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Reliable Sources

Obama and Romney Debate; Moderator in the Hot Seat

Aired October 07, 2012 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: When I was in Denver watching the debate, it was clear that Mitt Romney had the stronger performance. But President Obama was, it seemed to me, scoring some substantive points. That didn't matter, because as the media have relentlessly reminded us, Obama seemed to lack energy and passion, and that became the overwhelming narrative.


SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS: No question this is Mitt Romney's night on style.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN: It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: The challenger, Mitt Romney seemed more presidential than the president, more in command of his facts, of his arguments, of his principles.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: That's the frustration. Where was the president tonight?


KURTZ: But are the media exaggerating the extent of the president's loss and ignoring the candidate's half truths in the process?

FOX News hypes a conservative Web site's video of Barack Obama as a racially charged revelation.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: On the eve of the first presidential debate, a bombshell is about to be dropped on the 2012 race for the White House.


KURTZ: But the 5-year-old tape was hardly a secret and the speech was covered at the time. Are right wing commentators trying to portray the president as an angry black man?

Plus, that other big debate, Jon Stewart versus Bill O'Reilly.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Income redistribution. Do you believe in it?


O'REILLY: No. I asked first.

Oh, it's a complicated one.

STEWART: I believe -- I believe in Social Security. Do you believe in Social Security?

O'REILLY: Yes, absolutely.

STEWART: So we're both socialists.

O'REILLY: No, no.


KURTZ: Was this clash of television titans substantive or was it shtick?

I'm Howard Kurtz and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.


KURTZ: I knew the media were absolutely pummeling Barack Obama after the debate when I watched the gang at MSNBC. They savaged the president they usually defend, appearing angry, even disgusted with their man's performance, and especially Chris Matthews.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: I don't know what he was doing out there. He had his head down. He was enduring the debate rather than fighting it. Where was Obama tonight? He should watch -- not just "Hardball," Rachel, he should watch you. He should watch the Reverend Al. He should watch Lawrence. He should learn something about this debate.

There's a hot debate going on in this country. You know where it's being held? Here, on this network, it's where we're having a debate. We have our knives out. We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight?


KURTZ: Mitt Romney won the debate, no question about it. But are the pundits casting Obama's performance as a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night? And is the press all but ignoring the substance of the showdown?

Joining us now here now in Washington, Julie Mason, host of the "Press Pool" on Sirius XM radio, Terence Smith, former media correspondent for the PBS "NewsHour," and David Drucker, editor and correspondent at "Roll Call".

Terry Smith, let's stipulate that Obama lost this debate. He was flat, meandering. Romney was focused and energetic.

The media have made it sound like the biggest fiasco in the history of debating. Is that a bit over the top?

TERENCE SMITH, FORMER PBS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, of course, it's over the top. It's not a disaster. It was -- it was a flat night, not a good night obviously for the president.

But I have to say, news organizations, and particularly my good friend Chris Matthews know this, go into a meltdown when they're confronted with a surprise. It was a surprise. Remember going in, everybody anticipated that Obama would be quite in charge and Romney would be struggling.

So it was, of course, mainly stylistic, the failing, not substantive, because going home after watching it, I listened to it, C-Span radio ran it again, and Obama wasn't that bad.

KURTZ: I want to pick up that point in a minute, but I also want to show our viewers how this kind goes into the culture. You see all the pundits saying the president was absolutely terrible. You see the clips played again and again and again, and then it goes to a place like "Saturday Night Live."



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry. Yes, what's up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, Governor Romney has just said that he killed Osama bin Laden. Would you care to respond?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. You two go ahead.


KURTZ: David Drucker, that kind of thing and the relentless punditry makes people who saw the debate look back and say, boy, Obama really was awful.

DAVID DRUCKER, ROLL CALL: Yes. It was a night I think that people didn't expect, because actually Obama at several times in his presidency, whether he was debating House Republicans at one of their retreats, where they invited him as a guest and there was a televised back and forth, has proven, you know, quite adept at discussing the issues and casting his policies in a very centrist light, even if they're liberal policies.

KURTZ: But do you agree with my point that if you hear the media echo chamber saying over and over and over again, that this was a calamity for the president, that that can influence how people the event? DRUCKER: Well, how the media covers things always influences how people remember the event. I mean, if you look at the presidential race, it has been very influenced by how the media has portrayed various events.

And so, how the media cover this will influence -- I'd add, though, that when 70 million people watch something, it's hard either way for the media to have an influence sending coverage in one direction if people clearly saw it in another.

KURTZ: OK. Terry talked about listening to it on the radio. I was in Denver. I saw a different debate than most Americans because I didn't see -- and we can put some of this up here. I didn't see the split screens. I didn't see the reaction shots when the president was looking down often and Romney looked more energetic. We see that here.

And that, I think, especially what the media is focused on, the body language of the debate changed the way you looked at. I was more focused on what they were saying. So, it didn't seem to me that Obama had done so badly.

JULIE MASON, SIRIUS XM RADIO: You're such a purist, just listening to what they say. That's adorable.

The other stuff is important too, the body language, and how they interact, even how they look at each other, what they call each other, all that stuff feeds into the perception. And you mentioned "Saturday Night Live", that adds to the perception. Twitter, which I know you're also interested in -- it all feeds into this massive perception that it was a huge fail.

KURTZ: All right. Well, I'm going to be old fashioned about it and focus on what they said for a few minutes here. So, warning, we're about to get into substance.

I want to play a fairly lengthy clip of an exchange between the president and Mitt Romney on -- about Romney's tax plan, which Obama characterized as costing $5 trillion and not being fully paid for. Let's watch.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you add up all the loopholes and deductions that upper level individuals are currently taking advantage of -- you take those all away -- you don't come close to paying for $5 trillion in tax cuts and $2 trillion in additional military spending.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. I know that you and your running mate keep saying that, and I know it's a popular thing to say with a lot of people. But it's not just the case.

I want to bring the rate downs, at the same time lower deductions and exemptions and credits and so forth so we keep getting the revenue we need.


KURTZ: Terry, I understand the focus on the theater of it. It is a theatrical performance. And I understand the focus on Big Bird and things like that. But here you have Mitt Romney who on the one hand seemed to be backing way from part of what he's been saying all year, he's not going to raise what high income people pay, but almost -- I mean, almost every independent study shows that he cannot pay for this through closing deductions and loopholes, and he hasn't said which deductions and loopholes he would close.

Why has there not been more media focus on this very central question?

SMITH: Well, I think the fact checkers who really weighed in later and the next morning have brought that out.

KURTZ: I agree with you on that, and I would say the fact checkers are maybe 5 percent of the coverage. They're off in this little corner and they do a great job.


KURTZ: But why has the headline, why the front page story, why the top of the newscast not dealt with -- you know, not just Romney's tax cut and the questions about it, but Romney saying he likes part of Obamacare, he would still cover pre-existing conditions. Well, not so much if you look at the details. He said he likes part of the Dodd/Frank banking law, even though he's calling for its abolition.

It seems to me when it comes to the substance, the press has somewhat fallen down on the job here. Tell me I'm wrong.

SMITH: No, I tend to agree with you. I saw stories the next day that said that this is the moderate Mitt, that he moved to the center, that this was really a significant thing, and it was so reported.

So I think it was covered. I think you're talking mainly about emphasis, and was there enough emphasis on really disputable figures on both sides, I must say. They both fudged.

KURTZ: Emphasis and volume. And just the president said he created -- or 5 million jobs have been created during his tenure. That's a figure that does not hold water, and yet it seems to me that the idea of journalists as fact checkers, except in this sort of little ghetto of fact checking columns and features, this is -- you know, if you ask people what do you learn about the debate by reading about it and hearing about it, they're not going to talk about the substance?

DRUCKER: Well, it's ironic, because I think it was one of the more substantive debates we had.

KURTZ: It was. DRUCKER: Just take out whatever you think about what they said, these two candidates went back and forth about their plans and what they think. I would say this -- I don't like the idea of media fact- checkers because if we're supposed to report, it's funny that we're also the referee. And so, I have a little bit of an issue --

KURTZ: Wait a minute. What if candidates get up there and they lie and they distort and they exaggerate?

DRUCKER: If it's a lie as simple as the sky is brown and we all know it's blue, that's one thing. But there have been competing studies, Republicans trotting out conservative-based studies, Democrats trotting out liberal-based studies about what these tax plans would do. And so, what you'd you get, as in most campaigns, is in a sense a muddle over values and how to attack a problem that ultimately is up to the voters.

And it's really unclear whether either of these candidates is telling the truth or in a sense arguing for something that can't be done until they may have a change to do it or not.

KURTZ: But here's a fact that's not unclear. Romney says that when -- Romney essentially has a secret plan. He says when he unveils which deductions and loopholes he's going to close, although he's taken things like the home mortgage deductions off the table, then you will see that his tax plan won't increase the deficit. That in and of itself is a pretty central fact in this debate, but not if you look at the media coverage.

MASON: No, that's true. And I think the fact that we have fact checkers playing such an important role in campaign coverage now gives campaign reporters a pass on not covering those substantive issues. Reporters aren't good at math. That's not news.

KURTZ: Then they need remedial math.

MASON: That is definitely true. But they can cover the broader issues. They want to cover other things.

KURTZ: They want to cover the theater of it and the polls and the momentum and the image-making.


MASON: That's what gets the hits on the Web site, not a substantive story about tax rates.

SMITH: In the first instance, it's got to be the other candidate who goes after the distortions and the exaggerations. And in this case, the president did challenge it.

KURTZ: Right.

SMITH: And it became a "yes, it is/no, it isn't" argument that -- KURTZ: I agree with you that it's not the press' job to make the case that Barack Obama should have made. But in this case on the tax plan, not so much Obamacare and some other things, he did. And was that played in any of the clips that I saw? Very little.


DRUCKER: I think it was. But I think there's been a little bit of a misperception on the argument over taxes. If you watched Mitt Romney from the beginning of the campaign, whether you like his idea or not, he has argued that he will cut everyone's taxes, but not change the share of the burden that the wealthy will pay.

Now, that may turn out to be true or not if he's ever elected and goes to Congress with a plan. But he did not change his plan the night of the debate. What he tried to do finally in this entire campaign was rebut the very effective Obama argument that he's cutting taxes for the wealthy and sticking the middle class with the tab.

It's not something the Republicans believe is true and he was defending his plan.

SMITH: The keyword was "share" -- the share of taxes that the wealthy will pay. And so I was surprised the president didn't go after that too.

KURTZ: Is it simply that -- I've seen 20 times the level of coverage about what Romney said about Big Bird and cutting off the subsidy to PBS, than anything else. Is it the other stuff, the stuff we're talking about here, is it just considered too boring to get hits on the Web site, or ratings for a television show?

MASON: Yes, absolutely. Yes.

KURTZ: That depresses me.

MASON: It is. Would that journalism were still the church of truth? It's not. It's a profit-driven industry and the profit gets smaller and smaller. We're talking about Big Bird.

DRUCKER: And look what the Obama campaign and the Democrats were talking about the next day, Big Bird.

KURTZ: Big Bird showing up at some of the rallies now. Romney after the debate saying his comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes, now he says that was completely wrong. After two weeks of telling us he said it inelegantly, but he was right.

How does the press deal with that, the fact that he stuck to this for two weeks, so we say that he was being disingenuous, and being honest now? How do you deal with that kind of zigzag?

SMITH: Well, first, you focus on it, you report it, you put the spotlight on the fact that he asserted something to one audience and totally rejected it to the wider audience. And I think if you do that and you do that sharply, you get the job done.

KURTZ: This was the most -- talking about social media here for a moment -- this was the most tweeted political event ever, 10.3 million Twitter messages, more than for the whole Democratic convention in just those 90 minutes.

How does that change the way the people experience the debate if they're online and sharing and debating with their friends?

MASON: It does. I notice people paying much more attention to Twitter than what was being said on TV, and following the debate through Twitter rather than experiencing it as a television event.

KURTZ: And also people were engaged on Facebook and even on Microsoft Xbox. People who usually play on video games actually vote on certain questions, not a lot--

MASON: Finally.

KURTZ: Finally.

So, it seems to me, who needs the media because now people can broadcast their own opinions to their own audience, whatever kind of audience they can muster.

DRUCKER: And this is one of the things social media has done is, in a sense, removed us as the sole gatekeepers of information flow, and I think actually given a new sort of life to the presidential debates in general, because so much of what is said, analyzed and even seen is pushed out through Twitter, through Facebook, and it has the staying power that I don't know that it would have had four years ago, eight years ago, 12 years ago.

KURTZ: And it's shattered the media monopoly.

SMITH: You know, don't lose sight of one thing. The most important thing that a candidate can accomplish in a debate is the impression he gives -- or she -- gives to the audience. In this case, it was: "Is Mitt Romney presidential?" quote/unquote. Can he be seen as presidential?

The answer, I think, in most of the audience was yes.

KURTZ: And the audience was sharing that on Twitter as well. And I think you're right. That impression is more important than the facts and figures. But I don't think the press should ignore the facts and figures, particularly with the economy such a big issue.

And finally, in terms of the media creating an impression, let's put up the cover of the new issue of "The New Yorker". There you see the debate. Mitt Romney on the right side and nobody standing next to him.

When we come back, piling on Jim Lehrer. Why all the criticism of the man who has moderated more presidential debates than anyone else in history? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Jim Lehrer moderated his 12th presidential debate this week, but never before has the longtime PBS anchor drew the kind of stinging criticism that followed his performance in Denver when he struggled to keep control of the proceedings.


JIM LEHRER, DEBATE MODERATOR: Governor Romney, do you have a question that you'd like to ask the president directly?

ROMNEY: Jim, the president began this segment, so I think I get the last word.

LEHRER: You're going to get the first word in the next segment.


ROMNEY: Let me mention the other one. Let's talk --

LEHRER: No, let's not. Let's let him respond to this specific on Dodd-Frank and what the governor just said.

OBAMA: Now, the last point I'd make before --

LEHRER: Two minutes, two minutes is up, sir.

OBAMA: No, I think -- I had five seconds before you interrupted me was --


KURTZ: Terry Smith, you work with Jim Lehrer, you know his style. What's your take on whether he lost control of that debate?

SMITH: Well, you could say that. But, first of all, Jim is a friend and a colleague. I like him very much. He's a big boy. He can take the criticism. I'm not worried about him.

I would say, more important than that was this was a new format, extremely complex format with six 15-minute segments, two-minute questions at the top, and then it was -- it places a lot of time- keeping burden on the moderator, and I think they may want to look at that going forward.

The other thing is -- remember, this is a format those two candidates agreed to in advance and then ignored.

KURTZ: Correct.

SMITH: So, I mean, these are all considerations. What Jim was trying to do was to get the two candidates to question each other, exchange and to a degree, that succeeded.

KURTZ: That's precisely what he told me when I interviewed him on Friday. He said he had no apologies for the way he handled it. His job was to stay out of the way and let the candidates engage. And he told me, I can understand people saying, what is this, he let them talk too long, but that is a new format that people aren't used to.

MASON: Yes, it's a true. And what a no-win situation. If he had injected himself more, we'd be sitting here saying, why did he make it all about himself?

KURTZ: He cut off Romney, he cut off Obama.

MASON: Right, exactly. When they went over, they stayed on topic. They didn't introduce new issues that he hadn't brought up. I think what he did was fine.

I don't feel qualified to criticize his performance. That's a hard job.

KURTZ: Baked into the criticism it seems to me, David Drucker, is the notion that the moderator, as we've seen over the years, should tightly control the proceedings and should drive the conversation. And Lehrer didn't want to drive the conversation, except in broad topic areas.

DRUCKER: I don't think a moderator should do that.

Howard, what do we always complain about? How can you discuss national issues in two minutes bites? Why is it all about the moderator? Why don't candidates engage each other and really fight it out?

Well, guess what? That's what they did. He introduced the topic. He tried to kind of keep them, at least knowing what the time was and when they wanted to fight, he let them fight.

I mean, at one point Mitt Romney said, wait a minute, can we stay on Medicare? Really, we want to cut that off? This is what we say we want.

Also, I'd say one thing. I think because of the 20-some-odd Republican presidential primary debates where we had moderators, who I think did a good job, would almost treat it like a quasi-interview. In other words, here's your record, here's what you said, does everybody else want to pile on? I don't know that debates at this level should be about that.

KURTZ: And on that point, Julie, there were points, instances, in the debate where I thought Jim Lehrer might have followed up and said, well, Governor Romney, you're saying this now, but six months ago, you said this. But he told me, yes, if it was on the "NewsHour," that's what he would have done. That's the job of an interview, he didn't see it as a job of a moderator.

MASON: I think there's an impulse when we watch these things. We want the moderator or the questioners to almost avenge, you know, to be -- to confront, and they expect journalist to get in someone's face and say, liar. But that's not the role of a moderator. As David said, step back. Just let them go at it. It's much better for democracy really.

KURTZ: Well, judging what I've --

SMITH: Here's a problem, and I think Bob Schieffer, who's going to moderate this third debate with the same format is going to have to think about this. There are moments where you can say -- let's say to Mitt Romney -- you've said again and again you'll eliminate these deductions and these loopholes. Give us one or two examples. That is not unreasonable.


KURTZ: I agree with you. I wish he had done that. On the one hand, he had a different philosophy. What was the result? The result was, as you said it earlier, a pretty substantive debate.

But we at this table seem to be in the minority judging by the online criticism.

So I want to ask, Jim Lehrer has been doing this for a long, long time. He has a stellar reputation for fairness. What amounts to -- what accounts to the caustic nature of the criticism, comparing him to an NFL replacement ref and things like that?

SMITH: You know, I don't know, except that as long as you're -- when you're in the limelight and you're in it for a long time, your head is above the trench. And you're going to be shot at. I don't think it's anything more than that.

MASON: Howie, I think it was a lot of Democratic scapegoating. You know, I heard -- you heard it most from the Democrats. He did a terrible job.

KURTZ: Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for the president, saying, well, I guess Mitt Romney was the moderator, not Jim Lehrer, because the president obviously had a bad night.

MASON: Right. Exactly. So, it's not the president's fault, then it becomes Jim Lehrer's fault. I've heard that from so many Democrats.

KURTZ: Interesting observation.

All right. Thanks very much for coming in this morning, David Drucker, Terry Smith and Julie Mason.

Ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES, what it's like to be in the spin room at the Denver presidential debate. Is this a ritual that should just be put to rest?


KURTZ: When I walked into the cavernous news media filing center at the University of Denver this week, I had to ask myself, why did I fly four hours to watch the presidential debate with a bunch of other journalists on TV? The answer in part is a chance to work the spin room, actually a spin alley on the side of the hall.

But in this age of real time tweeting, why go through the ancient ritual of listening to each candidate's surrogates predictably pronounce their guy the winner? Actually, it turns out to be a fascinating exercise.

The Republicans were so excited by Mitt Romney's performance that Rudy Giuliani started declaring victory to reporters while Romney was still delivering his closing statement. Soon, there were 10 Romney boosters blitzing the room, surrounded by journalists and cameras, from adviser Eric Fehrnstrom to Marco Rubio. And their enthusiasm was unmistakable.

Ten minutes passed before two Democratic spinners finally came out. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and White House adviser David Plouffe. They were subdued, almost robotic. And while they were quick to criticize Romney, they didn't claim any great victory for the president because they couldn't.

The contrast told me all I needed to know about the mood of the campaigns, and it was valuable to have a chance to question some of these folks. Yes, the transparent spin can make you dizzy, just like when the partisans spew talking points on cable news. But in Denver, the expressions of those speaking for the candidates were something that no amount of spin could obscure.

Up next, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity billed it as explosive new information about Barack Obama. But was the 5-year-old videotape of a public speech really news?

And Jack Welch accusing the Obama team of cooking the books on the latest jobless figures. Really?


KURTZ: The Drudge Report touted it as a bombshell. It placed the president in a harshly unflattering life. Tucker Carlson whose "Daily Caller" web site posted the five-year-old video of Barack Obama unveiled it on Fox News, and Sean Hannity could barely contain his enthusiasm.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: It contains some of the most divisive class warfare and racially charged rhetoric ever used by Barack Obama. This is what so-called unbiased journalists have been trying to hide for years. It's a glimpse into the mind of the real Barack Obama.

TUCKER CARLSON, "DAILY CALLER": The first thing that will jump off the screen at you is this is not the Barack Obama you've watched for the past eight years if you've been paying attention. And this guy is whipping up race hatred and fear, period.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: And what was this all about? The bizarre thing is that Obama delivered this 2007 speech at Hampton University in front of reporters and television cameras. The journalists heard him say that the Bush administration was less generous to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina than after other tragedies.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We're not going to wait for you to scratch it together because you're part of the American family. What's happening down in New Orleans? Where's your dollar? Where's your Stafford Act money? It makes no sense. Tells me the bullet hasn't been taken out. Tells me that somehow the people down in New Orleans, they don't care about as much.


KURTZ: And while Carlson had portions of the video that hadn't been aired before, the speech was covered at the time, including on CNN.


WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, suggesting there's a disconnect and a serious disconnect in the African-American community, and he's invoking the memory of the deadly 1992 Los Angeles riots.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: Senator Obama today said the Bush administration has done nothing to diffuse what he called a quiet riot among black Americans. A riot he suggests is ready to erupt.


KURTZ: So was this legitimate news in 2012? Joining us now here in Washington, Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post" and in New York, Amy Holmes, anchor of "Real News" on the Blaze.

Dana Milbank, what did you make of the way that Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity presented this as a sizzling hot scoop?

DANA MILBANK, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I suppose if I had a marginal scoop, I'd present it as a sizzling hot scoop too. I mean, that's the nature of the business. You try to get it out. If you can get Drudge go after it, all the better. You get many more clicks for that. But I think we reacted to this the way the stock market reacts to information it had already. Yes, there was something marginally new here, but it didn't fundamentally change something we knew about the president or something we knew about the story. It wasn't really relevant at the moment. This week was all about debates and unemployment and other stuff. It just didn't seem to fit in. So yes, it got out there and then it fizzled quickly.

KURTZ: Amy Holmes, Obama's speech received modest coverage at the time, and this time around was kind of covered as a media story and then disappeared for 24 hours. So did this video fizzle? AMY HOLMES, ANCHOR, BLAZE "REAL NEWS": I think it did, and I think that's unfortunate. It fizzled because it was covered as a race war story or a media story instead of a campaign promise story.

That Senator Obama was promising this audience that they would get special attention and treatment because of disparate treatment by the federal government over Katrina. And historically has that come to pass? He's made some very bold claims as you pointed out, that New Orleans got less favorable treatment than New York. It turns out some fact-checkers have said that wasn't true.

But meanwhile, he's been president for four years, so what has he done to rectify that situation? Has he worked with Governor Jindal to help the victims of Katrina, to rebuild New Orleans?

KURTZ: OK, a fair question.

HOLMES: The stimulus money -- how did this all play out? And unfortunately, the media is not asking those questions.

KURTZ: Those are all fair questions. I talked to Tucker Carlson for a piece in this week's "Newsweek," and we put it up on the screen, some of what he told me. "The reaction in the press," he says, "was disgusting and it reflects a larger problem in the press, the initial impulse of many in the press is to suck up to power. I find that contemptible."

So he and other some conservatives feel that this is sort of the media covering this up.

MILBANK: Well, he had the same reaction when one of his reporters started heckling and shouting at President Obama during a Rose Garden news conference and suggesting that if you're not shouting at the president and disrespecting the office of the presidency, then therefore you're too soft on power.

Now why this wasn't played more? No, it's not because anybody's protecting Barack Obama. I mean, truth be told, I think we in the media would like to see more of a race. We'd like to see -- why did we beat up as your earlier segment on Barack Obama. We'd like to see more of a race than there is already. If there was something to work with here, it would have been done. There just wasn't enough to do a big story out of.

HOLMES: You know, but Howie, I think there's something else at play here. The media is very often rather shy of holding black politicians to the same standards when it comes to these campaign promises in front of a black audience.

I believe that black voters and that audience deserve the same truth in advertising as any other candidate, and this president is not being held to that standard.

KURTZ: OK, let me move on to another controversy that seemed to emanate on the right side of the spectrum. Ordinarily jobless figures come out, Bureau of Labor statistics, not a big deal. This time when the announcement on Friday came that the rate had dropped from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent, you had Jack Welch, this former chairman of General Electric, which owned, used to own NBC, as the majority owner, putting out a tweet saying these are unbelievable numbers. "Those Chicago guys" -- meaning the Obama campaign - "will do anything. They can't debate, so they changed the numbers."

So let's take a look now at Welch making the rounds on TV, and some at Fox News picking up on this idea that the unemployment figures can't be trusted.


JACK WELCH, JACK WELCH MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE: Look. I don't know what the right number is, but I'll tell you, these numbers don't smell right when you think about where the economy is right now.

STUART VARNEY, FOX NEWS: There is widespread mistrust of this report and these numbers because there are clear contradictions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some people will be very cynical that a government number will come out this great on the eve of the election.


KURTZ: You know, these are volatile figures that sometimes have to be revised. But to go and charge that the administration had manipulated this for political gain, don't you need some evidence for that?

MILBANK: I think it's unfortunate that Jack Welch, who has this storied business career, now appears to be stark raving mad in the Donald Trump category, and I think the reaction is what it should have been even from a lot of people on the right, who said, now, come on, you can argue about certain things, but if they wanted to cook the books, they should have been cooking the books a long time ago. They could have done a lot better than this.

And it's not like this is such a terrific jobs report anyway. It's pretty lousy out there. Maybe it's a little less lousy than they thought. But if you're going to be cooking books, you can do better than that.

KURTZ: Now Jack Welch later told Anderson Cooper that, well, maybe he should have put a question mark in his tweet. But he hasn't rally backed off this. Amy, does this seem to you to be a bit of a loony controversy?

HOLMES: Well, you know, this is Jack Welch's apparent analysis of the numbers. There are contradictory economic numbers. I mean, you look at the durable goods manufacturing numbers, but if I could plug my show -- at "Real News," we look at the fact that you could look at ask households, their labor participation and employment rate, and then you ask businesses and there are differences in these numbers. But the Department of Labor is very protective of these numbers. I mean, you know, universities, economists, researchers depends on these statistics. So it's unlikely the books were cooked. Who would be doing this? It doesn't come from the White House. It comes from the Department of Labor.

KURTZ: I was surprised to see some television commentators pecking up on this, because it is, yes, very unlikely.

Let me come back to the presidential debate. I made a point earlier that there were some fact-checking of the debate, but the total volume of the coverage was not about that.

There were fact-checks repeatedly on CNN, some at "The Washington Post," where you work, some in "The New York Times." But what do you think of the notion that while the fact-checking is admirable, the lead story has not revolved around whether or not Mitt Romney's tax claims or President Obama's counter charges on the tax claims are true or not?

MILBANK: I think that's right for the debate for a couple of reasons. One is it's so late at night, there's not a lot of time to sit back and go through the morgue and the archives to figure out what's right.

KURTZ: Well, the next day?

MILBANK: Exactly, that's when it should be done. The other thing that I think was going on here -- I was out there in Denver as you were. You know what was up on every reporters' screen that I looked at was Twitter.

Basically the reporters were having a conversation with themselves rather than watching the debate, and this idea gelled early on that Mitt Romney was having a big night, Obama was having a lousy night, which was generally true, but it accentuated it, and basically there was a groupthink going on there that was -- that was that this is a really big bad thing for Obama, and I think that we probably did our readers and viewers a disservice.

KURTZ: A groupthink, Amy Holmes?

HOLMES: It wouldn't be surprising and it wouldn't be the first time. I'm fascinated that reporters were looking more at Twitter than at the debate proceedings and what was happening on stage.

You know, clearly, the viewers, readers deserve a lot more than that, than what is it, 140 characters per tweet. And they expect the reporters to be watching and reporting what they are seeing, not having this internal conversation that then turns --


MILBANK: I was only looking at Amy's web site.

KURTZ: Let me ask you finally, Dana, about something you wrote in this morning's "Washington Post" column. You said one of the reasons that Obama was rusty at this was that he has been maintaining a regal detachment from the media, meaning he is out of practice because he doesn't take questions from you. MILBANK: If you look back, not me particularly but all of us, but sure, if you look back. Most presidents if not all incumbents tend to have difficulty in their first debate because they are not used to being challenged. Nobody is there in the White House saying, Mr. President, you're full of it. This president also doesn't like to mix it up with lawmakers on the Hill, and he has set all kinds of modern records for the fewest press conferences, the less willing to mix up reporters.

If nobody is challenging you, making you be on your toes to defend yourself, you're out of practice. Those muscles atrophy, and I think we saw signs of that.

KURTZ: Do you think that's a factor, Amy?

HOLMES: It could be. All we know is that President Obama who showed up on the debate stage was a very different, rather listless, limp guy than we're used to. So I think here the media is rushing to fill in the gap, to answer the question, why did he turn in this type of debate performance? We saw Bob Woodward suggested maybe there was a personal crisis or there was a presidential crisis, so all of this is pure speculations. We don't know if we'll ever get down to the truth of the matter what happened before he walked out on to that stage, but you know, this is really just for commentary.

KURTZ: OK, well, Dana says he should just talk to us more. Amy Holmes and Dana Milbank, thanks very much. After the break, the other debate, a fake anchor versus a Fox anchor. We'll have a report card on Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly.


KURTZ: Forget about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. There was another smackdown last night at the George Washington University here, a pay-per-view event for charity featuring the titans of Fox News and Comedy Central.

I'm talking, of course, about the debate between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly.


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": I think that Fox News is an overreaction to what may be a patina of people that believe in -- in other words I don't think ABC and NBC and CBS are activist organizations for liberal causes. I think Fox looks at those organizations, and they're sort of an autoimmune disease against that.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": I see (ph) you (ph) make (ph) more than a billion dollars a year, so something is going right. I worked at ABC and CBS, the culture is left wing.


KURTZ: Just what were these television talkers trying to accomplish? Joining us now here in Washington, Patrick Gavin, a reporter for "Politico." Do you want to go out on a limb and declare a winner here?

PATRICK GAVIN, REPORTER, "POLITICO": This is going to sound like a copout, but I actually think that they both kind of came out ahead. Stewart obviously had the audience in his pocket. It was a much younger crowd at a college university. But they both having very much held their own and proved that they're very good at this.

KURTZ: This was very heavily promoted.


KURTZ: Did it live up to the hype? When they were standing up at those podiums, it felt a little strange to me. I didn't think either one of them, at least in the first hour, was entertaining as they are in their own program?

GAVIN: Right. I think what was surprising about it is that they took it very seriously. I think a lot of us thought it would be, you know, a little hokey (ph) for charity that they -- you know, they like each other. So they're not out to ruin each other's reputation, but the reality is it actually was fairly -- substantive might be the wrong word but serious. They came in it trying to win.

KURTZ: So if you came in looking for a lot of laughs, you might have been disappointed on that front?

GAVIN: They had some laughs. I think both of them were funny. Stewart primarily by adjusting the height of his seat, but no, I think I had the same reaction, which is after the first 15, 30 minutes, I kept on expecting them just to make wisecracks, and they didn't.

KURTZ: Maybe they are just kind of pals now.

GAVIN: They are. They're like the new odd couple. I think they are going to take this on the road, which I think is, by the way, part of their point. Part of their point is, if we can do this, if we can agree -- or disagree agreeably, there's no excuse for anybody else on cable news doing it.

KURTZ: It's interesting because Jon Stewart talked about Fox News and others being part of an alternate reality. So, I mean, there were some hard punches thrown. Jon Stewart, you'll recall, had the big rally for moderation on the Mall.

Is one of the reasons he wants to do something like this because at this point in his career, he doesn't just want to be an entertainer, that he wants to seriously impact the political debate?

GAVIN: Well, he always sort of has these two cups he likes to be in. One is the comedian, and then when he wants to be taken seriously, he goes in that cup. And he has a defense of both of those roles. I think that his point, which is also Bill O'Reilly's point, he talked about it last night, is they basically want to make the point that if you come about your views genuinely, if you believe in them, if you are honest about them, if you are smart about them, and I think more importantly, if you have a sense of humor about them and you can poke fun at yourself, that this kind of dialogue can happen, which is what you saw that last night. Two people very much disagree with each other, but the night was pleasant, and you don't see that a lot on cable news, and they talked about that. So I think that's really their primary goal here, to say if we can do it, you can do it.

KURTZ: Well, what does Bill O'Reilly get out of it? He, of course, is a very hard-driving interviewer, pushing his point of view, not always a conservative point of view, but a lot of times it is a conservative point of view. Certainly was being more critical of Barack Obama than Mitt Romney last night. So what does he get out of hanging out with Stewart?

GAVIN: I honestly think old age is softening him. It would kill him to hear that, but you know, when he was at - he started at Fox News, he was billed as the poster child for harsh cable punditry, talks loud, in you face aggressiveness -- all things by the way he would agree with.

But the reality is he now is trying to, and he talks about it in interviews, carve out this spot where he says I don't hate the president, I don't like what a lot of these people on my network and other networks do when it is pure venom and pure hatred.

That was one of his points last night. He said, look, our discourse is being coarsened by people who are making money being unnecessarily harsh against politicians of both sides. So I think he is now, oddly enough, more in the middle than he was maybe ten years ago.

KURTZ: Wouldn't some people disagree and say that O'Reilly can really talk over his guests and that he is part of the coarsening of the discourse? You are saying less so?

GAVIN: Totally. I mean, he still has his enemies and his detractors. But I think the fact that, one, he is willing to do what he did last night -- and this has been an ongoing sort of back and forth between O'Reilly and Stewart.

KURTZ: Do you see a kinder, gentler Bill O'Reilly?

GAVIN: I do. And part of it I do think is he is probably kinder and gentler. But I also think part of the other reason is that the spectrum has changed. Where he may have been an outlier, now there are people to the right and people to the left that are even more harsh, even more in your face, and he looks more reasonable. And he talks about that. He says I am not as bad as the other guys anymore.

KURTZ: I will be interested to see whether Jon Stewart, who likes to go after everybody on "The Daily Show," particularly Fox News, is a little less antagonistic toward Bill O'Reilly because who knows, maybe they will do this again.

GAVIN: They're friends now.

KURTZ: Patrick Gavin from "Politico," thanks very much for stopping by. Still to come, GMA blurs the line between journalism and politics. The weather channel stirs up a storm.

And the female anchor that dared take on a weighty issue. The media monitor is straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.

As Ann Romney has made the TV rounds, she came across as very genuine in my view. But one chair she should not be sitting in is co- host at "Good Morning America." The potential future first lady will in fact fill in for Robin Roberts this week, and this is not to mince words, a stunt.

Yes, the "Today Show" went there by having Sarah Palin co-host, but that was well after she ran for vice president. My objection is not partisan. GMA says it's also in talks to have Michelle Obama in a co-hosting role. It is that these women are totally focused right now on getting their husbands elected president. They should be interviewed by all means, but that seat should be reserved for journalists. OK, have Oprah or Stephen Colbert as GMA is also doing, but Ann or Michelle shouldn't be sitting next to George Stephanopoulos. "Good Morning America" is now topping "The Today Show" in the ratings and doesn't need to do this to get attention.

I was blown away by this one. The Weather Channel caused some turbulence this week by announcing it will start naming big winter storms just like hurricanes. Now the official reason is to make it easier to communicate the threat from these storms as they develop.

But it smells like a gimmick, especially with a list of names ranging from Brutus to Caesar to Zeus. The folks at the rival Accuweather say the lack of clear criteria for how storms get named could just confuse people, or it could serve as a branding exercise for the Weather Channel.

Finally, Jennifer Livingston has suddenly gained a bit of fame. She is an anchor at WKBT in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, and she was ticked off by an e-mail from a viewer who said her ample frame did not provide a suitable example for young girls.

And that, quote, "I leave this note hoping you will reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle." Livingston responded on the air.


JENNIFER LIVINGSTON, ANCHOR, WKBT: The truth is I am overweight, but to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don't know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something that I don't see?

You don't know me, so you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside. And I am much more than a number on a scale. And I leave you with this.

To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face, listen to me right now. Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies.


KURTZ: Good for her. My only qualm here is while the viewer letter was out of line, it wasn't exactly bullying in tone. Maybe Jennifer Livingston was looking for an opportunity to speak out, not just against those who are hypercritical of women's weight, but the notion that all female anchors have to be thin. That can't have been easy, but I'm glad someone said it.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I am Howard Kurtz. You can always check us out on Mondays. If you miss any part of this program, go to iTunes and get the free audio podcast or buy the video version. We're back here next Sunday morning, 11 a.m. Eastern, another critical look at the media.

"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.