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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Coverage of Cheney's Accidental Shooting of Hunting Partner; Interview With 'Dateline's' Chris Hansen
Aired February 19, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Self-inflicted wound. Why did Dick Cheney ignore the media and the public for four days after accidentally shooting his hunting companion? Did FOX's Brit Hume hold the vice president accountable? And the pounding of Scott McClellan. Is it a battle over the secrets of administration...
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Let's go to a new subject.
KURTZ: ... or a White House press corps out of control?
Investigation or entrapment? "Dateline NBC" helps catch online sexual predators seeking preteen victims. But should a news program be working with volunteer impersonators and the police? We'll ask "Dateline's" Chris Hansen.
Plus, Wayne Gretzky ices the press.
WAYNE GRETZKY, COACH, PHOENIX COYOTES: I'm not involved.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on Dick Cheney, the shooting, and the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.
The world learned that the vice president had accidentally shot his hunting companion a full day after it happened from the "Corpus Christi Caller-Times." Cheney made no public comment for four days, and the White House press corps hammered spokesman Scott McClellan.
Each network, in fact, made sure to feature its own correspondent hammering McClellan. On "NBC Nightly News," it was David Gregory.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The vice president of the United States accidentally shoots a man, and he feels that it's appropriate for a ranch owner who would witness this to tell the local Corpus Christi newspaper and not the White House press corps at large or notify the public in a national way?
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: On ABC's "World News Tonight" it was Martha Raddatz.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Saturday night you did not know the vice president was involved?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: On the "CBS Evening News" it was Jim Axelrod.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIM AXELROD, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Is it appropriate for a private citizen to be the person to disseminate the information that the vice president of the United States has been -- has shot someone?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But even as Cheney's 78-year-old friend, Harry Whittington, suffered a minor heart attack from the birdshot lodged in his body, some commentators questioned whether the media were going overboard?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: The White House press corps is frustrated, angry at a lot of things, and they took it all out on McClellan, made him the punching bag in their gymnasium today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: On Wednesday, Cheney spoke to FOX's Brit Hume, taking full responsibility for the shooting, and defending his position not to make a public announcement about the wounding of his friend.
Whittington told reporters Friday he felt badly about the accident.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HARRY WHITTINGTON, SHOOTING VICTIM: My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Ahead we'll talk to CBS's Bill Plante and other journalists, but earlier I spoke to President Bush's former press secretary, Ari Fleischer.
KURTZ: Ari Fleischer, welcome.
ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: Give me short answers, if you would, to just these first two questions. A week ago Saturday, Dick Cheney accidentally shoots his friend in a hunting accident. Shouldn't he have put out that information that night to the national press?
FLEISCHER: Either that night or the next morning, in my judgment.
KURTZ: Would you have advised him, if you were still the press secretary, to go before the cameras, make a statement, rather than letting the ranch owner, Katharine Armstrong, call the local paper?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the vice president was right to ask her to do it. She was a witness, and I think there's a lot of merit to what he said about that, but in addition to her, I think there is an obligation on the president and the vice president to explain something of that serious and to do so relatively quickly.
KURTZ: By saying nothing for four days, did Vice President Cheney make all of this into a far bigger and more embarrassing and more politically damaging story, in your view?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think this could have and should have been a one- or two-day story. It was a serious story. So I don't know that it would have gone away instantly, but it could have and should have gone away much quicker, and so I do differ with the vice president about how it was handled.
I think the issue has now faded. There are other issues involved in terms of how the press covered it, but I do think that the vice president should have and could have announced this either Saturday night or Sunday morning.
KURTZ: Let me read you something from Dick Cheney's interview the other day with Brit Hume of FOX News. He said, "I had a bit of a feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them. They didn't like the idea that we called the 'Corpus Christi Caller-Times' instead of the 'New York Times'."
Here's an interview in which Dick Cheney was obviously distressed (ph). He's talking about this was one of the worst days of his life. But he still couldn't resist taking a shot at the "New York Times." Why does he so strongly dislike the national press?
FLEISCHER: Well, I don't know. You know, I worked for President Bush, and I think the vice president just has a different style, a different manner. He's not running for office again, and so unlike most sitting vice presidents who cultivate the press because they need them for their next run for office, the vice president doesn't.
The vice president's job is to be an adviser to President Bush, and I know the president has tremendous faith and confidence in his advice. And so I think he has a different job description from most sitting vice presidents, and that's created tension between himself and the press corps. KURTZ: Did you ever as press secretary suggest to him, gently perhaps, that he ought to be more open with the press, that he ought to do more interviews, that it would help him and the administration to do so?
FLEISCHER: Howard, I had my hands full dealing with the White House press corps and President Bush. So my job wasn't to be giving advice to the vice president. He had a good staff whose job it was to do that. So I don't recall ever having had to do that.
KURTZ: OK. But here's...
FLEISCHER: There may have been something, but I don't recall it.
KURTZ: Here's a guy who's elected by the voters, whose salary is paid by the taxpayers. He operates basically behind the scenes, never holds news conferences. He grants relatively few interviews. He doesn't seem to view himself as accountable.
For example, in the indictment of his former top aide, Scooter Libby, the CIA leak case, in which you were also questioned, he hasn't publicly commented on that either. Doesn't all that hurt not just him, but an administration that's often accused of being excessively secret?
FLEISCHER: You know, Howard, I remember the 2000 campaign when President Bush picked Dick Cheney, and I was in Austin as the spokesman on the campaign, and the president made the point to me in private, and I think it's true today, too, in public, that people vote on the basis of who's at the top of the ticket. People vote for the policies, or people support or oppose the policies of the president.
KURTZ: But he's still is the vice president of the United States.
FLEISCHER: Sure, but the question is what accountability, what role does he have? And he is accountable. I think he does do interview. He did the interview with FOX yesterday, albeit in my judgment tardy. He sits down for lengthy interviews with Tim Russert often, as his chosen format, on "Meet the Press." So I think people make too much of that issue involving the vice president.
He's not the president. He is entitled have a different style. It wouldn't have been in this case have been the style I recommended, but it is his judgment in the end. And people will make their opinions about him, but principally about the president based on the president's policies, I think.
KURTZ: In this situation with all the worldwide media attention on this hunting accident, would you have advised him to do just one interview with FOX News?
FLEISCHER: No, I would have advised the president -- vice president to do just what I said here. I think it would have been better served if they could have gotten it out Saturday night. If, because of accuracy and because of tending to the victim, they had to wait until Sunday morning, you -- I think that would have been a legitimate decision. But it still should have been out on a Sunday morning, in my judgment.
KURTZ: All right. Now this has been a very contentious week in your old home, the White House press room.
KURTZ: Let's take a look at some of the questions that your successor, Scott McClellan got, first from NBC's David Gregory and then from ABC's Martha Raddatz.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: I'm not getting answers here, Scott. I'm trying to be forthright with you, but don't tell me that you're giving us complete answers when you're not actually answering the question, because everybody knows what is an answer and what is not an answer.
MCCLELLAN: David, now you want to make this about you, and it's not about you. It's about what happened.
RADDATZ: Were you asking questions? I mean, what were your concerns about a hunting accident and the vice president was there, if he wasn't involved?
MCCLELLAN: We went through this yesterday. I'm not going to...
RADDATZ: I know we went through it, but we didn't get that answer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Ari Fleischer, did the White House correspondents have a legitimate beef there, or in your view were they going overboard?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think both. I think the White House correspondents were right on this one. They did have a legitimate beef. They should have been told about it. But I think you can be right and still go bonkers, and I think that's what happened here.
KURTZ: Why are they going bonkers?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think they've just made this too big a story, too much the focus, too much the flashpoint. Is this really what dominates people's lives when we have Iran enriching uranium, when there are so some other controversies around the world, about the path that this news flowed?
After all, the American people were told about it Sunday night on the network news. It's just they weren't told about it through the White House press corps.
In my judgment it would have been better if they had been told about it through the White House press corps, but I do think there is an element here of the press going bonkers because they didn't get the story, somebody else did, and they wished it had been them.
FLEISCHER: It should have been them, but that does feed into their anger.
KURTZ: AT Tuesday's briefing, Scott McClellan, your former deputy, a question came up about the health of Harry Whittington, and he said we wish him well; he's in our hopes and prayers. What Scott McClellan didn't disclose, but which he knew, was that Harry Whittington had suffered a minor heart attack. Was that a misstep?
FLEISCHER: Well, issues dealing with anything medical I do think it's appropriate to let that come from a doctor or physician, because my experience, is as soon as I would announce something medical, I would get pummeled with questions that were important medical questions I couldn't have possibly answered.
So what you also have to deal with, Howard, in the modern media world is the hyper speed with which news travels. Where people say if you delay for two hours, which Scott didn't announce the medical condition. It came out later...
FLEISCHER: ... in the same news cycle. But people now say with the Internet and with the cables and the competitive nature of the media, two hours is a cover up. This is where I think the press can go bonkers and can go too far too fast, even though they're fundamentally right about the basic failure to disclose to them.
KURTZ: We have just a few seconds. "New York Times" columnist Bob Herbert the other day actually called on Vice President Cheney to resign over this, and many other incidents: everybody (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Iraq and Katrina and other issues. What do you make of that?
FLEISCHER: Well, this is where I think people have just gone too far in making something out of this. It's nonsense.
And I really think I'm fortunate I no longer live in the crucible of Washington, where everything is so hot and so important.
And most Americans, I really think, view the way the media got the story as a secondary issue. They saw the story themselves Sunday night. And so I think this is substantially a beltway story, and now you have the worst partisans, such as Bob Herbert, using this as an excuse just to beat up Dick Cheney once more.
KURTZ: All right. Doesn't sound like you miss being in that press room. Ari Fleischer, thanks very much for joining us.
FLEISCHER: I don't.
KURTZ: Thank you.
FLEISCHER: Thank you. (END VIDEOTAPE)
KURTZ: And joining us now here in Washington, Bill Plante, a White House correspondent for CBS News; Dana Milbank, who writes the "Washington Sketch" column for the "Washington Post"; and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Candy Crowley, CNN's senior political correspondent.
Bill Plante, has this whole Cheney story being exacerbated by hostility between the vice president and the national press corps?
BILL PLANTE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, CBS NEWS: The vice president and the White House have both used the constant press coverage of this story as a wedge. It plays to the prejudices of the people who are predisposed not to like us, and it's one way to distract attention from what happened, which was that the White House, or the vice president, actually, didn't get this reported until three days later. I mean...
KURTZ: You say you're being used as a foil?
PLANTE: Sure we are.
KURTZ: Dana Milbank, isn't it true that most journalists, White House reporters in particular, are not big fans of Dick Cheney, and that is coloring the coverage to some degree?
DANA MILBANK, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": I certainly can't deny it, and it pains me to say this, but I think Ari Fleischer's assessment of the situation is correct. The White House played it very badly, and there was a lot of overkill on the part of the press.
I think that's because this story allowed us to talk about other issues that have been bothering the press corps below the surface for awhile. Administration secrecy, trying to get at a sense is there tension between the president and the vice president?
KURTZ: So in other words, the press corps seized on this unfortunate accident to vent its anger and its frustration about the whole record of the vice president and the way he also kind of stiffs the press?
MILBANK: Not to say it wasn't a legitimate story in the first place.
MILBANK: But certainly, it allowed other issues to come into play.
KURTZ: Candy Crowley, on Dana Milbank's point, a lot of commentators saying that Cheney's handling of this hunting incident has been used as a metaphor for his handling of the Iraq war, the secret energy task force and all that. Is that fair criticism or unfair criticism in this context?
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, metaphors exist in journalism. I mean, it's one of the things we live for.
But listen, it's -- you know, I think it's -- there's like a -- it's like insurance. There's a preexisting condition here, and that preexisting condition is, in particular, in the vice president's office, a not very media-friendly vice president, who has had various things come up that the press corps would love to talk to him about.
So when -- you know, the price is higher when something happens and there's a preexisting condition. And so, yes, is it a metaphor? It is. Nonetheless, it's a legitimate story in and of itself. He handled it badly. I think anybody in the White House will tell you he handled it badly. That doesn't mean there weren't excesses elsewhere.
KURTZ: All right. Bill Plante, why do you think that Dick Cheney chose only to speak to FOX News and Brit Hume?
PLANTE: First of all, he regarded that as a friendly venue, and I think he trusts Brit, and there's no reason he shouldn't. Brit is a fine reporter and a fair reporter. But it was very easy for him to do one broadcast and for his staff and his advisers to say, "OK, that's it. That will get played everywhere. That's all that has to be done." Rather than a press conference, for example.
KURTZ: Was that a solid interview or was it a sympathetic interview?
PLANTE: It was a solid interview. I have no problem with the interview.
KURTZ: Obviously, the vice president could have given an interview to one of the broadcast networks and reached a far bigger audience.
MILBANK: Could have done a web chat on WashingtonPost.com.
KURTZ: I'm sure we could think of lots of alternatives. Does the White House regard FOX News as kind of a safe haven when it wants to get a message out?
MILBANK: Well, of course, they do. The stereotypical show in the past, I think, would have been Larry King, but in the sense that FOX News is perceived as more friendly, they had the benefit that the rest of us in the press corps trust Brit Hume as being a fair journalist. Plus, it had the advantage of being FOX, which is seen as a friendly network.
KURTZ: All right. Candy Crowley, I want to play some tape from Cheney adviser Mary Matalin on "The Today Show." She talked about this strategy of only doing it once, only doing it with FOX. Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARY MATALIN, CHENEY ADVISER: We're not trying to please the "L.A. Times" or the media. We're trying to use -- get through the media to get to the public, and the public seems to be satisfied with the accounting that they got.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So from a political point of view, was that a good strategy, in that the vice president didn't have to expose himself to, say, a news conference or all kinds of questions from overheated, over-caffeinated reporters?
CROWLEY: Well, and also he didn't have to expose himself to many questions, although Brit got some in, about other issues. So of course it works.
You know, to me it's never been a winning issue when the press corps, whether it's the White House press corps or the Washington press corps, or any other press corps, says "but he didn't talk to us." I mean, whether it's valid or not doesn't matter. The perception is that we're whining.
And the fact of the matter is we've gone through this with Kerry. We've gone through this with Gore. We went through this with George Bush when he was running. And you hammer and hammer and hammer and say let's have a press conference. Let's have a press conference.
They want to get through what they call the filter, and the filter is us. And if they can do it in -- with one single shot, why not? Of course, it's good politics.
KURTZ: All right.
CROWLEY: It's also where they believe most of their audience is.
KURTZ: All right. Well, there will be no whining on this show. We need to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk about the atmospherics in the White House press room. Stay with us.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Bill Plante, we've all watched these very contentious briefings with spokesman Scott McClellan this week. Why does there seem to be so much anger and frustration in that White House press room?
PLANTE: Because it's in the interest of any White House, and all White House reporters assume this, to get a bad story out quickly and get their own spin on it. They didn't do it.
Scott McClellan managed to let us know, at least twice, that his advice was that they should do it, but the vice president chose not to. And he managed to insinuate to us that the president would have preferred that the vice president get it out. But he has no control, because this vice president, unlike any other in memory, is free to do what he wants. He's his own independent adviser.
KURTZ: Is there any danger when it looks like the journalists are badgering him -- Candy used the word "whining" -- when there is this sort of -- this sort of pummeling?
PLANTE: Sure. Absolutely.
KURTZ: Why do you all do it?
PLANTE: I mean, we don't come off well. But most of the people in there, most at least, are not thinking about how they look on C- SPAN or CNN as the briefing continues. They're mostly just trying to get answers. They all want to have a moment.
KURTZ: Dana Milbank, Cheney says the national press is just upset because he had the ranch owner give the story to the "Corpus Christi Caller-Times" rather than to you and your self-important colleagues.
MILBANK: I feel very badly about that. Look, I mean, that's the populist argument. Scott McClellan was doing a version of that in the briefing room when he was saying, "Look, I'm moving on to the priorities of the American people. You all can talk about this."
I actually went through Nexis. They were almost the exact works that McCurry and Lockhart used to use under very different circumstances.
KURTZ: During the Clinton years, during the Lewinsky scandal.
MILBANK: And of course, they succeed. The press always looks awful. They will once again make us look awful.
But if I could add to what Bill was saying, the subtext of what's going on there is Scott McClellan found out about this 12 hours after the fact, and if the press feels that their designated spokesman doesn't know what's going on in the building, they get angry.
KURTZ: Candy Crowley, conservatives have been arguing rather vociferously in recent days that the Washington press corps has been pumping this up; it is, after all, just an unfortunate hunting accident. Let's take a look at Bill O'Reilly on FOX News and how he put it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": The press is making a big deal out of this because they despise Dick Cheney. Generally speaking, the media feels Cheney is arrogant and distant, but this hatred has gone too far.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Candy, your reaction?
CROWLEY: He's entitled to his opinion. You know, look, there is no way for the press corps to win this. Taking -- and it happens, and Bill and Dana can tell you, it happens in every administration.
The left thinks you're not tough enough, so they're saying, "Well, why weren't these people this tough when we were looking for weapons of mass destruction?"
The right thinks you're too tough and you hate everyone.
So there's -- you can only do what Bill suggested, and that is ask your questions, you know, try to get the best answers you can, and move on. And people are going to -- it's a Rorschach's test: people are going to see what they already believe.
KURTZ: Well, it sounds like a very frustrating situation in that you, Bill Plante, and your colleagues who cover the White House are trying to do your job, to try to elicit information, were trying to find out about this rather unusual situation. I don't think it's happened in about 200 years where the vice president of the United States shoots someone.
And yet, you're being portrayed as overheated, as hating Dick Cheney, as not caring about the concerns of the American people. It looks like they put you in a box.
PLANTE: Of course they have, but that's where we'll always be.
KURTZ: Why can't you get out of that box?
PLANTE: There's no reason to, actually, because our job is to ask the questions. and in today's overheated media world, where the facts can be repeated once or twice on face value, but then they echo back and forth and bounce around in the echo chamber of 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it's always going to look overdone.
KURTZ: Is one of the problems that the television correspondents are playing to the cameras? I mean, these briefings for years and years and years were not televised until the Clinton administration.
MILBANK: Oh, I think Bill Plante handled it admirably. Certainly, I think the briefings have deteriorated since television came in there, and, in fact, the morning briefing, called the gaggle, is a much more civilized affair in general, where I think you can get some better information.
PLANTE: But not this week.
MILBANK: Not this particular week.
KURTZ: It deteriorated in the sense that they're not useful vehicles for getting information, but they've become more like theater?
MILBANK: Right. And this is why it can go on for 45 minutes, and Scott McClellan is going to say the same thing over and over again, because Scott McClellan he knows everybody is trying to get that different soundbite out of him. So we're watching -- it becomes all theater.
PLANTE: But even before the briefings were televised, very little useful information passed in public. Most useful information that reporters get is gotten in private, usually, on background. KURTZ: Away from the cameras, that is. All right. We need to get another break. When we come back, some final thoughts on the media and Dick Cheney and the hunting story.
KURTZ: Welcome back.
Candy Crowley, every administration tries to stamp out controversy by saying the country doesn't care; it's just your reporters; it's time to move on. Will the press now let this hunting story drop?
CROWLEY: I think unless something else comes up. I mean, you can't drop a story if it's ongoing. I mean, if the shootee gets worse, if we find out that some part of this story is not correct. But yes, I think it moves on. But what best helps a story move on is another story comes along. My guess is another story will come along.
KURTZ: All right. Well, Harry Whittington looked in pretty good shape when he spoke to reporters at the hospital on Friday.
Dana Milbank, you wore this orange safety getup on MSNBC the other day. I think we've got a picture of it. Critics say this was showing your bias against Dick Cheney. Any second thoughts about that?
MILBANK: Well, yes, perhaps we'll skip the hat next time. The right wing thought it was biased. The left wing thought I was not taking a very serious crime seriously enough. But I was really just celebrating the colors of the Dutch national ice skating team.
KURTZ: I missed that.
Bill Plante, is the relationship between the White House and the press corps now as tense as you've ever seen it, after now five and a half years in the Bush administration?
PLANTE: I would say that I've seen it as tense in the Clinton administration and at times in the Reagan administration around Iran- Contra. It's an ebb and flow situation, and it always will be.
KURTZ: And it doesn't impair your ability to do your job?
PLANTE: Some days it's easier than others, but generally speaking, no.
KURTZ: All right. Obviously, you have to have a thick skin to work there. Bill Plante and Dana Milbank, Candy Crowley, thanks very much for joining us.
Ahead in our next half hour, "Dateline NBC's" Chris Hansen defends the program's online sting against sexual predators who prey on children.
Plus, our "Blogger Buzz": Arianna Huffington and Powerline's Scott Johnson on the Cheney flap and the latest Abu Ghraib photos.
And are the Olympics off limits when it comes to tough questions from the press? Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky seems to think so. We'll skate into that one after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, good morning. I'm Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center in Atlanta.
Now in the news, the Defense Department confirms 10 U.S. troops died in that helicopter crash Friday off the coast of Africa. The dead include eight Marines and two Air Force personnel. Two other crew members did survive. Military officials tell CNN it appears the two transport helicopters were involved in a midair collision.
Temperatures below freezing, wind chill below zero, wicked winds, and no power. That is the story as a big chill grips the country from New England to the Rockies and south into Arkansas. At least four deaths are blamed on this winter blast.
It is a dream come true for whoever holds the only winning ticket in last's record Powerball draw. That ticket, worth a record $365 million. It was sold at a U-Stop in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, so check your tickets.
Well, the party is noticeably smaller, but masks, beads, and cakes are readily available. Mardi Gras is off to a festive start in New Orleans. More parades are scheduled for today. The celebration continues through February 28.
We'll have more headlines in just 30 minutes. RELIABLE SOURCES continues right after the break.
HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR, RELIABLE SOURCES: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We turn now to a hidden camera investigation and a disturbing subject, Internet sexual predators, men looking to meet children for sex.
"Dateline NBC" recently aired its third installment of "To Catch a Predator." An online impersonator, acting as a decoy, lures the men, and they arrive at a house in Southern California, expecting to meet a 12- or a 13-year-old. Instead, they meet "Dateline's" Chris Hansen.
CHRIS HANSEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT, DATELINE (on camera): What it sounds like, Robert, is that you wanted to come here to have a sexual liaison with a 13-year-old boy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it wasn't my intention.
HANSEN: What was your intention?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just to talk, whatever.
HANSEN: The problem, Robert, is that your history would contradict that, given the fact that you are a registered sex offender. Isn't that correct?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
HANSEN: In fact, that's you, right there. Right?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Correct.
HANSEN (voice over): In fact, Lyons (ph) was arrested only five months ago for a lewd sex act with a person 15 or younger.
(On camera): So, you had intercourse with a under-aged boy?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
KURTZ: And joining us now from New York is "Dateline's" Chris Hansen. Welcome.
HANSEN: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: Everyone would agree that sexual predators absolutely ought to be taken off the streets. But in this case, you were working with a group that practiced deception in order to lure these men to that house. Did that make you uncomfortable in any way?
HANSEN: Well, the people at Perverted Justice, the computer watchdog group that you're referring to, you know, are really good at posing as 12- and 13-year-olds online. They are, in fact, decoys. It would be dangerous for them to use real kids, they believe. So that's why they use decoys. And they feel that this is the only way that they can catch the thousands and thousands of men who are online preying on children everyday.
KURTZ: Would you have personally gone online and impersonated a 13-year-old boy?
HANSEN: I don't think that that's necessarily my position as a journalist, nor do I have the skill to do that. And that is why we, you know, sought out Perverted Justice to be a part of the story, because they know what they're doing. They at least, in our experience, do it well. And they do it in a fair way.
KURTZ: But by working with this group you are -- and I'm sure you've debated this -- you are explicitly acquiescing in the use of deception in order to catch people who are doing something wrong. In other words, people could say, "Well, you're a journalist and you're endorsing lying in service of a greater cause."
HANSEN: Well, what we're doing is we're showing how a watchdog group works, how it employs decoys to catch predators, potential predators, online.
And you know, these people go into these chat rooms, the decoys. They exist there with a profile that includes a picture that is unmistakably underage. And they basically wait for the potential predator to approach them, not the other way around.
There's no force here. There's no coercion. There's no situation where there was a pre-existing friendship where, you know, the decoy is saying, "Hey, come on over and do me a favor." I mean, those are the elements of entrapment, at least under California law, that obviously, you'd want to avoid in any kind of situation like this.
KURTZ: Perverted Justice is not without controversy. And I've read that some law enforcement officials have raised questions about their methods.
HANSEN: That's true. And in the early days a lot of people considered Perverted Justice a vigilante group. And in the stories that we've done that have involved Perverted Justice in the past, I mean, we've been very honest and pointed that out.
In the last year or so, they seem to have gained a lot more credibility with law enforcement. Their activities seemed to be geared towards more giving law enforcement information about the people they catch on the Internet, as opposed to just posting them and trying to embarrass them.
And I think that is why, when Perverted Justice reached out to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, the sheriff's department was willing to be involved in this -- in this latest situation.
KURTZ: And "Dateline NBC" also worked closely with the sheriff's department. After all there are law enforcement people there to make these arrests after you met up with these men. Does that in some way make you into an arm of law enforcement?
HANSEN: We worked very hard, and there was a lot of internal discussion, Howard, to make sure there was a wall between us and law enforcement there, that we would not be an arm of law enforcement. It was the connection between Perverted Justice and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department that brought this all together. The sheriff's department set up its own operation off the property that we had used as the house here.
KURTZ: But would this have happened? Would have this happened if your cameras were not there?
HANSEN: Well, I think -- and I can tell you for sure -- that Riverside County Sheriff's Department would have done this, with Perverted Justice, whether or not "Dateline" was involved. They were willing to work with Perverted Justice. They had gained a respect for the group. And they were going to do this, whether we were there or not.
KURTZ: When you met some of these men, you did not immediately identify yourself as a journalist. I want to roll some of the tape from your segment.
KURTZ: And we can talk about it. Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm under arrest?
HANSEN (on camera): Have a seat.
(Voice over): Remember, he has no idea he's being recorded by our hidden cameras.
HANSEN: What are you doing here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Getting my ass kicked.
HANSEN: Getting your ass kicked?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I knew it. I knew I shouldn't -- I knew it was a set up.
HANSEN: Why did you come here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think I was -- uh, misled.
HANSEN: Misled? Misled into what?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure. Who are you?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Did you want these guys to think that you were a police officer?
HANSEN: No, not necessarily a police officer. I think some of them may have thought that. I think some of them may have thought that I was the angry father who walked in, or the older brother. Although, you know, that would be a big stretch, because of my age and the decoy's alleged age.
But you're right. We do not say -- I do not say exactly who I am when these guys walk in. I launch into the questioning right away to try to get as much information out of these guys as I can. If they ask me, I'm very honest and I tell them.
And at some point, you know, regardless if they ask or not, I say, you know, "I'm Chris Hansen, 'Dateline NBC'." And they either stay and talk more, or they leave, or some have run out.
Sometimes, you know, there has been recognition, where they sort of realize right away that it's "Dateline NBC." Some leave immediately; some stay and talk anyway.
KURTZ: Were you nervous at all about these confrontations? HANSEN: Well, yes. I think anytime that you walk out to talk to somebody, and they've got a backpack or they've got their hands in their pockets -- you know, we try to know as much about these people as can before they come in. But yes, it's a little anxious to actually do that.
KURTZ: If Perverted Justice was going to do this sort of thing anyway and the local sheriff's department was going to do this sort of thing anyway, then what exactly is "Dateline" adding? You know, the easy criticism would be, it's dramatic television, good for ratings and all of that?
HANSEN: Well, I think it's a darn important story. I mean, if you consider that one out of every five kids online is solicited for sex, you know, this is something parents need to know about.
And you know, because you've seen the whole story, it's not just the confrontations, although that's the most dramatic part. Every time we've done this we've tried to talk to, you know, somebody who is involved in the treatment of people involved in this sort of crime and find out, you know, what should society do about it? Is it a treatment issue? Is it a punishment issue? We also talk to people who train parents and children to become aware of this.
I mean, at the end of the day, these are really the same investigative methods that we've used in the past, whether it's been, you know, sex tourists and child sex slaves in Cambodia, or kids working in the silk industry in India, or factory conditions in Bangladesh, where clothes are made for Wal-Mart and other department stores. I mean, this is the same type of investigative reporting that we do. We just applied to the subject of computer predators.
KURTZ: We've got about half a minute. What's been the reaction to this latest installment, now that so many people have seen this up close and personal?
HANSEN: It has been overwhelmingly positive. And much of the response has been from parents saying, "Hey, you know, we didn't think that this could ever happen in our house to our kid. And now we see that it, in fact, it can." And it started, I think, a real healthy dialogue between parents and their kids across the country.
KURTZ: All right. We'll have to leave it there. NBC's Chris Hansen, thanks very much for joining us.
HANSEN: Thank you.
KURTZ: When we come back, two of the nation's top bloggers weigh in on Dick Cheney and some other topics, in a moment.
KURTZ: Time now for our "Blogger Buzz." Joining us in Los Angeles, Arianna Huffington, syndicated columnist and author of TheHuffingtonPost.com; and in Minneapolis, attorney Scott Johnson, who blogs at PowerlineBlog.com. Arianna, I want to play for you a clip of Al Franken talking about the Cheney hunting accident the other day on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AL FRANKEN, AIR AMERICA RADIO HOST: It's inconceivable that you don't go to the hospital unless there's a reason you don't go to the hospital. Now, if you had been drinking, you wouldn't go to the hospital. But -- or you're an amazing jerk. That's the other. Or both.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Arianna, you have Franken and others talking about whether Cheney was drunk. You used the word "coverup" in one of your blog entries. It sounds like and you your liberal friends just can't stand Dick Cheney.
ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, EDITOR, THEHUFFINGTONPOST.COM: No, Howard. This has nothing to do with Dick Cheney's relationship with the blogosphere. Or indeed the mainstream media. I think it has to do with the fact that there are many loose ends that have not been dealt with.
I mentioned in a humorous way, but it actually has not been answered, the question of why the vice president delayed, not just talking to the press, but delayed talking to the local sheriff for 14 hours. And we had Alan Dershowitz blogging on The Huffington Post about the legal implications of that.
There are questions that have been raised by hunters, many Republican hunters I talked to, about the fact that, if he really were 30 yards away from his friend, Harry Whittington, the damage inflicted would not have been as great.
There are many loose ends like that.
HUFFINGTON: Including the fact that Katharine Armstrong keeps changing her story.
KURTZ: All right. Some of this sounds like speculation to me, but let me hear from Scott Johnson.
How much of this detective work do you think is driven by anti- Cheney or anti-Bush emotions by his critics on the left?
SCOTT JOHNSON, POWERLINEBLOG.COM: Well, good question. I -- you know, your colleague at "The Washington Post," Charles Krauthammer, referred to Bush Derangement Syndrome having cropped out among Democrats in the past several years of the Bush administration.
I think that's what you saw on display among the Democrats in the White House press room and the liberals over at The Huffington Post, is this deranged kind of sophomoric hysteria. You would think that there was nothing else in the news last week, and Arianna's site was all Cheney all the time, but Iran started enriching uranium last week. Vice -- former Vice President Gore gave one of the most disgusting speeches in American history last week.
And the administration, if you wanted to bash the administration, approved the sale of six American ports to the United Arab Emirates last week. There was a lot going on.
KURTZ: All right. Let me stick with the media and the vice president. Arianna, I'm sure you'd like to respond to this notion that you're suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome.
HUFFINGTON: Well, absolutely. First of all, I agree that there were many, many more important stories last week, but it's a little bit like what happens in a dysfunctional relationship.
You know, you put up with your husband or boyfriend cheating on you with your best friend, with him having a love child with his secretary, and, finally, he gives you milk chocolate rather than dark chocolate on Valentine's Day, and you explode.
So there is a little bit of that pattern, both with the mainstream media, the White House press corps, and the blogosphere. I mean, this administration has been so secretive, that deceived on so many important issues, including Iraq, including the NSA wiretapping, including the leaks in the Libby matter. So finally, this was something we could put our arms around...
HUFFINGTON: ... and keep going until we try to get to the bottom of.
KURTZ: But is there partisanship on the right as well, Scott Johnson? I'm wondering if Vice President al Gore had shot someone, whether you and some of your conservative friends would have been asking some of these same questions about just what happened?
JOHNSON: Was that Arianna's rebuttal to the charge that she's a victim of Bush Derangement Syndrome?
Well, I think you asked a good question. I'm sure we would be talking about it, and it's hard not to take a look at events through the lenses with which you see people, honorable people, as I see them, like Vice President Cheney and President Bush. And you know, I...
KURTZ: Was the fact that you like them and like their policies very much influences whether you think this whole hunting incident has been way overblown by the media or not?
JOHNSON: Well, I would -- I plead guilty to the charge that I thought it extremely unlikely that Vice President Cheney had engaged in dishonorable conduct under the circumstances, and I think circumstances have proved that suspicion to be correct.
KURTZ: All right. I'm very happy to get an attorney to plead guilty on national television to anything.
Let me play what some of the comics have been doing with this story and then we'll come back to Arianna. Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, CBS'S "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": We can't get bin Laden, but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney.
JAY LENO, HOST, NBC'S "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": I guess the guy is going to be OK, but when the ambulance got there, out of force of habit, they put Cheney on the stretcher. He's going, "No, it's the other guy. The other guy."
JON STEWART, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE DAILY SHOW": Peppered. There have you it. Harry Whittington seasoned to within an inch of his life. Peppering is what you do to a Caesar salad. He shot that dude.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Arianna, is this kind of ridicule more damaging to Cheney than anything that's on CNN or in the "New York Times" or on the Huffington Post?
HUFFINGTON: Well, on the Huffington Post, there is an enormous amount of similar ridicule, including a lot of contagious video, including Paul Heap doing a Johnny Cash/Dick Cheney song that spread like wildfire.
So part of the problem for Dick Cheney and the administration is that all that satirical take on what happened reached an audience which normally is not interested in politics and does not follow the minutia about Cheney's lies about the insurgency being in its last throes, of the connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.
But now they're following it, because there's a lot of very, very funny stuff, especially on the Internet, that's being passed around all the time.
KURTZ: Scott Johnson, what do you make of Maureen Dowd saying -- I'm just going to read a little bit of it -- that Dick Cheney "gets his macho kicks gunning down little birds" and bringing in the Iraq War and other issues?
JOHNSON: You know, that's just so silly. What is there to say? It seems to me indicative of the fact that much of the reaction among the left and the Democrats of this thing has to do, you know, with the fact that the accident involved a rifle. There's just a kind of thrill involved in referring to Cheney having shot someone, and Maureen Dowd seems to be symptomatic of that phenomenon.
KURTZ: Let me ask you another question, Scott Johnson. We have about a minute left. I want to talk about these Abu Ghraib photos. Australian television and then Salon magazine, a whole new batch of these horrifying pictures of the abuses there. Given that we already knew essentially what went on there, do you think these pictures should have been published and broadcast?
JOHNSON: Well, I wish they weren't; the only use they are to the enemies of the United States. It really seems to me terribly unfortunate.
KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, do we gain something other than shock value by seeing additional photos of the abuses of Iraqi prisoners in that prison?
HUFFINGTON: Well, they demonstrate, again, how the administration has misled us in terms of how extensive the torture has been. Remember, at first they said there was no torture, and, again, it underlines the fact that we've had not just pictures of torture, but pictures of coffins returning to America, of wounded soldiers, of all the havoc and -- that's going on in Iraq at the moment.
KURTZ: All right. That story, of course, somewhat overshadowed by the whole Cheney hunting frenzy. Thanks very much to our bloggers, Arianna Huffington, Scott Johnson. We appreciate you joining us.
JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.
HUFFINGTON: Thank you.
KURTZ: Just ahead, how do you handle the media when you're the focus of a huge controversy? No, not talking about Dick Cheney. How one famous athlete turned coach is trying to skate away from his problems with the press.
KURTZ: A well-known public figure is happy to seize the spotlight when things are going well, but when he's caught up in an embarrassing incident, he suddenly clams up, stonewalls, just wants the press to go away. This isn't about politics. It's about hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
GRETZKY: Not much really to add, other than what I said two days ago and yesterday, that there's nothing for me to talk about. Not involved.
KURTZ (voice-over): Gretzky, the coach of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, was in Torino this week for the Olympics when reporters wanted to ask him about a betting scandal that has cast a shadow over professional hockey and two people close to him. But Gretzky was less informative than Scott McClellan.
GRETZKY: You guys are having trouble. For me it's no problem.
KURTZ: Law enforcement officials have said that Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones, was involved in the betting ring. Gretzky's assistant coach of the Coyotes, Rick Tocchet, has been charged with running the multimillion-dollar ring and placed on leave.
Not only that, but the "Newark Star-Ledger" and the A.P. have reported that Gretzky was overheard on wiretaps, discussing how to keep his wife from being implicated in the scandal.
All this, you would think, might qualify as news, given the fact that Gretzky is the Babe Ruth of hockey, the biggest lifetime scorer in professional history.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll interrupt you right now.
KURTZ: Instead, a P.R. flack for Canada's Olympic team kept insisting that reporters' questions about the scandal were off limits.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So next question.
KURTZ: And Gretzky kept echoing that point.
GRETZKY: So if you have hockey questions, I'll be happy to stand here and answer them all day.
KURTZ: Sorry. That's not going fly. Famous athletes like Kobe Bryant and Wayne Gretzky are accustomed to adulation and positive press for their exploits on the court or in the rink. But when you're involved in controversy, you can't just put the press on ice. Your fame no longer protects you from the media.
KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.
"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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