changes by the hour. The Senate, now scheduled to vote today, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, on a Democratic bill to end the budget gridlock and avoid a crippling default. But a look at the rolling news coverage in recent days suggests one inescapable conclusion: we often aren't sure what's going on either.


DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: The countdown continues. American anger and anxiety keep building as the politicians let another day go by without a deal on the national debt.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Well, it is one week and counting to August 2nd, the day the president says the government will run out of money and, among other things, will have to stop sending out Social Security checks.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: We are not yet in the end game. We are still in the bluff stage of the negotiations.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: Tonight, do you know who said this: "Get your ass in line"?

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: There may be a vote in the House of Representatives tonight as part of the effort to fix the debt ceiling, but it probably won't fix anything.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Can President Obama find a way to bypass Congress if America starts running out of money on Tuesday?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": House Speaker John Boehner planned to pass his solution last night, but all his tough talk and back-office bullying couldn't get the vote.

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS: The House just approved John Boehner's bill to raise the debt ceiling. It was a narrow party line vote.

O'DONNELL: The Boehner bill has just gone down. It's just been defeated in the Senate.


KURTZ: And yesterday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican Leader, said he was optimistic about a deal. Harry Reid, the Democratic Leader, said McConnell wasn't negotiating in good faith. Now McConnell is sounding more optimistic this morning. An administration telling me there could be a tentative deal today.

Joining us now to examine the round-the-clock coverage here in Washington, Jonathan Martin, senior political reporter for Politico; Michael Shear, who covers the White House for "The New York Times"; and Nancy Cordes, congressional correspondent for CBS News.

And Nancy Cordes, can you do any more than play catch-up in a story that is just so dizzying, that it seems like every 15 minutes, if you're away from your computer, you miss something?

NANCY CORDES, CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CBS NEWS: It's very challenging, because often even the leaders don't really know what's going on. They think that there have been no discussions, only to find out that discussions had been going on, but just without them. And as the days have gone on, and the stakes have gotten higher and higher, not only have aides tried to spin us, they have really out and out lied to us from time to time because they're so desperate to get the upper hand in these negotiations.

KURTZ: What's an example of that?

CORDES: Well, you know, a couple of days ago, when the Boehner bill was on the floor in the House, and they were really working hard to wrangle these conservative House members who didn't think that the bill went far enough, I can't tell you how many aides I had saying to me right up until the minute that vote was supposed to take place, we've got the votes, don't worry, this bill is going to pass. And they kept saying that until, guess what? They had to pull the bill from the floor because they didn't have anywhere near the votes they needed.

KURTZ: "We've got the votes" is like "The check is in the mail."

Jonathan Martin, whether it's spinning or lying or something in between, how intensively are you being lobbied and cajoled by both sides about -- well, part of this, of course, is the blame game -- well, it's the other guys who won't negotiate in good faith.

JONATHAN MARTIN, SR. POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: I think that's what frustrates the American people so much, is that up until now, it seems like, so much of it has been posturing, actually trying to get a deal, framing the issue as to who can get a deal and who can't.

KURTZ: How do you as a reporter cut through the posturing?

MARTIN: I think you have to look at what is actually happening behind the scenes, not what they're saying at the press conferences. It takes reporting. I think that's the challenge here.

The press conferences also oftentimes are a bit of theater more they are anything that's actually indicative of what's happening. What's really going on in the ultimate deals being cut behind the scenes, as we found out last night when, lo and behold, we hear that McConnell is talking about Obama and Biden, that's where the actual deal is being cut.

KURTZ: Before I get to my question for you, Michael Shear, how late have you been staying up? What kind of hours have you been working?

MICHAEL SHEAR, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think it's been crazy for all of us. I mentioned to you before the show, I had my overnight bag packed when I walked into the Capitol last night because we thought that there was going to be a 1:00 a.m. vote. And of course that turned out not to be the case.

KURTZ: So you went to bed early instead?

SHEAR: Well, not exactly.

CORDES: Michael and I saw each other as we were leaving the Capitol last night at midnight, and we both said to each other, "Should we leave or could something else happen?"

SHEAR: Right, exactly.

KURTZ: Or could something else happen. Exactly.

But as we all try to piece together what is happening behind closed doors, aren't we having to rely -- and this maybe is true in covering the White House as well -- on sources who don't want their names attached and, therefore, maybe have a little more leeway to spin?

SHEAR: Absolutely. And there's a fine line between when we all use these anonymous sources, we don't want to use them, we want everybody to be as transparent as possible. But as Jonathan says, the real news isn't what's happening out front.

And there was a moment last night where a leadership aide, a Republican leadership aide, had come out. We were all trying to figure out, was there going to be a vote at 1:00 a.m.? Was there not? The leadership aide said, "Look, you know, in these kind of things I like to add 12 hours to kind of buffer things." And couldn't say who that was, but it gives everybody a sense of what's really happening instead of just this --

MARTIN: And it's so sensitive, that a lot of the conversations that I have, at least, are assumed to be on background. Because we're at a point now where they don't want their names or even their bosses attached to the information.

The bargain is, I will tell you what's happening here behind the scenes, how it looks. But you can't give me up.

KURTZ: Is that a good bargain? Because you're not able to tell readers -- give readers a good idea of where this information or sometimes spin is coming from.

MARTIN: It's the only bargain we have right now.

KURTZ: You have no option.

Let me come to something that I raised at the top of the program, and that is, we toss these numbers around. Well, it's going to be $2.4 trillion. No, it's up to $2.8 trillion. Well, those are real cutbacks in real programs that affect real Americans. And I wonder whether you think the details are being lost both because we don't have time to go into it and because we don't know often what is in the bills.

CORDES: That h as been a very frustrating feature of the whole debate, is that we're told, well, the Biden group worked out a trillion in cuts. OK. Well, what are those cuts? Well, we can't tell you.

Well, that really matters to Americans. Are these $1 trillion on things that we weren't really interested in purchasing anywhere, or is this $1 trillion from Medicare? Where is this money coming from.

SHEAR: And part of the frustration for reporters is that the normal people that we go to, other members, they don't necessarily know either, because it's really just these handful of people who are negotiating.

CORDES: And one person's $1 trillion is another person's $2.4 trillion. You know, it all depends on, are you including interest revenue in that equation, all kinds of --

KURTZ: What's the baseline savings?


MARTIN: It's not paper, either. It's all verbal, too, at this point.

KURTZ: It's all verbal, which makes it -- it is like trying to nail some kind of fog to the wall. Does this remind you of a campaign where the clock is ticking toward the ultimate day and policy seems to take a back seat to politics?

MARTIN: Yes, it does. I think it's more similar to what happened with TARP in the fall of 2008. I mean, I think especially in the last few days, it's become so similar to that. And a lot of folks whispering, we're not sure we can get the votes until we have a market reaction, which is a euphemism for a severe plummet in the Dow. And that's pretty scary stuff.

KURTZ: Front page story in your newspaper today, Michael Shear, "Rightward Tilt Leaves Obama with Party Rift." If anything resembling the deal, the outlines of the deal we're hearing about right now, takes place, $2.8 trillion, $3 trillion in cuts, and no tax increases -- the Democrats have been insisting on that -- is the next story that you and everyone else can write going to be essentially that President Obama capitulated and the Republicans got 98 percent of what they wanted?

SHEAR: Let's wait and see exactly what the details are.


SHEAR: But I think that that's the next story that will be everywhere, is how much the Democrats have given up. I mean, already know that they've given up a lot.

The White House is going to I think rely on this idea that this committee, despite the fact that the triggers may not be what they want, but the committee, they're going to argue for the next several months that the committee is what should be balanced. And that's where they're going to try to --


KURTZ: When you say the committee, just to clarify this, is part of this understanding that there will be a special congressional committee appointed to come up with a second round of budget cuts, which would be painful, but perhaps less painful than the automatic cuts that could take place. Of course, all this has yet to be hammered out.

"New York Times" columnist Paul Krugman the other day pointed a finger at those of us in this business, and this is what he said, if we could put it up on the screen: "Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, yet many people in the news media apparently can't bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality: news reports portray the parties as equally intransigent, pundits fantasize about some kind of centrist uprising."

Now, Krugman, of course, is a liberal writing from the left perspective. But is there a sense that there's a false balance in these reports because we're kind of allergic to saying one side is to blame, one side is largely now to blame? CORDES: Well, I can't speak for all reporters, but I know that in my own reporting, I've tried to avoid this whole "both sides are dug in" type of reporting because, A, I don't think it helps viewers very much understand what's really going on. It's just kind of lazy. I'd rather say, you know, Republicans have just walked away from the negotiations, or the president is now asking for $4 billion more in cuts, and Republicans say he's moving the goal post. I think that that helps people a lot more than just this sort of generic, nobody is willing to move.

MARTIN: Howie, I think in the last few days that rap has become especially unfair given what's happened in the House. Reporting has reflected the reality there that Boehner was having a hard time getting these House conservatives to agree to any deal at all whatsoever. And I think it's been clear that that was, at least in the last 72 hours, the sticking point.

KURTZ: But I think that we sometimes are guilty of kind of a short-term lens, which is understandable, because, I mean, here the country is on the bring of default. The only question that everybody in the world wants to know is, are we going to avert this? So, the question of whether Boehner can bring his Tea Party conservatives on becomes important.

But if you look at the lens of the last six months, let's say, there is no question that President Obama has moved much further toward the GOP position. He's given up the tax increases. Remember the corporate jet owners and the loopholes? And the Republicans have held.

But I wonder whether journalists are afraid of being branded as excessively partisan if they don't kind of spread the blame around.

MARTIN: I think that's a fair question. But again, I do think in the past few days, the coverage has reflected the reality on the ground that it was the House GOP that was sort of the last thing standing between a deal.

SHEAR: And let's remember, the assessment stories, the stories once a deal is finalize, I think there will be a series of stories that will look back and try to figure out that question. And I think it's fair to judge the press once some of those are done.

KURTZ: Right. But, of course, this is when the journalism really counts, because it's when the deal is getting done.

Briefly, have reporters given Obama and the White House a pass on not writing down whatever they say their proposal is? This has been a big Republican complaint.

SHEAR: I don't think -- I mean, look, I think that that criticism from the Republicans about the White House has been amply, duly reported in all of our organizations, although I think that the reporters have been smart and good in pushing back a little bit on that in saying that some of the Republican criticism has been sort of hyperbolic in that regard and that there actually are plans that have been written down.

KURTZ: Let me get a break.

When we come back, the Tea Party members who keep saying no. Are journalists giving them a fair shake?


KURTZ: It's the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party that really is at the heart of this impasse. That's why John Boehner had such difficulty getting anything through the House.

And Jonathan Martin, in all candor, how well do journalists understand these Tea Party members who just keep saying no to everything?

MARTIN: I think they're getting to know them better, especially during the course of the last six months. But there's no question that you have a lot of these freshmen who were political outsiders, who were not known at all by the Washington press corps. And I think it has taken a period of time.

But I think you've seen some great reporting though in recent days, thinking about the South Carolina delegation, for example, that all voted against the bill. But it has taken some time. There's no question about it.

But I think it's similar to the '94 class, Howie, the same thing. At first, there was sort of this uncertainty about who exactly these folks are, what are they after. I think after a while, there's some good journalism.

KURTZ: I think it's more than unfamiliarity.

Nancy Cordes, they're often portrayed as being blinded by ideology. But they don't see it that way. They see it as they were elected to rein in out-of-control spending, crazy government.

CORDES: Right. And they see that Congress is never going to do anything unless they really hold both Democrats and Republicans' feet to the fire.

So they say, call me whatever you want. Call me a radical, call me an extremist, but I came here to do one thing and one thing only. And so there are no -- there's nothing you can offer me that's going to change my vote. You know, you can't offer me a committee position or help with my campaign because I don't care about any of that stuff.


KURTZ: I think we're also steeped in the Capitol tradition of horse trading. We don't fully understand people who want to do horse trading.

But, on the other hand, when some of these Tea Party members belittle the consequences of a default, when even when conservative economists say it would wreck if economy, how do you portray that as being connected to reality?

SHEAR: Well, look, I think, you know, part of what has happened, as Jonathan said, in the last 72 hours, maybe the last week, is this incredible split between this faction of the Republican Party and the mainstream Republican Party. I mean, you've had -- you know, whether it's other mainstream members, or commentators or the like, and that's the thing we've all been writing about, and I think that's a totally legitimate thing. If you're part of a faction of a party, I think it's legitimate to write about that effort.

KURTZ: But go one level deeper. Without wanting to insult these people -- they were elected by their districts and they're entitled to do anything they want, and they have moved the debate. The question is, when do they declare victory?

If they take the position that a default is no big deal, not that the government couldn't get by for a week, but for months, that's a crazy position.

SHEAR: Well, but it's not for us to declare something crazy, right? I mean, it's for us to --

KURTZ: All right. I shouldn't have said crazy. But is it not out of line with what most responsible experts believe?

MARTIN: I mean, our journalism is based on the presumption that there are a shared set of facts that we agree upon. When you've got some members of Congress who don't buy into that notion, who don't believe in those same set of facts, and the Charles Krauthammers and Bill Kristols of the world are the squishy guys, it's a serious challenge for us to cover.

CORDES: Well, and the interesting thing is that it does hurt their credibility when, actually, they have a very credible case to make that we do need to cut spending or we will get downgraded. So that is a very responsible position. But then when you add it to some of these other claims, it kind of dilutes some of their --

KURTZ: When "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page is criticizing some of --


KURTZ: -- that tells you how much the debate has moved.

We are out of time.

Michael Shear, Jonathan Martin, Nancy Cordes, thanks very much for stopping by.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, Chrystia Freeland of Thomson Reuters, on whether the flood of political coverage in this debt crisis has obscured the threat, the very real threat, to the economy.

Blogger Jeff Jarvis, who ignited a Twitter storm against Washington with the use of one dirty word.

And later, "The Oregonian" reporter whose story forced Congressman David Wu to resign over a sex scandal. Should the paper have relied on anonymous sources?


KURTZ: If you like politics, the debt crisis has been one heck of a story: Obama versus the GOP, Boehner versus Reid, Boehner versus his own Tea Party faction, dueling news conferences, constant spinning, and, instead of Election Day, "Default Day," which is this Tuesday. But what about the real world economic impact of this beltway gridlock on business, on Wall Street, on ordinary Americans? Has that gotten lost or obscured in the cacophony of media coverage?

Joining us now from New York, Chrystia Freeland, the digital editor for Thomson Reuters.



KURTZ: As you observe this from the safe distance of New York, have Washington reporters gotten so caught up in the day-to-day craziness, the hour-by-hour effort to gain the politics here, that the economic impact, even if there's no default, has been kind of lost?

FREELAND: The short answer is yes. And I say that with deep respect for Washington reporting.

I think the actual ins and outs of these negotiations have been covered extremely well by very, very hard-working journalists. But I think if you pull back a little bit -- and maybe the onus here is less on the Washington press corps and more on the editors -- the underlying economic reality, and not just the impact of these debt ceiling debates on the economy, but more broadly, what's happening the U.S. economy, the fact that unemployment is still above 9 percent, I don't think we look at that enough.

And I think that's mostly because the horse race of politics, that's easy journalism. As we were hearing from your panel before, the aides, they can't wait to talk to you. It's a lot harder to understand what's happening in the economy and make it come alive.

KURTZ: Well, since you mentioned the jobs question -- I was going to come to that in a couple moments -- I watched this incredible obsessive focus of all this news, because, understandably, we want to know, is there going to be a deal or is the United States government going to default on its debt? And at the same time, 14 million Americans are out of work. People care, I think, far more about jobs than they do about the beltway machinations.

Why has that problem largely -- I say largely -- slipped off the media radar screen? FREELAND: I think mostly because we cover what is right before our eyes. We cover -- a deadline for a journalist, as you know, it's something that we love, we're built for.

KURTZ: Adrenaline.

FREELAND: And so there's this --

KURTZ: It gets the adrenaline pumping.

FREELAND: -- clear August 2 deadline. And also, I think that part of it is the debt ceiling debate is something that's being fought by people who journalists talk to all the time.

Joblessness is happening in this country outside the coasts, outside the places where journalists gather. You know, part of what's happening is there is two Americas, and journalists belong to elite America, which is fighting about the debt ceiling. They tend not to belong to Main Street America, where I agree with you, joblessness is the number one issue.

KURTZ: It's also a slow motion crisis, I guess you would say, and that has been with us now for well over a couple of years. A lot of people out of work in the long term. And I just wish we invested more of our energy in telling that story, people who have worked their whole lives, who want to work, and now who are unable to find work.

But, also, it seems to me there's a kind of -- because we're driven by deadlines, as you say, there's kind of a, well, will they make it, will they don't make it? And the idea that if they do this before midnight Tuesday, somehow it's a victory. Yet, the credit rating agencies could still downgrade the U.S. debt and there still could be an impact on the economy of all this churning uncertainty.

Would you agree with that?

FREELAND: Yes, absolutely. I mean, and there could be a deal which still leaves the underlying economic problems unresolved. Actually, there could be a deal which makes those underlying economic problems worse by cutting government spending and further slowing economic growth.

So I think you're absolutely right there. And I do think, you know, our choices about what to cover, they have consequences, too.

And one of the consequences of the debt ceiling debate has been really to shift the political focus, not just of Washington, but of America as a whole to cutting spending, to the deficit as being the number one problem. I think there's an argument to make that America's number one economic problem is unemployment. But reading the newspapers, watching TV, you wouldn't draw that conclusion.

KURTZ: You would have no idea if you just landed here from another planet that this -- I mean, obviously they're related in the sense that out-of-control spending and no debt deal hurts the economy, but it just seems like the media focus is completely off the question of unemployment.

I touched on this earlier, but when we see these, the Boehner plan, the Reid plan, $2 trillion, $2.8 trillion, maybe $3 trillion in spending cutbacks -- and now, according to the latest iterations, there's no increase in revenue, no closing of the corporate loopholes that Barack Obama has rallied against -- it seems like we don't really have the details and we are shying away from talking about the impact of what that kind of spending contraction would be on the economy and ordinary Americans.

FREELAND: Yes, I think that's absolutely right. And I think one of the points you made in your earlier panel was quoting Paul Krugman's sort of scathing indictment of journalism, saying journalists rely on a he said/she said paradigm and are reluctant to actually try to establish some facts. I think, overall, that was a fair criticism, and I think in covering this debate, we have to be a lot clearer on, when it comes to spending, what the short-term consequences of austerity would be.

One way to do that which is fact-based, nonpartisan, would be to look at countries that have been doing that already. Britain is a terrific example. The government there has been cutting spending very, very sharply, and the result in the short term has been extreme contraction of the economy.

KURTZ: But if you buy the Paul Krugman analysis, do you also agree with his point that this whole mess -- and I can't think of a better word -- this whole mess has been portrayed as a bunch of immature, squabbling narrow-minded politicians who just can't get in a room and agree, when the alternative analysis, and certainly one that Krugman embraces, is that it's the Republicans and particularly the Tea Party faction that has been intransigent, that has said no to trillions in spending cuts, and that the Democrats and Obama have actually moved quite a ways toward the GOP position?

FREELAND: I think that that conclusion, that actually the terms of the debate have shifted far to the right, is objectively the case. And what's interesting to me is -- and you referred to this earlier -- we already saw that on the front page of "The New York Times" today, and this was alluded to in your panel -- people are now saying, OK, well, in the postmortem phase, we're going to talk about how Obama shifted pretty far to the right.

KURTZ: Right.

FREELAND: That's a little bit too late.

KURTZ: A little bit too late.

FREELAND: You know, the decisions will already have been taken.

KURTZ: But just briefly, why has mainstream journalism not portrayed this as a crisis largely created by one party, and instead has developed the narrative that two sides are just a bunch of clowns?

FREELAND: Because I think mainstream journalism is averse to making judgments. And I also think that mainstream journalists are particularly scared of being labeled as liberal. We all want to be sort of seen as objective, and I think sometimes there's a little of bending over backwards to be seen as objective by the right, because that's where a lot of the criticism comes form.

KURTZ: I think you've hit on an excellent point, which is why we have you on.

Chrystia Freeland, thanks so much for joining us from New York.

FREELAND: A pleasure.

KURTZ: Up next, a Twitter uproar over Washington's gridlock. Jeff Jarvis on the f-bomb that lit the fuse.


KURTZ: It began on Twitter with what's called a hashtag, a topic word that makes it easier for other people to follow messages on the same subject. Blogger Jeff Jarvis came up with one that seemed to channel the anger at the nation's capital over this debt mess and carried echoes of an earlier outburst by a media personality.


PETER FINCH, ACTOR: So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs, and I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"


KURTZ: We can't repeat Jarvis's term on the air, but it starts with an "f" and ends with "Washington." He kicked up enough of a fuss online that the networks took notice.


JIM AXELROD, CBS NEWS: This past Saturday night, Jeff Jarvis had just about enough.

WILLIAMS: We want to show you just one destination on Twitter which has a common theme that we can't say or show you on TV because of the language, and which has become a place where people are venting their anger at Washington. And there's a lot of it.


KURTZ: So, is Twitter becoming a social force, perhaps the new Howard Beale?

Joining us now is Jeff Jarvis, who writes "The Buzz Machine" blog and directs the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York.

And Jeff Jarvis, why did you come up with this middle finger salute to Washington?


I watched the TV news, I got mad. I went to Twitter, and Twitter was invented for offloading your chest. And just said, "It's our money, it's our economy. F you, Washington." And people starting responding.

And so then I joked we should start a chant rather Howard Beale- like. And someone came in and said, "Well, no, you should make that a hashtag." And I did. And as of now, a week later, there are 99,000 tweets with that moniker on them.

KURTZ: And that is remarkable. So why do you think this took off on Twitter to the point that it was getting network news coverage?

JARVIS: I think there is a lot of anger and disappointment in the government and what's going on right now. Some people got mad at me and said, "You should have been specific and said, 'F you, GOP, or Congress, or whoever." But the fact that it was a blank slate allowed people to come in and say why they were upset.

"F you Washington" for this or for that, for not letting me marry who I want, for making my parents nervous about whether they can pay their bills next month, and so on and so on. It brought out that anger, that disappointment, which also means it brought out, I think, the hope of the people, the expectations of the people for a better government.

KURTZ: So you think that the reason for the resonance is that it didn't get into the weeds, so to speak, of this faction or this politician is to blame on the debt mess, and, in fact, tapped into broader emotions about all the things that people don't like about a dysfunctional government or a government that doesn't do what they want here in D.C.?

JARVIS: Yes. It wasn't about what I had to say or my opinion. It was, again, a blank slate for people to express their opinions. And boy, there were a lot of emotions to come out.

KURTZ: This question -- go ahead.

JARVIS: Well, what's interesting here, too, is that media followed. James Carrie (ph), the media professor from Columbia, has said that the proper role for journalism is not to inform the conversation, but to be informed by it. And that's what's happening here, is that the people have a voice now. We all have our Guttenberg press in our pocket, and we can all speak.

KURTZ: A real two-way conversation, which is the way it should be.

Now, this whole question of people being ticked off at what's going on here in the nation's capital, this is the craziest thing I've ever seen, a self-inflicted crisis that brings us to the brink of default. I pick up the papers this morning, here's "The New York Times" headline: "U.S. Sees Washington as Mad and the Capitol Doesn't Argue." "Washington Post," "Anger at the Government Tinged With Angst about the Government's Future."

I kind of feel like the mainstream press is a little bit slow on this and that you, among others, got out there early at the fact that people really are mad.

JARVIS: I think you're absolutely right. They're very slow about it. And I take no credit for this.

I just threw this out after two glasses of wine. And it's the response that surprised me. And it really took off. And I think that that's something to listen to there.

Twitter is an incredible tool to hear what the people are saying. It is the voice of the people, and unmediated by us in media or by government or by flacks. And I think that's an incredibly important thing.

Howie, I want to make very clear here, I hardly think that this is anything approaching a revolution. It was a little weekend lark. It's not Tahrir Square.

But every government on earth should be aware now that their people now have a voice. The train crash in China last week and the people on Twitter went around the sensors. What's happening in the Arab Spring. It is all of a piece that the people now have the opportunity to speak to the world.

KURTZ: What would you have written after three glasses of wine?


JARVIS: You don't want to know.

KURTZ: Not on the air, probably.

Well, look, it was President Obama when he asked people to communicate with folks on Capitol Hill who said, send e-mails, tweet. So, even the White House recognizing the importance of Twitter.

But some people say by using the f-word repeatedly and making it the hashtag, that you're being kind of juvenile, that you've taken it a really serious subject and kind of just reducing it to a dirty word game.

JARVIS: I think it's appropriate. I think that the reason I've fought the FCC on their censorship of the broadcast airwaves is that BS is political speech. There is no better word to describe what goes on in politics than that.

But it's chilled speech. I think it's very appropriate.

The phrase itself, of course, it's silly. Is it juvenile? Sure. Guilty. But it brings out opinions and anger of the people that obviously are not getting vented and are not getting answered otherwise.

You know, I can't believe that you can be a member of Congress right now and not be absolutely humiliated and want to hang under a rock somewhere, but they don't. And that's what's most amazing to me.

KURTZ: Well, what's interesting to me, as you noted a moment earlier, the way in which Twitter has become a sort of alternative message delivery system not just for journalists -- and celebrities are on it -- but for people like you and ordinary folks who can vent and who can say what they think, and everybody can agree or disagree in debate.

So, appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about it this morning.

Jeff Jarvis, thanks for joining us.

JARVIS: Thank you, @HowardKurtz.

KURTZ: And after the break, Congressman David Wu resigns after his hometown paper investigates his relationship with an 18-year-old woman. The reporter who broke the story, next.


KURTZ: The story about Congressman David Wu appeared in "The Oregonian" a week ago Friday, and four days later he announced he was resigning. The paper reporting that a young woman -- she turned out to be 18 -- had left a message at his Portland office accusing the 56- year-old Democrat of an aggressive, unwanted sexual encounter. The paper quoting sources as saying that Wu's staff had confronted him and he acknowledged the encounter, but said it was consensual.

With Wu refusing to comment, how did the Portland paper get the story and decide to publish it?

Joining us now here in Washington, Charles Pope, the reporter who broke the story for "The Oregonian," and in New York, Stephen Engelberg, former managing editor of "The Oregonian" and currently the managing editor of "ProPublica."

Charles Pope, you and your colleagues Janie Har and Beth Slovic broke this story. You base this pretty explosive report on unnamed sources. The family wouldn't talk.

Did that give you any hesitation?

CHARLES POPE, "THE OREGONIAN": Well, we had a history -- or a base of knowledge, both publish and unpublished -- and we were very careful because of the explosive nature of the charge and the people involved, especially a young woman, that we did not move to publish until we were certain of the facts of the case.

KURTZ: Were you frustrated by the fact that nobody would go on the record?

POPE: That's always -- yes, sure. I mean, that's not the first choice, always. But in a story of this type it's understandable.

And then you throw in the odd culture of Congress, where background and off the record is a daily existence. You understand how to maneuver around that and still get certainty that you need to publish.

KURTZ: You not only have the odd culture of Congress, but you had this sort of unusual, shall I say, history of David Wu. We can put up a picture of him in the famous tiger suit. I guess this was a Halloween costume that he wore and that he tweeted out -- or e-mailed out to colleagues.

You gave the congressman four days to comment while you were in the final stages of the story. He declined.

POPE: Yes.

KURTZ: What was the trigger? Why did you decide to go ahead?

POPE: Because while we were approaching him and trying to get some reaction from either him or his staff, at the same time we were developing other information and sources. And at each step getting closer to the certainty we needed.

And at that point, I sent a note saying "Yes or no? We're publishing." Because I play straight, and they knew that we were close, and they still declined to comment.

KURTZ: Still declined to comment.

Steve Engelberg, in the past you have refused actually to investigate sexual allegations involving politicians. At "The Oregonian" you write yourself that you kind of botched the story of Bob Packwood's sexual advances, even though the former senator -- one of his victims was a reporter for "The Oregonian."

But now you say you're a reluctant convert to these kind of stories. Explain why.

STEPHEN ENGELBERG, MANAGING EDITOR, "PROPUBLICA": Well, I mean, I think at some point you have to acknowledge what history is showing us, which is that politicians will behave badly, they will lie about it, perhaps under oath. And that as much as myself, as a member of the Watergate generation of reporters, wants to be investigating sort of grand constitutional threats, we have to acknowledge that this, too, is a story. And it's relevant to voters and it goes to the characters of the people who are doing the public's business.

KURTZ: So did you conclude that you had been wrong earlier to either minimize or, in some cases, just turn away from allegations involving the sex or sexual hidings (ph) and some public figures or members of Congress?

ENGELBERG: Well, I should point out, I was not at "The Oregonian" during the Packwood thing. And yes, I think as time has gone forward, it's become clear to me that you have to at least listen and investigate these things. Whether or not you ultimately publish them, as Charlie points out, is a very difficult decision. But I don't think that you can take the position, as I took with my colleagues in the early '90s on Bill Clinton, look, we're "The New York Times," we do financial investigations, we don't do sex.

KURTZ: I should have made clear that it was "The Oregonian," not you personally that botched the Packwood story in '92 and ended up being beaten by "The Washington Post" after the senator had been reelected.

Charles Pope, you say that the young woman in question here is the daughter of Wu's long-time friend and campaign donor. The paper is declining to identify her. She has not filed any kind of complaint, she hasn't gone to the police.

Why then the decision not to name her?

POPE: Well, that was another question that we faced and moved. And the decision was that this was a sexual encounter. Whether you can define it as a sexual assault or not, the same general policy applied that we don't identify them.

We did talk to the parents, and we had some -- developed some knowledge in that way. And we just thought that the early stories, that it was the safest and most fair way to approach the story. If later she decides to take another step, at that point it's her choice to become public.

KURTZ: But you did talk to the young woman's parents even though they chose not to be quoted on this story?

POPE: Yes. I did not. Janie Har, my colleague, got to the family early on.

KURTZ: Can you say whether the parents were opposed to the story being published?

POPE: We did not hear that. They did not tell us that. Janie had a conversation with the father, and there was no direct opposition to the story. And we also tried to talk later to them, so there were plenty of opportunities if they wanted to.

KURTZ: Right. It reminds me a little bit of the situation with the maid in the DSK case, who now belatedly has come forward, talking to "Newsweek" and to ABC, and letting her name and picture be used.

Steve Engelberg, you did have something -- when you were at "The Oregonian," you did have some involvement with David Wu. You were having your reporters check an allegation that dates back to 1976 about whether he accosted an ex-girlfriend at Stanford. He threatened to sue and you decided to publish that story.

Tell me about that decision.

ENGELBERG: It's interesting. It's very sort of similar to the story that Charlie pursued. First of all, of course, we had a victim who did not want to cooperate, did not want her name or story out there. The reporters had to go track this down in a very difficult way.

It was really a virtually ungettable story when we started it. But a therapist at Stanford University who had counseled the woman in this incident felt that David Wu had gotten away with something that he shouldn't get away with.

The campus had refused to go into this, refused to discipline him. He ended up going to medical school and then law school as a result of this with a clean record. And this woman, who was dying, felt that she needed to come forward, which she did.

When we then went to Wu, at first he refused to comment. Then he hired a lawyer to harass our sources, threaten us with legal action. And I will never forget the morning the story ran, the phone call -- phone rang from one of Charlie's predecessors in Washington, and it was 7:00 a.m. on the West Coast.

And I thought that's it, Wu is suing. And he said no, Wu has issued a statement acknowledging the whole thing and apologizing.

KURTZ: Well, that shows you the value of aggressive reporting.

I'm running against a hard break.

Let me just ask you, Charles Pope, were you surprised that just days after your story appeared, that Congressman Wu chose to resign?

POPE: Yes, I was. I mean, I've been in Washington covering Congress and the White House for more than 20 years, and I know the sort of normal arc of these kinds of stories is not quite as quick as this one.

But I think it's a testament to our reporting. I mean, not mine alone, but the whole team. And that decision coming as quick as it did validates what we did.

KURTZ: Rather than disputing the facts or denouncing the paper, all the things that politicians sometimes do when they're under fire.

POPE: That's right.

KURTZ: Charles Pope, Steve Engelberg in New York, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

POPE: Thank you.

KURTZ: Still to come, ABC says no to checkbook journalism. Piers Morgan, still under fire in London's tabloid scandal. And a TV station's triple bogey in covering a golf tournament.

The "Media Monitor," straight ahead.

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

For years now, the networks have been paying for big interview. Oh, they deny doing any such thing, saying they're really providing licensing fees for news subjects' photos or videos. But it's a fig leaf, and everyone knows it.

ABC News has been one of the worst offenders, paying Casey Anthony $200,000 shortly before she was indicted in the murder of her young daughter, and $10,000 to $15,000 to Meagan Broussard, one of Anthony Weiner's online pals.

But this week I learned that ABC is getting out of the checkbook journalism business. Under pressure from anchors like Chris Cuomo, who did the Broussard interview, as he and I discussed on this program, the network is banning such payments except perhaps in an extraordinary circumstance. A spokesman for ABC News president Ben Sherwood says the payments have become a crutch.

Will the other networks, particularly NBC, follow suit or score more exclusives with ABC out of the pay-to-play game?

Here's what bothers me about the latest coverage of Piers Morgan. Now, I don't have a clue whether the CNN host knew about phone hacking or other improper tactics when he was editor of London's "Daily Mirror," but recent media accounts have all but convicted Morgan with very little evidence, such as when he was asked about the nasty down- in-the-gutter stuff in a 2009 interview with BBC Radio.


PIERS MORGAN, FMR. "DAILY MIRROR" EDITOR: Not a lot of that went on. A lot of it was done by third parties rather than the staff themselves. That's not to defend it, because obviously you were running the results of their work.

I'm quite happy to be parked in the corner of tabloid beast and to have sit here defending all these things I used to get up to, and I make no pretense about the stuff we used to do. I simply say the net of people doing it was very wide, and certainly encompassed the high and the low end of the supposed newspaper market.


KURTZ: Now, Morgan says he was just making a general observation about tabloid reporters and private eyes, and his comments could certainly be viewed that way.

This one is a little more suspicious, a 2006 piece he wrote for "The Daily Mail" about the breakup of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. "At one stage I was played a tape of a message Paul had left for Heather on her mobile phone. It was heartbreaking."

But again, someone could have leaked the tape. There's no admission that this w3as hacking. Now, we've repeatedly invited Piers Morgan on this program. But whether he accepts or not, I think he needs to move past the canned statements and the Twitter comments and sit down for a serious interview on this subject. But the media also have to be careful about rushing to judgment.

Speaking of which, Jon Snow, an anchor at London's Channel 4, tweeted a false rumor this week that CNN had suspended Morgan. Snow later retracted the bogus report, but not before a number of other journalists had re-tweeted it to their followers.

And we talked last week about Morgan going at it with Louise Mensch, the member of parliament who claimed Piers had admitted in his book that he knew about past phone hacking. Mensch has now said she says she's sorry for mangling her facts, and Morgan has accepted her apology.

It looked like a standard TV report on a local golf tournament. The footage aired on WPRI in Providence with sports director Eric Murphy providing the play-by-play. But talk about a triple bogey, it was all faked.

The players were reenacting their shots after the fact, which, as "Southern Rhode Island Newspapers" reported, the station failed to disclose to viewers. Now, news director Joe Abouzeid initially said the footage "should not have aired in this context."

In this context? This was nothing less than a carefully choreographed fraud.

WPRI later apologized to viewers for any confusion and said it has addressed the lack of judgment.

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.