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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Coverage of Pope's Visit Examined; ABC Presidential Debate

Aired April 20, 2008 - 10:15   ET

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


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Thanks very much, Betty and T.J.
He may be the world's most important religious leader, but Pope Benedict has not been terribly well known in America. So as we've been watching this morning his visit to America this week, winding up today in New York at that Yankee Stadium mass, is like a candidate's introductory tour. And like a good politician, he took questions from the press on the flight over from the Vatican, including one about the sexual abuse scandal that devastated a number of U.S. parishes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POPE BENEDICT XVI: We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: There was plenty of coverage as the pope moved from the White House to a mass at Nationals Park, and journalists such as NBC's Tim Russert and CNN's Wolf Blitzer -- you see him there -- got a chance to meet the pontiff.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I didn't want to open my mouth. I didn't want to say anything, which is contrary to what I would normally be doing. I was sort of in awe when you're standing right next to the Holy Father. The pope said, "Oh, CNN, CNN. We watch."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But the coverage took an unexpected turn when the pope held a secret meeting with victims of sexual abuse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: On the third day of his visit to the United States, a big surprise from Pope Benedict. He again addressed the priest sex abuse scandal that has caused so much pain in this country, but this time in a very personal way.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Starting with his flight here from the Vatican, the pope has talked about abuse by priests. Well, today he made history by meeting directly with victims of it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the coverage of this pope, in New York, Father Dave Dwyer, host of "The Busted Halo Show" on Sirius Satellite Radio; Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of beliefnet.com; and here in Washington, Amy Sullivan, national correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

Steven Waldman, the pope has received heavenly media coverage on this trip, but the focus has been more I think on the pageantry of his appearances, as opposed to the details of his positions -- for example, opposition to abortion or homosexuality or the death penalty.

Is that because he hasn't talked about these issues or because the media don't really care?

STEVEN WALDMAN, CO-FOUNDER AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, BELIEFNET.COM: Well, he has talked about them some, but you know, what he did with the -- talking about the child abuse really changed the entire press narrative on the flight. I think if he hadn't done that very early on, as you said, literally from the flight over, the story would have been the elephant in the room, how come they're not addressing -- how come he's not addressing the major wound in the Catholic Church.

By hitting that, first repeatedly, over and over again, and then most dramatically, meeting with the victims, he sent a very strong signal that he understood the severity of the problem and had empathy, and I think it really won over the press corps and won over the press treatment.

KURTZ: I want to come back to that issue, but Father Dave Dwyer, give us the broader picture here. Pope Benedict is the leader of a nation state in the Vatican, so he has political positions. But he is covered, at least on this trip, much more as a spiritual figure.

Is that appropriate, or is it an incomplete picture?

FATHER DAVE DWYER, "THE BUSTED HALO SHOW": I think it is appropriate to do that. It's a complete picture in the sense that he is first and foremost a pastor.

The moments that we're remembering visually from this trip, kissing a small infant on his procession out of Nationals Park after the mass, meeting with the victims, and even just moments ago that shot of him looking intently into the eyes, listening to people who were affected by the tragedy at Ground Zero, that's who he is primarily, a pastor.

KURTZ: That was a very moving moment, as we saw the pageantry at lower Manhattan. And we can see now pictures of people leaving the site.

Amy Sullivan, I want to -- when we get done looking at this, I want to play for you a little bit of the sound put together by "The Daily Show" to give a sense, a taste of what the coverage has been like. You know, I often joke about politicians receiving walk on water coverage. This might be more literally true.

Let's roll that tape if we can.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": And as the weather got nicer, the comments got more obvious.

ALLEN: Benedict XVI is much more a teaching pope.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A brilliant man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is an intellectual.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The man who was warm, is kind, is gentle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A really good listener.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's gracious, he's cordial.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he's really a very nice guy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Not bad.

AMY SULLIVAN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: It's not bad at all, no. The disconnect is that while of course a pope's visit to a country where one out of four Americans is Catholic is an incredibly huge event. This coverage seems more in line with the office of the pope than with this particular figure, who as you point out Americans don't know that much about.

They had 25 years to get to know John Paul II at the same time that media coverage kind of elevated any papal visit to something like this.

KURTZ: Isn't it a little -- especially when we have the live coverage of just, you know, his pope-mobile going from one location to another, to the 150-plus million non-Catholics in the country? Could some of them be wondering why so much coverage?

SULLIVAN: They may very well be wondering. Again, we had a previous pope who had a chance to really become a legitimate world leader in terms of his pronouncements being quite powerful. This one hasn't quite earned that yet.

KURTZ: All right.

Steven Waldman, you mentioned the pope's almost daily focus on the sexual abuse scandals that in recent years have rocked the churches in this country. You know, in recent decades there were 11,000 allegations involving 4,400 priests, six parishes went bankrupt.

I want to play for you just a brief bit of sound from CNN's Lou Dobbs. And he was talking about the pope saying yes, the church bore a lot of responsibility here, but also Pope Benedict pointing to the availability of violence and pornography in the United States as perhaps contributing to the environment surrounding the scandals.

Let me roll that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOU DOBBS, CNN: This is the most welcoming nation, the most generous nation on the face of the earth, and for this pope to have this attitude and to make these comments is in my opinion absolutely repugnant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think...

DOBBS: I'm on my way to hell...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And so, Steven, the reason I play that is I've heard so few people criticize the pope on anything, and I'm almost wondering, is there a reluctance to take issue with Pope Benedict, for fear of seeming anti-Catholic?

WALDMAN: Well, I think there's probably some of that. I think there's also just a tremendous pent-up demand among reporters to do a positive religion story.

There's been so -- most religion stories that people do are about controversies and abuse and violence, and they know -- reporters know that most of their readership actually views faith and religion as a positive force in their life, not a negative one. So when they have an opportunity to do a positive, glowing religion story, they grab for it.

KURTZ: So there's almost a hunger, you think, to have the chance to say something nice and not just be writing about more scandal or difficulties within that religious institution?

WALDMAN: I think so. And that's why I think if he hadn't addressed the abuse scandals so early and so forcefully, I think despite what I just said, I think the plot line still would have been church is out of touch with the crucial issue.

KURTZ: Right.

WALDMAN: But because he did that, it opened up this floodgate of what reporters I think, you know, had a hankering to do anyway.

KURTZ: Right.

And Father Dave, when Pope Benedict held that secret meeting, or previously unpublicized meeting with victims of sexual abuse by priests, most of them I believe from Boston, this was kind of a master stroke in terms of media coverage and changing the way the whole visit was covered, was it not?

DWYER: Certainly, it was. But I think it was also, again, a move on the part of the church wanting to express healing and reconciliation.

I think if I had to name a theme of this entire visit, the six- day visit, it would be hope, unity and reconciliation. The pope wants to see Catholics reunited.

When he spoke at mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, it was about the entire church coming together. When he addressed the victims of sexual abuse, it's about, how do we move forward in hope? His great theme, of course, of his encyclical is hope, and hope is about moving forward.

KURTZ: Clearly, Amy Sullivan, it was a smart and a touching thing for the pope to do, to meet with actual people who had been through this. And, of course, then some of them gave interviews to CNN and other media outlets. But when a political figure does something like that, the natural journalistic tendency is to say, well, that's great, but what are you going to do about it? How are you going to change your policies?

In the case of the church, for example, there's a 10-year statute of limitations about filing these complaints once you turn 18. But I saw very little focus on the media. In other words, people took the symbolic meaning at face value.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. And that's been one of the sources of criticisms of the pope's visit. You may not have heard it broadcast as much, but there certainly has been, particularly within the Catholic Church, people who said, well, this is all nice, and symbolically it's incredibly important. And you can't dismiss that.

But there's the statute of limitations. There's also the question of how you prevent this going forward. And there are a lot of Catholics who feel there's been insufficient change within the church to prevent things like this from happening.

KURTZ: And should -- why haven't the media focused on that more?

SULLIVAN: Well, as Steve said, that's less of a positive story. People want a positive pope story. That's what they got.

KURTZ: Steven Waldman, you know, it was mentioned earlier that John Paul was this sort of towering, charismatic historical figure. Until this trip to the United States -- I mean, Pope Benedict has been in office now about three years -- I have a feeling a lot of Americans knew very little about him. He really gets a fraction of the coverage John Paul did.

Why is that?

WALDMAN: Well, first we have to try to remember what it was like in the early days of Pope John Paul's papacy. I mean, he helped destroy communism. He was almost assassinated. He traveled the world and met with young people a lot.

KURTZ: And he was the first Polish pope, of course. WALDMAN: Yes. And, you know, it's sort of a weird thing to say about a pope, but in a way, Benedict has benefited from very low expectations.

In addition to everything I just said, everyone just assumed he was going to be in the shadow of the previous pope. He was sometimes referred to as God's Rottweiler. He was the guy who was going to come in, and his main job was going to be to purge heresy. And so the bar was actually set sort of low for him.

KURTZ: And on that point, Father Dave, is the pope somebody who doesn't worry very much about his media image and staging events that will draw a lot of news coverage?

DWYER: I think from what I've heard of him, absolutely, he is someone who is concerned with the bigger spiritual issues of the church. He's not worrying about his camera shot or how well he looks.

But in terms of what Steve was just saying, yes, this is a pope who is presenting now for the first time really an image to the United States. I don't think he's got handlers trying to position that well. I think really this is the first time America has had a chance to meet, see and get to know the ideas of this pope.

KURTZ: Plus, Amy Sullivan, he's 81 years old, and I think maybe he's regarded by the press as something of an interim figure.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. A lot of people feel that they don't need to put in too much effort to get to know about the pope because they presume he's not really going to shape the papacy. That could be a mistake, though.

KURTZ: It could be a mistake why? Because he could have a bigger impact than we might have imagined?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. I mean, this is a pope who, you know, came to the U.S. in part to really take American Catholics to task for being a little too liberal. He's talked about moral flexibility, moral relativism a lot during this trip.

That may have been undiscovered. But that really was as much the focus of his trip as addressing the sexual abuse scandal.

KURTZ: All right.

Father Dave, let me just go back to you briefly. Bill Maher, the entertainer and satirist on HBO, told a joke last week about the pope having been a Nazi in his youth. And we were told he was going to apologize, but on Friday he did not. He said, well, he won't call the pope a Nazi again, but he repeated his line about, well, if this was the head of -- instead of being the head of a worldwide church, if it was somebody who was the head of daycare centers around the world who had thousands of employees caught molesting children, he would have been in jail.

Do you think that there hasn't been enough criticism of that sort of humor?

DWYER: Criticism of the humor that makes fun of the church or fun of the pope?

KURTZ: Either one.

DWYER: Yes. I mean, I don't think that there's enough of that or a lot of that going around that as the church we need to stand up and say hey, don't criticize us. I mean, the pope himself referred to his time when he was speaking to youth yesterday at St. Joseph's Seminary. He said, my time as a youth, as a teenager, was troubled, referring to his own times in Nazi Germany and calling out the best of the youth in the United States.

And so I think when I hear something like that, it just kind of falls off, like a bit rolls off like a duck, because I don't see that as true.

KURTZ: All right. We're out of time.

Father Dave Dwyer, Steve Waldman of beliefnet.com; Amy Sullivan, thanks very much for joining us in our continuing coverage today of Pope Benedict's visit to the United States.

When we come back, this week's ABC presidential debate has focused very much on scandal, not so much substance. Barack Obama is crying foul.

Was it just his turn to get roughed up, or did the moderators somehow cross the line?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: From the opening moments of ABC's Democratic debate in Philadelphia this week, the moderators went after Barack Obama hard. Thousands of angry viewers complained to the network about the way that Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos hammered the Illinois senator, while barely laying a ground on Hillary Clinton.

Here's what it looked like.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC: Do you understand that some people in this state find that patronizing and think that you said actually what you meant?

You made a significant speech in this building on the subject of race and your former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC: Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?

GIBSON: How do you convince Democrats that this would not be a vulnerability?

Barack Obama Well, look, I revere the American flag.

STEPHANOPOULOS: On this issue, the general theme of patriotism in your relationships, a gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings.

OBAMA: George, but this is an example of what I'm talking about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Liberal commentators and some media writers unloaded on Gibson and Stephanopoulos for being unfair to Obama and focusing on what the critics see as trivial inside-baseball issues. And Obama himself dissed the Democrats' debate as superficial.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I think we set a new record, because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: ABC took note of the criticism on Gibson's own broadcast.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID WRIGHT, ABC NEWS: ABC News has heard from thousands of angry viewers today. One said, "This so-called debate will be shown to my communications students as an example of what shoddy journalism looks like." "Shame on you, Charlie and George," wrote another. "We deserve better."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about ABC's handling of the presidential debate and the media's campaign coverage, Jim Geraghty, contributing editor for "National Review"; John Aravosis, who blogs at americablog.com; and Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at The George Washington University.

Mark feldstein, the first 45 minutes of that debate was strikingly unbalanced against Obama, but was it unfair?

MARK FELDSTEIN, JOURNALISM PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: No. But it wasn't unfair, but the venue was strange.

I mean, if this was a "60 Minutes" interview and they were grilling Obama about these controversial issues. No one would have really shrugged. We're not used to seeing the venue of a debate, which is supposed to be more balanced, be so lopsided one way.

KURTZ: John Aravosis, most of these complaints about ABC's questioning being, oh, it was so trivial and it was so superficial, seemed to be coming largely from liberals who love Barack Obama.

JOHN ARAVOSIS, AMERICABLOG.COM: No, that's not true. Actually, we had Greg Mitchell, who writes "Editor & Publisher," who is a respected voice in journalism saying it's a problem. We had "The Washington Post" TV critic. We had a lot of folks who are actually independent. You yourself just said that they went after Obama for the first half hour.

KURTZ: Right. But I want to make a distinction here. I mean, clearly, if you look at the transcript, most of the tough questions went to Obama. ABC says well, Obama's the front-runner.

ARAVOSIS: Right.

KURTZ: But the idea...

ARAVOSIS: Well, which is ridiculous for a debate, because then have Obama on your show for an hour and don't have Hillary if that's what you're doing. But go on.

KURTZ: But the idea that Jeremiah Wright, Obama's remarks about "bitter small-town voters"...

ARAVOSIS: OK. Right.

KURTZ: That these were -- this dominated the news for weeks.

ARAVOSIS: Right. Two points.

First of which is Jeremiah Wright may have dominated the news for weeks, but George Stephanopoulos asking a presidential candidate, if your pastor loves America, asking Obama, you know, do you love the American flag? What kind of right-wing garbage is this?

I mean, these are not legitimate questions to ask -- we don't ask John McCain for an hour, you know, tell us about your adultery, Mr. McCain. It's never going to happen. I think this was gossip journalism. It was shoddy.

KURTZ: What about the notion that this outrage -- I mean, that's the only word I can think of, outrage, at the way ABC handled this debate, even among some, you know, ostensibly neutral media writers and television columnists, is driven by great sympathy for Barack Obama?

JIM GERAGHTY, "NATIONAL REVIEW': Well, you know, you notice Hillary Clinton whined earlier at a couple of debates saying that she always got the first question and could the media give Barack a pillow. It doesn't look very flattering on her part.

I understand, you know, Barack spent a good portion of the day afterwards complaining about that. Look, one person's right-wing garbage is the next person's best debate ever. And needless to say, look, every one of these questions generated something new about the candidates we didn't know otherwise. I know there was a lot of complaints that they didn't get to health care. Every time the two candidates talk about health care, it turns into, my plan's universal, your plan isn't. And, you k now, I've seen all these debates except one. I'm getting a little tired of that back and forth.

ARAVOSIS: But then maybe we shouldn't have debates. I mean, I agree, but we're talking about -- gosh, we've heard the issues so much, let's talk about people's sex lives, lets talk about Monica for an hour because we've heard too much...

(CROSSTALK)

ARAVOSIS: My point is, let's talk about Monica because we haven't talked enough about -- because the environment's gotten boring? I mean, maybe we should do a debate about why we don't think issues are important anymore.

KURTZ: Hold on. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's own remarks about clinging to religion and to guns, and Hillary's shifting tale about coming under sniper fire in Bosnia, are these not legitimate issues for a debate?

ARAVOSIS: For half of the debate, A, I think it's a little much. B, we did not discuss Jeremiah Wright. We asked Obama if his priest loves America.

I mean, what are these, the McCarthy hearings? Play that question again. You just played it at the intro. You listen to it, and you go, this is journalism? He sounds like a worse blog than Jim or I have, frankly.

KURTZ: Now, let's be clear. Two-thirds of the debate was devoted to subjects as Iraq, Israel, gun control, taxes, affirmative action. But because of this great firestorm of criticism, do you think that Charlie Gibson and ABC have been tarnished by this, or is this just kind of -- this is media chatter?

FELDSTEIN: I think it's media chatter. They're no more tarnished than the media is as a whole, and all of it's "gotcha" coverage.

Was this "gotcha" coverage? Yes. Were these "gotcha" questions? Yes.

Now, why...

KURTZ: Is there anything wrong with that?

FELDSTEIN: Well, yes and no.

KURTZ: I mean, when Tim Russert is hammering Hillary Clinton about drivers' licenses for illegal aliens, you can put "gotcha" on it, but there's an issue there.

FELDSTEIN: Right. And, you know, you wrote about it in your book, "Spin Cycle." There's this whole kind of -- you know, the media tries to penetrate the edifice that the politicians put up, the politicians put up more of an edifice. So, the media does "gotcha" questions so there's more propaganda.

And, you know, it's a chicken and egg thing. Which came first? I don't know. But it's locked into this kind of positions where there's no flexibility.

And a network that's trying to make money, is doing the 21st debate, used to all these canned sound bites from the candidates, and trying to get through the fog of that, you know, propaganda, they resort to the "gotcha" questions.

ARAVOSIS: But that's the problem, is we're talking about making money, we're talking about what's fun. And you know what? It's not fun to talk about the point that oil just hit a record price of $116 a barrel, more or less. It's not fun to talk about the fact that Bush's own economic people are now saying, gosh, you know, maybe we are going to have a recession. It's not fun to talk about the fact you that can't even exchange dollars in parts of Europe because it's considered such a bad currency.

Like, there aren't any other issues Americans -- when I go to the store and buy gas, my first thought is, you know, Obama isn't wearing a flag.

KURTZ: But hold on.

ARAVOSIS: Come on. These are not the issues people are worried about.

KURTZ: I would have passed on the flag pin question. But is it a non-trivial issue when a leading -- when the Democratic presidential front-runner makes what appears to be dismissive remarks toward people who are religious or have guns? I mean, we can debate whether -- how important it is, but it's not a trivial issue, is it?

GERAGHTY: No, absolutely not. It's not fun to watch your guy get hammered and flub every answer, which is that one of the revealing things about this is that Obama could have known, and, in fact, really should have known that a whole bunch of these questions were going to come up. You know, asked a simple question by one person on the street, why aren't you wearing a flag pin, you can say very simply, I demonstrate my flag...

ARAVOSIS: It depends how they ask.

GERAGHTY: I demonstrate...

ARAVOSIS: She said, "Do you love the American flag?" Come on.

GERAGHTY: No, she didn't.

(CROSSTALK)

GERAGHTY: Pull up that clip. She specifically said about loving -- "Do you love the American flag?" was the question she asked.

KURTZ: Well, we do have the clip. And interestingly...

GERAGHTY: I'm pretty sure. Wasn't that what she said?

KURTZ: Well, let's find out.

GERAGHTY: Yes.

KURTZ: This is a woman named Nash McCabe, who had been quoted in "The New York Times" a couple weeks earlier as saying she couldn't vote for Obama because he would not wear a flag pin.

If we've got that, let's roll it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NASH MCCABE: Senator Obama, I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen, and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ARAVOSIS: Yes, do you believe in the American flag? I'm sorry. Really important question.

FELDSTEIN: I'm shaking my head because this -- ABC was hiding behind a so-called person on the street interview. I teach my students about this. You know, you go out and you grab someone at random on the street and you interview them. That's what you do when all else fails and you need a sound bite.

Clearly, they picked this person on purpose because she'd been quoted attacking Obama in the past, and used that as a shield to hide behind.

GERAGHTY: I was going to say, Howard, if a candidate can't handle that, it says a great deal more about the candidate than the questioner or the network.

KURTZ: Well, Obama did not have a great night.

Well, let me read something -- because ABC did not make anyone available to this program, but I interviewed ABC correspondent Jake Tapper and he said the following: "By any empirical standard, many members of the media don't seem to want to ask Senator Obama tough questions, and Senator Obama doesn't seem to want to answer them."

"This is the 21st debate. It is the only one where people have complained that the moderators were tougher on Barack Obama than on Hillary Clinton or on any other candidate. How on earth is that possible?"

ARAVOSIS: Again, we're getting to this crazy concept of the only hard question you can ask is something bizarre about whether you love America, that you can't -- excuse me. You can't ask Obama a hard question about health care? There's been a debate as to whether...

KURTZ: Hasn't he been asked those questions again and again?

ARAVOSIS: Well, maybe you can put his foot to the floor and kind of say, well, Mr. Obama, people say that Hillary's plan covers more people. You keep saying it doesn't. We've got an expert here saying blah, blah. Answer the damn question.

I mean, it's as if we can't have hard questions on substance anymore. What is journalism for?

FELDSTEIN: You've got to admit the media has been much harder on Hillary Clinton than it has been on Obama throughout the campaign.

ARAVOSIS: You know what?

FELDSTEIN: And so maybe this tilted unfavorably one night, but as a whole...

ARAVOSIS: I myself wrote for a year -- up until November of this year, I wrote and said, Obama, nice guy, he ain't going to be president, it's going to be Hillary. We reached out to Hillary's people as a blogger two years ago because we said look, you're going to be president, we should talk.

For a year the media said this guy had zero chance. She was inevitable. For three months now maybe they've been nice to him? I'd say three months versus 12 months, she's still ahead.

KURTZ: All right. Rather than relitigate that, there's one other issue I want to get to, and that is the question -- I think we played earlier of George Stephanopoulos asking Obama about his casual association with Bill Ayers. This is the guy who was the Weather Underground radical who had been involved in plotting bombings in the '70s, never apologized for that.

Sean Hannity took credit for this because he had suggested this to Stephanopoulos on Hannity's radio show. Take a look.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, HOST, "THE SEAN HANNITY SHOW": The only time he's ever been asked about his association with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist from the Weather Underground, who on 9/11, of all days, in "The New York Times" was saying, I don't regret setting bombs, I don't think we did enough, is that a question you might ask?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Well, I'm taking notes right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, Stephanopoulos told me that this had been on his radar screen for weeks and he didn't get the question from Hannity. But regardless, is it a legitimate thing to ask a presidential candidate about? GERAGHTY: Absolutely. Very few of us have someone in our social circle who tried to blow up the Pentagon.

Now, obviously, you can argue about how close Obama was to him. This isn't necessarily like his best friend or his mentor, but it's one of those things where look, this is not something I think average Americans relate to. And if you ran into William Ayers, could you shake his hand, could you smile at him, could you interact with him?

KURTZ: Is it a legitimate question?

FELDSTEIN: Would I ask him that question?

KURTZ: Is it a legitimate question for a journalist to ask?

FELDSTEIN: You know, maybe it is. Part of the problem with Stephanopoulos is he's a political operative. I mean, that's how we know him. He got his start in the Clinton White House.

KURTZ: He is or was a political operative?

FELDSTEIN: He was. But that taint carries with it.

So what we don't know with a guy like Stephanopoulos -- you know, I think if Charles Gibson had been on that show and Sean Hannity had suggested it, Charles Gibson would have blown off the question. But Stephanopoulos, perhaps having to compensate for working in the Clinton White House, wants to show he's tough on Democrats, and he asked a question that is a little far afield.

KURTZ: So, because George Stephanopoulos left the Clinton White House in 1996, worked with Hillary, along with Bill, you feel that he has an appearance problem or an actual problem?

FELDSTEIN: An appearance problem. He may not even like Hillary Clinton, but everyone is suspect about his motives.

ARAVOSIS: The interesting thing about the Ayers question, let's just say -- you know, let's say Jim is right or people are right saying yes, you could ask him about this if you want. OK. If you're going to ask the question to Obama, then you should at least ask the question to both candidates and say, Mr. Obama, you know, you knew this guy, you met him, or whatever, what's the story?

Then you turn to Mrs. Clinton and say, your own husband pardoned people who were a member of the same terrorist group. So what's your connection to this and why did your husband pardon -- why would you attack Obama for something that your own husband seemed to exonerate?

At least ask the question. But for some reason these questions kept being Obama but not Hillary. Why doesn't Obama have a flag but Hillary's not wearing a flag either? But that doesn't come up.

KURTZ: Obama did make the point in response that President Clinton had pardoned...

ARAVOSIS: But the journalist should be the objective person not the candidate.

KURTZ: All right. Let me get a break here.

When we come back, we'll talk about some breaking news about all of those military analysts, retired generals we see on the screen, and whether they're really independent.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: In a lengthy investigation published this morning, "The New York Times" reveals that military analysts, that parade of retired generals and colonels you see on the screen, have been working in far greater cooperation with the Pentagon than anyone knew. They met repeatedly with Donald Rumsfeld, received dozens of briefings, were flown to places like Guantanamo Bay, and often reflected the military's viewpoint in their commentary.

Former NBC analyst Ken Allard said, "I felt that we'd been hosed." Fox News analyst John Garrett wrote the Pentagon, "Please let me know if you have any specific points you want covered or that you would prefer to downplay." NBC's Barry McCaffrey and Wayne Downing were part of a prewar group called The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

And then there are the potential corporate conflicts. Many of these retired officers work for lobbying organizations or military contractors.

Retired General James "Spider" Marks, who worked for CNN from 2004 to 2007, disclosed to the network that he also worked for McNeil Technologies, which was bidding on various big contracts. CNN told The Times in a statement that, "We did not ask Mr. Marks the follow-up questions we should have and terminated the relationship last year."

Fox analyst Tom McInerney, who once thanked the Pentagon for providing some talking points, sat on the board of Nortel Government Solutions.

Now, it's hardly shocking that these career military men reflected the Pentagon's point of view, at least until some of them turned against the Iraq war. But they didn't disclose enough about their government and corporate entanglements, and the networks didn't ask enough questions.

Does any of this surprise you?

FELDSTEIN: Surprise, no. Disturb, yes.

I mean, what you're talking about here is a deliberate effort to subvert the democratic process, really, to fool the news media and by it the public, to lie us into this war in Iraq. And the fact that the networks were handmaidens in this lie raises disturbing questions that Congress should investigate.

KURTZ: Wait a second, handmaidens in this lie? I mean, they put these people on. They were clearly labeled retired generals so and so. You knew you were getting their point of view. What you didn't know maybe was how closely they were consulting with the Rumsfeld Pentagon.

So what should the networks have done?

FELDSTEIN: And the networks had an obligation to find out what the backgrounds of these folks were.

Now, you're right, they deceived the networks, and the networks -- if I were CNN or any other network, I would want to know. They talked about "fooling the Wolf Blitzers of the world." Well, if I were Wolf Blitzer, I'd like to know before I put this military analyst on again what his financial ties are or any others I have.

KURTZ: Now, Paul Vallee (ph), who was a retired officer, who was also a Fox News correspondent, he writing in a "Wall Street Journal" op-ed piece with McInerney, who I mentioned earlier, and he wrote to the Pentagon saying I would like to have your input. But is this any different than Democratic strategists and Republican strategists you see on the tube who you know are consulting with the various campaigns?

GERAGHTY: I'm not worried about the briefings. I'm not even worried about the trip to Guantanamo. It's sort of like, hey, let's see what you're looking at. What I am worried about is, if you're in a situation where you're potentially criticizing your boss or somebody who signs your paychecks, or somebody who signs a check to your company, that's one of those things where I just can't understand why you wouldn't disclose that.

You know, is CNN and the other networks in for some blame? Sure. But let's put the guilt where it really belongs, which is on the pundits, who, you know, presumably -- you know, they knew what they were doing presumably. They didn't suddenly -- oh, I forgot that I happen to sit on the board of this major defense contractor.

It's just not plausible.

ARAVOSIS: Right. I mean, no, that's the problem here, is we're not talking about Paul Begala, former Clinton official who consults for CNN. Yes, but you look at him and you go, yes, he's a former Clinton official. That's fine.

But a former general, it would be nice to know if, gee, does this general have current contracts with the DoD? One of the quotes in the story quotes one of the analysts saying, you know, I kind of bit my tongue and didn't say what I wanted to say because I was afraid of losing a contract.

Not only do you have, gee, the Bush administration trying to manipulate the media and lie to the public. No one could have predicted that. But you also have the media being I think a little too gullible.

Look, Jim and I were talking about this before the show. No one has ever even asked me, hey, you know, you're here representing the left. Are you being paid by Obama on any contracts? Are you being paid by Hillary on any contracts?

KURTZ: What's the answer?

ARAVOSIS: No, I'm not. But, Howie, it surprised me, though, that no one's even asked -- not from you. On no show that I go on. Fox doesn't ask me either, MSNBC doesn't ask.

Maybe there needs to be a little more due diligence to say, hey, you don't have any financial or other interests in the story we're reporting on, do you?

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Yes. The label that is put underneath the chest is always retired, four-star, or something like that.

ARAVOSIS: Yes.

KURTZ: Not that somebody is -- William Cohen, former defense secretary. He has something called The Cohen Group. They're in business. Nothing wrong with that. It should be disclosed.

ARAVOSIS: Just disclose it.

FELDSTEIN: Absolutely. And you see this not just -- you see this also with so-called think tanks, which are subsidized by different corporate interests and often very much carry water for those corporate interests.

KURTZ: And again, it's a question of networks not requiring the adequate level of disclosure.

Now, interestingly, where it really was painful to read about this in "The New York Times" was in the opening year or two of the Iraq war, when things were not going well. And some of these people were coming on -- after being reassured by the Pentagon, one of them said, "We were getting a snow job but I didn't say that on TV." And have them say, well, it's going to get better, it's going to get better. Well, except that didn't happen.

GERAGHTY: Yes. It's rather shocking that if you really think you're getting a snow job, then you feel you're going out to the public and are saying -- you know, why would you do that? Is the contract work that much? And if so, turn down the TV appearance.

Is it really that important that you be on? I like being on your show, Howie, but I wouldn't go on to lie on it.

KURTZ: Right. So you're saying pick one or the other.

GERAGHTY: Yes.

KURTZ: The other thing that's interesting in the article, they were paid by the number of appearances they would make. They send the Pentagon copies of their correspondence with the networks. So they were real tools, propaganda tools. ARAVOSIS: And let's not exonerate the Bush administration that basically tried to coordinate this entire thing to fool the public yet again.

KURTZ: Well, former NBC analyst Ken Allard, as I mentioned, said, "I felt we'd been hosed by the Pentagon." I think viewers got hosed in this instance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

KURTZ: But thank you for dealing with a topic we had not planned to discuss this morning.

Jim Geraghty, John Aravosis, Mark Feldstein, thanks again.

Up next, talk about embarrassing. A media baron becomes the latest to confuse Obama and Osama.

Stephen Colbert gets Chris Matthews to admit his fondest wish -- sort of.

And why millions of viewers will be waking up to the first lady this week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time for our weekly news at the news business in our "Media Minute."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OBAMA: It's gotten pretty rough.

KURTZ (voice over): A number of people have tripped over the similarity between Barack Obama's name and that of the world's most notorious terrorist. But never in quite so embarrassing a fashion as Dean Singleton (ph), who owns more than four dozen newspapers, at an AP luncheon this week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you imagine shifting a substantial number of Afghanistan -- a substantial number to Afghanistan, where the Taliban has been gaining strength and Obama bin Laden (sic) is still at large?

OBAMA: I think that was Osama bin Laden.

KURTZ: It's not just that the presidential candidates are yucking it up with the likes of Letterman, Ellen, and Colbert. Laura Bush, yes, the first lady of the United States, will co-host the third hour of "The Today Show" this week. And Cindy McCain, the senator's wife, will join Barbara Walters and the pang as a co-host of "The View."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: I wonder if Bill Clinton will call "The View" and demand equal time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Welcome to "Hardball."

KURTZ (voice over): Chris Matthews loves to talk politics, but decades after losing a race for Congress himself, it seems like he's still got the bug. That noted TV interrogator Stephen Colbert got him to fess up.

STEPHEN COLBERT, "THE COLBERT REPORT": People say there's a lot of talk that you might be running for Arlen Specter's seat.

MATTHEWS: In Pennsylvania.

COLBERT: In Pennsylvania. For Senate.

MATTHEWS: In the year 2010?

COLBERT: That's the last I've heard on it. You want to give me a scoop?

MATTHEWS: You know, it's something you grow up -- you want -- some kids wanted to be a fireman. I wanted to be a senator.

COLBERT: That's an announcement.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: My analysis of Matthews' chances of making the transition from MSNBC blabber to the United States Senate? Ha!

When we come back, Dick Cheney discovers his sense of humor.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Dick Cheney doesn't have a reputation as the funniest public official in Washington, and at the annual Radio Television Correspondents Dinner this week, the vice president had some choice words for the media.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Among his other credits, Mo used to host a TV show called "Things I Hate About You." I'm sure I've seen that program. Only I believe it's now called "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

You could use a little good cheer, because these are tough times in your industry, in this age of YouTube and the blogs that threaten to overshadow the old media. At times you must feel like you're at the center of events, but nobody's really paying attention to you. You understand the world better than anybody, but no one wants to hear it. Now you know exactly what it's like to be vice president.

I want to tell you that I like and admire the broadcast media more than I usually let on. I want to tell you how much I've come to appreciate the work you do, often under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I want to tell you that you're here in Washington because you're among the finest in your profession.

You do hard work. And you do it well.

I want to tell you all these things, but I just can't bring myself to do it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Dick Cheney almost as funny as comedian Mo Rocca that night.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

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