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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Beltway Feuding; Media's Obsession With 2008

Aired March 5, 2006 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Beltway feuding: Michael Brown versus George Bush, Karl Rove versus Hillary Clinton.

Dick Cheney resignation rumors.

And is the press obsessing on 2008 already?

Oscar gets political. Are Hollywood and media liberals pushing movies like "Brokeback Mountain?"

The Mardi Gras invasion. Did the media illuminate the plight of New Orleans or just join the party?

Plus, cable's angry man, Stephen Colbert, tries to stick it to me.

STEPHEN COLBERT, THE COLBERT REPORT: Listen here, Kurtz.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on an outbreak of political warfare.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Ahead, the hype over tonight's Oscars.

But first, when President Bush sat down with ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas this week, she asked him about a congressional report ripping the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELIZABETH VARGAS, ABC NEWS: Do you agree with that assessment that the United States is "woefully unprepared for another natural disaster or attack?"

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There was no situational awareness, and that means that we weren't getting good, solid information from people who were on the ground. In many cases, we were relying upon the media, who happened to have better situational awareness than the government.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: But the next day, The Associated Press released video of Katrina planning meetings that showed the president did receive some dire warnings from his aides.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAX MAYFIELD, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: I don't think anyone can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's obviously a very, very grave concern.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, was Bush's account wrong, or is he just being buffeted by the latest media storm?

Joining us now in Boston, former presidential adviser David Gergen, now professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and editor-at-large at "U.S. News and World Report."

Here in Washington, Linda Douglass, former chief Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News, now a senior fellow at NYU's Brademas Center for the Study of Congress.

And Bill Press, former CNN commentator, now the host of "The Bill Press Show" on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Welcome.

Bill Press, this Katrina tape story, is it pumped up by the media? I mean, not only were transcripts of those meetings already available to the press, but Bush was not specifically told the levees would be breached.

So?

BILL PRESS, HOST, "THE BILL PRESS SHOW": Well, I think for the media, first of all, it was Mardi Gras, it came out at Mardi Gras time. Katrina has been one of the biggest stories covered in the last six months. It gave everybody a chance to get a reason to go to New Orleans other than to celebrate Mardi Gras, to bring the thing back. And you know the other thing I found funny about it? It also gave a chance to play that hurricane Max tape and then President Bush's "nobody anticipated the levees."

But the biggest thing for me was that the media had really dumped on Michael Brown. And after you see that tape, Michael Brown starts out looking like maybe he wasn't the villain after all. And I found a lot of people in the media, myself included, apologizing to Michael Brown for the rough treatment we gave him when the story first broke.

KURTZ: Well, there's a rare press apology. We'll come back to Michael Brown in a second.

But David Gergen, everyone knows the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was pretty awful, but are the media now using these tapes in an effort to portray President Bush as a liar about what he knew and when he knew it?

DAVID GERGEN, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, as you well know, Howie, what develops in the press often is a storyline, a narrative about -- about a president or about another political figure, and the narrative about this administration has been developed as -- as in the hunting accident, as on the ports, and now with Katrina they've been asleep at the switch. That their problem is not so much their ideas, their problem is their execution. They're not there. They're not doing -- you know, they didn't respond properly.

But I have to tell you, unlike some of my colleagues, I think the media underplayed the videotape. Had it not been for these other stories, I think there would have been more exploration of this, and it would have been more of an expose than it became.

KURTZ: All right. I want to hear Linda Douglass on that. But first, I want to talk about Michael Brown, because not only did he pop up on that Katrina videotape, he's been giving a lot of television interviews.

Let's take a look at Brown with NBC's Brian Williams and CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: A lot of people down in the Gulf region feel that a lot of you have blood on your hands. People were left in that Superdome for a week. It was an awful situation.

Who bears the responsibility for this?

MICHAEL BROWN, FMR. FEMA DIRECTOR: Well, I think that we all do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You can't just blame Chertoff. You've got to blame the president, too.

BROWN: Well, ultimately, are you right. I mean, I serve at the pleasure of the president. So I'm certain at some point the president may have said, hey, you know, Chertoff, get Brown out of there, or whatever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, first, on Michael Brown, is he this -- this media blitz, are journalists receptive to that because now he's criticizing Bush and Chertoff and the administration?

LINDA DOUGLASS, FMR. ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you can probably say that. I mean, clearly, this whole video release has been very helpful to Michael Brown. He has taken maximum advantage of it -- look, I warned them it was going to be dangerous. But this video was a Rorschach already for whatever your point of view was. The Democrats could say that the president said that we were prepared. See, he wasn't even asking any questions. Michael Brown pointed to the fact that the president was asking lots of questions and was very engaged. The Republicans are also pointing to the fact that Max Mayfield said the levees would be topped, as you said, but not necessarily that they would be breached, that they would break open and flood the city.

So, at the end of the day I don't think it really moved the ball forward at all except for Michael Brown.

KURTZ: Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center, and Brownie doing a heck of a job, at least, with his media blitz.

Now, let me move on to Vice President Cheney. Inside a conservative magazine this week, reported that Cheney is "expected to retire within a year, according to senior GOP sources."

Bill Press, should the media give this any attention at all?

PRESS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is delicious speculation for Washington.

KURTZ: Well, it's speculation.

PRESS: No -- totally.

KURTZ: Yes.

PRESS: But that's -- we thrive on that, don't we? I mean -- and also, when your polls are at 18 percent, you understand how this rumor might get started. But just imagine now the fun that we're going to have on speculating whom President Bush might appoint if, indeed, Dick Cheney does resign. That's all we need for, I think, six months of a good story.

KURTZ: I have already seen some of that. The name Condi Rice comes out.

But David Gergen, what do you think both about this Cheney resignation rumor and the larger question of, in the wake of the hunting accident, whether the media are just really ganging up on Dick Cheney?

GERGEN: Well, there's no question that the media has been ganging up on him and beating up on him. But, you know, this is about, what, the third or fourth time this story has come out? It comes out about every two or three months, and it doesn't get a lot of play, but people keep on -- you know, there's a little whisper started thing.

But there is zero evidence. And when you have to ask yourself does -- the idea here would be to put the heir apparent in place. Well, now who in the world is the heir apparent in this environment? DOUGLASS: Well, yes, exactly. As David says, there's no evidence at all that there's -- that this comes from any place credible.

The president would have to admit that he made some kind of mistake, which he's not inclined to do. Cheney's bad poll numbers aren't necessarily causing the president's bad poll numbers. Those are caused by other things.

Though, there is a story starting to circulate in Washington circles that there is a White House staff change coming up. So that may be something behind some of this. Not having to do with Cheney, but just somebody else in the White House staff.

KURTZ: Yes -- go ahead.

PRESS: Howie, I think it will be interesting to see some of the Republicans react to whom, as David said, they might put in as the heir apparent. I mean, I don't think Sam Brownback will take it lying down if Bill Frist gets in.

KURTZ: But you can't have an heir apparent without an opening. And right now the job is full.

Now, since we're talking about politics, former "Washington Times" reporter Bill Sammon out with a book called "Strategery," in which he interviewed the president and others. He quotes Karl Rove in that book.

The senior presidential consiglieri saying about Hillary Clinton that she will win the Democratic nomination, she will not win the presidency. That she is very liberal and that there is a brittleness about her.

Now, is it news that the president's top strategist would say this about Mrs. Clinton?

PRESS: No. What I find interesting is that they're focusing on 2008. Right now Republicans haven't found a candidate to run against Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York. They're thinking about...

KURTZ: In 2006.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: In 2006. No, exactly. So why are we talking about 2008?

To me, the most interesting part of that story was it prompted a response from Dick Morris, who was a Clinton -- number one Clinton hater of all time who said Karl Rove is wrong, Hillary Clinton can win in 2008. So when you get the Clinton haters debating among themselves as to whether Hillary can run or not, I think for us, again, in the media, it's delicious.

KURTZ: Well, Dick Morris has to say that because he has a Hillary versus Condi book. And we all think Hillary can't win, it takes the suspense out of it.

Now, let's take a look at some of the coverage of this both on CNN and "The Today Show" about Hillary Clinton and all the whole arena of 2008 politics.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: The next president election less than three years away. The big question in many circles is, will Hillary run?

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: Let's talk about 2008. And there may be some people at home right now, Tim, saying, wait a second, you've got 32 months until this election. Why are you idiots talking about this?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, David Gergen, why are the idiots talking about it? And what do you make of this Hillary obsession?

GERGEN: Well, I would say there are a couple reasons why we're talking about it, and that is because George W. Bush is becoming more and more of a lame duck. So the people are looking over his shoulder to see who's next. And what we have shaping up is what could be a terrific fight, and that is between John McCain, whom I think is the leader, even though Giuliani has numbers close to his -- but if you around the country, you'll find McCain is now emerging even among some of the social conservatives who did not want him six months ago, but they don't quite see what the alternative is.

He emerges, and is he beating Mrs. Clinton in the polls anywhere from 10 to 18 points, depending on what poll you look at. And so now there's a lot of speculation on the Democratic side about whether Mrs. Clinton is nominated. Well, now some people are saying maybe she will decide not to run after all, which opens up the field.

So that's why -- I think it's not unnatural that people with the most wide open race -- no sitting vice president or president will be on the ballot, the first time since 1952. It's natural that people turn a little early to this race.

KURTZ: But there is something -- there is this sort of Hillary obsession in the media.

GERGEN: Yes.

KURTZ: I mean, everybody likes to talk about 2008, Linda Douglass, but Hillary is just like catnip to political reporters.

DOUGLASS: Well, but also it's a part of the whole Clinton -- you know, the whole Clinton presence. I mean, the media had a field day with Bill Clinton for eight days. They had a field day with his relationship...

KURTZ: Eight years.

DOUGLASS: I mean for eight years. They had a field day with his relationship with his wife and her relationship with him and everything that went on all around that. They can't wait to get back to it again.

KURTZ: And even now it's like, do they have different positions on the Dubai port deal and all that.

DOUGLASS: Exactly, and that's part of it. But the other part of this story is reporters trying to figure out, do the Republicans really think she's a formidable candidate, or are they trying to build her up so that she's inevitable because they think that she's such an easy candidate to beat? And are they coming up with words that will define her like they did with Gore and with Kerry that will hurt her?

KURTZ: But what about the 2006 congressional midterm elections? You know, isn't that arguably at this stage of the calendar more important than what might or might now happen two and a half years from now?

PRESS: That's the point I was going to make.

KURTZ: Yes.

PRESS: We're missing the big story. The big story is, with President Bush down at 36, 38, whatever number it is in the polls, the -- and with the ports deal and everything else, the big issue is the 2006 elections, where I think the Republicans, because of some of these missteps, are vulnerable, and that's what we ought to be talking about.

KURTZ: But is it that the media are less interested in that because there's no overriding personality, it's a collection of state and local races that are harder to bring into focus?

PRESS: It is. It is. There are so many different races. And also, when you talk Hillary, you get numbers, you've got eyeballs.

GERGEN: The other thing, Howie, is that coming in to 2006, the Republicans had expected to use this race as a way to really tear down Mrs. Clinton, to make her much less viable as a national candidate. But they've had so much trouble finding a candidate to even stand up against her in New York.

KURTZ: That has been very entertaining.

Let me break in, David, because I want to get your thoughts on one other thing...

GERGEN: Sure.

KURTZ: ... and that is the story on the front page of this morning's "Washington Post" about White House effort to stem leaks. And it talks about the administration, the Bush administration, having launched initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources. These involve federal employees being questioned on "The New York Times" story about the national security wiretaps, on the "Washington Post" story about secret CIA prisons, Valerie Plame, all of that.

Do you -- you have been on both sides of this fence. Do you see this as an administration that really is going after journalists, or just legitimately trying to stem the flow of classified information leaking out to the press?

GERGEN: I am glad you brought that up. This administration has engaged in secrecy at a level we have not seen in over 30 years.

Unfortunately, I have to bring up the name of Richard Nixon, because we haven't seen it since the days of Nixon. And now what they're doing -- and they're using the war on terror to justify -- is they're starting to target journalists who try to pierce the veil of secrecy and find things and put them in the newspapers.

Now, in the past what the government has always done is go after the people who leak, the inside people. That's the way they try to stop leaks.

This is the first administration that I can remember, including Nixon's, that said -- and Porter Goss said this to Congress -- that we need to think about a law that would put journalists who print national security things to...

KURTZ: Right. Let me briefly...

GERGEN: ... bring them up in front of grand juries and put them in jail if they don't -- in effect, if they don't reveal their sources.

KURTZ: ... get to Linda Douglass.

DOUGLASS: And the Justice Department is talking about using a pre-World War I law to prosecute people who receive classified information. That could be journalists. So now they're talking about potentially prosecuting journalists who simply receive information.

KURTZ: We will be talking about this on many programs to come. Perhaps with all of you.

Bill Press, sorry we had to cut you off there.

Linda Douglass, David Gergen, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, President Bush hits the road this week, drawing media attention to India, to Pakistan, to Afghanistan. But why doesn't the press pay more attention to the region in the first place? Veteran foreign correspondent Tom Fenton in London joins us just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. President Bush returned to Washington this morning after a whirlwind trip overseas that included Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, a part of the world that usually gets scant attention from the American media. That changed for a brief period this week when network correspondents descended on the world's largest democracy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM SCIUTTO, ABC NEWS: The challenge for India is spreading the new wealth from the cities to rural areas like this one where nearly 80 percent of the population lives. It's coming, but slowly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But what about when the president doesn't happen to be in the neighborhood?

Joining us now from London, former CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, the author of "Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News and the Danger to Us All."

Tom Fenton, CBS and ABC aired just terrific series this week on India, which has more than one billion people. So why does it take a presidential visit to prompt that kind of coverage?

TOM FENTON, FMR. CBS CORRESPONDENT: A very, very good question. India is one of those great black holes in our coverage, just like Africa, just like Latin America. A very good question.

I'll have to say that it was a wonderful series this week. Lara Logan, the new CBS News chief foreign correspondent, did an excellent series. I would just hope that somehow or other the networks would continue down that road. I don't think that's going to happen any time soon, but there are signs, there are signs that I think CBS, at least, has -- has seen the light of day.

Sean McManus, the new president of CBS News, seemed to be making some fairly smart moves these days. He -- in addition to naming a chief foreign correspondent and giving her apparently the money and the wherewithal to go out and do series, CBS has now just started a series on Latin America. When was the last time you saw stories out of Latin America from the networks?

I can think of a couple from CBS. One on cosmetic surgery out of Rio and another on college kids having -- you know, getting drunk on their spring break in Mexico. So...

KURTZ: In other words, not very often. But let me also ask you about Afghanistan, because...

FENTON: Not very often.

KURTZ: ... the president making a surprise visit there with the White House press corps in tow. But ordinarily, no television bureaus in Kabul. A couple of newspapers have full-time reporters there, despite the fact that there are 19,000 U.S. troops, a resurgence by the Taliban and a growing level of violence.

So why have the media largely abandoned Afghanistan?

FENTON: Bottom line -- bottom line, Howard, it's -- you know, when they say it's not about the money, it's about the money. The networks don't want to spend the money to cover two wars. They don't think the public has the attention span to concentrate on two wars.

And so when the United States fold out the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan, the media followed suit. But as you point out, there are still a lot of soldiers there. The insurgency there is resurgent.

It's a country that is sort of on the -- on the knife edge. It's one place where the United States and the coalition has made a difference, and it's one place that perhaps will come out right, unlike Iraq, which seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

KURTZ: So do you believe that because there's so much media attention on the carnage in Iraq that the rest of the world gets relatively short shrift as a result? And is this also true on the cable networks, which obviously have more time to cover the rest of the world than do the broadcast networks?

FENTON: Well, you know, let's -- it really is all about money. It's all about resources.

After -- you know, after the end of the Cold War, the networks simply downsized. They closed one bureau after another. They got rid of foreign correspondents. Until now, the major broadcast networks, the terrestrial broadcasters, have each just a -- you know, a couple of handfuls of foreign correspondents. There are not enough to go around.

And they have strict budget restrictions. It's very hard to get permission to get on an airplane and take a cruise someplace to cover news.

That's why I was delighted yesterday, for example, on the "CBS Weekend News" there were four -- count them, four foreign stories, including one from Latin America, one from Sarajevo, Bosnia. When is the last time you heard of them? Plus, one out of London covering the Iranian nuclear story, and the one from Pakistan.

KURTZ: Right. But even beyond the considerable cost of maintaining bureaus or putting journalists on airplanes to go to cover these places, I think most television executives believe that there is a very limited public appetite in the United States for stories about life in India or China or South America or Pakistan when there's not a devastating earthquake there.

FENTON: And I think they're wrong, they're dead wrong. And that's why I hope this is -- this is perhaps a change of direction for CBS.

I think there's a potential audience out there. This is a great big dangerous world with a lot going on, a lot that affects Americans or will affect them very directly one of these days.

I think people would be interested if you would explain to them what's going on. Give them a little context. More than just the president visits a country and there were speeches and this is what he said, and bye-bye. Something that takes you to the country.

KURTZ: Right. All right.

Well, Tom Fenton, at least seeing some glimmers of hope for more world coverage that you did for so many years. Thanks very much for joining us from London.

And later on CNN, correspondent Jamie McIntyre is "ON THE STORY." That's 1:00 p.m. Eastern, talking about the challenge of international coverage and his trip this week to Afghanistan.

Up next, what happens when you go after the self-anointed king of all media? Howard Stern's former employer, CBS, is finding out. The details just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Howard Stern used to make a lot of money on radio stations owned by CBS. Then he cut a $500 million deal with Sirius satellite radio and kept mentioning the "S" word on the air as he finished up the last year of his contract with the CBS stations.

Now, CBS president Les Moonves has approved the filing of a lawsuit against the king of all media, saying Stern breached his contract by constantly citing Sirius while at CBS and issued a secret agreement for an extra $200 million in Sirius stock if Stern helped his future employment reach certain subscriber targets.

Well, when you sue Howard, you get the Howard treatment, which Moonves received in spades.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD STERN, RADIO HOST: This lawsuit is a personal vendetta against me to distract me and to distract you. The radio division at CBS is in shambles. It's in shambles.

They are getting crushed -- ill-prepared. Les Moonves and Joel Hollander, the two stooges, are running this radio division right into the ground to record losses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: CBS may or may not have a legal case, but it's getting out-shadowed in the P.R. war. CBS says it won't try the case in the press.

Checking now to our viewer e-mail, plenty of response to my interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper who was back in the Gulf region last week on the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Many of you taking issue with my question about emotional reporting. Laura Riviello from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, wrote, "Even the questioning of Mr. Cooper regarding his display of emotion during moments after Katrina shows the viewer that there really are very few journalists who have the raw passion that Cooper has and is unabashedly able to communicate it to the viewer. Watching Kurtz display jealousy in a very passive aggressive way it was appearing on the broadcast was much more distasteful."

And Shawn from Charleston, South Carolina, e-mailed, "Personally, I'm glad Cooper shows that he is human instead of they typical robot like a lot of other stations. If he can bring a human side to stories, then more power to him. And yes, I am a fan of his show."

Ahead in our next half-hour, Hollywood gets ready for tonight's Oscars, but did some of the films get extra promotion from a left- leaning media business? We'll talk about all the buzz over "Brokeback Mountain" and other political movies up next.

And later, back to New Orleans for the national press. Will they still keep following the story after Mardi Gras?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

"Now in the News," CNN learns that the U.S. Army plans to conduct a criminal probe into the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman. Tillman died in a friendly fire incident while on duty in Afghanistan back in 2004.

Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appears in a videotape shown on the Al-Jazeera network. Among other things, al- Zawahiri tells the new Palestinian leadership, Hamas, to disregard previous agreements with Israel and refrain from entering into new ones. We'll continue to follow that story.

Well, this year, Hollywood says tonight's Oscar awards are all about the art, not the money. If you have a red carpet pass, a special "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT" airs at 5:30 Eastern on HEADLINE NEWS, and "Hollywood's Gold Rush" airs on CNN beginning at 6:00 Eastern. And you all have a pass to that.

More headlines in just about 30 minutes from now.

RELIABLE SOURCES continues right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

The red carpets have been rolled out for tonight's Academy Awards, but the buzz about some of this year's films is about more than just act and directing. In a year without major Hollywood blockbusters, the contending films seem merely to have a political message -- "Syriana," "Crash," Good Night, and Good Luck," "Munich" and most prominently, "Brokeback Mountain."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN")

JAKE GYLLENHAAL, ACTOR, "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN": What if you and me had a ranch somewhere, a little cow and calf operation? It would be a sweet life.

(END VIDEO CLIP, "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN")

KURTZ: Just two gay cowboys and eight Oscar nominations. It got mostly great reviews, but have the media been pushing this movie for its social message?

Joining us to talk about the coverage of the 78th Academy Awards, Sharon Waxman, Hollywood correspondent for "The New York Times" and the author of "Rebels on the Backlot."

And Michael Medved, syndicated radio host, veteran film critic, and the author of "Hollywood Versus America."

Welcome.

Michael Medved, are the media openly pushing "Brokeback Mountain" with its gay theme for a bunch of Oscars?

MICHAEL MEDVED, TALK RADIO HOST, FILM CRITIC: I don't think there's any question about it. Generally, if a movie gets this kind of publicity, with article after article and feature story after feature story, it's because either it's a blockbuster or because it's highly controversial. "Brokeback Mountain" is neither.

One of the surprises about the film is that the so-called religious right has been so ho-hum about it. I mean, there have been no organized boycotts, no protest demonstrations, no fatwahs against the producers.

So the truth is, they've had to fabricate all of these stories about how groundbreaking and controversial and shocking this film is, and it really isn't. I mean, a couple of years ago there was a Kevin Kline film where he gets to kiss Tom Selleck, "In & Out." It is not new that Hollywood has been addressing gay content.

KURTZ: Right.

MEDVED: This film addresses it better than most, but it still doesn't deserve this huge tidal wave of publicity.

KURTZ: Well, Sharon Waxman, "The New York Times" and the "LA Times" have run a number of pieces on "Brokeback Mountain." Some of the headlines in "The New York Times," "Brokeback Sells a Style," "Two Gay Cowboys Hit a Homerun," and "A Gay Mayor in Wyoming Discovered by One of Your Colleagues."

So is this a bit much?

SHARON WAXMAN, "NEW YORK TIMES": That's funny. No, I don't think it's a bit much. And I don't agree with Michael that there's -- and anybody is pushing the politics of the movie.

What the media does, as I think you know, Howie, is that they look for a story. And in a very quiet Oscar campaigning year -- and normally we have huge battles and smear campaigns between Harvey Weinstein and DreamWorks and god knows what. We haven't had anything like that, so the media who cover the Oscars, which is the biggest movie event of the year, are always looking for issues, and this is the issue that they found this year. But it is not about pushing the politics.

MEDVED: Sharon, I've got to disagree with you. There are two issues that are very much along the lines of what you discussed that really were dropped by mainstream media.

One of them involves Steven Spielberg and his relationship with the Jewish community in making a movie that many of us perceive to be anti-Israel. And the condemnations that he has gotten, this is a movie that's genuinely controversial and hasn't gotten the same kind of attention or buzz that "Brokeback Mountain" has gotten.

The other issue that has been totally dropped by everybody is the involvement of an activist named Jeff Skoll who helped to fund three of the major Oscar contenders. Now, he's a guy who founded a company called Participant Prods. It's very open. He is a left-wing activist, and he helped to fund both "North Country" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" and also "Syriana."

And the fact -- if somebody from the right had come in and put up money to fund right-wing projects, you know it would have gotten a lot of attention. The fact that this has gotten so little attention to me is striking.

KURTZ: Right. Michael, let me just jump in here because I want to broaden this and I also want to explain what some of the people who haven't been following all these Oscar movies. George Clooney's movie, "Syriana," is a somewhat sympathetic portrait of a guy who joins a radical Islamic group to attack a U.S. oil facility. And Steven Spielberg's "Munich" includes the Palestinian point of view, as well as the Israeli point of view in recounting what happened with the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes.

Are you surprised in any way, Sharon Waxman, at the way these movies have been covered? Obviously, Michael Medved has some problems with it.

WAXMAN: Yes. OK, let me correct one thing. "Syriana" was made by Stephen Gaghan. George Clooney is nominated for best supporting in that.

KURTZ: I meant that he's in, yes.

WAXMAN: Right, because he did make another movie that's nominated for an Oscar, which is "Good Night, and Good Luck," which also may be considered by Michael to have a left-wing agenda. I don't know.

MEDVED: Sure.

WAXMAN: I think ultimately the reasons -- the reasons -- OK, first of all, Jeff Skoll is somebody who has been written about. I, myself, have written about him. And he is not so much a left-wing activist as he has a social and certainly left of center set of beliefs. But he -- essentially, he's more about promoting what he considers to be social good.

KURTZ: Michael Medved, the "Good Night, and Good Luck," which is about Edward R. Murrow versus Joe McCarthy, which George Clooney both directed and was a star in, do you feel like that is a movie with an agenda? He was on this program promoting it. And do you feel like it got a nice ride in the media because it, you know, made journalists look good?

MEDVED: Yes, absolutely it did. And first of all, the problem with "Good Night, and Good Luck," which is a very well-made film, as is "Brokeback Mountain," the problem with that film is that it gives no context at all.

Somebody being a Martian -- and, of course, a lot of young people who have no knowledge of the 1950s are like Martians watching that film -- would assume that all of this anti-Communist "hysteria" that America was going through was not based on anything. The truth of the matter is, to make a movie like that without a single reference to the fact that Joseph Stalin was murdering millions of human beings while this was going on is really a dereliction of duty in terms of actually trying to recapture of truth about the 1950s.

KURTZ: All right. Obviously...

WAXMAN: Can I say one thing, Howie?

KURTZ: Go ahead.

WAXMAN: Look, I mean, I don't want to downplay the fact that Hollywood is certainly a left-wing place. It has a progressive political bent. And these movies are about issues that Hollywood people do care about, which is why they got nominated.

But to say that, you know, that the movies are all about trying to just push a certain agenda, I think is reading it the wrong way. I think the Oscar nominees, the best pictures do depict to some agree where we are as a country, the mood of the country, and the fact that there are these political and social-oriented movies, very small, no blockbusters, no tearjerkers, really, does say something about where the country is as a whole and not only about what Hollywood is thinking.

MEDVED: OK.

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman -- Michael, let me just jump in because we're running short on time.

A lot of chatter also about the host of the Oscars, Jon Stewart. Let's take a look at when he was asked on "LARRY KING LIVE" about whether he would bring his own political humor to the program.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": I'm not going out there, you know, looking to blow the place up. I want to -- I want to do a nice job. It really -- for the most part, the pressure I feel is for the actors and actresses and people that are nominated and who are there, and it's their big day, and you don't want to screw up their wedding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, is Jon Stewart the right choice for these kinds of movies this year?

WAXMAN: I think that's going to be a big question. I think they're very nervous at the academy that the ratings are going to dip this year, as they have been dipping for all the awards shows.

The Grammys had a very bad ratings performance. And Jon Stewart, unlike Billy Crystal, unlike David Letterman, is not a national household name. So he is very appealing for -- to a small elite in the two big population centers in New York and LA, and I think it's a big gamble for them to take on Jon Stewart.

KURTZ: He'll be more famous after tonight.

Michael Medved, with the ratings declining and all of this coverage and the blogs and the TV shows and the newspaper articles, do we all just make too much of the Oscars?

MEDVED: Well, it is the big award ceremony of the year, and I don't think we make too much of popular culture. It's hugely influential. It's even more influential, dare I say it, than journalism.

The one point I want to come back to, and it's so terribly important, is Sharon Waxman, who I greatly respect, said something. She said this movie shows -- the movies that are nominated show where the American public is right now. If that were the case, they would have been more successful.

This is the least successful commercially group of five nominated films for best picture in history. If you take the five nominated best pictures combined...

KURTZ: All right.

MEDVED: ... they only finish number six in the box office for the year.

KURTZ: Well, we'll see how many people watch tonight. Obviously, a lot of interest in this, even if everybody didn't go out to see these particular movies.

Sharon Waxman, Michael Medved, thanks very much for a lively discussion. Coming up, the national media descended on New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Did they get beyond the partying and will they go back? One prominent local anchor and historian, Douglas Brinkley, weights in next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Six months after the disaster that devastated the Gulf Coast region, reporters returned in droves to New Orleans, more than 1,000 of them for the Mardi Gras celebrations. There was plenty of live coverage led by heavy weight anchors.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC NEWS: Good evening tonight from the French Quarter in New Orleans, a city still devastated by Hurricane Katrina but doing its best to enjoy Fat Tuesday.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: This Mardi Gras season has been one of great contrast. Over the last two days, we've seen the unbelievable destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, but we've also seen the indestructible spirit of its people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But did the national media shed any real light on the recovery in New Orleans?

Joining us now Norman Robinson, news anchor at WDSU in New Orleans. We hope that presidential historian Douglas Brinkley will be able to join us shortly.

Norman Robinson, this media invasion, did the national press bring any depth to the Mardi Gras coverage, or was it just devastated city throws a big party?

NORMAN ROBINSON, ANCHOR, WDSU, NEW ORLEANS: I thought for the first time in its history of covering Mardi Gras and Carnival, in essence, the days leading up to Mardi Gras which is the culmination of Carnival, I thought they did a magnificent job in terms of reporting the paradox that's taking place here. On the one hand, you have a city, a sliver of a city that is making great strides in its recovery. And then, on the other hand, you have 80 percent of that same city looking the same way it did the day after Hurricane Katrina hit.

And I thought the broadcast media and the print media did a wonderful job of juxtaposing and creating a balance in their coverage in terms of showing the people exactly what is going on here. And you mentioned the (INAUDIBLE) spirit. That's what triggered Mardi Gras.

A lot of people, as you know, were concerned that showing pictures of people celebrating and partying was giving the wrong image and that the rest of the nation would get the idea that the city was back on its feet. But the national media did a great job of showing that this was just an opportunity for people to pause, for people to take a break, to step back from the devastation that they're dealing with on a daily basis...

KURTZ: Right. But...

ROBINSON: ... and participate in the cultural -- culture that's been going on for more than 300 years.

KURTZ: But how much of this was parachute journalism by news organizations that came, left and, by and large, won't be coming back, except perhaps every once in a while?

ROBINSON: I would say that most of it was parachute journalism, and that's the disheartening part, because save for CNN, NBC, and "The New York Times," there's not been a lot of daily coverage of what's going on here. Most of the media left after the people left the Superdome and the convention center and the people were evacuated to other places. And so the nation got the sense that New Orleans was recovering when nothing could be farther from the truth.

As we sit here today, the only people here are CNN and NBC and "The New York Times." So that gives you a sense of the kind of abandonment that most of the people feel that's occurring here, not only in terms of the media coverage, but in terms of the congressional and White House response to the widespread devastation and angst that continues here.

KURTZ: But given the fact that two-thirds of the population still has not returned, many of them may never return, given the Ninth Ward and the pictures that we've all seen now about all the houses that may or may not be rebuilt, how do you explain most of the national press if not abandoning New Orleans, at least focusing most of their attention on other things? Do you feel -- do you as somebody who lives there feel kind of abandoned by the national media?

ROBINSON: I feel abandoned not only by the majority of the national media, but I feel abandoned by my country. Most of us had a sense that we were going to get the kind of attention and the kind of help that we -- that we all were hoping for when the president of the United States stood in historic Jackson Square and pledged to rebuild New Orleans and to -- and pledged to have the most massive reconstruction effort the nation had ever seen since the days after World War II. And all of that has not come to pass.

You look around, and you see people walking in a state of shock. The post-traumatic stress here is overwhelming. The number of people dying off here is unprecedented.

The number of people suffering from stress and from psychological shock is overwhelming. And that's the story that's not being covered nationally and internationally, and that's why people here feel like they have been abandoned by most of the country.

KURTZ: Now, do you think that's because the press corps famously has a short attention span and has moved on to, you know, the Jack Abramoff scandal and the ports controversy and the president's Asia trip and Dick Cheney's hunting accident, or is it also, as somebody who is in the television business, that reconstruction and displacement and struggling hospitals and closed schools don't provide the same kind of dramatic pictures or compelling storyline for a very visual medium?

ROBINSON: It's a mixture of that. And I had an aunt who said the days after the president made his famous speech in Jackson Square, and we were all applauding him, and she said, "Just wait until they turn those cameras off. You'll see how much help you are going to get." And lo and behold, her prediction came to pass.

I do think it's not as sexy, the kind of slow pace of recovery, the nailing of studs and the gutting out of sheet rock and the laying of foundations and the razing of houses. That's not as sexy as people screaming and yelling for help on the streets of the Superdome or stories about widespread violence.

Yet, and still, this is the most horrific natural disaster in the history of the country, and I hesitate to say "natural disaster" because this is a manmade disaster. This disaster came about as a result of the incompetence of the United States Army Corps of Engineers who told us we were protected, and lo and behold, we came to find out that we weren't protected. And they talk all the time about building a bigger and better New Orleans.

KURTZ: Right.

ROBINSON: Hey, we don't want a bigger and better New Orleans. We just want a safer New Orleans. We want the safety and protection that we were promised that we had prior to Katrina by the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

KURTZ: The one part of this that still seems to have traction of the national story is the so-called blame game about who was responsible for the pathetically inadequate response.

Let me turn to one more question in the time remaining.

"U.S. News and World Report," which did do a special issue on New Orleans, said that the city has gone from 70 percent to 50 percent black because of the displacement of so many people. Are the media in general wary of confronting the racial aspects of this situation?

ROBINSON: Give me that question again. I'm sorry. I didn't get the breadth of it.

KURTZ: "U.S. News" saying the population of New Orleans -- we have about half a minute -- going from 70 percent to 50 percent black. I'm wondering if you think that the racial aspect of this is something that the media is shying away from?

ROBINSON: Of course. That's always a very dicey issue. Race is a very uncomfortable thing for people to talk about, and I would suggest that the percentage of African-Americans in this city has shrunken even further. I think it's about 30 or 40 percent. And most of the American -- African-American middle class has been totally scattered about the country.

KURTZ: All right. Well, Norman Robinson, we appreciate your joining us this morning from a city that deserves more attention. We're sorry that Doug Brinkley couldn't make it.

Thanks again.

Just ahead, Stephen Colbert dares to take on the host of RELIABLE SOURCES. We'll have a few choice words for him next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Some of the media news this week seems to involve us. We told you last week how New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse was disputing an account by "New York Post" gossip columnist Cindy Adams, who said she had overheard the Food Network star dissing local leaders and doubting the city could ever come back.

We called Adams' office several times but no response. Now the gossip queen writes that while she's sorry to have caused Emeril grief, she does not tell untruths in her column. "Any writers/editors/fact-checkers/reporters who suggest that on air better watch their mouths."

Now, I don't know whether Emeril made these remarks or not, which is why we kept trying to reach Cindy Adams, who I happen to like, to get her side of the story. But there's one thing in her column that made me question her attention to detail. She said the story was carried on Anderson Cooper's Sunday CNN report.

Actually, Cindy, it's my show. Just look, my hair is much darker. Anderson was just a guest last week talking about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but not, I assure you, Emeril Lagasse.

Bam! I guess I'm just not one of the boldfaced names you are accustomed to writing about.

Now, a few weeks back on this very program, I said that Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert was getting a bit full of himself and, besides, had the poor judgment not to invite me as a guest. Well, this week I finally made it, sort of. Colbert took my interview with Anderson, and somehow in his ego-inflated fashion made it about him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Up next, Anderson Cooper. On RELIABLE SOURCES, CNN's Howard Kurtz questioned his emotional coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and here's what Anderson said.

Jimmy, hit it.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: On television, especially on cable news, people have no problems with anchors expressing emotion as long as it's anger or phony outrage, but if you express an actual emotion, an actual feeling, that seems to surprise people.

COLBERT: Now, I think Mr. Cooper's attacking me with that, but I can't be sure because he is not pointing and shouting in my direction. That's why anger and outrage are appropriate in cable news.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Then Colbert told Anderson Cooper how he should have handled my annoying questions.

COLBERT: But there are no points in this game for self-control, Anderson. You might have tried something like this. Listen here, Kurtz, while I was knee deep in death gumbo, you sat in your $700 ergonomic office chair with your media critique tweezers picking the knits off the rest of us. Knits we got in the filthy hellscape we used to call the Big Easy.

Where were you, Howie, when I was in the (EXPLETIVE DELETED)? You know...

(APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: ... something like that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Oh yes? Well, you just try that stuff with me, Steven Colbert, and I might just tell the world that you, sir, are a fake journalist.

Fair warning.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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