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Reliable Sources

Rush's "Slut" Attack Sparks Furor; President Obama to Address AIPAC

Aired March 04, 2012 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.


KURTZ: We are standing by for President Obama's speech to AIPAC. That will begin within moments. We will bring that to you live.

But in the meantime, Rush Limbaugh, as you may know, is in the business of generating controversy, and he did just that this week in spades. By singling out a Georgetown University law student who tried to testify on the Hill for insurance coverage of birth control, Limbaugh was picking on a sympathetic figure.

And the media descended on Sandra Fluke, giving her a high profile platform to fight back.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.

BILL MAHER, NBC NEWS: What was your first reaction when you heard the comments?

SANDRA FLUKE, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW STUDENT: Well, I think my reaction was the reaction that a lot of women have had when historically they've been called these types of names, and that really I think a lot of women across America have had to this. And that was initially to be stunned by it, but then to quickly feel outraged and very upset.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the echoes of this media maelstrom and the twist in the presidential campaign: Julie Mason, host of Sirius XM Radio's "The Press Pool"; David Frum, contributor for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast," and an analyst for CNN; and Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post."

David Frum, you are a conservative who has been critical of Rush Limbaugh. I mean, this is part of what he does. He likes to stoke outrage and draw attention by saying things that are a bit over the line.

This time, with the president of the United States calling this young woman, it seems to have sparked a greater than usual furor.

DAVID FRUM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, what is good for Rush Limbaugh is not necessarily what is good for the Republican Party. But he has been able to discipline the party so that he goes from rating success to rating success. But it leaves the party behind him in smoking ruin because there are women all across America and husbands of women and fathers of women and brothers of women and sons of women who respond to this by saying I think that's about the worst thing I have ever heard on radio.

But I did have one constructive suggestion. There's one further clip that Rush that you didn't have time for where Rush Limbaugh invited Susan -- I'm sorry, Sandra fluke to post a sex tape of herself on the Internet.


FRUM: Now, he's issued a kind of grudging apology on his Web site. I think it would be a nice gesture if he were to send Sandra Fluke one of his sex tapes.


JULIE MASON, SIRIUS XM RADIO: Something America does not need.

KURTZ: You have woken us up this Sunday morning.

Dana Milbank, Limbaugh did lose about a half dozen advertisers. We'll see if they come back. He did apologize. I'll read that in a moment.

But Sandra Fluke was all over MSNBC. She was in NBC's "Today" show, as we saw. They love that story, almost nothing on FOX News about this. So, we see the choosing of ideological sides as to whether or not the slut comments were truly offensive.

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST: Yes, but I think this was a good reaction by the media. You know, Rush Limbaugh says any number of outrageous things all the time, and people will say, oh, that's Rush being Rush.

But I think it's better to put the spotlight on these guys. I certainly wrote about this. We did a lot of it at "The Washington Post" and having her front and center on the "Today" show is a good idea, and this should occur whenever this -- you know, if people are out there saying outrageous things, OK, smoke them out. Don't just say that's just how it is.

I mean, that's what was going on with Glenn Beck. That's why he was eventually exposed and people said, we just don't want this on our airwaves. KURTZ: Is this different, Julie Mason, because rather than using strong language to beat up on Nancy Pelosi, for example, Limbaugh had picked out this, you know, Georgetown University law student who no one had ever heard of who seemed like a pretty sympathetic figure?

MASON: Yes, of course, it's different. I think the danger now is that Democrats could overplay their hand. There's talk of a lawsuit against Rush Limbaugh, and they have had Democrats that use it this to raise money.

What he said was appalling. It's reprehensible. But there's a danger of overkill on the other side now.

KURTZ: Is there a danger of overkill in the media coverage? For example, early this morning, Newt Gingrich on "Meet the Press" said, well, why is the elite media not talking about gas prices or other issues that would make President Obama look bad? They suddenly decide that Rush Limbaugh is the great national crisis of the week.

MASON: All of these things are being covered. It's not an either/or proposition. That's a false comparison. People are covering gas prices and jobs and the economy and everything else.

This is a distraction. It's a horrible one, but the media has an obligation to highlight when these things are said in the public venue.

KURTZ: Well, I have an obligation to read what Limbaugh said. We're going to break away in a moment, but we'll put his statement up on the screen. And this is late Saturday, after days of continuing his assault on Sandra Fluke.

"For over 20 years," says Rush, "I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices."

So, in part, he is saying I'm just an entertainer here that maybe went a little too far.

FRUM: You know, it was about the most graceless apology ever.

KURTZ: Ever?


FRUM: It is interesting to contrast that with the heartfelt, on air, in person apologies delivered by David Letterman and Ed Schultz. David Letterman, after he said -- he told an ugly joke about one of Sarah Palin's children, he was on there for seven minutes on his own show in his own voice. Not written by a publicist.

Ed Schultz said a disgraceful thing on his radio program. KURTZ: He used the word slut --

FRUM: About Laura.

KURTZ: -- referring to Laura Ingraham.

FRUM: Yes, it was horrible.

KURTZ: MSNBC suspended him, and he --

FRUM: He didn't say it on MSNBC.

KURTZ: He said on the radio.

FRUM: Yes, but on the radio. And he apologized in person.

This is something that has the -- it actually repeats a lot of the accusations. It apologizes for word choice, but I mean, the suggestion that maybe should have used a more refined word to describe this woman, but the --

MASON: Simply his choice of words.

FRUM: Exactly. It's a whole technical vocabulary that he might have used. It was graceless, and I think it's going to -- that's why it's going to linger. And even if it doesn't linger for him, it's going to linger for all those conservatives out there who now are in a position having to take a stance on this which is not a thing that Republicans want to be doing.

KURTZ: Look how much -- I mean, is there something to the notion that there's a double standard that it's worse for conservatives. Look Dana Milbank, how much Ed Schultz using the word slut got, and admittedly, he apologized in a very manner very quickly, and how this Rush story has become the front page top of the newscast.

MILBANK: Not at all, because Ed Schultz is reaching tens or at most hundreds of thousands of people, and Rush Limbaugh is reaching tens of millions of people. And I think we should get rid of this whole canard that Rush Limbaugh is not part of the mainstream media. He is reaching far more than any of us at this table is reaching.

I mean, the idea that the conservatives or the people on the left would say, you know, criticize the mainstream media, let's just get used to it. We're -- they're all part of the mainstream media. Now, Andrew Breitbart was part of the mainstream media. It's all -- there's no such exemption (ph).

KURTZ: But let me come back to the fact that this is barely been on the radar screen at FOX News. And last year when Ed Schultz used the slut word, the s-word, Sean Hannity was all over him. There are certain words you never say about a woman to a woman ever, ever, ever. It was over the line. It was distasteful.

And during this Rush thing came up slightly on the Hannity show, they complained about the left not criticizing its own, but he didn't have a word to say against Limbaugh. And it was almost treated as a non-story on FOX.

MASON: Yes, I know. I'm glad you're calling them out on that.

Republicans have done themselves a terrible disservice to women in the past few months, and FOX is now perpetuating that. If they want to be taken seriously as a credible news organization, then I would say that the reporters and Bret Baier and some of the anchors at FOX are excellent, excellent journalists. But there's this whole other part of FOX News that contributes that they don't have credibility, and the news side has got to correct the other side, the commentary side.

KURTZ: Let me turn in our remaining moments to the presidential campaign. You'll remember the drumbeat early this week was whether or not Romney could win the state where he grew up. Could he win Michigan? How badly would his campaign be damaged if he failed to win Michigan? Well, he won Michigan, as you may recall.

This is -- let's take a look at some of the coverage.


SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: It was a close call for Mitt Romney last night in the Michigan primary. Romney won his home state by only about three points.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: It wasn't easy. Even he admitted it was an ugly win.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: This cannot be -- it cannot turn out to be a Romney win tonight because a Romney win is defined as -- it's all over.

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST: Mitt Romney won both of these events tonight, but winning ugly in this way is not necessarily what the friends and supporters of Mitt Romney wanted.




KURTZ: Just before the president's speech to AIPAC, I had played some sound bite from the presidential campaign about the coverage of Mitt Romney winning, not just Arizona, but his home state of Michigan by three points.

And Dana Milbank, the phrase you kept hearing over and over again was it was an ugly win, he won ugly. You almost got the impression that Romney had lost Michigan despite the fact that he won.

MILBANK: A lot of goal post shifting going on in the press right now, and I think that's for the simple reason as we don't want this race to be over. So I think everybody - if you sort of woke any of us up in the middle of the night, we say, yes, Romney is going to figure this out and win this somehow.

It's probably want going to be a brokered convention, but that's not a good story for us. It's a boring story for us. So I think we like to keep building the tension and saying, "No, no, this one is really make or break. That one? No, no, this one is make or break."

KURTZ: It's Ohio on Super Tuesday. So there's now a devastating indictment from Dana. He's saying basically that we are putting our thumb on the scales, collectively, we journalists, because we want to keep the race against Santorum going. Do you agree with that?

MASON: I do. I do. Reporters are very biased in favor of a good story, and Mitt Romney sort of dead-eyed marched to the nomination is not a good story.

So I see so much attention and excitement paid to, like, races that are close and going the other way. I thought it was interesting that Ann Romney, last week, said she wanted to strangle the press.

KURTZ: Whoa. I didn't know - that's going a little far in my view. There seems something about the way the media covered Mitt Romney.

It seems that when he loses, we certainly pile on, and even when he wins, we kind of minimize it, maybe for the reason these folks are suggesting, maybe for other reasons.

Maybe the press just doesn't really feel like, you know, Romney's not much fun to cover as Santorum. He's more scripted. Your thoughts?

DAVID FRUM, CNN ANALYST AND CONTRIBUTOR FOR "NEWSWEEK" AND "DAILY BEAST": One of the things mentioned in the coverage which is because of the Michigan going out of the designated sequence by the party. Its cache of delegates has been reduced by half.

So you think of Michigan as a big state that's a really big prize. This time, it's not actually such a big prize. I think the reporters do like a contest.

I think there's a lot of respect for Romney in the press because he is so amazingly smart. Sometimes that plays against him.

It means that when he makes a mistake, as happened when he talked about the blunt bill, and he took a while. He got a question on the phone, he took a while to get his footing as to whether he supported this amendment or not.

No one will accept, well, he was just confused because he's Mitt Romney. He's never allowed to be confused.

KURTZ: The Blunt bill having to do with contraception coverage.


When Romney says, "I'm not going to light my hair on fire in saying incendiary just to get, you know, better press coverage," he's kind of sending a message there. Does it mean that he doesn't want to go to the inflammatory route?

MILBANK: Well, he's sending that message, but then, you know, a minute later, he'll reverse his position on the Blunt amendment within a period of minutes.

KURTZ: Without lighting his hair on fire.

MILBANK: Without lighting his hair on fire and it's highly flammable.


FRUM: Sorry. He didn't reverse. He misunderstood the question the first time, and then he reiterated his consistent position.

And you're guilty of what I just - he's not allowed to say, "Oh, OK. I'm sorry. I thought that was a different bill that you were asking about."

KURTZ: But on the Rush Limbaugh slut attack, for example, that we talked about at the top of the program, even Rick Santorum said that that was an absurd thing to say. Mitt Romney said, "Well, I wouldn't have used that language."

MASON: "I wouldn't have used that language" -


MASON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) these tepid, non-denunciations. Again, Republicans are doing themselves a disservice of women. I mean, do they need women -



KURTZ: What is it about Rush Limbaugh that makes Republicans and conservatives so cautious that even when he says something for which he has to apologize -

MASON: Right.

KURTZ: They are very wary of saying anything?

MASON: It's what Dana said earlier. He has millions of listeners. He still influences a God-fearing nation. And they are afraid of alienating Rush Limbaugh and his listeners. That will be a terrible thing.

KURTZ: He is not a big fan of Mitt Romney. He seems a little more sympathetic towards Rick Santorum these days. Let me a get a break and we'll have more discussion on the other side.


KURTZ: The Republican National Committee put out some talking points this week guiding conservative pundits on what they should say about debt and unemployment and gas prices. And Jon Stewart had a little bit of fun looking at the subsequent coverage on Fox News.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The debt is the issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why isn't the national debt the main issue?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rising unemployment. Now, the country is deeper in debt.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Fifteen percent use six unemployment.

ERIC BOLLING, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: 8.5 unemployment and $4 for gas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is interesting there's no one talking about the gas prices.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why is nobody talking about this?

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": You don't have one of Fox's talking heads - I don't know - reading the memo aloud, much to the chagrin of one of the other talking heads sitting next to them, do we?

The RNC sees trouble for the president regarding this. And apparently, they sent out something according to the papers called "pundit prep" for their talking heads to go out.


KURTZ: He proceeded to read the memo. Is this a classic case, Julie Mason, of Fox News driving an anti-Obama story line?

MASON: Sure, it absolutely was. And it's false, too, because everyone was talking about gas prices last week. No one was really talking about the debt. There's not any movement there. But gas prices was a huge story and so is the economy, but not in the way that they described it.

FRUM: Look, Fox has its agenda. But in this case, there is a public interest here. One of the great problems we have is the recession is over for upper America, but it is very much present for two-thirds or three-quarters of the rest of America.

And whatever their agenda, if we can - Washington, where it's impossible to get a dinner reservation on a Thursday night, needs to be reminded this is an economy in deep crisis for the vast majority of people in this country. KURTZ: Let me (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Every one of these issues listed is legitimate and there are certainly points to be made that the economy, as you just pointed out, is not anywhere near fully recovered.

But are you suggesting - let me go to Dana. Do you think that this is a coincidence that so many of the Fox personalities seem to be accentuating the negative side in the wake of the RNC?

MILBANK: I would give fox more credit and say they're not responding to the RNC. They know full well to beat up on Obama on gas prices by themselves. That's a pretty obvious course to take.

KURTZ: Right.

MILBANK: Fox made some efforts, I think, to tone it back, pull back from the tea party here. But look, this is an obvious thing for a conservative to do right now.

The president is going to be blamed for high gas prices, but he's also going to get credit for the beginning to pick up in the economy, regardless of what Fox News or anybody else is saying.

KURTZ: But I mean, I don't see anybody on Fox News saying well, you know, you got to give Obama this because the stock market has come back to 13,000 to where it was when he first took office, when the economy - when the stock was dropping, when the Dow was plunging.

Hannity used to point it out almost every night. So the question, you know, these are all important subjects of debate. But you know, Jon Stewart went a comedic step further in saying Fox is rooting for bad economic news. I'm not buying that, but it does seem like there's a negative gloss often put on it.

FRUM: They're an oppositional network. And we have, in America - this is maybe the real story. We are seeing the return of a party press just like in the 19th century.

KURTZ: Right.

FRUM: You know, you drive through rural America. You'll see - you know, "The Jackson County Democrat" is the name of the paper. And in another place, it would be "The Clay County Republican."

And that's what we're going to have. MSNBC is "The Jackson County Democrat" and Fox News is "The Clay County Republican."

KURTZ: Well, I pointed it out earlier, MSNBC jumping all over the Rush Limbaugh-Sarah Fluke story in a way that others were not.

But you know, I wouldn't say that Fox is the oppositional network when it comes to journalists, as you were pointing out earlier, like Bret Baier or Chris Wallace.

And yet, even on Fox News shows, we were hearing this sort of drumbeat about, you know, discouraging economic news. MASON: Yes. No, I think these two gentlemen are right. There's been a shift at Fox News. Something is going on over there. And I'm not sure - does it have to do with the presidential campaign and an increasing partisanship of viewers?

MILBANK: But we are he all biased in favor of negative news. But whatever the ideology is, you know, we don't write stories about how many planes landed safely at international airport yesterday.

KURTZ: Right.

MILBANK: It's not interesting. So when the stock markets starts going up, let's go look for something else to do. It's not all ideology. It's a bias in favor of things that are negative, bad news.

MASON: Things that aren't working.

KURTZ: I have about half a minute. Does Obama unite many of the commentators at fox because they're not terribly enthusiastic about Romney, Rick Santorum or Gingrich?

FRUM: There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for Romney in the conservative press, but watch. That will change.

KURTZ: That will change, you're saying, as he closes in on the nomination -

FRUM: Yes.

KURTZ: And everyone's going to fall into line?

FRUM: Exactly.

KURTZ: All right. We'll see if that prediction holds true. David Frum, David Milbank, Julie Mason, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, that's it for this somewhat truncated edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can join us here again next Sunday Morning. This time, we'll start on time 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

You can also follow us on Facebook and on Twitter. And we will be back here to talk about the results of Super Tuesday, which is going to be the most important week yet in the presidential campaign. At least that's what we say.

"STATE OF THE UNION" is coming up next with Candy Crowley. She'll be live to talk about the president's AIPAC speech and a lot more than that. "STATE OF THE UNION" begins now.