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New Book About Sarah Palin; Are Journalists Ganging Up on Perry?
Aired September 18, 2011 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: A book about Sarah Palin is bound to be big news, especially one by controversial author Joe McGinniss. You know, the guy who moved in next door to her Alaska home. And the book is packed with salacious allegations, most of them attributed to unnamed sources. But why did so many media sources spread this stuff before even seeing the book?
The chatter in the press is how the other presidential candidates are ganging up on Rick Perry. But come on. It's also the journalists and the debate moderators who have targeted the Texas governor.
Plus, did the media initially let Michele Bachmann get away with scare talk about vaccines in attacking Perry?
And a columnist for the popular Web site TechCrunch takes on his parent company, AOL, for pushing out the site's founder. Paul Carr says it was fine for his ex-boss to buy stock in the same technology companies covered by TechCrunch. Cover got fed up on Friday and quit. We'll ask him why.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
Now, it would be easy for me to recite all the sensational allegations about drug use, affairs, and the like in the new Joe McGinniss book about the former governor of Alaska. It probably would be good for our ratings.
"New York Times" critic Janet Maslin had this to say about "The Rogue": "Mr. McGinniss used his time in Alaska to chase caustic, unsubstantiated gossip about the Palins, often from unnamed sources like 'one resident' and 'a friend.'"
Still, McGinniss was featured on one of the best platforms in television, NBC's "Today Show," in a piece by Savannah Guthrie.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, "THE TODAY SHOW" (voice-over): McGinniss describes a rocky Palin marriage, with Todd and Sarah fighting incessantly and threatening divorce, something they have denied in the past. Another bombshell, McGinniss writes that both Todd and Sarah have used cocaine in the past, a claim that has not been verified.
(on camera): How do you substantiate something like that? JOE MCGINNISS, AUTHOR, "THE ROGUE": Well, you talk to somebody who snorted it with her, and you talk to many of Todd's friends who describe him as having been on the end of the straw frequently in his youth. I'm not saying that Todd and Sarah Palin today abuse cocaine, or even use it, but there's no question that they both did at one point in their lives.
GUTHRIE (voice-over): McGinniss also quotes friends who speak of a sexual encounter Palin had with basketball star Glen Rice in 1987 while she was a sports reporter for a local Anchorage station prior to her marriage.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So how should journalists handle the incendiary contents of the McGinniss book?
Joining us now, Steve Roberts, professor of Journalism and Media Ethics at The George Washington University; Michelle Cottle, Washington correspondent for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast"; and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at "National Review."
Steve Roberts, in the first 24 hours -- nobody has seen this book, which still isn't out, and lots and lots of Web sites, including mine, "The Daily Beast," were trumpeting the sleaziest allegations.
Why is that?
STEVE ROBERTS, PROFESSOR OF JOURNALIST AND MEDIA ETHICS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Ratings, eyeballs.
ROBERTS: Traffic. I mean, there is this conspiracy between the Sarah Palins and the Donald Trumps of the world and a lot of Web sites who, let's be honest, you need eyeballs to sell advertising. Media is under tremendous revenue pressures, and --
KURTZ: And so old-fashioned notions like checking it out fall by the wayside?
ROBERTS: Unfortunately, I think that often happens. I would give Joe McGinniss a failing grade for ethics in my class from that book, but the coverage is pushed by this tremendous pressure and demand.
KURTZ: Is the combination of Sarah Palin and alleged drug use, Sarah Palin and alleged sexual encounters, Sarah Palin and alleged marital problems, or Trig is not her baby, is that just too irresistible for the media?
MICHELLE COTTLE, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": Of course. I mean, basically, you can talk about Sarah Palin, the contents of her bathroom medicine cabinet, and we're going to go after it. I mean, she is not a politician, she is a celebrity. And she is judged by those rules when people go in to report about her. KURTZ: Even celebrities, I would say, are entitled to fair treatment by the media.
Before I get to you, Ramesh, let me throw up on the screen a statement from Todd Palin about this book. Referring to McGinniss, "This is a man who has been relentlessly stalking my family to the point of moving in right next door on us to harass us and spy on us, to satisfy his creepy obsession with my wife. His book is full of disgusting lies, innuendo and smears."
So, you know, to report on what Sarah Palin did when she was 23, if she did or did not have a one-night encounter with a basketball star, do the media have a different standard for Sarah Palin?
RAMESH PONNURU, SR. EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, I mean, look, this is an irrelevant story about increasingly irrelevant figure. So one does wonder what it's doing in the news.
The trouble is you can't even denounce the book very easily without retailing the stories inside it. I mean, that "New York Times" review that you mentioned was very tough, I think appropriately tough on the book, but at the same time, it repeats every one of these not terribly well-verified stories.
ROBERTS: And look, but she bears some guilt here, Howie. Yes, I think the McGinniss book is a heap of trash from everything I've read about it, but she has played this game herself.
She, as Michelle says quite rightly, she has played the celebrity game. She wants to be a celebrity. She has been on reality TV. In some ways, she changes the standards herself.
KURTZ: OK, that's fine. When we're talking about Palin doing a bus tour and why we're all covering it, then I think it's fair to say that. I mean, obviously, the Palins didn't want this book to be written.
But here, a fascinating debate at "The Miami Herald," where Glen Rice was an NBA player, where a sportswriter named Armando Salguero wrote this to his colleagues, and let me put it up on the screen, because "The Herald" had played up the Glen Rice alleged incident after it was in "The National Enquirer."
"Do we know this story to be true? Are we certain that it's true because we have done the work or have a reasonable certainty that it's true? Did anyone actually try to confirm this story before giving it 'Herald' front-page credibility? Did anyone call Glen Rice to get independent confirmation? He lives in Miami, you know."
"Is it now OK to repeat any report from 'The National Enquirer' on the front page of The Herald's Web site without actually reporting even one fact independently?"
ROBERTS: The answer is no, it is not OK.
KURTZ: But it happened. ROBERTS: It does happen. And the dynamic here, as I say, is not just the pressure to get eyeballs, but there is a Web culture that has a different standard from traditional media, and there is this notion of is it the buzz? If it's out there, we can repeat it without independently checking it. And that is an ethical problem for a lot of people.
KURTZ: Well, and not just the Web culture.
Given all the unnamed sources, "a friend said," and so forth, Ramesh Ponnuru, should "The Today Show" have put McGinniss on and let him repeat all this stuff?
PONNURU: No, I don't believe so. And, you know, it's not even just a question of whether these things are verified and check out. I mean, I don't see the relevance of this Rice story from pre-history.
KURTZ: You're saying even if it were true?
PONNURU: Yes, even if it were true. It's none of our business.
KURTZ: Same goes for past cocaine use?
PONNURU: I would say, you know, look, I didn't see a ton of scrutiny given to Obama's cocaine use. I mean, people basically accepted his take on that story without digging it up because of his political stances or whatever, excuses being used. I think that the same should be extended to Palin.
KURTZ: And let me stress, I have no idea whether the cocaine allegation is true or not. And McGinniss is going to be on all kinds of programs this coming week. Piers Morgan is having him on CNN. I just saw a promo for that.
TV seems to have the idea that if it's a book, if it's between hard covers, it has a certain stature that allows it to be covered, but there are a lot of crappy books out there.
COTTLE: Oh, sure. I mean, there is this idea that they go through and fact-check with a fine-tooth comb, and that, then, it's got a certain gravitas if it's been published, which of course is not true. You know, but the same could be said if it's printed in "The New York Times" it's true.
Newspapers don't have fact-checking. I mean, you have to trust to a certain degree the author. And so a lot of this is about --
KURTZ: But newspapers do have editors who can say to an overzealous reporter, you don't have this story nailed down.
COTTLE: Presumably, book publishers have editors, too. I mean, what they're doing is, you have to have a certain degree of faith in your author. And if his publishers do, then --
(CROSSTALK) ROBERTS: I actually notice a difference. I mean, I worked at "The New York Times" for 25 years. There are editors. There are filters. There are standards. There are processes your material goes through.
What has increasingly happened in this Web culture is that there are no filters, there are no editors. Now, many people say this is great because it's the Wild West, and there are more voices. But what has been almost entirely eliminated in many ways is this notion of accountability and verification in a lot of the Web publications.
COTTLE: But we're not talking about Web. We're talking about a book.
KURTZ: We're talking about a book that is then covered by the Web.
COTTLE: But it's covered by everything.
PONNURU: I think McGinniss is coasting on his reputation that he earned on previous books. That's what's --
KURTZ: But that reputation in itself is controversial. He's been accused of plagiarism, he was sued by the subject of one of his stories for deception. It was an out of court settlement.
I mean, I'm not saying we shouldn't treat his book seriously. What bothered me most of all was the way in which the Web just ran with this before anyone has seen the book. It wasn't like an editor or someone said -- looked at it and said, OK, I think there are some reasonable allegations here. Hadn't even see the book.
COTTLE: "Doonesbury" has had it out. And you can talk about "The Chicago Tribune" didn't run the "Doonesbury" strip, but everybody else did, including "The Washington Post."
ROBERTS: And every Web site has got -- even the most serious ones -- have got links to Jennifer Aniston's latest pictures, or Kim Kardashian's latest pictures, and this is -- in many ways, Palin is more like Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian today than she is like Mitt Romney or any serious political figure.
KURTZ: But there seems to be an undercurrent here that because Palin is more celebrity than politician -- although we still don't know for sure whether she's going to run for president -- that, therefore, there are different standards. And I'm going to push back against that. I think, you know, to just run with this stuff just because somebody is famous --
ROBERTS: I don't think there should be different standards, but I think there are different standards.
KURTZ: You think there are.
And in the case of "Doonesbury," I should point out that Garry Trudeau was one of the few people who had the book in advance, so he made a judgment that the excerpts that he ran in a funny way in his strip were credible. And "The Chicago Tribune" killing it, I mean, how many people did that stop from seeing "Doonesbury," which you can get online?
Now, just as we were preparing this program, there was news about another book by Ron Suskind called "Confidence Men" about the Obama White House, because already, the White House pushing back against that book. Christina Romer, Anita Dunn, Larry Summers, all officials who are quoted in the book and who are denying what they are quoted as saying. But this is very different, it seems to me, because Suskind had the cooperation of the White House and, in fact, interviewed President Obama.
That doesn't mean everything in the book is right, but is it in a different category?
ROBERTS: Oh, sure, it's in a different category. He's also in a different category.
Ron Suskind has a reputation, a pretty reliable reporter, former "Wall Street Journal" reporter. He's written several major books in the past.
But even there, there is the implication that he has blown up some of these stories into feuds and has taken sort of the more extreme version of events. But they are very different. The Obama White House is a serious subject. Sarah Palin is not a serious subject in anything like the same way.
COTTLE: I mean, from what you can tell from the quotes, in some cases it looks like, yes, there were casual conversations. Perhaps he even got them from a third party and then repeated out those quotes. And it makes it look like there was some brewing irritation and people were going to riot because women weren't treated well.
KURTZ: Well, in some cases, Suskind quoted people directly. He interviewed a lot of White House officials, some of them at times on the record, including Barack Obama. I called him yesterday and he said he can't comment yet because he's going on "The Today Show" on Tuesday. But he did say he would come on this program next Sunday.
PONNURU: Well, Dunn is flatly denying that she gave the quote, that is a direct quote. So, at a certain point, I think you're going to have to -- one or both parties is going to have to say, all right, is it OK to put this on the record here?
KURTZ: Before we go to break, who said Sarah Palin is not a serious subject?
KURTZ: You? What do you mean she's not a serious subject? She was the vice presidential nominee. So a serious book about her would certainly be worthy of consideration. ROBERTS: Yes, but what I'm saying is that she has cast herself in many ways much more as a celebrity, as Michelle said, much more as a reality TV star.
COTTLE: She's more Donald Trump.
ROBERTS: She's the one who has defined herself as less serious, not the rest of us.
KURTZ: Which still doesn't give any author or writer or journalist the right to publish unattributed crap.
ROBERTS: I agree completely. I agree completely.
KURTZ: All right. We have a rare moment of consensus.
Steve Roberts, Michelle Cottle, Ramesh Ponnuru, thanks for joining us.
When we come back, Rick Perry on the firing line at that CNN presidential debate. Do the media have it in for this guy?
KURTZ: When I was sitting down to write about this week's CNN presidential debate, there was no way around the obviously lead: Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and the others were ganging up on Rick Perry. But there's no question they had some company.
If you look at many of Wolf Blitzer's questions, they singled out the Texas, governor, even when the moderator was addressing Perry's Republican rivals.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, MODERATOR: Governor Perry, speaking of Social Security, you said in the past it's a Ponzi scheme, an absolute failure, unconstitutional. But today you wrote an article in "USA Today" saying it must be saved and reformed.
As you well know, you signed an executive order requiring little girls, 11-and-12-year-old girls, to get a vaccine to deal with a sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cervical cancer. Was that a mistake?
Congresswoman Bachmann, you know that Governor Perry has suggested that Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve, potentially should be tried for treason.
Governor Romney, you've said that Governor Perry's position on Social Security is "unacceptable" and could even obliterate the Republican Party.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, are the media, not just CNN, but MSNBC the previous week, and many other organizations, singling out Rick Perry for harsh treatment?
Joining us now in New York, Ben Smith, senior political reporter for "Politico." And here in Washington, Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for "The New York Times."
And Jeff Zeleny, you were at that debate. With so many questions about Rick Perry, and so, what do you think about what Perry said about X, Blitzer basically guaranteed that all the stories would be about Perry.
JEFF ZELENY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": That's true. I mean, he was in the center of the stage for a reason. I think that's also interesting, how the front-runners, if you will, are placed in the very center so everyone is looking toward them.
But look, I think part of it is that he is the newest person in the race. So he is the storyline in the race.
We can argue if it's fair or not. I'm sure Senator Santorum probably doesn't think it's fair. I'm sure Ron Paul probably doesn't think it's fair. Jon Huntsman was barely mentioned in the debate at all. But, you know, I think that's what voters, that's what people want to know right now, more about Rick Perry, because he is sort of an unknown person to a lot of voters because he has not been running as long as any of these people.
KURTZ: And I have no problem, Ben Smith, keeping the spotlight on the newcomer in the race and looking into his Texas record. But let's not pretend we're neutral observers here. I mean, there has been story after story about Perry, and often negative stories, or challenging stories in "The New York Times," "Washington Post," "Politico" and elsewhere.
BEN SMITH, SR. POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO.COM: I mean, I'd say we are neutral observers here. But I think this is a cost Perry took on when he decided not to enter six months ago, eight months ago, when he could have, but decided to jump in now.
I mean, that means that all these questions that are asked of every candidate, but they're going to be asked all at once of him, where, you know, Mitt Romney had a very slow, low-key way, had been doing interviews and talk shows for nine months, which has allowed him to keep this very, very low profile, because, frankly, he's been asked about health care a ton of times already. Perry has dived in and actually has done virtually no challenging interviews on TV or with print reporters, which means that when somebody gets in, there's a long list of questions that he hasn't answered that you want to ask.
KURTZ: He has not been very accessible to the media. He did do an interview with "TIME" magazine for a cover story this week.
Brian Williams took some heat at last week's MSNBC/Politico debate for asking this question. Let's roll it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BRIAN WILLIAMS, MODERATOR: Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you --
WILLIAMS: Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?
GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, sir. I have never struggled with that at all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Anything unfair about that question, Jeff?
ZELENY: I think bringing up executions certainly is not unfair at all. I was a little surprised when he said "struggled to sleep at night." I mean, his point was, you know, the question of -- if any of these people executed had been innocent.
KURTZ: Had been innocent, yes.
ZELENY: But the whole matter though is sort of overtaken by the applause in the room and the audience watching the debate sort of rose up in applause. And then he followed up with that question. So I thought the follow-up was good. I'm not sure about the sleep at night. That's probably not how I would have phrased it.
Coming back to the CNN debate, Ben Smith, some critics out there are questioning why CNN partnered with the Tea Party Express. Some people say the network is trying to kind of build conservative street cred.
Anything give you pause about that partnership?
SMITH: I mean, that sounds like a reasonable explanation, but also, the Tea Party is clearly just a big force, particularly in Republican primaries. And it made a certain amount of sense I think both structurally, and also for the purposes of television drama, to have people who are seen as being really central and really active in this Republican primary asking some of the questions and in the mix.
KURTZ: And CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist made that very point, that the Tea Party has become such a force in GOP politics, that it made sense to include it in at least one debate.
But when you talk about building drama, I want to make this clear, I'm all for audience members asking questions. I don't think journalists have a monopoly on wisdom. But many of these questions from the Tea Party reps were so vague as to be kind of useless.
"What would you do to get the economy moving forward?" "What is your plan to reduce the cost of health care?" There is a reason journalists narrower and more pointed questions than that. Did that help the debate at all?
ZELENY: I think that's true. I mean, I sort of viewed the questions from voters as more of topics to discuss. And I thought Wolf Blitzer did a good job of actually honing in on these questions.
He was basically asking the questions. The voters were just sort of setting the themes for the questions. I mean, the majority of the questions in that debate were asked by Wolf Blitzer, not by voters.
KURTZ: And, of course, following up on Tea Party questions as well.
KURTZ: Want to turn now to a moment that got a lot of play on the air and in print, and that was Michele Bachmann. We want to show you here what she said in the debate about something that Governor Rick Perry did in Texas involving these vaccines against cervical cancer for girls as young as 12. And then, the next morning, Congresswoman Bachmann appeared on "The Today Show," and we'll take a look at Matt Lauer's question.
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm a mom, and I'm a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year- old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.
BACHMANN: Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a mulligan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": Do you feel he placed the health and safety of young girls in the state of Texas behind or below the need for campaign funds?
BACHMANN: Well, I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, the problem with that answer, Ben Smith, is that there is no scientific evidence that these injections are dangerous, as she said in the debate, or cause mental retardation, yet Lauer didn't follow up. It took about 24 hours for media to bring the facts to people in most cases.
Shouldn't we move a little more quickly with that kind of inflammatory charge?
SMITH: You know, I think as soon as that got online, people started asking questions. I know a guy from an autism group sent me an e-mail pretty soon, later that day, saying, "This is outrageous and really dangerous because it's playing to this vaccine fear that a lot of researchers believe getting kids actually killed."
KURTZ: You know, your newspaper, "The New York Times," had a good story the next morning on the facts involved, or lack of facts in the case of what Bachmann said. CNN did, "NBC Nightly News" did a good fact-check. But I had the impression that a lot of other media organizations were more interested in the drama of Perry and Bachmann going toe-to-toe than in sorting out what the congresswoman said.
ZELENY: I think that's probably true. I mean, it was a dramatic moment. All of us in the press filing center were waiting to see how she was going to respond, if she was going to sort of aggressively respond to Governor Perry. But that's part of it. I mean, sort of how they're confronting each other.
But I think a bigger thing, in the moment it looked great for Congresswoman Bachmann. She was tough and responded well.
ZELENY: But like sort of everything else with her campaign, once you inspect it a little bit more, even some of her own advisers were sort of wringing their hands. She seems to say often the last thing that was said to her.
KURTZ: Like the woman in the crowd.
ZELENY: And whoever this woman in the audience was, I mean, I'm sure it happened, I don't even reason to believe it didn't happen.
KURTZ: But that doesn't mean it's true.
ZELENY: It doesn't mean it's true.
KURTZ: And we have the responsibility to check it out.
And Ben Smith, you said earlier that we are neutral observers. And I know we try to be. But in the case of Rick Perry, are you saying that it simply that he got in the race late and so there is a telescoping of the process? A lot of people out there, I'm sure, think that Eastern effete reporters don't particularly identify with this cowboy cultural conservative.
SMITH: Well, just because you and I are Eastern and effete, doesn't mean all reporters are. And, in fact, the Texas press has been I think examining him most intensely right now.
And I think, no. I think there are just a ton of questions that need to be answered really quickly because the vote is soon. And, in fact, he runs a very secretive administration, just as a matter of reality.
They delete their e-mails every week. They go to great lengths to prevent his schedule from being released. And so they do specific things that have caused a lot of questions which are a bit hard to answer to get put directly to him.
KURTZ: Well, I'll agree with you on one point. I'm waiting to see when Rick Perry starts doing more interviews and answering more of these questions that journalists have on behalf of those who will be doing the voting.
Jeff Zeleny, thank you for joining us.
Ben Smith, stick around.
Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, is Twitter making political blogs -- well, passe? Ben is getting nervous about that. We'll talk about it on the other side.
Plus, the uproar at TechCrunch over the ouster of the founder who was trading in technology companies covered by his Web site. TechCrunch columnist Paul Carr on why he quit and why he thinks the critics are out to lunch.
KURTZ: We're back with Politico's Ben Smith.
And Ben, you're a pretty prolific blogger, but you told "Adweek" that writing on Twitter, as so many of us in the news racket do, is sort of draining the life from the blog. Explain.
SMITH: Well, I mean, I love writing my blog, and plan to keep doing it. But in 2008, during the presidential election, the quickest way you could find out a new piece of information was often to hit "refresh" on my blog or on Mark Anvander's (ph) blog, or on somebody else's blog, because we were working kind of directly from, say, the event we were at. We were typing the notes up faster, we were getting information faster than anybody else, and putting it online. So, you know, it was incredibly intense, but incredibly fun, because you just had the sense people were hitting "refresh" on your blog to find out what had just happened and what was going to happen next.
KURTZ: And now?
SMITH: And now that is on Twitter, the sort of central conversation about what just happened, what's happening next, what did somebody say, what's the response? That's either being reported on Twitter or actually just being tweeted by the players themselves. And so I think --
KURTZ: So if the blog is where you earn your paycheck, and on Twitter you're basically giving it away for free to your 50,000 followers, why tweet so much? SMITH: Well, I mean, because it's where the action is, because it's where -- you know, politics hopefully (ph) is this conversation, fundamentally. And Twitter isn't just this place where you're kind of having this conversation with your fellow reporters, or this sort of side conversation. It's become, I think, kind of the central conversation, and so you just sort of have to be there.
KURTZ: So are blogs over? Are they, oh, so 2008?
SMITH: I do feel sometimes like I'm setting type and I have ink all over my hands. But no, I think they have a different use, which is more of kind of a repository of longer, more thoughtful pieces, things that -- sort of observational stuff that's maybe a little short of a 3,000-word analytical article, but it's sort of compact. But it's a different -- fewer one-liners and more and more meat on blogs, I suppose, now.
KURTZ: Well, it's funny you should say that, because when blogs became very popular, it seemed like everything was speeded up. And we used to say, oh, thought is really worrisome because blogs are so quick, we're all going to spend less time reporting, we're all feeding the blog. And now it takes about, what, 20 seconds to tweet something from your phone?
What is lost in this hyper-speed process?
SMITH: Well, I think what can be lost is reporting. Right? It's the time spent reporting.
I mean, I have always tried to write a reported blog. I think that's what, from my perspective, a lot of readers want, is new information and new news. But certainly there is a sense that sometimes everybody is writing 300-word items on the same thing instead of each reporter going out and doing their own reporting.
KURTZ: Right. But coming back to Twitter, for example, you tweeted the other day, "Perry's run has allowed Romney to slip back out of the spotlight after the long Mittness protection program summer and about a week of exposure."
That was a pretty interesting point, but once I've read that, I might be less likely to click on a story of yours elaborating on that point.
SMITH: Well, yes. I mean, that was a point I felt I could get across in 142 characters. And, in fact, then I can go off and report some other story. I mean, there is a time savings there sometimes, too.
KURTZ: So you think that there is a great advantage to Twitter, it makes you part of a conversation with journalists, political junkies, and others, but at the same time, you are kind of competing against yourself?
SMITH: Yes, absolutely. But I just think if you're covering politics, you kind of don't have a lot of choice about where you are, because that's where it's happening right now.
KURTZ: All right. So to be on Twitter is mandatory, and we'll follow you in both places.
Ben Smith, thanks for stopping by.
SMITH: Thank you, Howie.
KURTZ: All right.
And you can follow me on Twitter as well, and a lot of people at the major news organizations.
Now, after the break, the brutal battle between TechCrunch and Arianna Huffington at parent company AOL. We'll talk to the TechCrunch columnist who just got so disgusted, he quit.
KURTZ: It was, to put it mildly, a clash of cultures. Michael Arrington is the founder of TechCrunch, a popular Web site that covers technology and specializes in evaluating hot, new Silicon Valley companies.
Arrington saw nothing wrong with launching a $10 million fund to invest in companies that were covered by the Web site, but he also sold TechCrunch to AOL, where editorial chief Arianna Huffington decided that the practice was a violation of journalistic ethics and forced Arrington to leave the company.
That didn't go over well with many of the writers at TechCrunch, including columnist Paul Carr, who wrote, "My own position is clear. Unless Mike Arrington appoints his own successor, guaranteeing that TechCrunch retains its editorial independence, I'm gone, done, out the door. Ceding control to 'The Huffington Post' will be the death of everything that makes TechCrunch great."
And on Friday, Paul Carr did what he said was going to do and resigned.
He joins me now from Las Vegas.
So why did you quit?
PAUL CARR, FMR. COLUMNIST, TECHCRUNCH: Hi, Howard.
KURTZ: So why did you quit?
CARR: Oh, just for, like, some time off. No.
I mean, I made it clear in my post the reasons why I was going to leave. TechCrunch was built by Mike Arrington, and TechCrunch is not TechCrunch without Mike Arrington. And he was just the perfect -- for me, at least -- the kind of writing I do, which tends to get people's backs up. He was the perfect editor. I always felt like he had my back.
And with him gone, it's just not the same. And I also don't think he was treated fairly at all by AOL, by Arianna Huffington, by -- even by, as it turned out, some of the people he worked with at TechCrunch. So I just felt like it wasn't somewhere I could be anymore.
KURTZ: Well, we'll come back to that, but the new editor of TechCrunch, I should explain, is a guy named Erick Schonfeld, who had worked at the Web site. He wasn't somebody brought in from the outside. He was Arianna Huffington's choice.
And he didn't take very kindly to your going out in a blaze of glory. He said you're just grandstanding, you don't know what you're talking, and at any other place you would have been fired long ago.
CARR: Well, he's right. In any other place I would have been fired long ago, and that's kind of the point. And he was sort of darkly hinting that that might not be the situation going forward.
Yes, I just -- I mean, he sort of had to respond I guess in a way, but I was surprised to see him respond on TechCrunch. I mean, it's one thing -- as he put in his post, I am a grandstanding columnist. I'm supposed to grandstand. I didn't really expect the new editor to do it.
But that's what makes TechCrunch fun. We take jabs at each other in public. It's all -- as Mike Arrington used to say, it's all about transparency.
KURTZ: That was quite a jab. Forgive me for interrupting.
You wrote about Tim Armstrong, the chief executive of AOL. You said, "Well, he doesn't understand what he's going on here, not because he's an idiot, but because he's not a journalist."
Why did you do the digital equivalent of sticking your finger in the eye of the head of the company?
CARR: Well, I mean, because that was the whole point. When TechCrunch was acquired, it all happened at one of our conferences. And on stage, Tim Armstrong said to Mike Arrington, "We will respect your editorial independence." They had an agreement.
And part of that is, when AOL screwed up -- and let's face it, as companies go, AOL is pretty good at that -- it's important that we, as the tech publication of record, as we ourselves -- I'm going to keep saying "ourselves" for at least another week. But as TechCrunch sees itself, calls AOL out.
And that was all part of the deal. And so, to my mind, that's a continuation of that. And if we're not able to do that, then editorial independence means nothing.
KURTZ: You used the phrase in writing about people who leave under these kinds of circumstances "stunt resignation." Is that what you have just done?
KURTZ: OK. So you don't deny it?
CARR: No. I mean -- well, yes. I mean, insofar as if it wasn't, I could have just written a nice, polite letter to Erick.
KURTZ: You could have, and you could have quietly gone into the shadows. But you chose not to do that.
CARR: I chose not to do that. It was kind of my value out at TechCrunch, was being the noisy one. And I think it would have been odd.
And frankly, people would have assumed that I would have been somehow hushed up had I just quietly gone off into the sunset. I have always been loud, and I think it would have been weird had I left quietly. But yes, I mean, I use the phrase "stunt resignation" about myself, as well. I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that I ticked all the "stunt resignation" boxes.
KURTZ: All right.
Well, let's come back to the central issue here, because I think most journalists, not just Arianna Huffington, would say it's a serious conflict for the founder of a Web site that covers technology to, at the very same time, be investing, putting his own money, and some of AOL's money, obviously, into technology stocks.
Why do you not see it that way?
CARR: Well, in much of what you said, I do see it that way. And, in fact, when the CrunchFund was announced, I argued to Mike privately, but also publicly, that calling it the CrunchFund was idiotic.
I mean, aligning it so closely to TechCrunch, which was clearly something that AOL wanted it to be, was ridiculous. Mike has been an investor for years, and he's always been very honest about that. And as Barry Diller said that the other day, that's part of why they acquired it.
You know, Mike is conflicted. He's this guy who's part journalist, part investor, part insider. The big mistake everybody made -- I mean, particularly AOL and Mike -- was calling it the CrunchFund -- because I don't think --
KURTZ: No matter what the name was, you still have the basic inescapable fact that anybody reading the site has to kind of wonder -- or maybe we're talking about appearances here, but has to kind of wonder, is the judgment of any of these writers influenced in any way by the fact that the boss, the guy who runs it, is putting his money into some of these companies? That smells to me.
CARR: I agree 100 percent. And I said it's a perception issue.
I know the writers very well, and there are some fine journalists there. You know, Sarah Lacy came from "BusinessWeek," and Erick Schonfeld came from "TIME."
I don't think there's a suggestion that they would be influenced, and then they never had. Mike has been an investor, as I say, since the beginning.
I did say there is a perception problem here, which is why it was only right that Mike take a step down as editor and become more of sort of a publisher figure, write his column, be as conflicted as he likes in that, and we bring in a new editor. But I felt that should be Mike's choice.
KURTZ: And even this week --
CARR: Arianna Huffington felt it shouldn't.
KURTZ: Right. Even this week there was a big conference. TechCrunch (INAUDIBLE) awarded a $50,000 prize to the winning startup company, and the winner and the two runners up all have Mike Arrington as an investor. And he was a judge, and this kind of underscores why a lot of people were uncomfortable with this.
But now some of your critics, "Fortune" magazine --
CARR: Well, it was disclosed.
KURTZ: Go ahead.
CARR: It's important to say it was disclosed.
KURTZ: It was disclosed.
CARR: And, in fact, he -- so the interesting thing is, Erick, the new ethical editor of TechCrunch, said Mike had no part in the judging of the finalists. Mike actually came into the comments of the site (ph) and said it's important not to say things that aren't true. And Mike corrected him and said, "You know full well I was involved in the judging."
Mike will say I'm conflicted, but he'll admit it. So, no, it was very clear that Mike was invested in some of the companies.
KURTZ: What about critics -- there was a piece, as you know, in "Fortune" magazine saying that TechCrunch gets a lot of scoops because these startup companies bring them to the Web site, so they get good promotion, and maybe the whole thing is a little too cozy.
CARR: Well, I mean, there are two issues there. Do startups come to TechCrunch first with the news? Of course they do. As I say, we try and be the tech publication of record. If I was a startup, I would go to TechCrunch first. TechCrunch has people showing up at the office sometimes with cake. I mean, there is no doubt that people want to be covered on TechCrunch.
Is it cozy? No. I mean, look at the coverage of startups on TechCrunch. Look how Mike took down (INAUDIBLE). Look how he went after the people involved in social gaming who he felt were scamming young kids by getting them to buy offers they didn't need and whatever else. I think we go after startups pretty well, so --
KURTZ: I have got to go, so I need a short answer here. In light of everything that's happening, has AOL now ruined TechCrunch as a Web site?
CARR: It's ruined the TechCrunch that I worked for. I think they still have the domain name, they'll still have the page views, but it's not the TechCrunch that I know and love. And that's sad.
KURTZ: All right. Paul Carr, appreciate you giving us the first interview since you went out the door. Thanks very much for joining us.
KURTZ: Up next, another view of the TechCrunch dispute from The Wall Street Journal's Kara Swisher.
Plus, what's a media outlet like NBC to do when hackers fill its Twitter feed with bogus stories?
KURTZ: And joining us now from San Francisco to talk about the ethical battle at AOL's TechCrunch is Kara Swisher of "The Wall Street Journal," who is co-executive editor of the site "AllThingsD."
And Kara, you just heard Paul Carr, the TechCrunch columnist who quit over this. He said there nothing wrong with the founder except maybe a perception problem, both investing in stocks or the site that covers tech stocks.
You've said -- and I believe this is a technical term -- that it's vaguely icky. So who's right?
KARA SWISHER, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Yes. Well, actually, it's more than vaguely icky.
You know, I was listening to that, and it's so different from what's actually happened there. This is a very simple case of someone starting a venture firm with all the major venture capitalists in Silicon Valley -- and it was $20 million, not $10 million, by the way -- and then pretending it was all right to cover these companies.
You know, it's such a simple thing, and the TechCrunch writers who are so self-absorbed and like to write about themselves because they believe there's a show here, rather than the startups and the entrepreneurs, they are just trying to twist it into some sort of journalistic battle with AOL's Arianna Huffington. And it's just ridiculous at this point. It is ridiculous.
KURTZ: So is there no question in your mind that Arianna Huffington was right to force out Mike Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, over this basic issue of, can you invest in companies that your site is writing about?
SWISHER: I think Mike Arrington knew precisely what was going to happen here. I think he's wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.
He wanted to get his giant payout for selling the site, and then also be able to behave any way he wants. And in this case, the problem was originally when -- he wasn't investing for a long time.
He stopped investing, he wrote a big blog on it many years ago, and then he just suddenly started to do it. And I don't think AOL sort of knew about it.
And then he just upped the ante a lot more by making not just personal investing, but also creating a venture fund. And I think the first time when he started investing again about a couple months ago, Arianna let him go and make these investments, made a rule at AOL that said nobody at AOL who writes about companies can invest in these companies except Michael Arrington. And that kind of started this ball rolling.
So, initially, they should have stopped him, and they didn't. And then they got this. So they kind of, in a lot of ways, should have not been surprised that this would escalate.
KURTZ: But the TechCrunch writers who do seem to enjoy writing about themselves say that the whole reason that this site is valuable and was worthy of being purchased by AOL is that we're independent, people can trust us, and now you're screwing with our independence by telling us where we can or cannot put our money.
SWISHER: You know, they're using the words "editorial independence." And I think Thomas Jefferson at this point would spin in his grave.
I mean, this is not what Woodward and Bernstein fought for. I mean, it's just not the case.
This is not editorial independence. It's a bunch of people that want to go around and do whatever they want, and act like there aren't standards in journalism. And there are.
This is like a close financial relationship between every major VC in the valley and a news site. And when they don't -- what they want is they want to not be a news site when it suits them, and they want to be a news site when it suits them. And it's just not -- I don't know.
It's pretty basic and simple, and they want to make it into this big circus sideshow, and that's what it's become. They're writing conflicting blogs back and forth against each other because, again, it's like watching toddlers on a playground. And it obscures the very fact that at the very base of this, it's very wrong to have this many financial interests interlocked with a news site.
It's just the case. And transparency is one thing, and I agree there should be transparency, but this is a transparency to cover up a lot of crimes, as far as I'm concerned. Journalistic crimes.
KURTZ: Journalistic crimes. You're not saying anyone should go to jail.
KURTZ: Another thing that happened in the digital world that was pretty troubling was when some hackers took over NBC's Twitter feed. And here we see one such bogus story that was posted.
"Flight 4782 is not responding, suspected hijacking. One plane just hit the Ground Zero site."
NBC, of course, immediately apologized for this and -- do you think that this sort of thing can undermine the credibility of a network, or do people understand that NBC was the victim here?
SWISHER: Well, in that case, NBC was the victim. I think that, you know, there's some things in this new cyberworld you can't control. It's happened before in journalism, before all these technological tools.
What's more dangerous is, for example, there was a CBS contractor that wrote about Steve Jobs dying, and they put out a tweet, and it was under this sort of CBS News kind of banner, and then took it back in sort of a glib fashion. Oops, sorry, he's not dead.
And so, I think it's the whole question about the idea of it's OK to be a little looser, I suppose, it's OK to, like, have a personality now, and everybody does. But what's not OK is to lose basic standards of fairness, accuracy and ethics. And I think that --
KURTZ: Right. When you put out that somebody has died, you know, there's no nuance there. The person is either dead or not. In the case of Jobs, of course, he was not dead.
KURTZ: I've got a brief time for you to respond.
SWISHER: No. He's fine. You know, he's not fine, but he's not dead.
KURTZ: So was CBS right? Was CBS right to say to Shira Lazar we can't run your work anymore? SWISHER: Probably so, especially with the response. It was a little glib for what was a very serious error. But it shows a lack of control.
And this whole TechCrunch thing shows a lack of control, that it's OK to do whatever you want and cross all kinds of ethical boundaries and think it's OK. And it's not OK. And I don't want to be like Ms. Crabtree of Silicon Valley, because this thing is hysterically funny.
KURTZ: I'm glad you're enjoying it.
SWISHER: But in a lot of ways, it's just -- everyone's enjoying it. It's kind of ridiculous.
KURTZ: All right. Kara Swisher, thanks very much. We've got to go.
Still to come, one television doctor takes on another; ABC gets scooped on its Jackie Kennedy tapes; and the invention that could make journalists obsolete.
KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business. And here's what I liked.
Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor, put out a warning on his show that certain brands of apple juice are dangerous because they contain high levels of arsenic. Now, you don't often see one high-profile doctor take on another, but when Oz appeared on "Good Morning America," ABC's medical correspondent, Dr. Richard Besser, let him have it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. RICHARD BESSER, ABC NEWS: Mehmet, I'm very upset about this. I think that this was extremely irresponsible, putting out this kind of a health warning, manufacturing a health crisis based on faulty, incomplete data.
DR. MEHMET OZ, "THE DR. OZ SHOW": I'm not fear mongering. We did our homework on this threat. We spent a lot of time making sure we got our numbers right.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But the FDA says Oz's research was wrongly conducted and inaccurate. Good for Besser for taking on another member of the medical fraternity.
Diane Sawyer did a nice job in that two-hour ABC special this week featuring taped interviews from 1964 with Jackie Kennedy, showing us another side of this most popular and mysterious of first ladies.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) VOICE OF JACQUELINE KENNEDY, FMR. FIRST LADY: Someone said, "Where do you get your opinions?" And I said, "I get all my opinions from my husband, which is true. How could I have any political opinions? You know, his were going to be the best. It was really (INAUDIBLE) relationship which we had.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
KURTZ: But ABC can't be pleased that an "NBC News Nightly" news producer got hold of the book and audiotapes and ran a story on Brian Williams' newscast four days before the heavily-promoted Sawyer special. The publisher, Hyperion, asked NBC to hold off.
So, did the network do anything wrong? No way. And the publisher wound up with more publicity for the Jackie book.
Now, this one makes me nervous. Check out this story written during a recent college football game between Wisconsin and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"Wisconsin appears to be in the driver's seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3."
Now, that, as "The New York Times" informs us, was written not by a human being, but by a computer at a company called Narrative Science, which already has sold the low-cost service to 20 clients.
That's a little scary. But, look, I've got to believe that no computer, no matter how sophisticated, can match the wit and wisdom of a living, breathing journalist. I mean, that's a no-brainer, right? Right?
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.