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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Coverage of Petraeus's Capitol Hill Testimony

Aired September 16, 2007 - 10:00   ET

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


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: War week. As the president and General Petraeus make their case for a very limited withdrawal from Iraq, are the media buying line that this is progress? And why can't journalists cut through the fog on whether the surge has made Iraq safer or the administration is cooking the books?
A hooker's sale. The prostitute who says Senator David Vitter used her services. Should the media give a platform to a woman Larry Flynt is paying to pose for "Hustler."

Britney bombs. OK, we get it. Why does television keep playing this footage again and again?

Plus, dirty laundry. Jack Cafferty reveals his troubled family history and his battle with alcohol.

Breaking news involving this bizarre alleged robbery in Las Vegas involving O.J. Simpson. We will deal with that later in the program.

But first, the media buildup was almost unbelievable. The political culture geared toward waiting for Petraeus. And when the general spoke this week, not just to Congress, but to Charlie and Brian and Katie and a slew of cable networks and newspapers, his upbeat assessment of the war seemed to change few minds in the highly charged debate.

On Thursday night, President Bush embraced his four-star adviser by saying he would pull some troops out of Iraq by next summer but leave more in place than before his surge. Bush stressed signs of progress in Iraq and seemed to chide the media for not paying sufficient attention.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Together local sheikhs, Iraqi forces and coalition troops drove the terrorists from the capital of Ramadi and other population centers. These developments do not often make the headlines. But they do make a difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: There was almost a sense of deja vu as pundits debated the president's eighth televised speech on the war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: If we're winning the war, if we're kicking ass, to use the president's lingo, how come we're not getting toward having a government over there we can defend?

BILL SAMMON, WASHINGTON TIMES: I thought this was going to be the week where Democrats were finally going to be able to try to end this war once and for all. I think it's changed completely. I think the democrats are deflated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now here in Washington, David Frum, columnist for "National Review" online and a former speechwriter for President Bush. Ann Compton, who covers the White House for ABC news. Jamie McIntyre, CNN senior Pentagon correspondent. And in Los Angeles, Arianna Huffington, the founder and regular blogger at Huffingtonpost.com.

Ann Compton, the president, to put it mildly, offered a very upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq. Is it your job to say hold on, that's an incomplete picture, that's perhaps a distorted picture?

ANN COMPTON, ABC NEWS: Sure it is. But you know, that speech was written so well, so carefully, that it gave us five or six really great sound bites on bringing them home, all the buzzwords, getting better, progress. I counted 14 times he used the word success or succeed. Of course, it used the phrase "by Christmas." You go in and you try to find the line where he says by the way, "I'm also going to set up long-range obligations to Iraq." Buried in a paragraph, almost hard to decipher if you hadn't been in the background briefings before hand.

KURTZ: Jamie McIntyre, you've been doing Iraq fact checks all week on CNN. Did Bush fool the president into running those withdrawal headlines, troops coming home, in that the surge couldn't have lasted beyond next summer anyway?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well you know, that was something General Petraeus admitted, that the surge was going to end in April or so, although he insisted he could have kept it going a little bit longer.

He told President Bush that and President Bush repeated that when he met with network anchors just prior to his speech. But I think the line in President Bush's speech that probably raised the most eyebrows was the idea that life was returning back to -- ordinary life was coming back to normal in Iraq.

I mean things, you can make a case that things are getting better in certain areas. But the idea that we're approaching something resembling ordinary life in Iraq and Baghdad in particular just doesn't pass the smell test.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, you've argued that the media been way too passive in challenging the administration's version of progress in Iraq. Explain.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: They've been way too passive, Howie, even when they mentioned that things are not going as well as the administration is saying. They are taking the approach which is on the one hand and on the other.

The whole situation in Anbar Province, for example, there was a great report by Michael Ware on CNN about what really whatever happened in Anbar had nothing to do with the surge. Everything good has happened predated the surge.

And yet Michael Gordon on the "New York Times" others insisted on presenting everything as on the one hand and as on the other, therefore obfuscating the clear truth that the surge has not worked in any way in which we can count, in any way in which the benchmarks that had been put down have been met.

KURTZ: David Frum, have you noticed an absence of reporting on the continued violence in Iraq, the continued sectarian strife or weakness of the Maliki government?

DAVID FRUM, NATIONAL REVIEW: This is one of those moments that challenges us to define what you mean by "the media." Whatever you think of individual reporters and what they say, if you're someone who is paying, watching TV, what you see, whatever the reporters are saying you see a continuous wallpaper of blah blah blah, suicide bomb, blah blah blah, American dead.

The overwhelming impression or the casualty is one that's so pessimistic that anything the media can do to raise people's awareness of the good things that are happening in Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad counteracts a very exaggerated impression that I think the TV viewer gets.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, let me read to you the first sentence in a piece in the "Washington Post," the morning after the president's televised address. "In his speech last night," wrote the "Post," "President Bush made a case for progress in Iraq by citing facts and statistics that at times contradicted recent government reports or his own words."

Here's what CNN's Michael Ware, you mentioned him earlier, said moments after the president got done talking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let me just refer to this what the president said, that if America would have been driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strengths would be emboldened. They are now. Al Qaeda could gain new recruits and new tankers. They have that now. Iran would benefit from the chaos and be encouraged to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region. It is now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now is that not skeptical enough for you? Do you want journalists to just throw down their notepads and join in opposition to the war?

HUFFINGTON: No, this is absolutely what we need more of. The "Huffington Post" has been regularly praising Michael Ware as one of the best reporters from Iraq. He doesn't just give us facts, he gives us the passion of somebody's who's on ground and sees that things are not going the way the president and General Petraeus are telling us they are going. That's exactly the kind of reporting we need more of and that's exactly the kind of reporting we're not getting enough of.

I confess that Michael Ware, who's Michael Gordon at "The New York Times," for example, as the kind of on the one hand and on the other reporting that obfuscates the truth and leaves the American people really confused.

KURTZ: But isn't part of our job as journalists, David Frum, to allow the other side, in this case the administration, Bush, Petraeus, Robert Gates, the defense secretary, to make their case as well? I mean there have been signs in Anbar and elsewhere that the surge has achieved some modest accomplishment. Isn't that part of the story?

FRUM: The transformation of Anbar - Arianna is right. The bigger story than the surge, but than doesn't undercut the president's point of view. The fact is, over the past month, there's been a rebellion in Anbar by the Sunni sheikhs against al Qaeda.

That's a dramatic development. They are doing it for reasons of their own and they're indifferent to America's requirements for political credit.

But it is a real change. Ramadi, one of the -- that had been one of the worst places in Iraq, is becoming one of the less bad places in Iraq. That's big news. If you miss that, one of the things that's striking about Michael Ware's reporting is everything in life is a matter of more or less.

Yes, it is true, Iran has profited from the instability in Iraq. That doesn't mean they couldn't profit more and that they will, that the president is wrong. There he really was acting I think a little bit like an advocate goaded by Anderson Cooper in a way that, unless offset by a lot of good reporting, is maybe inappropriate.

KURTZ: Ann Compton, why did the White House leak in advance the fact that President Bush would follow General Petraeus' recommendations and pull out 20,000 troops by next summer and thereby depriving the speech of any drama.

COMPTON: Well, I don't know that it deprived it of drama. The briefings that the White House did at 2:45 in the afternoon before the 9 p.m. speech -- two senior, and I mean really senior officials came out earlier and spoke to the press about a lot of the details that just doesn't get covered in the first four or five paragraphs in a story.

The president had said for months -- this may be the eighth big speech on Iraq, but Howie, he's talked about Iraq every week, almost every day, in much the same terms. The president has always said, I'll do what my generals advise on troop levels. So if he'd said anything other than what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker said, we'd have a heck of a story.

KURTZ: Jamie McIntyre, I want to play for you a little bit of the interviews General Petraeus did this week. He talked to a lot of TV folks, newspaper folks. Here are the three network news anchors with the general.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLIE WILLIAMS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Knowing that there is 160,000 great kids there who are in command, even with this slow pace that it is worth it for them to spend the time over there.

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: How can you have more security with fewer troops?

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Moments after you responded to a question that you weren't sure that the war in Iraq had made Americans safer, I heard a commentator on television say, can you imagine Eisenhower saying the same thing?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Do you think there was a lot of media skepticism toward the general who up to now has gotten tremendously good press?

MCINTYRE: Oh, I think there is very healthy skepticism. I think the line that you have to draw between healthy skepticism and perhaps cynicism is, it is absolutely our job to point out that things are not going as well as some of the people in the administration and sometimes General Petraeus say they are.

But when you slip over to the point where you say, not only is it not succeeding, but it can never succeed, then you're getting into the area where things are frankly debatable. It is not black and white in those areas.

I think that we need to be very careful that we take a look at what they -- what the facts show, and that's really the debate here. It is not so much that General Petraeus is giving inaccurate information, it is do the facts that he selects he highlight actually make the point that he is trying to make? And the Anbar situation is a good example. It is very debatable, to the extent that the progress there has been directly attributable to the surge.

HUFFINGTON: But there are certain things that are not debatable. And that's really the point I've been making. It is not debatable that General Petraeus gave us inaccurate numbers about civilian deaths.

MCINTYRE: No, he didn't.

HUFFINGTON: The AP -- the "Los Angeles Times," the government report, the two mandated government reports all contradict General Petraeus' civilian numbers not by a few, but by almost double. It is not beyond dispute that General Petraeus gave the same optimistic report in 2004 which were completely contradicted by the facts. These things, with the greatest respect, are not debatable.

KURTZ: Jamie?

MCINTYRE: Again, if you look at the numbers and the civilian death numbers are particularly controversial because we don't have good numbers. In fact General Petraeus gave the numbers that the military had and we looked at those numbers, we compared them to the trends, the short-term trends, the long-term trends, we tried to show what they show and what they don't show.

As for his writing back in 2004 that the Iraqi security forces were improving, yeah, that was the general view at the time. That view has turned out to be inaccurate. But that doesn't mean that there was a deliberate deception.

KURTZ: Let me ask you a question about bloggers, David Frum. The "Washington Post" reports this morning that on Friday, President Bush met with 10 bloggers who specialize in military affairs, talked about the war, one of them who blogs in the name of black five, found the president intelligent, razor-sharp, warm, focused, emotional and genuine. Is this another effort to get out the message without dealing with people like Jamie McIntyre?

FRUM: I'm sure the president loves dealing with Jamie McIntyre. But I look at the idea of bloggers as a credulous audience. I think that one of these bloggers -- two of them actually joined by a satellite connection from Iraq where they almost live. These are people who actually have very specialized knowledge of military affairs. We can all learn a lot from them. They have their limits, their narrow focus but within their focus they know a lot.

KURTZ: I think it is a step forward that the president finds time to sit down with bloggers. When we come back, "The New York Times" and moveon.org. Was the newspaper too generous toward the liberal antiwar group?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Conservatives and a few liberals have been denouncing moveon.org for a full-page ad in the "New York Times" that depicted General Petraeus as General "betray us." Soon the critics turned on the "Times" over what it charged the left wing advocacy group to run the ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE DOOCY, FOX NEWS: The "New York Times" is now a co- conspirator with moveon.org. This is like calling Eisenhower a traitor on the eve of D-Day. This is extraordinary! Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.

GRETCHEN CARLSON, FOX NEWS: As I said, I think it is a huge controversy. It is as bad as the actual ad itself. HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL: Now another paper's reporting that the "Times" gave MoveOn a discount of more than $100,000. The "Times" says, hold everything, there is a very valid explanation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: "Times" spokeswoman told me that advocacy groups that don't insist on a particular day or placement for their ad are charged $65,000 as MoveOn was and as the Rudy Giuliani campaign was in running a counter ad to MoveOn even though a full-page ad can cost as much as $180,000. So were the attacks on the "Times" unfair on this point?

FRUM: Well, these discounts do help to explain why "Times" stock has collapsed so badly. Who knew that it was so cheap? I think those attacks are largely misconceived. The paper does seem to have a consistent pricing policy.

Meanwhile, I think there is a certain amount of -- up the sleeve, because that ad was perhaps the stupidest ad conceived by any left wing group of the past half decade. There have been a lot of them. The MoveOn people just took a wooden stick and drove it through their own heart.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, whether it was a stupid ad or a brilliant ad, it certainly was a controversial ad -- isn't that what newspapers do, provide space for a price for groups and individuals to get their views across?

HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. And David is completely right. This is a standard pricing procedure of "The New York Times" and there is no exception made for MoveOn as FOX alleged.

But also whatever you may think of the ad, it was an accurate ad. It said nothing about Petraeus being a traitor, as FOX continuously reported it. It said effectively that Petraeus is betraying our trust. And everything we've said in the previous segment about the inaccuracies, about the overly optimistic view of what's happening is a betrayal of trust at the moment when really the public is sick of all the deceptions.

KURTZ: Well that was obviously an inflammatory headline and it was designed to be, Ann Compton. But MoveOn is an important group, three million members, raises a lot of money for the Democratic Party. Did the media let MoveOn become the story this week?

COMPTON: Well they certainly let it raise up to almost a level of the White House on who's right, who's wrong. And the White House went into overdrive. Every briefing, every comment, every backgrounder pointed to MoveOn, every leader needs something to push back against. And so MoveOn may have done in some sense a bit of a favor to the president this week.

KURTZ: MoveOn ripped Katie Couric, who went to Iraq two weeks ago for daring to report that quote, "there are definitely areas where the situation is improving." For that MoveOn said that she was engaging in blind repetition of Bush talking points. Can a journalist go to Iraq and file a mixed report without getting flap?

MCINTYRE: Well, you could think so. It is true that there are some areas of improvement. The question is what does that mean for the overall policy and can it be sustained and what does that mean for success?

And sometimes that little narrow picture doesn't tell you what the big picture is. But that's why journalists put all these pieces together and combine information from other sources and other reporters. So I think that was a cheap shot.

FRUM: One of the great under reported stories in Washington right now is the gap between what the senior leadership in the Democratic Party really thinks about Iraq and what their activist base wants them to say and what the activist base thinks.

Should there be a Democratic president in office in 2009, we are going to see an explosion. I often think that this war is going to be like Vietnam in reverse. First the Nixon administration, then the Johnson administration. First the one with the liberals and left are united, then the one where they turn on each other.

KURTZ: We'll see whether that becomes a bigger story. David Frum, Jamie McIntyre, Ann Compton, Arianna Huffington, thanks for joining us this morning.

Up next, the French man accused of faking interviews with a whole lot of famous people. The journalist who understands what Tony Snow is going through in fighting cancer. And Rosie rips Barbara after leaving "The View." All ahead in our media minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now for the latest in the news business in our "Media Minute."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Alexis Debat was a terrorism consultant and talking head for ABC News until he was dumped recently for claiming, without proof, to have a PhD from the Sorbonne. Now Debat he admitted that he has never spoke to Barack Obama despite publishing an interview with the senator in the French magazine "Politique Internationale." Debat says he was scammed by a freelancer who claims to have talked to Obama. Debat also admits that he never conducted interviews with the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Alan Greenspan, and Bill Gates, saying he just helped draft the questions, but "Politique Internationale" is calling him "just sick." ABC's Brian Ross is investigating whether his former colleague provided any bogus information to the network.

Tony Snow stepped down as White House spokesman Friday but not before a touching farewell interview with ABC's Robin Roberts. The "Good Morning America" host and the former FOX News commentator are both battling cancer and their discussion was unusually personal.

ROBIN ROBERTS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Next week I start my treatment.

TONY SNOW, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yeah.

ROBERTS: And it is a little uncertain. What do you say to those that are about to -- and every cancer is different. Every treatment is different.

SNOW: Like anything else in life, it is not going to be immediate. You're going to feel it over time. I tell people if you got cancer, don't hide it. People want to love you. Let them. You know? You know? Let them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Snow and Roberts sharing their feelings on the subject that touches almost all of us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA WALTERS, THE VIEW: I have never read a blog.

KURTZ: When Rosie O'Donnell left "The View" last spring, Barbara Walters, the show's founder, tried to portray the split as amicable. But the "New York Post" reports that wasn't exactly true. According to an upcoming book coming out by Rosie who writes "Barbara Walters is almost twice my age. At some point it becomes necessary to step back. Everyone has to go. Go something part of the gig. I would be less than honest if I were to say there is no trouble between Barbara and I."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Calling for Barbara Walters who brought her to "The View" in the first place to quit, giving her the Trump treatment? Walters called it a very sad book. That was restrained.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, Rudy Giuliani and 9/11. Why all the press scrutiny of the mayor's performance that day?

Sure, she bombed but the media just won't let go of Britney Spears' bizarre MTV appearance.

O.J. Simpson and that odd break-in in the Las Vegas hotel and some breaking developments on it. We'll have it covered.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Six years after 9/11, Rudy Giuliani's role is getting dissected by the networks, but is the former mayor getting a fair shake? We'll talk about it in a moment.

But first, here's T.J. Holmes at CNN Center in Atlanta with a check of the hour's top stories. (NEWSBREAK)

KURTZ: Thank you, T.J. Holmes. We'll have some media analysis of this O.J. case. There have been some twists and turns that you'll want to be updated on.

Plus, Senator David Vitter facing new allegations of consorting with a prostitute, this one with ties to Larry Flynt. Does the story deserve the media's attention?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. There have been some odd media developments in this O.J. Simpson case, the one involving this alleged burglary or robbery, I guess I should say, at the Las Vegas hotel. Joining me now to talk about that and some other press controversies, Gene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post; and Blanquita Cullum radio talk show host and chairwoman of the Talk Radio First Amendment Committee.

Here's what's happening, the Las Vegas Review Journal reporting this morning, quoting sources as saying that one man has been arrested, not Simpson, but one of his friends or accomplices arrested in that alleged robbery.

Secondly, Alfred Beardsley, who was the guy who says that the stuff was stolen from him, the sports collector, told the AP that he didn't wanted anymore to do with this, and planned to drop the case. But the Drudge Report, minutes ago said that it spoke to Beardsley and he said his conversation with the AP's Linda Deutsche was off the record and he does plan to go to court. This is a hard one to follow.

But Gene Robinson, I strongly believe that journalists should assume that all people are innocent until proven guilty, but O.J. makes it hard.

EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: In this case from what we know so far, I think we can presume that everyone is guilty until proven innocent. I mean, O.J. does make it hard, right? O.J. is -- you can understand why people will focus on O.J.

KURTZ: Especially when one of his friends is alleged to have pulled a gun.

ROBINSON: He has a knack of getting into these situations. But this whole kind of netherworld of sports memorabilia, what's legitimate, what's not, and this is probably a big part of his income right now. So you know, a jersey or something signed by O.J. Simpson probably worth a lot of money. But that money can't go directly to him or else the Goldman family gets it. So it has to be through probably -- I'm extrapolating here, but probably through all sorts of cutouts and weird kind of arrangements that might be skirting the law.

KURTZ: Skirting the law.

ROBINSON: And so who knows? Exactly. KURTZ: Well, my favorite quote, Blanquita, is when O.J. says in one of his interviews, well, nobody got roughed up. And he's sitting by the pool and he's giving interviews. You know, the media just can't get enough of this guy.

BLANQUITA CULLUM, TALK RADIO FIRST AMENDMENT COMMITTEE: Well, you know, he has a little rage issue. And the ironic thing is, I think, won't it be bizarre if O.J. actually goes to prison for stealing his memorabilia and not for allegedly killing two people? I mean, wouldn't that be kind of bizarre if somehow he has got a Joe Montana souvenir that puts him in the pen instead of killing a woman and killing her friend?

KURTZ: Well, what's really equally weird is this week that book that he wrote, "If I Did It," which I...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: I thought that we'd never have to hear about this despicable project again. Because after all, FOX pulled the plug on the project, but then Fred Goldman sued. And he bought it out so he can get some money. It is number one on Amazon. So people still want to read about O.J.?

CULLUM: Well, we've got (INAUDIBLE) to kind of a mentality right now, there are so many kind of things going on in the world that we don't like. We can watch O.J. or we can hear about Britney or we can watch all of these bizarre things going on. And it kind of takes the tension away from us and we can kind of get hooked into it.

KURTZ: Andrea Peyser of The New York Post had a great line, she said that O.J. may write a new book called "If I Robbed Them, It Was Their Fault."

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: Now this week was also the sixth anniversary of 9/11 and the media observed that, although not quite with the wall-to-wall coverage that they have in past years. But suddenly there are all these stories about Rudy Giuliani and what he did as mayor of New York City on that awful day. Let's take a look at some of those pieces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But, he does have critics, many of whom say his leadership on that day six years ago was not what it should have been.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that day became the basis, really, for his run for president. And not everyone feels the same way about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some critics have questioned Giuliani's judgment in planning for a terrorist attack and caring for rescue workers afterwards.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Now Gene Robinson, Giuliani made some mistakes, especially by putting the emergency command center in the World Trade Center. But my impression is that these stories are being driven by New York Fire Department officials and others in the city who just don't like Rudy.

ROBINSON: Well, that's true. Rudy Giuliani left behind a lot of enemies in New York City, as you well know. I mean, look, it is fair game. The guy's running for president, and so examining his role on the day that is really in many ways the centerpiece of his campaign is perfectly legitimate.

I think we should kind of draw a line between mistakes he made or might have made in the time before 9/11. Was he prepared? Did he put the command center in the wrong place? That sort of thing. All these decisions that were made earlier. And when you look at his performance on the day, you can complain this way or that way...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But who was expecting planes to fly into...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: Exactly, who was expecting that? And as somebody who is not necessarily a huge fan of Rudy Giuliani, I think you have to give him that he was an amazing inspiring force that day.

CULLUM: You bet. And you know what? None of the other candidates, not on one single one of them has that learning curve. Now granted, some people are going to say that, well, he didn't do this right and didn't do that right. There is not one of the other candidates that had to suffer the learning curve that Rudy did. And he was the one that was the symbol of strength during 9/11.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: A symbol, the key word is "symbol." Some people are saying when you get to his performance...

CULLUM: But you know what, Howie? The thing of it is, he has already learned those lessons. He knows what he has done wrong.

KURTZ: Let's talk about the stories focusing on this. Is there any possibility that he's being kind of Swiftboated here?

CULLUM: Oh, well, they're going to try to Swiftboat him. But I've got to tell you that...

KURTZ: Who? His critics or the media?

CULLUM: His critics, the critics in the media. And I've got to tell you, it is not going to play with Rudy because Rudy has got a strength that is beyond his critics. And frankly, he has the only experience in that venue and he's -- what he can do better, I think Rudy ought to say, this is what I learned and this is what I'm going to do in case it happens next time, and very well it could happen next time.

This is important for people to consider when they're looking at the candidates, because none of them have that experience.

KURTZ: All right. You both agree that at least this subject is fair game, especially with somebody who is running for president.

ROBINSON: Sure.

CULLUM: Yes.

KURTZ: But what about Senator David Vitter? Here's a guy who, as we all recall, his phone number turned up in the D.C. madam's records. He apologized, said he had sinned, but didn't take any questions from the press, still hasn't taken any questions from the press. And this week a woman named Wendy Cortez, a New Orleans prostitute, appeared with Larry Flynt and said that Senator Vitter, back in 1999, had been a regular customer of hers. She later did some interviews. She appeared on MSNBC with Dan Abrams.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN ABRAMS, HOST, "DAN ABRAMS": Tell me about the state of your relationship with Vitter.

WENDY CORTEZ, PROSTITUTE: It was purely a sexual relationship.

ABRAMS: And it lasted for four months.

CORTEZ: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CULLUM: They both go, duh, she's a prostitute. But the thing that you remember -- you know, you remember Flynt, even in the last election, he offered a lot of money for anyone that could find the dirt on people. Remember we talked about the thing about the D.C. madam and they found Vitter's name? Well, what about all the other people they found? Shouldn't we have equal time here?

And I just want to put out there though for colleagues on both sides of the aisle that are going to be running, if you're going to run for politics or run for re-election, for crying out loud, don't go to a prostitute and zip it up, for crying out loud, get a grip.

KURTZ: This is interesting because a lot of news organizations have either ignored or played down this woman's allegations. On the other hand, I mean, we know that David Vitter in the past has had some sort problem in this area that he has sort of copped to without getting specific. So should this be more widely reported?

ROBINSON: Well, we kind of knew that David Vitter had these issues. I think -- you know, look, for pro-family values Republicans, this is a tough time to have your past delved into in that way. But I think that's just going to continue. I guess a lot of editors and news directors have probably decided that, well, what we kind of new that about Vitter, and so maybe that's not quite -- it's not getting a front page.

CULLUM: But I'm not sure that Vitter is the biggest player right now if you look at it. I mean, for example, even guys like Larry Craig, I don't even think it is going to matter ultimately. This is going to be a weird election time. I think people are going to be looking at what's going to keep me safe and my family safe, what's going to bring back money to the economy and immigration.

KURTZ: All right. Let me stop your political analysis to ask this question -- let me ask this question though. First of all, David Vitter has denied this woman's allegations, unlike in the case of D.C. madam. Secondly, she's taking money from Larry Flynt to appear in Hustler. Does that in terms of whether we report it...

CULLUM: Yes.

KURTZ: Does that undercut her credibility as a source in this story?

CULLUM: Totally. Well, totally. And you know, this woman gets paid for sex to begin with. And Larry Flynt doesn't exactly have the best reputation to begin with, and we know he's out for Republicans. So the bottom line is, you know, how are you going to prove it? Are you going to go in there -- the only way you can really prove it is going in there and getting a camera in the bedroom.

KURTZ: Although in fairness, Larry Flynt did bring to light -- his people did bring to light the D.C. madam case. And that is not really contested.

ROBINSON: Right. I think most people are going to believe her, actually. But will this hurt Vitter with his constituents in New Orleans? Now that I'm not sure of.

(CROSSTALK)

CULLUM: And then maybe in Connecticut, but not maybe necessarily in New Orleans.

ROBINSON: Let the good times roll.

KURTZ: All right. One more topic for you two. You may have heard that Britney Spears appeared on the MTV Music Awards show last weekend, if you own a TV, if you have electricity, and that she didn't do too well. OK. She was horrible. And that sleazy outfit. How many times have we seen it now?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spears once again rules as the trainwreck du jour.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Spears just getting scathing reviews for Sunday's performance at the MTV awards.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's just say it did not go so well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She shows up, looks like she's on something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bad dancing, bad lip-syncing, and her figure is under fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: I've got half a minute for you. Any doubt in your mind that television is exploiting this story by playing those pictures we're looking at right now over and over and over again?

CULLUM: Yes. And we want her to fall, and we want to see her come back. You know, the poor thing is mentally ill. We are voyeuristic towards this woman.

KURTZ: Now look. It is a story for 24 hours. She's a big name, she has had a lot of problems. But by day five, day six, it seems to be like it's about showing her in the bra and panties.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Duh. She's a really big babe (ph). She's a really big star.

CULLUM: She's not that big. She's not as fat as they say she is.

ROBINSON: No, I didn't mean "big" in terms of her body, in terms of her...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: More importantly, she is an irresistible story.

ROBINSON: She is an absolutely irresistible story. I mean, and you know, Britney Spears is a huge cultural story in this country. And she came back too soon. She came back out of shape.

CULLUM: We wanted her to though. We wanted her to go back...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: Well, we wanted this, but we want her now to do the Rocky thing and get in shape and come back and blow everybody away. That's probably what she is going to do.

KURTZ: All right. Gene Robinson obviously can't get enough of Britney Spears.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: Blanquita Cullum, showing a little more restraint. Thanks very much for joining us this morning. CULLUM: Compassionate conservatism.

KURTZ: Up next, who's linking ABC to Joseph Stalin? That's ahead.

But first, he's CNN's resident curmudgeon. What makes Jack Cafferty so testy?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Wesley Clark coming up on "LATE EDITION."

When it comes to spewing opinions, Jack Cafferty doesn't hold back. On CNN's SITUATION ROOM, he has something to say about virtually everything.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: They're going to spin this and try to create this impression in the minds of the people in this country that they actually give a damn about drawing down the military presence in Iraq.

If this moron, Larry Craig, is re-elected to the Senate, if he's stupid enough to run again, if he's re-elected, I will eat the Time Warner Center one brick at a time.

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: This is the kind of stuff that happens when the war on terror is used as an excuse to circumvent our civil liberties, which has become the hallmark of the Bush administration.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But few people know about the difficulties in his personal life which Cafferty vividly describes in a new memoir called "It's Getting Ugly Out There." I spoke to him earlier from New York.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Jack Cafferty, welcome.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Howard. Nice to be with you.

KURTZ: You shoot off your mouth a lot. That is your job.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZ: But you bash the Bush administration so often that you have become a hero to some on the left. I mean, just in this book, in the first few pages, you talk about Bush and company harming America. You call the president deluded and you speak favorably of impeachment.

Do you consider yourself a left-winger?

CAFFERTY: No, I don't. Not at all. On the contrary. In fact, in the early days of the run-up to the war in Iraq, I was a right- winger, if nothing else. I bought the whole song and dance about WMD. I was caught up in the national hysteria that followed 9/11, and was as captive to the political manipulation, if you will, that took place of all of us.

And I include myself. I was drinking the Kool-Aid on the run-up to that war. And I spent a lot of time on "AMERICAN MORNING" here on CNN supporting the administration and supporting the war.

So, no. The answer to your question is no, I don't consider myself a left-winger.

KURTZ: All right. On occasion on "THE SITUATION ROOM," you have also taken shots at CNN. For example, last February, after Anna Nicole Smith died and CNN aired about two straight hours of programming, you had this to say, let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAFFERTY: You wanted to know why there was no coverage of the war in Iraq and the deaths of seven of our troops there the day before, or the Libby trial, or the threat from Iran to strike American interests around the world if it was attacked.

Her death was tabloid gold. And apparently we just couldn't help ourselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Does cable news sometimes drive you crazy?

CAFFERTY: Well, they -- all the news drives me crazy. And I think, you know, we went overboard on the Anna Nicole Smith stuff. And I think that, you know, we are not alone, that television is a commercial enterprise after all, and we are out to get those eyeballs, and the studies indicate that there is an appetite for that stuff.

Things like People magazine and The National Enquirer sell a lot of copies because that is their bread and butter. But I think we get caught up in that sometimes and we overdo it.

KURTZ: We have certainly seen occasions of that. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, you name it. Talk a little about your life. Your first job in television was "Ranger Jack." What was that about?

(LAUGHTER)

CAFFERTY: Well, it was a kid's show in Reno, Nevada, at KOLO TV. It was the only TV station in town. And I guess they didn't know what else to do with a half hour at 5:00 in the afternoon. So I went -- I was working at a radio station at the time. But the TV job paid a little bit more. So I went and tried out. And I got hired and I did a kids program.

You probably find that hard to believe, but I did.

KURTZ: We will have to get that videotape some time. Now...

CAFFERTY: There is no videotape of that, Howard. It was long before they...

KURTZ: You had it destroyed.

CAFFERTY: ... invented videotape.

KURTZ: OK. You are very candid about some of the rougher aspects of your life here. For example, your father had a very difficult time. He was a drunk. At one point you stopped sending him money. And he didn't talk to you for 10 years and you call him SOB. It must have been difficult.

CAFFERTY: Well, yes. I mean, I was a product of a dysfunctional alcoholic Irish family. My father and I at times got along famously and at other times didn't get along at all. And as I got older and began to understand the addiction that he was battling, I lost patience with supporting his booze habit, for want of a better way to put it.

So at one point I said, you know, I will be happy to help you with your bills, but send me the bills and I will pay them directly. And he, of course, took great umbrage at that. And we didn't talk for like 10 years.

The next time I heard from him, I got a call in the newsroom here in New York, and the production assistant said, you know, there is somebody on the phone, said he is your father. And I picked up the phone. He said, I just thought you would like to know I'm dying of cancer. They tell me I have got about six months to live.

So I went out and saw him before he died. And it was unfortunate we never got it figured out. But we were...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Right. Now you spoke at the top about drinking the Kool- Aid on the Iraq War, but you were drinking something a lot heavier, a lot more serious there for years and years. You described yourself as a heavy drinker.

And when you were co-anchoring what was the top-rated newscast in New York, WNBC, you talk about drinking a bunch of beers before going on the air. How did you get away with that?

CAFFERTY: Well, it is an interesting thing about alcoholism, Howard. Those of us who fall victim to that affliction start out with a great tolerance of the chemical. I was raised by two alcoholic parents. My dad actually taught me how to drink. I used to go to the bars and saloons around Reno with him when I was a kid.

And you know, drinking was kind of a macho thing. Smoking was a macho thing. And that was the wild west of the 1950s or whatever. And so, you know, you develop a capacity to handle a certain amount of booze without it showing, you know, visibly. And so, you know, like every other drunk in the world, I was able to do that for a while.

But eventually it began to affect my marriage and...

KURTZ: And in fact...

(CROSSTALK)

CAFFERTY: ... it began to affect my career as well.

KURTZ: Now you -- just to be clear, this is a problem in the past for you or not so much?

CAFFERTY: I haven't had a drink in 20 years. I quit 20 years ago -- I quit smoking and drinking the same year, which -- and it was a year I almost didn't make it through. But I have -- knock wood, I have been off of everything for that long. And you know, I hope I can go another 20 years.

KURTZ: Last question, when you were on the air and you were talking about stupidity and morons and idiots and some of the other choice language you aim often at politicians, do you ever get the feeling that maybe you are going too far? Or is there not enough of that discourse on the air, in your view?

CAFFERTY: The language sometimes is harsh, but the condition of this country, I think, is approaching critical. Look at the polls, 18 percent of the public thinks that Congress is doing a good job. That is the latest Gallup poll. Thirty-five percent think President Bush is doing a good job. Seventy percent of Americans, Howard, think this country is headed in the wrong direction, and I'm one of those.

And maybe barking about it is a little harsh at times, but I'm concerned about my children's future, my grandchildren's future. I'm an old man now. And I'll be out of here at some point. But I have got grandchildren who 30, 40, 50 years from now are not going to enjoy the same standard of living that you and I have. And that bothers me and it makes me mad, because there is no reason for it to be that way.

KURTZ: And we know what happens when you get mad. Jack Cafferty, thanks very much for joining us.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Howard. Nice to be with you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Still to come, why the guy who wrote "The Path to 9/11 for ABC thinks the Clintons and the liberal media are keeping his DVD under wraps.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: What ABC was getting ready to air "The Path to 9/11" last year, the network defended the docudrama against fierce criticism from Clinton administration officials that it was, in part, a work of fiction. Now ABC has a new critic, the filmmaker himself, who is likening the network to Joseph Stalin?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote the screenplay for the $40 million project, took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal this week to complain that ABC was refusing to release the six-hour movie on DVD. "This passive self-censorship is just as effective as anything Joseph Stalin or Big Brother could impose. The result is the same, the curbing of free speech and creative expression and the suppression of a viewpoint that may be an inconvenient truth for some politicians."

Inconvenient truth? Let's take a look. To be sure, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger complained about the movie to Disney, ABC's parent company.

Even Bill Clinton weighed in.

BILL CLINTON, 42ND PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just want people to tell the truth.

KURTZ: Albright and Berger were depicted as undermining efforts against Osama bin Laden. For example, Berger was shown refusing to authorize a proposed raid against the al Qaeda leader by CIA operatives in Afghanistan. Both Berger and the September 11th Commission say that never happened.

ABC ultimately acknowledged that certain parts of the film had been fictionalized and cut some scenes at the urging of Tom Kean, who was both chairman of the 9/11 Commission and a co-producer on the movie.

Now ABC won't talk about why it is holding back the DVD, saying only that no release date has been set. But that hasn't stopped Nowrasteh from floating his own conspiracy theory.

CYRUS NOWRASTEH, WRITER, "THE PATH TO 9/11": I think they got a lot of calls from people in the industry who may be friends of the Clintons, as well as they got calls from people in Washington. I was told, well, if Hillary weren't running for president this wouldn't be a problem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: A Clinton spokesman told me that "like the movie, this is fiction." It could well be that ABC doesn't want a rerun of the controversy that surrounded the TV movie that made up scenes for dramatic purposes. For Cyrus Nowrasteh to start tossing around terms like "Stalinism" shows that he isn't above making exaggerated charges, exactly what the film's critics have accused him of.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 10:00 Eastern for another critical look at media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.

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