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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
'Washington Post' Expose Forces Resignation of Army Secretary; Secret Source
Aired March 4, 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): Journalism with consequences. The Army secretary is forced out two weeks after "The Washington Post" exposes filthy conditions and substandard care at Walter Reed. How did a newspaper uncover what the military could not? We'll talk with the reporter who broke the story, Dana Priest.
Secret source. We unmask the senior administration official briefing reporters on Dick Cheney's plane.
Gored by the media. Al Gore wins an Oscar and is immediately hit by stories charging that his global warming stance is just hot air.
Plus, talking dirty. Television is shocked, shocked by an "American Idol" contestant's topless photos, and keeps on showing them.
KURTZ: Brian Williams is in Iraq this morning. And in a few moments, the president of NBC News, Steve Capus, will join us to talk about the secret trip and his decision to send the anchor.
But first, most of the time when reporters write stories, even very good stories, nothing happens. Today's headline's becomes tomorrow's fishwrap. But something happened this week in the wake of investigative reports in "The Washington Post" about deplorable conditions and shoddy care at Walter Reed Medical Center. Top officials actually lost their jobs.
After the articles by Dana Priest and Anne Hull, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called conditions at the Army hospital "unacceptable". But Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley took issue with "The Post" coverage.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LT. GEN. KEVIN KILEY, ARMY SURGEON GENERAL: I'm not sure that's an accurate representation. It was a one-sided representation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But the spectacle of wounded soldiers living amid mold and mice touched a nerve, and the media attention mushroomed. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Now to a story we've been following that has threatened the good name of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Wounded troops at Walter Reed were found to be living in substandard conditions and not getting the care they deserved.
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Top officials at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center had known for many years of the neglect and filth there should not at this point be surprising, nor should the one-day hazing of patients there suspected of having alerted the media.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: Today the Pentagon finally took action. The question tonight, why did it take so long?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: On Thursday, Gates fired the Walter Reed commander, Major General George Weightman, and on Friday an even more dramatic development.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: The outcry just got louder today. And tonight the secretary of the Army got the boot.
ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed. Some have shown too much defensiveness.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now is Dana Priest, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for "The Washington Post" and an NBC contributor. She broke the story two weeks ago in "The Post" and on "NBC Nightly News."
Dana Priest, welcome.
DANA PRIEST, "WASHINGTON POST": Thank you.
KURTZ: Francis Harvey, the ousted Army secretary, told another "Washington Post" reporter two articles in your paper have ruined the career of General Weightman and of Harvey himself, and he quoted Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, the former Walter Reed commander, as saying this was yellow journalism at its worst.
What was your response to that?
PRIEST: I think that's what Secretary Gates is responding to when he says the Army has been too defensive about this. I mean, the things -- Kiley also said nothing in the stories were inaccurate, but they somehow misrepresented -- I think, you know, the stories really were a product of listening to soldiers. And when you look back on who knew what when, soldiers and their families were telling officials at Walter Reed about these problems, and they weren't listening.
So, in a sense, it should not be a secret to them. What's...
KURTZ: And this is the thing that I've been turning over in my mind -- mouse droppings, cockroaches, unqualified, overwhelmed, overworked staff.
How is it that you were able to find this out and the Army brass didn't know about it?
PRIEST: Well, in the building 18, which has become the symbol -- and it really is just a symbol for the larger bureaucratic problems inside "The Post" -- there were officials who knew about the mold and the mice because they were trying to get rid of some of the mice. But, you know, whether or not that particular case went up the chain we don't know.
What we do know, though, is that these larger problems, the lack of staffing, the poor staffing, the long wait, the fact that people could just be lost between the hospital and the outpatient world, they knew. Now, they might have known anecdotally and they might not have been listening in these big town hall meetings and sensing (ph) sessions that the Army has.
Again, you know, they were surprised in the beginning at the number of troops that were wounded that they had to deal with. Of course, that's a symbol of not being prepared for the war. But that's five years now, and so there really is no excuse except that they didn't -- they just, you know, focused on something else.
KURTZ: Now, top Army officials didn't know that you were there visiting building 18, talking to soldiers and their families. Did you sneak in?
PRIEST: No, we didn't sneak in. They didn't know we were there because we didn't tell them, we didn't ask for their help.
We did, really, in any other sense, typical gumshoe journalism where you just go out and talk to people and you find other people to talk to from the original sources, and you just keep creating a network that grows and grows. Because, really, in the beginning we couldn't tell, were these small numbers of disgruntled people, or were they representative of something larger?
So we had to get a larger pool of family members and soldiers to figure out whether this was really something that was widespread. And so we had to continue working in that way.
KURTZ: This was a four-month investigation by you and Anne Hull. How did it start? How did you get into this in the first place?
PRIEST: It started by -- a person approached me and said, "I've been up there volunteering. I can't believe what I'm hearing." And this person had heard it from a small number of people.
KURTZ: This was not somebody you knew? PRIEST: No, it was not.
KURTZ: They called you out of the blue?
PRIEST: No. They knew a friend of a friend.
PRIEST: And they called me, and we contacted those small number of people who led us to more people, who led us to more people. And they all had similar concerns. But again, it was pretty painstaking, because each story is really different.
The wounds are different. The psychological problems are different. Their financial interaction with the government is different. And that's what made it a four-month investigation, because so many of these individual problems were different.
KURTZ: And how important was it to tell the story through the experiences of the veterans and their families, to make it a human drama?
PRIEST: You know, it was a no-brainer, because when I sat with the first families and the first soldiers, it was a very emotional thing. And I just felt like, I can't make this into a short, non- emotional, you know, dehumanized story, because it really is all about what we, as a country, think we're doing for these people who have given the most. And I really felt that we had to bring that, we had to show that level of humanity in the story. And it wasn't hard to do once we found people willing to let us be with them and willing to use their name, which was -- which was difficult, because they feared for retribution.
KURTZ: So some people were very reluctant to go on the record?
KURTZ: All right.
Let me bring in Jamie McIntyre, CNN senior Pentagon correspondent, into our conversation here.
Jamie, the Bush administration is used to bad publicity -- the Iraq war, prewar intelligence, Katrina. Why did Robert Gates react to this publicity by firing generals?
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's really interesting how they reacted to this, because, you know, traditionally what they do when they have a bad news story is they try to bring other facts to bear to say it's not so bad. And there was a little bit of that initially, particularly from the Army. But very quickly, people realized that this was not the kind of story that you ought to be minimizing.
So we heard statements from Francis Harvey, who essentially resigned, saying that, you know, this was deplorable and unacceptable. When I went to interview General Weightman in the wake of Dana's article, he said, "I take 100 percent of the responsibility. It's my fault."
And when we heard Gates come out and say that he saw nothing in "The Post" article that was inaccurate, and you heard the comments about him, you know, arguing against minimizing it, you knew right there that heads were going to roll. So Weightman was the first to go, and Francis Harvey I think rightly sensed that it was his obligation to offer his resignation. And unlike in the past, when maybe it wouldn't have been accepted, it was accepted.
KURTZ: By in the past, you mean in the Rumsfeld era.
KURTZ: But another thing that was done by the secretary, the former secretary now, Francis Harvey, is that he put General Kiley temporarily in charge of Walter Reed. And a lot of people, they got some bad press for that because Kiley, A, had talked about "The Post" articles being one-sided, and B, he had been the Walter Reed commander when much of this went on.
MCINTYRE: And the thing about General Weightman and General Kiley is they're both highly respected. And nobody questions that. And again, General Kiley is in this position where he's talking to two audiences, the internal audience of the people who work for him who are trying to correct things and make things better, and the external audience. And I think sometimes you get those messages mixed up.
You cannot be coming out in public, again, minimizing the problems that are faced by these people. And again, Dana had a really good point. I mean, building 18 has become a symbol, but the real problem is the bureaucracy. It's not so much the physical condition of this one building that we keep talking about. And that's what I think people needed to really recognize.
KURTZ: Dana Priest, in the six days that you gave Army public relations officials a chance to respond before publication, they decided to call a briefing in which other Pentagon reporters from other news organizations were invited in to talk about this before your article ran.
How did that make you feel?
PRIEST: It made me feel that the Army has really forgotten all the lessons they learned about its relationship with the press, because, actually, they -- there was a time when they understood what this was all about. They broke in that case a cardinal rule of operating with us, which is trust.
If I'm going to give them time, I trust that they're not going to go tell Jamie about the story. And that's always been the way that it's been played.
The general in charge, General Weightman, he's the one that told me that they were going to preempt us, and he did it in a sheepish manner, because I think he thought this was not, you know, necessarily the best idea. And in fact, I do think it backfired on them.
MCINTYRE: Just for the record, I was not one of the reporters at that preempted briefing.
PRIEST: Jamie McIntyre, I understand that CNN tried this week to take cameras in to Walter Reed to obvious follow up on the story there. What happened?
MCINTYRE: Well, you know, now they're using the -- which is a common technique -- is "Everything is under investigation." Therefore, we can't -- "While we're investigating what's going on, we can't have cameras and media in," and that sort of thing. And there's a certain legitimacy to that, but there's also --it's also clearly a public relations strategy to try to control how the coverage goes.
And even the day we got in after Dana's stories came in, we were only in for a very short period of time. Our cameras were able to go in for about 15 minutes. I got in there for maybe five minutes where you saw me on camera just looking at stuff. But I wasn't able to do the kind of inspection that Dana was able to do over a several-month period.
KURTZ: When you sat down with some of these wounded soldiers and their families, did that make you angry? And did that affect your reporting?
PRIEST: You know, that's why -- yes, it made me angry. And I had a visceral reaction to it. Not -- it was -- partly it was surprise.
You know, one of the things we do as journalists is we -- we try to truth-squad what our officials are saying. And our officials were saying, everything is OK, everybody is treating these guys right. And so I was angry at the hypocrisy, but then you get sucked into the emotion of the person in front you who has just had their eye blown out and they're trying to cope, and now they can't get a uniform to accept their Purple Heart with.
That's why we spent so much time. We need to figure out whether there -- there was not just one case of that, but there were dozen of cases. And then we had to tell ourselves as we were writing, get that emotion out and just, you know, cut down on the adverbs and the adjectives and just tell it as straight as you can, because -- because that's what we do.
KURTZ: Well, here's my take.
The Bush administration often attacks journalists who write critical stories. That happened to you, Dana Priest, in the case of the secret CIA prisons overseas, a story that you broke and that you were criticized heavily for.
But if there's one thing that conservatives and liberals can agree on, it is that American servicemen and women who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, who have come back wounded, who have come back with brain injuries, who have come back missing limbs, they deserve better treatment. They deserve first-class medical care.
That's why your reporting has been praised, not denigrated. And that's why I think the administration was forced to take action.
Coming up, that senior administration official on Dick Cheney's plane, who could it possibly have been?
And ahead, the president of NBC News on Brian Williams' secret trip to Iraq.
Later today, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, join CNN's John Roberts for "THIS WEEK AT WAR."
Here's a preview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I understand the consequences of failure in Iraq. That's why I made a decision I think is more likely to succeed than any of the alternatives.
JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have seen an enormous police presence on the street.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a greater sense of (INAUDIBLE). We do not want to be seen to be taking a side.
PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Once you have a lot of these attacks, they stop reconstruction, it makes people frightened.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ahmadinejad wants to be the dominant figure here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Seven reporters accompanied Vice President Cheney on his overseas trip this week, and they received on air, first, too, a briefing from a senior administration official. Here's part of what that senior official had to say.
"Let me make just one editorial comment here. I've seen press reporting says, 'Cheney went in to beat up on them' -- that's Pakistani officials -- 'threaten them.' That's not the way I work. I don't know who writes that...or maybe someone gets it from some source who doesn't know what I'm doing, or isn't involved in it. But the idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way that I do business."
Jamie McIntyre, it sounds like Dick Cheney himself was the source, and, in fact, that was the case.
MCINTYRE: You know, we've had this situation. It's really absurd in a way for administration officials to complain about the use of anonymous sources and then require that we not identify them. And, you know, the use of background briefings is a tried and true method in Washington, but it's usually used to elucidate what some senior official has said.
When the source is the senior official themselves, it's really kind of silly, as what happens when the transcript comes out and you can tell from that who's talking.
KURTZ: Dana Priest, when the reporters told me, some of them, that they did press Cheney to go on the record, and they did put one or two comments on the record about his experience with the bombing in Afghanistan on the same Air Force base when he was there, a suicide bombing that claimed a number of lives, but is this a fairly ludicrous situation? And why do reporters go along with it?
PRIEST: Well, it's not only ludicrous for the reasons just stated, but also, you know, the public thinks we like anonymous sources. But, in fact, we're held hostage in large measure to what a source wants to say on the record or in background or whatever.
And there have been times when the media tries to gang up on a source and say, look, we're not going to quote you unless you go on the record. Those have not -- they have been few and far between. Sometimes they work, but I think we should try that more often.
MCINTYRE: I mean, one of the things that has to happen is everybody -- all of the reporters on the plane have to get together and say, we're not even going to talk to the vice president unless it's on the record.
KURTZ: But everyone has to agree, right, or you're at a competitive disadvantage.
MCINTYRE: And there's -- believe me, there's always someone who doesn't agree. And there's not -- they don't want to go back to their news organization and say, well, you know, the vice president was going to talk to us, but I didn't...
PRIEST: And reporters don't really like to work together. They're really pretty lone operators. So...
KURTZ: And yet, you have the spectacle of news organizations spending thousands of dollars to send their reporters on these trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Australia. And they have very little access to Cheney, and then he briefs as a senior administration official.
PRIEST: Right. And obviously doesn't do it too often or he wouldn't have used the "I" pronoun.
KURTZ: He might have found a way around that.
All right. Dana Priest, Jamie McIntyre, thanks very much for joining us this morning. When we come back, NBC News president Steve Capus checks in to talk about the risks of sending Brian Williams to Baghdad and how the decision was made.
And later, Ann Coulter trashes John Edwards with an anti-gay slur. Why have most of the media ignored it?
KURTZ: We have just learned this morning that NBC's Brian Williams is in Baghdad, a secret trip. He is there for several days of reporting. He is the first broadcast network anchor to go to Baghdad since ABC's Bob Woodruff was injured there 13 months ago.
Brian Williams talked about it this morning just moments ago on "Meet the Press."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: You notice no body armor required where we're talking to you. That's a change from past years. So the safety issue has changed.
We'll take a good, hard look at all of it. We should quickly add, we've taken every precaution to guarantee our safety and that of our team while we're here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And joining us now by phone is the president of NBC News, Steve Capus.
Steve, did you have any reservations about sending your anchor into a dangerous war zone?
STEVE CAPUS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENT: Well, of course you have reservations about it. And we talked about this for months and months and went back and forth about whether this was a good idea. And Brian felt very strongly that he wanted to go and be back in Iraq before the anniversary of the start of the war.
This is his third trip since that time. And we thought the timing was right. And, as Brian just said on your -- on that clip there from "Meet the Press," you know, we're going to take every security precaution that we can.
You know, I've known Brian, Howie, as you know, for probably 26 years now. First and foremost, he's a reporter, and he's not a cowboy. This is a guy who wants to get the story, but he's going to -- he's going to do it the right way and take every precaution that he needs to.
KURTZ: But in light of what happened to Bob Woodruff, you know, that has to weigh heavily on your mind, I would think.
CAPUS: I can't hear. KURTZ: In light of what happened to Bob Woodruff -- can you hear me now?
CAPUS: Sorry, Howie, I couldn't hear you there.
KURTZ: Does it weigh on your mind, the fact that other journalists have gone into Iraq and have been wounded?
CAPUS: I'm still not hearing Howie.
KURTZ: Let's see if we can get this resolved.
CAPUS: That's better. That's better.
KURTZ: OK. I was just asking, Steve Capus, whether or not the injuries to other journalists such as Bob Woodruff, you k now, weighs heavily on your mind.
CAPUS: Well, you know, Brian had the opportunity to see both Bob Woodruff and Kim Dozier in the past week as Bob's book came out. And, you know, the work that Bob and Lee Woodruff is doing is amazing and important, and we're, as journalists, so incredibly proud of them. And we -- you know, obviously, as you note, this is the first time one of the anchors has gone since it happened.
Look, we have a news organization that thrives on firsthand reporting. I have a large presence in Iraq with some incredibly talented journalists, like Richard Engel and all of the crews that support, and Jane Arraf and Tom Aspell and Jim Maceda, and all of these people who end up volunteering and wanting to go to cover the story of our times.
KURTZ: But since -- let me just break in here, Steve. Since you have that very good contingent in Baghdad, what is the added benefit of having Brian Williams there? What does is it accomplish to have your anchor on the ground?
CAPUS: Well, I think, you know, first off, Brian is the anchor of, you know, the "NBC Nightly News." He is going to pick up things that others are not likely get. He's going to get some access that others are not likely to get. And that's just -- you know, we know that's going to be the case, and Brian believes in firsthand reporting.
I think it's really important for him to -- as he notes in his blog this morning on MSNBC.com, Brian he really wants to get a firsthand view of what's going on. And I had a conversation with him a short time ago. He notes that there is a change already. And he's only been there on the ground -- you know, notes a change from the last time he was in there.
KURTZ: All right. We'll be watching those reports carefully this week.
Steve Capus, thanks very much for calling in this morning.
CAPUS: No problem. Thanks for having me on.
KURTZ: We appreciate it.
Ahead in this second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, no sooner does Al Gore win an Oscar than the media give big play to a conservative attack on his electric bills.
Plus, Ann Coulter's latest outrage, we'll talk about that.
And move over Anna Nicole. An "American Idol" wannabe provides the latest excuse for the networks to air some racy pictures.
KURTZ: Welcome back.
Al Gore had a pretty good evening last Sunday night. The number of presidents or vice presidents who have won an Oscar is zero, and that includes Ronald Reagan.
After his global warming film "An Inconvenient Truth" won two Academy Awards, Gore told journalists, as he's been saying for months, that he has no plans to mount a presidential campaign. But the media behaved as if this was a great acting performance.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Now that Al Gore's documentary on global warming won an Oscar, a lot of people are wondering if he'll use it as a springboard for another presidential run.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: The documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," which features Gore talking up the problem of global warming won an Oscar. So does he want now to win something else?
TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: Well, you have to listen very carefully. He said, "I have no intention of running for president." The door is still open a little bit.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: Will all that star power from the West Coast propel the failed candidate to make another run?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: There they go again.
Joining us now to talk about the coverage of Gore, John McCain's non-announcement on "Letterman," and some other political twists and turns, Roger Simon, chief political columnist for thepolitico.com; Gene Robinson, columnist for ""The Washington Post"'; and from Radio America, Blanquita Cullum.
All right. A 10-second answer from each of you, kind of a lightning round.
Gore says he's not running. You're all out there speculating like crazy. What part of "no" don't you understand?
ROGER SIMON, "THE POLITICO": That we're all apparently so bored with the candidates we have, we have to invent new ones, even though we have more candidates than we can handle. I interviewed Gore last year about the subject. He said no. I believed him then, I believe him now.
KURTZ: Gene Robinson, I hear you laughing.
EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST": Yes. I think no means no. And I think that, you know, Gore phrases it leaving the door open that infinitesimal crack in case, you know, something cataclysmic happens. But we have plenty of candidates for the nomination now, and he said he's not going to be one of them. I think we ought to take him at his word.
KURTZ: Blanquita Cullum.
BLANQUITA CULLUM, RADIO AMERICA: Yes, but they want him in there. They want to see him in there.
He won the Oscar, he did so great with that. They could edit him down when he was speaking, though, in the film.
The problem is that he won't do it because he knows better. He knows they'll go after him and will start talking about his carbon footprint.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, minutes after -- it seemed, at least -- that Gore won this Academy Award for his film, there was a spate of stories in the media started by a conservative group in Tennessee about his global warming rhetoric and whether he was living up to it.
Let's look at some of that coverage.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: With new details out about his own energy consumption, some people are asking, just how green is Al Gore?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The right-wing water carriers go after Al Gore's utility bill.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: We're going to get lectured by him about our SUV use and you don't see that as hypocrisy? That is pure class A hypocritical living.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Roger Simon, was this a legitimate story, or did the media fall for a partisan hit job? SIMON: Well, maybe a little bit of both. I don't think Al Gore ever has claimed to be carbon-free. I think what he and Tipper, his wife, have said is that they pay a voluntary carbon tax. Basically, you give money to organizations that help the environment to offset the carbon that you yourself throw into the atmosphere.
KURTZ: And we're talking about the fact that he has a very large 20-room house in Tennessee that has, not surprisingly, high electric bills.
SIMON: That's right.
KURTZ: And Gene Robinson, this was put out by a group called the Tennessee Center for Policy research. And when you go to their Web site, there isn't even a name of anybody attached. So I kind of wondered why everyone jumped on this so quickly.
ROBINSON: Yes. You know, yes, it's a -- it's a hit job, and, you know, it's obviously difficult for someone who's been vice president and who has this very public role to lead kind of a carbon- free or carbon-neutral life.
On the other hand, there is -- you know, it's not entirely illegitimate to question his own environmental practices. In Britain, for example, Prince Charles, who preaches a lot about the environment, actually lives what he preaches and has, you know, turned his estate into kind of an environmental laboratory. And that's something the Gores haven't really done.
KURTZ: And Blanquita, a journalist did call Gore's office for comment and concluded the fact that he says he buys power from a green energy cooperative, and so forth. So, a legitimate story, in your view?
CULLUM: Absolutely, because doesn't he have some interest in that company? I mean, the question I have about this -- and I think Gene hit it on the mark there -- was the fact that if you're going to talk green, you've got to -- you've got talk the walk and walk the talk.
He's got to be able to say, yes, check -- check how much power I'm using when I'm going to different gigs to make speaking engagements. Do I take a private jet or do I take a commercial jet? And that's where he needs to clean it up a little bit.
KURTZ: All right.
I want to turn now to John McCain on "Letterman." He made his -- he kind of sort of made his announcement that he's running for president, something we had, frankly, no idea about. Let's take a brief look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: You asked me if I would come back on this show if I was going to announce. DAVID LETTERMAN, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Right. Yes.
MCCAIN: I am announcing that I will be a candidate for president of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Roger Simon, what he really was announcing is that he's going to formally announce in April. Why do journalists give so much attention to these pre-announcements of the announcement, especially in McCain's case, when we already knew he was running?
SIMON: Well, because it was the subtext that was important in McCain's case. It's very important for John McCain to go on TV and show he is not a grumpy old man, which is exactly what he did when he had been on "Meet the Press" a few weeks before.
The problem with McCain's campaign and his drop in the polls is that he has been pessimistic about the war. He has been complaining.
Americans want an optimistic candidate who says that, you know, things are going to get better in America, not worse. And that is John McCain's goal. That's why he goes on shows like "Letterman".
KURTZ: All right.
Gene Robinson, there were a spate of stories after that Letterman appearance that John McCain -- and he acknowledged this was a poor choice of words -- said that American lives had been wasted in Iraq. And this came after Barack Obama apologized for using that same word, "wasted," in the same context.
More stories though about McCain. Is that because that kind of reference seems more stinging coming from a war supporter?
ROBINSON: Well, I think, you know, it was the second instance of the use of that word. Everybody was more sensitized to it after Obama used it and then apologized. So when McCain, a war supporter and, you know, distinguished hero of Vietnam and veteran, uses the word "wasted," I think people immediately saw it as a story.
It's interesting that that's now a word that's officially prohibited, I guess, in the discourse about the troops and the war so far.
KURTZ: And what do you make of, Roger Simon, analysis of why he chose to good on "The Late Show with David Letterman"?
SIMON: Oh, I think absolutely. I think he wanted to try to seem younger and hipper and, you know, less of a grumpy old guy. And, of course, you know, the press, I mean, we -- these guys know how to play us. They know that we're going to -- we're going to cover the official announcement. And if they announce that they're going to announce, we're going to cover that, too. And we're going to cover the announcement of that. So that's what we're going to do.
CULLUM: And also, you know, look, he's got to have a footprint into the area -- although Letterman's in New York, he has to appear like he's getting a footprint into the entertainment industry, which, you know, McCain has been very popular as well, even though he's a Republican. He's not necessarily a conservative, so he's had people in the entertainment industry who have been supporters of McCain, or at least have said they've been supporters of McCain.
So he has to come out there in an environment and a venue that's different and hipper and cooler.
KURTZ: Let me turn now to Ann Coulter. She is the noted lawyer, author and bomb-thrower. She threw another bomb, I guess on Friday. She appeared at the CPAC Conference. That's the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference, an annual event in Washington.
And we have some tape we're going to roll. This is what she had to say about John Edwards.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANN COULTER, COMMENTATOR: I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word "faggot". So...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, here's my question, Gene Robinson. She said this in front of an audience, there were a lot of reporters there.
The first day, nothing in "The New York Times," nothing on CNN, one reference in "The Washington Post" that didn't use the "F" word, which I'm not going to repeat here. The "L.A. Times" did report what she had said and used the word that she had used, the anti-gay slur that she had used. But only after a lot of politicians, mostly Democrats, started beating up on Ann Coulter did the rest of us decide, well, maybe this was a story.
What do you make of that?
ROBINSON: A couple of things. I think, you know, we may have missed the story. It's an outrageous thing to say, and she should be called on it.
You know, I think there might be a kind of countervailing impulse, though, which is, you know, Ann Coulter's shtick is to say outrageous things and to -- and to, you know, take the flak for it. It's been very lucrative for her, and I think there might be a fear of kind of aiding and abetting in that kind of grand scheme to pad the bank account of Ann Coulter by seeming more and more outrageous. So it's tempting (ph) not to -- not to help her along in that.
KURTZ: But the flip side of that, Roger Simon, is that if we collectively, as journalists say, well, there she goes again saying something outrageous, why should we give her the publicity, she gets away with it. I mean, this is a woman who just a few short months ago said that the 9/11 widows were enjoying their celebrity, enjoying their husbands' death.
So what do you make of the initial -- I don't want to call it a blackout, but the initial lack of coverage?
SIMON: We're all gawkers at the car wreck. And it's very hard for the media to turn its face away. Every now and then we decide to be responsible and not, as Gene aptly put it, advance the career of Ann Coulter.
She's not running for president. She's a media creature. She exists by being extreme.
KURTZ: Hold it. She was introduced by Mitt Romney at this Conservative Political Action Committee. So, therefore, for the conservative movement, she's an important figure.
SIMON: Mitt Romney mentioned her in his speech. He didn't introduce her. But I take your point.
But the thing is, you see now the story was driven from its very first utterance by the Internet. And it's very hard now for the mainstream media to ignore a story that's up on the Internet continuously as the Ann Coulter story was.
KURTZ: John Edwards, in fact, has the video of her calling him that name on his Web site, and he's using it to try to raise money.
Now, "The New York Times," which I said, Blanquita, had nothing the first day, has a story in this morning's paper. (INAUDIBLE) got a response from Ann Coulter.
She says, "Come on. It was a joke. I would never insult gays by suggesting they're like John Edwards. That would be mean."
CULLUM: Well, you know, first of all, she's a takeoff on Traficant, who insulted the Congress and called them prostitutes, and he said he was sorry that he called the Congress prostitutes, he didn't want to hurt their feelings, the prostitutes.
But the thing of it is, look, where do we have the outrageous meter? Where does -- where does the press really come in?
Is it with John Edwards who had the bloggers that called the right wing "Christofascists"? I mean, is it when we have Farrakhan who calls the pope "a cracker"?
I mean, where is the -- where is the outrageous meter? OK?
KURTZ: Well, where does this fall? Answer your own question. Where does this fall on the outrageous?
CULLUM: Free speech. OK? And I would say...
KURTZ: But she's entitled to say whatever she wants. But should we cover it?
CULLUM: I think you should cover it. I think you should cover John Edwards' bloggers. I think that the conscience of America is really now almost phony, though, because in some ways, if you go to the blogs and you look at the blogs, they're a lot rougher and a lot meaner than anything that Ann Coulter would say. But it still goes back to free speech.
KURTZ: We did cover the John Edwards bloggers as well, who resigned under pressure.
Gene Robinson, Roger Simon, Blanquita Column, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up next, "Idol" chatter. "American Idol" in the spotlight again, this time for one contestant whose topless photos are bouncing around the Internet. Is television just looking for an excuse to show all those pictures?
KURTZ: It's a combustible combination, an "American Idol" contestant and topless photos on the Internet. So, when the semi-nude pictures of Antonella Barba surfaced, some television shows covered this assault on human decency and made sure to keep showing the pictures. The "Today" show was on the case.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS: When sexy snapshots allegedly of Barba turned up on the Internet, some posing in the fountains of the World War II Memorial in Washington, the New Jersey girl suddenly became the hottest thing on the Web.
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: Photographs of Ms. Barba posing in a wet T-shirt or topless, or otherwise scantily clad, surfaced last Friday.
JOHN GIBSON, FOX NEWS: The "American Idol" contestant is getting more attention for some racy Internet photos than for her singing ability.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now here in Washington, Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. And in New York, Jessica Shaw of "Entertainment Weekly."
Matthew Felling, another day, another woman with naked pictures on the Internet. Big story?
MATTHEW FELLING, : You've got to love "ratings gold," "scantily clad," "lewd". The worlds just drip with people getting -- getting people's attention. And also, I think the media was -- the media found the golden ticket with regards to Tara Conner and Miss America. And they thought, well, where are we going to find something next?
And I don't want to imbue this story with any false sense of significance, but the truth is that "American Idol" is a cultural phenomenon. Thirty-seven million Americans watch this show.
FELLING: And when you have 37 million Americans watching anything in America, then she becomes a national figure. And then these become more relevant.
KURTZ: Jessica Shaw, many people don't apparently think that much of Antonella Barba's singing. So, in a bizarre way, is showing her body helping her?
JESSICA SHAW, "ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY": Well, you know, is it helping her? Yes. When it's down to 20 contestants, you know, anything that's going to make you stand out I guess is good.
Ultimately, these photos will not be her demise. Her demise is the fact that she really cannot carry a tune.
KURTZ: You said it. I did not.
Matt Felling, isn't there a good bit of manufactured outrage here on TV? It's like, look what this woman did. She's on a national show, she has these naughty pictures flowing on the Internet, let's show the pictures. They're so terrible, let's show them again.
FELLING: Yes. Now, I think the media will love -- loves to find any excuse to cover this sort of -- this sort of a story. And I think that what I was refreshed by this week was the sense of proportion.
They didn't give it overwhelming coverage. I mean, the little girl who was hiccuping herself to death actually got more coverage. But then, of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that the media was going down mammary lane with the Anna Nicole's funeral all week long, and that was something that let the oxygen out of the room.
And I think if I can use one precautionary tale out of this -- out of this story, is that -- attention, college kids. If something -- if a photo seems look a good idea to you at 3:00 a.m. in the morning after playing beer pong, it might not be the best idea to you when you're actually in the real world looking for a job and looking to compete on a national stage.
SHAW: And I would also caution you to say, like, maybe choose better friends. Because it was allegedly her "friends" who decided to give these pictures up to the Internet and to sell them, which is, you know, tragic.
KURTZ: I guess that's right. But I'm starting to wonder whether it was a P.R. stunt and if she was involved. I have no evidence of that, let me add.
So, Jessica Shaw, do you see a little media hypocrisy here as we all kind of hyperventilate over these pictures but use it as kind of an excuse to cover the story?
SHAW: Sure. I mean, absolutely. And ultimately, it's really a non-story.
I mean, she -- she definitely has bad judgment in photography. You know, perhaps judgment in clothing and lingerie, you know. But ultimately, she didn't really do anything wrong.
I mean, she took some stupid pictures. She had really obnoxious friends who did this. But in the past, "American Idol" has suffered from scandals such as, you know, someone who was arrested for hitting his sister, or someone who sold naked pictures of herself to a porn Web site. That's where maybe it does become a story.
KURTZ: And the biggest jump in Google searches this week, Antonella Barba. Number two is "American Idol," speaking to you point of the cultural phenomenon.
But should "American Idol" have mentioned the controversy during the show rather than pretending it didn't exist?
FELLING: Well, I think that they're getting very good at trying to manipulate these scandals. They had the issue with the guy who might or might not have been sleeping with Paula Abdul last season, and they made sure not to bring it up so that people could just keep watching and tuning and saying, will they bring it up tonight?
And let's not just hang cable network news here on this. A couple of weeks ago, the front page story on the "Boston Globe" was what? Tom Brady's ex-girlfriend being pregnant. And I think that any time you can find a sexually salacious story about a prominent figure, then the media likes to put it on the front page.
KURTZ: Well, that's definitely a front page story in Boston.
And we're not just hanging cable news. This was on the "Today" show, as we just showed you.
Jessica Shaw, how is it when Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton had their very exclusive sex tapes circulating around the Web they became more popular? Is there -- is there no longer any penalty for this sort of exposure?
SHAW: No, frankly, there is no penalty. And it probably did help her.
I mean, if you -- I don't know if you watch the show, but if you heard her sing this week, it was -- you know, it was borderline tragic. And she still made it on. So she's still continuing.
So, clearly, people know her name, they know her face. Perhaps they know other parts of her body. And so, yes, it did help her. Is it going to help her long term in her career? Absolutely not. Maybe she'll get a "Maxim" cover out of it, but that's pretty much it.
KURTZ: Twenty seconds. Does this help her career, the fact that she is known for more than just her name and her face?
FELLING: Well, maybe Hugh Hefner is going to call her up after she gets kicked off "American Idol." And the fact is that she's a brand name. In reality TV America, brand name matters overall. And she'll probably be in "Celebrity Boxing" within two years.
KURTZ: All right. There's the prediction.
Matthew Felling, Jessica Shaw, thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, Bob Woodruff returns to television after his devastating injury in Iraq with a special that's about more than just his ordeal.
KURTZ: I saw Bob Woodruff this week for the first time in 13 months. And what a relief. What an emotional moment, what a remarkable recovery. What a thrill, really, to see a man who was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq be able to speak, and with great eloquence about his ordeal and the plight of tens of thousands of veterans who have suffered similar brain injuries.
KURTZ (voice over): It was a long road back for the former ABC anchor whose agonizing recovery was documented in a primetime special. To look at Woodruff with a shattered skull is to wonder how he possibly survived. To watch his four children trying to help him relearn common words is both heartrending and touching.
Woodruff told me and others interviewers that, as he struggled with physical therapy and speech therapy, he had one overriding goal in mind.
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Do you think about anchoring? Do you think about live coverage?
BOB WOODRUFF, FMR. ABC ANCHOR: You know, I just -- I want to get back to journalism, you know.
KURTZ: Woodruff has reported from war zones around the world. But after his injury, he realized the damage he had inflicted on the home front.
GIBSON: The lowest moment in all this?
WOODRUFF: I think waking up -- the moment when I first saw my wife, for all that time, and seen my children and realized what I had done to my family. That I blamed myself for what I put them through.
KURTZ: But here is where Woodruff returned to his roots. It would have been easy for him to do a program based entirely on his story, but he turned the camera on Iraq veterans who have also suffered traumatic brain injuries, relating to them in ways that only someone who's been there could manage.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you, bro? Look at you.
WOODRUFF (voice over): This is Sergeant Michael Boothby (ph), who I first met back at Bethesda Naval Hospital with his wife Megan (ph) six weeks earlier.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm doing so good right now.
WOODRUFF: At least you've got this smile a little more than the last time I saw you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The last time I wasn't all there.
KURTZ (voice over): Woodruff says the Veterans Administration isn't doing enough for some of these patients and that the Pentagon is minimizing just how may cases there are.
KURTZ: Bob Woodruff wasn't widely known when he became the co- anchor of ABC's "World News" shortly before his injury. But now, out of tragedy and adversity, he's shown the world what he's made of.
Our best wishes as well to Brian Williams for a safe trip while he's in Iraq.
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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