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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Interview With Tom Brokaw; Clinton, Obama Make Headlines With Reaction to Robert Novak's Column
Aired November 25, 2007 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Time traveler: a conversation with Tom Brokaw on the '60s and today's media world, on Vietnam and Iraq, on Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, on Katie Couric and Don Imus, and why he never hosted "Saturday Night Live."
Shadow boxing. Hillary and Barack Obama heating up the headlines, especially over that strange and sketchy Robert Novak column accusing her of sitting on scandalous information about him.
The journalist, the soldier and the photo. The remarkable tale of an "L.A. Times" photographer who befriended a troubled serviceman in Iraq and became part of the story.
Plus, from Lacy Peterson to Stacy Peterson, television turns another missing white woman into the latest tabloid melodrama.
KURTZ: Not many journalists get the unusual privilege of naming a generation, but when Tom Brokaw wrote his book on the Americans who won World War II, the title stuck, "The Greatest Generation." Now the former NBC anchor has tackled the biggest, most rebellious, most self- indulgent generation with his new book, "Boom!: Voices of the Sixties." And that was indeed a turbulent decade -- the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Vietnam, urban riots, Beatle mania, the hippie movement, pot-smoking, women's lib, and a generation of kids who thought they were going to change the world.
Brokaw got his start in television during the '60s first in Omaha, then in Atlanta, then at KNBC in Los Angeles. His book intertwines his personal history with interviews with the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Gloria Steinem, Warren Beatty, Paul Simon and James Taylor.
I spoke to him earlier here in Washington.
KURTZ: Tom Brokaw, welcome.
TOM BROKAW, FORMER NBC ANCHOR, AUTHOR, "BOOM!": Good to be here. KURTZ: Let me ask you a couple of questions about the presidential campaign. A few months ago, virtually every story I saw on television and newspapers about Rudy Giuliani said he is not going to win the Republican nomination. He is too pro-choice, pro-gay rights, controversial mayor, too New York.
Did the media underestimate the mayor?
BROKAW: No, I always thought that he would do well in the national polls, which is where he is doing the best because of name recognition. He was, of all of those people who are running on the Republican side, with the single exception of John McCain, a truly national figure as a result of what happened on 9/11.
But you can't estimate how well he is doing until you look at Iowa, New Hampshire, and some of the primary states, because that is where this is going to be settled. He -- I suppose it is fair to say that he is staying up higher than I expected to -- him to for longer. But now you are already seeing it over the weekend with Frank Rich taking a look at him in a little harder way.
I think that there will be a certain amount of drilling down into the Giuliani record. And he will go through what Hillary has been going through. He will be perceived as the frontrunner. People have to come after him.
KURTZ: Why hasn't that record -- he had eight controversial years as mayor. Why hasn't that record been drilled into before this?
BROKAW: Because most of the attention has been on the Democratic side, frankly. I mean, that is really -- that is what is drawing most of the press attention and most of the public attention. The big question that I keep hearing as I go around the country, can she be elected? Will the country take an African-American?
There is a feeling out there in the popular ranks this can be big year for Democrats. There is less attention on the Republicans as a result
KURTZ: Is that feeling about, could Hillary be elected, could Barack Obama be elected, is that something that is bubbling up from the grassroots, or is it journalists who are really struck by the first possibility, the unusual nature of these two candidacies? Are they the ones really pushing that line?
BROKAW: I think it's less and less of an issue, frankly, Howie, all together.
BROKAW: I think there is more and more of an understanding that a woman can be elected president of the United States. We just had a woman elected in Argentina. There is a woman in Chile. There is a woman in Germany.
We have got a woman governor in Kansas, a very red state -- a Democrat. A Democratic woman in Arizona, in a very red state.
I think it is the kind of a chattering class question. It does play in different parts of the culture, no question about that.
KURTZ: What about the Hillary marriage, the role of Bill Clinton was also media-driven?
BROKAW: See, I think -- yes, I think that there will be other issues besides the fact that she is a woman. I think those are some of the issues that will come into play. I don't think it has to do with her gender, however.
And I don't think -- I was in Chicago earlier this summer. There was a big headline in The Sun-Times on Sunday, "Obama: Is He Black Enough?" And Michelle, his wife, had a very eloquent response to that and a long profile about her. And I think that those issues and questions now are coming down, down, down as we get deeper and deeper into the campaign.
KURTZ: Let's talk about your book and what you were doing in the '60s. For example, 1965, what became known as "Bloody Sunday," the violent march at Selma, Alabama. You were working at KNBC in Los Angeles.
BROKAW: No, I was working in Atlanta, actually.
KURTZ: OK. I have the station wrong.
BROKAW: And I was -- and I was helping prepare the network feeds for that night with a man that I liked a lot from the South. He was a white video editor. We didn't have any black technicians at all.
And I would make him replay the tape and look at what was going on. And it was a hard thing for him to accept, and finally at the end of the evening he looked at me and said, it is wrong, it's just wrong, about what was -- how they were getting beat up there at the bridge.
KURTZ: I love when you talk about the culture. 1967, a cab driver takes you to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco where the hippie movement was taking form. And you were pretty frank in describing yourself as a bit of a square.
BROKAW: Well, I looked like a narc. I went in there with a trench coat on and a narrow tie and a button-down shirt. I had been covering some political upheaval over at Berkeley during the day. Went back over to San Francisco, cab driver said, "Mister, do you know what is going on at Haight-Ashbury?" And I didn't.
And it was like arriving in the middle of the bar scene of "Star Wars." I mean, these kids had poured in from all over the country. And most of this had happened kind of overnight.
The scene at midnight was loud, raucous. Kids were all over the streets, bongo drums were playing, dope was everywhere, everybody had a headband on. A lot of people were openly stoned up and down the street. So I went to "The Today Show" the next morning and said, there is something going on here that I think maybe you ought to do a report on, and then spent a lot of time in Haight-Ashbury because of the free health clinic that existed up there. And it was one of the cultural epicenters of the country at the time, and all of the ramifications of that.
KURTZ: And you write that you later tried pot and became part of that era as well.
BROKAW: Well, I did. I don't know many people who didn't, as a matter of fact. It didn't take with me.
I was a child of the '50s, and it did not become a fixed part of my life. There was this early benign attitude, certainly toward marijuana, and then even toward cocaine later on, which was not an area for me. I didn't go there.
But you know, marijuana was being passed around at very establishment cocktails parties like an after-dinner drink of some kind.
KURTZ: I have heard some criticism of the book saying that you deal with civil rights, you deal with women's liberation, as it was called then, but you don't devote any time or space to the burgeoning gay rights movement. Is that something...
BROKAW: I don't, because the gay rights movement came slightly later. It lifted off during that time and I had to make some choices about what I was going to concentrate on. The big issues were the anti-war movement, the counterculture.
I do make some reference to it, but it is only fleeting. And it wasn't any attempt on my part to suppress it. It is just that the gay rights movement really came later after the '60s, it really began to take hold in the '70s.
I did the first television documentary on AIDS in America, and it was because my friend Larry Kramer (ph) had stopped me on the street and said, there is something going on in the gay community that you need to pay attention to. So in this book it was not an oversight on my part to try to downplay the rise of the gay rights movement, which did come later.
KURTZ: Vietnam, one of your friends from the University of South Dakota went there and did not come back. You write that you were disillusioned with the deceptions of Johnson and Nixon.
Talk a little bit about that.
BROKAW: Well, the Johnson tapes just enraged me when I read them later, the private conversations he was having very early on with Richard Russell.
KURTZ: His own doubts about the war that he was prosecuting.
BROKAW: His own deep doubts about the war. And the man that he really counted on in the Senate to be his military affairs expert, Richard Russell, said, he just doesn't believe that this makes any sense at all. That he at one point says, it will all be settled missiles if it is settled at all.
And but Johnson keep pouring people in. He was terrified, obviously, the political effect that it might have if the right would come after him. He even talks in one exchange about impeachment. He was protecting his political ass -- excuse my language -- but that is what he was doing while young people were dying over there.
Nixon made more of an effort to try to find peace in Vietnam. He did make several overtures to the north. But he kept pouring people in there as well because he believed he was the last person who should lose a war and that he thought it was important to stand up to the communists.
He came into office if not actually saying, I have a secret plan for making peace...
BROKAW: ... giving the impression that he could bring the war to an end.
KURTZ: In terms of the coverage, do you see certain parallels here to Iraq? Most people would say, and I would agree, the media did a pretty poor job during the run-up to the Iraq War in terms of the way that President Bush was selling it, and now, of course, the coverage in recent years has been more critical.
BROKAW: Yes. The one thing I would disagree with you about, a lot of what happened on the run-up was unknowable. People did believe he had weapons of mass destruction. People who were critical of the war and the idea of going to war did in fact think that he had weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the bases for...
KURTZ: But shouldn't journalists have been more skeptical toward the line the administration was selling, even if they couldn't disprove it and given it more...
BROKAW: I think on the execution...
BROKAW: I think on the war plan they should have been a lot more skeptical.
KURTZ: And given more space, more air time to opposition voices? There was a feeling...
BROKAW: Yes, but remember -- you have to remember, the opposition voices were not that many in this town, for example, in Washington. There just weren't that many. We put Brent Scowcroft on "Nightly News." I did a two-way with him.
And I was one of the few places where he would go where he would do that. We did have Senator Bob Byrd on the air and Ted Kennedy on the air, but it passed by a pretty considerable margin.
KURTZ: Oh, within the Democratic Party there weren't that many anti-war voices.
BROKAW: Yes, that's right.
KURTZ: There were some outside.
In recent months, though, casualties are down in Iraq. Some would say that the surge is having some modest success. Yet conservatives say that is not getting enough coverage. Is that because of Iraq fatigue? Is that because only bad news is news?
BROKAW: No, I think it is time to take a look at it again. You know, what, Howie? These are small signs of some progress four years later.
BROKAW: And the Iraqi government still doesn't have it together. And after four years, if the Iraqis can't take care of themselves with all of the money that has been poured in there, all of the help that they have been given, that's a truer measurement, I think, of what is going on in Iraq.
It does not mean that we ought not to take notice of the fact that the attacks are down, that the insurgency has been hurt. I had a briefing the other day about what is going on with IEDs. After billions of dollars, we have finally found a way to be more effective at protecting our troops from them and detonating them early. But it has taken a long time. That won't solve the political issue about whether Iraq can handle its own destiny.
KURTZ: I had to laugh when I read in your book that sometimes when you were doing "The Today Show," John Belushi and Chevy Chase from "Saturday Night Live" would show up, presumably having parties all night.
What did you think of your successor, Brian Williams, hosting "Saturday Night Live"?
BROKAW: I thought he did a good job.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, HOST, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": I called my good friend and mentor Tom Brokaw to see what I should do. And a couple of weeks from now when he returns the message and we...
(LAUGHTER) WILLIAMS: ... go through that awkward dance of me explaining to him just who I am and -- I -- I expect he'll say, "If it's not too late, get out of there quickly."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROKAW: I -- you know, he wrote to me beforehand and my instinct was to say, don't do this, because when I was an anchorman 10, 15 years ago, Lorne would come by and say, you know, would you ever think about it? And I would say, no, because it is tough. The audience has to know where I fit and I'm -- I have got to stay on my side of the line, Lorne.
I think the rules have changed a lot now, I think people are much -- moved much more easily across those lines. And Brian plainly wanted to do it. And Meredith, my wife, said to me, you know, he should be able to do that.
So I wrote back to him and said, just make sure that you maintain control. And I'm sure it is going to be fine. Now...
KURTZ: So you were never that tempted, or did you think maybe you wouldn't be all that funny in that format?
BROKAW: No, no, I didn't -- I was never tempted. You know, it is just not what I do.
I thought the big issue -- and I actually went to see Lorne about something else and I said, you know, "You are going to take care of him, right?" And he said, "Absolutely."
And Brian has got a very good barometer about what is going too far and what is not. And he was very funny. And he liked doing it. My -- the problem for me that night was switching between the Boston College football game and "Saturday Night Live."
KURTZ: Ah, that is a tough one. You can always TiVo one of them.
KURTZ: When we come back, more of my conversation with the former NBC anchor, including his thoughts on Katie Couric, Don Imus, and whether he'd really like to be back on the campaign trail.
KURTZ: More now of my interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw.
KURTZ: The endless fascination with the '60s, Tom, "Newsweek" magazine using your book as a peg, did a cover story on 1968, that tumultuous year. Is that in part because it is Boomers who basically control the media and we are just endlessly obsessed with ourselves and our role in history? BROKAW: No. It was a tumultuous time. Look, we had Bobby Kennedy assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King assassinated, the beginning of the civil rights movement, which is playing out, yes, the rise of feminism, which is still playing out.
We -- the political construct of this country was altered by the 1960s. The FDR coalition came apart during that time.
KURTZ: And still resonates today.
BROKAW: It still resonates. You have the rise of the new right, the Reagan Democrats, the rise of the Reagan revolution, the ability of the Republican Party to go in and pick off the South and the electoral votes that they bring with them.
Alan Brinkley, who is David Brinkley's son, by the way, and is a preeminent American historian, said it wasn't a revolution, it was a counter-revolution. It was pushing back against all of the effort and all of the excesses of the '60s.
KURTZ: Your longtime colleague at NBC, Katie Couric, no secret that she has had a difficult adjustment at the "CBS Evening News." Why do you think that is?
BROKAW: I don't know. I think it's a combination of things. I said to her before she left, "Katie, it is a dive off the high board." And she said, "Does that mean you think I'm going to fail?" And I said, "No."
Having gone from "The Today Show" to the "Evening News," it's a different DNA. And the public looks at it in a different way.
Katie wanted to change the tenor of the "Evening News" when she arrived. And she arrived just as the country was really beginning to pay attention to serious issues again. In the fall of 2006, we had the congressional elections coming out, there were a lot of worries about the war and about education, about health care, and she took the "Evening News" in a slightly different direction.
Also, the CBS News division had taken some hits. They weren't as strong as they had been earlier. So I think it was a combination of all of those things. One of the penalties that she pays or anyone pays in this business anymore is that the attention span of the country is so short on all of these matters.
So you don't get a lot of second chances, you know. They take a look and they make a decision and they move on.
KURTZ: Right. And so then -- because I think that the program has improved lately and it has gotten more of a hard news orientation, but it's hard to get viewers back inside the tent once they have switched away to another channel.
Don Imus comes up in your book. He goes back on the air, on the radio, next week. You told him when he was going though his difficult time after the insult of the Rutgers women basketball players and when CBS Radio dumped him and MSNBC dumped him as well that you hoped that what he was going through, painful as it was, would lead to an elevated racial dialogue in the country. What did he say to you?
BROKAW: He said, "Call me at the ranch when that happens," because he didn't expect it to happen, and he was right. It hasn't happened. And it's one of the things that I have addressed directly in the book. I think that we do need to have a dialogue in this country.
We don't have language for dealing with race. Everybody hides behind political correctness or a certain mythology. No one wants to offend, no one wants to get at the facts of it. You are in danger of being a racist if you go against the merits of some issues and just try to look at it objectively.
That goes on across the racial spectrum, by the way. Within the black culture there is a fear about speaking out, about what some people see as wrong, because they say, don't go there, you know, it will only hurt our people. So I do -- we used to talk about race with a lot more candor than we do now.
KURTZ: Do you think that Imus can make a successful comeback and would you go back on the show?
BROKAW: You know, what I have said is that let's hear what he has to say. I think we owe him that. I believe in redemption. I think Don is a very smart guy. I know that that meeting that he had with the students from Rutgers, with the basketball players was one of the most important moments in his life, a deeply emotional and moving time I think for both parties. So let's hear what he has to say.
KURTZ: Tom, when you became a network news anchor in the early 1980s, it was you and Dan and Peter, I mean, network news was still the dominant force in this country. Now not so much, as you know, competition from a million different places. Will evening newscasts still matter as much in five or 10 years?
BROKAW: You know, Howie, here is a number that I know you are familiar with. It is not as dominant as it once was, but between them they deliver 20 million people a night...
KURTZ: And sometimes more.
BROKAW: ... to the evening -- and sometimes more. There is no other establishment that does that.
I -- when people say to me, that Bill O'Reilly is popular, and I say, now what do you suppose his proportion of audience is compared to, say, Katie Couric, who is not doing well at CBS? It is a third.
KURTZ: Yes. He has got about two million and Katie has got about six million.
BROKAW: You're right. So this...
KURTZ: But as you know, the trend lines are going down.
BROKAW: The trend lines are down, there is no question about it. We are living in a -- what I call the big bang, which is that we are creating a whole new universe. We are trying to figure out which planets are going to support life and which ones won't, which ones will drift too close to the sun and burn out.
And what are these new life forms going to be? Look, you work for The Washington Post. I walked in the lobby of the paper today and I saw that great big demonstration and description of the printing press. And I thought, 10 years from now will that still be here?
KURTZ: Maybe the whole thing will be online. All right...
KURTZ: ... do you miss the campaign trail? Do you wish you were out in Iowa talking to caucus-goers?
BROKAW: I'm going to go back out to Iowa and do a couple of stories, but it is going to be issue-oriented. That's what I will do, I will do it off to the side, so to speak, of the campaign.
Yes, I miss that a little bit. On the other hand, I have spent more weekends with my grandchildren this year than I would have otherwise. And I can go out to British Columbia to do some fishing in the middle of October. I couldn't have done that if I had been sitting on the "Nightly News."
KURTZ: Well, I knew you couldn't completely stay away.
Tom Brokaw, thanks very much for being here.
BROKAW: OK, Howie. My pleasure.
KURTZ: Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, major news organizations now say things are going better in Iraq. Are they late to the story or buying the military spin?
Plus, the investigation into Stacy Peterson's disappearance. Why is television hyping yet another tabloid tale?
KURTZ: It was as if someone flipped a switch this week and news organizations suddenly discovered that things were getting better in Iraq. For a couple of months now, reporters, including on this program, have insisted it's too early to say whether the reduction in casualties and attacks amount to a trend. But now there have been a spate of upbeat reports, including this front-page piece in "The New York Times": "Baghdad Starts to Exhale as Security Improves," and this spread in "Newsweek": ""Baghdad Comes Alive."
CNN's Michael Ware took note of the changing situation this week from Baghdad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have been seeing this decrease in violence and attacks and deaths and casualties amongst U.S. forces, Iraqi forces, and civilians going on for some months now. This needs to be heralded. I mean, this is terrific news.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And when ABC's Charlie Gibson asked President Bush about his 10-month-old military explanation -- escalation, he framed the question this way...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC ANCHOR: You took a lot of doubting and rather skeptical questions about the surge. I will give you a chance to crow. Do you want to say, I told you so?
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't, because the decision, while it was a tough decision, was really studied and it was based upon the recommendations of wise military commanders.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the war coverage and the presidential campaign, from New York, Anne Kornblut, national political reporter for "The Washington Post." In San Francisco, Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of Salon.com. And in Los Angeles, conservative commentator and CNN political analyst, Amy Holmes.
Joan Walsh, does this recent coverage of Iraq amount to a grudging admission by the mainstream media that President Bush's surge is showing some progress?
JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: I'm not sure it is grudging, Howard. I wouldn't call it grudging.
I mean, Damien Cave, who wrote that front page story in "The New York Times" is an excellent reporter. He used to work for Salon. He had come home. He had come back to New York for a while. And then he returned.
I think, you know, you definitely saw a decline in the number of killings on all sides. And what you are seeing now is kind of the benefit of that, which is that slowly, very slowly, people are moving back into their neighborhoods, not enough, but enough to see signs of life, enough to see restaurants come alive. So I don't think that anybody has been holding back on it. It is just that the social significance of the reduction in violence is just beginning to be really perceived on the streets.
KURTZ: Amy Holmes, do these stories put to rest the conservative complaints that the liberal media insist on ignoring any good news out of Iraq?
AMY HOLMES, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR & CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I don't know that it puts it to rest, Howie. I mean, McClatchy newspapers was running a piece about how cemetery workers are out of business now that casualties are down in Baghdad.
But I can tell you conservatives are falling out of their chair. I mean, if "The New York Times" is putting it on their front page, then it certainly must mean something about the way the mainstream media is looking at the situation in Baghdad.
KURTZ: Do you think this is a little bit belated? Should this coverage have come a couple of months ago?
HOLMES: Well, you know, I think the big difference here is that this effort, this surge is being led by General Petraeus. This isn't the media versus the administration, administration -- as the media might call it, spin. So I think General Petraeus is being given a genuine chance to show progress and that it is coming from him.
But you know, we will see these stories as they develop.
Anne Kornblut, I rarely see Democratic presidential candidates talking about the decline in casualties in Iraq. Should reporters be pressing them on this issue?
ANNE KORNBLUT, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: It is a really good question. All of this good news that we have seen in the pieces you cited, there was also a piece in "The New Yorker" by John Lee Anderson talking about some of the successes.
The presidential candidates don't refer them, and when they do, there is always a caveat. And in some of these stories too, I would say, there remains the caveat about, you know, whether it has translated politically, the sort of increased safety on the ground.
But I think it's a fair point. And I think not only on the Democratic side, but on the Republican side as well, where you have a candidate such as John McCain who said this should have happened a long time ago.
So no one -- I think politicians less than the media at this point are willing to give the president credit.
KURTZ: There is no question that, you know, people are still fighting and dying in Iraq, and that political progress has lagged behind some of the improved safety in many neighborhoods. So I want to make that clear.
A big contretemps in recent day on the campaign trail over this report by Robert Novak, a three-paragraph item saying that Hillary Clinton's campaign was sitting on supposedly explosive scandalous information about Barack Obama, wasn't going to use it. Obama put out a statement, Hillary put out a statement, Obama put out another statement.
Novak was interviewed about his source for this on "Fox & Friends."
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT NOVAK, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: My source is a big Democrat, not -- who is neutral right now, but was told by an agent of the Clinton camp who was involved in the campaign about the alleged scandal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So somebody, Bob -- somebody from...
NOVAK: I haven't talked to a single Republican on this. This was all strictly Democrats.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Amy Holmes, so Novak admits this was a secondhand source. Should he have published that information?
HOLMES: Well, Novak certainly knows how to get Washington buzzing, getting the hornets flying around. I think what was really interesting about this story is that when it first came out, that the Clinton camp tried to blame Republicans.
And I can tell you, you know, just talking with producers, wanting to find that angle, somehow Republicans were involved, and it took Bob Novak to go on television, saying, look, I didn't talk to a single Republican. But it was very interesting to me that inside the beltway the media wanted to pit this as a Democratic-Republican fight when it's a Clinton-Obama fight.
KURTZ: But we now know, Joan Walsh, that Novak didn't talk to somebody in the Clinton campaign, which supposedly was sitting on this information. He said he talked to somebody who had talked to the Clinton campaign.
So good journalism or lousy journalism?
WALSH: Terrible journalism. We wouldn't run a story like that. I mean, it's ridiculous. And it's also a story about a non-story.
Not only does he have, you know, two removed sources, but the news is that they are not going to use it. So it's just outrageous.
He did it to stir up the Democratic camps, and he managed to succeed, which is really unfortunate. I don't think Obama should have dignified it with a reply at all.
KURTZ: And beyond that, Anne Kornblut, we don't even know what "it" is. We don't even know -- Novak doesn't know.
KURTZ: Novak says his source doesn't know what is this scandalous information.
So how did you and "The Washington Post" decide whether to write a story about this at all?
KORNBLUT: Well, I mean, I agree with Joan. There was nothing in that that led us to want to even chase it down. We certainly wanted to know if there was merit to it and that there were accusations that were about to be lobbed by the Clinton campaign.
But at the end of the day, I think the partisanship wasn't that the Republicans were somehow dishing dirt on it. I think it was -- the criticism of Novak was that he was acting as an agent of not a Democrat, as a conservative columnist himself, trying to stir things up using rumors that we would never, ever print. That wouldn't have passed the laugh test if I had tried to submit that on the desk.
KURTZ: But you did cover the controversy that resulted from the Novak column.
KORNBLUT: That is correct. Once the Obama campaign put out a statement that was then responded to by the Clinton campaign, it became a story.
So I agree with Joan again, that if Obama had simply let it go -- the downside to that, of course, would have been that on the Internet, chatter would have continued. It still has. And secondly...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The blogs...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... exploded.
KURTZ: And we would all be accused of covering it up.
KURTZ: Well, guess who is getting a lot of coverage this week? Mike Huckabee, after a "Washington Post"/ABC News poll showed that in Iowa, Mitt Romney in first place with 28 percent, Mike Huckabee with 24 percent.
Here is a guy who couldn't buy a story more or less on the network news, but it was the lead story not just on ABC, which co- sponsored the poll, but on "NBC Nightly News."
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: A one-time long shot has shot up in the polls alongside the man who leads right now in Iowa, Mitt Romney. Are Iowa Republicans falling hard for a guitar-playing former Arkansas governor named Huckabee?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Amy Holmes, are we in the media just slaves to polls?
HOLMES: You know, it's funny that I -- you know, looking back at previous presidential elections, there was all of this hand-wringing about the horse race. Well, you know, we have thrown that out the window. We are watching the polls every day. It's almost irresistible.
And you know what? The campaigns watch the polls as well. I mean, they do all of their own internal polling data to see what direction they, you know, kind of want to be taking things.
But I think what's interesting about the Mike Huckabee story was that, you know, last week it was Ron Paul and all of his fundraising, and was he going to be like the next good thing -- the next great thing? I think, you know, this is a little story, it's a bump. I think Huckabee is going to do well in Iowa. But at the end of the day, the media is going to go back to focusing on the frontrunners.
KURTZ: Joan Walsh, Charlie Gibson did do a profile of Huckabee as part of his series. And CBS's Jeff Greenfield did a piece on him as a long shot. But basically only now are people kind of taking Huckabee seriously in the media.
WALSH: Well, we put him on our cover back in January. Our Michael Scherer traveled with him and came back from his trip saying, this guy is serious, no one is taking him seriously. But he's a funny guy. He's a charming guy. He is a conservative...
KURTZ: So where was everyone else? You did it last January.
WALSH: I don't know. They often catch up with us, Howie. Eventually they do.
But look, you know, he put them out there as somebody who was not going to scare liberals. Now, I find some of his positions a little bit scary, but he is not a hater. He has got a very positive message. And you know, people are responding to it.
KURTZ: Anne, will we now see a lot of negative pieces in the big papers about Mike Huckabee's record as governor of Arkansas because -- as a sign of respect that he is being taken seriously?
KORNBLUT: Well, that's usually the pattern. And certainly the day after this poll came out, we saw his rivals start taking shots at him about his record on taxes. But I would say on the question of whether we are slaves to the polls, you know, this is actually a good news story in that we have caught up, as a result of taking the pulse of people in Iowa, to where people were leaning and where obviously Salon was earlier, in really giving him credit where it was due, that he was making inroads. I think without the polls, we might not have caught up to that phenomenon.
KURTZ: All right.
Let me turn briefly now to Scott McClellan, the former White House spokesman. He has a new book coming out. An excerpt was put out this week that made some news.
Let me read that to you.
"I stood at the White House Briefing Room podium, in front of the glare of klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the most senior aides in the White House, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby." This, of course, in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.
"There was one problem," McClellan writes, "it was not true. I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest-ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff, and the president himself."
Big story, Amy Holmes?
HOLMES: Well, you know, it's -- that has yet to be seen. And there was that very tricky word called "involved." And what does that really mean? You know, there have been more stories written about those 120 words than there were words in the item.
And now the editor-in-chief has come back and said, look, Scott McClellan was not saying that the president lied to him or was deliberately misleading him. I think that the way that this story came out -- I mean, hey, it worked, people are going to be buying that book up when it hits store shelves in April.
But it was very misleading. Scott McClellan has refused to talk openly. He has refused to give a press conference...
HOLMES: ... asked any follow-up questions. And remember, he hasn't even finished the book.
KURTZ: Let me get Joan in.
Peter Osnos, the publisher of Public Affairs, says, yes, McClellan maintains the president didn't know that it wasn't true. So what is the big deal? WALSH: Well, it's very interesting. I think the big deal is that he also came out and said -- he exonerated Bush, he exonerated Andy Card, but he came out and said, but you are going to have to make up your own minds about Dick Cheney, which to me is saying he feels that Cheney did knowingly lie.
Now, we don't -- we don't have any proof. But, you know, we have some proof going back to the Libby trial. We have those amazing notes by Dick Cheney saying that basically McClellan was going to have to exonerate Libby after exonerating Rove because, you know, Libby stuck his head in the meat grinder for the president.
So you know...
KURTZ: The story that will not end, and we have got to go.
WALSH: It is a story -- yes.
KURTZ: Joan Walsh, Amy Holmes, Anne Kornblut, thanks very much for joining us.
After the break, an "L.A. Times" photographer takes a haunting picture of a soldier in Iraq, then tries to save the young man from a debilitating depression. For a journalist, how close is too close?
And don't forget, CNN/YouTube Republican debate coming up this Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. Here is one of the many thousands of videos that have been submitted, most of them by people, but let's take a look at this one.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. I work like a dog at a minimum wage job and can barely afford health insurance. If you were elected president, will you simply throw me a bone or will you offer real help?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: It was a remarkable picture that somehow told a larger story. Luis Sinco is a "Los Angeles Times" photographer who was embedded with the Marines in 2004 during the Battle of Falluja. After a bloody all-night firefight, he took a shot of this man, James Blake Miller. It ran on the front page of 150 newspapers and was featured on the "CBS Evening News."
Miller became known as the "Marlboro Marine," a symbol of the Iraq War. But that was just the beginning of a long and tangled relationship between journalist and subject.
I spoke to Sinco earlier from Los Angeles, and I asked him why this picture of this unknown soldier had such an impact to the point where the Marines offered to immediately send Miller home from Iraq. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
LUIS SINCO, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": The photo quickly became iconic. I mean, newspapers across the country ran it on their front page.
I don't know why it became iconic. I really can't tell you. I think it was just the look on his face. I think it was -- it showed a range of emotions that the reader could basically look at and see whatever they wanted to see, whether it was courage, fear, perseverance...
KURTZ: It almost seemed to capture the state of war. Now last year...
SINCO: Yes, it did.
KURTZ: Now last year, you visited Blake Miller in Kentucky. He had been discharged from the Marines with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
What kind of shape was he in when you first went to see him?
SINCO: Oh, he seemed to be OK. I mean, he had been diagnosed with PTSD and he was home. He seemed to be all right when I first went to see him. But shortly after that, I went back for his wedding, and then we went to Washington, D.C., together where he spoke with representatives from Congress. And then about 10 days after that he just started unraveling.
He fell into a deep funk. He disappeared, and then when his wife found him, he was with another woman. And then at that point he told her he wanted a divorce.
KURTZ: Right. But before that happened, you got a call from his new wife, and she didn't know where like Blake Miller was, and she asked you to help find him and you wrote the following in your piece: "Why me? I thought. I am not Miller's brother or his father. I could feel the line between journalist and subject blurring. Was I covering the story or becoming part of it?"
What is the answer to that question?
SINCO: Well, when I went to Kentucky and joined Jessica (ph) in the search for Blake, again, we quickly found him and he was with another woman. And they started arguing. And you know, he just -- it -- the line started to blur very quickly.
I mean, I basically went to Kentucky to continue following the story. But his drama -- his personal drama quickly unfolded and it was just difficult to stand by and see him kind of spiral downward.
KURTZ: Right. Now his -- he and his new wife eventually split up and divorced, became the lead story in the local paper. And you write that you felt responsible.
SINCO: Because he was melting down and I just don't think that his divorce would have big news if he hadn't become a -- sort of a celebrity from the war, from that photo.
KURTZ: So you sort of inadvertently made him famous and then he had to deal with the consequences of that.
Now, you spent more time with him and then you helped -- you actually pushed him to enroll in a veterans treatment program in Connecticut. He dropped out after a couple of months. He was depressed, he kept reliving the Battle of Falluja.
What kept drawing you back to spend more and more time with Blake Miller, a guy who you had barely known at the time that you took that photograph?
SINCO: I wanted to do a follow-up story on him. I wanted to do a story about his life after the war, and where this fame -- this moment of fame was going to take him. So essentially I just -- you know, I knew early on, like shortly after I found out how -- what the impact of the photo was that there would be a follow-up story somewhere down the road.
So essentially I was covering him. Again, I had no intention of becoming personally involved in his life. It just happened that way.
KURTZ: Now you end -- you wind up by saying that Blake Miller "helped me sort through the craziness of Falluja." I mean, you, as a journalist lived through that awful night of firefights that left several soldiers dead.
So by spending time with him, by telling his story, by spending hours talking to him, are you also trying to help yourself?
SINCO: A little bit. I mean, you know, I think it helps to talk these things out. As Blake said to me and as I pointed out in the story, I don't think anybody really understands what it's like unless they have been there.
And you know, it just wasn't the morning -- the night before and that morning, I mean, that battle raged on for quite a while, and I had stayed there for about two weeks. And the carnage was incredible.
And like I said, I think it was as good to talk it out with him, have him talk to me, me talk to him, and you know, we just slowly -- I just slowly got it all figure out in my mind just how incredibly crazy that all was.
I can only support him, but I am not a psychologist. I am not a psychiatrist. I don't want to pretend to be one. And he needs that kind of help.
KURTZ: Luis Sinco, thanks very much for this illuminating portrait of what you went through, and what this soldier went through in fighting the war.
SINCO: You're welcome.
KURTZ: Thanks very much.
KURTZ: Still to come, the Stacy Peterson saga. Is another missing wife case really national news?
KURTZ: Sometimes television news keeps dipping into the same old bloody well. Forget Pakistan, Iraq and the Iowa caucuses. In the last five years, we've progressed from Laci Peterson to Stacy Peterson.
KURTZ (voice over): Laci Peterson was the missing California woman who turned out to have been killed by her husband Scott. Stacy Peterson is an Illinois woman whose disappearance has raised questions about her husband, Drew, a former cop with three previous wives, one of whom died in a bathtub during their divorce proceedings.
KURTZ: Is that a story? Sure. But is it by any stretch of the imagination national news?
KURTZ (voice over): Does it deserve to be the lead story day after day on the network morning shows, and prominently featured by cable shows hosted by Greta Van Susteren and Nancy Grace and Dan Abrams?
The media circus was boosted by Drew Peterson's willingness to go on "The Today Show" and complain about the circus itself.
MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: Why did you decide to do this interview?
DREW PETERSON, SUSPECT IN WIFE'S DISAPPEARANCE: I'm doing all that I can. My God, get the media off my back. Get them off my family's back. That's all I'm asking.
KURTZ: Peterson also accused Geraldo Rivera of coaching him on what to say during an earlier interview which the FOX News host flatly denied.
GERALDO Rivera, FOX NEWS: It's outrageous. First of all, if I put the words in his mouth, he must have liked them because he said them four days later to Matt Lauer.
KURTZ: While Peterson was appearing on NBC, ABC's "Good Morning America" featured a friend of his missing wife who wasn't buying his theory that Stacy wanted a divorce and probably ran off with another man.
SHARON BYCHOWSKI, FRIEND OF STACY PETERSON: He used to say constantly to me, "Just remember, if I disappear, it is not an accident. He killed me." Said it all the time.
KURTZ: GMA also interviewed the stepsister of Drew Peterson's deceased third wife.
SUE DOMAN, KATHLEEN SAVIO'S STEPSISTER: Just the Thursday before she passed away, she called me and she said -- she just felt so strongly that he was going to kill her and it was going to look like an accident.
KURTZ: CBS's "Early Show" got into the game with a friend of Drew Peterson.
RICK MIMS, FRIEND OF DREW PETERSON: He's not the monster everybody is portraying him on TV to be.
KURTZ: Then Peterson himself showed up on GMA and had to plead with journalists who were staking out his home.
PETERSON: Please go home. Thanksgiving, the next couple days, please go home, please leave me alone. Please don't get involved in my little world.
KURTZ: Now, I have no idea whether Drew Peterson is a legitimate suspect or being harassed by the media. But I do know this: an investigation into whether a woman has been murdered used to be considered a local crime story. But after the likes of Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway, whose two-year-old disappearance was back in the news this week and proved to be ratings gold, television now turns these missing white woman cases into tabloid soap operas, and that, to me, smells like exploitation.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
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