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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

How Will ABC Anchor Swap Affect Ratings Battle?; Coverage of the Clintons' Marriage

Aired May 28, 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): Dropping anchor. Elizabeth Vargas is out at "World News Tonight", and Charlie Gibson is in, ready to battle Brian Williams and Katie Couric in the nightly news wars. Why did ABC give up on its dual anchor experiment? Can Gibson's experience help "World News" pull out of its ratings nosedive? And will his departure hurt "Good Morning America", where Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts will now be taking on Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira?

On the couch, "The New York Times" analyzes the Clinton's marriage and gets denounced by liberal bloggers in the process. Are the media just prying into their favorite political couple for examining a serious issue for Hillary Clinton's White House ambitions?

Plus meet America's newest media critic, the president of Iran.

And say it ain't so, Spidey. The comics sell out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on ABC's new anchor, the evening news wars, the morning news wars and all the battles in between.

I'm Howard Kurtz, reporting this morning from Los Angeles.

It's been 10 months since the death of Peter Jennings and just five months since ABC handed his job to two younger and lesser known anchors, Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. But then Woodruff was badly injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and Vargas got pregnant, and "World News Tonight" lost nearly a million viewers and was briefly knocked into third place this month by Bob Schieffer's CBS newscast. That led to this week's announcement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELIZABETH VARGAS, OUTGOING ANCHOR, "ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": As of Monday, Charles Gibson will be taking the helm of this broadcast as I focus on anchoring "20/20" and on the arrival of my new child. It's been an honor and a privilege bringing you the news every night.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Gibson, a 63-year-old veteran, who was passed over by ABC last time, will be giving up his morning job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES GIBSON, INCOMING ANCHOR, "ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": Good morning, America, it's Wednesday, May 24, 2006.

ROBIN ROBERTS, CO-HOST, ABC'S "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Say it again.

DIANE SAWYER, CO-HOST, ABC'S "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Practice saying good evening. Let's hear you. Can you do it?

GIBSON: Good evening. And they pay you money for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, what will be the impact on the prestigious evening newscast and on the far more lucrative morning shows? Joining now in Philadelphia, Gail Shister, television columnist for the "Philadelphia Inquirer". In New York, Rebecca Dana, TV columnist for "The New York Observer". In Washington, David Zurawik, television critic for "The Baltimore Sun". And with me in Los Angeles, Linda Douglass, former ABC News correspondent, now a senior fellow at NYU's Brandemas Center. Welcome.

Linda Douglass, a lot of people thought Charlie Gibson was the obvious choice last time around. Why is he getting the job now after ABC had rolled the dice on Elizabeth Vargas?

LINDA DOUGLASS, FORMER ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's been such a rough year for ABC, with the death of Peter Jennings, with the terrible injury of Bob Woodruff.

Clearly, ABC thought they were going to try to experiment with a dual anchor team, No. 1, which hadn't been done successfully before with a younger team. That was the theory. They came in as a team. I keep thinking it's unfair to say that Elizabeth was removed. She wasn't meant to be the solo anchor in the first place.

And so everything went wrong. You pointed out the ratings went down. And so finally, there was the sense that experience, comfort level, a familiar face was really what was needed, I think, to turn this around.

KURTZ: And speaking of experience, David Zurawik, the old thinking may have been who wants a 63-year-old white guy. Was that wrong? And did 69-year-old Bob Schieffer help change that?

DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "BALTIMORE SUN": I think absolutely, Howie. The fact is that ABC, when they announced this, it was new anchors for the digital age. Go, go, go. Youth, youth, youth. They were going to be everywhere. They were going to be doing online broadcasts. And really they overlooked what was going on at CBS.

The fact is that he has at least added 300,000 viewers year to date to that broadcast. And if you go week to week, you're pushing 700,000. Those are enormous numbers. And I think that absolutely drove this.

And I think, Howie, that it's making the industry reconsider how they look at that audience. Should we serve the audience that's there for us?

KURTZ: Right.

ZURAWIK: Or should we go chasing this younger audience that a lot of experts think is a mirage? They're never going to come to the evening news. So go with what you've got. Make some money for the next 20 years.

KURTZ: Gray hair -- gray hair might now be a plus.

Gail Shister, you described Charlie Gibson in your column as trying to right a rudderless ship. Why has the ABC Newscast been rudderless in your view?

GAIL SHISTER, TV COLUMNIST, "PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": God, that's good writing. All right. Why has it been rudderless? Well, it's -- for what Linda was just saying. Is that it was really what I consider a perfect storm of bad circumstances. Nobody who have predicted anything that happened. Elizabeth Vargas told me in February that her pregnancy was totally unplanned. And it certainly wasn't in her career plan to get pregnant at this point.

So, they don't know where they're going. They don't have a true leader. And I think that's part of where the maturity comes in. I know that Gibson is universally respected in the shop. And the gray hairs do count for something. And a lot of people think he should have gotten the job the first time around.

But Howie, I'd like to say that when you say he was passed over, there's some dispute about that the first time. Because David Weston, the president of ABC News, had actually offered Gibson a job. But they couldn't agree on a time table. Gibson wanted to stay through the '08 elections.

GIBSON: Absolutely. Passed over in the sense that they could not figure out a mutually acceptable deal. A lot of people couldn't figure out why one lousy year. Anyway, we don't need to go over that.

Rebecca Dana, you're a young person. Does Charlie Gibson seem to you to be an old school, old guard kind of guy?

REBECCA DANA, TV COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK OBSERVER": You know, I think what it really comes down to is viewers want to see someone they can trust. If you just think about the headlines we saw right before coming into the show, you know, a massive earthquake, three car bombs -- another three car bombs in Baghdad.

As a young viewer, I want to -- I want to get that information from somebody who knows what he's talking about. And Charlie Gibson has 40 years experience with ABC. And I just -- I think it's a false premise that young people want to get news from other young people.

KURTZ: OK. I assume you meant somebody who either he or she knows what they're talking about.

DANA: Yes, I'm sorry.

KURTZ: Linda Douglass, there has been, as you know, some resentment among women that Elizabeth Vargas got a raw deal here because she was pregnant and kind of got pressured perhaps because she wants to spend time with her family. Do you identify with that situation?

DOUGLASS: There's been a lot of talk about women. And I remember when I had my daughter 23 years ago, and I was working for a network, and they wouldn't cut down my travel schedule. I left the network. I went back to local news.

In those days it was a lot tougher to be a correspondent and to have a child than it is today. I think that Elizabeth was in a unique situation. She's 43 years old. That's not a young mother. She's had a tough pregnancy. She's a devoted mother.

The new network news...

KURTZ: It's her second child, yes.

DOUGLASS: Yes. The new network news job requires that you do travel the world. But it is 24/7. That you do update on the West Coast if it's required, that you do a web cast, that you go to Iraq.

So it's not -- it's not that when you're a parent you're discriminated against, necessarily, but while you're a pregnant woman in those vulnerable stages, it is an issue. And I don't think that it's fair, really, to blame the network for that. That was her choice on that particular point.

KURTZ: David Zurawik, why not bring in a co-anchor to work with Vargas and keep her in that seat?

ZURAWIK: Howie, I think there were so many things going on at ABC News that they couldn't -- that was not going to fix it.

I think the other thing, Howie, that people -- two things are going on here. One, I think part of the story we're not talking about is the new owners of these -- of the network news. One of the analysts I talked to said this isn't Bill Paley anymore. Like Paley's the good guy all of a sudden, because he doesn't act this way.

They said you're no longer an anchor for 20 years when you get to be an anchor. These new companies, if the ratings are tanking the way they were for ABC News, they'll change on a dime. And that newscast was in trouble. Bringing in a co-anchor is not going to fix it the way this could.

And also, Howie, as you said earlier, the shadow of Peter Jennings here is so important, and almost everyone at ABC News saw Gibson as the heir apparent. And if you wanted to bring stability to what was clearly a really rocky situation, who better to bring in?

And also when Couric starts in September they're hoping some of those viewers that left them this year for Bob Schieffer will come back over to see this gray-haired, experienced, hard news, no-frills guy at the anchor desk.

KURTZ: Going for the Schieffer vote.

Gail, just -- was the -- was "World News Tonight" in trouble, in difficulty because of Elizabeth Vargas? Or did she get a raw deal?

SHISTER: Boy, this is a tough one, Howie. I was sitting here listening to Linda talk about this. I have a 20-year-old daughter. And you can argue both sides of the point. On one hand, yes, it is difficult for a pregnant woman, particularly in her 40s, to be running around the world.

But I'm -- I'm wondering what kind of message this could send to younger women who aspire to become network anchors. Are they going to reconsider having children at that age? Are they going to -- is this going to affect their life plan in any way? If they're concerned that a woman is stepping down as anchor, whether or not she was pushed is really relevant because of being pregnant. So I think it's a real hot button issue. I don't think we've heard the end of it.

But another thing is that you're asking about the co-anchor situation. I don't know anyone who is supportive of a co-anchor situation at the network news. A lot of people think it's replicating the local news template. There's not enough time in a half hour network newscast to have two people on. And Gibson was adamant that he didn't want a co-anchor situation.

DOUGLASS: There's one other point I would like to add here. You know, Peter Jennings was the managing editor of the newscast. Dan Rather was the managing editor. Katie Couric is going to be the managing editor. Cronkite established that position.

I think it was also -- and co-anchors, it's a much more difficult situation when you have co-anchors being the managing editor. Peter really did manage what went on that show. It's expected that Charlie will do the same thing. So he doesn't just come in as a solo anchor; he comes in as the editor.

KURTZ: The job is a lot more than just reading copy off the prompter. You're making a lot of editorial judgments about what goes on that show.

Rebecca Dana, you're in the Manhattan buzz center, why is it that Katie Couric, who will be starting in September, gets essentially an avalanche of publicity, and Elizabeth Vargas, who has really been a solo female anchor for the last three months, although not by design, has gotten so little?

DANA: Well, that's a very good question, Howie. And I think it comes down to the fact that there are very few stars left in television news. And Katie Couric happens to be one of those stars. And Elizabeth Vargas, for better or worse, isn't. And I guess she isn't because she didn't get a chance to become one. But the fact remains that Katie Couric has a huge following and, you know, arguably is worth every penny of that $15 million contract.

KURTZ: Right. In five or 10 years, Elizabeth Vargas, of course, might have grown into that star status.

DANA: Right.

KURTZ: David Zurawik, I want to just go back to what happened on Friday when it was that lockdown at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington. Six hours of nonstop cable coverage. Turned out somebody thought they'd heard a gunshot. It was really just construction noise. Was that -- how shall I put it -- an absurd overreaction on the part of the cable networks?

ZURAWIK: You know, Howie, actually, as you know, we were sitting in the studio here. And I don't think. You know, seeing it from this end, I think that really, the cable networks, given their message -- their mission, that they have to err on the side of over covering that kind of story. Because in a way, they are the cable -- they are the channels of record.

I don't think they overreacted. I mean, I really think that, had there been a gunman, had there been something going on at that Rayburn building, they were the ones, particularly CNN here, who needed to be all over it.

I don't think so. When you're sitting back in Baltimore watching it on TV, it's easy to go, "Why are you overreacting?" And I think most of the news people, those of us sitting there knew it was going to be a safe event, nothing big.

KURTZ: Right. Right.

ZURAWIK: But still you have to cover it. That's our job as newsmen.

SHISTER: OK, I disagree, Howie. I've got to jump in here.

KURTZ: Just briefly. Very briefly.

SHISTER: Briefly, OK. Totally disagree. It was typical cable overreaction. They have to fill the maw. They could have broken into other programming if anything had happened.

KURTZ: All right. I vote with Gail.

Coming up, let's get a break here. The other nighttime newcomer, Katie Couric, is saying good-bye to "The Today Show" this coming week. How did she stay on top for 10 years and how will she fare in Walter Cronkite's old chair? More from our panel, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: For 15 years, the last 10 of them in first place, Katie Couric has shown up for breakfast as co-host of "The Today Show." Her last day before moving over to CBS as incoming anchor is Wednesday, and the NBC program is looking back at some of her most interesting moments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know what one candidate said about you, blame it on Katie Couric. But I don't want to get in a fight with you.

COURIC: I was trying to prove my manhood. What did you think about...

BUSH: You were?

JIM CARREY, ACTOR: What kind of a journalist are you?

COURIC: How is this, George?

I think I need a little mouth to mouth.

Welcome to "The Tonight Show."

Eddie says, "I'm a big fan of yours, and I think you have the most beautiful legs on TV." Well, thank you, Eddie, that's very nice of you. "Are we going to get a chance to see them?"

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, NBC'S "THE TODAY SHOW": Has anybody seen Katie?

Smooth landing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Linda Douglass, I don't think we'll be seeing Charlie Gibson do that?

DOUGLASS: You never know.

KURTZ: What is it about Katie Couric, with Matt Lauer, that has enabled her to stay on top in such a competitive time period for so many years?

DOUGLASS: Well, it's the very thing that may make both Katie and Charlie appeal to the evening audience, as well. And that's the likability factor. It's the versatility factor. It's a person with great range who's not only knowledgeable about the news but also can laugh and also can make you comfortable sitting at home in your bathrobe with a cup of coffee watching morning television. I mean, there's a warmth factor. It works for political candidates and it certainly works for morning anchors.

KURTZ: Gail Shister, will "Good Morning America", in your view, be hurt by Diane Sawyer losing Charlie Gibson and now being paired with a lesser known Robin Roberts, who was an ESPN sportscaster before moving over to ABC? SHISTER: I think it's inevitable, Howie, because I think that the "X" factor here is whether Diane Sawyer leaves ABC or whether she leaves "Good Morning America." There's been a lot of buzz that she wanted the anchor job on "World News Tonight". She denies it. Charlie Gibson denies that she wanted the job. But still, there are a lot of people that believe she did want it and that, because she didn't get it, that she will leave the show. Now, I think...

KURTZ: Let's talk to you about leaving the show. I'm told she didn't want the evening job. But let's say she doesn't leave the show.

SHISTER: Right. I was told the same thing.

KURTZ: She's still a pretty big star, obviously.

SHISTER: She's a huge star. And I think that "GMA" will do OK without Charlie, because I think that there's enough with Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts. And whether they're bringing a third person, I don't know. ABC says they aren't planning on it. But if they bring in somebody that -- where the chemistry works, I think they'll be OK.

KURTZ: I think that third person would most likely be a man.

Rebecca Dana, will "The Today Show", on the other hand, find it difficult to avoid a ratings dip without Katie Couric, as Matt Lauer and the audience have to get used to a new person, and that's Meredith Vieira?

DANA: Well, I think I disagree with Gail a little bit on the point about "Good Morning America". I think sort of the prevailing theory of morning show programming, is that you should have your anchors resemble a traditional nuclear family. And that's where "The Today Show" is so strong, you know. They have a mom, a dad, and you know, a weather man and Anne Curry reading the headlines. And by taking Katie Couric out and putting Meredith Vieira in, I don't think you'll see much of a change. Whereas at "Good Morning America", now they have this weird situation with two mommies and no daddy.

SHISTER: What's wrong with two moms?

DANA: There's nothing wrong with two mommies, except, you know, viewers decide what they like to see. And while ABC News president David Westin has said it's not really a priority to stick a man in there, you can bet that they'll spend the summer looking for a big male star that they can put in that place.

KURTZ: David Zurawik, do you want to weigh in on these gender politics discussion?

ZURAWIK: Well, no. The first thing, though, really, to knock down false buzz. I agree with you. I was told Diane Sawyer did not want that job either, and that she is going nowhere either. So we should, you know. There's no buzz there.

As far as the morning, I think ABC does -- I talked to Jim Bell, the producer of "The Today Show", executive producer of "The Today Show", this week. And he -- I think he does feel confident with Vieira and Lauer, that he's got his team in place and that ABC now has to figure out what they're going to do.

I mean, he's got a transition ahead of him. They see that clearly. But at least they have a team in place that they're ready to go with. I think ABC still needs to add a male presence for that broadcast. And it's shopping for it right now.

SHISTER: And I think they will.

KURTZ: All right. Well, we will see on that.

ZURAWIK: Right, Gail. Thank you.

SHISTER: Any time, Zurawik.

KURTZ: Before we go, Linda Douglass. We're going to talk in our next half hour -- excuse me -- about a story by ABC's Brian Rush, your former colleague, reporting that federal investigators in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal are looking at House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Hastert says that's not true. The Justice Department says that's not true. Do you think that story was overplayed or over hyped?

DOUGLASS: Well, it was a very controversial story. Obviously, ABC chose to lead with the story that Hastert was allegedly in the mix. They used some loaded words, "Is part of the investigation"; "the investigation now includes Dennis Hastert." So it was a controversial story.

My suspicion is that the FBI, which was very angry at Hastert for trying to stop their investigation of congressional offices, may very well have pointed the finger at Hastert. And there has been...

KURTZ: In other words, the leak may have come from the Justice Department?

DOUGLASS: Well, no, from the FBI.

KURTZ: From the FBI. Because Hastert, who was among those complaining about the raid on Congressman William Jefferson's office. He's the guy with the $90,000 in the freezer.

DOUGLASS: Exactly. And trying to stop, perhaps, future investigations in congressional offices.

KURTZ: So answer the question in 15 seconds: did ABC overplay that story?

DOUGLASS: Well, I think leading with it was a controversial decision, is what I would say. And I think that saying he was part of the investigation, if in fact his name just came up, was -- was a phrase you might want to revisit.

KURTZ: All right. Linda Douglass, David Zurawik, Rebecca Dana, Gail Shister, thanks for a fascinating conversation on the evening and morning news wars.

And we'll talk more about that Hastert story in our second half hour. But up next, why one of "Newsweek's" most talked about coverage was, well, spectacularly wrong. And Brad and Angelina find unusual way to control press coverage of their brand new baby girl. Our "Media Roundup" just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now to check on the latest in the world of media news.

It took 20 years, but we can now tell you that this "Newsweek" cover was wrong. The magazine said that 40-year-old single white college educated women were, quote, "more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find a husband." Only a 2.6 percent chance.

Well, "The Wall Street Journal" discovered that more than 90 percent of those women, now 50 to 60 years old, did get married, hopefully not to terrorists.

Now the new issue of "Newsweek" says the 1986 story was based on flawed statistics and was too pessimistic. And the writer of the infamous terrorist line says that her language was supposed to be taken tongue-in-cheek.

Remember all of that noise when Howard Stern made when CBS sued him for improperly promoting his move to Sirius Satellite Radio? Well, the static is over. Sirius has agreed in a settlement to pay $2 million in exchange for access to Stern's old tapes from his two decades at CBS Radio.

And more fabrication in the media world. Virginia's "Richmond Times-Dispatch" said yesterday it has fired reporter Paul Bradley for making up an interview and falsifying a trip in gathering reaction to President Bush's immigration speech. Bradley said he committed, quote, "an indefensible journalistic sin." He's got that right.

Finally, the most important news of the weekend, maybe the year, maybe the decade. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had their baby girl yesterday in Namibia. She's named Shiloh. And if you are a journalist and you want to go there and cover the new edition, well, you can't. Not without the couple's written permission. The Namibian government says it won't give nosey reporters visas unless the movie stars say it's OK. Now that is star power.

Who's running this world anyway? Don't answer that.

Coming up in our second half hour, Bill and Hillary Clinton's marriage, including how many weekends they spent together. That's front page news? "The New York Times" thinks so.

Plus, House Speaker Dennis Hastert wants a retraction from ABC's Brian Ross.

And later, what controversial world leader has become the latest U.S. media critic? We'll ask radio talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt.

All that after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELISSA LONG, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Melissa Long at the CNN Center in Atlanta. RELIABLE SOURCES continues in a moment. But first, now in the news, searching for bodies and burying the dead. The death toll from yesterday's powerful quake in Indonesia is now close to 4,000. 200,000 people are homeless. Hospitals report being overwhelmed treating the injured. The United Nations sending food and medicine to the area.

Pope Benedict XVI is enjoying superstar status while traveling through Poland. Nearly a million people showed up at mass this morning as he delivered the homily in Polish. Later today, the pope is expected to visit the Auschwitz camp before flying back to home.

And on the Brangelina baby watch, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie welcome their daughter, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt into what "People" magazine describes as the world's beautiful family.

A celebrity obsession? Join "CNN PRESENTS" tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern. Who's manipulating you into caring about glamorous strangers?

More headlines in 30 minutes. RELIABLE SOURCES continues after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

When Bill and Hillary Clinton were in the White House, their marriage was a source of endless fascination to the media, especially after Bill denied having sexual relations with that woman. And well, you know how that turned out.

Now that Hillary Clinton is a senator who may well run for her husband's old job, their marriage is front page news, at least in "The New York Times". A story this week by Patrick Healy said, "Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife. The dynamics of a couple's marriage are hard to gauge from the outside, even for a couple as well known as the Clintons. But interviews with some 50 people and a review of their respective activities shows that since leaving the White House, Bill and Hillary Clinton have built largely separate lives, partly because of the demands of their distinct career paths and partly as a result of political calculations."

Liberal bloggers were quick to denounce the piece, "Slate" magazine's Jake Shafer writing, "Healy could directly ask, 'Is Bill cheating?' Instead he writes a donut around the subject."

Well, joining us now in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle". In Washington, Bill Press, host of "The Bill Press Show" on Sirius Satellite Radio and a former commentator here at CNN. And with me in L.A., Patt Morrison, columnist for "The Los Angeles Times". Welcome.

Patt Morrison, are the liberal bloggers right? Is this "New York Times" piece really about whether the former president of the United States is fooling around on the former first lady?

PATT MORRISON, COLUMNIST, "L.A. TIMES": Well, if it's a donut, it's a glazed donut, because my eyes glazed over when I read this. This story is 14, 15 years old. There hasn't been a marriage dissected like this since Henry VIII and, what, Ann Boleyn? Or maybe Charles and Diana, when the tabloid press counted how many nights and days they actually spent together.

Come on. You know, when they say that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. Come on, we've got a lot of celebrities you guys can have. We love the incumbents. Send them back to Washington, get some fresh news.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, do you -- do you think the Clintons' marriage should be analyzed, and scrutinized and taken apart at great length on the front page of "The New York Times"?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, COLUMNIST, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Yes, I do. And I don't think that people go to work at "The New York Times" so they can hide in bushes and watch what a couple does. But "The New York Times" would be derelict if it didn't report on this. Newspapers don't exist so that they can not tell people what they're wondering about. And Democratic primary voters want to know if Hillary Clinton runs for president is the personal life going to be an issue?

And by the way, I mean, of there are any Republicans who are triumphant about this, they're crazy. Because you don't know how this story's going to play. People will make up their minds whether they care about this or not.

But it's something people want to know about. I think it was handled deftly. And he only wrote about their public social lives. He didn't hide in the bushes. So yes, it's fair game.

KURTZ: And Bill Press, that's the justification for the "Times" piece, that this is going to be a factor if Hillary Clinton runs for president. She will be bringing in Bill Clinton as the first spouse, so why not examine it?

BILL PRESS, HOST, SIRIUS SATELLITE RADIO'S "THE BILL PRESS SHOW": Howie, I've got breaking news for you this morning. Thursday night at the Sons of Italy Foundation Dinner here in Washington, D.C., I was there. Bill and Hillary were together. I said hello to them. They sat together at the dinner. They spoke together as a couple. They went out to dinner afterwards at Cafe Milano in Washington, D.C. Roll the presses.

I mean, I agree with Patt. I think, you know, as a talk show host, I was really excited when I saw this story, because I thought, "Oh, this is going to be really juicy stuff to talk about." There was nothing; nothing new in the story.

And I disagree with Debra. Let me tell you, I talk to a lot of Democrats, top Democrats around the country. There are a lot of issues about Hillary's candidacy, possible candidacy. Why she's so soft on Iraq, why she's so hawkish on Iraq. Can she win any red states? But let me tell you, the state of their marriage is not something Democrats are worried about or talking about.

KURTZ: Is this a new media standard, Patt Morrison? Will the press be looking at John McCain's marriage, and Rudy Giuliani's marriage and Newt Gingrich's divorce and all of that? Or is this kind of special scrutiny that the press only reserves for the Clinton, because -- well, because we find them so fascinating?

MORRISON: I think, by his actions, Bill Clinton opened a door that has not been shut. And maybe they're not able to shut it. The question is whether we should be peeking in that door and whether it opens the door onto these other marriages.

It does beg the question: if you have McCain in the race, will his marriage be subject to the same scrutiny? There are going to be people who argue that yes, it ought to be.

KURTZ: And I guess that's -- go ahead, Debra.

SAUNDERS: Look at Rudy Giuliani. I mean, his personal life when he was mayor was a mess. And he can go to people and say, "I didn't have a greatest marriage, but when you're in a trench, I'm the guy you want to have with me."

But it's not as if the media can ignore that aspect of his personal life. I mean, it's out there, and it's public. We're not talking about very private lives here. We're talking about -- in the Patt Healy story, it was about their public social behavior.

PRESS: But you see, it begs the question about how -- if I can just jump in here for a second -- that Bill and Hillary are still together despite all the bumps in the road. And that's pretty unusual. Look at Rudy Giuliani. Look at John McCain.

They're still together. It may not work for the rest of us, but it works for them.

SAUNDERS: And you know what I love about this story, though? The Clintons told their friends they didn't want to talk to the media. But their friends did. How did that happen? And now once again, everybody feels sort of kind of sorry for Hillary Clinton. I mean, this could put her into the White House for all we know.

KURTZ: But let me come back with Bill Press to the media coverage.

PRESS: Yes.

KURTZ: If the Clintons are -- leaving aside your very nice dinner with them. If they are plotting their public appearances so that he won't overshadow her, as happened when they both spoke at the Coretta Scott King funeral, then why shouldn't "The New York Times" look at that? There's an aspect of political stage management here that inevitably would become part of any campaign narrative?

PRESS: Just for the record I did not have dinner with them at Cafe Milano. I was one of a thousand at the Sons of Italy.

But -- but your point is very well taken, Howie, and gets back to what I -- what I said earlier. That legitimate issue, for example, with Bill Clinton, all of his activity around the world. If she's president of the United States, could some of his activities -- look at the Dubai ports deal, right? -- conflict with what she does as senator or as president? That would have been a front page story.

Whether or not, you know, they're sleeping together every night because they're so busy, I don't think is a front page story.

KURTZ: But you say that, because the entire world watched the year in 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky scandal basically led to Bill Clinton's impeachment and raise all those questions about their marriage, which of course, led Hillary to talk about the vast right- wing conspiracy, which of course, probably helped her get elected to the Senate, that they can't just now say, "That's all in the past and we never have to talk about it any more"?

MORRISON: I don't think they can close the door again. But it cuts -- the door swings both ways. Because when it opens on the Clinton marriage, it opens on lots of others.

Remember Rudy Giuliani talking about leaving his wife and sleeping on the couch with a couple of gay friends in their apartment in Manhattan. How is that going to play? Is that going to be revisited? I think you set up a continuum that everybody is going to have to look at a template for covering.

KURTZ: The question I would raise, Debra Saunders, is are people as fascinated by all of this, or is it really just media reporters, or, you know, journalists who would rather deal with, shall we say, the more gossipy side of politics than write a 4,000-word piece on Hillary Clinton's health care proposes or immigration plan?

SAUNDERS: Well, character does count. And everybody is curious about this marriage. Do they love each other? What binds them together? And this is a story that looked at it. And their friends, gosh darn it, were able to talk about how they really do have this special bond.

You know, if you write memoirs about your life and you bill yourself as Billary, then stories like this are going to happen.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

PRESS: Yes, Howie. I just want to say, this belonged -- this is a legitimate story. It belonged on "Page six" of "The New York Post", not page one of "The New York Times." That's the point, I think.

KURTZ: All right. I've got to change subjects on you. Sorry, Patt.

I would like to turn now to the controversy over an ABC News reporter and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. On "World News Tonight" Brian Ross reported that the Jack Abramoff lobbying investigation now included the Illinois congressman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Elizabeth, federal officials tell us the congressional bribery investigation now includes the speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, based on information from the convicted lobbyists, who are cooperating with the government.

VARGAS: The political implications are huge, if in fact Speaker Hastert is now a target of this FBI investigation.

ROSS: Potentially seismic, Elizabeth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Within minutes, the Justice Department issued a rare on the record denial, saying there was no investigation of Hastert, who has now demanded a retraction from ABC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R-IL), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It's just not true. You know, the Justice Department said there is no investigation, and you know, this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people. And we're just not going to be intimidated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, the Justice Department says it's not true. Congressman Hastert says it's not true. Brian Ross says that his unnamed sources report that Hastert has come under scrutiny. But he said in that actual story the allegations could well prove unfounded.

Would you have gone with that story?

SAUNDERS: Well, I think it's pretty clear that the story was overplayed. I mean, it would be surprising if Denny Hastert weren't in the mix when the FBI is looking into the Abramoff allegations. That said...

KURTZ: What does that mean, in the mix? That was the phraseology Brian Ross used.

SAUNDERS: Exactly. That's the question. I mean, obviously, the speaker of the house. Abramoff had a lot of ties with GOP biggies. Of course he's in the mix. And of course they're looking at it. And of course they overplayed the story.

But you know, Denny Hastert really played into this. This was going to be a story about William Jefferson and the $90,000 of cash in his freezer. And if -- even if Hastert thought that, he should have kept his mouth shut, because he turned it into a story about him.

KURTZ: Bill Press, the specifics here are actually rather old. It has to do with a letter that Hastert signed three years ago to the Interior Department that would have helped out Abramoff's Indian casino clients. And Abramoff, as he did for a number of lawmakers, held a fund-raiser that benefited Dennis Hastert. But given that we already knew that, should this have been the lead story on "World News Tonight"?

PRESS: Howie, I don't know all the facts in the case. I think none of us do. But let me tell you, I think Brian Ross is the best investigative reporter in the business. I'm sure that Brian Ross would not gone on ABC if he didn't have at least two good sources behind his story.

I think Hastert overreacted. I think Debra is right in this case. He has made this story, instead of a story about a Democrat getting in trouble, he's made the story about Dennis Hastert maybe being in trouble. And it looks like one of the reasons he's so upset now is because he doesn't want them to search his office the same way they searched Bill -- William Jefferson's office. So I don't think he wins by this.

KURTZ: ABC stands by the story. Brian Ross told me he went back to his sources after the denials and they said that his information was correct. But Patt Morrison, if you wrote a story about federal investigators, let's say scrutinizing a politician, and the Justice Department came out on the record and said that was wrong, would you be worried?

MORRISON: I think that what we're looking at here is difference in language. It's being parsed very carefully. He was not called a target. I think he was -- it was said that he was part of the investigation.

My concern, always with unnamed sources is that you get caught in the crossfire. And the question is whether the FBI was upset with Hastert's office enough, given the William Jefferson stuff, to go after him through ABC. And that would have been the first question.

KURTZ: In other words, this was a politically timed leak?

MORRIS: Yes, exactly.

KURTZ: Because the FBI was outraged that Hastert, as well as Nancy Pelosi, are saying how dare the Justice Department search a congressman's office, even if they have the congressman allegedly -- on videotape allegedly taking money in an envelope?

MORRIS: I'm shocked, shocked that a source would want to use the press for something. But it's happened before. ABC is sticking bye its story. It parsed its language extremely carefully.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, I've got about 15 seconds. Final thought?

SAUNDERS: I think Denny Hastert should control himself a little more. And even if he's right, he should have kept his mouth shut.

PRESS: Howie, final thought, it goes with the territory. And Hastert ought to know it.

KURTZ: Radio talk show hosts know how to be brief. Debra Saunders, Bill Press, Patt Morrison here in L.A., thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, media criticism from a most unlikely source. We'll tell you what the president of Iran has to say about the western media.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) * KURTZ: Wolf Blitzer will be right here in Los Angeles for "LATE EDITION" in just a few moments. Welcome back.

Everyone is a media critic these days. When Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote a rambling letter to President Bush, he had a few things to say about the American press. "After 9/11, instead of healing and tending to the emotional wounds of the survivors and the American people, some western media only intensified the climates of fear and insecurity. Some constantly talked about the possibility of new terror attacks and kept the people in fear. Is that a service to the American people? Why was the media, instead of conveying a feeling of security and providing peace of mind, giving rise to a feeling of insecurity? Some believe that the hype paved the way -- and was the justification -- for an attack on Afghanistan."

Hugh Hewitt, conservative radio talk show host based in California, highlighted those passages on his blog. He's the author of a new book, "Painting the Map Red". I spoke with him earlier in Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Do you -- welcome.

HUGH HEWITT, CONSERVATIVE RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Good to be here, Howie.

KURTZ: How do you dig out this media indictment from Ahmadinejad's letter?

HEWITT: I read the letter when it first came out. And then I was at a Museum of Television and Broadcast for a group think with a bunch of people, including this network's president. And I remembered, to bring along the letter, so that they would know that not only have a lot of American audience lost confidence and trust in mainstream media but that the president of Iran is blaming them for the invasion of Afghanistan.

KURTZ: What do you make of the president of Iran castigating the American media for hyping the threat of terrorism? HEWITT: It is an odd segue. First he insinuates that the American intelligence community has something to do with the attack. He goes through his anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rant. But then he sounds like a right-wing talk show host, because he begins banging on the American media and their abrogation of their charter of precision and complexity...

KURTZ: Are you saying there's a similarity between what he says and what you say on the air?

HEWITT: No, because this was the only time in the last three years I thought big time media was doing its job, the one time he hated it.

KURTZ: Are we not supposed to know that Iran doesn't have this problem, because its media have very little freedom to criticize?

HEWITT: Very ironic. This week there are some pictures coming out of Tehran of the suppression of the students at Tehran University, reports that say that perhaps shots have been fired -- we don't know that for sure -- at Tehran University. And so yes, his letter is an enormous exercise in denial at the same time that it's a very alarming document.

KURTZ: Now putting aside for the moment Ahmadinejad, do American news outlets sometimes over-dramatize terror threats?

HEWITT: No, I don't think so. I don't think you can over- dramatize existential threats. I think that they, in fact...

KURTZ: What if it turns out to be nothing? What if it's a color coded alert because somebody got a tip that a building ought to be evacuated, that kind of thing?

HEWITT: You know, that's the price we're going to pay for living in a post-9/11 world. When the president of a would-be nuclear power sends a letter to you that says you're too alarmist, that means he does not want the media to be focusing on what he wants, which is nuclear capacity.

And he doesn't have to worry too much, because most of the media ignored this letter. They ignored his indictment of U.N., of all these global organizations. They ignored his call for Bush basically to convert. They ignored the implicit threat that he signed the letter as the prophet used to sign his letters prior to invasion.

It was a remarkable turning of the head away from the content of the letter. And I think he likes media and he just threw this in to make sure you guys go he's watching you.

KURTZ: So you, Hugh Hewitt, who wakes up in the morning and criticizes the media, go to sleep at night and criticize the media, have no criticism of the media in terms of the way they cover terror threats and that whole area?

HEWITT: No, I think they have to do exactly what they do in any other natural disaster, which is first get the information that the government insists get out. You can criticize the government if the information is wrong but not the media. Because that is -- the Emergency Broadcast System updated with 25,000 channels and different ways to get it out there. But if they refuse to carry the kind of news that could save lives, especially in a disaster, they will have failed in their first (ph).

KURTZ: Is there not a danger, particularly on some of these ephemeral intelligence chatter -- it turns out to be nothing. That sometimes in the case. That we in the news business scare people, if you put it on cable eight straight hours?

HEWITT: It's a scary world. That's what he says. That's what Ahmadinejad says, you're scaring people. They should be allowed to live in peace and security.

KURTZ: You're quoting him as an authority.

HEWITT: He is. He is an authority on how you should not do the job that you have been doing successfully, which is to let people know that there are at least hundreds of thousands of people who would murder them in their sleep and that some of them are drawing close.

And that, for example, I don't think London media did a lot of investigation prior to last July as to the homegrown threat, and as to whether or not people ought to be more alarmed and more aware.

It is not -- you don't want panic; you don't want McCarthyism. You do want very solid, sophisticated reporting on the enemy and what they would do.

KURTZ: You were recently at a conference on the future of news and all the hand-wringing about how we do we find an audience and hold an audience and expand the audience. You said that the major problem in the news media today is the ideological imbalance in the work force.

Now if that's the case, is it because news organizations are biased against conservatives when they hire? Or is it because many conservatives don't apply for these jobs? They go into opinion journalism. They don't want to be a police reporter at the local paper?

HEWITT: A little bit of that, but the most important think in the elite media is its self-selection. You hire your friends. If you go to the Harvard and you comp (ph) on the Crimson and you come out of the Crimson and you want to go to "The New York Times", or one of the other similar elite media institutions, a place will be made for you. It is old boys and old girls network which has functioned for the last 100 years. It's got Columbia School of Journalism mixed into it. It's sometimes...

KURTZ: Are conservatives knocking on those doors?

HEWITT: No. That's not true. KURTZ: A lot of times I find they're applying to the "National Review" and the "Weekly Standard" and maybe FOX and other places. And therefore, then there's a complaint, well, newsrooms aren't well represented on the right.

HEWITT: Well, they should do some recruiting, if we believe in affirmative action for all sorts of characteristics. Big media that wants to correct that imbalance should go back out there.

KURTZ: To include people who have -- who have openly advertised conservative views for a job in which you're not supposed to tilt one way or the other?

HEWITT: But we all know that everyone tilts one way or the other. They just hide it better or less.

And my argument at this conference was that transparency means tell people what you believe so that they can correct for the lie of the green. And if you want trust back -- that was what our big thing was, how do you get trust? The most trusted journalist in America -- it might shock you -- is Rush Limbaugh. He has the highest sustained audience. And I made that argument to them. And people can't argue with his rebranding as America's anchorman.

KURTZ: But Rush Limbaugh would make no pretense of being an objective journalist. He's a commentator.

HEWITT: Though he also does information dissemination, which is what I do and what you do.

KURTZ: Don't you think there's a place for people who at least try, however flawed, however imperfect they may be, who try to tell both sides of the story, as opposed to a radio talk show host who's paid for his opinions?

HEWITT: No, I actually try and bring, for example, when I do constitutional law, Irwin Shimmer (ph), John Eastman, left and right together to clash. Because it's in confrontation we learn in the trial system.

KURTZ: You're an opinionated guy.

HEWITT: I am, but I make sure that people know what my beliefs are and that I let other people come onto my program, left, right or center, to debate with me.

I think what is most important in big media, Howard, is that we got to get people to tell people what they believe, who they are aligned with. Because I don't trust folks who won't tell me what everyone else in America will tell me.

KURTZ: All right. Hugh Hewitt, thanks very much for joining us.

HEWITT: Good to be here, Howard.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Hugh Hewitt. When we come back, "Pow!" Comic books go corporate in a very disturbing trend.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Well, it's official: no part of the media world is safe from creeping capitalism.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over) We've all heard about feature films or TV shows that have taken corporate money for product placements. But as someone who was into Spider-Man before it was cool, I always regarded comic books as the last bastion of purity.

Well, now I read in the "Wall Street Journal" that Time Warner's DC Comics, the home of such crime fighters such as Batman, is launching a six-party miniseries called "Rush City" that will feature plenty of Pontiacs as part of a deal with General Motors. Holly sellout, Batman!

And Marvel Comics has started putting Nike's swoosh logo on its new X-Men. The old X-Men never would have stood for this. And Spidey and Captain America may be tooling around in a new Dodge in an arrangement with Daimler-Chrysler.

(on camera) Is nothing sacred? I know Marvel characters are supposed to be more realistic, but do they have to be such soulless capitalists? What's next, a Mini Cooper as the Batmobile? Designer super costumes by Ralph Lauren? Wonder Woman's jewelry by Tiffany?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. We'll see you back in Washington next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern, 7 Pacific, for another critical look at the media.

"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.

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