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Reliable Sources

Chronicling Gadhafi's Demise; Cain Faces Full-Court Press

Aired October 23, 2011 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Remember when President Obama was getting pounded in the press for dragging his feet on Libya? Eight months later, we got this news.


REPORTER: Three sources, all rebel sources, are saying that Gadhafi has, in fact, been killed.


KURTZ: Did most journalists give credit to the president when it paid off? I must have missed that.

As "Occupy Wall Street" protests go global, the challenge for the media is obvious. Who, if anyone, really speaks for this movement? And should MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan have worked on a statement for the group without telling his viewers?

Herman Cain confounds the pundits and just about everyone else by surging to the top of the Republican polls. Is the press finally giving him the scrutiny he deserves?

And with the presidential debates dominating the primary season, we'll talk to the man who's moderated general election face-offs than anyone else and admits to a few mistakes along the way. A conversation with Jim Lehrer.


JIM LEHRER: You don't have any help, don't have time to make the decisions. You have to do them right then with the whole world watching.


KURTZ: I'm Howard Kurtz. And this is RELIABLE SOURCES.

When President Obama announced NATO bombing missions last March in an effort to protect Libyan civilians against the Gadhafi regime, reaction ranged from skeptical to strikingly negative. Some commentators said it was too little too late. Others asking why the U.S. was involved at all in a third Middle East war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: He doesn't believe America's role ought to be the leadership role. We really have no intention of enforcing a threat that Gadhafi is going to be removed.

KEITH OLBERMANN, CURRENT TV: So, this is about making sure Gadhafi goes, except it's not about making sure he goes. We're not clear why we are fighting, who exactly we are fighting with, who the rebels are that we're fighting for, what a no-fly zone accomplishes.


KURTZ: So, now that the Libyan rebels have won and Moammar Gadhafi has been killed, is the press finally giving the president some credit for pulling this off?

This is Friday's "New York Times." Here is a story. For Obama, some vindication of his much criticized approach to war is right down on the bottom of the page.

Joining us now here in Washington, Amy Holmes, anchor for the Blaze on Glenn Beck TV; Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post"; and Terence Smith, former media correspondent for the "PBS NewsHour."

And, Terry, the media wallowed for months I would say in criticism of the administration's Libya policy. Why don't they stop now and give some credit to the president when a brutal regime is toppled and the policy has been successful?

TERRENCE SMITH, FORMER PBS NEWSHOUR CORRESPONDENT: Well, they should and I suspect they will. Wallow is your verb. I would say much of that skepticism initially was justified and reflected of the public and wider view beyond the media.

There were big questions about what we were doing there, and how it would succeed. However, the policy has succeeded in its narrowly stated goals.

And so now, yes, he deserves some credit for sticking with a policy that took longer than expected, months, not weeks, and would -- but is ultimately successful in the terms offered.

KURTZ: That seems to be a one day story if at all.

Dana Milbank, "The New Yorker" quoted an unnamed Obama aide as saying the president was leaving from behind -- well, maybe so. But would the press prefer that he land on an aircraft carrier and brag about --

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST: Well, interesting when he came out and made this not-so triumphal announcement of the success of his policy. You heard the shouted question, is it vindication from leading from behind? So, even that was a way to sort of stick it to him in the end.

I don't think he's going to get credit for it in the press. He's certainly not getting from his Republican critics, aren't giving credit for anything. And the liberals aren't going to defend it because they didn't like the policy in the first place. So, he's really all by himself.

But, you know what? His numbers are pretty good on foreign policy. So, I think people are looking beyond what all of us chatter about.

KURTZ: That's my next question is the other media theme here is, you know, Obama has turned out to be a pretty successful foreign policy president, killed bin Laden, other al Qaeda leaders like Awlaki, now, Gadhafi. But no one cares because the only thing the campaign is going to be about is the bad economy.

AMY HOLMES, FORMER CO-HOST OF "AMERICA'S MORNING NEWS": I respectfully disagree that President Obama should, quote-unquote, "get credit" if the policy succeeded because his own measure of success was protecting civilians. And the administration said when they were asked explicitly, is the goal of this operation to kill Gadhafi? And they said no.


KURTZ: They also want regime change.

HOLMES: Right. But usually, you know, the politician moves the goalpost, then tries to convince. Here the press is moving the goalpost and ascribing to President Obama a goal achieved that he never set out to achieve.


SMITH: Well, he did call for --

HOLEMS: He did not call for the killing of Moammar Gadhafi. And I think it is fascinating that Chuck Todd, the political director of NBC and White House chief correspondent compared, the then compared the Iraq war to the Libyan operation. He said Iraq, hundreds of billions dollars spent --

KURTZ: Why is that unfair comparison?

HOLMES: -- dictator killed. Libya, $1 billion, dictator killed. This was not the metric that the administration set out. And is it appropriate for the White House chief correspondent to be doing the sort of offhand foreign policy analysis?

MILBANK: Well, under-promising and over-delivering isn't usually a problem in politics, but I don't think this is an Obama problem uniquely. This is basically what happened with Clinton in Bosnia. And everybody said it's not going to work, it's not going to work -- oh, yes, it worked.

KURTZ: I think the press gets very engaged in failure, and when success happens, it's like succeeded, yes. What's tomorrow's story like? HOLMES: Do we know that this succeeded?


SMITH: That's the question -- success is a little early here. Success, what is success?

KURTZ: It could fall apart totally.

MILBANK: But in general, we don't like to report on good news. It's like we don't say 300 planes landed successfully at national airport yesterday. It's not people want to hear.

KURTZ: We don't say that. I also wondered, Terry, about shortest attention spans in the media because there were several Republicans out there when Obama went with NATO intervention, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and others who questioned the decision to go into Libya at all. I don't see any stories going back and saying, hey, were you wrong?

SMITH: And that is certainly -- those questions should be put to them and this inevitable series of debates perhaps they will.

KURTZ: On Thursday, the day that Gadhafi was killed, I was watching cable all day, many networks, and you kept seeing, and we're going to show you something, you know, a picture that's disturbing, rather gruesome photos of the former Colonel Gadhafi after he had been killed.

And yet the next day, very few newspapers and none of the national papers ran this on the front page. Did it bother you at all how often this image was shown?

MILBANK: Well, it bothered me that they put it out because it seemed unnecessary. But once they put it out, I don't think we should in the media be in the position of like protecting sensitivities of our readers or our viewers from it. It's out there. People are going to see it anyway.

Yes, maybe you don't put it on the front page so the kid doesn't see it at breakfast, but you got to cover it.

SMITH: See? I really disagree with that. I think we should have -- it was graphic coverage. It is graphic coverage. It's hard to watch, but it's what happened. And for once, we showed what happened.

You don't see that when an American soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq comes to a very bad end. We are -- we, the media, tend to be squeamish about that, or through some misguided notion of patriotism, we decide we won't show that and so we sanitize it.

I think it's a mistake. This is real.

HOLMES: I think the media is all over the place when it comes to showing this kind of violence. For example, we know Israeli media will show, you know, the consequences, what happens with a suicide bomber, but one half of it torso on one half of the street, the legs on the other, whereas American media, it seems to be on a case by case basis.

So, we know with 9/11, for example, that the big networks got together and said we're not showing these images any more, particularly people jumping out of the window. We never saw the limbs and dismemberment after 9/11.

Osama bin Laden, the media seems to be sort of going along with President Obama's refusal to show these pictures, and yet they gorge on this photo.


SMITH: Well, the disservice is war is ugly and let's show it for what it is. And it is a disservice to do otherwise.

MILBANK: And if you don't, it only emboldens the conspiracy theorists out there anyway.

KURTZ: Well, the picture was newsworthy. And, of course, it should have been shown. I just don't like it became wallpaper and we're seeing it every 10 minutes on cable.

Also, Friday, Obama announcing that all remaining U.S. troops will come home from Iraq by end of the year. That was actually a deadline, that was first negotiated in the Bush administration, and the "Associated Press" eight days earlier had reported U.S. is abandoning plan to keep troops in Iraq past the year deadline. We're treating it like huge news or fresh news by most of the news business and I'm wondering why.

SMITH: It still was a huge -- had a huge impact on me.


SMITH: And how long we have been in it, and the cost, and the fact that even up until the very last, there was some possibility that a deal would be negotiated to keep 5,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops there to be targets --

KURTZ: Right.

SMITH: So, I thought it was justified.

KURTZ: You thought it put an exclamation point on the end of this long, bloody and painful conflict.

That's a good note to end on. Let me get a break. When we come back, the press starts demanding answers from Herman Cain. Why does it take so long?

And later, in depth conversation with Jim Lehrer.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: All the pundits out there who predicted Herman Cain, a former pizza executive with no political experience would become a front runner, raise your hands? Just as I thought.

Let's face it, the media treated him as an entertaining sideshow until he shot up on the polls. Then, the questions got tougher.


DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: My questions had to do, however, with the reality of this plan, the wealthiest Americans would pay less, the poorest Americans and middle class would pay more. You don't dispute that?


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Mr. Cain, you say your remark over the weekend about building a fence that would be electrified so that anyone trying to sneak across the border could be electrocuted. You say it was a joke. But you're running for president of the United States, not for court justice.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Mr. Cain, a lot of prominent conservatives now are coming forward, saying that your 9-9-9 plan would actually raise taxes on middle class voters, on lower income voters.


KURTZ: Terence Smith, where were these tough questions before Cain started to rise in the polls, when he was out there pedaling this 9-9-9 plan, which easy to pick apart?

SMITH: You know, he is charming, he is funny, he is engaging. People like him. That's why he's risen to the point he has. That's why the questioning has been soft.

But even today --

KURTZ: Has he charmed journalists so that they would disarm until recently?

SMITH: He charmed people and, journalists included, but even this morning, a tough piece on the front page of "The New York Times" about his background as a lobbyist.

KURTZ: I thought you were a hard hitting -- that couldn't be charmed by these mere politicians.

SMITH: From other guy.

KURTZ: Now, questions on his position on abortion, for example, where he seemed to be edging toward a pro-choice opposition and he backed off, the 9-9-9 plan, the electrified fence. The journalists are trying to take down Herman Cain with his barrage.

HOLMES: No, I think that these questions are appropriate and, you know, politics ain't bean bags. It is a Republican primary.

KURTZ: Are the questions overdue?

HOLMES: Overdue? No. I think that it was appropriate to pose them when it seems that he is a more serious candidate. I mean, let's face it -- yes, he is charming, but also, there are only so many hours of the day, and there are a lot of Republican primary candidates standing on that stage and each of them certainly deserves scrutiny for GOP voters to be able to make their decisions.

But national media is not going to get into it.

MILBANK: I mean, look, I have been in the tank for the Hermanator from the beginning because I love political theater. But I think there are --


MILBANK: I love that, too. But I think there are a lot of journalists who enjoy the side show and enjoy these candidates that way. But this is another case where the press follows the polls.

You know, we followed Ron Paul so little that he is complaining. Give me more coverage, ask me more questions. So, it's just a matter of when they say, OK, well, I guess, according to the polls, he is viable, we better ask tough questions. And then it's a (INAUDIBLE) because it's so easy to knock him off point.

HOLMES: Right. But I do think that there is still an ideological angle to this in the sense of really boring into these issues if you contrast that with President Obama when he was campaigning, he was vacillating and ambiguous about his position on gay marriage. He said that marriage was sanctified union between a man and woman. He came to this belief in his Christian faith and tradition, but his positions are --

KURTZ: So, you're saying Obama never got the press scrutiny in '07 and '08.

HOLMES: No, he didn't.

MILBANK: He certainly didn't get the scrutiny that his opponents did.

SMITH: Herman Cain was not taken seriously as a candidate at the beginning, so the questions weren't very serious. And then he rose in the polls, and the questions got more penetrating.

KURTZ: Well, I take is -- I understand these candidates -- let's take them seriously from the beginning and not playing hard a game when suddenly is rising in an all-important public opinion polls. I will give Cain credit for this. He does a lot of interviews, whereas Rick Perry except for that round of morning shows a week ago did has basically off TV, and Mitt Romney almost never subjects himself to this kind of questioning. Speaking of Rick Perry, his wife Anita Perry last week had a really eye-catching quote. I'm sure you all saw. "We," meaning her husband really, "have been brutalized, eaten up, chewed up in the press." And she attributed it in part to her husband's faith.

A legitimate complaint?

HOLMES: I am sure it's difficult to be in a national campaign and in particular to see your husband --

KURTZ: Yes, he is running for president.

HOLMES: She's the wife of the GOP hopeful. But what I thought here that, again, on ideological bias, which was to really bore into the spouse's remarks rather than saying, look, she's a spouse, she's not running. She has a personal vested interest.

And on the other side, Michelle Obama, she got the press to protect her from a lot of this criticism by saying, she's a spouse. She has a vested emotional interest it.

KURTZ: Well, I'm not criticizing Anita Perry. I'm just saying -- does she have a point, or does have she a legitimate beef?

MILBANK: I'm not sure it's ideological, but there definitely is a bias against Rick Perry in the press. I mean, that's very clear. I think it's a personality bias because --

KURTZ: Style? That's the nature of it.

MILBANK: It's his style and he goes out -- you know, obviously has contempt for the press. So, I think that probably makes it mutual. Others are a little better at --

KURTZ: You're saying reporters, particularly those of eastern establishment variety, not sympathetic to kind of a cowboy shoots from the lip Texan?

MILBANK: Well, we weren't that way with George W. Bush, but I think it's a matter of him being seen as, you know, an alien creature to --


SMITH: They don't like candidates that drop their g's. And most I would ago, Rick Perry's criticisms and problems are self inflicted. All right? He really does invite it.

KURTZ: Speaking of Perry, there was, of course, a CNN debate this week in Las Vegas when Perry and Mitt Romney really went at it. They got a lot of attention.

I want to show you one of the sequences that ends with former Governor Romney asking for help from the moderator.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You had the -- your newspaper -- the newspaper --

ROMNEY: I'm speaking. I'm speaking. I'm speaking.


ROMNEY: You get 30 seconds. This is the way the rules work here, is that I get 60 seconds and then you get 30 second to respond. Right?



KURTZ: OK, jump off here. That got so much attention, but the fact is Rick Perry was trampling the rules, not letting the guy get a sentence out. So, he asked Anderson to enforce the rules. Should Anderson Cooper have stepped and said give him a chance to respond?

SMITH: Well, the moderator is supposed to do that. It's certainly is a lot better in television when people don't talk over one another.

KURTZ: It was good TV.

SMITH: Well, you say it is and many people, many producers say that's good TV. I think it's horrible TV, and sort of gives me a headache. Beyond that, I'm not surprised by it.

KURTZ: They were fighting over an old story in the "Boston Globe" back in 2006 about whether Romney knowingly used illegal immigrants to cut his lawn. He said he didn't know about the lawn company.

Why was so much attention paid not just to the bickering but to the moment, and I think we have a shot of it, when Romney dared put his hand on Perry's shoulder and people wrote about this like he slugged the guy?


HOLMES: Physical contact.

MILBANK: I think the coverage is justified. I think it's right because that picture and that exchange told us a great deal about both of these men a great deal, more than you would about some simple recitation of their policies on immigration. You saw this sort of over-caffeinated Rick Perry being a little too aggressive and you finally saw that Romney has a pulse.

HOLMES: Right.

MILBANK: So, I think people, you know, say, wait a second. I'm learning about this guy.

HOLMES: And it's always -- it's always eye-catching when the politicians invade one another's personal space.

MILBANK: I agree.


HOLMES: I mean, you remember Hillary Clinton and --

KURTZ: Rick Lazio, yes.

HOLMES: Yes, with Rick Lazio, and Al Gore with George Bush when he strode across the stage and George Bush sort of gave him this look to brush him off. And those physical moments --

KURTZ: Back on my earlier moments, did Anderson Cooper put Romney in a difficult spot by not stepping in himself?

HOLMES: You know, I think that's a tough one when it is just such a melee, and try to pull those candidates apart and disentanglement all of that? What I saw is how comfortable Mitt Romney is on a first name basis with Anderson. Hey, Anderson --

MILBANK: Anderson had a great line. He said, Republicans -- I thought Republicans followed the rules. That was a good line.

KURTZ: We're all on a first name basis with Anderson.

All right. One more break because up next, I want to talk about the media seeming utterly polarized over those Wall Street protests. Are we getting the full picture?


KURTZ: The media coverage has intensified since the "Occupy Wall Street" protests have gone global. And there have been more clashes with police. A hundred people arrested last night in Chicago.

But the carping by conservative commentators and surely by some liberal types makes you wonder whether they're looking at the same demonstrators.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: These people -- they're not winning and they're not going to win. They're loons.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: My Virginia public school education tells me the 99 percent movement is twice as popular as the nut jobs in the Tea Party.

ERIC BOLLING, FOX NEWS: These communist, Nazi --

BOB BECKEL, FOX NEWS: I haven't called the Tea Party people fascists. BOLLING: -- pot smoking, sex addicted morons. And you compared them to the Tea Party?


KURTZ: Let's keep the debate on this high level, shall we?

Dana Milbank, you went down to the protests here in D.C. When you look at those kinds clips, are the lefty pundits and righty pundits projecting their views on these Wall Street protesters, almost like a war shock test?

MILBANK: I'm insulted you came to me immediately after sex- addicted morons.

But, yes. I mean, they are. This is exactly, look, we're seeing a mirror image of the complaints from the left about the Tea Party and sort of the fueling by FOX News on the right.

Now, we're seeing the exact same thing happen on the other side. The complaints, they're not saying it's Astroturf. They're saying -- they have other insults for it, and we're seeing the same sort of behaviors at MSNBC.

KURTZ: Now, Amy Holmes, you went to the demonstrations in New York. Are the mainstream media treating "Occupy Wall Street" a bit more sympathetically than they did the Tea Party?

HOLMES: I think they are at GBTV, if I can give us a plug, we have been following, you know, who is behind this, who is funding it, where do these beautifully produced, you know, sort of faux newspapers come from. So, I notice that haven't gotten coverage, you see this hodge-podge of leftist causes and posters, seem that don't make sense, people doing some customs and it's pretty right down there, that you don't see any representation or any representative from feminist causes, which surprised me. No wage gap ceiling, not talk about women if they were bankers, maybe Wall Street would be a friend leer place.

And now, we're getting reports of sexual assaults there, and the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters are advising people not to go to the police.

KURTZ: OK. You know, there's a pretty good story in "The Washington Post" this morning about interviewing both Wall Street protesters and Tea Party protesters. But I think the challenge for journalists, Terry, is figuring out what the protesters want because there's no established leadership. And it's easy to focus on a few crazy people with signs or people who are engaging in appropriate behavior. But it's harder to make judgments on the movement as a whole.

SMITH: I think that's right. And actually I think mainstream media were slow to pick up on this story. It is a phenomenon that has gone global.

I went down to the demonstration in Freedom Square here in Washington and looked at this rather benign scene to tell you the truth. But this is -- I mean, this is a phenomenon. And if it's unformed and if the issues are ill-defined, it's still worthy of substantial reporting.

And the commentary will come at it from two directions. But I think it's a phenomenon that will get more attention, not less.

KURTZ: And speaking of mainstream media, some people will actually have some involvement with the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters. One of them is Lisa Simeone, the host of a show called "The World of Opera," that was distributed by National Public Radio. NPR is now dropping distribution of it. It was distributed by someone else. And she had no documentary show she was fired from because Lisa Simeone also serving as an "Occupy Wall Street" spokesperson.

Does that overlap?

HOLMES: Well, two key points here when I read about her getting fired. First, she was fired from the show, not by NPR.

KURTZ: Right.

HOLMES: NPR distributes the show.

KURTZ: Right.

HOLMES: And I think the key point here was because a programming director complained and as someone from the radio world, you listen to your programming directors because they're the ones making decision whether or not you'll be on the air.

Secondly, NPR is in the middle of a fund-raising drive. So, they certainly don't want this when they're asking listeners for money.

KURTZ: On "The Opera Show," Simeone had a great quote. She says, "What is NPR afraid I'll do -- insert a seditious comment into synopsis of Madame Butterfly?"

But on the other hand

MILBANK: That's right. But if that person -- excuse me -- at "The Washington Post" had done the same thing, I think there may have been a similar reaction.

KURTZ: Even if it was a music critic?

MILBANK: Yes, because that's the policy.

And NPR has a big target on it right now because of mistakes they made in the past. So, they overreacted to Juan Williams, they're going to overreact to a lot of things because of the target.

SMITH: You know, it's worth pointing out she was also an anchor on the weekend edition before on NPR. In other words, if you're on an organization that presents news, whether you're doing it that moment or not, steer clear of this sort of thing. KURTZ: Setting me up for the next question about MSNBC anchor Dylan Ratigan who has spoken frequently on the air with some sympathy for the Wall Street protesters. Let me show you a clip and we'll have the question on the other side.


DYLAN RATIGAN, MSNBC ANCHOR: I was there after the 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. And the energy that night at the general assembly that Tim was just talking about was loving and warm and more courageous, more resolute.


KURTZ: So there's some leaked E-mails, Terry, obtained by the conservative side of the government in which Dylan Ratigan is obviously helping to shape the message.

Here's one for him to focus on, simple shared principles and unique strength. And here's another E-mail from another person saying, "Here it is, a statement the group is going to put out with Dylan suggesting revisions the ending needs smoothing out. Is that troubling?

SMITH: Totally inappropriate. Absolutely wrong and not new. Journalists have fallen into the trap of telling politicians how to shape their message, now protesters how to shape their message. It is a big mistake. They shouldn't do it. It is crossing the line.

KURTZ: But this is - you know, it's one thing if you want to go on the air and say, "Look, I have been talking to these people, and here is my advice." This is behind the scenes. It's not something MSNBC would know anything about.

MILBANK: But this is the world we live in now. So I don't think - you may not like it. Nobody should be surprised by it. And this sort of thing goes on. The line has been blurred between activism and between journalism.

I mean, I suppose if we're going to look at gradations and, you know, shades of gray here, it is perhaps better to be fomenting a movement like "Occupy Wall Street" or the Tea Party event actually getting in and helping a political candidate. So -

HOLMES: I think it is very problematic, and Fox had a flare-up where one of their executives was advising the Bush campaign. That person was fired. But we do see -

KURTZ: Advising?

HOLMES: I believe so. There were e-mails going back and forth. What we do see this blurring, and here at CNN, James Carville and Paul Begala, it was reported, were having morning phone conversation with Rahm Emanuel when he was chief of staff.

KURTZ: Which they say were friendly calls, but both of them - look, the people who are outside contributors - they help parties raise money -

HOLMES: You can say that about this host Simeone, that she said she was an independent person with an independent show being distributed by NPR. So why should she have to -

KURTZ: But here in the case of Dylan Ratigan, we have a guy who is a host, who is on everyday at 4:00 in the afternoon, part of MSNBC corporate family, who was involved in E-mails with a group that he is covering.

Would the media coverage - we're running a little short of time here - have been different if this had been a host at Fox News having E-mails with the tea party?

HOLMES: Absolutely. Absolutely.

SMITH: The only defense is that he is commentator, really, and entertainer, not news deliverer, and that's not much of a defense.

HOLMES: But how can you ever hope to have, you know, somebody regarded as fair when he has a politician, someone is running for office, that they're going to have fair sit-downs.

KURTZ: I don't see him as an entertainer at all and I think it is a mistake as well. Amy Holmes, Dana Milbank and Terrence Smith, thanks for stopping by this morning.

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, he has moderated more presidential debates than anyone in history and has the scars to show for it. We go to videotape with Jim Lehrer.


KURTZ: When the history of presidential debates is written one journalist will get as much ink as any of the candidates.

Jim Lehrer has moderated 11 of these general election face-offs going back to 1988. What is it like to deal with that kind of pressure in trying to get the contenders to move beyond their scripted responses?

I spoke with the longtime PBS anchor here in the studio.


(on camera) Jim Lehrer, welcome.

JIM LEHRER, PBS ANCHOR: Thank you. Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: I've watched you in the studio. I've watched you before these presidential debates. I was at one of the McCain-Obama debates last time.

You seem like the calmest guy in the world, and you write in this book you get anxious before these debates. LEHRER: Absolutely. Anybody who doesn't is an idiot or a liar or one of the two. It's impossible not to - in fact, I - in the book as you know, I compare it to walking down the blade of a very sharp knife, moderate one of these things, because the stakes are impossibly high. And -

KURTZ: You don't want to screw up.

LEHRER: You do not want to screw up.

KURTZ: And you say you get in a zone.


KURTZ: Even your wife is not supposed to disturb that zone. What goes on in that zone?

LEHRER: Well, the zone is a comfort level where I feel I know enough, I've got enough in my head not to write - anybody could sit down and write great questions - but be comfortable enough to be able to listen to the answers and say, "Yes. That's new. That's fresh."

KURTZ: Follow-up?

LEHRER: Follow-up. Or that isn't. Forget it. Move on. And that takes - you don't have any help. You don't have any time to make those decisions. You have to make them right there with the whole world watching.

And so that comfort zone is to be relaxed enough to listen. Otherwise, you become the prisoner of your prepared questions.

KURTZ: You're thinking of what comes next.


LEHRER: What's the time, cue - what is all of that sort of stuff? And you lose sight of what your mission is, which is to pay attention to what's being said and help the audience.

Remember, this isn't about anybody other than the audience, particularly those debates. They're for people trying to make up their minds between Billy Bob and Sammy Sue, and you want to help them.

KURTZ: Let's look at some of these television moments.


KURTZ: I've made a little list here. We'll play it in the studio. 1996, Bob Dole against Bill Clinton. You asked this question of the former senator.


LEHRER: Sen. Dole, we talked mostly now about differences between the two of you that relate to policy issues and that sort of thing. Are there also significant differences in the more personal area that are relevant to this election?

FMR. SEN. ROBERT JOSEPH DOLE (R-KS), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't like to get into personal matters. As far as I'm concerned, this is a campaign about issues.


KURTZ: What were you getting at, Jim?

LEHRER: I was getting at the woman issue.

KURTZ: It's the elephant in the room, so to speak.

LEHRER: It's the elephant in the room. And I had decided that, here again, I made a decision ahead of time, that if it didn't come up naturally, I would bring it up eventually.

KURTZ: But you didn't bring it up explicitly.


KURTZ: You didn't ask about Paula Jones and the lawsuit. You didn't ask about Jennifer Flowers.

LEHRER: Gennifer Flowers.

KURTZ: You just kind of served it up almost in kind of a code.

LEHRER: Absolutely. And if Dole wanted to make an issue out of it, he was going to have to. I was not going to be the one who made it an issue. And Dole chose - as you're hearing - Dole chose not to.

And then I followed up on that with Kemp at the vice presidential debate. He wouldn't do it either because he had made a decision not to do it.

KURTZ: Right. Yes, this came back to you when you were at "NewsHour" a little more than a year later. "The Washington Post" had this huge front-page story, independent counsel Kenneth Starr investigating Bill Clinton's relationship with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Here's the president of the United States on your program and this is how you handled it.


LEHRER: Mr. President, is that true?

BILL CLINTON, FMR. UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: That is not true. That is not true. I did not ask anyone to tell anything other than the truth. There is no improper relationship and I intend to cooperate with this inquiry. But that is not true.

LEHRER: Improper relationship - define what you mean by that.

CLINTON: I think you know what it means. It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship.

LEHRER: You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?

CLINTON: There is not a sexual relationship. That is accurate.


KURTZ: And what did you miss in that interview?

LEHRER: Oh, man, I missed what he was saying. I missed the whole - I mean, thank you, Howard, for running that.

KURTZ: It is in the book.

LEHRER: I know it's in the book. I mean, it is the single worst professional mistake I ever made. There again, I was nervous, no question about it. You have to be nervous in a situation like that.

It was the first interview after the story broke, and I let my nervousness get the best of me. And I was speaking in a past tense. He was speaking in the present tense.

KURTZ: You followed up and you followed up.

LEHRER: I did.

KURTZ: And he kept saying there is no improper relationship.

LEHRER: And I didn't realize what had happened until I got back to my office afterwards and I was talking to my wife. We had allowed unprecedented thing.

We were doing this interview for Kate to run on the "NewsHour" and all the networks wanted it and they wanted it live, so we did the good thing.

KURTZ: You gave it away.

LEHRER: Gave it away, just literally gave it away. So the whole world watched that. And when I got to the office, my wife, Kate, said on the phone, "That was terrific, Jim."

"But by the way, one of the girls, we have three daughters, one of the girls said that you didn't pick up on the fact that he was using the present tense and you were using the past tense. He was using the present tense."

And I thought, oh, my god. Fortunately, I escaped because there was so much stuff about it, and nobody - no Howard Kurtz came along and handed me my head over it. But I felt like an idiot and deservedly so. I mean, it was just a perfect example of the kind of thing that I preach against all the time, you know, which is pay attention to what people are saying. Listen and listen and follow up, and I missed it.

KURTZ: Which is why I am now listening very carefully to you. Let's go to one more. This is in 2000, George W. Bush against Al Gore. And you were challenging then-Gov. Bush with these words. Let's take a look.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: Your folks are saying some awful things.

LEHRER: I hope they're not awful things.

BUSH: Well, what I mean is that the economy -


LEHRER: What I mean is you're calling him a serial exaggerator.

BUSH: I don't believe I've used those words.

LEHRER: No, but your campaign has. Maybe half your campaign officials have.




KURTZ: You took a lot of heat for that, for saying (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

LEHRER: I said it was in his commercial and it wasn't in his commercial. His press secretary had said it - a press secretary said it. And they called my hand on it.

And here again, I was moderating all the debates, so I had the next debate to do. And I decided that it was, you know, wrong. I was wrong, technically wrong. Theoretically, I mean, in a general way, I was right on the money.

KURTZ: Sure.

LEHRER: But technically, I was wrong, so I admitted the mistake on the air beginning of the next debate. And everybody laughed because they couldn't figure out what's wrong with that? Well, I knew what was wrong.

KURTZ: Well, there was a time when you did get a lot of criticism as a moderator. As you recount in the book, it was a "New York Times" headline, "Critics accuse moderator of letting the debate wander." And there was a lot in there about - as though there was some kind of sharing hours instead of politics at Harvard.

You were also pretty candidate. You say, "I don't handle criticism well." Did you feel stung by the reaction?

LEHRER: Oh, sure. I did. First of all, criticism is something that I don't like at all, period. But I particularly don't like criticism that I think is unfair.

Now, criticism that is fair, I still don't like it, but I don't react to it and I can handle it. And over a period of time, I have been able to discern the difference between fair criticism and unfair criticism.

Criticism, if somebody else has - in other words, in this case after it was all said and done, I fully understood what was going on. The Gore people, not Gore - but the Gore people wanted to get me on the defensive. And -

KURTZ: Working the ref?

LEHRER: Absolutely, working ref. At least, it has to work in every angle because that's what it's all about. And you know that and I know that.

All they care about is winning. And if you can rough up, get the moderator a little bit nervous going, "Excuse me," that's a great thing, and that's what they were doing.

KURTZ: Let's go to one more of this in 2008. You were trying to get Barack Obama and John McCain to engage.


LEHRER: Do you have something directly to say, Sen. Obama, to Sen. McCain about what he just said.

BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: Ten days ago, John said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. I do not think we're there.

LEHRER: Say it directly to him. Say it directly to him.

OBAMA: I will.

LEHRER: I'm just determined to get you all to talk to each other. I'm going to try.


KURTZ: Why were you so determined, and why was it so hard?

LEHRER: Well, the reason I was determined, it was the first time that, actually, specifically allowed this in the debate rules.

I remember the debate rules are negotiated among the debate commission and the representatives of the candidates. And they agreed specifically, for the first time, they could speak to each other and they could ask each other questions. I was determined as the moderator to - because it was a new thing and I thought it would make for better debate.

KURTZ: McCain, in particular, did not want to do that.

LEHRER: McCain would not do it. Why he wouldn't do it, I do not know, but it wouldn't. And it hurt him. No question it hurt him because he came over as, you know - I don't know.

It came over to some people at least. There was a criticism that he was dissing Obama, because Obama did - when I told him to look - he looked. I mean, he was cool and he called John McCain "John." And McCain would not do that for his own reasons.


KURTZ: In a moment, Jim Lehrer on his difficult decision to step down from the "NewsHour."


KURTZ: Well, now, it's my sit-down with veteran anchor, Jim Lehrer.


(on camera) Some of the recent debates in this presidential season - you had Fox News sponsoring one with Google. And you had YouTube questions which CNN co-sponsored with the tea party.

Of course, it's more difficult when there are seven or eight or nine candidates on the stage. But do you think some of these additions are good or distracting for the process?

LEHRER: You know, I think they're fine. And I think, particularly, in the primary debates, try anything. That's where you want to try it.

My only problem with the debate - the debates during the primaries is when they don't treat the candidates exactly the same.

This idea of putting the frontrunners in the middle and beginning to let them do a two-way and let it run for 10 or 15 minutes and the other people just stand there - I don't really think that's the way it ought to be.

KURTZ: Now, you say you are out of the business of moderating presidential debates.

LEHRER: Right. Absolutely.

KURTZ: You know, next season, the commission comes to you, says, "Jim, you've got to do this for your country." LEHRER: I will say, "I've done it for my country," and that's one of the reasons I wrote this book. When I made the decision to write the book, it was part of the decision I wasn't going to do any more debates.

And I've done 11 of them and I feel good about it. I feel - you know, I've survived. You know, I've got some psychic scars in me.

But I'm reasonably proud of what I have done and I'm delighted and I've felt honored to be asked to do it. But it's time for others to it.

KURTZ: You started the "NewsHour" with Robert MacNeil, of course, in 1975.

LEHRER: Right.

KURTZ: Four months ago, you stepped away from your full-time role, you know, coming on Fridays. How hard a decision was it to move away from that program that had been part of your life for so long?

LEHRER: It's difficult, extremely difficult for all kinds of reasons. One of them is just on a personal level. I've been in daily journalism for 50 years. Daily journalism, I have to tell you, means that you live with deadlines.

And deadlines can either be - can scare people to death and make them very young or make them very old, whatever. And in my case, deadlines never scared me. And they're part of - they make my blood - they make the blood rush to my brain.

And it's a very exciting kind of thing. It's a little boy, little girl work. Daily journalism is listening to the sirens and, "Oh, my god! Is that a fire truck? Is that a police car?" And you want to know what it is and where it's going.

KURTZ: It sounds to me like you miss it.

LEHRER: Oh, sure I miss it. But I miss it on my terms. In other words, the decision, as you know, because you wrote about it at the time - it was my decision to kind of glide away and see, first of all, whether or not, you know, all our changes were going to work and also just seeing how I could have handled it.

And I've discovered, to my delight, that I'm very much at ease about it and I couldn't be happier. And I'm not - it's not - I'm not - I'm replacing the deadlines, the deadline mentality, the deadline way of thinking of life, and I can create my own deadlines.

As a writer, you have to create your own deadlines. As you know, nobody cares whether you write another book or not. So you have to create your own deadlines. So I've gotten used to that and I couldn't be happier.

KURTZ: There is life after daily journalism.

LEHRER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KURTZ: Jim Lehrer, thanks very much for joining us.

LEHRER: Thank you, Howard.


KURTZ: Still to come, Fox News hires a former governor famous for something other than governor. And Bryant Gumbel's black-and- white slam against the NBA. The "Media Monitor" straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," where we're looking for hits and errors in the news business. And here's what I like.

The "New York Times" moved beyond the cheap shots and incendiary rhetoric about Mitt Romney's religion with a deeply-reported story on his role as a bishop and senior official in the Mormon Church, including interviews with people he counseled. Not much to like in this one. Now, "Fox and Friends" story seemed pretty wild.

President Obama was going to apologize to Japan for the U.S. dropping the two atomic bombs during World War II, but Japanese officials said, "Thanks but no thanks"? Well, the story was bogus as the co-host, Steve Doocy acknowledged last week.


STEVE DOOCY, CO-HOST, "FOX AND FRIENDS": The story was about a possible apology from President Obama to the country of Japan for the United States dropping atomic bombs on that country during World War II.

Well, we want to make sure this is very clear. There was never a plan for President Obama to apologize to Japan. Should have been clearer about this, and we are sorry for any confusion.


KURTZ: Speaking of Fox News, the network has added yet another Republican politician to its payroll, but I don't think we'll see this one running for president.

Mark Sanford is the former South Carolina governor who gained notoriety for carrying on with the woman he called his argentine soul mate.

Comedian Harry Shearer tweeted that maybe Sanford will become the Appalachian Trail correspondent. That's where he claimed to be when he was visiting his gal pal, an unusual choice, but the scandal sure did boost his name recognition.

With a bitter labor dispute already claiming the opening weeks of the NBA season, HBO's Bryant Gumbel said this about Commissioner David Stern, who runs the league in which most of the players are black. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRYANT GUMBEL, HOST, "REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL": The commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys.


KURTZ: Now, Gumbel is obviously entitled to bash term for this infuriating impasse. But to me, that racially-charged remark seems out of bounds.

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.