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McClellan and the Press Corps; Coverage of Bush's South America Trip

Aired November 6, 2005 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz, we will keep you updated on the tornado in the Midwest through the hour. Now it's not unusual for White House press secretaries to say things that turn out to be, to use an old Watergate, inoperative.
Two years ago Scott McClellan flatly denied that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby were involved in the leaking of Valerie Plame's name to the press. We now know that's not true, since Libby has been indicted for lying about his conversations with Tim Russert and other journalists, and Rove has been implicated but not charged in the CIA leak as well.

But McClellan now insists he can't comment on an ongoing investigation, and that got tempers flaring at a briefing this week.



DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You speak for the president. Your credibility and his credibility is not on criminal trial, but they may very well be on trial with the American public, don't you agree?

MCCLELLAN: No. I'm very confident in the relationship that we have in this room and the trust that has been established between us. This relationship...

GREGORY: ... not about us, it's about what the American people.

MCCLELLAN: That this relationship is built on trust and you know very well that I have worked hard to earn the trust of the people in this room and I think I have earned it.

JOHN ROBERTS, CBS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You say we know you, and we do. But we can't vouch for you. That's not our job. And I wondered, do you really think after...

MCCLELLAN: Well, wait a second. Let me just interject here. I think there are many people in this room I see expressing their own commentary on TV all the time.

ROBERTS: I can't go on TV and say, America believe Scott McClellan, that's not my role.


KURTZ: Joining us now from Brazil, where he's covering President Bush on his trip to South America, CBS News chief White House correspondent John Roberts; here in Washington, Jill Zuckman, Capitol Hill correspondent for The Chicago Tribune; and Frank Sesno, CNN's special correspondent and professor of public policy and communications at George Mason University.

John Roberts, do you believe that Scott McClellan owes the press and the public an apology for his what turned out to be misleading denial in the CIA leak case?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, Howie, I may be one of the people in the minority, but I think that he's getting a really rough deal on this. You know, he doesn't go out and freelance this stuff. He is given his talking points every morning. He is given his walking papers. And he goes out there and he tries to faithfully articulate whatever it is that the White House tells him.

Obviously in October of 2003, he got some pretty bad information. Is it his fault that he conveyed that information? I don't think so. I think the people who are at fault are the ones at fault are the ones who gave him what now appears to be bad information.

Now, of course, McClellan could do what some people be might think to be the honorable thing and say, I'm not going to take this any more, I'm going to quit, but he has got a pretty good job by and large. He has got a mortgage, he has got a wife, probably a family coming down the road at some point, and I don't think he wants to give up a lucrative job like that.

So I think that Scott -- you know, I have known him for a number of years now. I have got a pretty good working relationship with him. I think that he is a truth-teller. I think he is a stand-up guy. And I just think that he was just told to carry somebody else's water, and it just turned out that that water was foul.

KURTZ: But short of quitting, Frank Sesno, and even understanding that he was given...


KURTZ: And even understanding that he was given this information, and he believed it to be true in 2003, doesn't he have some responsibility to acknowledge at one of these daily briefings that, yes, I was mislead, I misspoke, whatever kind of spin he wants to put on it?

SESNO: Yes. I don't think he owes an apology necessarily, but I think he owes an explanation, his job is to talk stand at the podium and talk to the press and by extension talk to the public. He said something two years ago that has turned out to be flat out wrong.

Now he should avoid falling into the feeding frenzy trap. Clearly the White House is going to jump all over him. We saw that. And we have to be careful that that doesn't happen, but yes, I think he owes an explanation, more needs to be said.

JILL ZUCKMAN, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE: You know, this is a larger problem than Scott McClellan. It's the whole White House. And ever since President Bush first ran for president, they have sort of an up- is-down approach to the press. You know, what we tell you is what we tell you and we don't care about anything else. And I think this would have happened to any press secretary.

SESNO: Let me just say one thing to that point. It is bigger than Scott McClellan. And to the extent that credibility now becomes an issue and is increasingly an issue with this administration, Scott McClellan, as the public face of the administration, has to be especially careful and especially sensitive to that.

KURTZ: Another very public face of the administration obviously is senior strategist and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. Now John Roberts, The Washington Post's lead story the other said the top White House aides are privately discussing the future of Karl Rove, and just this morning TIME magazine out with a piece saying that some aides are laying out the reasons they will give for Rove's departure.

What do these pieces have in common? Not a single named source, just unnamed people perhaps trying to nudge Rove out the door. Do you have a problem with that kind of reporting?

ROBERTS: No. But what you have to realize when you are engaging in that kind of reporting is that you are talking to a lot of people at the White House who might be looking to moving up in the pecking order should Karl Rove go.

The sense that I get of it is that Karl is still very much centrally involved in the planning of the White House. They are developing a lot of new themes that they're going to roll out in the State of the Union Address. He's very much at the center of that.

The only thing that I have heard that really seems to have any kind of a traction is this idea that doing politics and doing policy as the deputy chief of staff has spread Karl Roach too thin. And that's why they're running into a lot of these problems.

It's not necessarily that he's distracted by this whole CIA leak investigation, that that, of course, is taking up some of his time, it's this idea that you can't mix policy and politics to the that degree Karl Rove is and then maybe at some point in the future the president has got to pare that back, perhaps take away the deputy chief of staff title and just leave him concentrating on the political angle.

Some Republicans in Congress -- House Republicans have told me, they say, nobody wants Karl to go, he's too valuable to the party. But the problem is, is that the White House doesn't look likes it has got a strategic plan at this point. And that's frustrating everybody in the Republican Party.

KURTZ: But why should the press grant a cloak of anonymity to people who may have their own agendas, maybe don't like Karl Rove, maybe they want his job, to take these pot shots?

SESNO: Why? Because it's the only way they will get the quotes. Why? Because it's the only way you're going to get people to say these things to you. You are not going to come on and put your name on the record and go out there and say, I think Karl Rove should leave, if you are working right next to him.

KURTZ: So you are perfectly comfortable with this?

SESNO: No, I am not perfectly comfortable. I'm perfectly uncomfortable with it.

KURTZ: But you're explaining why it's done.

SESNO: I'm explaining why it's done and that it's done every day, and this is what reporters have to sift through to try to figure out what the agenda is, whether the information is good or pure spin or bogus and how to convey that to the public.

KURTZ: Now Rove is not the only person in the spotlight here and McClellan is not as well. There is also the vice president of the United States. Let's take a look at some of the coverage of Dick Cheney.


JOHN GIBSON, FOX HOST: The New York Times runs an op-ed calling for Cheney to either start talking, to confess, to tell all or resign. Has the Gray Lady gone 'round the bend?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN ANALYST: What role Dick Cheney may have had in deciding to release the information about Valerie Wilson. There's a lot of very pregnant insinuations in that indictment.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC HOST: Did Cheney ask Libby why he testified he had gotten the info from reporters, when Cheney knew full well that Libby had gotten it from Cheney.


KURTZ: Jill Zuckman, reporters are just dying to make this about Cheney, aren't they?

ZUCKMAN: Well, I mean, you know, that this...

KURTZ: You could admit it.

ZUCKMAN: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I mean, people are dying to see how far up it goes. And then a lot of people are wondering, well, why would someone just go off and do these some of these things on their own? I mean, didn't -- isn't there somebody at the top telling them what to do?

Everybody is trying to find out what really happened. And the problem with this White House is, you know, you don't necessarily know what you are being told, whether it's the truth or not and maybe it's going to take a special prosecutor to let you know.

SESNO: And we've all been here before. We were in the middle of this with Clinton and Lewinsky. I was over at the White House through those dog days of Iran-Contra. And drip, drip, you know, increment by increment, it goes deeper and broader and bigger. And the question is, is this another Watergate, or is this just sort of a mountain that has grown out of a mole hill? And I don't think we are going to know for a long time.

KURTZ: Now, part of the spillover effect of these stories and the whole debate about WMD in Iraq, was the other day, the unusual Democratic maneuver that forced the Senate into secret session. Let's take a look at Majority Leader Bill Frist, Minority Leader Harry Reid, and how the anchors covered it.


SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: I have to say, not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: This investigation has been stymied, stopped, obstructions thrown up every step of the way. That's the real slap in the face.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The tone was that nasty.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: It was an extraordinary scene.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the usually courteous Senate, it was a stunning and brazen move.


KURTZ: John Roberts, all the networks led with this bit of kabuki theater, but I can see some viewers saying, you know, this is just a usual Beltway dust-up. What's the big deal?

ROBERTS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's just the Democrats have been sitting back, watching the Republican Party tear itself apart, and they saw an opening, and they took it.

But I think that for Senator Bill Frist, that was his "it's hard" moment. I mean, he didn't look very senatorial when he stood up there and said, you know, I have been slapped upside the head here and this is a real slap in the face to me. It was sort of complain, complain, complain. I mean, Harry Reid used procedural rules in the Senate, he pulled a fast one on him, but I don't think that Reid looked too senatorial when he made those statements -- or sorry, I'm sorry, it should say I don't think Frist looked senatorial when he made those statements.

ZUCKMAN: The Democrats don't have any power for the most part. They can't hold -- they can't call a hearing to investigate. They can't issue subpoenas. They can't really set the agenda very well. So they wanted to shift the discussion back to intelligence, back to the indictment, and away from this new Supreme Court nomination. So here was something that was very unusual, but they did it and they got everybody's attention.

SESNO: And that's the point. They got everybody's attention, played to the cameras. If you can't get something done in the chamber, work the country.

KURTZ: Why didn't the press make an issue, Frank Sesno, of the fact that there was a delay in this promised Republican Senate investigation, or it should be a bipartisan investigation, of the whole WMD issue? Why did it take this stunt -- nothing wrong with stunts in politics -- for the coverage to unfold?

SESNO: I think that's a good question. I think that should be put to most newsrooms. Sometimes it takes a stunt. Sometimes it actually takes those who are in power to set the agenda, and the media don't do it all the time.

KURTZ: All right.

SESNO: And that's what they tried to do.

KURTZ: I need to get a break here. More with our guests in a moment. We will touch on the latest Supreme Court nomination when RELIABLE SOURCES continues.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. John Roberts in Brazil, when President Bush nominated Samuel Alito on Monday, you reported on "The Evening News" that Alito's judicial philosophy so mirrors that of the Supreme Court's hard-liner Antonin Scalia that he's been nicknamed Scalito. Great nickname, everyone has used it, but how did you determine so quickly that these two men's judicial philosophies are in fact so similar?

ROBERTS: It's just something that's been out there, Howie. There's been a lot of analysis that's been done, going all the way back to when it looked like William Rehnquist was going to retire in the fall of last year, and you just take the bulk and the compendium of the information out there and you just pass along what people are saying about it. If he's had the nickname Scalito, it's not something I gave him. I am just reflecting what was out there.

KURTZ: Jill, was it fair for reporters to question Alito's 90- year-old mother, who said he was against abortion because she didn't get the talking points, apparently?

ZUCKMAN: I think really it's -- you know, it's not necessarily fair, but sometimes it can be a little entertaining, and perhaps a window into the person.

SESNO: Hey, she knows him better than anybody else. You know, what mom says goes. If she's off point, he can correct it. KURTZ: We are standing by. We are going to go now to Brazil. President Bush and the president of Brazil are going to have some remarks. He's not -- OK, I see the pictures here. We will have that for you in just a moment, which gives me time to ask Frank Sesno a question.

Liberal groups are already gearing up to make Alito into a terrible, horrible right-wing extremist. Is the press going to follow their lead, because we love attacks by these outside groups?

SESNO: To an extent, sure. You know, sexy attacks, soundbites, they end up on the air and in print, but I think they are going to have to be very careful and bore in on the substance as well.

KURTZ: All right. Let's go now to Brazil, President Bush and the president of Brazil.

We are watching live pictures of the president in Latin America, standing next to President Lula da Silva of Brazil. They are going to make a joint statement, following -- this is sort of a capstone of the president's trip to South America. We are awaiting the beginning of that.

Frank Sesno, while we are waiting for the president, I may have to cut you off here, has this trip, which included some protesters who rioted in an anti-Bush fashion, have gotten the coverage it deserves?

SESNO: Yes, it's a little hard to say, actually.

KURTZ: With so much else going on right now.

SESNO: A lot else going on. What typically happens with these trips, and happened with this one, is something takes place and dominates the coverage. And it eclipses a lot of the substance. In this case, the demonstrations were very big news, but not the only news coming out of here. And I think that's one thing that did overshadow, to some extent, the trade and other hard work these guys were doing.

KURTZ: John Roberts, if you can still hear me, has this been a newsworthy trip for you to cover? You've been with the president (INAUDIBLE).

ROBERTS: The only thing really that's been newsworthy about it, Howie, is the fact that it wasn't a great summit for the president. He didn't really get what he was looking for. The protests were pretty typical.

But in terms of, you know, being able to cover these things, they are very opaque. Yesterday in the filing center, we stared at color bars for six hours, while these secret meeting were going on. So I think it's becoming increasingly less useful to spend all the hundreds of thousands of dollars that we have to, to fly around the world to cover conferences that we are literally getting no information out of. I mean, I don't want to pin it on anybody at the White House, but nobody who was associated with the press operation at the White House yesterday had any information to pass along to us. It wasn't until about a half an hour or 40 minutes after President Bush had actually left for Brazil, that we started to find out what was going on in the talks.

So I really don't know what the use of covering these things on a real-time basis is. We could have sat back in Washington and done an equal job to what we did. The only thing I would have missed was doing a stand-up in that stadium with all of the protesters and say, well, listen to Hugo Chavez.

KURTZ: Plus, the South American food. People sometimes underestimate how much sitting around there is by White House reporters on these trips, when you are waiting -- when there are meetings that you're not allowed into, and you're waiting for that.

This trip has been planned for a while, Jill Zuckman, but all of these things the president has done -- all right, going to go now to Brazil, let's listen in to the two presidents.

LULA DA SILVA, PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL (through translator): ... in Washington. We had several meeting, also at international meetings, during these almost three years that I have been in government. We have exchanged letters, and we have -- we spoke several times over the phone.

Today's visit is a privileged opportunity for us to discuss many issues in our bilateral relations, as well as regional and global issues around which we can work together.

I wish to express publicly a few considerations on relations between the U.S. and Brazil, in the more general framework of our foreign policy. I have often said that our foreign policy is not just a way of projecting Brazil into the rest of the world. It is also a fundamental element for our nation's project of development. During these 34 months of my administration, we have worked very hard to...

KURTZ: Frank Sesno, we seem to have lost the transmission there. I hope we will be able to get it back, but I did want to ask you about John Roberts' comments from Brazil. He obviously was expressing the frustration of a reporter who is traveling with the president, because you're not really with the president, you're usually in a gym somewhere or a holding area. Do you think we are getting to the point where perhaps these -- the networks will stop spending the money to cover these foreign trips?

SESNO: I hope not. I mean, you know, I feel like saying, been there, done that, because I've traveled with a lot of presidents, a lot of times, been in a lot of filing centers. They're ugly rooms. Nothing much happens, and you wait for hours and hours and hours. Sometimes that's the nature of the news.

But the fact is, you know, the president of the United States, America's relationships with that part of the world, how other leaders view America, and how trade is going to take place, where economic growth is going to happen, where the oil is going to come from -- these are issues that actually matter. And we may be inconvenienced and it may take us a while to get the information, and this White House does not treat reporters very well. But you have got to be there and you've got to pound away and try to get the story.

KURTZ: What do you gain by being there, if you are just getting the official spin afterwards? You -- couldn't you...

SESNO: Well, the first George Bush often said 90 percent of life is just showing up, quoting Chauncey, right, the Gardener. But what you get by being there is you get some access to U.S. officials. Not much, granted, it's frustrating, and you're often isolated in different parts of the hotel or the complex or whatever, but you also get access to people from the region. You learn, you see. You are a reporter.

KURTZ: You have a thought about this?

ZUCKMAN: You know, the fact is you never -- I mean, it's not fun sitting around for hours and hours and hours. But you never know what's going to happen, especially with these presidents. With these riots down there, I mean, it could have gotten ugly.

KURTZ: That's the other thing, and it's sort of a (INAUDIBLE) watch, because you never know what's going to happen.

I need to get a break. Thank you very much to all our guests, including John Roberts in Brazil.

Coming up, a top Supreme Court reporter on the nomination of Samuel Alito when we come back.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Joining me now, Joan Biskupic, Supreme Court reporter for "USA Today," and author of the new book, "Sandra Day O'Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice."

Samuel Alito's nomination. The press immediately zeroed in on this 1991 ruling as an appellate court judge to uphold the Pennsylvania law requiring women to notify their husbands if they were having an abortion. There were some exceptions. Was this oversimplified in the reporting on it, that somehow we could therefore paint him as opposed to abortion?

JOAN BISKUPIC, USA TODAY: Oh, well, first of all, it was important to single it out. If you could say he was definitely going to be opposed to abortion, no way. You can't get that from the ruling. But what you can get from the ruling is his approach to interpreting statute and interpreting a woman's right to privacy, as it was at the Supreme Court pre-1992 when the court decided Casey.

What he did was he took what the Supreme Court had done as precedent and narrowly interpreted it. It wasn't crazy. It wasn't radical. He was the only dissent in that case from his own court, so it was important to focus on it, but you can't read his entire jurisprudence into that one opinion. KURTZ: Well, isn't there a danger that the press does? In fact, in your story in "USA Today," you said that there's a more complex portrait of Alito than is likely to be found in TV ads and sound bites...


KURTZ: I mean, I think to the average person watching TV, it's like, he must be against abortion. Look what he did, woman has to notify the husband.

BISKUPIC: Well, I think the responsible way to do it is to report on the opinion, but then also say there's a broader individual here. And remember, he was a lower court judge then. He was bound by certain precedent.

But then also when he comes to the Supreme Court -- and this is what we like to explain to our readers -- is that he might not be bound.

So you want to show what he's done in the past, suggests where that might go in the future, and then also remind viewers of how wrong individuals have sometimes been when they tried to typecast a judge as a lower court member.

KURTZ: Who turned out to be very different once on the high court.

BISKUPIC: Exactly.

KURTZ: Should journalists also assess what kind of person a Supreme Court nominee is? There was a law professor in "The New Republic" who said that Samuel Alito is a nice guy, not a bomb-thrower like Antonin Scalia, so he will be more persuasive among his colleagues, and therefore more dangerous to liberals.

BISKUPIC: I don't know if I agree with that, but I do think it's important to look at how somebody is going to fit in. Justice Byron White used to say, once you change one justice, you change the whole court. So this individual is going to change the dynamic at the court, for good or for bad.

KURTZ: You suddenly have a nominee, an appellate -- a federal appellate judge with 15 years of decisions. How do you go about getting a handle on all that?

BISKUPIC: You do a lot of reading. You read and read and read, and you talk to people who came before him. You talk to his clerks. You talk to lots of folks around him to give context around those opinions. That's the important thing, the context of the opinions.

KURTZ: Have you already read up on Alito, because he was one of the final lists, as predicted by the press, which as we know is often wrong?

BISKUPIC: Right, right. I had read up on him, but the other way I've seen him is, remember, I'm at the Supreme Court all the time watching lower court rulings come up. So I'm looking where he's dissented, where he's joined. And he -- I already knew he was a force. He's been around for 15 years, as you say. So you're sort of paying attention to his rulings as they go along. It makes it a little bit easier to understand him from the get-go once he's named.

KURTZ: How much will the assault by liberal groups, which has already started -- they're going going to spend millions of dollars on ads, basically to demonize Sam Alito, how much will that drive the coverage?

BISKUPIC: I don't see how it can really super drive the coverage, because the liberal groups have been out there screaming about a lot of candidates. What they can do is they can bring forward some things that maybe people haven't observed. Maybe they can influence senators in some way, but I don't think it should drive the coverage.

For goodness sakes, I think what people should do is look at the rulings and look at the whole picture and factor in what the liberal groups are saying but not let that drive it.

KURTZ: This is different from covering Harriet Miers, who had no judicial record, is it not?

BISKUPIC: Yes, exactly. With Harriet Miers, we were desperately trying to get a handle on what kind of woman she would be. I had actually interviewed her for an hour on tape and kept listening to that tape, thinking, "I still didn't know what she's like."

Whereas with Sam Alito, he's got it all down on paper.

KURTZ: What journalists call a paper trail. Joan Biskupic, "USA Today," thanks very much for joining us.

BISKUPIC: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: Let's stand by. We may be able to go back to the president. We had a problem with that transmission earlier. Let's listen in, in Brazil.


KURTZ: President Bush heaping praise on his host, President Lula Da Silva, in Brazil. Now let's go to Betty Nguyen in the CNN Center in Atlanta for a check on the hour's top stories.



We turn now to Tuesday's special election in California called by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. And joining us from San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the "San Francisco chronicle," and in Los Angeles, Mark Barabak, who covers state politics for the "Los Angeles Times."

Debra Saunders, when Schwarzenegger was elected two years ago the press gave him kind of the movie star treatment. The Terminator was going to save the state. And now he's down below 40 percent in the polls, and he's covered as, I think, just another political hack in Sacramento.

How much does the press have responsibility for this plummeting of the governor's fortunes?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, I think the press has a lot of responsibility, because the coverage of this special election, I think it's been pretty superficial.

Here's the standard story: people don't want a special election. The polls show that Arnold Schwarzenegger's -- his big four initiatives are going to lose. Teachers are angry at him; nurses are angry at him. All he has is staged events, until the last two weeks when he didn't have staged events.

And -- and we're leaving out, sort of -- we're covering the script but not the plot. We're leaving out all the things that are happening, all the things that are the meat of this issue.

You know, the "Los Angeles Times," which is a left-leaning editorial page, endorsed three out of Arnold's big four. The "San Francisco Chronicle," my paper, liberal paper, endorsed two out of four. And we're leaving the substance and the meat of this election out, as we're covering the fact that people don't like Arnold Schwarzenegger as much as they used to.

KURTZ: OK. Mark Barabak, what do you make of this accusation of pretty superficial coverage of these four hotly disputed ballot measures?

MARK Z. BARABAK, CORRESPONDENT, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, I would pretty much disagree, about 100 percent. I don't think the coverage has changed. I think the circumstances have changed.

The governor has done a lot of very unpopular things in the last year: calling a special election, proposing a pension plan that would have taken benefits away from widows and orphans, which was a huge public relations blunder. His own people will tell you.

But my point is, the coverage hasn't changed, the circumstances have changed. And as a result the coverage reflects, and I underscore reflects, the events. Despite what people might think, we don't make this stuff up. The governor has done things people don't like. We put it in the paper. That's why his popularity has gone down.

KURTZ: Mark, big story in your newspaper this morning, Warren Beatty and Anette Bening trying to crash -- crash a Schwarzenegger rally, being turned away. A lot of cameras there. This strikes me as the perfect California political story. It's all movie stars.

BARABAK: It does, but I would point out also in our papers, a huge, full page amplification of every ballot measure, who's for it, who's against it. I mean, right, we had a story about that. We had a larger overview of the election. And as I said, we had a voter guide that goes into minute, eye-glazing detail into each and every one of these things. So you know, without shilling my paper, I think we gave you everything this morning: the glitz and the substance.

KURTZ: I want to take a look at an ad that the governor made in which he seems to admit -- admit having made some mistakes, and then I'm going to ask Debra Saunders about it. Let's take a look at Governor Schwarzenegger.


GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: Two years ago you elected me to change Sacramento and to put California back on track. I've had a lot to learn, and sometimes I learned the hard way. But my heart is in this, and I want to do right by you.


KURTZ: Debra Saunders, Mark Barabak makes the point that not only are the governor's rating down below 40 percent, but most of these measures that he has pushed in a special election, whether it's redistricting, or restricting teacher tenure or limiting union spending on campaigns, also if the polls are to be believed, may not pass, so isn't the press coverage reflecting that reality?

SAUNDERS: Well, I mean, the press coverage also, when the recall came out, said people didn't want a recall. They thought that that election was a waste of money and everything else. And as we know, the recall happened, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor.

I don't want to sound -- I mean, look, the governor has made huge blunders. He was around 70 percent when his people came up with this genius idea, which obviously is in big, big trouble, and now he's -- he's in trouble.

And let me add, his team has not helped themselves. I mean, they would look reporters in the eye and say, "What you write doesn't matter." So they've been arrogant. And I see why Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing this ad.

But I think that we've done a disservice to people. I mean, Mark mentioned what he calls Arnold putting together a pension move that would take away benefits for widows. Well, we was trying to change the pension system for public safety employees and, in one measure, it didn't have benefits -- death benefits. But that's the kind of superficial thing that we're talking about, where we're not really talking about -- there's reason this state has had all these financial problems.


SAUNDERS: We're leaving that out of our coverage.

KURTZ: Mark Barabak, a few weeks ago the governor gave interviews to a lot of papers in the state but not the "Los Angeles Times." And one of his strategists, Mike Murphy, sent the following e-mail to one of your colleagues at the "Times": "Your paper is so deep in the anti-Arnold tank now that I think we are wasting our time dealing with you."

What can you tell us about this -- these frayed relations between the governor and his people and the state's largest newspaper?

BARABAK: Yes, it's funny. I'm glad you brought that up, because as you well know, you did a piece about Mike's e-mail, about the "black-balling," quote unquote, of the "L.A. Times." And guess what news organization a couple days later had a one-on-one exclusive interview with the governor? It was the "Los Angeles Times."

And you know, his people are doing what press secretaries should do. They're pushing back; they're defending their guy. If we write stories that don't make their boss look good, they complain.

But you know what? We have very good relations with -- I know Mike, all of his people. They do a good job. They're very professional; they're very fair.

I should say most of the coverage done by our Sacramento bureau, Peter Nicholas, Bob Salladay, have done the bulk of it. I'm kind of a kibitzer. But they return my phone calls; they return my e-mail. They let me pick up the check when I take them to lunch and dinner. So we have great relations with them.

KURTZ: Glad you're getting meals out of this. I should mention that my wife worked for Schwarzenegger's school initiative in 2002 back before we were married.

Debra Saunders, is Schwarzenegger's greatest assets, his celebrity, also becoming a liability in that the press makes every story about him, and that takes away from what should be a substantive debate about union spending or teacher tenure or redistricting?

SAUNDERS: Yes. I mean, his persona is part of the problem. And when he told California -- when nurses were protesting him at the Governor's Conference of Women last year, and he said, "They're just angry at me because I kicked their butts," that was a horrendous mistake that he did not make up for right away.

That's -- but the other thing that's really hurting him is there's no anti-Arnold. In other words, if people were looking at higher taxes, no tax hikes, driver's licenses for legal immigrants, no driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, he'd be higher in the polls. Right now it's just pure Arnold bashing, because he's the only game in town.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Mark Barabak -- we've got about 20 seconds here -- the unions representing public employees, and many Democrats, have orchestrated a very concerted campaign against the governor, and I would think that's driving the press coverage, as well. BARABAK: Yes, you know, Debra makes a really good point. You know, up to now it's been Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor, versus Arnold Schwarzenegger the recall candidate. He's inevitably going to lose. Next year it will be Arnold against someone else, and that comparison he does stand to win. So I wouldn't read too much into what happens on Tuesday either way.

KURTZ: Maybe we'll have you back to talk about that campaign next year. Debra Saunders, Mark Barabak, thanks for joining us.

A word about next week's show when we return.


KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern. My guests will be fired CBS producer Mary Mapes. We'll talk about her role in last year's discredited "60 Minutes" story on President Bush's National Guard service.

"LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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