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Reliable Sources

Covering the Cliff Craziness; Hillary Haters Hammered

Aired January 06, 2013 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Middle of the night votes, secret meetings, shifting story lines, countdown clocks. The fiscal cliff melodrama was a bit of a blur for journalists to figure out what was happening on the Hill.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN: I am advised there is no deal yet. They're still in talks.

CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC: Unless something drastic changes in the next five hours, America will be going over the fiscal cliff.


KURTZ: How did the press handle the craziness and was a small deal hyped as something bigger?

Hillary Clinton out of the hospital after suffering a blood clot -- this after some FOX commentators doubted and mocked her illness.


CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: She's suffering from acute Benghazi allergy which causes lightheadedness when she hears the word "Benghazi" or is being asked about it.


KURTZ: Could it be time for an apology?

Al Gore sells his Current TV channel to Al Jazeera. Does the Arab-based network have a shot at making it in America?

Plus, two Washington authors say the press has deliberately failed to reflect the reality that Republican Party has become extremists. Do they have a point?

And I'll have something to say about how Lance Armstrong lied to me.

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

(MUSIC) KURTZ: Most normal Americans were taking some time to celebrate on New Year's Eve and watch bowl games or sleep it off on New Year's Day. But here in Washington, many journalists were working around the clock as the White House and Congress tried to avert the dreaded fiscal cliff.

It was one tough story to cover with endless twists and turns.


DANA BASH, CNN: While I was talking to you, Wolf, I got a message, an e-mail saying from a senior Democratic source, saying the goal is tonight.

Mr. Vice president, we're live on CNN, do you have a deal?


RICHARD LUI, MSNBC: House Republicans staged a New Year's Day revolt against the Senate bill to avoid the fiscal cliff.

ANTHONY MASON, CBS NEWS: America went over the fiscal cliff at midnight, but we are still waiting to see if it will be a hard fall or a soft landing.

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS: Despite some hopeful signs very early this morning, we are still in a freefall.

BASH: We have news and that is that the House Republicans have decided just to take up the clean Senate bill.

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: We're on the threshold here of passing the passage, and I think we may have just made it at 214.


KURTZ: Joining us now are two reporters who work the marble halls in covering the story: CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash, and Jonathan Weisman, who covers Congress for "The New York Times."

Jonathan Weisman, what was it like trying to get information around the clock during all that late-night craziness in that mad house?

JONATHAN WEISMAN, THE NEW YORK TIMES: It was not easy. And I'll tell you, you're really being manipulated because you're getting strategic leaks, you were getting calls.

And then you'd have these moments of just pure blackout, nothing, no information at all, and you were just, you know, working the phones, sending out e-mails, just trying to get anything at all because there was -- you know, like you guys, trying to put it all on the air. We were also trying to get it online all the time. The demand was 24/7, really, for any information at all. KURTZ: And during these periods of confusion and blackout, as Jonathan says, you had to do live shots.

BASH: Exactly.

KURTZ: Anchors would come to you and say, so, Dana, what's the latest?

BASH: I mean, the American people watching CNN really watch the sausage being made and they actually watched our -- how our journalism works. How it really works.


BASH: How news gathering -- it was really all out there for everybody to see. As you saw just in that clip me saying to, Wolf, wait a minute, I got an e-mail saying that changed. It was all happening real time.

But I think what you just said about the leaks was very interesting. And, you know, at certain times, as Jonathan said, they went totally dark. But at other times, all of a sudden, you would get a call and say, here's something that's in the deal.

You know that they're doing that for a reason. And one of those times.

KURTZ: What would that reason be?

BASH: OK, exactly. One of those times, I got a call from a congressional source, Democratic source, saying that something was happening. And it, it was clear to me right away that it was not something done to kind of tweak the Republicans, Mitch McConnell. It was done to push back against the Democrat in the White House, the vice president.

And I actually -- so, my challenge was to talk about what we heard, but also to do a transparently. To say, this was told to us on purpose in order to try to push back against the vice president, Democrat to Democrat.

KURTZ: I'm getting whip lash just listening to this.

So, if you're getting calls or e-mails and reaching out to staffers and strategists on both sides, how do you guard against being spun? It's very hard to double check anything in that kind of vortex?

WEISMAN: Well, you know, it's funny. In some ways, the other side was always guarding, too. I remember this one moment where sources close to the negotiation, which happened to be reflecting the position of the White House, was giving -- were giving us one thing.

And then, literally, 10 minutes later, I get an e-mail from the speaker's office saying, are you on Capitol Hill? We're going to have a briefing in 10 minutes and I was actually at my house. This was like 9:00 at night. I said, I can't possibly and we tried to wire in and everything, but it was -- I mean, it was a game of, I don't know of chess or checkers, but everyone is watching everyone's last move.

And for us, you know, we did have to reflect, as Dana said, reflect what the purpose of the information was as much as what the information itself was.

KURTZ: Well, as the action shifted to the Senate and as Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell started their private deal-making, were you getting into John Boehner's people, he was cut out of the action or is that part of the occasional blackout?

BASH: No, no, they were pretty much cut out, the House Republicans. They were kept apprise. I mean, certainly, John Boehner was talking to Mitch McConnell and their offices were talking to one another.

But I know if you felt this, Jon, that I had senior senators coming up to me in the hallways saying, we're learning what's happening in these private talks from you. We're watching you.

KURTZ: That's scary.


BASH: Why are you finding that scary? How about us?

WEISMAN: We had the same thing.

BASH: Yes.

WEISMAN: You would actually ask, you'd hear something and then a senator would tell you something and you would say, how did you learn that? Because you had to make sure that they weren't learning it from us.

BASH: Exactly.

KURTZ: Well, it sounds like a closed loop and were there any times when you were fed and went with it or didn't go with it erroneous information or misinformation or misdirection?

WEISMAN: Absolutely. At one point, we were being fed that the income threshold for where taxes were going to go were solid, $400 billion. It wasn't $400 billion. It was $450 billion. I'm sorry --


WEISMAN: I'm sorry.

KURTZ: When you spend so much time on the Hill, the numbers become meaningless.

BASH: Four hundred billion dollars.

WEISMAN: Four hundred thousand, I apologize. I know that might sound like a little thing, but it was exactly not a little thing, because the Democrats were fighting hard to keep that as threshold as low as they could. It turned out it was wrong. And I think I did go, that was wrong, we had to go back and correct it.

KURTZ: Is this a situation where we only often find out what happened behind the scenes later "Politico" and others reporting in a tense moment before a meeting John Boehner has said to Harry Reid, go blank yourself, dropping the F-bomb, we didn't know that at the time.

BASH: We didn't know that at the time, but interestingly, the reason why we learned that was because each of those men told -- they were sort of bragging about it to their caucus in caucus meetings. And so, you know what happens when you tell more than five people, especially in an open meeting. It gets out. And so, that's what happened.

Boehner, I was told by one member who was sort of acting it out to his colleagues, you know, acting out what he did at that time when he said the blank -- the blank yourself like starting with an F, and vice versa, that Reid was also talking about it to his Democratic colleagues.

So, it definitely was one of those examples at that moment of breaking tension, but also for those of us covering it, a real window into these men and how they really feel about each other.

KURTZ: Right. I mean, there are real personalities and people get ticked off and they're anxious and they're tired. You were probably all tired. But I wonder whether or not because the press is kind of deadline oriented and finally you could go on the air, you could go online, you can write in "The New York Times" -- we have a deal.

I mean, all the deal was, was an agreement to postpone and to extend tax breaks for most Americans, but no spending cuts, push the sequester back two months, and all of that. Really wasn't much of a deal and I wonder if the press, just because of its volume, made it seem like a bigger deal than it was.

WEISMAN: I actually, humbly disagree with you, Howie, because this was -- remember, since 2001, since the first Bush tax cuts went into play, we have had this bizarre tax code that has always been haunted by a sunset. Eventually, something was going to end. This deal that was just passed with very little debate, very quickly -- for the first time in more than 10 years, we have a permanent tax code right now.

KURTZ: That's my point.

But the point is, to the extent that the country has a huge debt problem, to the extent that the country still has a fiscal crisis, you know, basically, not a single dollar has really been cut and all of that is going to happen too much, we're going to go through this again. You all be up half the night.

Let me touch on one other point, and that is -- in the craziness in the late nights, there was no mention in most of the reporting that I saw until afterwards about the aid for hurricane Sandy and I wonder if that was an oversight and everybody was focused on one thing and forgot unless you live in New York or New Jersey, that were $60 billion that was supposed to be voted on and wasn't.

BASH: You're right. We didn't talk about it -- at least I didn't talk about it very much on TV. We did have -- we did write stories on it on Ted Barrett, our congressional producer, wrote a story when the Senate passed it and so forth.

But I think part of the reason why we didn't focus on it that much is because we were told by Eric Cantor's office and others who were really shepherding it that it was going to happen. And it was really, genuinely, a last-minute move by John Boehner to pull it. That's why it sent all of us in the media, and never mind the media, the governor of New Jersey, to do a tizzy.

WEISMAN: Washington has a hard time doing more than one thing at once.

BASH: Sure.

WEISMAN: I mean, that is -- that goes --

KURTZ: But I can say the same thing about the media. Hurricane Sandy and the devastation that it unleashed, particularly in the states of New York and New Jersey and elsewhere was a huge story, but now it's kind of faded and everybody has moved on, unless you live in those communities and it wasn't until the politicians from those states went crazy that we got back on.

So, I think your point about Washington --

BASH: That's fair.

KURTZ: -- doing one thing at once also applies to this business.

BASH: That's a fair point.

KURTZ: So, last point. How tired did you get doing this and how do you stay awake at 2:00 in the morning?

WEISMAN: I was telling, Dana. You know, we were working on adrenaline so much that the first day I could take off was Friday. I worked basically two straight weeks. Worked all -- you know, we had Harry Reid's rocking Christmas, rocking New Year's Eve. We all stumbled off the hill at 4:00 a.m.

KURTZ: So, what happened Friday?

WEISMAN: And then I just, my body crashed. I was so sick, I didn't get out of bed from Friday until this morning.

BASH: Anybody out there who has taken finals and really crammed and been up all night and then you sort of get through it and then the next day you get sick, knows the feeling we have right now.

KURTZ: Breaking news, Jonathan Weisman is still recuperating.

Jonathan, Dana Bash, thanks very much -- BASH: Thanks for having us.

KURTZ: -- for stopping by this Sunday morning.

When we come back, those conservative pundits dismissing Hillary Clinton's supposed illness haven't had much to say since she was diagnosed with a blood clot. A look at media mockery in just a moment.


KURTZ: Hillary Clinton had to cancel her scheduled testimony about the attack on American diplomats in Benghazi when she fell ill and later fainted and suffered a concussion. One place she didn't get a lot of sympathy was FOX News.


JOHN BOLTON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: You don't want to go to a meeting or a conference, or an event, you have a diplomatic illness. And this is a diplomatic illness to beat the band.

GREG GUTFELD, FOX NEWS: How can she get a concussion when she's been ducking everything? This is what I don't understand. It makes no sense to me.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Hillary Clinton, I guess she passed out somewhere. Is she unconscious somewhere? She can't testify.


KURTZ: The secretary of state, of course, was later diagnosed with a blood clot near her brain but has since released from the hospital.

Joining us now to talk about the coverage and the cliff and other topics, here in Washington, Ana Marie Cox, political columnist for "The Guardian", and Tim Carney, senior political columnist for "The Washington Examiner".

Ana Marie, what does this tell us about the media culture that pundits feel free to make fun of whether or not Hillary Clinton was actually sick?

ANA MARIE COX, THE GUARDIAN: Well, for one thing, it sort of reminds us that it's all theater. When it becomes all theater, the characters don't seem real. And for a lot of people, Hillary Clinton is just a character. She's been on stage for a long time.

It probably doesn't help that she was sort of consciously part of the drama, you know, when she was first lady. There was a lot of show. You know, during the Clinton presidency.

I do think it's remarkable that we are able to skip right over the, oh, that's too bad part. The moment of sympathy that you're supposed to get, I think, before you say the joke. It's too soon moment. There's no such thing as too soon any more. And the conspiracy theories start right away.

Again, Hillary played a part in that sort of thing herself.

KURTZ: Beat up on her over Benghazi absolutely fair game. But it wasn't some of this out of bounds.

TIM CARNEY, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Well, if people knew she was sick and they were attacking her and making fun of her for it, that was -- that would be one thing. But the idea that people would doubt her account I don't think is extraordinary.

COX: But they're not doubting her account. They're doubting her illness.

CARNEY: They're doubting her illness. There was -- Jonathan Chait, a liberal, you know, "New York" magazine, said if a Republican was in this situation, would liberals believed them? Some wouldn't have.

And then you have the fact that Hillary does have, and this is not a vast right wing conspiracy, she does have a troubled history in the past -- as Carl Bernstein used to write about that all the time during the Obama-Hillary battle. You have lots of liberals who said, I don't that I can trust Hillary. So, that's not to say I was the right thing to do for these pundits to do it, but you understand why.

KURTZ: But it was (INAUDIBLE) condescension and mockery which is like, oh, yes, let's see your doctor's note. You're really sick. I mean, they are calling her a liar. That doesn't trouble you?

CARNEY: I wouldn't have done that. It does trouble me, yes. But I'm saying that it is the sort of thing that happens. I don't know that it's unprecedented. It's the sort of thing --

COX: We can't really say -- I mean, I don't know. Can you say this happens on both sides? I think one difference is that I think that because a lot of journalism happens sort of mainstream journalism, that's where your liberal bias comes in.

I think there's a longer pause -- that "too soon" pause.

KURTZ: Well, on that point, though, I wrote about it. And there's no equivalence here. We're talking about paid pundits and contributors on FOX News versus some morons on Twitter.

COX: Right.

KURTZ: But when George Bush Sr. was in the hospital and things looked a little dicey, there were left wingers on Twitter who said, he should die. He should die a painful death.

COX: Well --

KURTZ: And that needs to be called out, too. It's not the same as professional pundits --

COX: Right.

KURTZ: -- but it's ugly.

COX: That's much uglier and not the same. I mean, it's much -- I don't think anyone on FOX News was calling for a painful experience or death for Hillary.

KURTZ: They were just doubting her.

COX: Yes, they were doubting her. And again, like we do live in a culture now where everything is under doubt. And let's also just point out that this comes out of a narrative of Benghazi where everything has already been called into account and there have been changes in the story.

CARNEY: And things were very murky. And again --

COX: Yes.

CARNEY: -- and, particularly Hillary herself has a history of sometimes not being fully forthcoming. I don't think that's not a conservative thing to say. A lot of liberals were saying that four years ago.

KURTZ: So, the State Department had really pushed back on this and when a FOX News correspondent Justin Fishel asked at a briefing, how come she can't testify after getting the explanation about her health problem, the secretary's spokesman Philippe Reines, excuse me, wrote a kind of satirical letter saying, well, we have the transcript of what you said would have been wrong because otherwise we'd be putting misleading, accusatory, and absolutely asinine words in your mouth.

So, the State Department is not happy with some of this.

CARNEY: No. And if you know, like the State Department did what is going on is real, unless she is really sick in that way and you watch people saying these kind of things that Hannity was saying on the air, yes, you have every right to be angry. Why the guys shouldn't have said it --


COX: And I think they should have said it and I do think it's beyond the pail. I do understand how it happened, and I guess that's sort of what I was trying to point to.

KURTZ: No one apologizes anymore.

COX: No one apologizes anymore. And it is also one thing to like behind, you know, in the green room or whatever, or even on Twitter to exchange kind of like, ah, do you really think that's true? But if you have no evidence whatsoever, like a history is one thing, but there's no reason to doubt the secretary. None.

CARNEY: And as a Catholic, I like people to apologize when they make errors and do a contrition and to my knowledge, these people haven't done that.

COX: As a journalist, I like people to say the truth and not make weird accusations out of nowhere based simply on suspicion.


COX: I mea, this is, when you think about it, also, this is the kind of thing that, you can do a lot before you start saying that you have a blood clot. If you're really dodging the press, there are levels of dodging that you can do before you say like her life is in danger.

KURTZ: Let me touch on the big fiscal cliff battle that we talk about at the top of the program. I mean, this was portrait among other things, this kind of a crushing defeat for John Boehner and the House Republicans who are cut out of the action at the end.

Was that a fair portrayal?

CARNEY: I don't think so. I think Boehner mishandled the first part of it when he tried to push Plan B through. It was a bad idea and he didn't execute it well. He didn't communicate with his members.

But on the other hand, in the end, what he did was he had a very rowdy bunch that wanted to put spending cuts in at the last second. He knew that would push us into the workweek.

KURTZ: Right.

CARNEY: He brought them in. He had a way to crush it. That was the only part that I thought --

KURTZ: So, did Boehner get a bum rap from the press?

CARNEY: Boehner got -- it was very complicated. He got a bum rap. But again, early on, he had been failed.

COX: I was going to say, like, I think, you know, they say any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. I think Boehner had a good landing, you know? I mean, I think --

KURTZ: People limped away from the plane?

COX: He might have limped away from the plane.

You know, there ere things -- it looked -- it could have been so much worse. The dissension in the ranks is really bad. In the end, he managed to pull them together and that is what counts.

CARNEY: And Ross Douthat that has a column today saying, making the case, saying, look, Boehner has done some impressive things and averted some pretty bad catastrophes.

KURTZ: In "The New York Times" -- COX: I'm not sure who else who could have done it. When you look at who else is in that conference, I'm not sure if there's another leader who would have been able to do that.

KURTZ: Well, Joe Biden got great press for coming to the Hill last minute and cutting the deal with Mitch McConnell and ultimately passed the Senate and the House. A lot of times the press kind of makes fun of Joe Biden, but not in this instance.

COX: A lot of times, Joe Biden makes fun of Joe Biden. And Joe Biden had --


COX: Yes, there are reasons to make fun of him. I mean, I think the way he handled that. I mean, he is an old-school politician. I think he and Boehner probably get along pretty well.

I mean, he reminds me of LBJ. He is making deals. He's doing this on the basis --

KURTZ: He's touching people.

COX: He's touching people, he's doing it -- a lot on personality.

CARNEY: My main criticism is not enough of the press focus on the substance.

COX: Yes.

CARNEY: Is this going to get passed?

KURTZ: That was my next question. Was there enough focus on the fact that there were no spending cuts in it?

CARNEY: Not only no spending cuts. There were $70 billion next year just in tax extenders, or corporate tax breaks. So, that's more expensive than the revenue that Obama gained from putting in the tax cuts -- I mean, the tax hikes on the rich.

So, not enough coverage on substance, too much on horse race.

KURTZ: I'm shocked to hear that indictment.

Press focusing too much on politics than horse race.

Let me get a break here.

Up next, Chris Christie causes a media explosion by ripping John Boehner over hurricane aid or the lack thereof. What explains the press' fascination with this guy?


KURTZ: Press may have barely focused on the lack of congressional action on hurricane Sandy aid during the fiscal cliff craziness as we mentioned earlier. But when the Republican Congressman Peter King from Long Island started ripping John Boehner, saying people shouldn't contribute to the Republican Party, that began to change.

And then there was the governor of New Jersey.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: For the victims of Sandy in New Jersey, in New York and Connecticut, there has been 66 days and the wait continues. There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner.


KURTZ: Tim Carney, did the media delight when Chris Christie and Republicans savage other Republicans?

CARNEY: I certainly think that's part of it. I also think that Chris Christie and Peter King, they are from New York and New Jersey. I'm from New York. This is the kind of the way people talk. This is why Rudy Giuliani got so much media attention.

And the rest of the country, it's amazing to see politicians talking this way because they're not talking like Midwesterners.

KURTZ: Even if you're blunt and you're saying, forget about it and you're calling somebody out, I mean, it's a pretty remarkable thing for a guy who was touted as a potential Republican presidential candidate last time and 2016, Chris Christie, to go after the House speaker by name.

So, that's authority, right?

COX: I think it's a pretty cost-free thing to go after Boehner at this point. I mean, when congressional approval rating is like, you know, almost single digits. I don't think going after Congress is going to hurt you.

KURTZ: But talk about the media's reaction to what Christie did at that 40-minute press conference, because we --

COX: Well, he is personally entertaining. He's an amazing personality. You know, he is quick on his feet, maybe not literally, but --


COX: But he's remarkably clever. He can put words together in a way that a lot of politicians can't.

KURTZ: So, journalists have a soft spot for him. I think he's good copy.

COX: Yes, all of that.

KURTZ: All of that.

COX: All of that. And he has some parts of -- his political stances are in a moderate area, although he personally, actually, is not really that remarkable in terms of his politics. But he's such good copy. He's so entertaining, I think, that people gravitate.

CARNEY: And intramural warfare always gets media attention. I happen to think that Republicans will get more positive media attention and media vice versa. But, yes, attacking your own guys and doing it in a colorful way like King and Christie do, is media goal (ph) and both of them probably know that.

KURTZ: Media goal. And so, you know, Christie has been known to go off against voters, against reporters in answering questions, he doesn't like teachers unions, and sometimes Republicans.

COX: Right. And when he does that against voters or teachers union, people who -- that reporters might have more sympathy for, he's called a bully. And when he does it against his own team, well, then, he's a hero.

KURTZ: That sounds like bias to me.

COX: I mean, I can't say, I feel like -- if it's bias, I am guilty of it. He can be -- I think he's more entertaining when he goes after people in his own level. When he's punching down, that's what he should avoid.

KURTZ: I should mention that the House and the new Congress came back on Friday and appropriated or approved at least $10 billion of a possible $60 billion in relief for -- mainly for relief of hurricane Sandy victims across the Northeast.

But what I'm wondering is, you kind of touched on this, this happened during the hurricane itself. Obama went to the state and Christie embraced the president and got a lot of flak from his own party because it was the last week of Mitt Romney's campaign.

But the press tends to always look at this with the political calculation as opposed to, is he doing the right thing for the people who live in his state and need his help?

CARNEY: Yes. And so, how will this affect the 2012 race? How will this affect the 2016 race? I remember a friend Arthur Delaney at "The Huffington Post" when the employment thing came out, he said, maybe we could ask how this affects people who don't have jobs instead of how it affects these rich people?

But we'll always look at the political angle for any story.

KURTZ: You agree with that.

COX: Well, yes, but it's political angle when it's New Jersey, too. It's just what political angle you're looking at. This is very good for his constituents. It was very good for him politically. He brought in something like $2.6 billion in the 36 days since he's up for reelection.

KURTZ: Just to wrap this up, you're saying if a less colorful governor of New Jersey had done this, you know, we would cover it, but we wouldn't be jumping up and down?

COX: Yes, that's probably. To put it bluntly, yes.

CARNEY: I think so. Yes, I agree.

KURTZ: We have achieved consensus.

All right. Ana Marie Cox, Tim Carney --

CARNEY: Thank you.

KURTZ: -- thanks very much for being with us this morning.

Up next, my 2 cents on how Lance Armstrong lied to so many people, including me.


KURTZ: It was a startling story in "The New York Times" on Saturday about Lance Armstrong. While cycling officials have stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles over allegations that he used banned substances, Armstrong has always denied it.


LANCE ARMSTRONG, CYCLIST: Listen, I've said it for seven years. I've said it for longer than seven years. I have never doped. That's crazy. I would never do that. That's -- no, no way.


KURTZ: And this is rather personal, because Lance Armstrong also denied it to me twice. But "The Times" quotes people familiar with the situation as saying Armstrong has told others that he is considering coming clean, that is, admitting that he was, in fact, a doper. This was clearly an orchestrated leak, with Armstrong's lawyers saying only, "Lance has to speak for himself on that."

Now six months ago in an interview for "The Daily Beast," Armstrong told me that anti-doping officials were pursuing a personal vendetta against him. And I quote, "They have got no physical evidence, no lab work, no positive tests."

Last year he told me that "60 Minutes" wasn't playing fair in interviewing a former teammate, Tyler Hamilton, who said he had seen Armstrong take a banned substance. Turns out the CBS program was right, though Armstrong insisted to me, "My version of events has never changed on this and won't."

That was then. Now Armstrong is facing lawsuits; his charity has been badly damaged and he wants to compete again, thus the trial balloons in "The Times".

Lance Armstrong, who inspired so many people, was absolutely adamant with me that he was telling the truth, which makes it doubly disappointing that his own camp is now making clear that he wasn't.

Coming up, Al Gore sells his cable channel to Al Jazeera. We'll look at the failure of Current TV and whether the Arab network can really crack the American cable market.


KURTZ: It was seven years ago that Al Gore launched a liberal channel called Current TV, most recently even taking on a commentator's role at President Obama's Democratic convention.


AL GORE, FORMER VP OF THE U.S.: It was brilliant the way he dealt with hope and change because he talked about how the change that has happened in the country has been accomplished by the American people and the American people give him hope.


KURTZ: But now the former vice president is selling the low- rated channel to Al Jazeera, the Middle East-based network which has never be able to gain much of a foothold here in the United States. Now while some critics question whether the Current spinoff, called Al Jazeera England has an anti-American tilt, the network has also won awards and some praise for its international reporting.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Al Jazeera English has been awarded a Peabody for our coverage of the Arab revolutions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible) that the fight has been (inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is Al Jazeera. President Hosni Mubarak has resigned.


KURTZ: Joining us now from New York is Dave Marash, a veteran of ABC News who also worked at Al Jazeera English before quitting four years ago.


DAVE MARASH, TV JOURNALIST: Thanks, Howard. Nice to be here.

KURTZ: Let's start with a broadcasting question. Why was the latest version of Current TV, which, of course, had hired Keith Olbermann, and that dissolved in a bitter display of lawsuits and counterlawsuits, but also Eliot Spitzer, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Why was it such a flop?

MARASH: Well, first, that it looked bush league. Its production values were simply not competitive with the production values of CNN or MSNBC or FOX News or Al Jazeera.

Secondly, it didn't have a unique role. MSNBC was already the liberal funhouse mirror to FOX News on the Right. So, that there was no compelling reason for people to tune in to Current TV.

KURTZ: Now, with the news of the sale this week for an estimated $500 million, half a billion dollars, some critics are saying that Al Gore is hypocritical, that he, as a politician, was a friend of Israel and now he is happy to take Arab money because Al Jazeera, as you know, is financed in part by the government of Qatar, and the former vice president will make an estimated $70 million on the deal, according to Bloomberg News.

What is your take on these allegations of hypocrisy?

MARASH: This is a great business story, not a moral story. This is a story about how crony capitalism has completely captured American capitalism.

Al Gore was able to get Current TV on the air and get it on, by the way, with extremely favorable contracts because he was the former vice president.

And because, as the former vice president, he might be able to do favors for people like, say, Rupert Murdoch, who, at Dish TV, acquiesced to a very favorable carriage deal for Current TV.

And according to Brian Stelker (ph), an excellent reporter in "The New York Times" actually helped Gore get capital to launch Current TV.

Now, you see TimeWarner Cable wants to renegotiate a deal before it's going to let Al Jazeera take over the Current TV channel. Again, it's being couched as some sort of moral conflict.

George Bernard Shaw would recognize, "This is a conflict about price, not virtue."

KURTZ: TimeWarner Cable, by the way, which is not affiliated with CNN's parent company, TimeWarner, has already said it would drop the -- what had been Current TV. And it's entitled to do that because when you completely change the programming and the name and everything, the cable carrier doesn't have to continue.

But let me play for you -- there's been a lot of criticism on the Right about this deal, as you know, Dave Marash. Let me play for you something that Bill O'Reilly had to say the other night. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: Al Gore sold his cable network to -- wait for it -- Al Jazeera, the anti-American network out of Qatar, which recently ran a documentary sympathetic to Osama bin Laden.

Al Gore has shamed himself simply by selling to Al Jazeera, which will now have access to about 40 million more American homes.


KURTZ: And, Dave, is it fair to simply brand it the anti- American network? You worked there; you've had some experience with -- obviously with Al Jazeera English.

MARASH: No. It is a vast over-simplification and not a particularly useful one. One ought to point out that, in fact, Rupert Murdoch sold the biggest individual minority share in the FOX News enterprise in News Corp to one of the richest guys in Saudi Arabia.

Now, it's true that he's probably more aligned to American foreign policy than Al Jazeera might be, although the Al-Thanis, the royal family of Qatar and the owners of Al Jazeera have always been regarded as among America's best friends and most reliable allies in the Middle East.

KURTZ: Yes --

MARASH: Al Jazeera


KURTZ: Go ahead.

MARASH: -- has covered news and when they put -- when they put Osama bin Laden on television, they covered him as news. They didn't just take his tapes and rebroadcast them. They took his tapes, extracted the newsworthy points from them, cut them down and then surrounded them by analysis of interpretation. That's what journalists do.

KURTZ: I got it --

MARASH: Anybody who thinks that Osama bin Laden wasn't a newsmaker is out of their mind.

KURTZ: All right. I think that Al Jazeera has put on some extremist voices, for example, as a Muslim cleric called Karadawi (ph), who has been known to rant about Jews and he supports suicide bombers and has also put on other points of views, not unnecessarily -- not necessarily unfavorable to the United States or Israel.

You worked there, but you expressed some qualms about its fairness when you decided to leave. Talk about that.

MARASH: All right, but first off, Karadawi (ph) is Al Jazeera Arabic. Al Jazeera English is a separate and different channel. And for example, Al Jazeera Arabic has consistently reported the uprising in Bahrain not as part of the Arab Spring, but they have defended the Sunni minority royal family in Bahrain.

Al Jazeera English started down that road, took a lot of criticism and did a 180 and started doing really remarkable documentaries and news coverage from a democratic "one man, one vote" standpoint in Bahrain.

KURTZ: But circle back to why you left and what your concerns were.

MARASH: Well, number one, the channel had changed radically from when I was hired, when the Washington bureau was supposed to be one of four autonomous news gathering centers, which would make its own correspondent assignments and create its own program lineup: what stories would be used at what length in what order.

By the time I left both of those functions had been taken away from Washington and had been taken over in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

In Doha, there is, as you might expect, the kind of postcolonial, anticolonial attitude and sometimes Al Jazeera English was willing to report its attitude rather than really report out a story.

And I, as the leading anchor in Washington, felt that I could not put my name on those kinds of stories.

So, when they would be launched from London or from Kuala Lumpur or from Doha, they would run. But for the hours that I was anchoring in Washington, those stories would not run, because they didn't, frankly, meet my standards.

KURTZ: Dave --

MARASH: This, as you might gather, created editorial conflict.

KURTZ: Dave, I've got about 20 seconds.

Isn't Al Jazeera -- the new one, Al Jazeera America -- going to have a hard time getting carriage on a lot of these cable systems because of its international focus and controversial reputation?

MARASH: I think it will achieve coverage and I think it will find an audience it already has on the Internet. It has in New York, where it's been on TimeWarner Cable for about a year, and in Los Angeles it's on for an hour or two a day on KCET, the former PBS station. And it's their most popularly watched program.

KURTZ: All right. Appreciate your stopping by with your insight. Dave Marash, thanks for joining us this morning.

After the break, are journalists unfairly blaming Republicans and Democrats equally for the partisan gridlock that produced the budget mess? Two Washington authors say the answer is yes. That's next.


KURTZ: It's drilled into every journalist: get both sides, make every story balanced. But what happens when the two sides are unbalanced? That's the question raised by two think tank veterans who say the press has failed to call out Republicans on their radicalism.

Norm Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings make the case in their book. "It's Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism". I spoke to them earlier here in the studio.


KURTZ: Welcome, gentlemen.


KURTZ: You believe -- start with you, Norm -- that the media have utterly failed in the last couple of years to hold Republicans accountable. True or false?

NORM ORNSTEIN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: True. And I think, you know, I wouldn't say utterly failed.

KURTZ: Largely failed?

ORNSTEIN: But largely failed.

KURTZ: Embarrassingly failed?

ORNSTEIN: Overwhelmingly failed. Embarrassingly failed.

You know, there is, as you said at the outset, a norm in journalism. And I think it's been reinforced by the outside groups from Accuracy in Media to FAIR. They're ready to pounce any time there's any sense of bias.

The desire to avoid bias means that you fall back on reporting it as if it's he said/she said. They're both equally culpable, except in instances where they are not. And our belief is the last few years, it has not been equal.

KURTZ: But, Tom, hasn't the press pretty consistently pointed out the influence of the Tea Party in the Republican Party, the way in which the GOP has moved to the Right, particularly during the presidential primaries. I've read 1,000 stories about that.

THOMAS MANN, BROOKINGS: There have been a number of stories on that particular point, but it really hasn't captured the broader phenomenon that's been at work for well over a decade.

The Republican Party is very much together like a Tea Party now. Their ideological commitments have moved far to the Right and they really have deep skepticism of the whole notion of facts, of evidence, of science. And they're willing to engage in behavior that a generation ago we would have said is just beyond the pale, that is take the country's public credit and risk a default to get their way.

KURTZ: So, if what you say is right, what are these organizations afraid of?

ORNSTEIN: I think there's a deep fear, first, of being attached to a liberal bias. You know (inaudible).

KURTZ: Most people think the press does lean to the Left.

ORNSTEIN: Exactly. And I think the mainstream media want to do everything they can to avoid any reinforcement of that. And I actually think now, you know, there is a fall back on a refuge on television more than anything else that is, you know, if we're like the law and we present advocates from one side and advocates from the other, then everything is fine.

So, if you represent 99.5 percent of scientists on climate change with one person and a half a percent with the other side, you're fine with that.

I think also, frankly, advertisers now are unhappy if there is any sense of bias, as well. And the old Chinese wall between advertisers and publishers on the one hand and editors and reporters on the other is not quite a firm wall anymore.

KURTZ: Well, this is a striking message coming from the two of you, because you've both been around Washington a long time. You do have a reputation as being kind of centrist, even though you're different kinds of think tanks.

But at the same time, I just have to wonder, maybe you just don't like where the Republican Party has gone. I mean, after all, the people who represent the Republicans here in D.C. were elected by constituents who want them to do what they're doing. And so this is more of an ideological message on your part as opposed to calling out the press for supposed bias.

MANN: It could be, but I don't believe it is. We don't do that kind of analysis and --

KURTZ: You do it right here. The Republicans are extremists. Republicans are radicals.

MANN: But look to see how we back it up. I mean, we really look at arguments made and there's no truth content to them.

It's just stunning what Republicans have said and been willing to do that's simply aren't true, not in a little fact-checking way, but in broad arguments about what America's about, where we've come from, why we have deficit problems now, what government spending does to jobs, and the like.

ORNSTEIN: Howie, I would just add that it's not so much about ideology as it is about tactics as well.

So, for example, we have seen in the last four years filibusters used in ways that they've never been used throughout history. But you can scarcely find a story looking at legislation that failed in the Senate with a majority of votes that didn't just say, "Legislation fails in Senate."

KURTZ: Was the same true --


ORNSTEIN: You don't call them to account --

KURTZ: Was the same true during the big budget battle last year, when, some would say, the Republicans were much more intransigent in terms of practically pushing the country into default? The stories tended to say, "Squabbling politicians," you know, "they just can't get along"?

MANN: Well, that's exactly right. And even our most distinguished inside chronicler of politics and policymaking, Bob Woodward, sort of fell into that very trap.

KURTZ: In his book?

MANN: Yes.


MANN: Absolutely.

ORNSTEIN: But it's not just the book. I mean, it really was the reporting all along. And we actually start our book with the story of the debt limit. This is the first time ever it was used as a hostage- taking mechanism, and the reports rarely reflected that.

And, you know, part of our concern is -- again, it's not ideological. But if voters don't have a sense of who's to blame, in a system -- you know, it's not a parliamentary system. If you have a party acting as a parliamentary minority, you're going to have to find ways to hold them accountable and it's up to the press to report the truth, not the balance.

KURTZ: Finally, do you believe that most journalists are committed to some kind of false equivalence -- one side says this, one side says that? And do you see any prospect of that changing?

MANN: I don't think they're committed to it. Most of them have strong professional norms that are admirable. They want to get the story right and be fair.

But we live in an era now when it isn't balanced. The Republican Party really has become an outlier and quite a radical party. And they have to work with that reality and figure out how to manage to be fair but accurate, to deal with the reality as it exists, because if they don't say it and write it, voters are going to have no opportunity to hold such an outlier accountable.

KURTZ: I'm sure many Republicans would disagree with what you're saying, but appreciate your critique of the press here.

Norm Ornstein, Tom Mann, thanks very much.


KURTZ: Still to come, threats against the newspaper that published a map of gun permit owners. "The New York Times" loses a legal fight over drones.

And Hannah Storm, back on the air after a terrible accident. The "Media Monitor", straight ahead.


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

We told you last week that "The Journal News" had come under fierce criticism for publishing a map showing gun permit owners in two suburban New York counties, Westchester and Rockland (ph). And I did not agree with that decision. But the paper has now had to hire armed security guards after receiving multiple threats.

And officials in a third jurisdiction, Putnam County, say they won't supply gun information to the Gannett (ph) paper, even though it's public information. General news editors say they will fight that decision.

"The New York Times" has sued the Obama administration and lost. The newspaper was trying to gain access to information about U.S. drone strikes targeted to kill people suspected of having ties to terrorism.

A federal judge ruled this week that the press isn't entitled to such access under the Freedom of Information Act, even while noting that disclosure could help the public understand the vast and seemingly ever-growing exercise in which we've been engaged for well over a decade at great cost in lives, treasure and at least in the minds of some personal liberty.

The judge is right on that score. How an administration carries out a war, especially a stealth war, should, without compromising national security, be public information. "The Times" is appealing the decision.

Hannah Storm is back on the air after a terrible accident. The ESPN correspondent was badly burned in an explosion at her propane gas grill.


HANNAH STORM, ESPN CORRESPONDENT: It happened in a split second and immediately I was on fire. So my hair was on fire, my chest and the whole top of my shirt was on fire. I yelled inside to my 15-year- old daughter, who was in the kitchen, "Mommy's on fire. You have to call 9-1-1."


KURTZ: Photos show how badly her face and hands were burned, a particular problem for someone who makes her living in a visual medium.


STORM: I spent an hour in hair and makeup this morning. I have on false eyelashes. This is all fake hair. When the makeup artist brushed an eyebrow on me I almost stood up and kissed her.


KURTZ: Now that's candor. It's nice to see her mount what sportswriters would call a comeback.

Now you may have thought, as we headed into New Year's, that the big news facing the country was the prospect of plunging over the fiscal cliff, but you would have been wrong. Instead, it was this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's start this half hour with news that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are expecting their first child.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are expecting their first child.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little shocked. What can I say? That one took me by surprise.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Kim Kardashian is speaking out for the first time about her little bundle of joy. Her boyfriend, Kanye West, broke the news the couple is expecting their first child.


KURTZ: Now I know lots of people are fascinated by Kim Kardashian. I met her once. Yes, that's right, and she was perfectly pleasant.

But let's face it, she's famous mainly for being famous and being married for an hour and a half or so. So now we're in for months of coverage about the baby bump and the baby name and all of that. Well, I guess it's marginally more interesting than watching Congress vote at 2:00 in the morning.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can check us out on iTunes every Monday if you miss a program. Just search for "Reliable Sources" in the iTunes store. Back here next Sunday morning, 11:00 am Eastern for another critical look at the media. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.