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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

U.S. Attorney Firings Scandal; Coverage of Iraq

Aired March 18, 2007 - 10:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Al was right. Mistakes were made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWART KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Purging prosecutors. With Alberto Gonzales' job on the line, why did it take most TV news programs two months to report on a story that was all over the newspapers? Or are the media going overboard about the attorney general practicing politics as usual?

Four years and counting. As the Iraq conflict grinds on, are journalists now painting the war as a lost cause and all but writing off President Bush's military surge? We'll ask NBC's Richard Engel, CBS's Allen Pizzey and CNN's Barbara Starr.

The talk show host, who keeps riling people up. A conversation with Glenn Beck.

Plus, from Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi? A gossip Goliath comes to Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: It began back in January as a modest newspaper story. Eight U.S. attorneys fired under questionable circumstances. Alberto Gonzales assuring Congress that no politics was involved.

The scandal soon hit the front pages but it was complicated. And television, with only a couple exceptions, largely ignored it until this week, when new evidence prompted leading Democrats to demand that the attorney general resign.

Suddenly, the case of the purged prosecutors was all over the cable channels and leading the network news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: The uproar is growing tonight over the firing of eight federal prosecutors by the Justice Department.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Alberta Gonzales is fending off charges that he carried out a purge.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN NEWS: The Bush administration also is admitting now that its number one political hack, Karl Rove, passed along complaints from Republican lawmakers about U.S. attorneys to the Justice Department and to the White House counsel's office.

FRED BARNES, FOX NEWS: Well, I call this a nonscandal scandal. It's barely a controversy for the Justice Department to have handled this whole flap clumsily, it's too bad, but it's not important.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: As Gonzales made the morning show rounds, he got hammered.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED CNN HOST: The question is, Mr. Attorney General, is do you feel it's time for you to step down?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The controversy followed President Bush to Mexico.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLY O'DONNEL, NBC NEWS: Is political loyalty to your administration an appropriate factor? And when you talked to Attorney General Alberta Gonzales last year, what did you say and what did you direct him to do?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us to talk about the coverage of this story, here in Washington David Frum, contributor on "The National Review" and a former speech writer for President Bush.

Pierre Thomas, Justice Department correspondent for ABC News.

And in Denver, Jeralyn Merritt, a defense lawyer who blogs at talkleft.com.

Pierre Thomas, this story has been all over since the " New York Times, " L.A. Times," "Washington Post," since the "Wall Street Journal" broke it in mid-January. Why did it only make the newscasts this week?

PIERRE THOMAS, ABC NEWS JUSTICE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it became clear that the White House involvement was much more prevalent than we previously knew. That's what defined the story, made the story much more important.

And also, a lot of us were covering the Libby trial. So that was dominating news headlines.

But this week, it became very clear that the White House involvement was much more prevalent than we knew. And it countered what the attorney general said to Congress.

KURTZ: You don't feel television was slow on this story?

THOMAS: No. Any story, you have to look at the magnitude in terms of how important is the story.

Now, the notion of White House officials being involved in picking U.S. attorneys, not that surprising, but, again, the key here was the attorney general went to Capitol Hill in January and said no politics were involved. And this week, it became plain that was not the case.

KURTZ: David Frum, do you think that the story deserves this level of coverage, or is there a certain level of media hype involved?

DAVID FRUM, NATIONAL REVIEW CONTRIBUTOR & FMR BUSH SPEECH WRITER: At this point, it has exploded. This is a story with a lot of fascinating little fragments that still add up to one big nothing. I think that's the reason TV has been slow. Because when you start from the beginning and try to explain to the viewer, here is what the story is about, there is still not a story there.

KURTZ: So as you say, one big nothing, that means all of this, network news, the front page stories are unfair?

FRUM: Well, no, they have caught -- here is what they have caught. What they have caught was, first, Alberto Gonzales saying things that may not have been true to Congress. The truth was completely legitimate, but he did tell an untruth. And second, I think that they're catching up with some of the consequences of having a not especially distinguished attorney general in that slot right now.

KURTZ: All right.

FRUM: The problem is he is not more undistinguished today then when he was when he got 60 votes to confirm him.

KURTZ: Let me go to Jeralyn Merritt.

The internet has been all over the story, particularly liberal bloggers, such as Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com. He has been hammering this since the beginning. Do you think that has had an impact on the mainstream media coverage?

JERALYN MERRITT, TALKLEFT.COM BLOGGER & DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Definitely, it has. Every day talkingpointsmemo.com has come up with something new about this story. And I think it's a big deal.

It's a big because U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. But it's most unusual for a president to replace his own appointees during his second term. And the administration came out and said these eight U.S. attorneys were fired for performance reasons.

And every day now, something that administration said last week changes. You know, now all of a sudden, it may have been performance reasons. They admit that they made mistakes. They admit that Karl Rove was far more involved.

Once these U.S. attorneys are appointed, the politics are supposed to end. They then become the attorneys for the government, for the people. They are not supposed to then be attorneys for the administration.

KURTZ: Let me go to Pierre Thomas.

You know, there certainly has been a drip, drip, drip of these e- mails being released, showing that Karl Rove was involved, Harriet Miers was involved. And here, you had Alberto Gonzales telling Congress that the White House wasn't involved and there were really no partisan politics.

So as a reporter, how far can you go in saying, looks like Gonzales didn't tell the truth here?

THOMAS: Again, it's misleading, what he said on Capitol Hill. Was he lying? That's perhaps a stretch at this point.

But what clearly happened is the attorney general went to Congress with not all of the information. That's not a good thing.

KURTZ: I want to talk to you, David Frum, about the media speculation now about what's going to happen to the attorney general.

CBS Evening News Jim Axelrod, the White House correspondent, had this to say on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM AXELROD, CBS NEWS: One source says he's never seen the administration in such deep denial, as it is about the idea that Gonzales must go. But the source says, after the beating Gonzales will take this weekend from the critics, it will be much more clear to the White House by Monday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Should journalists be predicting that Gonzales might go, based on a single or two unnamed sources?

FRUM: They can't help it. But I think they will be getting it wrong. I think, at this point, the overwhelming probability is that he will not go. And that...

KURTZ: What do you base that on?

FRUM: You base it on the fact that, even as it is true, there is a drip, drip, drip of new revelation. Each new revelation takes you no closer to a real scandal than the latest revelation.

KURTZ: You said a moment ago that it is clear now that Alberta Gonzales did not tell the truth. So what you're saying is, the thing in the beginning, the replacing of U.S. attorneys, not that big of a deal, but if you don't tell the truth about it, particularly before Congress...

FRUM: It becomes a big deal. In order to have a resigning deal, it has to be shown that he actually lied to Congress.

For example, if it turns out what the story is, that he said that these attorneys were fired for performance reasons, and later it becomes clear, well, they were unhappy because they were trying to ramp up the appearance of immigration enforcement before the election and this attorney -- this U.S. attorney in San Diego -- she was following the message of the first three years, which is we don't enforce the immigration laws, not the message of the last three, which is that we do.

And so, when we say performance, we really mean we were unhappy with her apt enforcement of the laws and our timetable. That's not the kind of thing that makes up to resign.

KURTZ: All right.

Jeralyn Merritt, the conservative talking point, and I have heard it on television dozens of times is, well, Bill Clinton came into office. He fired all 93 U.S. attorneys. Have the media made the distinction between a president of a different party coming in and bringing in his own political appointees and what happened with the firing of these 8 in mid-term?

MERRITT: A few of them have tried. But they haven't done a very good job of it. And that is such an important point.

It is a political job. And when a president comes in and there has been a party change, the U.S. attorneys leave and no ones are appointed. I have seen that happen for the last 30 years.

I mean, every time we got a new president, we got a new U.S. attorney. That's not what's happening here.

KURTZ: Pierre Thomas, one of the problems with this story is that these U.S. attorneys are known locally, but they're not national figures.

In one of the reports this week, you focused on Carol Lam. This is the U.S. attorney in San Diego who was fired. Why did you choose to focus on her?

PIERRE: Her case is very interesting, because her office was taking a look at Duke Cunningham, convicted him of...

KURTZ: Republican member of the Congress.

PIERRE: Republican member of Congress, for corruption charges. It also turns out her office turned up some damaging information about another Republican Congressman.

Now, the same day that article about her investigation appears in the "Los Angeles Times," there's a very interesting e-mail from the, then, chief of staff for the attorney general, suggesting that this person was a problem.

Again, we have no idea whether it's directly connected, but it's very interesting.

What is most interesting about this story; it's another window in on how the White House and the Justice Department operates.

KURTZ: All right.

THOMAS: And for a White House and an administration that's been pretty secretive, that's very important.

KURTZ: Here is your magazine, "National Review," saying in an editorial, "The Gonzales Justice Department managed to mishandle the firings into a scandal. Alberto Gonzales could yet become a liability on matters more important than he is." And you've got this covered here, "Can anyone play this game."

What ever happened to conservative pundits and conservative news outlets backing the president?

FRUM: Well, you have this problem, which is the conservatives never liked Alberto Gonzales. They didn't like him on substantive grounds. And they never thought he was that competent.

The attorney general has become, over the past 40 years, more and more of a place for putting political allies of the president. It's been a long time since we've had someone who was both legally competent and also politically independent.

KURTZ: But your magazine is now questioning the competence of President Bush as well, in several stories this week. It's almost like the liberal critique of the past years.

FRUM: Well, when you do badly, people question your ability to play the game. But in the case of Gonzales, he has no conservative constituency.

And I think the thing that is holding him up, however, is the fact that each of these revelations takes -- in order to have a real scandal, what will have to be shown is the White House in some way manipulated the U.S. attorney system, either to shield Republicans politically, or to go after Democrats. And each additional bit of evidence takes us far away from that and shows that central allegation is less true than it was the day before.

KURTZ: Jeralyn Merritt, I've got about half a minute. Has there been enough focus on the congressional involvement here? I mean, for example, the Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson, calling the U.S. attorney in New Mexico saying, "Hey, how's that vote fraud investigation coming, the one where you are looking into Democrats? Any indictments before the November election?"

MERRITT: I think that issue is going to stay very much alive. You know, Senator Domenici is lawyered up, as he should.

As I said earlier, once the U.S. attorney is in the job, you don't lean on them to make political decisions. You let them then go out and do justice.

This other issue that's going to come up is did they try to use that provision in the PATRIOT Act to get around confirming their new choices by the Senate.

KURTZ: Right. We'll follow this very closely.

Let me give you my two cents. That is, I think network news took a nap on this story. But cable news, which is on 24 hours a day, really has no excuse. With a couple of exceptions, CNN's Jack Cafferty, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who did commentaries on his cable, ignored this story for two months, while flooding us with imagines of Anna Nicole and astronaut love triangles and Amber alerts.

And this was a story long before it reached your TV screens, and probably not going away any time soon.

David Frum, Pierre Thomas, Jeralyn Merritt, thanks very much for joining us.

MERRITT: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we come back, tomorrow, the four-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq. NBC's Richard Engel and CBS's Allen Pizzey, plus CNN's Barbara Starr, weighing in on the media's coverage, then and now, in assessing President Bush's escalation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: The media's role in the Iraq War was controversial even before the United States went to war. "New York Times" columnist, Paul Krugman, said on this program back in 2003 that the cable news channels were essentially rooting for war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL KRUGMAN, COLUMNIST, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": FOX is clearly. CNN is a little more ambiguous. But the point I'm trying to make is both networks, and MSNBC as well, have essentially gone into war mode. They have treated this as a done deal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The "Nation" magazine editor, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, says the war opponents were being marginalized.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR, "NATION" MAGAZINE: I think what's important is that the cable TV, or TV, even broadcast TV, which is where millions of people get their news, has treated the opposition to this war as on another planet, as irrelevant, as serial protesters. When this opposition and the doubters, if you combine them, run through the heartland of America, and are the silent majority on much of cable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: After the invasion, "National View's" Jonah Goldberg offered what became a familiar criticism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHAN GOLDBERT, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I think you should report when American servicemen are killed. But I think that there is a certain sort of, seem to me, campaign, to undermine or not highlight all of the positive things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: With the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion tomorrow, we're joined now in New York by Richard Engel, NBC's Middle East bureau chief, whose war zone diary on his four years in Iraq airs Wednesday night on MSNBC.

In Baghdad, Allen Pizzey, a veteran correspondent for CBS News.

And here in Washington, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Welcome to all.

Richard Engel, it seems there is almost a built-in assumption in the media these days that the war is going badly, the surge will be ineffective. For example, the Iraqi government announced this week that civilian deaths in the last 30 days or so, down from 1,440 the previous month to 265. The "New York Times" says it believes the figure is 450. That is still two-thirds reduction.

And yet, very little coverage. No mention on CBS or ABC newscasts, one sentence on NBC "Nightly News." What accounts for that?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS: We have done stories that have been talking about the surge. I was out with the 82nd Airborne Division in Sadr City and talking about how the Shiite militia groups have effectively gone to ground, and that the number of murders in that particular neighborhood is way down, and that the number of bodies that are being found in certain neighborhoods in Baghdad has been dramatically reduced.

What you're seeing right now is a situation where have you half of the enemy, the Shiites, effectively waiting it out. And you have more troops coming in. So there is immediately a reduction in some of the kinds of attacks.

But the car bombs, the roadside bombs, the attacks against helicopters and against U.S. troops in general are still very high. And U.S. troops are going to struggle to try and stop what they call these spectacular attacks against civilians. And those always have a major impact on the psyche of the Iraqi people and in the media coverage.

KURTZ: And certainly in the media coverage.

Allen Pizzey in Baghdad, four years into this war, how do you assess how the conflict is going, the surge is going, especially when the spectacular attacks, the big car bomb, the suicide bombing that kills 20, 30, 50 people tends to eat up air time on television?

ALLEN PIZZEY, CBS NEWS: It does eat up air time. And I'm afraid it's because the pictures you get are the most dramatic.

We make a mistake if we try to give an assessment of how the surge, so-called, is going at this stage. I haven't talked to a single military person, from General Petraeus right on down to the grunts I was out with today, who have anything to say other than, "Patience. It takes time. We're working at it."

They also, the soldiers in particular, think they're going to be here for at least a couple more years before the job that they think they have to do is done.

For to us leap on this and say is the surge working, isn't it working, how far is it going? I think that's a little premature. And I think that General Petraeus was right when he said the insurgents would do more and more spectacular attacks. Why wouldn't they? They know that that's what gets the attention. And quite frankly, why shouldn't it?

I mean, chlorine bombs, three of them in row on Friday. They don't do a lot of damage. They're not like the huge car bombs, say, in a market place. But they strike fear. It's what the insurgents want to do.

Yes, we have to report those things because they are part of the story. But it's premature for us, in particular, to make judgments. And I'm afraid hat we're always trying to do that. And frankly it's wrong.

KURTZ: All right.

Barbara Starr, when are you at the Pentagon, Robert Gates, the new Defense Secretary, talks to reporters. He seems less confrontational than Donald Rumsfeld. Is he less inclined than Rumsfeld to claim that progress is being made in Iraq?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I think he is. I mean, the whole thing at the Pentagon right now is life has changed. Don Rumsfeld's gone. This is the new warm, fuzzy defense secretary.

But I think it makes very little difference to the press corps. We're very skeptical. We've had five years since 9/11 of a packaged war, of message points from this administration.

So for me, it makes very little difference to me who is in charge as defense secretary. I think for the press corps, we have no choice but to continue our skepticism and ask tougher and tougher questions.

And I thank what you are seeing from my two colleagues here is that skepticism about the surge. There is no enduring change in Iraq, yet, in this war. You have some day-to-day points on the wall where things may change a little bit. But it's going to be a long time before the history of this war is written.

KURTZ: I think we have to be careful about premature judgments. But I do think we need to try to assess how this conflict is going, and not just deal with the politics of it.

Allen Pizzey, on the CBS "Evening News" you played some insurgent video. Let me share that with the audience.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PIZZEY: American anti-IED equipment. And this is what the insurgents claim they can do to it.

The images are from insurgent video. It may be propaganda, but experts say it also demonstrates how fast the insurgents improve their capabilities.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Why show insurgent video that you yourself described as propaganda?

PIZZEY: Because -- I didn't say it was. I said it may be. And I think you have to show it because that that was very high-quality stuff. And no that I showed that to, no expert we consulted said it was anything but the real thing. They didn't make that up. It wasn't computer graphics. They can do it.

And if you can look another point we reported, that the Pentagon has asked for $1 billion to upgrade armor and armored and anti-mine vehicles, it's real.

I was out today with a company of M.P.s, driving down a road in Gazalea (ph), which they said they think is the most dangerous road they ever go down. Four soldiers were killed there yesterday. We stopped for a suspected IED.

All of those young men and women driving those vehicles, riding those vehicles, say they never know where it's coming from. They have a hard time keeping up with the IEDs. There's more sophisticated detonators. There are more sophisticated ways of hiding them.

And I think when the insurgents come out say this is what we can do, you've got to show that it's out, because people have to know. It's not just propaganda. They can really do it. And I think we better tell both sides. We can't obviously go out with the insurgents. So you tell the other side that way.

KURTZ: All right. Richard Engel, NBC took considerable heat back in November for declaring Iraq to be a civil war. This week a Pentagon report said that parts of the country could certainly be described as a civil war. Feeling of vindication there?

ENGEL: I think a lot of Iraqis had long been saying the country was in a civil war. I think there has been a delay for the linguistics of this conflict to catch up with the realities on the ground.

It is premature to know if this conflict is at a turning point. But it very much is a new war underway right now, with the new security plan, with a temporary truce underway by the Shiites. And it's not clear if this is, again, at a turning point.

KURTZ: Do you...

ENGEL: But the real civil war period almost could be phasing out. And that level of sectarian violence is right now very much reduced. Will it come back? We'll see. That's certainly what the Sunni insurgents are trying to do by attacking all those pilgrims.

KURTZ: Just briefly. Do you get less pushback from U.S. officials than you used to when you report that things are not going well in Iraq?

ENGEL: I think there is a new administration, a new regime in the different PAO, the public affairs officers, in Iraq. And they seem to be more realistic about the challenges. They know there has been a lot of criticism, so that they're not just trying to tell us that everything is going well. They recognize that we've been there now for four years. And it's hard to tell reporters who have been there for four years that everything is going smoothly, when we were able to drive around in our own vehicles four years ago. Now, we would do that and risk our own lives.

KURTZ: On that point, Barbara Starr, is there a media consensus now that the administration has, to use a Vietnam term, a credibility gap on Iraq?

STARR: Oh, absolutely. I think Richard's right. There are some people who are much more realistic, but overall, this is the sum of five years of war since 9/11 now. And people are skeptical. People are coming to their own judgment.

For most of the press corps, we just have no choice, but to be skeptical.

KURTZ: All right.

After the break, what toll does a four-year war take on the reporters who cover it?

And later today, 1:00 p.m. eastern, join CNN's John Roberts for "This Week at War." Here is a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, ABC NEWS: Iraq is in a civil war. It is fighting an insurgency. It has a fairly weak government trying to re-establish itself.

BARBARA STARR, CNN NEWS: Troops are tired. The equipment is tired. With this surge, it's getting even tougher.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was an operations guy. He was a logistical planner.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything about this is drenched in political theater.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGRESSMAN: You have you no policy, Mr. President.

(COMEMRCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. Richard Engel, I want to play a little of your "War Zone Diary," which is airing Wednesday night. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ENGEL: This is my third hotel room in Iraq that has been damaged because of violence.

I was hitting rock bottom at that stage. I thought I can't go out. When we stay in, we're getting attacked.

All of this does have a psychological impact. I've seen so many ugly things.

KURTZ: A psychological impact. What kind of toll has it taken on you personally, four years of covering death and destruction in Iraq?

ENGEL: It's been very, very difficult, obviously. You have to absorb all of the images. And there's not one Iraqi that I know who hasn't had a tragedy in his family. So many people have survived kidnapping attempts. Several of my colleagues have had nervous breakdowns. So it has been very difficult, because it has been so relentless.

I have set benchmarks for myself that, OK, after the election, then I'll give it six more months and then I'll stop covering it. And then, after the end of the civil war period. And the goal posts keep getting pushed further and further back. And it seems like this conflict is going to last quite a bit longer, so you not only have to deal with the day-to-day dangers and violence, but also, this realization that it's going to take a lot longer. And that means absorbing a lot more risk. And that obviously is -- it is psychologically troubling.

KURTZ: Right. ENGEL: But we have an advantage in the sense that reporters can go in and leave. It is much more difficult for the soldiers, who are deployed there and have no choice, and for the Iraqis who don't have an option, even though many of them are leaving the country and becoming refugees.

KURTZ: No question about that.

Allen Pizzey in Baghdad, do you find that being there, when you're there, has a numbing effect? Are is this also just kind of reducing the appetite of the networks for more pictures of car bombings and suicide attacks?

PIZZEY: I don't think I personally get numbed by it. I think if I ever become numbed to this sort of thing and it all cease to be what I hope is a decent reporter, I think that the networks, they are fed up with the massive bombs. They don't want to see things going bang anymore. What troubles me is that - what troubles me most personally is when I see children hurt and those are the stories that you really want to get on the air and it really bothers me that we can't. We cannot get out there at the scene of these things, not because we want to see them, but because I think there is a deeply human story that needs to be told. That's how people understand the horror of war, when they can relate it to something that they understand. And everybody understands their own children. So that bothers me. That bothers me psychologically, who knows.

KURTZ: Barbara Starr about a half a minute, are news executives tired of this war after four years?

STARR: Oh, I think absolutely. I think every organization, the war is expensive to cover. It is dangerous as you see from my colleagues, but for reporters, I think we feel still as my colleague said, the death and destruction in Iraq and for myself, the most important story out there is that you have young soldiers, young people joining the military, wanting to serve their country and they die bleeding out in a back alley of Baghdad somewhere. That's a story that has to be told that none of us can get tired off.

KURTZ: I'm glad we're sending more time on the problems of wounded soldiers who do make it back here. Thank you so much Richard Engel, Allen Pizzey, Barbara Starr for joining us this morning. Ahead in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, the controversy surrounding headline news host Glenn Beck. Is he a journalist, a commentator and why did he take on a Muslim member of Congress.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Why does Glenn Beck drive his critics crazy? We'll put him on the hot seat in a moment. But first, here's Betty Nguyen at the CNN center with a check of the headlines. Betty.

(NEWSBREAK)

KURTZ: Thanks, Betty. Glenn Beck, is he a commentator or a rhetorical bomb thrower? Our sit down with the headline news host right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Since joining CNN headline news 10 months ago, radio talk show host Glenn Beck has been getting mired in one controversy after another.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GLENN BECK, HEADLINE NEWS: I work at Radio City in mid town Manhattan and I'll play the doors where the office kitchen is in Braille on the wall. It says kitchen. A blind person would have to be feeling all of the walls to find kitchen. Just to piss them off, I'm going to put in Braille on the coffee pot, I'm going to put, pot is hot.

Iraq study group recommends a new course of action in Iraq. I like to call it operation white flag.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Just the other day on his radio show on premier networks, Beck called Hillary Clinton a stereotypical unflattering word starting with B. Earlier, I spoke with him from New York.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Glenn Beck, welcome.

BECK: Thank you very much.

KURTZ: You describe yourself as a rodeo clown, but you really tick off some of your critics, especially liberals, why is that?

BECK: I don't know. I've actually gotten a lot of hate mail from rodeo clowns as well, who say my job is harder than yours. You know, I tick off I think people on both sides of the aisle. I think I have offended people in the administration as well. I just call it as I see it and I think I also -- I'm just dumb enough to speak from the heart and from the gut. And I think that's shocking to a lot of people on television now, just to say it as you see it.

KURTZ: Would you dispute the notion that you are a conservative and most of your barbs are aimed at the left?

BECK: No, sir. I openly admit that, in fact I admit that as often as I can on the program that I'm not a journalist, I'm a conservative, because I think that television is entering a new age and a dangerous age. We are beginning to blend opinion with news, and unless the host finds some sort of responsibility within himself to say, hey, I want you to know, I'm a rodeo clown. The reason why I say that is because I want people to know I don't take myself that seriously. I want you to know I'm a rodeo clown. I want you to know I'm conservative and I'm not a journalist. When everyone is open and honest about that, then I think the viewers have enough information to say, OK, all right. I can listen to this guy and I know who he is. He's not a journalist who is telling you this is the way it is. He's telling you this is the way I see it. I think.

KURTZ: All right. Let me read you some comments from MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. We're going to play part of your on-air response and we'll talk about it on the other side. Olbermann told "Rolling Stone" this month, he called you a wolf in sheep's clothing, a very dangerously bigoted guy who's selling himself as a pragmatic philosopher. I don't think he sees his own bigotry and there's something about him that suggests one night, he will say something that costs him his career in television. And you addressed this question of making a career-ending move on your show. Let's watch.

BECK: If I'm going to be shut down for that, well, it likely will be because of an intolerant ideologue like Keith Olbermann. The very idea smacks of the same McCarthyism Murrow fought so valiantly against.

KURTZ: He wasn't calling for you to be shut down. He said you might shut yourself down by saying something stupid.

BECK: No, there is a difference. There's a difference here and I think this is what it is. We're in a very politically correct world, you know, you can -- you can -- if you are honest about it, you can see that there is a different standard. Here I am, I'm in the hot seat almost constantly, because I'm doing an opinion show, but I am telling you I'm doing an opinion show. I am in the hot seat because I'm a conservative, but I'm telling you that I'm a conservative. Yet people like Keith Olbermann, doing a news show never, will ever admit that he's a liberal. He is a liberal and he's also blending news and comment together. That is a great danger that I would think that journalists --

KURTZ: When he does his commentary, it says special comment.

BECK: Are you only finding his commentary there in the special comment? I mean, come on.

KURTZ: You mentioned political correctness. Maybe you think this falls in the category, but let me tell you something that bothered me a little bit. You were talking about this incident where Isaiah Washington, the guy on "Gray's Anatomy" use a six-letter word - excuse my math - a six-letter word beginning with F, an antigay slur to describe another cast member and you berated the "New York Times" for not printing the word and then used it on the word. You said the "New York Times" wouldn't even print the word and then you used the word which I'm not going to use. Why is that an issue? Why would you use it on the air?

BECK: Because if I'm not mistaken, I have to look back at that transcript, I did the same thing when they used a -- we have to go down the alphabet. You're going to have to use your imagination, but as adult we can't have these conversations anymore. We used on the air - and I didn't - a did, used a four-letter word that starts with K to describe a Jew and yet we bleeped a six-letter word that starts with N to describe an African-American and my question was, wait a minute. Why did we bleep that word and not that word? What is the double standard here? Aren't we all adults? In that particular conversation, we were having a discussion about words. How is it we can't use certain words? So when we go to this conversation about what's his face from "Gray's Anatomy" I was discussing I can't believe that we live in a society where as adults we have to say like we're four years old.

KURTZ: You say as adults, but the reason we don't use certain words, the reason we have a discussion about the N word and we don't actually say it, is because a lot of people find it offensive.

BECK: So do I. I find it very offensive. I find it extraordinarily offensive in rap music and Al Sharpton and I had an hour-long conversation, we both agree on the N word. I agree on the K word. I agree on the F word. However, when you are having a discussion about words, can you not utter the words in an adult conversation? And need I remind everyone you can call me all kinds of names. Racist is a word that I find very offensive. Bigot, I find very offensive. I'm not a bigoted man. I'm not a racist. I'm a guy who asks honest questions and when you get into the situation where you can't have conversations about words, I have to go back to what my mother said and that is, sticks and stones my break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Those words said in hatred are absolutely offensive and have no place in our society, but when you are having a discussion about the power of words and when are you having a discussion about what words are acceptable, what words are not, can we not be adult enough to have that discussion?

KURTZ: I want to ask you now about the single most controversial thing you have you done since you joined headline news was your interview with the newly elected Democratic congressman from Minnesota, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress. Let's watch what you asked him.

BECK: You are a Democrat, you are saying let's cut and run and I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies, and I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy. But that's the way I feel and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.

KURTZ: I've got to be blunt here. I found that horribly offensive.

BECK: I can appreciate that. It was a poorly worded question. And I apologize for a poorly worded question. However, I think we're all living in denial if we are really saying to each other that a -- a world that we live in now, where we can't -- where we have to shut up because of political correctness and we can't say Muslim extremists are bad, 10 percent of Islam is extreme and want to kill us. Because I say those things, people gather together and want to shut --

KURTZ: Why assume that an elected member of Congress, who happens to be a Muslim would in any way be affiliated with those extremists.

BECK: That is not what I said and I immediately said I am not accusing you of that. But we need to recognize because it's dangerous for Muslims, good Muslims, the 90 percent plus of Islam, it is dangerous for them, because there is a feeling in a lot of Americans that everybody is trying to shut me up. Nobody wants to admit that maybe as much as 10 percent of Muslim is bad and so we can't have these conversations and that buries these -- I don't know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. I'm not saying anything like he was a bad guy. What I was trying to say is there is a feeling in America that is unreasonable, but it is being fostered by a -- a political correctness blanket that we have to throw on everything.

KURTZ: Let me jump in here because we're a little short of time. You and I agree on this point. It was a poor choice of words. You have said in a number of interviews, I'm an alcoholic. Is that a hard thing for you to admit, and is it something that you struggle with?

BECK: Yeah, it's not as hard as it was when I first admitted it. I fought it for a very long time. It is not hard to admit now in some ways, because I believe that it is -- it is part of what we need to do to break walls down. We need to say I'm a flawed person. You are a flawed person. Stop hiding all of this stuff. Nothing is perfect. We're all flawed people that are just trying to honestly -- I am trying to make it home every night to my kids. That's all I'm trying to do. I'm trying to put food on the table. I'm trying to make a difference in my life. I'm trying to live and be a good guy and I'm bluffing. I don't know how to do it. I don't know the answers to a lot of things. I'm an alcoholic, I'm a flawed guy, help me try to find the right path and I'll help you. If we just talk to each other, if we're not afraid of each other, we can really make a difference.

KURTZ: Got about 20 seconds here. You are going to start soon as a contributor to ABC's "Good Morning America". Will you be toning it down a bit on those appearances?

BECK: No. I think my success comes from being honest. How do you tone down honesty? How do you tone down honesty? You just are who you are.

KURTZ: We'll leave it there. Glenn Beck, thanks very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Up next, why are Democrats suddenly afraid of Stephen Colbert?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Coming up at the top of the hour on "Late Edition, " the president's national security Stephen Hadley outlines the new U.S. strategy in Iraq as the war enters year five.

Democratic Congressman John Murtha discusses his party's plans for changing course in Iraq and very blunt talk from Donald Trump on President Bush, the war and the race for the White House, all that on "Late Edition." Now back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: Thanks Wolf. In the beginning, the fledgling video website YouTube, put up whatever television clips its fans felt like posting. And while the networks grumbled, they learned that a single "Saturday Night Live" skit would draw hundreds of thousands of viewers, free publicity you couldn't buy. NBC and other media outlets made deals with YouTube. But this week, a very different reaction from Viacom after YouTube posted 160,000 clips from such programs as the "Daily Show" and "South Park." Viacom has sued YouTube's new owner, Google for $1 billion, charging massive copyright infringement. Google says it hasn't violated any copyrights, but Viacom clearly wants all those eyeballs watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on its own websites.

And speaking of Stephen Colbert, he likes to interview members of Congress and these sessions are as serious and as substantive as you expect from Comedy Central's resident intellectual. Just watch this exchange of views with Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDY CENTRAL: You've debated conservatives on television before. Would you care to debate me?

REP. JOHN YARMUTH, (D) KY: Sure.

COLBERT: OK, welcome to Colbert and Yarmuth, I'm Stephen Colbert. With me...

YARMUTH: John Yarmuth.

COLBERT: Tonight's subject, throwing kittens in a wood chipper. I'm against it. I think it's wrong. John, tear me a new one.

YARMUTH: Well, you know, there are times when you have to find a way to dispose of kittens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now reports "The Hill" newspaper, a senior House Democrat Rahm Emanuel has told his freshmen not to appear on "The Colbert Report," to operate in a Colbert free zone, to steer clear of Stephen. Emanuel says the appearances are just too risky. Come on now, if you can't stand up to Stephen Colbert, how are you going to protect this nation from the terrorists?

Still to come, why Washington is the next big gossip hot spot.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Let's say you are running the hottest Hollywood gossip site on the web. Stars behaving badly, getting drunk, getting busted, getting married, getting divorced, shaving their heads, checking into rehab. You have got it covered. Now you want to expand your empire. Would you come to Washington? TMZ.com was founded by Harvey Levin, a former TV correspondent for such shows as "Celebrity Justice," It's TMZ that obtained the police report on Mel Gibson's drunken anti- Semitic tirade and TMZ that got hold of video of that racist Michael Richards rant in a comedy club. Can't get enough of Paris, Britney, and Anna Nicole? TMZ, which is owned by CNN parent Time Warner, has got you covered.

But now Levin and his team are about to launch a related site for beltway gossip. Boy, can you imagine, lawyers, lobbyists, subcommittee chairmen. The gossipy possibilities are endless. The secret life of Supreme Court justices, or Harry Reid's dark side. Mitch McConnell, wild and crazy guy, where Nancy Pelosi gets her red coats and Tony Snow buys that industrial strength hair spray. Alan Greenspan, is he obsessed with regaining power and when things are slow, what about some amusing Barney stories? TMZ also plans to investigate the city's media hot shots. Where does Tim Russert buy those white boards he uses on election night? Is Bob Schieffer plotting ways to win back the anchor chair? Did CSPAN's Brian Lamb really just skim some of those books on his show? And Chris Matthews, does he make some kind of pills to enable him to keep talking and talking without taking a breath?

All right, so Washington toward wonky workaholics who look like they haven't the sun in months. Just remember, power is an aphrodisiac and the people here will seem a lot sexier once they get the TMZ treatment.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "Late Edition" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.

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