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Missing the Trayvon Martin Tragedy; The Etch-a-Sketch Campaign; Obama Blames Fox News
Aired March 25, 2012 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: I can't stop thinking about this question. News organizations seem to agree that the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida is an important and gripping tale. But why did it take more than two weeks for this to become a national story?
CBS first covered the February on March 8th. CNN on March 12th.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: A Florida family is desperate for answers. Their son, 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed more than two weeks ago. But the man who allegedly shot him, he hasn't been arrested.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Again, why the long delay? Was race a factor? Or is this just a local tragedy that's been turned into ideological fodder for television news.
Mitt Romney wins the Illinois primary, but most of the cable chatters is about a top aide likening the candidate's campaign to a certain children's toy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: Mitt Romney and his campaign had wanted to talk about his victory in the Illinois primary. But then the debate over this iconic children's toy, the Etch a Sketch threatens to erase all of that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: How Twitter turned that early morning mistake into a viral moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN LAMB, C-SPAN: You're through with politics.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Yes.
LAMB: Define that. How far will you go?
BUSH: I don't want to go out and campaign for candidates. I don't want to be viewed as a perpetual money raiser.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: He came up with the idea of televising what happens in Congress and made C-Span and its passionate callers part of the cultural landscape. Now, he's stepping down as chief executive. A conversation with Brian Lamb.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: It was back on February 26th that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin walking down the street was killed in the town of Sanford, Florida. He was black and unarmed. The neighborhood watch captain who shot him is Hispanic. Still, it took a few days for the major Florida papers to cover that news.
And it wasn't until 10 days later that the killings drew a bit of national media attention from the "A.P." and "Reuters," "The Huffington Post," and "CBS This Morning." Then a bit more coverage, BET, HLN, CNN, "Good Morning America". And then nearly three weeks had passed before the first article in "New York Times."
But in the last week, especially after the release of the 911 call and Trayvon's mother started doing TV interviews, the story that almost no one bothered to cover has become America's newest media obsession.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: There's word tonight that the FBI has decided to take action in that case of the 17-year-old gunned down by a man who said he was acting as a neighborhood watchdog.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The use of deadly force against a teenager carrying nothing more than a bag of Skittles, shot and killed by a man who was carrying a gun.
REV. AL SHARPTON, MSNBC: Tonight's lead, the growing national outrage over the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watchman is shaking America to its very core.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: We begin tonight with breaking news, a major new development in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
KURTZ: So what explains the initial lack of attention to this terrible tragedy and the eventual explosion of media interest? Joining us now from Tampa, Eric Deggans, media and television critic for "The Tampa Bay Times"; here in Washington, Lauren Ashburn, founder and editor-in-chief of Daily-Download.com -- where I'm a contributor -- contributor to "The Huffington Post" and former managing editor of "USA Today"; and Derek McGinty, the anchor at WUSA, the CBS affiliate in Washington.
Derek McGinty, how is it that this inexplicable tragedy was largely ignored -- largely ignored -- by the national media for two or three weeks?
DEREK MCGINTY, ANCHOR, WUSA9 TV: You know, you've got to look at, first of all, where it happened. It didn't happen in New York City. It didn't happen in L.A. It happened in a place called Sanford, Florida, where nobody even knows that that's right outside Orlando until this story actually happened.
Secondly, the reality is this: black men get shot down in big cities all the time. It took a while for folks to begin to understand the importance of this. And I've got to be honest -- I went to my news people at Channel 9 a couple of weeks ago. I had read about this story. I had seen this kid's face. And I said, you know, we need to be on this story.
As my news director said to me after it began to blow up, that's why we have a diverse newsroom so people will look at a newsroom that maybe everybody is not looking at.
LAUREN ASHBURN, DAILY-DOWNLOAD.COM: Howie, I think there's another casualty here and it's old media. "The Orlando Sentinel" is 30 minutes, by car, away from Sanford. Yet, they have cut their Sanford bureau, they have cut half of their staff, and I don't think that in this case, it's really fair to blame them for not getting on this story.
KURTZ: I happen to have in my hand the story that the "Orlando Sentinel" ran, not the next day, but the second day after the killing. I'll hold it up, right here. It's four paragraphs -- it's four paragraphs devoted to what is now considered a national outrage.
ASHBURN: Because that's somebody who is covering it from, you know, the newsroom in Orlando. They don't have the money and resources. Advertising is down and they can't be everywhere at once. And it took a while, Howie, for it to become something other than just an aggravated assault, where we really could figure out what happened.
KURTZ: Eric Deggans, you're in Florida -- what change, what happened to transform this case from a Florida story to a national one?
ERIC DEGGANS, TAMPA BAY TIMES: Yes. That's what I wanted to point out. This case has evolved.
One reason why I don't think there was a lot of national coverage was that the police at first backed up George Zimmerman's story. They said that it seemed as if his story about it being self-defense was what happened. And they claimed that it was under investigation for a long period of time.
It wasn't until the families started speaking out to the press, which took about a week, that's when you started to see the national stories on March 7th and March 8th. And then when we had the release of the 911 tapes and people could see that some of the things that the police had said about the incident, saying that George Zimmerman didn't know the race of Trayvon Martin, the kid that was shot and killed, saying that -- you know, this indication that they had asked George Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon Martin, but it seems that perhaps he did anyway.
KURTZ: Right. More details came out.
DEGGANS: When those things -- when those things came out, when those things came out, it became a huge story because then some of the things that the family was saying seemed to be more accurate.
KURTZ: Derek McGinty, I don't want to harp on race. But if a white 17-year-old unarmed kid carrying around a bag of Skittles, was shot and killed in any small town of America, would it take two weeks for the national media to --
MCGINTY: You know, I don't know. It would depend on how he was shot and killed and the circumstances around he was shot and killed.
I think that you're right that race does play a major role in this, because, again, we hear about black young people being shot a lot. We need -- it was the details of this one that really begin to draw people into it and got everybody so very excited and worked up about it.
And again, I give credit to the parents on this one because they refused to let it die. You know, they kept talking about it. They kept talking about it, so it wouldn't just go away -- which you get the sense that's kind of what the folks in charge down there wanted.
ASHBURN: But I also give credit to social media, Howie, because I think that once the parents started to speak out, you see advocacy groups, like Change.org, which started the petition that now has 18 -- 1.8 million signatures calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman.
You also have people who are just now beginning to use the hash mark of his name and you've got celebrities coming out like Spike Lee or LeBron James.
KURTZ: And you have reporters asking President Obama about it and him making the comment about -- if I had a son, it would like Trayvon.
So, now, it almost seems like it's reached sort of TV soap opera status.
MCGINTY: Yes. But I think you also have to --
DEGGANS: Can I break in?
KURTZ: One second, Eric.
MCGINTY: From some of the news -- News 1 and some others that were on this story from the beginning and giving it flying sort of under the radar. Black folks knew this was going on before the mainstream media got into it.
KURTZ: And that is true and I notice that, for example, black columnists, like Charles Blow with "The New York Times," and Jonathan Capehart of "The Washington Post," they were on this case before their organizations were fully weighing in, which made me think that a lot of white journalists were just asleep at the switch -- Eric.
DEGGANS: Well, one of the things that I wanted to point out is that we need at this point is more reporting on what actually happened and more -- and a closer look at how the police handled this situation.
One of the things missing here is that George Zimmerman, the person who shot Trayvon, has not been talking publicly. He's kind of vanished. He seems to have an attorney that's now talking.
And the one thing that I think people are losing sight of is that there are some very specific issues in Sanford, the way that police deal with black suspects, deal with crimes involving black people, that I think initially the family was worried about. It has become this larger issue, this larger example of sort of how race plays out in the criminal justice system, but I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that there are some very specific problems in that neighborhood, involving the police, involving crime, involving how you take a look at people who look a certain way who resembled people who are committing crimes in the area. That's what we need to focus on. And I'm afraid that we're losing that because --
KURTZ: There's a lot --
DEGGANS: -- larger points about national issues.
KURTZ: There's a lot we don't know here.
George Zimmerman's attorney told Anderson Cooper on CNN on Friday that his client had a broken nose. But we don't know how the altercation happened. That hasn't been widely impact.
I'm wondering if this has now become driven by ideology. MSNBC covers this hour after hour after hour, covers it as an outrage. I'll get to Al Sharpton's role in a moment.
And FOX News has done very little on the case, relatively speaking, Sean Hannity saying maybe it was a terrible mistake.
MCGINTY: You know, you can have this argument. I had this argument with somebody in my newsroom who sad, hey, they just followed the law. So, why is it a big deal? The cops say they can't arrest them. That's the law. I said, look, police have a lot of discretion in how they handle the law. I got pulled over the other day because the cop said I blew the hour and he didn't like that. So, he wanted to talk to me about it. I don't know whether race had anything to do with that. The point --
KURTZ: But you just suspect that it might?
MCGINTY: You know, I was confused about it.
KURTZ: It's hard to know.
MCGINTY: It was hard to know.
But the point was, they have a lot of discretion in how they handle it. People just want accountability. When you kill somebody, if it's a mistake or whatever, there's got to be some accountability for that. If I hit you with my car, and I say it was an accident, I thought maybe you were in the way -- well, I think have accountability for that. And I think that's the big thing that's not being dealt with here.
KURTZ: Let me turn to Al Sharpton. He, of course, is an MSNBC host and, of course, he also has been for decades -- and I've covered him for decades, going back to the Tawana Brawley case, a major African-American activist in this country.
And in this particular case, I want to play you -- we've put together three different clips. This is from Thursday, Sharpton goes down to Sanford, Florida. He speaks to a rally about 5:00 p.m. You'll see that first.
Then you'll see him doing his show from the same location, where he's acting as if not a journalist, certainly a commentary. And then you'll see him speaking to the rally again, the show was at 6:00. The second tape is in the 7:00 p.m. hour.
Let's take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHARPTON: We came for permanent justice. Arrest Zimmerman now! That's what this rally is about.
Nearly a month ago, a tragedy took place just beyond the gates behind me. Earlier today, Trayvon's parents, attorney and I met with the Justice Department here. And later tonight, we rally for justice for Trayvon.
Trayvon represents a reckless disregard for our lives that we've seen too long. And we've come to tell you tonight: enough is enough.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Lauren Ashburn, how on earth can Al Sharpton go there, and be an activist and stand with the parents and he asked people to contribute money and he went to the Justice Department with the parents to Trayvon Martin.
KURTZ: And then he does his show and then he speaks at the rally again?
ASHBURN: He's covering himself.
KURTZ: He's covering himself.
KURTZ: How can MSNBC allow that?
ASHBURN: It is a little hard to see how that is possible. However, it's not like Al Sharpton is a card-carrying journalist here. I mean, he's an opinionator as we can call them in the business and everybody knows it. So, it's not as if there's some, you know, hidden, mysterious thing about him. We know who Al Sharpton is.
KURTZ: But here he -- it seems to me MSNBC can say, OK, this is such an important case and you can go and you can be an activist or you won't do your show on this subject, or you can do your show on this subject, but don't be standing with the parents that are rallying and accompanying to the Justice Department.
DEGGANS: Howie, I'd like --
KURTZ: OK. Eric, go ahead. Break in.
DEGGANS: Well, you know, we talked about this. We talked about this on your show some time ago. And this is exactly the conflict that I was concerned about.
It's not so much that people don't know what Al Sharpton is. The problem is that MSNBC has to cover this as a news organization and as I said, we're getting to the point where George Zimmerman is starting to speak up, the man who shot Trayvon Martin. He has an attorney. He has a side.
Is he going to feel like he can talk to NBC News or MSNBC and be treated fairly when one of their signature on-air personalities has spent weeks talking about how he should be arrested and he should be in jail? I think that's a real conflict.
And I think that we've gotten so used to this conflict so we don't say much about it when it happens.
MCGINTY: I mea, I think you're absolutely right, Eric, and I think it's a good point. Because when you make your bones doing what Al Sharpton does, when you step over that line and become a journalist, then it's definitely a conflict.
ASHBURN: But I don't think he's a journalist, frankly. (CROSSTALK)
KURTZ: -- commentators represent the news organization.
ASHBURN: But he is a commentator. That's right.
MCGINTY: Exactly. And they have been covering story. As you said, he's covering himself.
ASHBURN: Right. But they also knew -- we also all knew going in saying that Al Sharpton was not going to cover President Obama and say anything negative about President Obama. What else do you expect from somebody like that?
KURTZ: -- political leanings and other things --
KURTZ: Eric, I've got to move on.
Geraldo Rivera made some news on Friday. He appeared on the program "FOX & Friends". And he had this to say about what Trayvon Martin was wearing at the time of the fatal shooting.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS: I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MCGINTY: It's so ridiculous it almost doesn't bear commenting on.
You know, the fact is, there's pictures all over the Internet of Geraldo wearing a hoodie, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots wears a hoodie that barely looks washed. I mean , nobody is afraid of those guys.
So I don't think it's the clothes that makes somebody scary. It's who is the clothes and the attitude towards people in the clothes.
KURTZ: But Geraldo says --
KURTZ: Hang on, Eric. Hang on, Eric.
KURTZ: Geraldo says there's an instant association with crime scene surveillance tapes. I mean, it almost seems like he's blaming the victim.
ASHBURN: Well, it does seem that way. And, you know, there are pictures, if you look on the Internet, there are also pictures of Trayvon and people are saying that he's making the gang symbol. And I think that a lot of people right now are trying to, you know, push Trayvon in a direction that he -- that maybe not -- that maybe isn't true and you can't ask him to defend himself.
KURTZ: This story isn't over by a long shot. We've got to go.
Eric Deggans, thank you for joining us from Florida. Derek McGinty, and Lauren Ashburn.
When we come back, Mitt Romney's Etch a Sketch mess. How Twitter turned a flub by a Romney aide into a campaign metaphor he can't shake.
KURTZ: It was early Wednesday morning after Mitt Romney had won big in Illinois that his top aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, went on Soledad O'Brien's show and used, shall we say, an unfortunate metaphor. Here's the full exchange.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN FUGELSANG, POLITICAL COMEDIAN: Is there concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?
ERIC FEHRNSTROM, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: Well, I think he hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can shake it up and restart all over again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Almost like an Etch a Sketch. But that didn't immediately become a big story. It wasn't until thousands of tweets from Obama strategists, liberals, journalists, and ordinary folks, made this a trending topic on Twitter. That television news then really jumped on it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS: Romney's on the defensive once again after one of his senior advisers said that Romney will be able to reintroduce himself at the general election, comparing the campaign to that unforgettable red toy, the Etch a Sketch.
JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: Mitt Romney's campaign had wanted to talk about his victory in the Illinois primary. But then the debate over this iconic children's toy, the Etch a Sketch, threatened to erase all that.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: This is an Etch a Sketch. Ed has one, I have one. I was really bad at this.
JOHN KING, CNN: This will be remembered as Etch a Sketch day in campaign 2012.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
KURTZ: So was this an important story or just ephemeral and somewhat amusing one?
Joining us to imagine the latest developments in the campaign coverage -- in New York, Amy Holmes, anchor for Glenn Beck TV's "Real News" at the Blaze. And here in Washington, David Corn, Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" magazine and analyst for MSNBC, and author of a new book about President Obama entitled "Showdown."
Amy Holmes, was the media frenzy over this Etch a Sketch business a little over done, justified?
AMY HOLMES, GBTV ANCHOR: I love to see that you have one. I'm wondering where's my Etch a Sketch to be able to shake.
Well, you know, the only reason why this could work, unfortunately for the Romney campaign is because it has been sort of a continuing theme of his candidacy. So he had his campaign manager stepping all over his big victory in Illinois, using a very colorful term and a product that producers could run out and buy to use as props on their newscasts.
But I think the reason why it trended is because, you know what, there's perhaps a little bit of truth in the gaffe.
KURTZ: Right. The Etch a Sketch - the stock in the Etch a Sketch company tripled, I still can't believe that.
And the problem here is that this gaffe, mistake, bad choice of toy, played into the media narrative of Romney's candidacy.
DAVID CORN, MOTHER JONES: Yes. Well, at least he didn't call him Mr. Potato Head. Maybe that's next.
I mean, much of journalism is really about shorthand. Reporters spend all day covering long speeches and following this, we go to congressional hearings, we go to press conferences, and it's all about distilling that down in a way that consumers can sort of observe what journalists and others think are the top priorities.
And so, as Amy mentioned, there is this narrative that's been there for like a zillion years with Mitt Romney, what does he really believe in? And is he truly a conservative? And I think most people think he is playing to the right and doesn't really believe this stuff.
So, where was his media spokesperson, who's been pretty good so far up to now, making the most apt metaphor as you could from the opposition side of this. And it was just inevitable that it would be leapt upon. But as you noted, it was really because there's so much more -- not more media, but more people watching, who have access to get this out. So, it immediately lights up Twitter and then news people follow.
KURTZ: This is the thing that struck me. It wasn't that CNN immediately made a huge deal about this. In fact, the question was asked by a professional comedian John Fugelsang, although it was a perfectly straightforward and fair question, I don't think anybody disputes that.
But I found out about it on Twitter and so many were tweeting about it and liberal groups, of course, would push it out, Amy Homes, and then it kind boomeranged into a big television story for everyone.
HOLMES: Absolutely. And there, you know, you have the power of this new media, whether it's Twitter, or YouTube, you know, just basically, the Internet's ability to capture and make permanent these moments where, you know, prior it would have gone into the ether, you would have to, you know, dig through TV footage to be able to get a clip, even ask the news organization for that clip. Now, once it's out there, it's out there.
KURTZ: And speaking of clips that are out there, we had Rick Santorum who, of course, lost in Illinois, but won last night Louisiana. I want to come back to that. Making a comment which he seems to be suggesting that four more years of Barack Obama would even be preferable to four years of Mitt Romney.
And then he kind of backed of it, but he had this interesting linguistic twist where he seemed to blame the press. Let's take a look at Santorum calling in to Neil Cavuto show on the FOX Business Network and being confronted with the damaging sound bite.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: Senator, you said, "If you're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be an Etch a Sketch candidate for the future." Those are your words, Senator.
RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (via telephone): Yes, what I said, we, meaning, the people might. Not me. I'm not saying -- I would never say -- I would never -- I've always said I would never vote for Barack Obama.
Are you kidding me? What do you think I'm doing this for? Do you think because I like Barack Obama? And because -- I mean, it's so absurd it's not even worth printing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: We may as well stay with what we have -- meaning Obama -- than take a risk with an Etch a Sketch. It's so absurd it's not even worth printing. He called it a made up story.
Is it a made up story? CORN: You know, what do you say whenever you say something stupid on the campaign trail? It's out of context. The press is building it up. It's not really a story. They don't want to cover the story.
I mean, this is Newt Gingrich's playbook at the debates. We've seen that happen on CNN and elsewhere. And it's what you -- he got caught saying something really stupid for where he is at this point in time. And then, all of a sudden, he has to say it wasn't what I meant and the press is making something out of this.
No. You know, Rick Santorum is as much of an unknown quantity to a lot of people out there, even though he was in the Senate for a long time and he's playing at a very high level for the first time in his life, it's really hard to do this and he's made a lot of mistakes in the last few weeks as he surged ahead and he can't handle the pressure sometimes it seems.
KURTZ: And on that point, Amy, Santorum is increasingly pushing back against the press, first was saying there's an over-emphasis on social issues, although he does talk about these issues from time to time. And then as we saw on that clip for taking on his own words, comparing Obama to Romney.
HOLMES: Well, you and I talked about this is a lot, which is that there's nothing that the press likes better than social issues, because they can be such emotional hot button issues that the America public can understand easily, you don't have to put on the green eye shades and people can have an opinion about it.
So, I think that Rick Santorum has been -- I think that his complaint about the media covering the issues more than his economic platform is fair. But on the case of suggesting that there's no difference between Mitt Romney or President Obama, I think he was making sort of a rhetorical remark that he didn't mean it literally.
However, it's fair to ask him, well, if that's the case, then who you vote for Obama if Mitt Romney's the candidate? And to take him more literally.
So, these are the kinds of things that politicians -- you know, they have to expect that they are going to be asked about.
KURTZ: Right. And this blew up in the press because a lot of Republicans were upset about what Santorum has said.
I want to turn now, I mentioned, Santorum won a pretty big victory yesterday in the Louisiana primary, beating Romney by about 20 points. And yet, it wasn't on the front page of "The New York Times." It wasn't on the front page of "The Washington Post".
I've been arguing that television has gotten bored by this race or thinks it's pretty much over and they've been covering it a lot less on primary nights for example. The other cable networks have broken away to do lots of over stuff. And now here's Santorum saying on the trail, David Corn, speaking about reporters, "They are all trying to go home, get off the road, and stop writing about this thing. They're all tired. They're sick of writing the stories. They want this thing to be over."
CORN: That shows that Rick Santorum, for his 30 years in politics, doesn't understand anything about reporters. If you're on the campaign for a particular candidate, I'm not saying that you root for him to win, but if you're the reporter, it's good if he does well, you get more time on air, you get more ink and if you should happen to make it to the White House, you'll get this plum assignment of covering the White House.
By far, I think most political reporters want the race to continue. They like to see more conflict, more drama, more debate rather than less. It's good for them. Otherwise, the story does shift to other things.
So, he is completely wrong.
KURTZ: Whatever reporters think on the trail, Amy Holmes, it does seem like the media have kind of made a collective judgment that this thing is pretty much over. We've talked about the delegate math. It focuses heavily on Romney and Santorum's victories yesterday is a good example, seemed to be heavily discounted.
HOLMES: I think that that's the case. And I think we saw it back in 2008 when Mike Allen, writing for "Politico" about this time in March during the presidential -- rather, the Democratic primary, said that it was over, that Hillary Clinton couldn't catch up with then-candidate Obama. It was hopeless for her to try. That she should throw it in and we should focus on then-Senator Obama and his race to the Democratic primary.
I think we're seeing that now. But another theme I've seen in the media is that if a race isn't close, it's not worth reporting. That it's boring, if one candidate is 20 points ahead.
So, we might as well move on to the next story and I think that's been a disservice to both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
KURTZ: A disservice indeed. Let me get a break.
Up next, President Obama is blaming FOX News for spreading the news that he's a Muslim. According to David Corn's new book, is that a fair claim against the network?
Plus, end of an era at C-Span. I'll bring you my conversation with the founder, Brian Lamb.
KURTZ: David Corn, you made news this week with your new book, "Showdown." You quote President Obama as making a charge against Fox News. It was picked up by Fox anchor, Bret Baier. Let me play something for the audience. I'm going to ask you a question about it on the other side.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: He told labor leaders that he was, quote, "Losing white males because, in part, fed up by Fox News, they hear that Obama is a Muslim 24/7, and it begins to seep in."
For the record, we found no example of a host saying President Obama is a Muslim.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: First of all, you used to be a Fox News analyst before you went to MSNBC. Where is the fair and balanced comment from Fox in this book?
CORN: There is no - I was quoting what the president was saying in a larger meeting about where the political culture is, OK?
So he was talking about Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin representing the Senate Republican Party, and was not blaming Fox News.
He was saying, basically in part fed up by Fox News. There's always excessive rhetoric out there. And they hear Obama is a Muslim 24/7.
KURTZ: You don't think Fox New deserved the chance to respond to that?
CORN: No. I mean, Bret did and he got it wrong.
KURTZ: OK. We'll come back to your beef with Baier.
CORN: I mean, listen -
KURTZ: But let me get Amy Holmes in on this same question. Is this a fair charge for Obama to make and fair for David to report it the way he did.
AMY HOLMES, ANCHOR, GBTV: Well, whether or not it's fair for President Obama to make it, I think we've seen that President Obama is quite preoccupied with the coverage of himself by Fox News.
It's not the first time he's mentioned Fox News and I see that there is certainly a story there as to why the president is, you know, maybe much like Lyndon Johnson was, so preoccupied with his own press coverage.
And if you remember, President Bush got attacked for not following the press, for not reading the "New York Times" every morning.
As for David, you know, using this bit in his book - I haven't read the entire context so I don't know if he used it fairly or not.
KURTZ: OK. Let me - HOLMES: But as I say, President Obama's own preoccupation I think is the story.
KURTZ: Now, I didn't find any example of a Fox host saying that President Obama is Muslim, so what Bret Baier said is accurate.
But here's a clip of Sean Hannity interviewing a guest named Brigitte Gabriel about the question of why Obama is perceived by some, inaccurately, I need to add, as a Muslim.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, HOST, "HANNITY": Do you think people maybe have taken all of those things and his actions as president and come to a wrong conclusion or what do you think?
BRIGITTE GABRIEL, ACT FOR AMERICA: Finally, people are paying attention to things after the fog has been lifted off of their eyes as to who did we really elect as president? The signs and information were all out there. President Obama was born into the Islamic faith, raised as a Muslim as a child, to a father who was a Muslim.
HANNITY: Do you think he is a Muslim?
GABRIEL: He attended Islamic schools. I cannot speak on what God he prays to in his private space.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And they did add that President Obama spent 25 years in Jeremiah Wright's Christian church. What's your beef with what Bret Baier said?
CORN: Well, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from Mother Jones which I'll put on my Twitter feed, @DavidCornDC, after the show. But there are lots of cases when people on Fox are either validating this or sort of creating an environment.
Donald Trump comes on. He says why don't we have the birth certificate? Maybe because it says he's a Muslim. They had controversial pastor Robert Jeffress on who was asked - he said, actually, "Why do people think Obama is a Muslim? Duh?" I mean, so -
KURTZ: And you feel like they haven't pushed back sufficiently. Others have made the claim. All right. David Corn, I've got to go. Amy Holmes in New York, David Corn here, thanks very much for joining us this Sunday morning.
After the break, that embarrassing retraction on Ira Glass' radio program, "This American Life." Why won't he answer questions about it?
KURTZ: We led our program this week with a stunning retraction at "This American Life." Ira Glass, host of the popular public radio show, told listeners that he had mistakenly aired fabricated allegations from performance artists about conditions at an Apple factory.
Now, he deserves credit for doing that. But now, Ira Glass should do something else. He should answer questions about this very serious mistake. Since the retraction broke late on a Friday, we invited Glass on RELIABLE SOURCES again this week.
His spokeswoman said, "We're not making further public statements about this at the moment. Ira feels that he's said what he needed to say about this on the air and on our Web site. And we have so many requests we can't possibly manage them to meet them all."
But they haven't met any. I'm sorry. That is a copout. A journalist who asks questions for a living should not refuse to answer them, should not hide behind PR people when his organization makes a big mistake.
That's what politicians and business executives do when they've got something to hide. Mr. Glass, our invitation remains open.
After the break, my conversation with C-Span founder Brian Lamb on the network he created and his unsuccessful push to televise this week's Supreme Court arguments on the Obama health care law.
KURTZ: If ever a media company reflected the personality of its founder, it would be C-Span. Brian Lamb launched the nonpartisan channel more than three decades ago and his style is relaxed, low-key and straight down the middle.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN LAMB, FOUNDER OF C-SPAN: Neil Sheehan, author of the new book, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam." Why did you write the book?
It's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and it doesn't say where it's coming from. He says here, "C-Span sucks but not as much as you do. That's to me. Have a nice, (EXPLETIVE DELETED). I always thought you liars on C- Span were a bunch of bed-wetting commies, but now I'm convinced."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Lamb announced this week he's stepping down as CEO and taking the title, the executive chairman. I sat down with him at C- Span's brand-new, never-before-used studio on Capitol Hill.
(on camera) Brian Lamb, welcome.
LAMB: Howard, welcome.
KURTZ: Thank you for letting us in your new studio. I think of you, after all these years, as the anti-anchor. I have never seen you push a guest or inject your opinions in a way that you try to tilt a view. How do you get to be so restrained?
LAMB: I was born that way.
KURTZ: You don't have to work at it?
LAMB: No. No. Look, it's very simple. It's our mission. We set out to do that. And when you have a goal, you should stick by it or you might not be around anymore.
KURTZ: But the whole trend in TV, as you well know, is for the host or the anchor to analyze and to jump in and to raise his voice and to inject his personality.
I know you have a personality, but you're very, very cautious on the air. Again, that just comes naturally to you. You don't ever have to pull back.
LAMB: Well, remember what our model is. It's a nonprofit. And our cable industry has said, "Go ahead and do it that way. We'll back you."
If you had to make a profit, it's been proven you couldn't do that. You wouldn't make enough profit to matter.
KURTZ: So you couldn't do this in the jungle of commercial television, obviously?
LAMB: Not as it's developed. No, I mean, and I love watching all of it so it doesn't matter to me. I think the good thing is that people have a choice.
KURTZ: Does it trouble you at all that some cable channels, notably, MSNBC and fox, have gotten so partisan particularly in their primetime programming? Is that a trend that causes you any concern?
LAMB: I'm not the slightest bit concerned. As long as we have a choice out there, they can do whatever they want.
KURTZ: OK. How did you infuse in the people who work here as you built this organization, the same kind of ethos where they, too, are very restrained on the air and I don't think or know where they are politically?
LAMB: Most of them came here for their first job in broadcasting, so we didn't have to retrain them. And they came here knowing what our mission was.
And they went along with it. Some of them fight it a little bit because it's human nature to be more involved. But we don't have much trouble with that. Everybody is pretty much on board.
KURTZ: Is there a risk in this approach that it lets the guest say pretty much whatever he or she wants without challenge? LAMB: There is a certain risk but I have a great deal of trust in the intelligence of people watching. I think that people that come to us realize what our technique is, what our way of doing business and they take it for what it is.
And they genuinely like the fact that we don't tell them what somebody just said.
KURTZ: Or take issue with what somebody just said?
LAMB: We do take issue though, if you watch closely, there's a follow up. Well, you said this, but what about this?
KURTZ: OK. I remembered the first time you interviewed me in this building. It was my first book, "Media Circus," and you asked this short, direct question, "Why did you write this book?"
And then you took this little thing. You said, "On page 236, you wrote this." I didn't remember what I had written on page 236 and I've done all these radio interviews where the host said he read the book.
And I realized, not only that you did your homework, obviously, but you create a lot of space for the guest to talk. And in a way it pushes you off any scripted points you may have in mind.
LAMB: I always feel that way when I'm doing - but we have the luxury of time without commercials. And again, if you look at the economic format that we have, that's why we can do this.
And the kind of people that watch us want that. They also have the choices I said earlier so they can flip over to the other channels if they want a faster-paced channel.
KURTZ: When callers weigh in and some of them get pretty abusive, criticize you, criticize C-Span using sometimes rough language, does that bother you?
LAMB: The rough language bothers me. We don't have a delay and we're very close all the time to enacting that device, which we don't want to do.
KURTZ: So you've thought about it?
LAMB: Oh, yes. We had one.
KURTZ: And you got rid of it?
LAMB: No, it's in the house.
KURTZ: You don't use it?
LAMB: We don't want to use it, because what happens is, if you have a device that delays the calls and people get jumpy and people that work here think, "Oh, I can't possibly let that through."
Overall we'd rather let them let them through than have us edit what they say. But it gets close. Sometimes, people abuse it.
KURTZ: When you started C-Span back in 1979 and then people forget. It took another seven years to get permission to televise the Senate. You started with the House. Did you ever think it would become such a fixture on the television landscape?
LAMB: I never thought about it, but I did think that the draw would be about what it is. It's not dramatic, but I always thought because of just my own personal experience and I never - I didn't come to this as some sort of highly educated person that wanted to talk policy.
I came to it because I just wanted to watch for myself what was going on in politics and the government. And I always thought there would be a certain number of people and the real trick was this constant how much can we spend, how much are we worth, how long will people support us? So that's been kind of a tight rope for the last 35 years.
KURTZ: Do you get ratings? Do you know how many people watch? Do you care how many people watch?
LAMB: We really don't care. We don't want to be worthless. We don't get ratings. We do surveys to find out if anybody cares. And we have that call-in show where we hear every day the voices of 60 people every morning.
KURTZ: So, that's your focus group of sorts?
LAMB: Yes. And we have -
We have three different focus groups from time to time.
KURTZ: You do?
LAMB: Yes, we do, to find out what is it they like, dislike, what matters to them, what are we wasting our time doing.
But the worst thing that we can do, given the nature of what we have as a mission, is to manipulate what the audience sees based on whether it's popular or not.
KURTZ: On Monday, the Supreme Court starts oral arguments on President Obama's health care law. You asked for permission for C- Span to put cameras in the courtroom. You were turned down. Disappointed? LAMB: Of course, but I was used to it. We have been asking the Gridiron Club for 25 years let us bring cameras into a journalistic evening and they have turned us down. And so the court is just about in that category and they have their own reasons and we can't change their mind.
KURTZ: The compromise in this case, which is that there will be audiotapes made available on a delayed basis, which C-Span is going to air. That is a pretty inadequate substitute, isn't it?
LAMB: I think it is a tremendous addition to what we have available to us. It used to be that you had to wait until the end of the term plus six months.
And now, Chief Justice Roberts says let these tapes go at the end of the week and, on special occasions, at the end of the day.
So seeing that the court doesn't make a decision right away and we don't know for three months or so what that court decision is, I think it's a very positive thing that they are doing right now. We just hope they can take one more step.
KURTZ: I'm still waiting for the court to come into the 21st century and let us see what goes on there as we now see in Congress, thanks to C-Span.
When C-Span airs hours and hours of congressional testimony, congressional hearings, floor debate, or in the case of the presidential campaign, you just have a kind of a cinema verite approach where you get see the event without much chatter or commentary from the host.
Why do people in this kind of fast-paced society tune in to watch that?
LAMB: The same reason that journalists are sitting in the hearing room or that you go to a campaign speech and you watch every move that's made before and after.
I just was watching Joe Biden with a crowd. I think he was in Florida and I was watching Mitt Romney with a crowd. And being able to be that close to them and watching them at the end of their speeches is tremendous. It is like being there.
And that is something I can't explain. Everybody wants to be an insider and that is the best way we can do that.
KURTZ: But the ratings theory in commercial television that people are busy. They want a digest. They want the eight-second sound bite. You are giving them the whole event.
And clearly, when it comes to ratings, there is an audience for that. People maybe don't want the filter that many of us in the media put up?
LAMB: See, I think, again, it is a choice. We don't have a filter and CNN or any of the rest of them do, but that's a very important job and they - you-all decide from an editorial standpoint what you think is important.
We just give them chance to see the whole thing if they want to. They are not there every day. They are not there every hour. Very few people sit there saying, "Wow this is exciting."
KURTZ: Not even your immediate family?
LAMB: No, and I don't. I mean, we have three choices plus the radio station. That's four different information choices plus we put stuff on the Web. That's the great thing about the last 30 years' revolution.
KURTZ: Brian Lamb, it's been a tremendous run and a revolution that you have led. Thank you very much for letting us into your office.
LAMB: Thank you, Howard, very much.
KURTZ: Brian Lamb has never said his own name on the air. A jam-packed "Media Monitor" in a moment.
KURTZ: Time now for the media monitor, our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business. Called the case of the disappearing story, Agence France Presse reported this week that one of President Obama's daughters in Mexico on a spring break vacation.
But the report about Malia Obama soon disappeared from the wire service as well as the "Huffington Post," Yahoo, and other Web sites that had picked it up. What happened?
Well, Michelle Obama's communications director told politico, "From the beginning of the administration, the White House has asked news outlets not to the report on or photograph the Obama children when they are not with their parents and there is no vital news interest."
So did these news outlets do the right thing pulling the story? In my view, it shouldn't have been reported in the first place. There is no public interest, none in reporting on the president's kids when they are on vacation unless they are with dad. Let's allow them a semblance of a normal life.
"New York Times" took something of a gamble last year by adopting a pay wall, meaning if you want to read the paper online, you had to subscribe after 20 free articles a month. I think we can now declare the experiment a success.
The "Times" has more than 450,000 digital subscribers. But this week, it got a bit stingier about the free stuff, cutting the allotment to 10 free articles a month although there are ways around that through Twitter and Facebook.
Now, other newspaper outlets, such as the "L.A. Times" and "Gannett" are putting in pay walls as well, which while it might seem annoying, is actually a good thing because someone's got pay for the quality reporting these newsrooms do.
Dick Norris makes no secret that he is rooting for the Republicans but he recently went just a step further. He offered a guided tour of the Fox News studios in New York to raise money for a Republican organization in Florida.
It went for $6,000, but the network isn't having it. Fox executive vice president Bill Shine reprimanded Morris telling the web site, "TV Newser" "The tour will absolutely not take place nor would something like that ever have taken place if we were aware of it."
Morris apparently saw no reason not to use his Fox status to shill for the GOP.
And Karl Rove, the Bush White House strategist turned Fox News commentator can be as partisan as he wants, but he can't mangle the facts.
In his "Wall Street Journal" column, Rove wrote, "As for the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Mr. Obama did what virtually any commander-in-chief would have done in the same situation. Even President Bill Clinton says in the film, quote, 'That's the call I would have made.'"
But that's deceptive editing on Rove's part. What Clinton actually said was, quote, "I hope that's the call I would have made." The criticism prompted the journal to run a correction. You can't do that, Karl.
That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz, join us next Sunday morning at 11 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.