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State of the Union

State of the Union: Reliable Sources

Aired June 07, 2009 - 10:00   ET


KING: Time to turn things over, as we do every week at this hour, to Howard Kurtz and his "Reliable Sources."

And, Howie, as we do so, we like to read the newspapers on "State of the Union." We have the Nevada Appeal here not just so we can get the Reno Aces score inside the sports page, but if you open up this newspaper, there's an op-ed by a guy named Bill O'Reilly -- you might recognize him; he's on the TV -- writing about an issue I know you're going to discuss on the program.

KURTZ: Right, the murder of the abortion doctor, George Tiller. And O'Reilly says in that piece, John, that the loons on the left, as he put it, are demonizing him over this murder. He says, "The far left are seeking to silence Americans who are appalled by late-term abortion." We're going to take a -- a fair and honest look at whether a talk show host can really be held responsible for an act of violence.

So thanks for cueing that up. We'll talk to you later in the hour.

KING: Take care, Howie.

KURTZ: But, first, the media love a big speech, the build-up, the sense of history, the post-game punditry. And the White House had cast the president's address in Cairo this week as a major event.

I figured the press would overplay the story of what was, after all, just a speech. I also expected the usual partisan bickering over Barack Obama's first speech to the Muslim world. Liberal commentators would love it; conservative pundits would loathe it. But it didn't quite go down that way.


COURIC: Who could have imagined this in the days and months after 9/11? An American president named Barack Hussein Obama, son of a Muslim, standing at the center of the Islamic world, quoting from the Koran, and extending a hand of friendship.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: This was just not another speech. Hopefully, this will motivate -- hopefully this will motivate young people in the Muslim world to understand us better. Our president, I think, showed a lot of courage.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It was the most powerful and the most persuasive speech any American president has ever made to the Muslim populations around the world.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: It was a dramatic speech, and again, I will say it was a historic speech.

KURTZ (voice-over): Some on the right, such as "National Review" editor Rich Lowry, actually admitted liking much of the speech, which for this president is nothing short of unusual.

Other conservatives, not so much.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Well, a good speaker always finds common ground. The president did that, and then promoted sympathy for Muslims. To continue hammering the tortured theme does not do anyone any good, so let's drop it.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: The easiest way to get applause anywhere around the world is to attack the United States. And if you're a president, you will get a loud applause. And he basked in it.


KURTZ: Joining us now to examine the coverage of the president's address and the quality time he spent with Brian Williams this past week, in New York, Chrystia Freeland, U.S. managing editor of "The Financial Times"; and here in Washington, Jonathan Martin, senior political reporter for Politico; and Richard Wolffe, an MSNBC political analyst and author of "Renegade: The Making of a President."

Richard Wolffe, the mainstream media, as I mentioned, adore these big thematic Obama speeches, the one on race, the convention speech, the inaugural. Critics go, there they go again, swooning over Obama.

WOLFFE: Well, except that this was a big moment. This was a historic moment and a gutsy move.

And look, you can debate left and right about whether this speech works, whether it has an impact, but the media is going to gravitate to things that are first, that are new, that are different. And this is such a striking change from the messages we've heard from the settings that we've seen with the previous president, that I don't think you can fault the media for, yes, going overboard, but taking a lot of interest in the speech. There are risks involved in this, and he took them on.

KURTZ: Chrystia, despite this big media buildup, the journalistic fallacy here is it could be the best written speech in the world, the most sensitive speech, but, you know, any speech is not going to end the Arab/Israeli conflict or the difficulties in Iraq.

FREELAND: Of course not. But I actually thought -- I mean, like you, I thought the coverage might go overboard. And like you, I expected the reaction to be extremely partisan.

I thought the coverage in the U.S. was actually very balanced, very appropriate. I was surprised at the extent to which many of the right wing commentators embraced it.

What really surprised me, though, was the extent to which the speech really seemed to make an impact in the place where it was really targeted, which is in the Muslim world. And people really seemed to be listening. And I think maybe that's part of the reason that we had a slightly unexpected coverage of the speech here, is I think people realize that this was an American president who was trying actually not to speak so much to Americans with this speech, as he was to speak to Muslims.

The other thing I thought was really interesting about this speech was, coming on the heels of the Sotomayor identity politics controversy, no one seemed to mind at all the extent to which President Obama was willing to use his own -- very unusual for American president -- identity to make points in this speech, and I thought he did that effectively.

KURTZ: It's a great point about not necessarily being just aimed back home, because it took place, after all, at 6:00 a.m. Eastern here on the East Coast.

Jonathan Martin, did Osama bin Laden upstage the president by releasing that video the day of the speech and thus getting into at least a little bit of every story?

MARTIN: You know, we've seen, Howard, to have developed a capacity for bin Laden at this point. He's emerged so many times now that it's almost not the news event that it once was. In the fall of 2004, when he did (INAUDIBLE), it was a huge news event that sort of drove the campaign coverage for the final hours.

KURTZ: And I was pleasantly surprised that we didn't obsess on it for the next 48 hours.


MARTIN: And there were two appearances, by the way, and neither got the coverage it would have had four years ago. KURTZ: Were you surprised, Richard Wolffe, that some conservative pundits didn't totally pan the speech? I mean, after all, some of these pundits ripped the president when he takes his wife to New York to see a Broadway play. Oh, my God, he's spending taxpayer money. So were you surprised at all by the split on the right?

WOLFFE: I don't know that Krauthammer pulled any punches. I mean, just in the clip that you played...

KURTZ: Well, you have people like Scarborough and Rich Lowry and others at least saying some nice things about a Democratic president.

WOLFFE: Right. I think that was all positive in a sense, but it's a temporary cease-fire, at best. I mean, they still think he's part of the blame America first crowd, and they're never really going to break through with that audience.

KURTZ: And Chrystia, you had people picking the speech apart, whether it had to do with what the president said about Israeli settlements or expressing sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Or -- this is my favorite. He didn't mention "terrorist." When you look at the speech, in the third paragraph he talks about violent extremists and 9/11, he just didn't use the "T" word.

FREELAND: Yes. And what was interesting about that sort of word choice, I think, was I imagine that it was very carefully calculated, because if you look at the reaction in the Arab world, there was a lot of applause for the president for not using the word "terrorist." So, I think that it speaks to how this speech was really very difficult to give. It wasn't only directed at the Middle east with its own warring constituencies, but he was speaking both to the Muslim world and to America.

KURTZ: Right. Multiple audiences, as you say.

Now, you mentioned earlier the Sonia Sotomayor nomination, so let me turn to that.

You had two pretty high-profile commentators this week backtracking just a little bit, at least softening their rhetoric. Rush Limbaugh, talking about the Supreme Court nominee, he said, "I can see the possibility of supporting this nomination if it were to be shown she was opposed to Roe v. Wade and abortion."

I don't think we're going to learn much about her position during this confirmation process.

And Newt Gingrich, who had thrown the "racist" label, stamped the "racist" label on Sotomayor, now says perhaps he was a little hasty, the word "racist" should not have been applied.

So Jonathan Martin, my media question is why do people in the news business make such a big deal for everything that Newt and Rush say, as opposed to, for example, the Republican senators who can actually vote on this nomination? MARTIN: I think there's a certain degree of clinging to the set rule. You know, Newt and Rush have their set rules, and they say these provocative and inflammatory things, and that's sort of news. And then when...


KURTZ: But why is it news? Who set the rules? Why is it news?

MARTIN: Well, because they're the only ones of prominence who are saying those things. And the fact is, when you've got the 40 Republican senators up here who aren't saying those things and who are basically saying, yes, we don't have the votes to really do anything about this, well, you've got to go somewhere else for your news, and so you turn to those guys.

KURTZ: Chrystia, in New York, E.J. Dionne, in his "Washington Post' column, says that this prominence that Gingrich and Limbaugh have reflects a media environment that tilts to the right, and that these two guys are successful in setting the news agenda.

Tilts to the right? Really?

FREELAND: Yes. I don't agree with that point. And actually, there are some interesting academic studies about media bias which suggest, in fact, that it's not about us, the journalists, or even our proprietors. There's some -- economists have looked at newspaper bias and it turns out we're just very good at catering to the biases of our readers.

Having said that, I think particularly when it comes to Limbaugh and Gingrich and the whole political environment right now, what's happening is what we do all like is a good story. And a good story tends to be one that has hot conflict in it. And the fact that most of the Republican Party is really quite lost right now, doesn't know how to respond to Obama and...


KURTZ: That's boring, in other words. All right.

FREELAND: That is boring. If you have these guys talking about -- if you have these guys talking about racism, suddenly that's a story.

KURTZ: Well, some, Richard, might say that it's the liberal- leaning media who will try to demonize Gingrich and Limbaugh and make them the face of the Republican Party even though they don't have any votes on Capitol Hill.

WOLFFE: I think this is a media environment which is sensationalist, that is manufacturing a story. That's really what you're getting at here, and it's true, because the basic story is boring. She's going to get confirmed.

KURTZ: Right. Right. WOLFFE: There is some mileage in that.

KURTZ: The loudest, most shrill voices.

WOLFFE: The one piece of it that is real is, is there any political damage to the authority of the White House? Are they going to take a hit? And how do they recover from a hit? But it's a minor hit.

This controversy, conflict, tension is ginned up to sell newspapers, get clicks on the Web. And yes, Newt is great and Rush is great because they're caricatures.

KURTZ: Right.

WOLFFE: They're not even the real Rush or the real Newt. And as long as Newt has to apologize for things he says, I mean, look, his presidential campaign is going to be great to cover.

KURTZ: All right. I want to turn...

FREELAND: Can I say... KURTZ: I want to move on, Chrystia, because I want to get to Brian Williams and NBC, which invaded the Obama White House in the last two weeks -- 32 producers, 25 cameras, two-part primetime special.

Let's take a look at some of that.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC (voice-over): This president's been called a rock star by his fans and his critics.

OBAMA: What's going on, everybody? How are you doing today?

WILLIAMS (on camera): Oh my God. It's Five Guys.

OBAMA: That's where we're going.


(voice-over): And this is when the leader of the free world remembers to ask me for my order.

(on camera): Cheeseburger with ketchup, please.

OBAMA: A cheeseburger with ketchup.

You want fries?

WILLIAMS: Fries, yes, sir.


KURTZ: All right.

Jonathan Martin, there were two serious interviews with the president sandwiched into this thing, but it was an awfully upbeat and positive portrayal of life in the White House, was it not?

MARTIN: Well, you know, NBC released the news part of this on the Friday before the week it aired, which, of course, was talking about his nominee for the Supreme Court. And we got to this week and we just saw this sort of (INAUDIBLE), sort of behind the scenes.

No. I mean, I do think that as a sort of window into the White House, this is fascinating. Right? You can sort of see how things really work behind the scenes, to an extent, at least. But, was this, you know, accountability journalism? No.

KURTZ: And to be fair, Chrystia, NBC has done this for 40 years. And there were specials on both Bush White Houses, 43 and 41. They were also somewhat upbeat. But have we learned anything other than Obama really, really loves to go out for burgers?

FREELAND: Well, I'm surprised actually that you resisted showing us the dog, because that was for pure cuteness. I think that was the highlight.

You know, I do think, actually, we learned one other thing, which is about Obama's message management. And I think it's something very interesting about how he has chosen to speak to America, which is to present, actually, a very conventional, sort of happy family, quite conservative environment. And I think for a Democratic president who is advancing some fairly bold ideas like radical health care reform...

KURTZ: Right.

FREELAND: ... that is really helpful.

KURTZ: All right. We showed the dog while you were talking to us. We didn't want to ignore Bo.

Now I want to play one more clip where President Obama talks about one of his least favorite parts of the media -- cable news.

Let's show it.


OBAMA: Mainly because I don't find most of the cable chatter very persuasive. I've used this analogy before. It feels like WWF wrestling. You know, everybody's got their role to play.


OBAMA: I know a lot of these guys, and, you know, if Pat Buchanan is having a conversation with Chris Matthews or talking to Keith Olbermann, everybody's got their set pieces.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: I love that he uses all NBC examples.


KURTZ: Why does Obama think so little of cable news?

WOLFFE: Well, look, this is a journey for him through his campaign. And the fact is he paid a lot of attention to cable news initially. He had to tune it out of his head. He tried to get the people around him to try to tune out, as well, because it's a distraction.

But it's on all across the West Wing. I mean, they are watching this.

KURTZ: Let's get real.

WOLFFE: And for my good friends at MSNBC, I mean, look, the fact that he mentions all those people does suggest that maybe occasionally his eyes scan across.


KURTZ: All right. We've got to go.

Jonathan Martin, Chrystia Freeland, thank you for joining us.

Richard, stick around.

When we come back, Obama and access. We'll talk about Richard Wolffe's new book, "Renegade, going behind the scenes with the president in the making."

And check out "RELIABLE SOURCES" on Facebook. Become a fan of the show, get an early look at guests and topics. And you can join some of the very interesting debates on my page.


KURTZ: Time now to talk with Richard Wolffe about his book, "Renegade," which has just come out.

And Richard, President Obama, then candidate Obama, gave you the idea to write this book. And he promised you more access than the other reporters. It says right here, "Based on exclusive interviews with Barack Obama."

Didn't that mean you were going to be favorably disposed toward him?

WOLFFE: No, I don't think it did. It certainly meant that I would have an access and a relationship with him and his inner circle that gave me an insight into him and his campaign that was, I think, better than anybody else's. But...

KURTZ: At the very least, though, you were working for "Newsweek." You were covering the campaign. You had to hope in your heart of hearts that he would win, otherwise nobody wants this book.

WOLFFE: Actually, my publisher was going to print it either way. So that wasn't really an issue.

I mean, access isn't the issue. I don't see why politics is any different from anything else. You don't expect a medical reporter not to get to know doctors.

The question, is what is the end result? How does that stand up? And judging from the reviews, listen, we were reviewed in "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times." They're not pushovers, and they found the book to be fair, and there were plenty of things they liked in it.

KURTZ: There is a parallel, you write, between Obama's background and your family background. Explain.

WOLFFE: Well, you know, we talked about this on the plane, and he obviously had a very international family, and obviously born American, but with this very kind of mixed family. And it allowed him and me -- obviously I'm born in Britain. My accent is Texan or from New York. And, you know, there is -- with that comes, I think, an ability to maybe communicate with people in a way that makes you comfortable in different situations.

KURTZ: Obama told you at one point that Bill Clinton had lied about him.

Why would he say that to you?

WOLFFE: Because that's what he felt. Because he was being honest. I mean, this was kind of an unpleasant (ph) situation. He felt that in the middle of the primaries, especially going through New Hampshire and South Carolina early on, that Bill Clinton was distorting his positions on the war in Iraq.

KURTZ: Sure, he felt that, but to say it to you on the record.

All right. Did you seek Bill Clinton's reaction?

WOLFFE: No, I didn't, because this book was about this man. It's not about the entire election.

KURTZ: But you have incidents because, for example, he ran against Hillary Clinton. A lot of the book is about that. There's a moment on the tarmac when they have a conversation. Obama tells you later he felt that she was weak, he saw a certain weakness in her position.

Did you seek Hillary Clinton's position?

WOLFFE: Yes. Absolutely, I did. Absolutely.

KURTZ: But how about John McCain's reaction to some of the things when they are plotting to defeat the Republican nominee?

WOLFFE: Each individual was part of an event. Then I would always seek someone around them for their input.

There is actually no incident here where you have McCain saying something that wasn't verified by someone else in the room who was not associated with the campaign. So, there's a scene, for instance, one of the few scenes where I have McCain and then candidate Obama together in the White House. There were lots of people in that room who weren't affiliated with either campaign who were able to verify accounts.

KURTZ: Michael Goldfarb, formerly a McCain campaign spokesman, now back with "The Weekly Standard," says that you were doing PR for Obama during the campaign, now you've dropped any pretense of being a journalist.

WOLFFE: Well, I think if we got to the stage on a media show where "The Weekly Standard" is the arbiter of bias and partisanship, then we're really not in a serious debate at all.

KURTZ: It's an opinion.

WOLFFE: It's clearly an opinion, but it's hardly an unbiased one. It's "The Weekly Standard." It's one of the most partisan magazines in the country.

KURTZ: Why did you decide after this campaign and you were finishing this book to leave "Newsweek" and join Public Strategies, which is a public advocacy firm?

WOLFFE: Well, first of all, I left "Newsweek" to write the book. And "Newsweek" would not give me enough time to write the book. I felt it was a really important story to tell, and I wanted to tell it passionately. So we couldn't come to agreement on that, and there was a parting of the ways. Public Strategies came a lot later, after I finished the book.

KURTZ: But giving up journalism was a big step, daily journalism.

WOLFFE: It was a big step, absolutely. Now, I still write for "The Daily Beast," and I'm still an analyst on MSNBC. I think we're in a situation where, frankly, prominent bloggers are academics and lawyers. Journalism doesn't just belong to journalists anymore.


What is there in this book that you think will cause Obama any heartburn or his people? And has anybody who's read the book in the White House pushed back on anything?

WOLFFE: Well, let me tell you that the first leak of this book came out on Fox News, and I have done more than a dozen interviews with conservative talk radio.

They have all found plenty of things in this book that they've enjoyed and talked about at length. When the Fox News leak came out, I can tell you it was not a comfortable day for the White House, especially the vice president's office. So, you know, this book has had a good reaction on both sides.

KURTZ: The press, as you know, is constantly accused of being soft on Obama. And MSNBC, where you're an analyst, is pretty high on that list. Now, I've always considered you somebody of independent judgment.

WOLFFE: Thank you.

KURTZ: It must be awkward for you to go on night after night and have liberal hosts try to get you to take a liberal position.

WOLFFE: Yes. Well, you know, everyone who goes on TV has to decide what they're going to do. You shouldn't get steamrolled into whatever an anchor wants, whether you're on Fox -- and I used to do plenty of Fox News hits before I signed up with MSNBC.

I mean, you've got to be true to yourself and hopefully relate what you think in terms of your analysis to some facts, something you can report. And I don't find that difficult on "Countdown," especially -- I assume that's what you're talking about. Keith Olbermann is obviously a strong, original voice with lots of opinions. You don't have to agree with him just because you're on the show.

KURTZ: You say in the book that Ron Brownstein, Joe Klein and John Dickerson, three of the best political journalists around, perpetuated a caricature of Barack Obama as somebody who couldn't appeal, unlike Hillary, to blue-collar voters. So -- he talked about arugula in Iowa and so forth.

So, did you feel that the media portrait of Obama was off?

WOLFFE: I don't think it squared with the results, and I don't think there was much looking back and saying, well, how were we wrong? The caricature was that this guy could not reach working voters, and yet there were many states around the country where he did reach those working voters.

They may not have been working voters in one part of the country, but he was reaching them elsewhere. And there was never a recalibration of, well, was that an analysis run? It was incredibly widespread. That was part of the conventional wisdom.

KURTZ: Does it bother you that the media are painted as in the tank for Obama and that you, perhaps by virtue of this book, are sort of held up as a poster boy as somebody who got very close to this candidate and now president and, therefore, lost your objectivity?

WOLFFE: Look, for a start, I can say this book went through tough reviews. It was...

KURTZ: Does it bother you personally?

WOLFFE: No. Look, let me tell you, you kind of expect to hit at when you have a decent profile. I mean, that's going to happen anyway. Like I said, conservative media has found it fine to talk about this book. There's lots of things to talk about.

KURTZ: But you haven't answered my question. Does it bother you personally?

WOLFFE: No, it doesn't bother me.

KURTZ: You have a thick skin?

WOLFFE: I have grown a thicker skin as this week has gone on.

KURTZ: All right. Richard Wolffe, thanks very much for stopping in to talk to us today.

WOLFFE: Thank you.

KURTZ: Coming up on the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, fanning the flames. Bill O'Reilly is denounced by liberals after the murder of an abortion doctor he had repeatedly attacked. Are his critics just exploiting a tragedy?

Plus, late-night handoff. Now that we've seen Conan in action, does his offbeat style really fit "The Tonight Show?" And will Leno's old viewers defect?

And coffee talk. The "Morning Joe" gang has a new sponsor and they don't have to go to commercial to show off the product. At noon Eastern, we'll show you John King's talk with senior adviser to President Obama David Axelrod.


KING: I'm John King, and this is "STATE OF THE UNION." Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

Five American security contractors are detained in Baghdad's Green Zone. They're being held in connection with the killing of another American contractor. James Kitterman was found bound, blindfolded and stabbed to death inside the heavily protected zone last month. The five detained contractors have not yet been charged in the case.

High-stakes parliamentary elections taking place in Lebanon today. The polls close about 90 minutes from now. Voters are choosing between a coalition supported by the United States or an alliance backed by the militant group Hezbollah. Unofficial results should be announced tomorrow.

President Obama is heading back home after wrapping up a five-day trip to the Middle East in Europe. Before leaving Paris today, the president did some sightseeing with his wife and daughters. Among the stops for the first family, the Pompidou Centre, the famous art museum.

That and more ahead on "STATE OF THE UNION."

For now, let's turn things back over to Howie Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: Thanks, John.

And you know, looking at the coverage of the General Motors bankruptcy this week, I was really struck by the prism of nostalgia that a lot of journalists used. Tom Brokaw talked about once driving a 1946 Pontiac. Gene Robinson of "The Washington Post" grew up driving a 1964 Buick LeSabre. James Stewart of "The Wall Street Journal," a 1967 Cadillac DeVille. And I think also that a lot of journalists owned American cars that turned out to be clunkers, and that's why you've see very little sympathy for this car company.

KING: My first car was a 1972 Chevy Impala, Howie, and I loved my Chevy Impala.

KURTZ: We didn't script that. I was wondering if you owned a GM car.

All right, John.

KING: The transmission finally failed on me, but so it goes.

KURTZ: Talk to you at the top of the hour.

Now a more serious topic. The murder of George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who became a target of the right wing for performing abortions, is an absolute tragedy. But within hours, a heated ideological debate broke out about whether a talk show host, Fox's Bill O'Reilly, was somehow to blame.

It's true that O'Reilly frequently and loudly denounced Tiller, especially for performing late-term abortions. But can you really draw a line from that to inciting violence?

On "The Factor," O'Reilly condemned the killing, but also said that because of Tiller, based on the number of abortions he is estimated to have performed, 60,000 fetuses never became American citizens.


O'REILLY: When I heard about Tiller's murder, I knew pro- abortion zealots and Fox News haters would attempt to blame us for the crime, and that is exactly what has happened. Every single thing we said about Tiller was true. And my analysis was based on those facts.

KURTZ (voice-over): MSNBC's Keith Olbermann pointed the finger at his longtime nemesis and played past clips of O'Reilly attacking Tiller.

O'REILLY: Tiller, "The Baby Killer," as some call him, will perform a late-term abortion for just about any reason.

Tiller has killed thousands, thousands of late-term fetuses without explanation. No question Dr. Tiller has blood on his hands.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: If you know a viewer of that channel, show them this tape, or just the tape of the attacks on Dr. Tiller that set the stage for his assassination. Fox News Channel will never restrain itself from incitement to murder and terrorism, not until its profits begin to decline, when its growth stops.


KURTZ: So, is it fair to even be talking about a cable host's role in a heinous killing?

Joining us now, Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, and Bill Press, host of "The Bill Press Show" on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Kathleen Parker, some liberal commentators couldn't wait to accuse O'Reilly of inciting the violence that led to George Tiller's murder.

Fair or unfair?

PARKER: Irrelevant. I mean, yes, of course it's unfair. You can't blame anyone for a crime except the person who commits the crime, clearly.

People on the far left are always looking for an excuse to attack Bill O'Reilly, and Keith Olbermann and O'Reilly tend to bounce off each other a good bit. So I'm not sure who this argument is really between.

KURTZ: At the same time, Bill Press, O'Reilly went after Tiller again and again, a couple of dozen times, in harshly personal terms. So, is there some basis for pointing the finger at him?

PRESS: Well, first of all, I have to agree with Kathleen. I do not hold Bill -- at the risk of alienating a lot of my liberal friends, I do not hold Bill O'Reilly responsible for George Tiller's murder. But I think you have to understand and accept the fact that words do have consequences.

Violent words can lead to violent actions. And I think that everybody in the media, myself included, who's got the microphone, has a responsibility to weigh their words very carefully, because there are some sick people out there who will take what you say literally, particular when you use a word like "murder."

Let me just say, I think it was wrong to call Bill O'Reilly a murderer. I think it's wrong for O'Reilly to call George Tiller a murderer as well.

KURTZ: What George Tiller was doing was legal, although many people did not like what he was doing.

PRESS: That's my point.

KURTZ: But I also want to mention that he was shot in 1993, when there was no "O'Reilly Factor" and there was no Fox News.

So, do you think, Kathleen, that the people pointing fingers at O'Reilly with varying degrees of fervor are politicizing this tragedy?

PARKER: Well, of course they are. And this is the topic du jour anyway because of Obama's recent address to Notre Dame. It's on everyone's mind, and any opportunity for the pro-choice people to make their case more strongly is going to be taken advantage of and vice versa. I mean, we're always listening to the extremes on either side, the squeakiest wheels, the loudest voices, and they get the attention. PRESS: I was just going to say that I have a rule that whenever you hear the "H" word, be it "Hitler" or "Holocaust," they've gone too far.

PARKER: Yes. Change the channel.

PRESS: I mean, they've gone -- either side, and they both use it, more to the right, I think, than the left, but they've gone too far.

KURTZ: Has Olbermann gone too far by, in effect, calling for people to walk out on businesses playing Fox News Channel? And he says his goal is to get O'Reilly off the air. PRESS: Well, I think this is part of the ongoing battle between Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly. So I take it in that context.


KURTZ: But he wasn't kidding around and doing the usual mocking voice. In fact, he said he was going to dispense with that. He was serious.


PARKER: I wonder what he thinks is going to happen, though, because where is Olbermann without O'Reilly?

KURTZ: Are you saying they need each other?

PARKER: A little bit.

PRESS: Sure. I mean, his goal is to knock Bill O'Reilly off the air, which is never going to happen. So it's part of his shtick and it's good.

PARKER: I would love the outcome of this be that O'Reilly and all of these talking heads who become so completely over the top so many times just to say, look, this is a teaching moment, we're not going to do this anymore. We're going to make our cases strongly. We're going to be passionate, but we're going to tone down the rhetoric.

I mean, wouldn't that be a great result?

KURTZ: Well, I think it's unfair to demonize O'Reilly in this matter. But at the same time, I wish he had denounced the murder of Tiller more forcefully. He certainly condemned it, but not as forcefully as...


PRESS: No, I was going to say -- exactly. That clip you just played, it would have been nice to hear him say this is a horrific act and I'm, you know, sorry that it happened and sorry for him and his family. Whatever. He didn't. He just kept his high tone about, I was right all along in everything I said. Calling him, again, a killer, calling him a murderer was wrong and inflammatory and risks -- risks inciting violence.

KURTZ: Well, O'Reilly says the "baby killer" label was one that others have attached, and he was repeating it.

PARKER: I think that's true.

KURTZ: You write in your column -- here's a broader point. You write in your column that "The right wing wacko contingent increasingly dominates public perception of the Republican Party."

Is that in part because the media keep trying to tie the two together?

PARKER: Well, sure. Yes. I mean, as soon as this person stormed into the church and shot Dr. Tiller...

KURTZ: In church. Just amazing. Appalling.

PARKER: Right. Well, absolutely. I mean, all of that, understood.

KURTZ: Yes. But as soon as that happened...

PARKER: But as soon as that happened, then the media stepped in and characterized this killer as a Christian, somebody who's part of this more right wing operation rescue organization, et cetera, et cetera. Pretty soon the person, the murderer, becomes sort of the face of the conservative pro-life Republican Party, which is, I think, wrong and a shame.

PRESS: But can I add something? Which is I know it's easy -- and you weren't doing this, but I hear people blaming it on the media, like when Limbaugh last week said that -- he equated President Obama with al Qaeda. And then they were saying, well, why would the media even cover this? Well, because he said it.

My point is you can't blame the media. If they stop saying such extremist, outrageous things, we in the media will stop talking about it.

PARKER: Well, the media followed the fire, clearly. You know, wherever the heat is, that's where -- and I'm part of the media, so I know how this works. I've been doing this for a long time.

We go where the action is. But there is I think -- you know, the media are going to always sort of defend, you know, the pro-choice position. They're less likely to portray sympathetically the pro-life position. That's just a fact. I think you can document that.

KURTZ: Well, that sets up my next question, which is O'Reilly published an opinion piece in "The Nevada Appeal" newspaper, and he says, "The far left is seeking to silent Americans who are appalled by late-term abortion."

In other words, using this incident to suggest that anybody who criticizes those who perform abortions is contributing to an unhealthy climate.

PRESS: But I was at South Bend when President Obama gave that speech. And I thought I agree very much with the tone of his speech, which is saying Americans may never agree on this issue, but it is an issue where we can seek common ground. And I think that's the place where most right-thinking people are.

But I have to say, again, there are two sides to this argument. I happen to be strongly pro-choice, but I think if you look, the extreme rhetoric is on the right-hand side.

They're the ones that use "murder." They're the ones that use "Holocaust." They're the ones that use "killer."

You don't hear that heated rhetoric on the left. And I don't think the right is doing itself any good by using that rhetoric.

PARKER: I agree with you that they're not. I would much prefer an educational approach.

I think, you know, we could reduce abortion much more easily if we talk honestly about it, in sensible, civilized terms. But I also understand the intense passion among those who really do think of it as murder. It's not sort of this -- they're not looking for heated vocabulary. They really do feel that intensely, and feel they have a moral duty to...


KURTZ: I want to call a halt here, because I want to play a clip of President Bill Clinton. This is in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, when he appears to take aim at Rush Limbaugh and radio talk show hosts like G. Gordon Liddy.


WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seem to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate, they leave the impression that -- by their very words that violence is acceptable.


KURTZ: So, just briefly, here's Bill Clinton making the argument that talk show hosts, that their words have consequences and can lead to violence.

Is that -- with the benefit of hindsight, is that a fair...

PARKER: Well, this is not a new problem. I mean, as Bill said -- we're agreeing on everything here today, but words do matter. And do they lead to -- can you have a cause and effect line? I don't think so. I think we're all responsible for what we say, we're all responsible for what we do, but clearly there's no constructive end, I think, here.

PRESS: No. And I come back to words have consequences. I think Bill Clinton was not blaming Rush Limbaugh on -- or Timothy McVeigh on Rush Limbaugh, but he was saying...

KURTZ: He said they were creating a climate in which this crime was possible.

PRESS: Well, they have to -- I think people -- again, I'm one of them, on the microphone every day. You have got to be very care what you say because words do have consequences. Violent words can lead to violent action. KURTZ: And with those words, we are going to leave it there.

Thanks for an intelligent discussion.

PRESS: Peaceful words.

KURTZ: Bill Press, Kathleen Parker, we appreciate it.

PRESS: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: Up next, laugh test. Conan O'Brien just got the gig. So why are some critics saying the clock is already ticking on his chances to keep ""The Tonight Show"" on top?

And as we head to break, this week marked 20 years since the crackdown in China's Tiananmen Square, and it's a story the Chinese government still wants to go away. CNN's John Vause found that out as he encountered umbrella-toting government agents doing their best to get in the way of his reporting this week.


KURTZ: Well, Jay Leno is gone, at least briefly, and "The Tonight Show" has a new proprietor. Conan O'Brien made his debut this week, and he was hardly a Leno clone. The monologue got shorter, the humor a little goofier, and there were lots of taped pieces about Conan's comedic adventures.


CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": I've timed this moment perfectly. Think about it. I'm on a last-place network, I moved to a state that's bankrupt, and tonight's show is sponsored by General Motors.


O'BRIEN: Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the part of the tour where we drive in circles for no reason. Everyone chant after me, Circle! Circle! Circle!

AUDIENCE: Circle! Circle! Circle!

O'BRIEN: If we go a little faster, we can actually go back in time!


KURTZ: But is this approach likely to hold the big audience that made Leno number one for nearly 17 years, especially with Jay starting a 10:00 show on NBC in the fall?

Joining us now in New York, Toure, a TV and print reporter who's contributed to "Rolling Stone," BET, and CNN, and James Poniewozik, television critic for "TIME" magazine, who writes the "Tuned In" blog at All right, Toure. Conan made no attempt to beat (ph) Jay Leno. Will his brand of humor appeal to the traditional "Tonight Show" viewer?

TOURE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I don't know. I think he's been doing OK with that 12:30 college crowd. Perhaps they're a little drunk or whatever at that point.

I didn't find him funny at all. I watched the whole week because you told me about we were going to do this today.

KURTZ: I did. It was your homework.

TOURE: I didn't laugh once. The guy is unfunny. He's corny. He looks like Popeye, I think, with these teeny eyes and his huge forehead. And he lacks the gravitas of Dave and Jay.

And he's always doing this physical comedy that kind of -- sort of like, you know, sell the joke a little bit more. And I'm, like, "Dude, just, like, relax. What's the problem? The problem is you're not funny."

KURTZ: He's a tall, unusual looking guy.

James Poniewozik, you kind of set this up as a generational handoff from Leno, 59 years old, to Conan, who's 46.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "TIME": Yes. You know, I think you can attribute a lot of the difference in their sense of humor and their sensibility to a difference in generation.

I mean, I think one thing, whether people like it or not -- and a lot of Jay's, you know, old audience is not going to like it so much -- a lot of Conan's humor is about sort of making himself the butt of the joke, making himself silly. You know, going out on Rodeo Road instead of Rodeo Drive and buying a dreadlock wig and walking around in it, as opposed to Jay's, which is what was Jay's signature bit? It was jaywalking, where he goes out on the street and he makes other people look ridiculous.

KURTZ: We just saw a picture of him looking fairly ridiculous.


KURTZ: Let me turn back to Toure.

All these taped sketches, some of which go on a long time, it almost seems like he doesn't need to do the show in the studio.

TOURE: I mean, it does seem like that. I mean, I told you about the Foley (ph) stage sketch. That was just horrific. I mean, it was painful.

I mean, I look at the show sometimes and I'm, like, who is the adult saying, OK, that's good to go on the air with? You know, I can't even deal with this. And he also gets dominated in his conversations with, you know, Hanks and Paltrow and, like, I don't know what's going on with this guy.

KURTZ: James, let me quote something you wrote this past week. You said, "Has Conan O'Brien grown big enough for 11:30 or has 11:30 grown small enough for Conan?"

What did you mean by that?

PONIEWOZIK: I mean that, you know, I'm not surprised to hear a reaction like Toure's to Conan's, which is he's a polarizing figure. People who love Conan really, really love him, his old late-night audience and so on. A lot of people who watched the old "Tonight Show" are not going to like him at all. They're going to actively hate him.

KURTZ: I found this out on Twitter. I said I didn't think Conan was very funny the first night. And half the people said, yes, of course you're right. And the others flamed me for not getting it and being dense. So he does seem to be a bit of a polarizing figure.

PONIEWOZIK: Yes. And I think part of the point is, and I think the message about this for the larger TV world, is that I think people saying, well, can Conan broaden out his humor so that he appeals to everybody and offers a little bit of something for everybody like, you know, Johnny Carson used to? That sort of misses the point of what TV is today. There is no everybody anymore.

You know, you've got "Adult Swim," you've got Letterman, you've got Jimmy Kimmel, you've got Craig Ferguson, you've got this, you've got that. You know, I think this is partly a recognition -- and it may totally bomb, I don't know yet -- but it's a recognition that, you know, TV is a niche now and there is no everybody.

KURTZ: It's not like the Johnny Carson days.

Go ahead, Toure.

TOURE: But even as you say that, you notice that all those names you list, especially all those late-night guys, late night is less diverse than even, like, D.C. I mean, that's pathetic.

Is there no black person, is there no woman who's interesting and funny enough to hold down that chair? I think there is.

I think Jon Stewart would have been a much more interesting choice, much more topical, much more smart, newsy, and yet funny, good interviews. How much news has Stewart made over the last couple of years? Conan's just sort of standing there holding the chair.

KURTZ: OK. Although Stewart is a white guy, we should note for the record.

James, you expect a drop-off after the novelty of the first night. But you look at the ratings for Conan this week, it went down 30 percent, 14 percent, 12 percent, 8 percent, each successive evening. And I'm thinking Jay Leno was number one, and I know this decision was made by NBC five years ago, but how do you get rid of the guy who was number one and take a gamble on the new guy?

PONIEWOZIK: Well, for one thing because NBC is doing an entirely different gamble with Jay, which is to put him on at 10:00 p.m., not just because they love Jay so much and wanted to hang on to him and think that he's popular, or whatever, but also because NBC is making the recognition that the broadcast networks are now more like big cable channels and that, therefore, they need to cut costs. And that's really what -- as well paid as Jay Leno is, he is a giant cost- cutting measure for NBC in the way of putting something cheap on at 10:00, stripping it over five nights, and it costs less than putting on one drama.

KURTZ: All right. We're a little short on time.

Let me ask you, Toure, do you think that some of the traditional "Tonight Show" fans could watch Leno at 10:00, and when 11:30 rolls around, go to sleep early or read a book or have a life and just not watch Conan?

TOURE: Yes. I mean, it seems to be a bit too much that Jeff Zucker is asking us to watch Leno and then watch the news and then watch Conan. And Howie, I know you know the diversity that I was referring to with Jon Stewart. Obviously he's not racial, but that would have been something a little different there, too.

KURTZ: It certainly would have been taking a more of a chance, and it did not happen, so we'll have Conan to kick around far while.

Toure and James Poniewozik, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

After the break, looking for love. Another L.A. journalist finds the city's mayor just irresistible.

Plus, brewing controversy -- Joe Scarborough, Starbucks and the unmistakable aroma of money.

"Media Minute" straight ahead.


KURTZ: Here's what I'm wondering -- what is it with the mayor of Los Angeles and female TV journalists?


KURTZ (voice-over): First, there was Mirthala Salinas, the local Telemundo anchor who reported on Antonio Villaraigosa while she was having an affair with the married mayor. Salinas quit her job after being demoted and Villaraigosa's wife walked out on their marriage.

Now another L.A. television reporter is dating Villaraigosa. KTLA's Lu Parker, a former Miss USA, which I'm sure was unrelated to her hiring, has been dating the mayor since March. Just last weekend, Parker read an on-air story about Villaraigosa weighing a run for governor next year. And her Web site, which includes glamorous modeling and beauty pageant photos, also shows her interviewing the mayor on election night.

LU PARKER, KTLA: I looked down and I saw you leaning over, just like I was, and with your mouth open, you know, listening to him (ph) enthralled.

What did you think?


KURTZ: After rival station KNBC broke the story, KTLA's news director said Parker will no longer be covering politics but that, "I have the utmost faith in Lu Parker's abilities."

(on camera): Well, I don't. She was covering the mayor as recently as a week ago without telling her station of the romance. Is there something about the California sun that blinds these journalists? And can't Villaraigosa find a less intimate way to get good press?

(voice-over): Well, "Morning Joe" sure has the right name. Joe Scarborough loves coffee, Starbucks coffee in particular. And Starbucks loves his MSNBC show, enough to sign a deal making Starbucks the official hot beverage of "Morning Joe," an arrangement that "The New York Times" says will bring the cable channel more than $10 million.

It was enough to make Jon Stewart do a spit take.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC: I'm sitting here with my Starbucks.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every morning you're sucking down the cups (ph).

SCARBOROUGH: And it's the best product placement for years.

BRZEZINSKI: Probably would have kept drinking it for free.

SCARBOROUGH: God help us if Mika doesn't have -- if she doesn't have coffee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We love Starbucks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was an organic match. That's what great marketing is. It's not like -- Starbucks makes a good cup of coffee.


KURTZ: Scarborough did say he likes the company's volunteer efforts. And Starbucks says the reported payment is substantially less than $10 million.

But look, this is not just a case of Starbucks becoming a top advertiser. This is product placement, pure and simple, in which Joe and Mika and the gang are vouching for the lattes and frappuccinos every time they take an on-camera sip. And that, to me, leaves a bitter taste.

Still to come, banking on buzz. "Newsweek" turns a pretend pundit into a guest editor. No joke.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Anyone who's been on the air with Stephen Colbert knows the man is a very astute political analyst, as I learned during the Democratic primaries last year. I mean, he cuts right through the static.


STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Maybe they were just bored with Hillary because she was a story they already knew. But Barack Obama was the news story. But then he became the old news story and not treating her well became the new news story, and the press not only got to talk about her, but talk about themselves, which is their favorite subject.

KURTZ: Chris Matthews said he got a thrill running up his leg whenever Obama gave a speech.

COLBERT: That thrill is what you call the hardball.


KURTZ: Now the redesigned "Newsweek" magazine, in search of that all-important buzz, has tapped Colbert to be the guest editor of the issue out today, the first such outsized kibbitzer in its 76-year history.

The subject is certainly serious -- Iraq -- you see that on his head there -- where Colbert will be doing his Comedy Central show this week. "Newsweek" chief John Meacham says, in an editor's note, "Some readers and critic will inevitably object, saying this is a publicity stunt. To them I solemnly say: you are half right."

Well, let me do the math. I'd say they're about 95 percent right.

What's next, Jon Stewart guest anchoring on STATE OF THE UNION, John?

KING: That's a great idea. He'd be funny. I'd get to sleep in.

KURTZ: So you're willing to step aside for Colbert?


KURTZ: Could he sit next to you on the set?

KING: We'd love to have him in. I've been on his show, he's welcome on mine. Jon Stewart is welcome on the program.

That would be fun. It's nice to have a conversation with those guys on. I don't think I'll let them do the show.

KURTZ: He's welcome on mine, too.

Thanks, John.

KING: Thanks, Howie. Have a great week.