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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

The Drudge Factor; How Are Media Treating Hillary?

Aired December 23, 2007 - 10:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): The Drudge Factor. The Internet gossip reveals that "The New York Times" is investigating whether John McCain did favors for a Washington lobbyist. The presidential candidate denies it. Is that by itself a story an unsubstantiated gossip?

Hammering Hillary. Are the media far tougher on the former first lady than Barack Obama, right down to the level of her physical appearance?

Sex quiz. Katie Couric questions the candidates on adultery. Do we really need to go there?

Flashback: from the war to the campaign, from Paris Hilton to Britney Spears. We'll examine the highlights and lowlights of 2007.

Plus, mistakes were made. The man who keeps track of thousands of journalistic blunders and why some of them are embarrassingly funny.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Here's the journalistic dilemma I faced on Thursday. The "Drudge Report" put up an item involving allegations against John McCain, allegations that the senator did special favors for a lobbyist. Matt Drudge, who has floated his share of bogus rumors, but also broken some big stories, said these allegations were being investigated by "The New York Times."

I was able to confirm that, yes, a team of Times reporters was looking into the matter. Yes, McCain had called Times editor Bill Keller to complain about unfair treatment and, yes, McCain had hired one of Washington's super lawyers, Bob Bennett, who told me the rumors were an outrage.

The McCain campaign argued strongly against the publication, saying absolutely nothing had been proven. McCain made it easier by denying the allegations to reporters, and his campaign then put out a statement denouncing gutter politics.

So, how should the media handle such situations?

Joining us now to talk about this and other aspects of the presidential campaign, Chris Cillizza, who writes "The Fix" on washingtonpost.com; Michelle Cottle, senior editor of "The New Republic"; and Jonah Goldberg, syndicated columnist and editor-at- large of National Review Online.

Jonah Goldberg, so was I guilty in writing about this, of helping to spread an unsubstantiated rumor?

JONAH GOLDBERG, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: Yes. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have done it.

It seems to me, you know, you can't pretend Drudge doesn't exist. The other campaigns were going to use it no matter what. It was simply out there. And I think by now we've learned that the mainstream media can't simply just cover its ears and say, no, no, no, no, no, while the Web goes on doing what the Web always does.

I mean, it was out there in the blogs. It was out there and you had to react to it.

KURTZ: My reasoning, Michelle Cottle, was that there were some provable facts. McCain had hired Bob Bennett, a very prominent criminal lawyer. He had called the editor of "The New York Times." There was a Times inquiry. So that -- all that said to me this is serious business.

MICHELLE COTTLE, SR. EDITOR, "NEW REPUBLIC": Oh, it's serious business, but as you point out, Drudge has a tendency to float things before they're really nailed down. Now, what the Times in particular has an obligation to do is go ahead and get the details out there.

I mean, what we're dealing with now is charges of rumors that he's tried to squelch, but we don't know the exact details of a lot of this. So he can't prove them or disprove them. Right now he's in the worst possible situation.

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, I'm kind of sensitive to this because of what McCain went through in the 2000 South Carolina primaries. You all remember there were all these vicious rumors -- fathering a black baby and so forth, absolutely bogus. It was under the radar stuff that the media had a hard time getting to.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: You know it's interesting, Howie. I think that, to be honest, that McCain himself and the campaign may have opened the door to all of this.

Now, a few days before Drudge had put something up about "The National Enquirer" reporting that John Edwards had a love child. Now, that didn't really go anywhere. But -- then he goes up with the McCain announcement, and McCain himself on the campaign trail, and then his campaign, put out a statement. And I think what that does is it raises the level of it. It forces every newsroom in American to reexamine, well, now that McCain has put in an official statement, do we do something about this?

I think it had settled that no one was going to write about just the "Drudge Report." But then when McCain puts out a statement in response to it, then I think, you know, as a reporter I know myself, you know, you're more conflicted. Is this something now that we should at least report on? As you say, there are now reportable facts as part of this.

KURTZ: Right. And it enables you to write a lead that says Senator John McCain today denied blah, blah, blah.

CILLIZZA: He gives you a lead in some ways.

KURTZ: Yes.

GOLDBERG: There's one interesting irony here, is that one of the things that has hurt McCain almost the most among a lot of conservatives is the fact that they think he's too willing or too eager to win the approval of "The New York Times." And so there may be down the road some advantage he has here politically if he can really sort of run a campaign against "The New York Times," run against the media, and prove that he is not the senator from "The New York Times," which is a lot of people used to call him.

KURTZ: Right. Now, here's another example of Drudge's impact on the campaign. Drudge puts up this online photo of Hillary Clinton looking, yes, 60 years old. Let's put it up on the screen. And soon everybody from -- see, she's actually got a few wrinkles -- everybody from Rush Limbaugh to Maureen Dowd is talking about it.

Michelle, anything about that make you uneasy?

COTTLE: Well, I think there's no question that women in politics get their appearance picked over the men. I have talked to people from rival Democratic campaigns, journalists, whatever, who sit and obsess about this woman's ankles. I mean, it is absolutely a double standard.

You know, that said, she's a tough cookie. She's used to this kind of thing. I mean, I don't think that this is going to really upset her all that much, but yes, there's a double standard, no question.

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, it was a fashion writer for "The Washington Post" that started the great cleavage debate over Hillary Clinton. So is this picture of her and the chatter about it yet another example, as Michelle says, of a media double standard when it comes to women?

CILLIZZA: Absolutely. I don't think there's any question.

I mean, I -- you know, I've never read a story about what kind of shoes John Edwards has on. I mean, you know, they very well be Sperry Top-Siders or something I've never heard of, but the point is...

KURTZ: You have read about his haircuts, though. You have read about his haircuts.

CILLIZZA: Right. It never -- there are the haircuts, but yes, of course. What Hillary Clinton wears, what -- her changing hairstyles, all of those things have become part of what has become acceptable political discourse. And I think, you know, it may not have started that way, but it certainly ended up that way. I mean, now I don't think anyone blinks an eye when someone writes a story about that she's changing from pantsuits or that her hair has changed.

I mean, we've -- with the exception, let me say, of John Edwards, generally that would be off limits. But, you know, in the culture we're in now, John Kerry's haircut got a lot of attention from someone named Matt Drudge in the 2004 elections, too. And, you know, people say that that mattered. So I think we're becoming more and more superficial in our coverage.

KURTZ: It just seems so trivial.

GOLDBERG: It seems trivial, but at the same time, I mean, I think Chris is right. We're -- the blending of celebrity journalism with political journalism is something that's way down the road already. I mean, we've gone pretty far down that road, and it's something that we're -- you know, we're going to be stuck with.

I do think that if you had a picture of a male politician looking haggard on the road, that you would have had that picture I think come out in the press, too. I mean, I think what is interesting is how much of a different reaction we get -- oh my god, that's so unfair to a woman.

KURTZ: Well, let me pick up that point, because Hillary Clinton is one of the most famous women in the world. And so she gets covered as a potential president, as a Democratic candidate, but also as a celebrity.

So last weekend she gets the endorsement of the "Des Moines Register," which is a very big deal in Iowa, and she goes on all six network and cable morning shows. And they weren't exactly friendly interviews. Let's watch some of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Three months ago you had about a 20- point lead I think over Barack Obama in New Hampshire. Now, according to some of our polling, you're virtually tied.

What happened in that state?

CHRIS CUOMO, ABC NEWS: The lead has shrunk in New Hampshire, troubling (ph) in polls that people who want change say they want Obama.

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: One of the rubs about your campaign, they say it feels like it's focus group driven, that it's run too tightly, that people in Iowa don't get to see enough of the real you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, Hillary aides believe and some of the journalists I've talked to would tend to agree that she receives harsher scrutiny from the media than, say, Barack Obama, who right now is arguably the frontrunner in Iowa.

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, Howie, my thinking in listening to those -- in watching those clips, though, is that if any candidate who had been the clear frontrunner and was now in a real fight both in Iowa and New Hampshire and nationally, I think any candidate, male or female, would get those questions. I would certainly ask those questions.

If those roles had been reversed and Barack Obama had looked like the nominee for most of the campaign, and then all of a sudden it was in jeopardy -- not saying that Hillary Clinton's not going to win or is going to win, but it's certainly more of a fight than it looked like it was going to be three months ago -- I don't think those questions are about the media covering her more difficultly. I mean, the fact is we do a lot of horse race journalism. You know, I do a lot of it on "The Fix." And when a race narrows, the candidate who has watched their lead shrink should be ready for questions that are about, why did your lead shrink?

Now, she may not be able to answer them, but I don't think that they're out of bounds or based on some sort of double standard.

KURTZ: Oh, sure. Fair enough.

But here's the thing, Jonah. Reporters and pundits for weeks -- we talked about it on this show -- were urging Obama, you've got to go on the attack, you've got to beat up on Hillary, you've got to get more aggressive. And they cheered when he did it.

When she attacks him or criticizes him, we get, is she getting desperate? Is she likeable enough? "Hardball" had a headline that said on the screen, "Is Hillary Clinton Trying to Destroy Barack Obama's Campaign?"

Well, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDBERG: This just in.

KURTZ: So is that an unbalanced playing field?

GOLDBERG: I think so. But I think, you know, the playing fields have always been unbalanced. Each campaign has its own narrative, its own strengths, its own weaknesses. And they're going to respond to that.

Hillary's campaign has basically set the tone and tempo for this entire race for almost a year now in terms of being the frontrunner, in terms of -- you know, all the debate questions were focused at her in these last few debates. And that's just simply the political reality of things. We're seeing the same thing now -- I mean, Mike Huckabee has every reason to complain about the treatment he's getting lately, but that's because he's in the lead.

KURTZ: But exactly. Huckabee surges into the lead, and we had never noticed him before. Now every negative thing that people can find that he's ever done or said in Arkansas. And that's fine. I mean, that's fair game.

Where is anything approaching that on Obama, who is also at least tied for the Democratic presidential lead in the primaries?

COTTLE: Well, Obama took his hits early on when people were saying he wasn't tough enough. You know, these things go in cycles, and journalists have a story line in their head -- Hillary is tough, Hillary is vicious.

When she came out swinging at -- you know, her campaign came out swinging at David Geffen months ago, people went berserk because we all have the Hillary the mean campaign. And Obama's the campaign of hope and inspiration.

So what he generally gets slammed on is he's not tough enough or, you know, he's not got what it takes to stand up during these periods of time. And that's what happened to him when he was way behind. Now that he's pulling into the lead, you know, the journalists are so excited they've got a horse race on their hands, they're going to spend a little time cheering now.

KURTZ: "The New York Times" did do a story late this week about his record in the Illinois legislature. I wonder if we'll see more of that.

Let me play one more of Hillary Clinton's morning show interviews this past Monday. This was on "The Today Show" with David Gregory, and Gregory was asking about something her high-profile husband had said, Bill Clinton, who's making a lot of news, by the way -- had said on "The Charlie Rose Show" about saying essentially that for the country to elect Barack Obama would be rolling the dice.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC: Right, but rolling the dice, what does rolling the dice mean?

CLINTON: Well...

GREGORY: We know what the Register said.

CLINTON: Well, but I think that that's one of the principal cases for my candidacy...

GREGORY: But what's the risk of an Obama presidency?

CLINTON: Everybody talks about change. Everybody talks about change in this campaign.

GREGORY: So you're choosing not to answer that question. Let me ask you another -- another issue that has to do with...

CLINTON: Well, I'm doing -- no. Now, wait a minute. No, wait a minute. I am making the case for my candidacy.

GREGORY: But, your husband -- but Senator Clinton...

(CROSSTALK)

CLINTON: I am very happy that I have strong supporters and I have editorial support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, Chris Cillizza, is Hillary Clinton playing the game where here surrogates, most prominently her husband, go out and say things against Barack Obama, and then when she gets asked about it she doesn't really want to own up to it?

CILLIZZA: Well, that was David Gregory giving us a sneak peak of what it might be like if Hillary Clinton is the president with that back and forth. Yes, Hillary Clinton is of course doing that.

Her husband and other surrogates are carrying a more negative message. There's no question. They go out and Bill Clinton says it would be a roll of the dice to elect Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton says, I'm just talking about myself and my campaign. I have the experience to bring about real change.

Absolutely. They know that message gets out.

Look, Bill Clinton is the former president of the United States and, frankly, the most popular politician in the Democratic Party, I believe. And so he has cache.

He goes out, he says these things. And whether or not she disavows them, whether or not she dodges questions on them, they get out into the public sphere. It becomes part of a conversation.

COTTLE: I'm not sure though how that differs from, say, Elizabeth Edwards going out in full swing at Hillary months ago, when John Edwards was still being Mr. Positive. I mean, this is what campaigns do.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Reporters have told me that it's not a question of whether they like Hillary or dislike Hillary or Barack Obama, but that an Obama upset of a former first lady is a better story.

GOLDBERG: I'm sure that's part of it. Look, I mean, David Berger (ph) said years ago that the first job of a political reporter is to be a fight promoter. And I think that still holds. But I do think that the Bill Clinton as surrogate thing is different.

Hillary Clinton is running essentially as her chief qualification that she was in the Clinton White House in the 1990s. She wants all the credit for all the good things that come with being Bill Clinton's wife, and yet when Bill Clinton goes out there as a surrogate for her, she wants to say, well, he's just off on his own, which is an old Clinton tactic, by the way.

KURTZ: Well, this hasn't exactly gone unnoticed by the media.

Let me get a break.

When we come back, Katie Couric talks about love, marriage and cheating with a presidential candidate. Is that really fair game?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: There are all kinds of questions in this presidential race from Iraq, to healthcare, to illegal immigration. But in quizzing the candidates for her "CBS Evening News" series, Katie Couric has included one rather unusual subject -- infidelity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: Some voters say they don't feel comfortable supporting someone who has not remained faithful to his or her spouse. Can you understand or appreciate their point of view?

CLINTON: Well, I can certainly understand why some people would feel that way, and that is their perfect right to do so. But I think that would be a tough standard for most of American history to be able to meet.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The only thing I can say to people is I'm not perfect. You know? And I've made mistakes in my life.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Some of our greatest presidents haven't always been terrific husbands, and some who have been wonderful husbands have been rotten presidents.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Michelle Cottle, I can just hear some people saying, where does Katie Couric get off asking these candidates about cheating on spouses?

COTTLE: Well, of course it's going to happen though, because what you have is a Republican primary where one of the big names has very publicly -- it's not just that he cheated on his wife, but he kind of very publicly dumped his wife on camera. So for the party of family values, it smacks of hypocrisy, and the journalists love nothing more than to bust somebody for hypocrisy.

KURTZ: And of course you also have the example of Hillary and Bill.

Chris Cillizza, I mean, Katie Couric asked a lot of different substantive questions of these candidates, but this is the one that obviously seems to be getting plenty of attention.

Is it something that candidates should be pressed about? I can't imagine that this question would have been asked 10, 20 years ago. CILLIZZA: Well, you know, Howie, I think it's something that we were talking about before. It's just the confluence of the celebrity and the political. The reality is the personal has now become political. And I think when you get into these sorts of races -- and I'm not defending or arguing against -- but when you get into a race like this as a candidate, I think you know that this scrutiny of your personal life is coming.

Rudy Giuliani, I have to believe, got into this race knowing that his relationship with Judith Nathan, the way it ended with his former wife, Donna Hanover, all of that was going to get considerable scrutiny. You know, I think they go into these things with eyes wide open. They want this office for whatever reasons they want it, and they know that one of the perils of getting it is having to walk through that gauntlet of the personal questions, what's appropriate, what's not.

I feel like, to be honest, what's appropriate for journalists to cover, the bar has gone down considerably over the last several decades. Obviously I can't speak to it from experience...

KURTZ: Right.

CILLIZZA: ... but I can speak to it from my sort of observational -- it's become -- almost anything is fair game at this point, and I think the politicians know it.

GOLDBERG: But...

KURTZ: Go ahead.

GOLDBERG: I'm not sure why the Katie Couric questions are all that terrible. There's nothing in that question that would have elicited a response from any of these candidates that says none of your business. She wasn't asking them, have you cheated on your spouse, or anything along those lines.

KURTZ: She was certainly opening the door in that direction.

GOLDBERG: She -- well...

KURTZ: With candidates who we know did.

GOLDBERG: Yes, but that door opened a long time ago. And we've been -- you know, we can't even see the barn with the door open anymore we're so out of that barn.

And to ask the question about whether it's a relevant topic or not seems to me perfectly legitimate and it's one of the reasons -- I mean, it's one of the questions you're asking today.

CILLIZZA: And Howie, I was just going to -- I was going to add, don't forget two decades ago, monkey business, Gary Hart, Donna Rice, follow me around and see what I'm doing. I mean, you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. COTTLE: And it's not like it's only the press. It's -- I mean, Richard Land, the Southern Baptist Convention's, you know, top political guy, has been running around saying he would never vote for Giuliani because he doesn't believe in -- a man who's going to be disloyal to his wife is going to be disloyal to the country.

KURTZ: So the consensus seems to be it was perfectly fair. I think a lot of people would have reservations, nonetheless.

Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Cottle, Chris Cillizza, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, Brian Williams leaves a TV tell out of a story and a viewer calls him on it. Is "The New York Times" journalism going to the dogs?

And an anchorwoman accused of getting physical with a cop calls in the governor.

Our "Media Minute" straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It seemed like a routine story involving the new technology of LED lights, but Brian Williams left out a crucial detail. He owned up though when a viewer e-mailed to complain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: "Does NBC and BW really think that we are that stupid not to realize that this was an advertisement for GE LEDs? Liberal hypocrisy exposed."

Well, I'm pretty sure we didn't say anything liberal in our story, but here is the truth. We sometimes forget who our parents are around here. GE, parent company of NBC Universal, makes a lot of things, including LED lights, and we should have said so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: "The New York Times," like other papers, is sometimes accused of attack dog journalism. But this time it's literally true. Former CNN executive Eason Jordan writes that Scratch, a dog in the paper's Baghdad bureau, delivered a vicious fight that opened three deep gashes in his right hand. In an even deadlier twist, the Times says that another one of its dogs was shot to death by Blackwater guards. A spokeswoman for the security firm already under investigation in a number of human killings says the Times dog attacked one of its bomb-sniffing dogs.

Philadelphia anchorwoman Alycia Lane remains off the air after an incident that's turned into a tabloid melodrama. On a visit to New York, the KYW anchor is accused of getting into a traffic spat with an undercover police officer, cursing the cop and then punching her in the face. Lane, who's pleaded not guilty to felony charges, later called Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who confirmed the conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ED RENDELL (D), PENNSYLVANIA: What she wanted, she wanted to -- you know, to have somebody who I guess she considers a friend -- and I consider her a friend -- somebody to hear her side of the story. And she was very, very adamant in her belief that she hadn't done anything wrong here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The CBS affiliate says Lane agreed to start her vacation early after the arrest.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, from the campaign trail to another year in Iraq, from tabloid melodramas to late-night comics sidelines by the writers' strike but preparing for a comeback. We'll deliver our media report card for 2007.

Plus, watching the watchdogs. Meet the man who makes it his business who track how journalists deal with mistakes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It was a year marked by a seemingly endless war and a seemingly endless presidential campaign, both of which took some twists and turns that caught most journalists by surprise. It was also a year when tabloid celebrities and their little mini dramas seemed more embedded in our media culture than ever before.

So, how did the news business fare in 2007?

Joining us now to examine the highlights and the lowlights, in Chicago, Jim Warren, managing editor of the "Chicago Tribune." In Los Angeles, investigative journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell. And here in Washington, Steve Roberts, syndicated columnist and professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University.

Steve Roberts, let's look at the campaign. This whole issue of the way that journalists pick winners and losers, where, for example, was the serious media treatment of Mike Huckabee until, say, a month ago?

STEVE ROBERTS, THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, it's a good question. But, you know, what you have are these rhythms. Everybody wants to say who's going to be next and who is up and who's down. And I do think that as someone floats into the radar screen, you do get more scrutiny.

We were late on Huckabee, but now...

KURTZ: Late? We were totally out to lunch. We absolutely considered him not a serious contender.

ROBERTS: That's true. But the evangelical voters in Iowa were slow to coalesce around him. Once they did, and he shot up in the polls, then I think that now you're seeing an awful lot of reporting on some of his basic Christian beliefs, which are sending shudders through a lot of other people.

KURTZ: Not to mention his record as governor of Arkansas.

Jim Warren, your newspaper has done some very good reporting on your home state senator, Barack Obama. Let's remind viewers, let's take a look at some of the coverage when he was just flirting with the idea of getting into the presidential race.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: You know, you are the equivalent of a rock star in politics. If your party says to you we need you, and there's already a drumbeat out there, will you respond?

OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: So, if you ever would decide to run in the next five years -- I'm going to have this show for five more years -- would you announce on this show?

OBAMA: Oprah, you're my girl.

WINFREY: OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And since Oprah Winfrey has been stumping for Barack Obama, Jim Warren, it just seems like he's gotten quite a favorable media ride in recent weeks.

JIM WARREN, MANAGING EDITOR, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Yes. I mean, I think there's no doubt about it that folks have been generally very solicitous to him. But if you look at, say, the pages of the "Chicago Tribune" going back for a year, even more than that, you'll see very extensive reporting on all the strengths, all the warts, very specific looks at his legislative record in the state of Illinois. But generally speaking, I might be a little contrarian here, guys, and suggest that in some ways it's kind of a golden age of political reporting going on, largely because of the Internet and the huge reservoir one has there to put lots and lots of content.

Now, yes, yes, we once again have fallen into the trap of horse race coverage. And I think our big mistake is really sort of -- tends to be more of portionality of emphasis. Yes, you can go online and find out everything you want to know, whether it's about Huckabee or Obama, and whether it's their views on Iraq or early childhood development or how to change Social Security, but often we tend to give precedence to that latest polling figure from who knows where -- University of New Hampshire, Zogby, Joe Schmoe in Cedar Rapids.

KURTZ: Yes, it seems like there's...

WARREN: And I think that sort of perpetuates the notion of the horse race. But I think by and large, even though we have made some big mistakes -- there's the business of Hillary's inevitability, among other things, the business of Rudy Giuliani, couldn't possibly endure a Republican primary, John McCain, left for dead, yes, yes, yes. There have been sort of large characterizations...

KURTZ: Let me pick that up.

(CROSSTALK)

WARREN: But by and large, there's a lot of good stuff.

KURTZ: Let me pick that up with Jane Velez-Mitchell.

I'm just going to cite John McCain as an example. He was declared to be the early frontrunner by the geniuses in the media, and then he was completely written off last summer because his fundraising plummeted and a number of his staff members left. And now he seems to be making a comeback.

What does that tell us about the way in which journalists cover these races?

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Well, you know, I have to say that I feel personally Barack Obama has completely reinvented campaigning, because he came out of nowhere in 2004 with this amazing speech and then decides to run for president after two years of national political experience. And so where's the track record to criticize him on?

He has a relatively clean slate. That's why the Clinton campaign was reduced to attacking him for his admitted drug use, and I think the media is also in a quandary. How do you attack somebody when they don't have decades and decades of legislative decisions to compare to their current political stance?

ROBERTS: Which is one of the reasons...

WARREN: All due respect, Jane, just a point of information. I mean, this sort of sounds a little bit like the Clinton campaign team. If you look at the number of years serving as an elected legislator, whether it's in a state legislator or the U.S. Senate, he's got more experience than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: You can't compare state legislative experience with national experience. I mean, please.

ROBERTS: Look, one of the reasons...

WARREN: No, these guys in state legislature probably work harder.

KURTZ: Let me hear from Steve.

ROBERTS: Look, one of the reasons why we don't elect senators president -- we've only done it twice in our entire history -- is because of Jane's point, that senators have a long record of votes that they have to cast. And it's fodder for campaign coverage.

KURTZ: Right. But if you're going to offer yourself for the highest office in the land, it seems to me that even if you have a different kind of track record than the conventional candidates, that the media -- and not just the "Chicago Tribune" -- need to scrutinize you carefully.

I want to move on now to the war. And obviously at the beginning of this year things still seemed to be going badly in Iraq. Then we had President Bush's surge, which most in the media didn't expect to make any headway.

And as recently as early October, CNN's Barbara Starr was on this program talking about whether there were uncertainties as to how it was going. By late November, CNN's Michael Ware had a different assessment. Let's roll the tape on that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We don't know whether it's a trend about specifically the decline in the number of U.S. troops being killed in Iraq. This is not enduring progress. This is a very positive step.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We've 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: Steve Roberts, my view is that the media took too long to acknowledge that the surge was having some miltiary success, not political success.

Agree or disagree?

ROBERTS: Up to a point. I do think that the story line was car bombings, and that it's hard to report on the absence of a story. It's easy to report on a car bombing, harder to report on declining -- declining...

KURTZ: But it's really not that hard, except that you don't have the -- you don't have a video of...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTS: Yes, exactly.

KURTZ: But why is it news when violence goes up and, as you say, it's harder to report when violence goes up?

ROBERTS: But I think also part of it was that reporters have been so limited by their maneuverability around Iraq that to find the pockets of peace, to find the areas where you can travel to safely, is much harder. But I think that the White House put a lot of pressure on reporters to start looking at the islands of peace, and I think it had some effect.

KURTZ: Jane Velez-Mitchell, you see a lot less reporting on Iraq these days, especially on television. Iraq fatigue?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Yes, I think it's a shame that we're talking more about Paris Hilton than we're talking about the war in Iraq, and part of it is because it's the same old-same old. Every time I turned on the TV and I saw a report on the Iraq war, it was about was the surge working or wasn't it working? Are we going to fund the war or aren't we?

What about some of the human issues, the toll that this war has taken on the soldiers and their families, the millions of displaced Iraqis? I would have liked to have seen more human coverage, but as one of your guests mentioned, there's a logistical problem. The reporters are actually incapable of going out there because they would get killed in the process of doing some of those human stories.

KURTZ: All right.

Jim Warren, I've got about half a minute now. Critics would say, well, many journalists were either opposed to the war or just invested in a narrative of failure.

WARREN: Well, some critics might say that certainly in the run- up to the war most of us were too solicitous, Howie, to the Bush administration. But I think by and large, if you look at the history of war coverage going back to the Revolutionary War -- and it's been mostly pretty poor -- that what one sees here has been I think generally very, very good and very admirable, even with the challenges of access and the inherent danger. Your paper, our paper, "The New York Times," among others, have done a great job.

No better story in the last couple of months than your colleague, Rick Atkins' (ph) lengthy series on IEDS...

KURTZ: Right.

WARREN: ... those pernicious devices.

KURTZ: All right.

WARREN: And both online and in the paper. So I think despite long odds and despite the limited access folks have had, it's been generally pretty strong.

KURTZ: All right.

More of our yearend review in a moment.

And after the break, Leno, Letterman, Stewart, Colbert heading back to the airwaves without their striking writers.

Can they pull it off?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: There were many things to pick from in trying to look at the tabloid frenzies that we covered in 2007, but the day that stands out in my mind was the day that Paris Hilton went to jail and the media went nuts.

Let's roll some of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: ... so pathetic and so lonely that we have to live through people like Paris Hilton?

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: This is simply unacceptable. The justice system is supposed to be the same for everyone. Obviously, it is not.

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: This is what you guys do. And Matt, I don't think you're happy about covering this story. I think you'd rather cover the serious stuff.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Jane Velez-Mitchell, and now we have Britney Spears' 16- year-old sister getting pregnant. On Friday, "The New York Times" puts it on the front page.

Is there an inexhaustible media appetite for this stuff?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: There is. And I think that there is something behind it that is meaningful. I think Paris Hilton and the Lindsay Lohans and the Britney Spears epitomize the sense that there are two worlds in America, the haves and the have nots, the people who have to play by the rules and the people who don't.

I mean, you look at how Paris Hilton went through the criminal justice system. She was let out after three days because she complained of medical problems that turned out to be claustrophobia and Attention Deficit Disorder. Well, guess what? Anybody's who's even visited jail knows that it's a claustrophobic experience.

So there was an outrage as a result of that because there was a sense of, wait a second, there are 2,000 other women in that jail who are also claustrophobic. Why can't they get to go home?

KURTZ: Well, that's a nice attempt to kind of dress it up, Steve Roberts, but, you know, even looking at this latest story about Jamie Lynn Spears, everyone's been trying to camouflage it as, let's look at the problem of teen pregnancy. Well -- go ahead.

ROBERTS: Paris Hilton was not about social class. Paris Hilton was about sex, and it was about celebrity.

You know, Americans say, oh, I want to read serious things about education and policy, and they look through their fingers like that, you know, because they want to see the gossip. And look, the ratings on this network spike whenever those stories are on.

I did "LATE EDITION" for years, and I remember in the middle of the Monica crisis -- we talked about Monica for 18 straight weeks, Pakistan and India were about to lob nuclear weapons at each other, and we talked about Monica for the 20th straight week because...

KURTZ: Well, we had a president whose job was in peril.

Jim Warren, since Steve Roberts mentioned cable, which does a lot of it, as do the morning shows, does this appeal to one specific audience but potentially drive other audiences away?

WARREN: Yes, I think it does both. But let's remember, amid all the hand-wringing, that we, particularly in the mainstream press, this stuff has been a staple of American journalism forever. And what was probably was the first actual newspaper ever printed in this country in the 1690s, the very first edition I think had a rather salacious article about the king of Spain apparently having an affair.

Fast forward to the 1900s, the coming of the penny press, you had the clear attempt to lure and exploit even new immigrant groups, lesser educated, with racy sort of stuff. The coming of the great "New York Daily News" in 1919 was followed very quickly, within a few months, by a beauty pageant, basically pin-ups within the paper which folks were rolling their eyes over.

KURTZ: All right.

WARREN: By World War II, they had a circulation of two million. So this stuff actually sells.

I think the question is one of proportionality. And the fact is, I think with the coming of the Internet, there are real questions about whether some of us in the mainstream are getting a little bit too infatuated with stories of this sort which get a lot of hits on our sites.

KURTZ: All right. Professor Warren with a history lesson there.

Now I want to turn briefly to the Hollywood writers' strike.

Finally now, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien coming back to the air without their writers on January 2nd. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert will follow a few days later.

Now, Jane Velez-Mitchell, they all say, well, they tried to support the writers, but hundreds of jobs are at stake and this thing was dragging on and on.

Do you think there will be any public resentment about the way in which they're going to come back to the air?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, I think that they've also done some good things. And some of those major stars have been paying the salaries of their employees. This is warfare, and I'll tell you, it's taken a toll out here in Hollywood.

I know people who were affected by this strike, who were out there. And it's not just the writers. I mean, the trickle-down effect is enormous -- to caterers, to makeup artists, to all sorts of people. And I think it's going to be a long, drawn-out war, because so much is at stake with the Internet, which is obviously rising to be the dominant medium of our time, and that's where the big bucks are going to be down the road.

KURTZ: Steve Roberts, do you think these shows will be not as good without their writers?

ROBERTS: Well, Conan O'Brien said his show might be terrible. But I think we're going to see who's really witty and who isn't.

You know, I think Jon Stewart is going to be fine. I remember you interviewing Jon Stewart. You've done it more than once. He does fine on -- as a natural, unscripted figure. So -- but some of these guys depend more heavily on their writers than others.

KURTZ: Briefly, Jim Warren, what about the impact on the campaign? I think that, you know, Hillary and Rudy and the whole gang have gotten a free ride while all the comics are off, and now they're coming back.

WARREN: They may get a big more of a free ride, because I tell you -- I mean, as we know having talked about Jon Stewart, the fact is these folks do have a fair amount of impact. And though I find this an -- as a former labor writer absolutely fascinating and very fluid situation, with neither side at this point feeling the pressure, really, to come back to the bargaining table -- as far as a possible impact on the campaign, it's kind of interesting. And I still think we'll have one, particularly when candidates make mistakes and these guys, in their very adroit, humorous way, are able to help create a certain sort of caricature that in some cases may not rebound to the candidates' favor.

KURTZ: Maybe we'll get a huge (INAUDIBLE) released at the beginning.

All right. Jim Warren, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Steve Roberts, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, when journalists screw up, this man is watching. The world's expert on embarrassing media corrections next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Journalists make their share of mistakes. That's human nature. The question is whether they and their bosses are willing to correct them. And sometimes those corrections can be a tad embarrassing.

For instance, President George Washington's first name was misspelled in an editorial in Monday's "At Issue" section. "Mr. Smith said in court, 'I am terribly sorry. I have a dull life and I suddenly wanted to break away.' He did not say, as we reported erroneously, 'I have a dull wife and I suddenly wanted to break away.' We apologize to Mr. Smith and to Mrs. Smith."

These are part of a new book called "Regret the Error," which is also a Web site. The author is Craig Silverman, and I spoke to him earlier from Montreal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Craig Silverman, welcome.

CRAIG SILVERMAN, AUTHOR, "REGRET THE ERROR": Thank you.

KURTZ: I've got to ask you, how did you get started with this weird obsession?

SILVERMAN: I think it started with a correction that was in a Kentucky newspaper where they apologized for not covering the civil rights movement 40 years earlier. And when I saw that in the summer of 2004, I realized there must be more gems out there, and it seemed like the perfect thing to start a Web site for and to track the issue overall, and of course, find more of those gems.

KURTZ: That was a classic. Now isn't it a good thing that newspapers are running all of these corrections? Doesn't it show that they are committed to accuracy?

SILVERMAN: A correction is absolutely a good thing. In fact, I think we need more of them. In my opinion, it is kind of a central contract, especially of newspapers, where they make it clear that, you know, we are going to make mistakes, but when we make one, we are going to correct it as soon as we possibly can.

So it's definitely, I think, an expected part of the way you report. And in fact, there was a survey in the '90s that found that over 60 percent of newspaper readers in the United States felt better when they saw a correction.

KURTZ: Of course, the reporter doesn't always feel better, but it still important to correct the record. Now but are newspapers, by and large, as you have surveyed -- this vast landscape, are they correcting the big mistakes or are they correcting things where they have got somebody's title wrong and maybe not the big errors?

SILVERMAN: Well, that is one of the things about corrections in general, where it is a bit scattershot. For example, "The New York Times" makes an effort to correct, you know, a misspelling of a name or a title, and they sometimes go down to very small things. There are other newspapers where it will only be major errors of fact.

And I think one thing we need to maybe look at a bit more is finding a standard so that somebody can look at different newspapers and find corrections in the same place, written in the same way, correcting the same sorts of things.

KURTZ: Now speaking of big mistakes, here is a correction out of London that caught my eye from your book. Let's put it up on the screen: "Following the portrait of Tony and Cherie Blair, published on April 21st in The Independent Saturday Magazine, Ms. Blair's representatives have told us that she was friendly with, but never had a relationship with Carole Caplin of the type suggested in the article. They do want to make clear, which we are happy to do, that Ms. Blair has never shared a shower with Ms. Caplin, was not introduced to spirit guides or primal wrestling by Ms. Caplin or anyone else, and did not have her diary masterminded by Ms. Caplin."

What do you make when you read a whopper like that?

SILVERMAN: Well, I can't help by laugh. And in fact, that whopper was the whopper this year. I named a correction of the year for 2007. The thing about a correction like that, it is from a U.K. newspaper.

And you just have to love that the initial article was just so salacious and so scandalous, and then in the correction, you know, they repeat all of the things that were wrong. But they also say, you know, we are happy to make this clear.

And there is something about it that is really kind of almost sticking the knife in again.

KURTZ: But I wonder whether or not offstage there is a presence of lawyers who are demanding that these things be corrected as a way of, say, avoiding litigation?

SILVERMAN: Absolutely. And it is very common in fact, especially in the U.K., to see a correction or apology run where they also note at the end that they have paid a sum in damages to the person. I think that there are certainly corrections for big errors that arise because of pressure from lawyers.

But hopefully it is not always necessary. If something is wrong, it should be just corrected anyway.

KURTZ: Why are some corrections just so unintentionally funny?

SILVERMAN: Well, it really comes down to the reporting that led to it. And it also about how the correction is written. You know, the corrections editor or the readers' editor, basically the ombudsman at "The Guardian," became famous because he would always inject humor in it. And people could actually see that there was a human writing this correction.

And so he wasn't shy about pointing out something that was in fact quite funny -- an error that was quite funny, because inevitably readers are going to see that as well.

KURTZ: Do you think that news organizations are under more pressure now than ever before to make corrections, big, medium, and small, because there are so many critics out there and bloggers and others who are happy to do it for them?

SILVERMAN: Absolutely. I think we are living in an unprecedented age of media scrutiny. In fact, in a lot of cases, facts have kind of become weaponized where partisan blogs, where partisan blogs or, you know, partisan media monitoring organizations will love to go after a paper that they don't agree with in terms of the ideology. And so the way that they like to expose supposedly the unprofessionalism of an organization is through exposing a factual error. So we have, you know, this cadre of outside fact-checkers at media-monitoring organizations and at blogs who are engaging in the act of fact-checking. It is really quite unprecedented.

KURTZ: But you are -- briefly, sometimes what an ideological organization might call a mistake might be an argument about interpretation?

SILVERMAN: Absolutely. And there is an issue with, you know, a factual error or something that might relate to bias or something exactly like you said, it relates to interpretation. And this is where a sort of discussion has to take place.

KURTZ: All right. Craig Silverman, "Regret the Error," thanks very much for pointing out the error of our ways today.

SILVERMAN: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And I hope we don't have to correct anything on this week's show.

That is 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.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to our viewers.

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