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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Presidential Media Blitz; Are Media Idolizing Barack Obama?
Aired October 22, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Presidential media blitz. George Bush talks to Bill O'Reilly and has conservative radio hosts in for a chat.
Dick Cheney takes his case to Rush Limbaugh. Will this White House campaign lure disaffected voters to the polls on Election Day, or are these friendly interviewers just playing to the base?
Barack Obama, star of time, "TIME," "Newsweek" and Oprah. Does the senator walk on water, or have the media gone off the deep end?
Plus, the 300 millionth American, a made-for-television drama.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media's coverage of the midterm elections as the president and vice president hit the airwaves.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
The White House has a very large megaphone and has cranked up the volume this week with President Bush sitting down with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, and at the administration's favorite network, FOX News, with Bill O'Reilly.
BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": There's one other reason they've turned against the war in Iraq, is that the anti-Bush press hounds day in and day out in the newspapers, on the network news, in books like Bob Woodward's that you don't know what you're doing there.
KURTZ (voice over): Vice President Cheney took to the friendly confines of "The Rush Limbaugh Show".
RUSH LIMBAUGH, HOST, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW": There was a story in "The Washington Post" yesterday or earlier in the week that the reporter was amazed that the president and Karl Rove remained "inexplicably upbeat" about the outcome of the elections and that there is no plan for -- if Republicans lose the House and/or the Senate.
Can you tell us yet upbeat attitude in the White House?
RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, because, you know, we're out there working hard in connection with this campaign because I think we feel like we've got some great candidates.
KURTZ: The administration is increasingly courting talk radio. Last month, Bush had a number of top conservative radio talkers over to the White House, including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Neal Boortz and Michael Medved.
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk all of this in Springfield, Massachusetts, Rachel Maddow, host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America Radio.
In Seattle, Michael Medved, who hosts "The Michael Medved Show" on the Salem Radio Network.
And here in Washington, John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine "Slate" and author of the new book, "On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News's First Woman Star".
Michael Medved, what was this private meeting with Bush and a handful of other conservative radio hosts like, and what do you think the president got out of it?
MICHAEL MEDVED, SALEM RADIO: Well, it wasn't so private. I mean, it was one of those things that I talked about on my radio show to three million people the day that it happened, and I wrote a detailed description of it on my blog, and so did all of my colleagues talk about it.
What's amazing to me, Howard, is that "The New York Times" -- we had this meeting September 15th -- they covered it a month later. And the whole purpose of the meeting was for some of us who do have big audiences to be able to sit down and to talk more personally to the president, to see his state of mind, because with -- with all this bashing that Bush has received he really is remarkably upbeat, positive, in command, and he's enormously smarter when you talk to him personally.
Here's the thing that he impressed me the most: he actually pronounced "nuclear" correctly several times.
KURTZ: Now there's a news flash.
Rachel Maddow, liberal hosts like you spend a lot of time beating up on Bush and Cheney. So is it surprising that they would seek out Limbaugh and O'Reilly as kind of a counter way?
RACHEL MADDOW, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: No, I'm sure it isn't. And it actually follows what they've done for their media strategy from the very beginning, which is to kind of exalt and super serve the conservative media to the extent that they can, and to undermine and denigrate the mainstream media to the extent that they can. I mean, we've seen what they've done with the conservatives at the same time that they've kind of renewed attacks on mainstream journalists. And in terms of the progressive media, they just ignore us, but that's, of course, to be -- that's, of course, to be expected.
This is what they've done from the very beginning. The question is whether it's still a smart strategy when this much of the country is kind of turning against the Republican Party.
KURTZ: John Dickerson, playing to the base question, don't most of the people who watch O'Reilly or listen to Rush already support the Republicans?
JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE.COM: Yes, they do, but those are the people that the Republicans need turn out in the election. And the bashing of the president may have been going on in the mainstream media, but it's also going on in the conservative media.
There are a lot of questions about deficit spending, about neoconservatism. So what the president's doing is rallying the base and talking to people who when they have this contact with the president are willing and more likely to recognize these qualities that the president surely has, and then talk about them to their viewers. So this is a -- this is a campaign year thing.
KURTZ: Michael Medved, both O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh talked about what a hard time the -- what O'Reilly calls the left-wing press is giving Bush. Now, leaving aside the years that they and others spent trashing Bill Clinton, is that a winning argument in the campaign, you know, beating up on the media?
MEDVED: Well, I think it's going to be an effective argument increasingly, because we've had so many October surprises. And I just happened to notice on CNN right before our show here we had a headline with Jack Cafferty that said "Broken Government". Lou Dobbs just did a special on your network, and the special was called the "War on the Middle Class."
I mean, look, FOX News is partisan, there's no question about it. I don't think FOX News is fair and balanced. But increasingly, it seems to me that many of the other outlets, including yours, have taken a very clear side, and the side has been anti-administration. And I do think that that negativity is going to help rally the conservative base come November.
MADDOW: Well, if I might...
KURTZ: Go ahead.
MADDOW: I was just going to say, it's interesting to try to create the "us versus them" dynamic in politics heading into the election. They always do that, whether it's, you know, versus the liberals, versus the Democrats, versus the mainstream media. The question is whether that's going to continue to work for them. The country right now is by and large very anti-Republican. And I'm not just saying that because I'm somebody who's partisan on the left. I mean, the polls bear me out.
And if you can try to create an "us versus them" dynamic, the "us" at this point is very small. They are talking to their niche, to their base, but that niche and that base is getting very, very tiny.
KURTZ: Rachel, since you are "them" for purposes of the Bush administration, I'm wondering, for example, on Tuesday the White House is staging a big talk radio summit. This was something that Bill Clinton invented a dozen years ago, where hosts from around the country will come under a tent and administration officials will grant interviews on the lawn of the White House.
Are you interested in going to that?
MADDOW: Well, I've placed a number of calls, actually, to the White House Press Office asking if I could come along. I mean, I'm, you know, on 50 stations across the country, and most of the top 10, and one of the biggest talk radio show hosts on the left there is in the country, and they can't seem to return my calls.
I think it's more -- this is very specifically -- it's a right- wing talk radio summit. They're not interested in the progressive media.
MEDVED: If I could -- if I could just jump in for a moment, I do think there are misunderstandings about right-wing talk radio. There's no question that our audiences are overwhelmingly people who are more conservative. But we've done market studies, and they've done market studies for shows like Rush and Sean, and about a third of people who listen are people who are self-identified Democrats. And the notion that -- and just like there are people on the right who would listen to Rachel's show.
I think what's important is ongoing debate like we're having right now. For instance, I would love to have Rachel come on my show and defend her point of view, and I'd return the favor.
I'd be glad to go on your show any time, Rachel, to argue some of these issues.
MADDOW: Happy to do it, Michael. We could maybe book this later.
KURTZ: On-air booking.
Now, John Dickerson, the president and vice president have talked to the MSM as well, the mainstream media. "TIME" magazine has an interview with Dick Cheney in this coming issue. And the president, as I mentioned, sat down with George Stephanopoulos.
Let's take a look at some of that ABC interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC "WORLD NEWS": You've used some pretty tough rhetoric there. You said this election is a choice between Republicans and Democrats who want to wave the white flag of surrender in the war on terror.
Can you name a Democrat who wants to wave the white flag of...
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can name a Democrat who said there ought to be a date certain from which to withdraw from Iraq, whether or not we've achieved the victory or not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: When Bush does an interview with a more tough-minded network journalist, does he benefit in a way from having to hit major league pitching?
DICKERSON: He does. Nixon used to talk about this when he said, "The toughest questions are the best because they show me being commanding and in control of the moment." Also, though, for Republican voters to see the president out there saying these things in a mainstream audience, standing up and saying things about the Democrats that are this cutting and sharp, is a sign to that base that this is a president who is really standing up and out there fighting. And there are a lot of Republicans who feel at different times that this administration has not pushed back hard enough, and so this is a way to do that.
KURTZ: Michael Medved, if you look at the big stories in recent weeks, the Iraq war, obviously, with the carnage increasing there, the Mark Foley page scandal, and others, how much of a difference do a bunch of interviews make?
MEDVED: Well, they make a big difference because they show, again, that this idea that Republicans are all suicidal and we're perched on the ledge and we're going to lose everything, the election is still two weeks away. And that's an eternity in politics, and it's important to turn things around.
And I do believe that the Mark Foley case has been the most over- covered story of the year, and just relentlessly again and again and again. And the media won't let it go.
I think that some of this hammering is beginning to produce a backlash, and people on the right who had been somewhat dispirited are beginning to get a bit ticked off and ready to stand up again. And the election is going to be much closer than people assume.
KURTZ: We will talk about that later in the program with ABC's Brian Ross, who broke the story.
Rachel Maddow, your network, Air America, declared bankruptcy last week. Now, everybody knows that radio has been a conservative- dominated medium. But doesn't that kind of underscore -- I know you're all staying on the air for the moment -- does it kind of underscore the weak position of liberal radio? MADDOW: Well, liberal radio is new. I mean, we're a startup company. We've been around for two and a half years. It's been a homogeneously right-wing medium for most of my lifetime, and we're trying to do something new and it's not easy to do it. But the listener response is great, and it's just a matter of whether the business model can follow the talent.
And so -- I mean, we're confident that we're going to stay on the air. Progressive talk radio is here to stay. It's just been an uphill fight, that's all.
KURTZ: John Dickerson, it's a noisy environment out there, particularly two weeks to go before an important election which could flip at least one house chamber from Republican to Democrat control. We don't know.
Do Bush's interviews not make as much news now because he's essentially on message, repeating the same message about Iraq, repeating the same message about a variety of issues? Does that seem...
DICKERSON: That's right, because the president's not going to do any mistake admitting, any wobbling or anything. If...
KURTZ: Or propose any new policies.
DICKERSON: Right. He's going to -- if anything, he's going to draw sharper distinctions which will make news just in their rhetorical punch, but he's not going to do anything fancy or new or strange in these interviews in these last moments before the campaign.
KURTZ: All right. Let me get a break.
Just ahead, should CNN have aired that video from Iraqi insurgents of American servicemen being shot? We'll talk about that controversy next.
And for more on politics, Wolf Blitzer interviews Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist on "LATE EDITION". That's 11:00 a.m. Eastern.
And at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, stay tuned for "This Week at War".
KURTZ: Welcome back.
Controversy is building over CNN's decision this week to air footage of Iraqi snipers firing at American soldiers. The tape was obtained by CNN correspondent Michael Ware from intermediaries for the Islamic Army. "ANDERSON COOPER 360," the first program to air it as part of a longer report on the fighting in Iraq, blacked out the footage of the moment of impact for the sniper fire.
CNN says it's just covering the news, but Duncan Hunter, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, while acknowledging that he hasn't seen the tape, urged the Pentagon to pull the credentials of any CNN correspondent embedded with the military.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: I think that's the right response to CNN basically being the publicist for the propaganda film that the enemy sent to them that they have now displayed to the United States. It shows an American soldier being killed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Michael Medved, what's wrong with airing this video, especially since you don't see anyone actually being killed? Isn't this part of war?
MEDVED: Well, there are two things.
First of all, it's a propaganda film. Everyone understands that, that was prepared by the enemy. And one of the things that's fascinating is Tom Friedman of "The New York Times" had a column less than a week ago where he said, yes, these jihadis are going to try to distribute their tapes of operations on American media as part of their propaganda push to try to knock out American public support for the war, what remains. And here, all of a sudden, exactly what he said was going happen has happened.
The other aspect of this -- and it disturbed me greatly, Howard -- is that in this film -- and I've seen it, I've seen the tape -- you see the sniper saying, "Wait, wait. Let's wait for a moment. We don't want to hit any Iraqis." And they're very careful only to hit Americans.
This isn't true. This is garbage and propaganda. They hit their own people all the time. Most of the victims of the insurgents are Iraqis.
So this is manipulation and propaganda, and CNN should not have been part of it.
KURTZ: Rachel Maddow, what about the notion that CNN is handing a propaganda victory to terrorists who want to kill Americans?
MADDOW: I don't think that we're doing the insurgents any favors by showing them this video. I don't think we're doing the terrorists any favors by showing this video. And I don't think we do American troops any favors by shielding the American public from the kinds of dangers they're facing on the battlefield in Iraq.
The messenger here is not the problem. The fact that our soldiers are facing this kind of terror is important to the American public and our understanding of what we're involved in in Iraq.
I mean, you don't -- you don't consider us publicists, you don't consider the media publicists for suicide bombers when they blow up marketplaces. You don't consider the American media, you know, publicists for pedophilia when you cover the Mark Foley scandal. I mean, it doesn't work that way. MEDVED: But Rachel, that's when the American media film it themselves or tape it themselves. These were tapes that were made by the insurgents.
Who knows how reliable or honest they were? They probably weren't.
MADDOW: And edited by CNN for the -- for the -- for the American people so that it went black at the moment of impact. I mean, it wasn't that they are just becoming a feed service for the insurgents. This was something to help us understand the insurgency. I think it's valuable.
MEDVED: Do you really believe that the insurgents are careful to try to not hit Iraqis? Do you think they try to spare Iraqi lives?
MADDOW: I think whatever the insurgents are doing, we need to know a lot more about them than we do. And shielding ourselves from information about it doesn't help American troops.
KURTZ: This is starting to sound look a talk radio show. Let me jump in here.
John -- John Dickerson -- and by the way, that video was put into a larger piece, which is about the threat to American soldiers from snipers.
All the networks have aired Pentagon video of bombing raids in this war and others. So, that's OK, even though that could also be called propaganda?
DICKERSON: Well, I think in this context, you're right. It was in a larger piece, and the fact that it was given to CNN by the insurgents was clear in that piece. And it's not like CNN is running these kind of pieces all of the time on television.
And in this context right now, remember, the president has talked about the fact that they're changing tactics. But what this longer piece points out is that the insurgents are in fact changing tactics, and they've gotten quite sophisticated. And so this syncs up with in fact what the administration has been saying.
The footage is gross and grizzly, to be sure, but it puts it in front of the American people to understand how crafty and tricky the insurgents are, which is a point the administration has been making.
KURTZ: Let me read a CNN statement on this controversy, if I might.
"The decision to air the insurgents' videotape was a difficult one, but for a news organization, the right one. Our responsibility is to report the news. As an organization, we stand by our decision and respect the rights of others to disagree with it."
Michael Medved, you clearly disagree, and I can understand how some people would see this footage as repugnant. But... MEDVED: Well, it's not just that the footage is repugnant, Howard. It's the timing. It's two weeks before an election.
We have indications, Tom Friedman in "The New York Times" has reported that they deliberately are trying to influence the U.S. election. For CNN to be part of this right before the election, seems to me to be dropping the standards for which your network has tried to become known.
KURTZ: If I could clarify one thing, and that is that CNN didn't ask for this tape. CNN, which did not pay for this tape, asked...
KURTZ: ... for some questions to be answered by the leader -- a leader of the Islamic army and were given two tapes. Answers on one, insurgent snipers on the other.
You want to make a point?
DICKERSON: Well, I was going to say, if CNN and other news organizations can't rely on the American people to have the sense to take a look at an entire piece, think it through, several years into a war about the complexities of this war, then we're in a lot bigger trouble than that.
KURTZ: Rachel Maddow, this whole sort of "Who's side are you on?" argument has been used against the media for any story about the war that is perceived as negative, which kind of raises the question of, you know, is it the job of news organizations to essentially function as support personnel or cheerleaders for our side, the American side, in a military conflict?
MADDOW: Well, ideally, what you want is journalistic independence. And you want people to be able to get the facts and decide for themselves.
That said, the American media doesn't function that way and we never have, and we do recognize that we're broadcasting to an American audience, and we make editorial decisions whenever we can as journalists and as commentators to reflect that. I think Michael's point that it's particularly odious that this comes out right before an election, I mean, is the lesson of that that we should make sure that there's only happy news from the war two weeks before the election?
Ideally, we want there to be real coverage of the real issues really facing the country heading into the election so people -- people can make smart choices. I don't think we should be more censored because...
KURTZ: OK. I've got to jump -- got to jump in. This debate will go on, but it has to end here for time reasons.
Rachel Maddow, Michael Medved, thanks very much for joining us.
John Dickerson, we'll have you back to talk about the book about your mother on a future program.
Just ahead, Bill O'Reilly's favorite topic, it's Bill O'Reilly. Our "Media Notes," plus your e-mail just ahead.
KURTZ: Time now for a look behind the headlines in our "Media Notes".
KURTZ (voice over): NBC News is number one on many fronts -- "Nightly News," the "Today" show, "Meet the Press" -- but since the network's entertainment schedule is in the toilet, it's cutting 700 jobs, or five percent of its workforce. And those cutbacks will hurt the news division, as well as MSNBC, much of which will move from Secaucus, New Jersey, to join Brian Williams and the gang at 30 Rock in Manhattan.
KURTZ: Love him or hate him, Bill O'Reilly is a talented broadcaster. But have you noticed his knack for making everything about him? Here he is with the president of the United States, and the FOX News commentator turns the conversation to -- well, just watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: When people criticize me -- I think I'm the second most criticized person in the country. You're first, by a large margin, but I'm second. I get really furious, especially if it's dishonest.
There's also something else at play here, Mr. President. The secular progresses -- I just wrote a book called "Culture Warrior," and we sent you a free copy, by the way.
BUSH: That's good.
O'REILLY: The second...
BUSH: It might entice me to actually read it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Using a presidential interview for a book plug? Now, that's chutzpah.
Turning now to our viewer e-mail, last week we asked whether the media are sensationalizing the Mark Foley page scandal for partisan reasons.
Jane Savides in Wisconsin wrote, "The media is absolutely handling the Mark Foley story in a partisan way. After all, these e- mails were known by news outlets months ago, yet the story suddenly pops up right before the election. Democrat scandals are either briefly covered or ignored completely."
Shag in Los Angeles e-mailed us to say, "I would rather have press overkill than press complicity. The Mark Foley situation has been a bit much at times, but I just turn to another channel when I've had enough."
And Kathy in Fayetteville, North Carolina, said, "There's nothing partisan about the media's handling about the Foley affair. It's all about sex, and sex sells."
Now, that's a shock.
Coming up in the second half hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, the journalist who blew the whistle on the Mark Foley scandal. We'll talk with ABC investigative correspondent Brian Ross.
And is it Obama overload? Veteran Chicago reporters on the media's amazing swoon over Senator Barack Obama.
All of that and more after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
The Mark Foley media melodrama took another strange turn this week. Florida's "Sarasota Herald Tribune" identified the priest who the former congressman says sexually abused him when he was a teenage altar boy, although the paper, followed by CNN, MSNBC and other news organization, initially used the wrong photo to identify him.
The priest acknowledged to several journalists, including Katie Couric, that he and Foley had a number of nude encounters.
I spoke earlier with Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative correspondent who broke the story of Foley's sexually explicit correspondence with former House pages.
KURTZ: Brian Ross, welcome.
BRIAN ROSS, ABC INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Good to be here.
KURTZ: When you first started to pursue this tape about Mark Foley, did you -- did it even cross your mind that he might resign?
ROSS: I never anticipated that would happen so quickly.
KURTZ: And it certainly was quickly.
Now, after you posted the initial story about that somewhat milder e-mail on "The Blotter," which is your ABC blog, you got a flood of sexually graphic instant messages from the congressman to these teenage former House pages, and then you got a call from a senior congressional aide named Kirk Fordham, who was Foley's former chief of staff.
What did he say to you?
ROSS: He wanted to make a deal. He said, "Yes, those are the congressman's messages. He's going resign. And we want to make a deal with you. If you won't use any of the material from the messages, we'll give you the exclusive on his resignation."
KURTZ: What did you say?
ROSS: I said, "No deal. We can't make a deal like that. Impossible." And about six minutes later, The Associated Press moved the story that Foley would not be running for re-election. They, of course, didn't have the whole back story of what led to that.
KURTZ: Of course not.
Deals aside, did you have any hesitation that night on "World News" about reading some of those very raunchy instant messages on the air?
ROSS: Well, we agonized about what we could actually put on -- on the air on "World News". And I worked with Jon Banner and Charlie Gibson as to what we could read that would give a flavor of what it was without offending an audience that's watching television in their kitchens and homes at 6:30 at night.
ROSS: It wasn't easy, actually.
KURTZ: Jon Banner, of course, is the executive producer of the broadcast.
Now, a number of Republicans -- and you've heard this, Brian -- say it can't be a coincidence that five weeks before the election suddenly this pops. Did any Democratic activist, Democratic source play any role in bringing you that story?
ROSS: Not in our case. I know where we got the original e-mails that everybody else seems to have had and dismissed. And then the really sexually explicit ones came to us through the ABCNews.com "Blotter," and about an hour after we had them confirmed as authentic we posted them. We wouldn't sit on something like that at all.
KURTZ: But the former pages who contacted you to share some of those instant messages, is it fair to say that some or all of them were Republicans?
ROSS: There were two former pages. One was, I would say -- considered himself a Democrat, one considered himself a Republican. They both had overlapping copies of the instant messages to two other pages. Not themselves, but to two other pages.
KURTZ: Now, since you broke that story and the congressman resigned, and suddenly there's a House Ethics Committee investigation and an FBI investigation about the Republicans' handling of this, there are critics out there who say, you know, the media are just going overboard on this story, both because of the sexual aspect, and because it makes the House speaker, Denny Hastert, and other Republicans look bad because they have conflicting accounts about who knew what, when.
What do you think of this notion that the press is now overplaying this?
ROSS: Well, I think it's hard to -- hard to judge as a whole. I know certainly at ABC News we've been on the story. We're looking for any new leads. We haven't been running stories every day, only when we have something substantive.
The Washington bureau of ABC has been covering the House ethics investigation, which very directly does point at Speaker Hastert. As he has said himself, he wants to find out if members of his staff knew and apparently didn't tell him, and that's the kind of testimony that was coming before the Ethics Committee this week.
KURTZ: Now, you could be running stories every day. I mean, some of what you've got you've put online, you've been out ahead on this story.
Have you made a conscious decision to exercise some restraint here?
ROSS: I don't know if you'd call it restraint, but it just -- you know, solid news judgment as to what's -- how much more do you have to know? I think everyone gets it, what the situation was with Foley.
One story we ran this week on the -- on "The Blotter" was that so far on the FBI investigation, 40 pages or so who have been interviewed, there's no evidence that Foley ever had any actual sexual contact with those pages when they were underage. There were several cases where apparently there was sex, but only after they had turned 18.
And it seems the pattern that was he would essentially spot and set the hook when the young men were 16 and 17, but not reel them in until they were legal. And he seems to have paid attention to that.
KURTZ: But do you think that what's continuing to drive this story is the fact that Hastert says he had very little explicit warning about what was going on and these other either staffers or other members of Congress say, no, no, he was told a year ago, two years ago, in some cases even five years ago?
Is this why this has momentum in the media?
ROSS: I think that's exactly the case. It's one Republican, the former House clerk, or Foley's form chief of staff -- those are longtime Republicans -- pointing the fingers at other Republicans. And that's what's driving the story now. It's become essentially a political story of, you know, who knew what, when, and that seems to have kept this alive.
KURTZ: Now, one result of the story is that there's been some talk in Washington about efforts to out gay Republicans. This has gotten pretty ugly, hasn't it?
ROSS: It really has. I think that's -- that's unfortunate. It's not something that we would want to do. That's not the point about -- this is a story about grown men as predators against teenage pages.
KURTZ: There was an instance this week, Brian Ross, in which a gay activist said on Ed Schultz's syndicated radio show that a Republican senator who I'm not going to name was gay. He wouldn't name the alleged lovers. The senator in question denies it, but two newspapers in that senator's state reported what had happened because somebody had gone to radio and made this charge.
Would you have gone with something like that?
ROSS: No. And we were given that information last week, and that would not be that kind of story. I wouldn't be interested in that. I don't think that's a violation of the law. That's the man's personal lifestyle.
That's not something that we'd be interested in. We did not pursue it. We didn't report it.
KURTZ: Were you given this information by this same activist?
This week the FBI conducted some raids in a case involving Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon, an investigation into whether or not he helped several companies that hired his daughter's lobbying firm.
KURTZ: The "Los Angeles Times" originally broke that story two years ago. In the case of Congressman Duke Cunningham, who is now in jail over accepting about $2.5 million bribes, the "San Diego Union Tribune" broke that story. The associated Press broke the story about the question land deal involving Democratic senator Harry Reid.
How is it that journalists consistently seem to be ahead of prosecutors when it comes to these stories, and Foley's story as well?
ROSS: Well, that's a very good question, but I know in the case of the "San Diego Union Tribune," their story on Cunningham, they essentially went to property records after getting a tip. The AP did the same thing with Reid.
A lot of this information is in information -- documents that these congressmen, officials have had to file publicly, and it takes a close, hard look at that. I just don't think that the FBI has been doing that in a proactive way.
They essentially wait for a complaint and then they act. I'm told, for instance, that the raid on Weldon's daughter's home and the other locations was something they didn't want to do until after the election, but they had to do it because the story broke in the papers.
KURTZ: So you're saying that journalists, given their curious and intense and aggressive nature, are more aggress on these kinds of public corruption cases than federal officials and prosecutors?
ROSS: Well, I think -- I think there are a number of aggressive investigative reporters, I'm pleased to say. And it's a good thing.
Now, we have a lower bar than prosecutors in the FBI. We don't have to prove there was anything illegal, just something that raises questions. That's -- that's our bar, and then from that sometimes the FBI will take off or not take off.
KURTZ: Last question. As you know, this week there was a Web site that posted a threat that a dirty bomb was going to be set off today at seven NFL football games. All the evening newscasts did a little something on it, just about a half a minute on it on ABC's "World News".
Was that something that you were involved in? And did you think -- you did puzzle over whether or not there was any substantiation here to warrant putting it on the air?
ROSS: I think as reporters we're stuck with, what do we do with that? They're making this public announcement, yet at the same time saying it's not credible.
It's a difficult situation to be in. We often find ourselves there with these terror threats. If the government's taking some action it's worth reporting, yet when you get into it you find out it's not credible. It doesn't do anybody any favors.
KURTZ: Right. And, of course, you don't want to necessarily alarm people if your judgment ad the judgment of the authorities is that it's not credible.
We'll have to leave it there.
Brian Ross, thanks very much for joining us.
ROSS: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: That dirty bomb threat against the football stadiums turned out to be a hoax, an embarrassment for the networks who maybe made a little too much of it.
When we come back, Obama fever. Why are the media going head over real heels for a rookie senator?
KURTZ: Welcome back.
Barack Obama has been inescapable this week. On the cover of "TIME," "Why Barack Obama Could Be Our Next President," after already scoring a "Newsweek" cover last year. And when the Illinois senator made the television rounds to hawk his new book, he wasn't exactly subjected to a rigorous cross-examination.
Oprah Winfrey was downright gushing.
OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: This is my senator, my favorite senator!
WINFREY: So if you ever would decide to run within the next five years, I'm going have this show for five more years. Would you announce on this show?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Oprah, you're my girl.
MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: You know, you are the equivalent of a rock star in politics. If your party says to you, "We need you," and there's already a drumbeat out there, will you respond?
LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": One of the things you're thinking about might be the top run. Among many.
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the media's love affair with Obama are two veteran Chicago journalists -- Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Sun-Times," and Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune".
Lynne Sweet, what explains the unbelievable puffy treatment the media are lavishing on Barack Obama?
LYNNE SWEET, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, I think in the last week or two, it seems that the whole media establishment has just been snookered by the P.R. blitz designed just to sell the book.
SWEET: Snookered, yes. Snookered.
Why do you think the cover -- the book is on...
SWEET: ... is on "TIME"? The only reason that he's on all these shows, stacked the way he is, is because of the book. And apparently, no one wants to either read more about the book, which does have some interesting things in it, or spent two minutes looking at some other parts of his legislative or political record to ask any other questions other than, "Do you want to run for president?"
KURTZ: Now, Clarence Page, in your column today you urge him to run for president. "Seize the day," you right. "So what about inexperience?"
So you've drunk the Kool-Aid, Clarence.
CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": No, I haven't drunk the Kool- Aid. I'm remembering Colin Powell.
You know, back in '96, Colin Powell had his moment and he didn't run. And he's never been that popular since. I can't imagine Barack Obama ever being more popular than he is right now, and chance are considerably less. The longer you stay in that Senate, that's where -- that's where the Kool-Aid is. And it's only going to taint his image in various ways.
He's getting this big blitz right now. Lynne is right partly. We saw this coming with the release date of the book, but also the fact that he's so unblemished in the middle of the Mark Foley scandal times and everything else, he's benefiting from that wave.
KURTZ: Now, look, Senator Obama is an impressive guy. He's traveled to Africa. You've gone there with him. But I come back to this question, why are journalists practically trying to -- including Clarence, practically trying to draft the guy into a presidential race when he's been a senator for just under two years?
SWEET: I think it's the compelling storyline. And he is also one of the luckiest political figures, as he himself admits.
You know, Howie, he hasn't even ever had a rough press conference. He's never had one negative ad run against him. He's untested, but that's the point.
He is a clean slate. That's why he is so appealing, because he has escaped some of the normal, you know, bad stuff that happens to people on the campaign trail. And here's the realization I think his people and Senator Obama is coming to, and it's this, you can't time timing.
And so they might have had a master plan, they might have had a big view...
SWEET: ... and that's being reevaluated, even as we speak.
KURTZ: The Obama blitz continues. This morning he was on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russet. But not everything is a wet kiss.
The cover story in "Harper's" magazine this month raises questions about his fund-raising. And Maureen Dowd in her "New York Times" column kind of makes fun of what she calls his "modeling gigs" for magazines like "Men's Vogue" and "Marie Claire".
But here's my question to you, Clarence. There's a war in Iraq, there's a battle against al Qaeda, and the media are clamoring for a guy who two years ago was a state senator in Springfield, Illinois?
PAGE: It's not just the media. The public loves this guy, too, partly because he is different from all the folks who are in power right now.
KURTZ: What percentage of the public do you think knows who Barack Obama is?
PAGE: Look -- well, just one question, Howard. Look at what the experience of George W. Bush has gotten us into. So, you know, how much experience do you need for this job? What kind of experience?
People see Obama as a man of integrity, and that's what people are looking for right now.
SWEET: Well, there's two different little, you know, (INAUDIBLE) you're talking about here, and that is the press following the stampede of each other, and they're getting exclusives. This is an insider's show to a bit.
One of the reasons he's getting this is that he has not offered himself since Africa to be doing sit-downs. It's the lure of the sit- down, the lure of exclusivity. I mean, he is...
KURTZ: In other words, he has parceled himself out?
SWEET: Yes. Yes.
KURTZ: He has limited his availability, so that built up the...
SWEET: So you have a little pent-up demand now for the book tour.
KURTZ: What about Clarence's point about Colin Powell in 1996? But I look at it differently. What Colin Powell did consciously or otherwise, was engage in a great tease with the American public about whether he would run for president the following year, 1996, and his autobiography sold a couple of million copies. So how do you know that we're not see anything the same thing with Obama?
SWEET: I don't think we do. That's right, if you want to have a rational discussion about this, you have to take a step back when some of the book bloom, you know, wears off.
Joe Klein in his "TIME" magazine piece this week I think kind of nailed it that you have to just take a breath, take a look because of the Powell example. The more you do this, all this is doing is selling books by the moment, which is not bad.
KURTZ: And although the "TIME" cover packaged it as, will, should Obama run for president, Klein did raise the point in his piece that he's not all that bold when it comes to policy.
But I want to ask a more overarching question. Is there a hunger among journalists for a black politician who as seen as transcending race? Is that part of the appeal here?
PAGE: Oh, I think so. And I think the public as well.
Powell emerged at a time after the O.J. Simpson trial, right after the Clarence Thomas hearings, after the Million Man March. There was a lot of racial division in the country that now it's even broader. It's not just race now. It's a question of integrity and leadership, transformational leadership of the sort we haven't seen since the days of Dr. King, you know.
And the media, of course, we love a good story. I mean, this guy, I'd love to cover the Obama campaign. I would have loved to have covered the Powell campaign.
KURTZ: You would love it so much that you're trying to entice him into the race?
PAGE: You got it, pal. And that's also what my column says, "Beware, Barack, because we're going to turn against you as soon as you..."
SWEET: It's a foregone conclusion, I think, that anyone who is running for president would want him, even if he doesn't go himself, would want him as a running mate. And I saw that this week.
KURTZ: What about -- you're both journalists who have dealt extensively with the senator. Is he himself or his staff sensitive to any, for example, thing that you might write or say about him that is not laudatory?
SWEET: Absolutely. If Clarence and I say the wrong thing, right, we're going to get a call before we're out this door. And, you know, you how to find us. We know who we're talking about.
KURTZ: What do they say in these calls?
SWEET: They're very sensitive. They're very sensitive.
KURTZ: Why is that?
SWEET: Hypersensitive. I think partly because they haven't had a tough campaign. They had -- and again, Barack is the first one to say that he was blessed by the fluky set of events that set into place for him.
KURTZ: Where he basically cruised to election.
SWEET: He cruised to -- I'll tell you, Mayor Daley's best day would be the word day for other people. And -- but if (INAUDIBLE) tests you, or people that come up through that kind of rough-and- tumble, you know, environment -- and he hasn't had -- and that's why I think they're a little -- I think they're a little hypersensitive.
KURTZ: I'm sure Obama's office will send you chocolates over this morning's column, but have you ever gotten any flack from the senator or his people?
PAGE: Not directly. But, you know, if your calls aren't returned right away, that's a sign of something. But no, so far I've been on good relations, but I don't expect the honeymoon to last forever.
KURTZ: Also, in return they'll be IM-ing you before this is over.
An overarching question about the midterm elections.
You cannot turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without seeing a story that says great year for Democrats, could take over the House, might even take over the Senate. Is there any danger here that we are getting too far out on the limb in essentially predicting Democratic success?
Absolutely, because the Democrats need turnout. I mean, everybody needs turnout. And once anything seems like a foregone conclusion, you could change the outcome. And that's -- you know, that's of course the danger here.
KURTZ: Fifteen seconds.
PAGE: I agree. I think we have a situation now in which the momentum is on the side of the Democrats. But Democrats tell me they're still worried about, how are we going blow it this time?
KURTZ: And could journalists be blowing it?
SWEET: And actually, a lot of reporters -- a lot of reporters missed the 1994 big wave of Republican wins. No one wants to do that again.
KURTZ: All right. I guess we'll leave it there.
Clarence Page, Lynne Sweet, thanks very much for talking with us about the senator.
For the latest in the world of politics, check out CNN's political ticker. That's cnn.com/ticker.
And tune into CNN all this week for the series "Broken Government". That starts Monday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.
But first, the 300 millionth American. It was a feel-good story scripted for television and the networks played right along.
That's next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
KURTZ: There was drama, there were live shots, there was quite a big media fuss on Tuesday morning over the U.S. population hitting the milestone of 300 million. We even know when it happened, 7:46 a.m. Eastern Time.
But can I let you in on a little secret? It was a scam, and all your favorite news organizations played along.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We can't let this moment pass.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have just witnessed...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The clock just -- it just went to 300 -- there are now 300 million Americans in the United States of America.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was (INAUDIBLE), but I'm in a maternity ward.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And in the time that it takes us to do this segment, Harry, there will be about 16 more.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right, 16 more.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ding, ding, ding.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Cue the screaming babies as we reach 300 million. Congratulations, everybody. How exciting.
KURTZ: As reporters fanned out to hospitals there were competing claims about which baby born at the designated minute should have the 300 millionth American emblazoned on his or her diaper.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And by the way, now we are, what, 30 seconds after the 300th million American was born, and already a lawsuit has been filed claiming which one actually was.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So do they get a prize or something?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Free diapers.
KURTZ: But hold on. How on earth could the Census Bureau figure out to the minute when the population would hit the magic number? Well, there's a formula, one birth every seven seconds, one death every 13 seconds, one immigrant arriving every 31 seconds, but these are, of course, estimates.
And how often are these estimates updated? Once every month. Not only that, but the scale just as easily could have been tipped by an immigrant arriving here, not exactly an inspiring photo-op. Some newspapers also got in on the hype. "The Chicago Sun-Times" miraculously claimed to have found that special American, 5 pound Alesandra Ruiz (ph), born at a local hospital. But the story acknowledged that the Census Bureau will never know where the number 300 million was born last week or will be born tomorrow, or snuck across the Rio Grande from Mexico.
KURTZ: You'd probably have as good a chance of figuring out when America hit that magic number by throwing darts at a board. But this was a case where everyone wanted to follow the bogus script -- the media, the government, the hospitals, maybe even the babies. It was fun, sure, but about as real as the network reality shows.
Well, 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.
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