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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Coverage of Democrats on the Hill; Should Networks Show Footage of Saddam's Execution?
Aired January 7, 2007 - 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): Here come the Democrats. Is the press scrutinizing the party's strong-arm tactics on the Hill or joining in the celebration of Nancy Pelosi's coronation?
Death video: Should networks and newspapers keep trumpeting that cell phone footage of Saddam Hussein's chaotic hanging? And why are some conservatives casting them as opposed to the execution?
Farewell to Ford. Why did the 38th president get along so well with journalists who seemed constantly at odds with the 43rd?
Plus, XXX in "The New York Times." Sharon Waxman on probing porn.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the coverage of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
It was a historic day, as the media kept reminding us, and a California congresswoman, or San Francisco liberal, as Republicans prefer, was the unquestioned star of the show.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: There is a new way to address the boss in the House of Representatives tonight -- Madame Speaker.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: For the first time ever a woman is speaker of the House.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: Today Nancy Pelosi walked into the history books, becoming the highest-ranking elected woman in U.S. history.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: The new speaker was on the floor for a time, holding her 6-month-old grandson, all the while giving directions on how events were to proceed. It seemed the ultimate in multitasking, taking care of the children and the country. KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: There are a record 90 women in this new Congress, including, for the first time ever, the speaker of the House. Wouldn't Susan B. Anthony be proud?
KURTZ: But have the media gotten caught up in Pelosi mania and failed to apply their usual skepticism to the new Democratic majority/
Joining me now Michelle Cottle, senior editor of "The New Republic"; CNN Congressional Correspondent Andrea Koppel; and David Frum of "National Review," a former speechwriter for President Bush.
Andrea Koppel, put aside party politics. Did you as a female journalist covering this story feel a certain pride in watching a woman take that gavel?
ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Absolutely.
I think, first of all, I became a journalist because I wanted to have a front-row seat to history being made. This was the first time in 230 years that you had a woman ascend to the most powerful position in the House. I don't think you could help but feel proud as a woman.
Now, I think putting party politics aside, the fact of the matter is, I spoke to Republicans, as well as Democrats, who said this was an exceptional moment in our nation's history. That doesn't mean that they like Nancy Pelosi, necessarily, but they acknowledge the moment.
KURTZ: David Frum, contrast the situation with 1995, when the Republicans take over. Here are some headlines I looked up.
"Newsweek": "How Normal is Newt?" "Daily News": The Cold-Blooded Newt." "New York Times" editorial: "Newt Gingrich, Authoritarian."
Now, he's a more confrontational figure. But still.
DAVID FRUM, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Saddam Hussein got better press than Newt Gingrich got.
But the problem that Nancy Pelosi is going to face is the press is a nationally savaged institution, and you pay them now or you pay them later. And she will pay for this glowing coverage, because there are a lot of negative stories to have written this week that didn't get...
KURTZ: So you're suggesting we're building her up for the inevitable fall?
FRUM: She -- this is -- it is a historic woman, we have the first woman speaker. It's also a historic moment -- this is the first speaker I can remember who began her reign with a test of power with her own deputy and lost. That is a big story. It's a big story that in this Jane Harman matter -- Jane Harman being the former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee whom Nancy Pelosi fired for purely personal reasons. She's revealed a petty and vindictive streak in which she favored a crony over the most capable woman for the job. So there are negative stories waiting to bust, and they will be reported.
KOPPEL: But those stories were already reported. I mean, I can remember...
FRUM: They were not reported in the week when everybody was watching. And this week in the moment of her glory...
KOPPEL: Well, they were reported when they -- when they happened.
FRUM: Yes. But in this moment of glory, to say, in addition to loving children, she also, in her personal relationships, has a petty, vindictive streak. That's also relevant. It didn't go mentioned this week, but it will -- it will reappear.
KURTZ: As long as we're criticizing Nancy Pelosi, I want to play for you, Michelle Cottle, some comments by Rush Limbaugh about Nancy Pelosi and the media.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: We've got one of these wacko, wild-eyed feminists who is a product of all this. And we've got a -- we've got a soppy, lapdog, drive-by media here who is promoting and promulgating the myth that we're a better country today and that we've reached some sort of a milestone, and we're all going to be better people, and the end of all partisanship and confrontation is around the corner simply because a woman is running the show.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: As a representative of the lapdog media, your response?
MICHELLE COTTLE, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Rush is being his usual objective self. I mean, this notion that the media is the lapdog of the Democrats is absurd.
And, you know, I've done pieces over the years how, if anything, you actually wind up with the Democrats getting hit harder a lot of the time because the expectations are higher and also because Democrats tend to be chattier with the media. And so you wind up with, like, leaks and back stories and a lot of meta-stories that do not serve them well.
I mean, we saw with George -- George W. Bush a new approach to handling them that actually served him pretty well in the campaign.
KURTZ: But you certainly wouldn't dispute Nancy Pelosi got a pretty good ride this week. COTTLE: Oh, well, no. But the media loves novelty. And, you know, we're talking about the first woman speaker. But that does not mean that she's going to have an easy ride. One nice blip doesn't make, you know, the tone for the entire leadership.
KURTZ: Now, the Democrats said that they were going to give the Republicans more rights as a minority than they had been granted when the Republicans ruled the House, and then they completely flip-flopped and said, well, we're not going to apply that for the first hundred hours, we're just going to roll over and do whatever we want.
Why isn't the press hammering them for hypocrisy?
KOPPEL: I think we are. I mean, we've certainly been reporting the fact. And we certainly on the television side of things include sound bites from Republicans who say, hey, come on, you were -- you were slamming us for months and months and months, for years because we did away with regular order, because we didn't necessarily move things through the committee process the way you would have liked. And I think it's a very legitimate complaint to say that Nancy Pelosi, for the first two weeks of Democratic reign, is blocking the Republicans from having pretty much any input in the legislating of this six in '06 agenda.
KURTZ: At the same time, David Frum, it seems to me that the press has gotten kind soft on these House Republicans, who have the audacity to complain about their treatment when they did the same thing for 12 years.
FRUM: Yes, I don't think the Republicans are going to get much of a hearing on that.
Let me just pick up something that Andrea said about is the -- when we ask the question is the press covering it or not, I think we have to say that there are a lot of things that the press is covering with the sound on that it is not covering if you watch TV with the sound off. And so...
KURTZ: Is that the way you watch it?
FRUM: That's the way a lot of people watch it while they're making breakfast, while they're getting the kids off to school.
So, while it is true that sometimes critical things are said about Nancy Pelosi, the images are overwhelmingly positive in a way that for Newt, for example, they were not in 1995. He was -- he was -- he was what -- "The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas," as "TIME" magazine said on its cover.
KURTZ: So she surrounds herself with all these children in the House chamber, and she's about to take the gavel. I mea, that's smart politics.
FRUM: Yes, and a normally cynical press corps swallows this gumdrop in a way that it would never swallow such a thing. COTTLE: Yes, but they also follow Bush out to clear Bush off that ranch. I mean, you know, he's out throughout clearing all the time. I mean, sound bites and photo-ops are what media is about, and you can't blame the Democrats for finally figuring out that they can't sit around doing kind of really in-depth thinking out loud and expect to get good coverage. I mean, come on.
KURTZ: How high are the media setting the success bar for the Democrats? For example, they've done two things this week, limiting earmarks -- these are the specially a ranged pieces of pork that have gone up to, you know, $50 or $60 billion in the federal budget. They finally have at least taken a step to correcting that. And they instituted something called Pay As You Go, meaning that if you're going to increase the deficit anymore, you've got to either cut spending elsewhere or raise taxes.
Those things have gotten much less attention.
COTTLE: Well, they're not all that glamorous. I mean, they're going to have to...
KURTZ: So the things about that -- that affect, actually, the spending of taxpayer dollars just makes journalists yawn compared to talking about the first woman speaker?
COTTLE: You know how it works. I mea, if you're talking about -- Al Gore knew this really well. If you talk about kind of complex policy issues, you have about five seconds to grab somebody before they turn the channel. I mean, that's just the way it works.
FRUM: Also, I think in both cases the press has a well-founded suspicion that these things are not real. I mean, writing a ban on earmarks actually turns out to be a very tricky thing to do. Because what is an earmark? It's a hard thing to define.
And in the same way, these pay as you go rules, they've been in place since the late 1980s. I mean, theoretically, they've always been there. They just...
KURTZ: They were suspended (ph) throughout.
Speaking of things that are not quite real, not a lot of attention paid in just the last couple of days to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, by the way, must be thinking, where are the cameras? I just became Senate majority leader. I'm not getting attention.
KOPPEL: Dana Bash did a couple of wonderful stories on him this past week.
BASH: She must have been very lonely.
FRUM: First Mormon. First Mormon, why isn't that a breakthrough?
KURTZ: OK. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi wrote a joint letter to President Bush saying they oppose any escalation in Iraq, they oppose any so-called surge of 20,000 more troops, according to reports we're getting out of the administration. But, they're not really proposing to do anything about it, to use the power of the purse.
Here's Maureen Dowd in "The New York Times".
"They" -- meaning the Democrats -- "want to have it both ways: not be blamed for the war and not be blamed for pulling the plug on the war."
More skepticism about these things like writing a letter? Should there be more skepticism?
KOPPEL: Well, I think that the Democrats wanted to come out of the box with both barrels blazing. And obviously, on one side of things, on the legislating side, Nancy Pelosi has done that with her hundred hours agenda and with the earmark reform and the lobbying reform.
Nevertheless, you're absolutely right. Before the election, Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democrats took the power of the purse threat off the table. So you do have to raise the question, what are you going do?
KURTZ: So it's similar (ph)?
FRUM: No. Actually, I'd have to say I applaud them for this. They have a serious policy difference with President Bush, and they are not required to swallow it and ignore it. So they put it on the record.
At the same time, you're going to be talking to Ron Nessen later. The Democrats are properly determined not to repeat the shame and disgrace that they committed the country to in the middle 1970s when they pulled the plug on an American ally in the middle of a war.
So I think the president is the custodian of foreign policy from the war. Don't let it be said of your party that you destroyed the war. On the other hand, if you have differences, you're not required to keep quite about it.
KURTZ: Well, some would argue that the Democrats pulled the plug on a losing effort in which more and more Americans were getting killed back in Vietnam...
FRUM: The Democrats were already out when they pulled the plug.
COTTLE: I mean, I'm not sure of the question here. I mean, are they -- it's time for somebody to stand up. They should do whatever it takes to kind of stand up.
KURTZ: The question is whether writing a letter amounts to real policy or it's just the kind of thing that makes headlines. But let me move on. We've got to get a break. When we come back, that video of Saddam's hanging, some are saying the media were too sympathetic to a brutal dictator.
Well tackle that next.
But first, our e-mail "Question of the Week." Are the media applying the same standards to Nancy Pelosi as to Republican leaders? Send us your thoughts at email@example.com.
KURTZ: Welcome back.
Television has endlessly replayed the cell phone footage of Saddam Hussein demise, and the media verdict is that the Iraqi government badly bungled the execution.
Here's John Burns of "The New York Times"
JOHN BURNS, "NEW YORK TIMES": Who could have imagined -- could Hollywood have scripted this, that this mass murderer, who thoroughly deserved his end -- let's be -- let's be honest about it -- this mass murderer emerges from all of this as the one who showed some dignity and some courage. And his executioners, the Shiites, acting in the name of his victims, who were very -- who were mainly Shiites behaving like bullying thugs.
KURTZ (voice over): But FOX News has launched a campaign charging that the mainstream media were opposed to Saddam's hanging, such as with this headline from before the execution: "When Saddam Dies Will the 'New York Times' Be in Mourning?"
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: The liberal bloggers, "The New York Times" claiming Americans are outraged over the death.
KURTZ: In fact, "Times" editorials have complained about the rushed bungling of the execution, while also assailing Saddam's "... vile and unforgivable atrocities."
FOX's Bill O'Reilly says the media are blaming America for Saddam's hanging.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: NBC News led the way. Elements over there calling the execution a P.R. disaster for the USA.
Did you think Saddam's hanging was a P.R. disaster? I didn't. The mass murderer got what he deserved.
The Bush-hating "Baltimore Sun" says more Iraqis are dying now than under Saddam and it's America's fault. By my count, Saddam was responsible for about 750,000 deaths during his reign of terror, so the "Baltimore Sun" is nuts.
KURTZ: A "Sun" editorial did say that, "Sober analysis suggests that more Iraqis die each day now than under the Hussein regime, though it's impossible to know..." but added, "None of this excuses the gruesome record of Saddam Hussein."
KURTZ: Now, David Frum, yesterday's "New York Times" front page headline, "Hanging Images Make Hussein a Martyr to Many in the Arab World."
My question is, does the media reporting this, does media criticism of the way the hanging was handled amount to defending Saddam or blaming America?
FRUM: John Burns is one of the best and bravest American reporters working anywhere. So if he tells me that this is a problem, that is an opinion that I want to pay close attention to, because I have great regard for him.
That said, I think as we follow the events in Iraq we have to remember the great line of T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," that when you are working with an Arab society, it is better for them to do things badly themselves than for you to do things well for them. And that there is, I think, an undercurrent here of people saying, you know, this should have been done at The Hague, this should have been done under international law, this should have taken 10, 12 years of litigation, the way an American death penalty case does. And I think that is very, very bad advice.
Iraq would be a more peaceful place today if this execution had happened two years ago.
KURTZ: Andrea Koppel, when U.S. officials criticize the way the hanging was handled, when Gordon Brown, the number two official in Britain, says to BBC it was "deplorable," when Iraqi officials say it was unacceptable and disgusting and they make arrests for whoever shot that video, don't we have a responsibility to report these things? Does that make us partisan?
KOPPEL: We do. We absolutely do. And I think we need to separate out the issues here.
There's one story, and that is a legitimate story, when you get video of Saddam's execution. And I think that good taste was exercised by the media in that the actual moment of death was not shown. I think that's a legitimate story.
Then you have the other story, which is the fact that this man who was put on trial in a speedy and incredibly fast -- not just put on trial, I'm sorry. Was executed in a -- in a rapid manner. And the fact that you had...
KURTZ: In order to meet a deadline before a religious holiday began...
KURTZ: ... and against the advice of U.S. officials.
KOPPEL: And you have the Shia, who Saddam Hussein himself is a Sunni, you have members of the Shia government who are there videotaping this moment and throwing taunts at him. That just feeds into the sectarian mindset and the deteriorating civil war, whatever you want to call it, that's happening in Iraq.
So it was poorly handled by the Iraqi government. And quite frankly, it's hypocritical for the Iraqi government to say that they want to launch an investigation when there was a report in the press that, in fact, the national security adviser, Mr. Rubaie, was in the room and perhaps may have been one of the ones who was holding that cell phone recording the moment.
KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, what do you make of FOX News pounding this message that "The New York Times" and others are in mourning over Saddam?
COTTLE: I think is what FOX News does. It conflates every issue possible so that they can come up with some sort of liberal media bad spin.
I mean, the fact that Saddam Hussein was a butcher and a terrible human being does not have an impact on whether this is a P.R. disaster. I mean, you can look at kind of how the Arab world has responded to this, even beyond Iraq. I mean, in Egypt, in Libya, they have responded by making Saddam into kind of an even more glorious martyr, and they're going to erect statues and stuff like this.
There's no question this was handled badly. That has no impact on, you know, whether Saddam was a terrible, horrible human being or not.
KURTZ: Charles Krauthammer of "The Washington Post" called it a "rushed, botched, unholy mess that exposed the hopelessly sectarian nature of the Maliki government." Last time I checked, he was a conservative columnist.
Andrea mentioned the cell phone footage, which we've all now seen a million times. It's just kind of spread around the world. It went viral.
Do you have any hesitation about the way in which that was used? And has it been overused?
FRUM: Well, it's -- look, it's impossible in this day and age to not go with things like that, because if they're not -- if they're not on CNN, which has 800,000 (sic) viewers, they're going to be on YouTube, which has eight million or 80 million -- eight billion. So I think probably it was handled the only way it could be handled.
But I think we need just to remember that when we talk about things being rushed, this -- Saddam Hussein was caught more than two years ago. And dragging the trial out, that has been the larger P.R. disaster. And it was probably inevitable that a lot of the Sunni Arab population outside of Iraq would rally to this man, because they've rallied to one disastrous dictator after another. The largest P.R. message will, though, I think, take root, which is this is one of the first -- this is the first Arab dictator ever to meet any kind of justice.
KURTZ: Right. But at the same time, you know, there seems to be a consensus around the world that this was not handled well. And so this drumbeat that journalists are, you know, somehow...
FRUM: But what we hear -- we can't hear how people in Egypt, people in Syria are thinking when they see a dictator actually meet a fate. This could happen to -- that this can happen, that is a fact that is in consciousness, even if it's not articulated.
KURTZ: Let me come back -- let me come back to the media question, because newspapers also faced a dilemma here, Andrea Koppel. "The Washington Post," I've heard a lot of criticism for putting on front page an image -- and this was one of the authorized Iraqi government -- as we see it there on the screen -- of Saddam just moments before the hanging. And then "The New York Times" ran a front page image from one of those cell phone videos of Saddam already dead. We see it there on the right.
Some people saying, you k now, they didn't want to see this. And when it's on the front page, you can't avoid seeing it. You can't avoid seeing it on the newsstands.
So there is a serious taste question here.
KOPPEL: Absolutely. I don't want to tell somebody what should or should not offend them. And that certainly was a delicate decision that was being made by both television and print media.
KURTZ: The problem is that it's news.
KOPPEL: The problem is that it's news. And I think that you also have to recognize that, much as when Saddam's two sons were killed, Uday and Qusay, you had the problem that maybe people wouldn't believe that he had actually been killed. So you need to put the picture out there proving that in fact Saddam Hussein isn't -- hasn't been ferreted out of the country and isn't living in, you know, some lavish lifestyle in a third world country.
KURTZ: But hasn't television replayed this footage so often now that it's become like wallpaper?
KURTZ: How many times have you seen it?
COTTLE: I mean, it's everywhere. It's online. It's in the newspapers.
But we run into these sensibility questions. I mean, are we concerned now that people won't say anything about it because we played it so much? I mean, is that the new concern? It's jus t-- it's the same thing with those famous photos of people jumping out of the World Trade Center.
Something that's news is also often painful or ugly, or it's going to offend somebody's sensibilities. And you can't excise everything like that.
KURTZ: The president's upcoming speech, in which, according to all reports, he's going to call for some additional troops, perhaps as many as 20,000, "The Washington Post" reporting this morning, quoting an unnamed military official, there's a lot of concern this won't work. There's a real backstage debate going on, but people don't want to put their names to it.
COTTLE: That's a beautiful understatement, I think. I mean, the whole gist of the piece was how nobody thinks this is much ado about nothing. I mean, they're not confident that this is going to go anywhere.
KURTZ: Brief comment?
FRUM: Look, a vigorous debate about how you win a war is the way a democracy conducts a war. And if there are generals who thank this won't work, let's hear from them as to what they think will work. The problem is that there is -- while there's a lot of -- always a lot of room for muttering, there seems to be relatively little space for alternative ideas.
KURTZ: All right. David Frum, Michelle Cottle, Andrea Koppel, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
Up next, the latest on the flap over the AP's mystery source in Iraq, and a final victory for Jack Anderson.
Later today, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, join CNN's John Roberts for "THIS WEEK AT WAR."
KURTZ: Time now for a look at the news business in our "Media Minute."
KURTZ (voice over): Jack Anderson has scored a final victory against the government. After the muckraking columnist died, the FBI touched off an uproar by trying to seize his private papers to look for classified documents. Anderson's family fought back, and this week the FBI backed off.
The reaction from Anderson's son Kevin, "As my father would have said, when the media shines the light on the government's wrongdoing, the cockroaches go scurrying for cover."
(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: For weeks now, Michelle Malkin and other conservative bloggers have been hammering The Associated Press over the use of an Iraqi source for a story on the burning and shooting of six people during an attack on a Sunni mosque. The AP said the source was a police captain named Jamil Hussein. But both U.S. and Iraqi officials doubted the man's existence, and critics questioned when the wire service had fabricated the source, and maybe even asked for a retraction.
But this week, Iraq's Interior Ministry said there is a police officer named Jamil Hussein and that he faces arrest for talking to the media without permission. AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll told "Editor and Publisher," "I never quite understood why people chose to disbelieve us about this particular man on this particular story."
KURTZ (voice over): And some print journalism news this week.
"TIME" magazine moved up to Friday publication, leaving the traditional Monday to "Newsweek" and "U.S. News," in what managing editor Rick Stengel called an effort to help shape the media agenda. A midweek deadline is a gamble, though and this week "TIME" missed Nancy Pelosi's swearing in as speaker.
And "The Wall Street Journal" is sounding more like "TIME," promising that 80 percent of its stories will now be analysis and interpretation, with more scoops broken on the Web. "The Journal" shrunk to a smaller size this week, and while the space for news looks cramped to me, the once great paper, with a hat tip to "USA Today," is a lot more colorful.
KURTZ: I'm still having trouble getting used to how light it feels.
Coming up in our second half hour, "The New York Times" on the pornography beat. Are newspapers covering a thriving business or selling smut?
Plus, presidents and the press, why Gerald Ford may have been the last chief executive to get along well with reporters.
That's all after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
The country said good-bye this week to Gerald Ford, as journalists continued to heap praise on the 38th president. In fact, those speaking at the National Cathedral memorial service were the current president, a former president, a former secretary of state, and NBC's Tom Brokaw, who says Ford called him last year and asked him to deliver a eulogy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: I think it is testimony to the relationship that he did have with the press corps. We were adversaries, not enemies. We challenged him, we were persistent, but he tolerated us. And he more than -- he understood what our role was.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now, Ron Nessen, former NBC correspondent who served as press secretary for President Ford, now vice president of communications for the Brookings Institution. And Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief of "The New York Daily News," who's covered Ford for many years.
Tom DeFrank, we keep hearing how well Gerry Ford got along with reporters, but I remember some pretty tough coverage at the time, including the headline in the newspaper you now work for, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
Did he ever get mad at you?
TOM DEFRANK, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": I can only remember one time -- two times that he ever got mad at me, and they're both too long to explain. But he did -- he did get angry at the press.
But the thing about Ford was, he was a grownup about the media. He understood the adversarial relationship, he understood that even if he was nice to us in a social, personal basis, which he was lots of times, the press would still bite the hand that fed it. And he -- he just chalked that up to the way the game works, but there were a couple of times where he was really furious.
KURTZ: Did President Ford sometimes get frustrated by his coverage?
RON NESSEN, FMR. FORD PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, of course. Everybody in Washington gets frustrated by their coverage.
He did sometimes, but as Tommy said, he understood what the press did, he understood what their role was, what his role was, the role of the press to be critical. He understood that. And he didn't carry any grudges or have any longtime underlying dislike for the press. To the contrary.
KURTZ: Now, you conducted many interviews with Gerry Ford at his California home over the years after he left office with the understanding, the ground rule that nothing could be published until after his death.
Why would you agree to that? I mean, your readers didn't get anything out of it.
DEFRANK: Well, I didn't agree to it. It was my proposal.
KURTZ: Your proposal.
DEFRANK: My proposal was that I thought that he would be more candid if I could talk with him in an off-the-record basis for now. And so in 1991, it was my idea. I had the idea because of something that happened in 1974, and 17 years later I proposed this to him, and he said -- he said yes.
KURTZ: Do you think Ron Nessen, that Gerry Ford in his later years was trying to influence his legacy by talking to a number of journalists, knowing that some of what he had to say, some which was controversial, would come out after he had passed away?
NESSEN: I don't think it was something he was trying to do late in life. I think he was always that way.
He was always open with reporters. He -- when he was a member of Congress, he had a lot of friends among reporters. He socialized with reporters. He talked to reporters on, you know, different bases, of when they could release the information.
So I think it was more of a continuation of his lifetime relationship with reporters.
KURTZ: The interview that got the most attention was the one by Bob Woodward that was published in "The Washington Post," in which, among other things, former President Ford was quoted as saying he had problems with the Iraq war. But he had to know this would come out of a his death.
Did you have a problem with the way that was handled?
NESSEN: I do have a problem in the way that was handled in two senses.
Number one, it was published the day his body was lying in state at the Capitol, and the state funeral was held at the Capitol. You know, this was an exclusive story that Bob Woodward had. Why couldn't they wait until the following Sunday or until a week after the funeral to publish that story? So that's one problem I had with it.
The other problem I had with it is the context. I think Tommy can tell you about some of his personal conversations with Ford that put that view about Iraq into a -- into a broader context. "The Post" pulled out the one critical quote. So those are the -- those are two quibbles I have.
KURTZ: Just a brief comment on the timing, which was done a couple of days later. "Newsweek's" Michael Beschloss published his off-the-record interview with Ford. So there was some competitiveness here.
DEFRANK: Well, I mean, I agree with Ron about the context. Gerald Ford was a guy who was always looking to find something good to say about somebody. He was a glass half full kind of guy. And typically, when he had something that was critical, he'd always back into it.
He'd say things like, "Well, it's probably not the worst thing that anybody ever did, but I wouldn't have done it." And so -- so I'd love to see the context before and after that little sound bite to see exactly what he said right before that sound bit that was very -- very pithy.
NESSEN: My one other issue with publishing that when they published it also was, when Ford talked to Woodward, he was 91 years old, or 92 years old.
KURTZ: He seemed very...
NESSEN: My mother is 95. I -- you know, I'm not sure I'd like to see some of her quotes published on the front page of "The Post" because I don't think she has the same mental acuteness she had when she was younger.
KURTZ: Well, hopefully people took into account his advanced age.
Now, the revisionist history that's going on, I mean, I've been really struck as somebody who lived through that period by all the nice things that journalists are saying now about Gerry Ford and how they misjudged him when he was president. And certainly many coming out and saying they were wrong about the Nixon pardon, which they denounced at the time. Now they concede that perhaps it was for the good of the country.
What do you think accounts for this? Why couldn't they have seen some of this at the time?
DEFRANK: Why couldn't we see it at the time? Because like all reporters, we're living in the moment.
We all that that -- many of us thought that the pardon was a disaster. I still think it's what cost him the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter. And as Ron will remember, we were always focusing on why he was supporting Nixon so much.
Every time Ford went out on a trip as vice president, he'd have a press conference some place. And they weren't powder puff questions. They were things like, "Should Nixon resign? Why don't you resign? You're supporting him. How can you stay in a job and support the guy? What do we do about the tapes that Nixon won't turn over."
And he was answering these questions. And so we were always trying to figure out what he knew and when he knew it, and whether he was going to stay, and did he thank Nixon was going survive? And so, time -- what's the phrase? Time heals all wounds -- time wounds all heels.
KURTZ: And was also the first rough draft of history.
But I'm curious, Ron Nessen. I mean, relations between presidents and the press corps now are so much more tense. President Bush has had a very contentious relationship with the press corps.
Why was it able to be different then? Did it have more to do that it was a simpler, less partisan era, or more to do with the personality of Gerry Ford?
NESSEN: Well, I think it had a couple of things.
One was the personality of Gerry Ford. He liked reporters. He knew reporters. He had friends who were reporters.
The press corps was much smaller then. You didn't have 24-a day, all-news cable channels. Everybody had the same deadline, pretty much, 6:30 in the evening.
KURTZ: Or blogs, or the Internet.
NESSEN: Right. You didn't have any of those things.
You had a 6:30 deadline for morning newspapers and for the Huntley-Brinkley show and the Cronkite show. So you had all day to sort of get background information. You didn't have to jump on one thing, you know, something critical, some mistake that was made, because you were right on deadline. And I think the mechanics of the media, in part, are responsible for this change.
Now, I do think the other thing that's -- you asked about historic reappraisal. You know, you're looking back through 30 years of subsequent history, and all events look different after 30 years of subsequent.
They're reappraised and they're seen in a broader context, and so forth. So I think that's part of what's caution the reappraisal.
KURTZ: But the press, even though there wasn't as much media at the time, did jump on President Ford, for example, after he claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in that debate with Jimmy Carter. At the time, people watching the debate didn't make that much of it until the press drumbeat began.
DEFRANK: Well, if you -- if you believe that there is bias in the media, which we can talk about all day long here, I think the real bias in the media is a bias towards conflict. We love the horse race -- who won, who lost, who's up, who's down, who screwed up in the debate in San Francisco? And that was a real screw-up.
And that superficiality, I think, evens out over 30 years of history.
KURTZ: But it's not just President Bush. I mean, President Clinton had a very contentious relationship with the media.
So, is it no longer possible to have the kind of friendlier or less confrontational or less poisonous relationship that we saw in the Ford administration?
I've got about half a minute.
DEFRANK: Probably not possible anymore. That's just the way it works. Things are just so supercharged. Everything is on message control, message discipline.
The media is now an opportunity -- is not an opportunity to be exploited. It's a pitfall to be avoided for most presidents.
KURTZ: All right.
Ron Nessen, you were the last working journalist to be chosen as a White House press secretary.
NESSEN: I was. And I think it was helpful, because I understood what the needs of the media were. And also, for me personally, I wanted to see what it looked like on the inside.
KURTZ: Well, you found out.
Ron Nessen, Tom DeFrank, thanks for joining us.
Up next, the Gray Lady examines the aging of the porn business. "New York Times" reporter Sharon Waxman reveals what she did to get her XXX story.
KURTZ: It would be hard to imagine this story appearing in "The New York Times" 10 or 15 years ago. "The Graying of Naughty," as the headline put it last weekend, was about the growing use of 40 or 50- something women in the making of X-rated moves.
Reporter Sharon Waxman went all of the way, journalistically speaking, visiting a porn set for her research.
I spoke to her earlier from Los Angeles.
KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, welcome.
SHARON WAXMAN, "NEW YORK TIMES": Hi. Nice to be here.
KURTZ: How did you cajole "The New York Times" into publishing this steamy story?
WAXMAN: I didn't cajole "The New York Times". My "New York Times" -- an editor at the "New York Times" of the style section had been handed some interesting facts by another reporter on another topic doing research who happened to find that there was this huge rise and interest in older people in the porn industry, older people performing in the porn industry. It became a whole genre. And asked me to look into it, so I did. KURTZ: Now, what does it say about the changing nature of journalism that this qualifies as a "New York Times" story? It is hard for me to imagine this being a story in years past.
WAXMAN: But it is a story. And it's a big part of our culture. And I don't think we spend too much time looking at pornography or observing it or analyzing it at "The New York Times". In fact, we almost never do.
But the point is, it is part of American culture and American society, and it's worth looking at. I think it tells us something about ourselves, and it's interesting and it's fun to read, as you told me.
KURTZ: It was fun to read.
Now, you went to a porn shoot as part of your prodigious research. Did you interview this woman Davela (ph), who is a porn star, who is the mother of porn star, before, during, after?
WAXMAN: Did I interview her during...
KURTZ: I'm kidding, but did you interview her before or after the sexual activity?
WAXMAN: Well, before and in between and after, yes. I mean, it was -- this happened to be a very, as I understand it, because it's really the only one -- only shoot I've been on, but it was a rather tame shoot, and it was small. So it was just the director who held the camera and it was the guy, and it was her and me and my photographer.
So it was a very -- it was rather an intimate setting. But the interesting thing is that, of course, it's like chopping onions if you're on the Martha Stewart show or something. I mean, you know, having sex is just what they do all day, and they're absolutely prosaic about it. And so, you sort of enter that vibe of not being shocked. And, you know, it's strange, for sure, but you kind of try to put that mask on.
KURTZ: So you're there as a reporter and you're taking notes? Are you trying to act like this is just another assignment?
WAXMAN: Yes. Yes, I was trying to act -- well, you know, as a reporter you get to be in all kinds of unusual situations, whether -- where something might be normal, and -- to the people who are involved in it -- or on it might be extraordinary. Either way, you're there with your notebook trying to take notes and trying to just absorb as much as you can, as much information as you can.
But then the trick is in this particular story to go back and translate it through a filter for our readers because, of course, we're a newspaper that has very strict standards about the kind of language we use and the kind of things we'll describe to our readers. And so once we had decided that it was OK for me to really go ahead and report the story -- and I felt that that was an important part of the story, to actually be on the set and see what it was like and to convey that to readers. I had to put an extra layer, I guess, between myself and what I'd seen.
KURTZ: So did a lot of your article, to use a Hollywood term, end up on the cutting room floor?
WAXMAN: No, absolutely not. They were very supportive of what I -- and very helpful, my editors, in trying to walk that line between -- it's a line of taste, finally, I guess, which you're trying to convey to the reader a real sense of what's happening, but do it in a way that's still tasteful and that still adheres to the standards of "The New York Times," which can be pretty tough.
KURTZ: Now, why would the people who were having sex and the people who were making this film, why would they want a reporter there?
WAXMAN: Are you kidding? They wanted the exposure.
KURTZ: So to speak.
WAXMAN: No pun intended, yes.
I mean, this woman Davela (ph) just sort of started out. She's only been doing porn for about six or seven months. And, in fact, her husband, who also works at this company where her day job is -- you know, she's an administrative assistant at a porn company, and she works for her husband, who runs the marketing there. And, you know, he called me up and wanted to know when the story was running, and he was the one who actually suggested to me that I meet his wife.
KURTZ: So it's like any -- it's like any -- interviewing any young -- not young, in this case, but aspiring actress in a G-rated movie industry. They want to get some press.
WAXMAN: They wanted -- she wanted to get some press. Absolutely.
There were -- there were a couple of people, by the way, who I called for the story who declined to be interviewed, like this one woman, Vicky Vet (ph), who is also part of this kind of older-skewing genre. She has a big fan base, and I -- and I -- we went back and forth in e-mails, and initially she said she wanted to do it and then she declined.
And I think there is some hesitation, which is understandable, as to sort of why a mainstream reporter would want to be coming in and talking to someone in the porn industry, and they're obviously going to bring all kinds of judgments and, you know, a negative attitude towards it. And I think there was skepticism by some people I contacted for the story, but Davela (ph) was into it.
KURTZ: Right. Now, I'm sure there are skeptics out there who are saying, this is a plain old case of sex sells and it's being dressed up as sociology.
WAXMAN: OK. I mean, that's OK.
KURTZ: You don't want to dispute that?
WAXMAN: I mean, that's OK. That's OK.
I mean, I don't do sex stories all of the time. I've been -- I've covered Hollywood for over a decade now. It's the first time I've ever been on a porn set.
I've hardly written porn stories. I did one, you know, previously when I worked at your paper, "The Washington Post," and that was an investigative story at the end of the day about an Internet porn guy. So I wouldn't say that I'm exactly obsessed with the subject. Once -- once every few years I think it's OK.
KURTZ: So this is not the start of a new career for you?
WAXMAN: I don't think so.
KURTZ: All right. We'll leave it there.
Sharon Waxman, thanks very much for joining us.
WAXMAN: Thanks, Howie.
KURTZ: Just ahead, Monica Lewinsky returns. Are the media stuck in a time warp when it comes to the former White House intern?
KURTZ: She became a household name against her will, nine years ago this month, and for the media she remains a perpetual punchline.
KURTZ (voice over): Monica Lewinsky was the White House intern and pizza delivery girl who nearly brought down Bill Clinton's presidency. Once their affair was exposed, there was the rope line picture we've all seen thousand of times. There were the secret tapes of Lewinsky complaining about "the big creep" to her supposed friend Linda Tripp.
There were the graphic accounts in the Ken Starr report of who did what to whom. And, of course, the stained blue dress.
Once Clinton was impeached and then acquitted in the Senate, Lewinsky wasn't shy about cashing in on her newfound notoriety. She struck $3 million in media deals, including her book, "Monica's Story"; a sit-down with ABC's Barbara Walter, with the Lewinsky camp controlling the foreign rights; a paid interview with Britain's Channel 4; and photo spreads with European magazines.
Lewinsky was also a Jenny Craig diet spokeswoman and launched her own handbag line.
Five years ago, another TV deal for an HBO documentary, with Lewinsky meeting the press to publicize it and winding up in tears.
A year later, she hosted FOX's reality series "Mr. Personality."
Now comes word that the 32-year-old Lewinsky has graduated with a masters degree from the London School of Economics. And the media's reaction? "Chicago Tribune": "Her previous claim to fame was for having an affair." "Philadelphia Inquirer," "She was a nubile 21 when she donned that infamous blue dress." "Washington Post": "From Thong to Thesis: Monica Lewinsky Flashes Her Intellect."
This protest from "Post" columnist Richard Cohen, who writes, "What's astounding is the level of sexism applied to her. Where, pray tell, is the man who is remembered just for sex?"
KURTZ: Now, Lewinsky isn't blameless here. She spent too many years trying to capitalize on her scandalous role. But getting a graduate degree in London suggests she's finally grown up. Maybe it's time for journalists to grow up and give the thong jokes a rest.
Before we go, a reminder. If you ever miss an episode of RELIABLE SOURCES, you can always download our video podcast on iTunes or at CNN.com/podcasts.
That's it for this edition.
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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