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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Is Media Creating False Impression of Democratic Race?; Is Chelsea Clinton Accountable to Reporters?

Aired March 30, 2008 - 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: Pushing her out. Some pundits say the Democratic contest is over, Hillary Clinton has lost and the media should stop pretending there's still a race. Are reporters really engaged in make-believe? Shouldn't the voters get to decide?

And should the press label Hillary a liar over her discredited tale of coming under sniper fire?

Numbers game: the Iraq story makes a comeback with the 4,000th American death of the war. But have the media been missing in action for months?

Con job. "The L.A. Times" apologizes for tying the shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur to associates of Sean "Diddy" Combs based on FBI documents that turned out to be fake. We'll talk to the man who cracked the case.

Plus, anchors gone wild: when big-shot hosts trash-talk their colleagues.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Print journalists may be overshadowed in these days of big network audiences and non-stop cable news, but they still have the ability to drive campaign coverage. A week ago, two writers for the Politico, a Beltway newspaper and Web site, wrote that we in the media are just pretending there's still a Democratic race going on, even though Hillary Clinton is, well, toast.

That was picked up on "NBC Nightly News" and became the focus of dozens of cable segments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Two veteran political journalists, writing on the Web site Politico, put the race this way, quote, "One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage. Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: "New York Times" columnist David Brooks weighed in, saying Hillary has only a 5 percent chance of edging out Barack Obama and that the door is closing on her campaign. That was used in a CBS interview with Obama, and Brooks himself was invited on "The Today Show."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HARRY SMITH, CBS NEWS: Several people have written that, even in the best-case scenario, Hillary Clinton's chances of getting the nomination for the Democratic Party are about 5 percent. When is it time for her to leave?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, I think that is something that she's got to make a decision about.

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, NBC'S "THE TODAY SHOW": The door is closing, night is coming. The end, however, is not near. Why do you think -- and you explained this in your piece -- Hillary Clinton is having such a difficult time understanding that night is coming?

DAVID BROOKS, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I called it the audacity of hopelessness.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Soon, that debate was dominating cable news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK MORRIS, POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this is over. I don't think that there is the remotest chance that Hillary emerges as the nominee.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It's not up to Politico.com to determine who the Democratic nominee is. It's up to Democratic voters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about how the media are framing the Democratic race, John Harris, editor-in-chief of The Politico; Linda Douglas, contributing editor, "National Journal," and host of the radio show, "National Journal Online" -- "National Journal On Air" -- excuse me. And Anne Kornblut, national political reporter for "The Washington Post."

John Harris, let me read from the piece by your colleagues, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen: "Journalists have become partners with the Clinton campaign in pretending that the contest is closer than it really is. Most coverage breathlessly portrays the race as a down-to- the-wire sprint between two well-matched candidates."

Partners in pretending. Why would journalists, who love predicting how these things are going to turn out, perpetuate a fantasy?

JOHN HARRIS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE POLITICO: Well, we love the race. And at the surface level it is very close. Hillary Clinton is just a little bit behind in the popular vote, just a little bit behind in the delegate count. So I think that has led to a tendency to make the race seem neck and neck.

What Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen were arguing, though, is that there's a big elephant in the room, and that big elephant is race. The fact is, you've got an African-American candidate who is, by almost every sort of mathematical count, is going to come ahead in the delegate count.

And Hillary Clinton's campaign is based on the notion that super delegates will say, "Hey, even though African-Americans are our most loyal constituency, even though this -- race is always the most emotional issue in American politics," super delegates are going to overturn that and say, "Somebody else was ahead, but we're giving the nomination to somebody else."

They're saying -- they're not making a prediction, Howard. That's important. They're saying you have to reckon with just how improbable that scenario is, what a big deal that would be.

KURTZ: Seems to me -- seems to me I've read a lot about that particular elephant.

But Linda Douglas, is Politico just saying flat-out what most journalists are too timid to say, unless they're sitting around in a bar?

LINDA DOUGLAS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": Well, actually, I think Politico was sort of the little boy who said the emperor has no clothes. In fact, all journalists -- most journalists have been writing that it was a neck and neck race, that either of them could win, that it was essentially a toss-up.

And what they pointed out is it is not actually a tossup. Obama is leading. Hillary Clinton is behind. Many things could happen to change that now, but the race had been portrayed up until that point, I believe, as much more even than it really was.

ANNE KORNBLUT, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": What I think is so interesting about this dynamic is that the Clinton campaign has virtually no friends in the media at this point. They've managed to alienate most of the press corps, and yet the press corps has written about it as being a real race all the time. I think once that story ran, we saw a lot of people following it up with agreements. There wasn't a whole lot of counterintuitive thinking after the story ran, saying, "No, actually, it really is a close race."

KURTZ: According to that piece -- you travel with the Clinton campaign week after week. According to that piece, you're either delusional about it being a close race or trying to fool the rest of us.

KORNBLUT: Well, we're delusional after traveling so much all the time. When you spend enough time around Senator Clinton and the campaign, and you see the supporters that she has out on the road, it's easy to believe that there is a real race. It doesn't feel on the road like a dying campaign usually does.

But mathematically, there was -- there is a real point, that it's almost going to be impossible for her to catch up.

KURTZ: Lots of people picking up on his this. Slate.com now running a regular "Hillary Death Watch," if we can put that up. I think the latest scientific estimate, she's got a 12 percent chance of winning the nomination.

But John Harris, if the race is such make-believe, which is to say, you know, that there's no chance for Hillary to win, why is Politico continuing to run hundreds of news stories and columns and items and blogs about the Democratic race? It seems like you're not practicing what you preach.

HARRIS: Howard, The Politico isn't an oracle that makes papal pronouncements or something like that. What you have here is two smart, experienced journalists, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, who are saying, "Look, let's look at what would be necessary for Hillary Clinton to win."

I agree with James Carville in that clip. It's not up to Politico to say when this race is over. And what's more, we aren't making a prediction. We're saying look at what has happened on the basis of millions of votes that have already been case.

KURTZ: But you're saying more than that. You're saying that journalists are being misleading in pretending something exists that, on a competitive basis, does not...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS: I do -- I do believe that the coverage that makes us look like "It's a toss of a coin; this thing is so close" is in some sense misleading to readers. That, in fact, Hillary Clinton has a very, very narrow window. But it's not up to me to say that she shouldn't continue.

KURTZ: Let's...

HARRIS: My own preference is I wish she would. This is great fun, and let's keep it going.

KURTZ: Let's look at what the former first lady had to say on this very subject this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are some in the media who want this race to be over. There are some who seem to think we don't need to hear the voices of people Pennsylvania, or Indiana or North Carolina, or Montana or any of the other states that haven't had their chance to vote. Well, I disagree. I think everyone deserves to be heard.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Now the media, by making this topic A, not the economy, not health care, not Iraq, has forced her, virtually every day, to say, "I'm still in this race."

DOUGLAS: Which, actually, as a political point, is probably helping her a lot, because it really gets the backs of her supporters up. It gets all those women who really don't want to see her pushed out of the race very angry.

But you know, the media always have two minds in these situations. No. 1, they never want the race to end, because it's a great story. No. 2, they always want to be the first to declare it over. Think how much times before any votes are cast in Iowa or New Hampshire, the media say, "It's over. It's finished. We don't even need to pay attention to this thing anymore." So this push-pull always goes on.

KURTZ: Anne Kornblut, you have co-authored two stories in the past two days. Yesterday's "Washington Post," front page, "Clinton Resists Calls to Drop Out." And then we have to this morning's "Washington Post," "Clinton Vows to Stay in Race to Convention," based on an interview with the candidate herself.

It almost seems like you and your colleagues elsewhere have kind of hijacked the campaign. Now it's only about Hillary Clinton's intentions and how can she possibly win?

KORNBLUT: Well, it is topic A. The question is, will she stay in the race when this is a question?

KURTZ: Why is it topic A? Why isn't the economy topic A?

KORNBLUT: Well, substantively, the economy has been topic A for many weeks, leading up to Ohio and now going to Pennsylvania. We've written a lot about the economy, and, certainly, we've written about McCain and his take on the economy in the most recent few days.

But the question that Democrats within the party are asking constantly -- and you have it provoked by members of the -- members of Congress, not us, who are saying -- Patrick Leahy saying she should drop out -- is what she's going to do. And she has, as Linda suggested, very rightly made this, really, a great talking point for her on the stump, where the women supporters in particular agree with her and want her to stay in.

DOUGLAS: Just to interject here, Howie, the argument over this could well influence how much she wins by, if she wins, in Pennsylvania. I mean, this argument about whether she should leave the race could wind up influencing how the race turns out.

KURTZ: Is there a lot of resentment on the part of Clinton campaign officials for the press for its relentless focus on this question of can she possibly win?

KORNBLUT: I don't think resentment at this point. I think it's actually gratitude that there is a topic they can use to send out fundraising letters on. In the last two days, we've seen two fundraising letters go out about what happens, the pattern, every time that Clinton's about to win, everyone asks her to get out.

And her husband sent out one yesterday, saying that this is no time for quitting. So I think that they are very able, very ably, to use this to their advantage.

KURTZ: John Harris, some critics are saying, and this is not exactly unheard of in journalism. Any reporter every tried to hype a story onto the front page has probably indulged in this. But that a Web site like yours throws out a provocative and slightly outrageous piece because it generates a lot of buzz and you get a lot of Web traffic from it, as a result.

HARRIS: Well, that wasn't meant to be an outrageous piece. It was meant to be inviting readers to focus on what would need to happen for this very close race to actually be decided in Hillary Clinton's favor.

You would have to tell, just to repeat what the story said, versus what it didn't say. You would have to tell African-Americans that, even though their -- an African-American candidate was first in the delegate count, the nomination is going to somebody else. And then ask yourself, is that a likely scenario?

KURTZ: Weren't a lot of reporters -- weren't a lot of reporters writing about that? I mean, the tone of the piece was almost like you were the first ones to come up with this divine revelation.

HARRIS: I didn't think that it was that novel. And indeed, I -- as the editor of the piece, I urged Jim and Mike to make sure it reflected the fact that some people had written about this.

But Howard, you're doing the show, showing all the clips of people that picked up and cited that case. So it must have been something that was worth saying. You should answer the question, rather than me.

KURTZ: Well, I mean, we love to have new ideas to kick around. And this is an idea. And I'm not saying she has a great chance to win this nomination, but clearly, she has some chances.

Does her campaign enjoy pushing back against the media? I mean, for a while there, there was, you know, campaign blasting Chris Matthews and David Shuster for his criticism.

DOUGLAS: Yes, absolutely. Anytime Hillary Clinton appears beleaguered, any time she appears to be the victim of attacks by the media, by men, the candidates, but whatever it is, she does better. Because she looks like -- once again, her whole life story has been about, you know, people trying to push her back, push her down, and it helps her enormously. This has been, in many ways, a gift for her campaign.

KURTZ: Let me play a clip from ABC's Jake Tapper, report on "World News" this week, and we'll talk about it on the other side. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: One Democratic Party official said to me that the only way Clinton can win is by destroying Obama, destroying him and making him unelectable. This official referred to it as the Tanya Harding option, the idea that Clinton can't win the gold medal on her own, so she has to kneecap her leading competitor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, Jake Tapper is a terrific reporter. But should he be quoting an anonymous source, comparing Hillary Clinton to the biggest thug in the history of ice skating?

KORNBLUT: Well, I -- I guess I could say no, except that this was a talking point that all of us heard from a variety of campaign officials. And it really neatly summed up the situation.

KURTZ: But did you hear it on the record?

KORNBLUT: No. No, I didn't. And I imagine he didn't either. Otherwise I assume he would have quoted the source.

KURTZ: All right. Well, here is my two cents. I think journalists should tell it like it is, and we shouldn't pretend that a lopsided race is a close one just to keep the race alive. And I think a lot of reporters would king of like to go on vacation right now.

And Politico deserves credit for trying to honestly and openly grapple with the role of the press in this campaign.

But it is not the business of journalists to all but declare a race over. I know John Harris says he's not doing that. And the press has repeatedly declared Hillary Clinton dead: after she lost Iowa, before Ohio and Texas. Somehow she has managed to come back. So in my view, that piece missed the mark.

When we come back, she doesn't do interviews, but a college student still managed to ask Chelsea Clinton a question about Monica Lewinsky. Does the former first daughter have any obligation to talk to the press?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Plenty of reporters would like to interview Hillary -- Chelsea Clinton. I'd like to interview Chelsea Clinton. But she's not talking to the press as she campaigns for her mother. So it fell to a college student in the crowd at Indiana's Butler University to ask a rather uncomfortable question about Hillary's handling of the Monica Lewinsky embarrassment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHELSEA CLINTON, DAUGHTER OF HILLARY CLINTON: Wow, you're the first person, actually, that's ever asked me that question in the -- I don't know -- maybe 70 college campuses that I've now been to. And I do not think that's any of your business.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Was that question out of line, and if Chelsea Clinton is putting herself out there, should she answer questions from real reporters, which is to say grown-up reporters?

DOUGLAS: First of all, I don't think the question is out of line. I'm surprised it hasn't been asked before.

You know, the Monica Lewinsky scandal wasn't just a private matter. The president was impeached over it. It affects the way that many people view Senator Clinton and how she handled that. So, of course, it's a question that's going to come up.

She pushed back with great political skill. They were ready for that, clearly. And that indignation was very smart. And people should start questioning Chelsea Clinton -- reporters should -- because she's now said yesterday that -- that her father and mother disagreed on NAFTA. She said the day before that that her mother would be a better president than her father. We reporters probably have a lot of questions we should be asking her.

KURTZ: Well, I certainly think that she is now fair game for media scrutiny, Anne Kornblut, but we don't really have the opportunity to question her. Should she submit to journalistic questions?

KORNBLUT: Well, I think it's reaching the point of being absurd that she doesn't take questions from reporters. She's out there. She's been campaigning for months now. She does take questions from random college students anywhere she goes. And she probably would be happier with the end result if she had questions of -- substantive interview with reporters.

That said, once she agrees to one interview, everybody else is going to demand one. And I think that's the slippery slope they're trying to avoid.

KURTZ: She's no longer the awkward teenager. She's a 27-year- old hedge fund executive.

HARRIS: Right. Well, you know, our colleague, Bob Woodward, had the line I've heard him say: "Look, the First Amendment gives you the right to say 'no comment.'" So she's certainly free to not take questions.

I will say it does grate on me at times that, at moments, they treat her like she's 13: "Hey, you guys, off limits. How dare you ask?" And then at other moments, she's the poised 27-year-old out there as a campaign surrogate. They're having it both ways. We're certainly free to point that out.

KURTZ: Right. I think she has no obligation to talk to reporters. But it would be nice if she would talk to me. All right. Barack Obama goes on vacation. He's off in the Virgin Islands and clearly just wants a couple days off from the campaign trail. So cable producers follow him there. There's a picture on FOX -- FOX News that was sent in by some viewer. Some -- there we see a cute little girl posing with the senator from Illinois.

CNN also aired some footage of him doing what a lot of us do on vacation, relaxing on the beach. Of course, he's on the cell phone.

And a CNN producer managed to come into contact with the elusive candidate, ask him a question or two. Let's take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: All right, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, Senator. How are you?

OBAMA: Just trying to be left alone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: All right. The guy was trying to take a couple of days off with his family. Is it really necessary for producers to be tracking him down?

HARRIS: I think he's got to -- the better way for people who are in the public eye is to set up a pool arrangement and be predictable about where they're going to be, not try to play a game of Hide and Seek with the press. It just never works. Look, he's got to get used to it. He's running for the presidency, and that's the way the presidency works.

KURTZ: When the president goes on vacation, obviously, reporters follow. How about a candidate?

KORNBLUT: Well, I think maybe if he had maybe chosen that wasn't so nice to visit, he wouldn't have been bothered so much. If he had just set up shop in Crawford and...

HARRIS: Did you go?

KORNBLUT: I didn't go, unfortunately. But he might not be bothered so much.

DOUGLAS: Well, I mean, I think John is so right.

KURTZ: Would you have gone?

DOUGLAS: Yes, I mean, I think John is right. I mean, it's just the business. Everybody is going to want a picture of him on vacation. He should have known that. He should have figured out a way to have his privacy, give the media their picture, and it all would have been fine.

KURTZ: I would have gone to the Virgin Islands. I would have told my bosses, "You know, I just couldn't find him." And I just would have taken a couple of days off.

All right. John Harris, Anne Kornblut, Linda Douglas, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Up next, Barbara Walters gives Barack Obama something better than an endorsement. Ellen DeGeneres is still apparently emotionally scarred after dancing with Chris Matthews. And a guest on Keith Olbermann's show is so loyal that she goes down a pretty low road. On "Media Minute," straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Barack Obama has gotten plenty of big-name endorsements, from Oprah Winfrey to Ted Kennedy. But those may pale in comparison to Barbara Walters's judgment on "The View."

BARBARA WALTERS, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": We were (ph) saying, just before you came out -- maybe we shouldn't say this, but we -- should we say it?

JOY BEHAR, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": Say it. Say it.

WALTERS: We thought you were very sexy looking.

OBAMA: Oh, sure.

KURTZ: Well, that's one way to compete for the female vote.

Now for a lack of truth in advertising.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you help me?

KURTZ (voice-over): There's the commercial out for a new Spanish-language film about the struggles of an immigrant family, called "Under the Same Moon." And as the Huffington Post reported, it mocks a certain CNN anchor who has repeatedly denounced illegal immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "TIME" magazine raves that "Adrian Alonso could melt Lou Dobbs's heart, if he had one."

"Christian Science Monitor" asks, "Would Lou Dobbs get misty- eyed?"

KURTZ (on camera): Dobbs laughed it off, saying he's flattered to be so prominently mentioned.

ELLEN DEGENERES, TALK SHOW HOST: Please welcome Chris Matthews.

KURTZ (voice-over): Ellen DeGeneres, who had an up-close-and- personal encounter with a dancing Chris Matthews, used the incident this week to teach one of her young viewers to read.

DEGENERES (holding up picture of unidentified female): Grumpy.

(holding up picture of Chris Matthews) Gropey.

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, MSNBC'S "COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN": Our No. 1 story on the "Countdown"...

KURTZ: And MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was poking fun at CNN the other night, saying the network had tried to book one of his favorite regular guests, radio host Maria Milito, to talk about the all- important important subject of "American Idol." And it went downhill from there.

OLBERMANN: Were you shocked by this, Princess Maria?

MARIA MILITO, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I just felt -- not exactly shocked. I guess everybody wants a piece of the princess. But you know, you're my pimp. I'm your ho. Pimps don't share hos. I mean, come on.

OLBERMANN: Oh -- oh, don't -- why did you go down that route, of all routes, on this network?

KURTZ: I've heard of guests being called media whores, but they don't usually brag about it.

Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, another tragic milestone boosts the coverage on Iraq. But how long with the war hold the media's attention this time.

The press savages Hillary Clinton for peddling a false tale of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia. But are reporters giving John McCain a free ride for his misstatements?

And later, an "L.A. Times" article implicating the people around Puffy Combs in the shooting of another rapper falls apart. How a Web site discovered it was all a hoax.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) * (NEWSBREAK)

KURTZ: Thanks very much, Betty. After all but vanishing from the media's radar, the war has been getting more coverage this week in part because of a bloody battle raging in Basra. But for most of the year, Iraq has been the forgotten story, overshadowed by the campaign, the economy, and governors and mayors having extramarital affairs. But there was a stark change on Monday when all the network newscasts lead with a grim statistic.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: We don't know who it was exactly, but when a bomb went off in Iraq yesterday, one of the four American soldiers who died became number 4,000.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Reaching a milestone in Iraq, five years, five years of fighting and 4,000 Americans killed.

CHRIS CUOMO, ABC ANCHOR: A roadside bomb has claimed the lives of four more U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, making for a grim milestone in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the coverage of Iraq and the latest outbreak of misstatements by presidential candidates, in Los Angeles, CNN political analyst Amy Holmes; and here in Washington, Michelle Cottle, senior editor for The New Republic.

Amy Holmes, why does it take the 4,000th American death to put the war back on the top of the evening news and to get the newspapers to start running those faces of the fallen spreads.

AMY HOLMES, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, certainly, because the news likes what is new. And what is new is this idea of -- is the 4,000th death. But what I would suggest to you, Howie, is that we have been seeing this with the media all along, using these grim milestones, these grim statistics about solider casualties, and I can tell you when I worked up on the Hill for the former Senate majority leader, and met with a lot of these soldiers, they were really frustrated that this focus on casualties and death distorted the picture of what they were doing on the ground. And the press was not reporting on milestones, say the anniversary of our taking out Zarqawi, for example.

So in talking with soldiers, I know they felt that the news media, by focusing on all of this violence and death, was not telling the full picture of success or progress on the ground in Iraq.

KURTZ: Michelle, casualties in my view are news. But it seems so arbitrary, the 3,998th death was not as important as the 4,000th death.

MICHELLE COTTLE, THE NEW REPUBLIC: Of course not. Milestones are what drives this kind of coverage. And when you are looking at -- we have been there five years. And it's five years where, you know, you have casualty levels go up or down, but for the average American, it is just kind of this grinding, grinding, grinding.

And so it takes something like this that's a little bit different or kind of a milestone to get the attention back on it full force.

KURTZ: Amy Holmes, The Project for Excellence in Journalism said that 23 percent of the media's available air time and news space was devoted to the war last year. This year so far, 3.2 percent. Do you believe the media lost interest in the war in part because the surge has been moderately successful?

HOLMES: Well, I think that is part of it. Again, the news is focusing on violence and conflict, bad actors of the ground. And if the surge is working, then peace is slowly breaking out. And that's not as exciting a story. You don't get to see -- I mean, look what you have on the screen right now, rockets blasting, tanks and people -- you know, things blowing up.

If peace is starting to make some success in Iraq, that doesn't make such great pictures.

COTTLE: What you also have, though, Howie, is -- I mean, it's easy to blame the media about this, but you also have polls showing that the average American isn't paying as much attention to this. You know, they're not saying that it is the most important thing in their mind or whatever.

And in part, you can maybe blame the media for not keeping it in the spotlight, but also other things like the economy and the housing just, you know, complete meltdown in the markets.

KURTZ: Well, certainly the economy and the presidential campaign are overshadowing the war. But you also seem to be saying that people are sick of the war and therefore we ought not to shove it down their throats.

COTTLE: Well, I don't know that they are sick of it. But at some point they don't know what to do about it. There is obviously no good exit strategy that we've talked about. It continues to look like it's just going to keep grinding and grinding. So you can't pay attention to it every day with the same intensity.

HOLMES: And one thing that I would also add is that the media, in trying to remain neutral, saying that they are not for the war, they're not against the war, so they say, we support the troops, therefore we will memorialize them as the war is actually being prosecuted on the ground, so you have these milestones, et cetera.

And then you also see stories that I think are completely irrelevant to the war effort in terms of military strategy that says, where is the public on this? Are they for the surge? Are they against the surge? And you see the media talking about this as a horse race instead of talking about it in terms of what does this war mean? Where have we been and where are we going?

KURTZ: Well, it is a major issue in the presidential campaign. Let me move on to another war zone, that is Bosnia back in 1996. Hillary Clinton, as you know, was talking about a trip that she took there as first lady. Let's first look at what she had been saying about her visit to Tuzla.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I remember landing under sniper fire.

There was no greeting ceremony and we basically were told to run to our cars, now that is what happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Now that account came under media fire, you might say. And here is a report this week that ran on the "CBS EVENING NEWS," reporter Sharyl Attkisson describing what really did happen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHARYL ATKISSON, CBS CORRESPONDENT: The problem is, that's not what happened. And we should know, CBS News accompanied the first lady and daughter Chelsea on that Bosnia trip. That is Senator Clinton talking to me on the military flight into Tuzla. And these are the pictures we recorded of the greeting ceremony when the plane landed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Hillary has gotten hammered on this. Is it enough for the media to report that this was a misstatement? Does that word do justice to what happened here?

COTTLE: Well, you know, if it is a misstatement, the problem is so completely fits into the narrative of the Clintons, which is that they will say anything or do anything or exaggerate in order to kind of get the edge in a political battle. So even it is just that she was up all night, tired of campaigning, or you know, the joke about McCain's misstatements, or that she had a senior moment, you know, even if this was accident, it fits too neatly with kind of the larger story about them.

KURTZ: Except, Amy Holmes, that Hillary Clinton had said this on a couple of occasions before. And it is kind of hard to imagine that you would remember coming under sniper fire if there wasn't any. So should the press go so far as to call this a lie?

HOLMES: Exactly. It wasn't an accident, and she had been peddling this story. If anything, Howie, I was surprised by how long it took the media. If CBS News was there, I would think that the reporter would -- you know, the first time that she heard about sniper, say like, wait a minute, I was there, there was no sniper fire.

It took a full week after the third time Hillary had peddled this story for CBS to come up with the footage and to say, we were there too as eyewitnesses. I don't know that it's up to the media to say, Hillary is a liar. But it's certainly up to the media to expose the story that she is telling and the falsehoods, and compare it to the actual record.

And you know, something else, Howie, that I think is so interesting in this campaign is this really the era of video. We saw that with the Jeremiah Wright's statements, we're seeing it now with Hillary's statements. And then CBS, you know, roll tape.

So I think you're going to be seeing these candidates, they have to be a lot more careful. We are used to candidates stretching the truth, embellishing a story.

KURTZ: Got to have the pictures.

HOLMES: Yes. But now we have pictures.

KURTZ: And even if Sharyl Attkisson had said, I was there, it didn't quite happen that way, it is not as powerful without the video. This actually came -- started to fall apart when the entertainer Sinbad told a Washington Post blogger that he was on that trip, didn't happen that way, and the a Washington Post fact-checker described this incident as deserving of "Four Pinocchios." So it did take a while for the media to knock this.

COTTLE: I'm sure. And one of the things that is going on here is I think the media was guilted into feeling bad about their treatment of Clinton in recent weeks. I mean, after that whole "Saturday Night Live" snafu, the media tends to do this weird thing, when called on the carpet about something, we wildly start to overcorrect and feel bad and say, oh, we're so sorry and be really, really careful and tentative.

So you know, they gave her -- maybe they gave her a couple of passes on this thinking it was misstatement. But then when she kept peddling it, they were like, nah, we're going to have the tape.

KURTZ: All right. Now, Amy, Michelle talks about this fit into the media narrative of Hillary Clinton, which is that she is kind of slippery with the truth, whether that's fair or not, apparently Michelle says that is the narrative. Let's talk about Barack Obama. He has had a couple misstatements recently.

One, for example, was he said that his parents decided to get married and to have baby Barack because of the civil rights march on Selma, except that that was in 1965 and Obama was born in 1961.

And then this morning's Washington Post has a story knocking down another Obama tale about the Kennedy family -- Obama has been saying the Kennedy family paid for the airlift of Kenyan students, including his father, to the United States, to study at American colleges. But in fact, Obama's father came to the U.S. on an airlift in 1959, the Kennedy family didn't get involved in this program until 1960. Now is any of that going to get anything near the coverage that Hillary's sniper fire story got?

HOLMES: No. Because Hillary's sniper fire story was supposed to be sort of exaggerating her national security credentials. She was using that to project herself as a more, you know, battle-hardened, battle ready potential commander-in-chief.

Barack Obama's stories about his family and airlifts and Kennedys, you know, I don't think the public is going to be paying that much attention. And hey, we all have relatives who tell long tales about, you know, their adventures 50 years ago. I think it kind of goes in that category.

KURTZ: All right. How about John McCain? We -- he made a misstatement, if you want to use that word, that got a moderate amount of coverage. Let's roll it, from the senator's trip to Iraq. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran that is well-known, and it is unfortunate.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry the Iranians are training extremists, not al Qaeda.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now I have got about half a minute here. Was that described as just a gaffe because the media see McCain as a foreign policy expert and therefore it didn't fit into, to use your term, the larger narrative?

COTTLE: Well, I mean, it was seen as a gaffe, but he had also said it on another occasion as well, and when people talk about it in those terms. But I think the larger thing that got pulled out of that is, was it a senior moment or not? And a lot of people ran with that as a joke because a lot of the questions with McCain is, is he too old to be president?

KURTZ: Amy Holmes, some critics say that the press didn't make that much of that particular misstatement by Senator McCain because they like the guy. They go easy on him because they have kind of a cozy relationship.

HOLMES: I'm not sure that's true, Howie. I mean, we remember when the media was saying that his campaign was over, it was dead, there was no way. I think this go-around, in 2008 as compared 2000, McCain has gotten a lot rougher treatment. I think that that statement was overshadowed by the mere fact that Democrats have been bloodying each other and battling each other with, you know, sort of far more drama than John McCain out in the Mideast.

KURTZ: The Democratic campaign does seem to be sucking up all of the oxygen in the room. All right. Amy Holmes, Michelle Cottle, thanks very much for being here this morning.

Up next a smoking gun strikes again, forcing The L.A. Times into a humiliating retraction over an article that finally promised answers in the shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur. Editor Bill Bastone joins us after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MUSIC PLAYING)

KURTZ: Sean "Diddy" Combs in the late '90s. It has been an unsolved crime for 14 years. Who shot and wounded rapper Tupac Shakur at a New York recording studio. This was two years before another attack in which Tupac was killed. The Los Angeles Times tackled the mystery last week, saying that associates of Diddy Combs were involved in the shooting, which Combs strongly denied. But the story by Pultizer Prize-winning reporter Chuck Philips quickly fell apart. It relied on supposed FBI documents that The Smoking Gun discovered were flat out forgeries, carried out, it says, by a conman serving a long prison term. That same day, The L.A. Times admitted it had been duped and apologized for the story. Joining us now from New York is the man who blew the whistle on the bogus documents, William Bastone, editor of thesmokinggun.com.

You looked at these FBI documents, these are interviews, summaries called 302s, and you immediately thought they were suspect, why?

WILLIAM BASTONE, EDITOR, THESMOKINGGUN.COM: Well, I've seen literally thousands of pages of 302s and they follow a certain format in terms of spacing, typeface. And when you read a 302, there is a certain kind of Bureau-ese that accompanies these documents.

And when I looked at the ones that The L.A. Times had posted online along with their story, opening up the PDF, they immediately struck me as unlike any others that I had ever seen before.

KURTZ: Now did you share your misgivings when you a conversation with Chuck Philips at The Los Angeles Times?

BASTONE: Yes, I actually gave Chuck a call the day after this story was posted online. And I said, you know, those 302s, you know, they kind of look a little off to me. You know, and I gave him kind of a quick rundown, saying, you know, I'd never seen -- you know, they are filled with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. And they just looked strange. And I mean, he basically said he had got them from a good source and kind of made them seem that they were legit.

KURTZ: Right. Now L.A. Times editors and reporters have declined all interview requests on this controversy. But Chuck Philips did put out an apology which said: "I now believe the truth here is that I got duped. For this I take full responsibility and I apologize. In relying on documents that I now believe were fake, I failed to do my job. I'm sorry."

Now after looking into it, Bill Bastone, you believe that these phony FBI documents were created by a guy named Jimmy Sabatino, explain who he is.

BASTONE: He is a 31-year-old inmate at the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. He is an accomplished conman and swindler and a guy who, for many years, has spun tails about his rap industry connections, his managing of a lot of very well-known hip-hop acts.

And what we determined was that some of documents first surfaced late last year in a federal lawsuit that Mr. Sabatino filed himself from prison against Sean "Puffy" Combs. He has a whole convoluted account of how Mr. Combs supposedly owes him $175,000 from a business deal that is 15 years old. Why he is...

KURTZ: Here is what is weird about this to me, and by the way, these documents were typed and that he had access to a typewriter... BASTONE: That's correct.

KURTZ: ... which is one reasons you thought that they were -- the FBI documents were suspicious, because they were not prepared on a computer. The story in The L.A. Times said, and the FBI documents, the phony ones said that Sabatino was one of the P. Diddy associates who set up Tupac for the shooting. Why would he fabricate documents that implicate himself?

BASTONE: Well, self-aggrandizement, psychosis, take your pick, I mean, there is a lot of reasons. I mean, I think this is a guy who is a wannabe who is in prison until 2012 and has shown a history of desperately needing to get attention.

OK. So he loops himself into a conspiracy to shoot Tupac Shakur. You know, it's arguable whether he could even be prosecuted for that. And I think that...

KURTZ: And at the time this happened, in 1994, he was all of 18 years old.

BASTONE: Yes, that is correct. He was kind of a roly-poly teenager. You'd think that someone might remember the involvement of a white kid from the Boynton Beach.

KURTZ: All right. So let's come back to the journalistic bottom line here. How could The Los Angeles Times have published the story based on purported FBI documents without even officially checking with the FBI that you so quickly established were phony?

BASTONE: That would be the -- that's the $64,000 question. I think that, you know, apart from the legitimacy of the documents themselves, if you look at what they say, the content of these 302s? They are incredibly preposterous. I mean, I think that they fit into what The L.A. Times had previously heard and then that is what Sabatino played into.

It kind of created these things and the narrative I think he realized matched what The L.A. Times was working on, and it was in many ways kind of unfortunately like a perfect storm for them.

KURTZ: You know, when CBS ran into problems with its National Guard story back in 2004, the Dan Rather report on President Bush's military service, CBS insisted for 12 long days that those documents were real. It took The Los Angeles Times 13 hours to retract the story and apologize after you posted your report on smokinggun.com. Doesn't the paper deserve credit for that?

BASTONE: Oh, hey, listen, I will never criticize them in the way they handled this after our story came out. They did exactly what they did. Listen, our profession is one of the rare ones that tries to acknowledge errors quickly and falls on the sword. And I'm waiting -- they are going to do an after action report that explains how this occurred. And that should be rather interesting.

KURTZ: I've got a half a minute here, should that after-action report -- should that internal investigation be done by somebody independent of the actual stories as opposed to done by the editor of the paper who approved it?

BASTONE: Well, I'm going to assume that they are going to assign it to other reporters within the paper who kind of look at how that story was put together and essentially re-reported and go back and figure out how Sabatino conned them. I don't think this is something where you need to go outside the paper and have like a law firm or a commission do something.

I'm sure that there are a few investigative reporters in-house who can get to the bottom of it.

KURTZ: Right. Well, maybe they should have you do it. Bill Bastone of The Smoking Gun, thanks very much for joining us.

BASTONE: Thanks, Howard.

KURTZ: And we have an update on a story we talked about last Sunday. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick accused the press, which is mostly white, of lynch mob mentality for investigating his alleged cover up of a sexual affair. This week the mayor and his former top aide were indicted on perjury and other counts, brought by a prosecutor who happens to be black.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It is not unusual to see people debating, arguing, even shouting at each other on cable programs. Hey, there is a lot of time to fill. What is rare is seeing anchors take their own colleagues to task.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): On MSNBC this week, "HARDBALL's" hepped up host Chris Matthews went off on "MORNING JOE's" Mika Brzezinski, who committed the sin of asking Bill Richardson for political details about his endorsement of Barack Obama.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": And I really think we have got to stop talking about this as if this were a sitcom. We had eight years of this sitcom. What are the Clintons up to? How do they relate to each other? What do they feel today? Mika, it's a sitcom and it has got to end. We have got to focus on America. We're stuck in Iraq, 4,000 people are dead now because of decisions made by politicians like the Clintons. We've got to focus on what matters and stop the sitcom approach to politics.

KURTZ: Matthews got so carried away that Brzezinski jabbed him with this question.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, CO-HOST, "MORNING JOE": Chris, you weren't endorsing Barack Obama there, were you?

MATTHEWS: Why do you say that?

BRZEZINSKI: I don't know, just asking, just asking.

MATTHEWS: No, I wasn't.

BRZEZINSKI: OK. Just making sure.

KURTZ (on camera): Matthews had a point, but of course, he is the one who is usually wallowing in the political minutiae.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": You know, he is trying to have...

KURTZ (voice-over): As I mentioned last week, "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace scolded his colleagues at the morning show "Fox & Friends" after their extended treatment of the controversy over Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the senator describing his grandmother as a "typical white person" in her fear of black strangers.

WALLACE: I have been watching the show since 6:00 this morning when I got up and it seems to me that two hours of Obama-bashing on this "typical white person" remark is somewhat excessive. And frankly I think you are somewhat distorting what Obama had to say.

STEVE DOOCY, CO-HOST, "FOX & FRIENDS": Hold on just -- hold on just...

WALLACE: I think it's a little more complicated than we've been portraying.

DOOCY: Right, we've actually read the complete sound bite three times so far. But what -- and we posed this question to our viewers whether or not they were offended by that.

KURTZ: Good for him for speaking his mind. Lou Dobbs is famous for speaking his mind, and on his CNN show last week, he criticized coverage of the State Department's improper snooping into the passport files of the three presidential candidates.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": I mean, and then the national -- it has been on all the cable news networks, I mean, talk about a pack mentality rolling out on this. You know what, I've got to be honest with you, as I listen to all of this silliness sweep across cable news land, I'm thinking who cares really? Who cares?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Of course, as Dan Abrams noted this week, Dobbs might have mentioned that he had covered the passport story earlier in the show. But I think all of this is great. Media criticism should not be limited to programs like this. It is healthy for anchors and commentators at every network to challenge their colleagues, to challenge our business rather than matching in lockstep. We need more of that and little less grandstanding.

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. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.

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