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Reliable Sources

Limbaugh's Apology War; Sarah Palin's Movie Meltdown

Aired March 11, 2012 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: It's a tight rope that every caustic commentator must walk: whip up your fans by being incendiary without flaming out in the process.

After his crude attack in calling a law student a "slut", Rush Limbaugh used his microphone this week to apologize.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Against my own instincts, against my own knowledge, against everything I know to be right and wrong, I descended to their level, when I used those two words to describe Sandra fluke.


KURTZ: But with President Obama taking him on and many advertisers bailing on his radio program, is Rush in as much trouble as the drumbeat of coverage would suggest? And are journalists rougher on conservatives who talk their way into trouble?

The hot political movie "Game Change" had its premier last night, portraying Sarah Palin as stubborn, ignorant, and a bit of a head case.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was curious. What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand --

JULIANNE MOORE, ACTRESS (as Sarah Palin): I have read most of them, again, with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What ones specifically? I'm curious.


MOORE: All of them. Any of them that have been in front of me over all these years. I have --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God. What have we done?


KURTZ: But is the HBO film an accurate portrayal of her campaign? We'll ask the director and the screenwriter.

Mitt Romney does it again, taking the key Super Tuesday contest of Ohio, but the media coverage practically made it sound like Rick Santorum was the big winner. Why won't the press give Romney a break?

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


KURTZ: Rush Limbaugh's verbal assault on Sandra Fluke was no slip of the tongue. He was calling the Georgetown law student a slut and prostitute for three days before issuing an apology. On his radio show, Limbaugh said it was the left that kept distorting the facts.


LIMBAUGH: I acted too much, like the leftists who despise me. I descended to their level using names and exaggerations to describe Sandra Fluke. It's what we have come to know and expect of them, but it's way beneath me, and it's way beneath you. It was wrong, and that's why I have apologized because I succumbed.


KURTZ: Sandra Fluke, meanwhile, continued her media tour, winding up with the ladies of "The View."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He has not called you.


SANDRA FLUKE, GEORGETOWN LAW STUDENT: No. And let me be clear that I think his statements that he made on the air about me have been personal enough, so I'd rather not have a personal phone call from him.


KURTZ: White House reporters asked President Obama was asked about the Limbaugh furor, and he said such remarks have no place in public discourse.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The reason I called Ms. Fluke is because I thought about Malia and Sasha. And one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about.


KURTZ: So, why has the media controversy continued to mushroom despite Rush's apology? Joining us now: in Los Angeles, Stephanie Miller, host of "The Stephanie Miller Radio Show" -- which will soon be simulcast on Current TV; and in Seattle, Michael Medved, the host of the syndicated "Michael Medved Radio Show".

Michael Medved, you worked in the early '90s as a substitute host for Rush, but you haven't had any dealings with him for a long time. Even for somebody who's in the controversy business as Limbaugh is, wasn't this a pretty bad mistake?

MICHAEL MEDVED, HOST, "MICHAEL MEDVED RADIO SHOW": It was a terrible mistake, and he has acknowledged that and he's acknowledged it very directly.

The real question here is the people who are trying to sponsor boycotts and trying to go after his sponsors, what is it exactly that they want? And what they seem to want is for Rush to go off the air and to damage the show and that's not going to work.

I do know for a fact that it is true that there are other advertisers who are just very willing to jump back in for any advertisers who bail, and it seems to me that it's inappropriate once the guy has apologized to continue this thing as basically a war on conservative talk radio, which I kind of personally don't welcome.

KURTZ: Stephanie Miller, Limbaugh says he is sorry. We just saw a clip of him saying he's sorry for using words like "slut" and "prostitute". Why isn't that enough?

STEPHANIE MILLER, SYNDICATED RADIO HOST: Well, I think as any woman watching can tell you, Howard, if you think that was a sincere apology, then you don't know many women. You know, first of all, he said he only apologizes for the two words. Well, I guess he doesn't apologize for saying she's having so much sex she can barely walk. You know, what else? That he would like to see videos of her having sex online.

I mean, as you say, Howard, it was a three-day sustained attack. It wasn't a slip of the tongue.

KURTZ: But you --

MILLER: You said once and then apologize for it. And I love that -- and my favorite is that the left made him do it.


KURTZ: But you mock people on your show. You mock people on your show. In fact, you have a certain phrase you use to describe Mr. Limbaugh.

MILLER: Oh. Drug-addled gas bag?


MILLER: Well, yes, except that is based on the truth. Yes, well, I wasn't surprise that he had problems figuring out how many birth control pills you have to take since he's had a little bit of trouble with the number of OxyContin pills that you need to take.

KURTZ: Has ever talked about you?

MILLER: I don't think I want sex advice for --


MEDVED: Have you ever apologized for that, Stephanie? Have you ever apologized for that?

MILLER: First of all, his testimony was based on the complete falsehood about Sandra.


MILLER: Of course not. Of course not.

And, Michael, as you know, advertiser boycotts hurt everybody in radio. You know? A lot of advertisers have pulled their advertising from everybody that could be considered controversial, which you are right, could be all of us.

So, it hurts everybody. It hurts the radio business. You know, thanks for that as well, Rush.

MEDVED: It seems -- it seems to me that there are a lot of people who hear about this and are thinking, you know what, I'm really glad I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh because I don't like the style that he use uses. There are 15 million other people who do like listening to Rush Limbaugh.

What I don't understand is why the left is so concerned about attacking those 15 million people rather than building your own shows and building shows that can offer an alternative. Why not?

MILLER: Michael, that's what I'm doing. I mean, you know, I have said very clearly a lot of his advertisers are my -- a lot of his advertisers, by the way, are my advertisers. So I have said on the air, don't boycott that advertiser. You know, if you want to let -- this is what happened. They let their feelings be known to those advertisers. Those advertisers made their decision. You know? That's -- that's the way capitalism works.

MEDVED: I think --

KURTZ: Let me jump in for one second.

MEDVED: I think we have an agreement here.

KURTZ: Well, we don't want that. So, let me throw in some stink bombs here.

MEDVED: OK. Go ahead. KURTZ: Isn't there a difference, Michael Medved, between Stephanie Miller making fun of, mocking somebody like Rush Limbaugh, who is a public figure. He's got a big mega phone, or people in politics, and Rush picking on this law student, who is not a media figure and no one had ever heard of? Isn't there a difference there?

MEDVED: Well, she became a media figure when she decided to testify before Congress and before Nancy Pelosi. It seems to me -- this is one of the things that bothers me about the way this story has been covered: it's been treated as if, oh, Rush is picking on this college student.

She's not a college student. She's a 30-year-old law student, and she's a long-time activist on this issue, and she decided to testify before Nancy Pelosi.

By the way, she's doing great with this. She's going to get a book contract. She's on "The View." She is suddenly a public figure. The president of the United States calls her.

And part of what's happening here -- and I know, Stephanie, you'll acknowledge this -- the Democrats would love to run against Rush Limbaugh in the presidential campaign. They don't want to run against Mitt Romney.

MILLER: Well, yes, if he were -- yes.

MEDVED: And Rush Limbaugh is going to get a lot more support.

KURTZ: Stephanie?

MEDVED: Well, if he weren't the face of the Republican Party, that, you know, the Republicans are terrified of, then, you know, we wouldn't say that. Mitt Romney, the best he can manage is, oh, I would have used different words. Are there better words to call a woman a slut and a prostitute? Maybe something more old-fashioned like trollop or something? I mean, that was a profile in courage.

KURTZ: I want to get to border issue. Let me circle back to something that Michael flicked at and that is a question of whether there is a harsher standard in the mainstream media against conservatives. Bill Maher, a lot of people now focusing on him because he, in talking about Sarah Palin, has used the c-word, he's used a synonym very closely to c-word. He's has called her a category five moron.

He defended himself on his HBO show, and here's what he had to say.


BILL MAHER, COMEDIAN: I am a potty mouth. That's different than a misogynist.

But if I offended women, I'm sorry. I have no problem saying I'm sorry. I don't know why women would want to align themselves with Sarah Palin. I don't know why an insult to her is an insult to all women, but if it is, I'm sorry.


KURTZ: So, why have -- until now, until Rush started this whole flap, Stephanie Miller, Maher has kind of gotten a pass on this kind of crude language.

MILLER: Well, I don't know that he's gotten a pass, but as he's pointed out, he doesn't have sponsors. He's on HBO.

I mean, you know, it was like when Dr. Laura, you can yell the N- word 11 times on your radio show, Howard, you know, but you also have -- you know, then you have the right to suffer the consequences. No one is taking away your First Amendment rights.

MEDVED: If Dr. Laura is no longer --

MILLER: You know, if listeners or advertisers don't want to be aligned with that.

KURTZ: Michael?

MEDVED: Dr. Laura is now on satellite radio, and the point is Bill Maher has gotten a pass. He gave $1 million -- $1 million of his own money -- to the president's super PAC.

Now, if the president is so worried about people calling Malia and Sasha names because they speak out in public, then why no sympathy for Sarah Palin? Actually, if he turned down that million dollars and said, you know, in the same principle that I'm defending Sandra Fluke, I'm going to defend Sarah Palin, even though I disagree with her, the president could have gotten a lot of credit. He didn't do that.

KURTZ: All right. Technically, at least, he can't turn down any money because the super PAC is supposed to be independent.

MEDVED: Right.

KURTZ: All right. Another liberal who spoke --

MILLER: I'm sorry. She's not a public figure. You can't say that Sandra Fluke, like she enjoys being called a slut and prostitute for three days in a national arena. She was asked to testify.

MEDVED: Sarah Palin doesn't enjoy it either. One of the things that I thought was very good in that "Game Change" movie on HBO, they show --


MILLER: Howard makes a good point. She's not running for anything. She's not a public figure. And he distorted her testimony in the first place. She wasn't testifying about her personal sex life. And she wasn't asking taxpayers to pay for her birth control.

MEDVED: It was totally inappropriate. MILLER: It was incorrect.

MEDVED: We agree -- we agree that Rush was totally out of line and totally inappropriate with what he says. Rush agrees with that. The point is that to treat Sandra Fluke as some --

MILLER: Oh, he does not. If anybody -- he continued to attack her in his apology.


KURTZ: All right. It is very difficult to interrupt two radio hosts, but I'm going to do it anyway because another liberal has spoken out, Keith Olbermann, on his Current TV show, suspending his "Worst Persons in the World" segment, and he had this to say about this past comments he has made about Michelle Malkin and S.E. Cupp, two conservative commentators.

Let's roll it.


KEITH OLBERMANN, CURRENT TV: I said Ms. Malkin was animated by, quote, "mindless, morally bankrupt, kneejerk fascistic hatred without which Michelle Malkin would just be a big mashed up bag of meat with lipstick on it." So, in neither case were my remarks misogynistic nor were they things I did not say or could not have said about men. Nevertheless, they have apparently distressed Ms. Cupp and Ms. Malkin, and I apologize to them both.


KURTZ: We're running out of time. Brief comment from each of you -- Michael first -- on the way that liberals are treated when they make these kinds of attacks.

MEDVED: It's ludicrous. Look, I don't think we should all spend all of our time apologizing for one another. I think Stephanie is actually fairly clever in anointing Sarah Palin "Caribou Barbie".

I don't think you need to apologize to that. So, the best of my knowledge --

MILLER: Thank you.

MEDVED: -- when I have disagreed with you, Stephanie, I don't think I have said anything that I need to apologize for.

MILLER: You are an officer and a gentleman, Michael Medved.


KURTZ: On that rare --

MILLER: Listen, Rush has only called me a babe on the air, so I don't know if that's a gateway word to slut, but, you know, so far, we're OK.

KURTZ: All right. On that rare moment of civility, we're going to have to end.

Michael Medved, Stephanie Miller, thanks for joining us.

MEDVED: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we come back, the debate over "Game Change". Is HBO's movie fair to Sarah Palin as it depicts her tumultuous run for vice president? Is the film embellished?

I'll ask the director and the screenwriter of "Game Change" in just a moment.


KURTZ: The filmmakers faced a stiff challenge, capturing the drama of Sarah Palin's run for vice president in 2008, which everyone watched unfold in real time. But how accurate is "Game Change"? The movie was premiered last night on HBO features Julianne Moore as the former Alaska governor and she studied hard for the part.


MOORE: There were times actually in the script where if I wasn't -- if I didn't quite understand something as seen, I would go back to try her own language, things she had actually said to put it in there.


KURTZ: Palin herself denigrated the movie before it was released.


SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: Goodness gracious. You know, I'm really not too concerned, though, about an HBO movie based on a false narrative when there are so many other things that we need to be concerned about.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted to ask you --


KURTZ: Was that narrative embellished or just revealing? Take, for instance, Palin's call of McCain strategist Nicolle Wallace after the disastrous interview with a certain CBS anchor.


MOORE (as Sarah Palin): Why did you make me do Katie Couric? This evening coverage (ph).

Are you there? Are you listening to me?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, Governor. I'm here. Katie was a logical choice. She had been very fair to us this entire campaign.

MOORE: You call that interview fair?


MOORE: I certainly don't. She was out to get me from the get- go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, she wasn't. The interview sucked because you didn't try.

MOORE: You have ruined me. You have ruined my reputation. I am ruined in Alaska.


KURTZ: HBO, by the way, is part of CNN's parent company. I spoke about the film with Jay Roach, the director of "Game Change," and Danny Strong, the screenwriter. They join me from New York.


KURTZ: Jay Roach, Danny Strong, welcome.

JAY ROACH, DIRECTOR, "GAME CHANGE": Thanks for having us.


KURTZ: Jay, you have said that this film is a dramatization and can't always be perfectly detailed accurate. Does that mean that some of it is a little embellished?

ROACH: No. It means that any time you squeeze 60-day story into a two-hour movie you're taking some kind of adjustment to make it fit, but you are never giving up on trying to make it completely true in its essence and you spend all your time double-checking, triple- checking all your sources.

In this case, we had the great book, we thought, "Game Change" that -- where John and Mark had done so much research that started it all off.

KURTZ: Right. So, you spent time with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann --


KURTZ: -- who did a lot of reporting for this book.

When you talk about double and triple-checking and, Danny, you can jump in here, who else were you -- who else were you interviewing as reporters? Were you able to talk to senior people on the McCain campaign?

STRONG: Yes, absolutely. I did 25 interviews with people on the McCain campaign pretty much covering every level of the campaign from, you know, low level aides to people at the highest positions in the campaign. And we were able to interview almost every character that appears on screen and several, you know, people within the campaign that don't appear on screen.

KURTZ: Does that include John McCain?

STRONG: No. Senator McCain didn't respond to our request for an interview, and Governor Palin declined our interest for an interview, and Mark Salter also did not respond to our question.

But we pretty much got everyone else in the film.

KURTZ: Well, you know, when I watched this, I couldn't help to think back to when I was covering the 2008 campaign, and there is a scene early on where Steve Schmidt played by Woody Harrelson is surrounded by a mob of reporters shouting questions at him.

And, you know, I talked to Steve Schmidt at the Republican convention, and he was very agitated about what he saw as a media putting Sarah Palin under siege, printing or repeating or asking about every rumor and smear, as he put it.


REPORTER: A Wasilla librarian claimed that as mayor she tried to ban books. Is that true?

What about the allegations that Trig is not really her child?

REPORTER: Did she attend the church where they speak in tongues?


KURTZ: There was no mob scene of reporters, so that scene didn't actually take place.

STRONG: Well, no, you know, that did take place for him during the campaign. I mean, there was different times that he was getting cornered by reporters during different phases of that convention.

KURTZ: I see. Can you put that all together into one scene?

STRONG: Exactly. You know, and that's part of the dramatization process, is that we're taking 60 days and we're narrowing it down into a two-hour period.

Now, during the convention was when all of the stories started to break about Governor Palin that he was having to refute --

KURTZ: Right.

STRONG: -- which was what you were talking about and what was happening in the movie.

KURTZ: I remember it vividly. Now, you also have a conversation between Sarah and Todd Palin while they're in bed, and he is kind of commiserating with her about the upcoming debate. Since you didn't talk to the Palin family, how do you know what was said?

STRONG: Well, we had the advantage of having her book "Going Rogue," which is a beat by beat account of her experiences during the campaign, and also from interviewing people within the campaign as well and would talk about their relationship and how they would interact with each other. And in that particular scene, all of that dialogue is compromised -- is comprised of things that are actually true.

So, nothing said in that scene is fictional. You know, the anecdote about how she ran when she was governor of Alaska is something she's discussed before, and those were all, you know, dialogue that is built upon true anecdotes.

KURTZ: As you both know, former member of Sarah Palin's team, kind of mounted a preemptive strike against "Game Change" and on a phone call of reporters -- I want to put this up on the screen -- Meg Stapleton, her former spokesman, said, "We all know Palin sells and the more dramatization of Palin sells even more. This is sick. The media has gone too far," she says. "You accepted the false narrative of a couple of people who sought revenge and fabricated a story more than three years ago."

Your response?

ROACH: Well, the most obvious response was that when she made that comment, she hadn't seen the film. We assumed she still has not seen it, so it was tough to take it seriously.

STRONG: I also want to respond, though, to the allegations that the film is based on a false narrative of a couple of people. That's totally inaccurate. The film is based on, you know, not only the book "Game Change," but interviews that I and Jay conducted with 25 people, and, you know, the stories that we heard were corroborated by 10, 12, 15 people.

So, it was never just one or two people's account of event. There were many, many people; some who are opposing views of Governor Palin who still told us the same stories.

KURTZ: Well, look, in fairness to Palin, there are factions in any campaign, especially in losing campaigns. And so, you are presenting in some of these very dramatic scenes, you know, Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace two of the highest level strategists for John McCain in that campaign confronting Sarah Palin, trying to get her to prepare, being somewhat disgusted with the way she's conducting herself. But it's entirely possible that this is their side of the story, and they are trying to portrait this in a way that makes them look better and makes Palin look like she was the problem.

STRONG: But interviews with them were consistent with interviews with a dozen other people. So, it was the same story told by all of those people.

ROACH: Yes. What you said was our concern too. We had to double and triple-check all the accounts to make sure that it all added up because we wanted to make sure that not only was the book, you know, based on very reliable accounts, which we found that it was by interviewing many of those people ourselves, but also that since the book had come out, no other version of the story had come out and it hadn't.

In fact, the film in a way updates what Heilemann and Halperin found and we did most importantly have access to Sarah Palin's books themselves, which, as you see in the film, added a layer of empathy that the audiences who are seeing it now have remarked upon, that people are actually connecting with her through the accounts of the scenes with her, and much of that is informed by her own book, because I personally listen to it and Julianne Moore listened to it.

And I was frankly surprised by some of the empathy that the story added to the story I already knew. She -- there were difficulties that she faced that I was much more understanding of once I understood all of the details. Heilemann and Halperin didn't have access to that.


KURTZ: More of my conversation with the HBO filmmakers in a moment.


KURTZ: More now on my interview with "Game Change" filmmakers Jay Roach and Danny Strong.


KURTZ: There are notes of empathy in the scenes with Julianne Moore playing Palin and her family, and certainly, when she is trying -- when she is connecting with voters on the rope lines. But in terms of the way she performed as the vice presidential nominee -- I mean, this is a movie that portrays Sarah Palin as sometimes acting irrationally, as having a temper, as being ignorant, perhaps even more than we had been told before -- kind of a blithering idiot. So, it's hard to argue that it was overall a sympathetic portrayal by Julianne Moore.

ROACH: Yes, I think it shows a tremendous amount of what she did well. We show her campaign speech, actually, her convention speech was phenomenal. We show her roll-out speech.

We do show some aspects of both gaffes that she had in knowledge about international affairs, which she just didn't have frankly a lot of time to get ready for. She was chosen very last minute.

And we also show a few tough moments when she had trouble and almost a kind of traumatic experience during the debate prep, which, remember, there were many people in those rooms during that debate prep, and we spoke to many of those people -- people who were actually, you know, involved in preparing her -- and we heard consistently the exact same account of those moments which where she had great difficulty.

We also show her coming out of that and going into the debate and doing quite well and being celebrated for it. And by the end of the film, she emerges as the strongest of all of the people, I think, in the entire movie.

So, it's hard to argue that it's some kind of deliberate attempt to diminish her. It's very consistent in our opinion with the actual history, and we think it's a true story.

KURTZ: Yes. Although, you know, the Schmidt character and the Nicolle Wallace character seem to blame Palin a lot for the failure of the campaign.

Now, you do use a lot of footage from CNN and other networks. At one point, I thought Wolf Blitzer was one of the co-stars of this.

But, look, Jay and Danny, you both know that you are seen as liberal Hollywood guys. You both contributed to Obama's campaign last time around, as did Julianne Moore. Does that not create a perception problem for you, and were you aware of that going in?

STRONG: Yes. Now, look, I understand how there would be that perception. I think it's completely fair to talk about, and I think it's good for the audience to know those sorts of -- that contributions like that have been made. But that doesn't enable us to be fair, and it doesn't enable us to portrait the events as accurately as possible.

ROACH: In my own opinion, it doesn't really matter as much as my commitment to telling the story the way it happened. I make a deal with the audience when we say it's a true story. I know the audience is expecting that. It would be not a very good story if it was deliberately one-sided. The best stories are layered and complex.

In this story, there are no real heroes and no real villains and - because it's all told within one campaign. And our commitment was only to the truth.

We had no agenda other than just telling the story as faithfully and accurately as we possibly could.

KURTZ: Right. Well, it really does come off as the Sarah Palin story, even John McCain, a more remote figure than the star of the movie.

At one point, Steve Schmidt, played by Woody Harrelson, says that they've had smear after smear from the liberal media. Looking back, and since you both have heavily researched this, would you agree that the press, in some ways, was unfair to Sarah Palin?

STRONG: Well, I think they were coming at her really hard. I think some of the allegations were false. I think many of the allegations were true.

And in the case of what Steve Schmidt was talking about at the time was, you know, that the press immediately was jumping on her as the vice presidential nominee in a way that a candidate had never been jumped on before.

But what was actually happening was that the press was vetting her in those few days better than the McCain campaign vetted her.

So I feel like a majority of what was brought up, not only was accurate, but it was information that the McCain - that the campaign itself should have known but didn't.

KURTZ: She seemingly came out of nowhere and so certainly she needed to be vetted by the press. But at the same time, there were all kinds of questions about, you know, "How can you be a mother of five children and still serve as vice president?" But I thought it was somewhat unfair.

ROACH: Yes. Those were unfair. Yes.

STRONG: I think there are a number of things that were very sexist. You know -

ROACH: For them to accuse her of somehow hiding the pregnancy of her daughter, et cetera, I mean, those things were - those things were, you know, not cool. And I think we show a lot of that in the film. I think we -

STRONG: Yes. We showed both sides of it.

ROACH: We help to show how difficult it was to do what she did and actually how amazing it is that she accomplished what she did under that kind of pressure and those kind of unfair attacks. But it also shows the other side, that some of the questions were valid.

KURTZ: Well, it's fascinating to have a chance to talk to you about how this movie was put together and the research that you did. Jay Roach, Danny Strong, thanks very much for joining us.

ROACH: Thank you.

STRONG: Thank you.

ROACH: Excellent.

KURTZ: I saw the "Game Change" premiere where I had a brief chance to talk to Julianne Moore about her role. Palin volunteers are handing out the show bill which calls the movie a false narrative and a work of fiction. They have not given up.

Up next, after Super Tuesday why does the media keep making Mitt Romney look like such a loser?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: No one would argue that Mitt Romney had a great night on Super Tuesday, but he won most delegates and he won the marquee contest in Ohio against Rick Santorum, even if it took him until well past midnight.

And yet, for the second week in a row, many in the media seem to delight in kicking him around.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think the biggest issue for Mitt Romney is that he can't seal the deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got Mitt Romney showing that he is still struggling to connect with very conservative voters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt Romney won the math, but I think he lost a big part of his mojo.


KURTZ: So was this a realistic assessment of a battered frontrunner? Or do the pundits have it in for this guy?

Joining us now here in Washington, Erin McPike, national political reporter for "Real Clear Politics"; Eleanor Clift, correspondent for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast"; and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at "National Review."

Eleanor Clift, I should mention that Santorum crushed Romney yesterday in Kansas, but Romney won Wyoming and the closely-watched contest of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. So why do the media keep saying it's a bad night for Romney even when he wins a bunch of states?

ELEANOR CLIFT, CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK" AND "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, think the media has a vested interest in prolonging a contest because it's what we do. And all those cable shows have to have something to talk about.

KURTZ: They don't want the race to be over.

CLIFT: And what - well, that's right. And they've turned the primaries into an extended psychoanalysis of Mitt Romney and why he can't connect, why isn't he wrapping it up, when the truth is, if the Republicans had kept the same rules they had four years ago, this would be over by now.

KURTZ: Would you agree, Ramesh Ponnuru? You know, let's concede he is not the greatest candidate ever to run for office, but extended psychoanalysis? I mean, there's a lot of negative assessments.

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I think so, and I think that Eleanor is exactly right. It's not taking account of changes in the environment from last time around. If we had the series of, you know, dozens of debates that we had this cycle last time around where you had a much - as a result of that - a much broader field of people that the voters were considering, who knows how that race in '08 would have rolled out?

KURTZ: Right. Erin McPike, we in the press said that Romney had to win Michigan. Then we said he had to win Ohio. He does, and the press still trashes him.

ERIN MCPIKE, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REAL CLEAR POLITICS": It's true, but we're talking about whether or not this is fair to Mitt Romney, but what about the voters?

You know, the Romney campaign said it would take an act of God for Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich to beat them, and that Newt Gingrich would need 70 percent of the delegates, but what if something like that happened?

I mean, you know, if I'm a voter in Texas or in New Mexico or in Rhode Island or South Dakota, I would be downright livid right now that the media is trying to call it or decide whether or not we should know.

I mean, the voters should have a say, and that's the point that's been left out at the debates.

KURTZ: That we're taking the ball out of their hands.


KURTZ: There are many, many states that had a chance to vote. And look, journalists like candidates who are flashy and who are exciting. Mitt Romney, not exactly the most colorful guy to run for president.

CLIFT: Well, I think the Republicans were looking at the '08 contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and thinking that they would energize the country.

It went on. It got all the voters involved. And they wanted to replicate it because they did away with a lot of the winner-take-all primaries.

They deliberately wanted a longer contest. And of course, now that we have it, I think a lot of Republicans are having second thoughts because I do think that Romney is getting battered through that process.

KURTZ: But let's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from the natural instinct among journalists for the race to go on so we have something to do between now and the conventions. I have the impression that a lot of reporters don't care for Romney.

PONNURU: I have that impression as well. You know, I have that impression in some previous races, too. I think Gore, for example, in 2000, a lot of - KURTZ: Couldn't catch a break.

PONNURU: A lot of the reporters covering just didn't like him. And I get the sense that people neither like him nor particularly wish him well, politically, who are covering him.

KURTZ: You know, one thing that's interesting here is that Mitt and his top aides for all this campaign have been remarkably inaccessible to the press.

MCPIKE: Exactly. And I think part of the coverage that you are seeing is, on a subconscious level, the media is holding him hostage for more access, you know.

And yes, of course, a lot of the press corps has been upset with that because they have not gotten to know Mitt Romney more, and he hasn't told us a lot about what he would do.

KURTZ: Holding him hostage like nice candidates out there.

MCPIKE: I think -

KURTZ: It would be a shame if anything happened to it.

MCPIKE: I think it's on a subconscious level, you know. And the media certainly wants more access to Mitt Romney. And you know, in the debate, when John King asked him what he thought the biggest misconception about him was, and he wouldn't really answer the question. I mean, we're not getting a lot in the way of answers on Mitt Romney, and the media wants more.

KURTZ: In the last few days, it seems like the team Romney in Boston have loosened the reins a little bit -

MCPIKE: A little bit.

KURTZ: And just let some of the top officials talk occasionally to reporters, which seems to me to be a basic tenet in the presidential campaign.

CLIFT: I talked to reporters, and they made the case that their candidate was inevitable. And that angers everybody, but I think it does send a message to voters that -

KURTZ: Oh, but they are entitled to make their best case.

CLIFT: Well, they are, but you were just saying they weren't talking. Now, they are talking and they're making their best case and we're still not happy.

KURTZ: Just briefly, do you think the lack of access, the lack of news conferences, the facts that many calls and E-mails aren't returned also hurts Romney, at least at the margins in the coverage?

PONNURU: Well, that's part of it, but that is of a piece with the overall tenor of the campaign, which is it's a corporate machine that is hard for the press corps or obviously for voters to fall in love with.

KURTZ: I want to turn now to Newt Gingrich. As you recall, he has been the frontrunner a couple of times, lately not doing so well.

And so, it seems to me that a lot of the chatter about Gingrich has to do with, "Why are you still in the race?" Let's take a look at some of the coverage this past week.


LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC: The pressure is building on Newt Gingrich to drop out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS (voice-over): With Santorum's strong showing on Tuesday night, some of his supporters think Gingrich should drop out of the race now.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: It seems to me that the only candidate likely to drop out would be Newt Gingrich.


KURTZ: And on the Sunday shows this morning, both Bob Schieffer and Chris Wallace asking Newt, "When aren't you going to get out? Why aren't you going to get out?" Why is there this clamor in the media for one candidate to hang it up?

CLIFT: Because everybody is starting to do the arithmetic now. And if there's any way to stop Romney, the conservative vote has to coalesce, and that means they've got to get behind one candidate, Rick Santorum. Conservatives try this.

KURTZ: Why do journalists care whether he stops Romney?

CLIFT: I don't particularly care. I think it's fine to have him in the race. And I think Mitt Romney loves to have him in the race because he wants that vote divided. So I think you are kind of cherry picking various commentators out there who are looking at -

KURTZ: Cherry picking?


Hold on. There is a "Boot Newt" - was on "Hardball." And that one said "The Newt Nudge." I mean, there are whole segments about him.

CLIFT: But the largest story is that candidates usually get out when they run out of money, and he hasn't run out of money because he's got a billionaire, and so -

KURTZ: Everybody's got a super-PAC.

CLIFT: That's right. PONNURU: Raise this topic. Remember, when he was ahead of Santorum, he kept making the argument Santorum should drop out so he would consolidate the anti-Romney vote. He, having validated this line of argument - now that the numbers work against him, there is no defense.

KURTZ: Here's my question for you. I didn't mean to step on you there. When candidates are constantly asked by the press, "Are you going to drop out? When are you going to drop out? Why are you staying in?" doesn't it tend to drown out whatever message they're trying to deliver?

MCPIKE: Oh, absolutely. I think there's a little bit of debate about this. And whether or not Gingrich getting out would mean that the conservatives could coalesce around Rick Santorum.

I think if Gingrich stays in, actually, it breaks up the delegate count and makes it harder for Mitt Romney to get 1,144 delegates. And the media, more than anything, wants a brokered convention.

KURTZ: Oh, OK. So that's the hidden agenda here?

MCPIKE: I mean, I think all reporters would love to see a brokered convention.

KURTZ: That's a statement I am not going to contradict because it's the fantasy of every journalist I have ever heard of.

Let me just play a little tape here because on Tuesday night, as it was very, very close in Ohio, all of the networks were reluctant to call that race.

But some of them - I mean, all the cable networks - Fox, CNN, MSNBC - were kind of the calling it without saying so. Let's roll that.


JOHN KING, CNN: When you look at this map tonight, it is very hard, very hard, I would say, it's impossible, looking at the places that are still out now for - in the vote count tonight, for me to see a path for Sen. Santorum to come back.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS: At this point, everything is indicating - all of our models are indicating that Romney probably is going to hold this lead that he has right now. We're still waiting.


KURTZ: That was an interesting bit of footwork because they didn't take the risk of actually calling Ohio, but you could see from Chuck Todd, Chris Wallace, John King that they were sort of saying Romney has got it.

After the break Sean Hannity showcases a 20-year-old video of law student Barack Obama praising a controversial Harvard law professor. Is that a big exclusive?


KURTZ: It was touted as a very hot scandal. The Web site founded by Andrew Breitbart, the conservative activist who died a couple of weeks ago, said it had incriminating footage of Barack Obama and brought the tape to Sean Hannity.

On his Fox News show, Hannity noted that part of the video had been posted by Buzz Feed and trumpeted what he had as a major exclusive.

Now, just to set the scene, this is Obama introducing Harvard Professor Derrick Bell when he was a law student there in 1991.


SEAN HANNITY, HOST, "HANNITY": Now, this is an edited portion of the future president's introduction of Bell that was released by earlier today.

BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I remember that the black law students had organized an orientation for the first year students. And one of the persons who spoke at that orientation was Professor Bell. Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick bell.


KURTZ: Then Hannity played what he thought was the explosive part of the video. He also showed a clip of Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree saying, quote, "We hid this throughout the 2008 campaign."


OBAMA: Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell.



HANNITY: Now, that hug and the president's association with a radical professor like Bell is no doubt going to become a hot topic in coming days.


KURTZ: Actually, there was some doubt when we saw that hug. And Ogletree, by the way, says he was joking with that line.

So Eric McPike, "Buzz Feed" gets the scoop. Hannity charges a cover-up because it didn't include the hug with Derrick Bell.

MCPIKE: The hug -

KURTZ: Explain to me why this is a story.

MCPIKE: I don't think that it is. I mean, it's a hug versus not a hug. How is it a story? It's not.

KURTZ: Well, I guess the argument, Ramesh Ponnuru, is that Derrick Bell, was a controversial professor, who is now dead.

A lot of people take issue with his critical race theory which argues that whites wield this portion of power in our society and that racism is embedded in American institutions.

But OK, so a black Harvard law student 20 years ago supported him and gave him a hug. Why does Hannity think this is such a scandal?

PONNURU: Well, I think that if you're doing a video gotcha, you need to have it be self-explanatory. And that's the problem with this video clip as a kind of work of agitprop, because it is not self- explanatory because, you know, you have to have an argument.

Well, who is this guy? How radical was he? What does this really mean for us? I think it is a legitimate interesting story. It's not a breakthrough or blockbuster for precisely that reason.

KURTZ: One of the reasons, Eleanor Clift, it's not a breakthrough or a blockbuster is that this tape actually aired on PBS' "Frontline" back in 2008 and has been available online, including the hug, ever since. So I never saw it before, but it wasn't a deep, dark secret.

CLIFT: Yes. You know, it's ammunition for people who think that Obama is a socialist and he's going to bring Kenyan liberalism to the White House.

And I think it doesn't affect anybody beyond that. He was introducing a black law professor, who in many quarters was respected. It was during a period when the Harvard students were pressing for more diversity on the faculty.

It does put Obama on the sort of liberal progressive side of the equation, but that's not news. And the fact that it hasn't really been picked up I think shows the good judgment of the American people and maybe the American media, too.

KURTZ: Even Fox News has not been trumpeting it since it was on Hannity's show a couple of nights. And it reminds me of - we talked about the film "Game Change."

You know, there were those who felt like candidate Obama's association with Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright should have been a bigger issue than it was. And now, I guess they can be added to that list in terms of the people who don't like this president?

MCPIKE: Well, I think in part, it's the race issue that's coming into play, you know, because Derrick Bell was part of this critical race theory. That's something he was known for. And by and large, President Obama has tried to stay away from many discussions about race. And I think, in part, seeing a little bit of that side is what has made this a little bit more sensational.

KURTZ: OK. So we seem to have a consensus here that this is not some breakthrough piece of journalism.


KURTZ: All right. On that note, I actually got everybody to agree. Well, thank you for coming by. Ramesh Ponnuru, Eleanor Clift, Erin McPike, thanks for joining us this morning.

Still to come, the founder of "Gawker" admits that his Web site can be pretty mean. A New York station drops a popular anchor after three decades. Could it have something to do with her age? "Media Monitor" is next.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business. Ed Schultz may be the most unabashed champion of labor unions on television.

But it turns out the MSNBC host was paid nearly $200,000 by unions last week, much of it from the Communications Workers of America.

The payments, discovered by the conservative advocacy group, Media Research Center, were for speaking fees and advertising on Schultz's Web site. He dismissed the report as a right-wing smear campaign.


ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: The policy at MSNBC is any speech must get prior approval and any honorarium must be donated to charity of the speaker's choice.

I chose last year that all the money go to the American Cancer Society. I want to emphatically state tonight, nobody gave me anything. I work for a living.


KURTZ: I'm glad Schultz gave that money to charity as the network required him to do. But the payments create the appearance that he is too cozy with labor, speaking for money rather than speaking his mind.

Folks outside New York may not know here, Sue Simmons has been a popular anchor for WNBC for three decades - brash, funny and irreverent. Her YouTube moment came when she dropped an F-bomb during a promo.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SUE SIMMONS, ANCHOR, WNBC: We've been paying more at the grocer, but getting less. We'll tell you how to get the most. What the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) are you doing?


KURTZ: Well, WNBC announced this week that it's dropping Simmons sparking outrage online including a "Save Sue Simmons" page on Facebook. Did the station decide that Sue, who had a multimillion- dollar contract, was too old for the job? She's 68.

But guess who just got his contract renewed - her longtime partner, Chuck Scarborough. He is also 68. I'm sorry. This just smells bad and more than a little sexist.

Now, here's what I like. "Gawker" is the gossipy Web site that breaks most of the journalistic rules. It's usually fun - Brian Williams is a fan - but can sometimes be vicious or unfair.

To his credit, founder Nick Denton didn't deny any of this in an interview with Williams' show, "Rock Center."


JAMIE GANGEL, NBC: Here are the words most often used to describe "Gawker." You tell me true or not true. Snarky?


GANGEL: Sexual?


GANGEL: Nude photos of private parts?

DENTON: If it's interesting.

GANGEL: You report rumors, you don't always check it out?


GANGEL: Shameless?


GANGEL: Irresponsible?

DENTON: Defined by who?


DENTON: Mean? Occasionally. And frankly, the standards are standards of publication.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: NBC's Jamie Gangel challenged Denton when he needed to be challenged, and she occluded the flap when "Gawker" published an embarrassingly candid E-mail to Denton from Brian Williams. But Denton may feel no need to be fair but "Rock Center" was.

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.