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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
First Lady Race; Obama, McCain Change Stances on Issues; Journalists Bid Farewell to Tim Russert
Aired June 22, 2008 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Wife wars. Michelle Obama sounds off on everything from fist bumps to pantyhose. And Cindy McCain takes to the airwaves as well. Why are the media so fixated on the first lady race?
Flipping and flopping. Obama changes his stance on blowing off public financing while McCain switches gears on offshore oil drilling. Are there journalistic referees blowing the whistle?
Irreplaceable man. Journalists bid farewell to Tim Russert again and again. How much is too much, and who should NBC tap to take his coveted chair on "Meet the Press?"
Plus, same-sex marriage comes to California. Are sympathetic media coverage and celebrity weddings changing public attitudes?
And golf's newest hero, and it's not this man.
KURTZ: The campaign debate heated up this week, but it wasn't about terrorism or Iraq or global warming or offshore oil drilling, although the candidates actually discussed those issues. No, the media chatter was about Michelle Obama appearing with Barbara Walters and company on "The View," and Barack saying spouses should be off limits. And by the way, why isn't John McCain defending Cindy? Now, that gets the journalistic juices going.
It seems fitting somehow that the big magazine story of the week belongs to "US Weekly," with Michelle Obama on the cover. And "Newsweek" ways in today with Cindy McCain.
As for Michelle's start turn on "The View," well, let's just say she wasn't exactly grilled, except on that burning 2008 issue, whether to wear pantyhose.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARBARA WALTERS, "THE VIEW": So we've had a big discussion about pantyhose and not pantyhose. So, today, out of respect for you, I put on pantyhose. And you...
MICHELLE OBAMA, BARACK OBAMA'S WIFE: And I didn't. (LAUGHTER)
OBAMA: It feels better, that's what it is. I stopped wearing pantyhose a long time ago because it was painful and they would always rip.
JOY BEHAR, "THE VIEW": Yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Suddenly Michelle Obama's appearance seemed to be topic A just about everywhere.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Everybody on the set got the now famous Obama fist bump.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: She's going to be marketed now as the lady next door.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
GLENN BECK, CNN HEADLINE NEWS: It felt very rehearsed, very staged, almost like a political commercial.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So yesterday I'm watching that fabulous black and white dress that Michelle Obama had on.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michelle Obama on "The View" yesterday, that dress that she had on...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the coverage of the spouses and the presidential candidates themselves, in New York, Lola Ogunnaike, who reports for CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING." Here in Washington, Julie Mason, who covers the White House for "The Houston Chronicle." And Anne Kornblut, national political reporter for "The Washington Post."
Anne, how is it that Michelle Obama's appearance on "The View" got more attention than anything her husband has said for the past month?
ANNE KORNBLUT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": It's really pretty amazing. Well, obviously, the first spouses are always big news. She's a very compelling person, she's interesting, s he's been dynamic throughout the course of this campaign. So any big appearance she was going to make was going to.
But I also think it's interesting that when Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race, two weeks after she got out of the race we're back to talking about the spouses as traditional spouses, talking about cookie recipes, talking about pantyhose. I think we've seen a real sort of return to the traditional question about women in politics.
KURTZ: You've put your finger on is. The media need a woman, a spouse to either salivate over or slap around.
Julie Mason, journalists -- some journalists, at least -- are casting this "View" appearance as a Machiavellian image makeover. Maybe it was just an appearance on "The View."
JULIE MASON, "HOUSTON CHRONICLE": No, I really think there's something to that, Howard. When you've watched Michelle Obama over a period of time, this "View" appearance, it was so different. She smiled more, she was warmer. It was a calculated effort by the campaign to start recasting her image.
I think if she's consistent with it she can be effective, but it's not by accident. These kinds of things are intentional.
KURTZ: Lola Ogunnaike in New York, we've overlooked a very important thing here, which is, is Michelle Obama alienating all the women who like pantyhose?
KURTZ: No, but seriously...
LOLA OGUNNAIKE, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: And that's the real issue here, Howard.
KURTZ: All this talk about her dress, I mean, what is this, the Oscars' red carpet?
OGUNNAIKE: Well, Howard, this is her attempt to make herself appear warmer to the masses. I mean, she's been derided as this, you know, fist-bumping radical. They have called her a "baby mama."
She wants to appear warm, she wants to appear accessible. She wants to appear to be Claire Huxtable and not Angela Davis.
So what do you do? You go on "The View," you sit next to Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg, and you talk about pantyhose and you talk about shopping at Target and you talk about The Gap, and you talk about your kids and their dance recitals. These things that the average woman can relate to.
We all know that she's successful. We all know that she's an accomplished woman. But people want to see the other side of Michelle, and people have been clamoring to see this other side. And I think her camp has decided it's better to show this softer side than to have her portrayed as this hard she-devil. And I think it was a brilliant move on their camp's part.
KURTZ: Right. Well, Cindy McCain was also on "The View."
But I don't want to leave the impression that this is all just fake. I mean, she is a mother. She is a real person. And you do tend to get caricatured in the politics business. KORNBLUT: Of course. I mean, she is all those things. Nothing they've presented is false. It's the emphasis that we're really examining here.
I mean, there was a time a year and a half ago, two years ago, when I went to interview her and we talked a lot about her work. We talked about the fact that she carried a keep beeper and she went to high-powered meetings at the University of Chicago, and the fact that she was going to have to transition out of being a full-time working person. That was her emphasis then. Her emphasis now is on all the things that their campaign -- and I think there's some evidence to support -- believe that women relate to more.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, Cindy McCain gave a couple of TV interviews this week. Actually, she also took a trip to Vietnam. And let's take a look at some of what she was asked.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KATE SNOW, ABC NEWS: Were you insulted when Michelle Obama said that she's proud of her country for the first time?
CINDY MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN'S WIFE: I don't know why she said what she said. All I know is that I've always been proud of my country.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It was taken, you know, as somehow a comment on your part that was trying to say you're more patriotic or her family's more patriotic -- your family is more patriotic.
MCCAIN: No. That is not how I meant it and that is not, I believe, how it was represented.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Now, this "proud" remark which was made some time ago by Michelle Obama is fair game, but I'm starting to get the impression that journalists are kind of trying to promote a cat fight between these two women.
MASON: Right, yes. I agree, definitely.
I mean, conflict is interesting, conflict works. And you see the campaigns resisting this. And again -- and again, with Cindy McCain, you see her with softer hair and in a soft voice, and this is again very deliberate.
And so here's the media trying to mix something up a little bit. It feels very unnatural.
KURTZ: And Cindy McCain on the cover of "Newsweek" this morning. I read the piece last night. It's a pretty good profile, but it also dredges up such things as the time when her husband, Senator McCain, didn't know that she had become addicted to painkillers. So she's going to face all this kind of scrutiny as well?
KURTZ: Well, of course she is. And fortunately for her, at least, she's been through it once before. She got some of this treatment in 2000, so the question now is how the campaign handles it.
I will say, it's interesting. Laura Bush got the question about Michelle Obama as well and deflect it, but I think it was obviously reporters trying to gin up a discussion between these women.
MASON: Well, I think Laura Bush was very sympathetic to Michelle Obama. She understands how in order to be successful as a first lady, you have to be completely innocuous and offend nobody.
OGUNNAIKE: And Michelle Obama made a point on "The View" to say that Laura Bush had sent her a note and that she sent Laura Bush a note as well. So just making clear that there's no tension between the two at all, and that they actually enjoy a bit of a friendship.
KURTZ: Lola Ogunnaike, let me ask you about this "US Weekly" cover. I was going to ask why, you know, "US" would put on the cover a politician and his wife, as opposed to the usual Brad and Angelina, but then up here in the upper left corner there's a picture of Angelina Jolie -- "Talks About Sex During Pregnancy."
So what's up?
OGUNNAIKE: It wouldn't be "US Weekly" if there wasn't Angelina and some sex involved. But, you know what? I spoke with the editor of "US Weekly," Janice Min, and she told me that she realized that this time around, her readers are as interested in Brad and Angelina as they are in politics. And the conversations that they're having are moving seamlessly between both.
The last time they tried this during the last election, and she covered Kerry, they received a lot of negative letters and a lot of negative feedback. This time around, not the case at all.
KURTZ: Is there more interest, particularly among magazines like "US," Lola, because Michelle Obama would be the first black first lady?
OGUNNAIKE: I think there's an element of that. That gives her sort of a rock star appeal. But I also think you can't deny the rock star appeal of her husband and you can't deny the rock star appeal of Hillary Clinton.
These people are bona fide celebrities, these are all anyone is talking about. These people are -- this is what's happening over dinner, this is what's happening at bars. This is what people are talking about.
And for "US Weekly" or any of these celebrity magazines or celebrity publications, television shows like "Access Hollywood" or so forth to deny that would be ridiculous. They're just as much of a ratings booster as anything else now. KURTZ: Well, they also happen to be Democrats, and I guess that raises the question of whether the Democrats are treated by the media more as rock stars.
But let's turn to the husbands now.
Barack Obama did a 180 off the high board this week. He changed his position on accepting public financing during the fall campaign. Instead, he's going to go out and raise as much money as he possibly can. Not everybody emphasized that to the same degree. Let's watch some of the coverage.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSS MITCHELL, CBS NEWS: Barack Obama abandoned a campaign pledge today when he announced he will forgo federal funding worth some $84 million.
ANN CURRY, NBC NEWS: Barack Obama today became the first candidate to opt out of accepting public financing for his general election campaign.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: This is a direction contradiction to what Barack Obama said early on in the primary campaign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Anne Kornblut, this was a total abandonment of a promise that Senator Obama had made repeatedly, and not everybody played it up to the extent that Charlie Gibson just did. In fact, some analysts played it down or just gave it a paragraph. Why isn't the flip-flop the story?
KORNBLUT: Well, it was for a couple of days in some news outlets, certainly in the newspapers.
KURTZ: One day at most.
KORNBLUT: It's not the sexiest topic in the world. It's a lot easier to generate interest talking about a dress or something superficial. It involves money, it involves math. That's not a reporter's specialty, for the most part. And there is a sense, rightly or wrongly, that voters don't care about the arcane rules of campaign finance.
Now, I wonder in a year when somebody who's -- two people actually run as sort of antiestablishment reformers, whether voters really do care, but at least that was the treatment that it seemed to be given.
KURTZ: Yes, although I would argue it's not arcane at all in the sense that, you know, this could be the ball game. I mean, John McCain, who is taking public financing, is going to have $84 million to spend this fall, and Barack Obama could have $300 million, even $400 million. And all these liberal commentators who have always supported campaign finance reform, getting big money out of politics, many of them are defending Obama. And I have to think the press is cutting him a break here.
MASON: Right, it's true. And, well, like Anne said, it's not a very sexy issue. And to explain it, you have to get into the weeds about the pros and cons of campaign finance. And I think when we understand covering politics that the economy is the big issue that everyone cares about, and what are you going to do for me about gas prices, getting into the weeds on campaign finance seems a little beside the point.
KURTZ: Is it getting into the weeds to say that one candidate could spend three or four times as much as the other candidate, and even though he filled out a questionnaire saying he wouldn't do this and he said it in a debate to Tim Russert and all of that, he has now changed his mind? Is that getting into the weeds?
MASON: Well, I think people feel like as long as they don't have to pay for it, they don't really care.
KURTZ: All right.
Lola, John Kerry four years ago was savaged for saying, "I was for the $87 billion before I was against the $87 billion," and that, of course, a question about war funding.
As a viewer when you watch the coverage, does this make you think, well, Obama, he talks about the audacity of hope and he's just another politician, or is that not your reaction?
OGUNNAIKE: No, not at all. In fact, I mean, I'm inclined to say that flip-flopping is so four years ago. It's just not what anybody is talking about anymore. It's so passe.
I mean, people want to talk about Michelle Obama and her great toned arms and how does she get those pecks. I mean, no one wants to talk about flip-flopping. I'm sorry, Howard, but that's just the truth.
KURTZ: But that sort of strikes at the heart of what we do. I mean, if a candidate says one thing trying to win the Democratic nomination, wins the nomination, and then throws that out the window -- and look, the obvious reason Obama is doing this is because he has an incredible machine through which he can raise money from small donors over the Internet -- and we don't blow the whistle, then what is our purpose here?
KORNBLUT: You're absolutely right. And I think that some of the coverage seems to have bought into the logic that, well, it's broken now, once he wins he can fix it. That's not -- we don't cut all politicians that break and assume they will do something different than they do in their campaign once they're elected. I don't see why he's any different.
KURTZ: Well, here's...
MASON: Sure, look at Mitt Romney. Look how the press treated him in his flip-flop on abortion and other issues. That was huge. KURTZ: Right. So I'm not buying the notion -- here's my brief two cents -- I'm not buying the notion that flip-flops are out. Apparently, only certain flip-flops are out, maybe flip-flops by certain candidates.
Now look, you know, Obama is entitled to do whatever he wants and make the case, but it wasn't a very persuasive case when he talks about how conservative groups may come after him with ads. At the moment there aren't any of these 527 conservative groups to speak of with any money.
If George W. Bush had done this, blown of public financing, as he considered doing during the 2004 campaign, there would be howls in the media about one candidate trying to buy an election.
All right. Let me get a break.
When we come back, John McCain also did an about-face this week. Did the media drill deep enough into his newfound love of offshore oil exploration?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: While we were doing that, John McCain basically was getting a pass both from the media, from you guys, as well as from other opponents.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Barack Obama saying the captain of the Straight Talk Express was getting an easy ride during the primaries.
The first time John McCain ran for president, he opposed offshore oil drilling and blamed Washington special interests for pushing the idea. Three weeks ago, he said coastal drilling would be a temporary fix at best for our energy problems. This week McCain flipped, coming out for offshore oil drilling, and joined the next day by President Bush.
Anne Kornblut, the media's reaction kind of seemed to be a collective yawn -- ho-hum, he changed his position.
KORNBLUT: Well, I think the national media's reaction might have been that. My understanding is that the local media reaction in places like Florida, where this has obviously been a big deal, was somewhat greater, but, yes, look, again, it's another example of an issue that seems to be very policy detail-oriented that people don't really care about.
I have a feeling this is going to reemerge though. The environment has emerged as a more compelling story than it has in any previous election. I think we're going to hear a lot more about this.
KURTZ: And McCain trying to position himself as not the typical Republican on the environment, and yet comes out with this position on offshore oil drilling, which as you say, if you're in California, if you're in Florida, it's a local issue.
Lola Ogunnaike, I know you don't care that much about flip-flops, so is this the wrong scorecard for the media to be using? Isn't -- doesn't -- you know, politicians are entitled to change their positions as new facts come in, or they rethink something, but what bothers me is they never admit changing their position. They always try to rationalize it with some excuse.
OGUNNAIKE: Because if they admit changing their positions, they are vilified. So Hillary Clinton can't say -- come out and say, I voted for the war and that was wrong. She has to hedge her bets, she has to qualify what she did. If they come out and say, you know what? I made a mistake, or I wasn't exactly right about that last time, they are vilified, and so they decide that they would rather dance around the subject than address is straight on.
KURTZ: Why are they vilified? Because the media likes to play "gotcha," you said this then and now you are saying this now, and therefore you're not sincere?
OGUNNAIKE: Exactly. And there's no room for evolution of thought, there's no room for the idea that, you know, I might have just changed my mind. Upon further investigation, I've decided this as opposed to this.
There's no room for that. It's very black and white. There's no room for shades of gray in the media anymore at all.
KURTZ: Julie Mason, do reporters go a little easier on McCain on issues like this because of the coziness that's built up among those who are riding the Straight Talk Express?
MASON: I think there is. I mean, I certainly think there is the perception that there is, which exacerbates the fact that there is some of that. Now there appears to be a lot of that.
In the case of this flip-flop, you know, Bush did come out the next day and endorse that plan. And -- which sort of blew that second-day story out of the water which would have been the flip-flop. You know, that would have made a nice second day follow on the McCain story which he made in Houston, which was a huge story for us. Then Bush comes out and endorses the plan and that becomes the story, and then the debate becomes offshore drilling or not offshore drilling instead of did McCain flip-flop?
KURTZ: But wasn't it your sense and people at "The Houston Chronicle" that this was all very orchestrated, the president was going to come out the day after the Republican nominee...
KURTZ: ... suddenly changes his position on offshore oil drilling?
MASON: Yes, absolutely. Sure. Yes, there's a clear sense of that.
KURTZ: And yet, I have the impression that more attention was paid to Cindy McCain's cookie recipe which was submitted by an intern and turned out to be ripped off from some food network site.
KORNBLUT: Well, if we did -- sure, that's easier to summarize in 30 seconds and to talk about the merits, pro and con, of offshore drilling and what the effect will be on gas prices 30 years from now, but nonetheless, there actually was a treatment, I think, of this serious issue.
The campaign certainly took it seriously, and we even heard the Obama campaign describing McCain as the "Doubletalk Express," trying to rebrand the Straight Talk Express. So I think actually that something has changed with this position this week, even if it didn't dominate the news coverage.
KURTZ: Right. I mean, this is serious stuff and this is a serious election, and I think that while we all like to have fun covering these campaigns, we ought not to give these matters short shrift.
Lola Ogunnaike, Anne Kornblut, Julie Mason, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
Up next, CBS' Lara Logan gets bleeped on "The Daily Show." What the "blank" was she thinking?
And it must be summer if "The Today Show" is covering thongs.
KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute."
Lara Logan did "The Daily Show" this week, and CBS's chief foreign correspondent wasn't exactly complimentary toward the American media or her own network's appetite for reports from places like Afghanistan.
LARA LOGAN, CBS NEWS: If I were to watch the news that you're hearing in the United States, I'd just blow my brains out because it would drive me nuts.
JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Really?
I did a piece with Navy SEALS once. It took me six months of begging, screaming, breaking down walls, crawling on my knees to get that embed. And when I came back with that story, I was told these guys -- you know, one guy in uniform looks like any other guy in a uniform.
KURTZ (voice over): And then she really went too far.
LOGAN: I woke up one morning and I looked at the clock and it was like 11:00 a.m., and I thought (EXPLETIVE DELETED), I've got to get up. And then I thought...
STEWART: I don't allow that type of language on this program.
KURTZ: Jon Stewart setting the bar for the rest of us blankity- blanks.
KURTZ (voice over): Salt Lake's "Deseret News" is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but bills itself as an independent newspaper. The editor, Joe Cannon, raised plenty of eyebrows the other day when he said he wanted the paper to become more local, more online and more Mormon. Cannon has now apologized for what he calls his clumsy shorthand, saying he meant he wasn't to provide more news and information about the church.
KURTZ: Now, I got the idea we were in a summer slowdown the other day when I saw MSNBC reporting on a Washington man stuck in a tree. And then there was this breaking news on "The Today Show"...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC NEWS: Was this the first time you had worn this thong? I'm sorry to get so personal with you. Or is it something that had been laundered, maybe it got loose in the laundering?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, Meredith. This was not the first time I wore it, but I've only worn it like maybe once -- maybe twice. I have a lot of underwear from Victoria's Secret, so I didn't have to wear that a lot.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Well, the woman is suing Victoria's Secret, charging that a piece of metal broke off from the thong and injured her eye. But let's be honest. Would Meredith Vieira have been talking about this if the accident involved a pair of jeans?
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, the media and mourning. After all the journalistic tributes to Tim Russert, some critics wonder if the continuous coverage of his death has been too much.
Plus, as same-sex weddings begin in California, are the media covering the controversy or joining the celebration? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
KURTZ: Many of us were kind of shell-shocked on last week's program when we examined the life and legacy of Tim Russert two days after his fatal heart attack. The tributes continued this week, especially on NBC and MSNBC, starting with "Meet the Press."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: I think it's really a testimony to his working class background and to this country. He would always say -- I hope I can get through this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Sometimes the grief was overwhelming.
President Bush was among those paying his respects at a Washington wake. Barack Obama and John McCain went to the private funeral. And MSNBC provided live coverage of a memorial service at the Kennedy Center.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: I'm not much for this talk that Tim's death is the end of what he stood for, his brand of objective journalism, or all that he built up. I don't think Tim candidly would believe that either.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But as NBC searches for a successor to its Washington bureau chief, there was a bit of a backlash against journalists who, the critics said, had practically conferred sainthood upon Russert.
Joining us now to talk about that, in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the "San Francisco Chronicle." In Philadelphia, Gail Shister, columnist for the media blog TVNewser and a reporter for "The Philadelphia Inquirer." And in New York, Steve Friedman, a longtime network producer who most recently vice president of morning broadcasts for CBS.
Debra Saunders, Tim Russert was an extraordinary journalist. At the same time, you believe that the tributes to him went way overboard. Why?
DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, they made the TV news people look -- it was incestuous. They kept talking about what great friends Tim Russert was with a number of news people.
They had David Axelrod from the Obama campaign talking about what great buds they were. This, after a lot of Hillary Clinton people thought that Russert was too cozy with them.
MSNBC started off the Kennedy Center thing talking about the elites in politics. Readers said to me they felt like they are watching the Academy Awards.
And I'm a Tim Russert fan. I thought he was a great journalist, but this coverage, you know, there's something about cable news where we do one story and we just overdo it. And that's -- that was the impression I got of the coverage of Tim Russert.
KURTZ: I have noticed that tendency on cable news.
Steve Friedman, you obviously worked with Russert during your years at NBC. Is there a tendency among journalists to go too far when the deceased is one of us?
STEVE FRIEDMAN, NETWORK PRODUCER: Well, sure. When anybody dies young and too quickly, as Tim did, there's a tendency for everybody to go out and say what a great guy he was. This case, it happened to be true. Tim was a great guy, and he sort of would have laughed at some of this coverage.
But fact of the matter is, the reason to have a cable news operation sometimes is to do what you want. And at MSNBC they did what they want.
If you wanted to see the floods or you wanted to see more on politics, you could have gone to CNN, Fox, the Internet. No one was holding you hostage to the coverage. And the most important thing from a television standpoint is, quite frankly, MSNBC -- and this isn't the reason they did it -- had higher ratings than they ever had because people were interested in the great man Tim Russert and wanted to say good-bye to their friend.
KURTZ: And, you know, some of the other cable channels got higher ratings, too, or I wonder if it would have gone on so long. And columnists and others. You know, it wasn't just NBC and MSNBC.
But Gail Shister, give us a reality check here. I mean, Tim Russert was treated as a giant of journalism, but the tributes, many of which were very heartfelt, did go on for about a solid week.
GAIL SHISTER, "THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": You think?
Howie, first of all, I would like to tell you, I am not wearing pantyhose.
KURTZ: Going back to our earlier segment.
SHISTER: Just so you know, yes.
KURTZ: All right. Thanks.
SHISTER: Anyway, I think there's a difference between reverence and canonization. And I, too, was a big Tim Russert fan. And as a matter of fact, we're both from Buffalo, and so we had a very big Buffalo connection.
I think it got to the point of critical mass by about Wednesday. And it did -- as Debra said, it was incestuous. It's different when it's a death in the family.
I give a big pass to NBC in that regard, but it got to the point where the repetitiveness got to be excruciating. If we heard one more time about what a great guy he was and salt of the earth and upheld the cannons of journalism, I think Tim Russert would have been laughing. I think he would have been embarrassed by how far they went.
KURTZ: But you know, Debra Saunders, I get the impression he wasn't just an inside the beltway figure because his death wound up on the cover "People" magazine, which is not exactly known for devoting a lot of cover space to mere journalists.
And so it seems to me that, OK, he was praised as a nice guy, a family man, a great father, but he also was somebody who held politicians accountable. And isn't that worth celebrating?
SAUNDERS: Well, I mean, he was a giant, but anybody who gets a week's coverage on TV is going to end up on the cover of a magazine. Now, I'm thrilled people loved him so much, and I've heard from a lot of people who just loved the coverage, loved learning all about him. But I heard mostly -- when I wrote the column I wrote on this, 3 to 1 people were saying that they felt the media were just too narcissistic and too in love with themselves in the way they covered him. And again, I wondered if the people who were putting on these shows understood how it looked to people when news people seemed so utterly thrilled to be so friendly with the people they are covering.
I know we're people. I know we end up having friends with the people we cover. But they just looked too happy about it. And I don't think that it made the industry look more credible.
Steve Friedman, I've been so struck by hearing from so many friends and neighbors who don't really follow politics, who aren't media junkies, who told me that they were broken up over Tim Russert's death. And so I think part of this may simply be people liked the guy, the garbage man's son from Buffalo.
FRIEDMAN: That's right. And you can't discount book about his father, which made everybody talk to their father for a change.
Look, when you hung up the phone after talking to Tim, you had a smile on your face. When you left Tim after going to a ball game, you had a smile on your face. When you destroyed one of his crazy e- mails, you had a smile on your face.
On Wednesday night when we went home, Beverly, my wife, and I, we had a smile on our face because we said good-bye to our brother. And everybody felt that Tim was our brother. And that was the void that people are talking about.
They weren't talking about the idea that he would grill politicians, et cetera, et cetera. They were talking about the guy. They loved the guy. He was a lovable guy. And that's why everybody was so involved in it.
SHISTER: Howie, I'd like to jump in here because, yes, he did leave you with a smile on your face. However, he went after reporters, too, and I was on the receiving end of at least one phone call from Tim Russert where he did not like what I wrote about him, and he -- I felt like he was grilling me like I was on his show.
FRIEDMAN: Well, Tim was no saint.
FRIEDMAN: You know, if you were his friend, you could count on him. If you weren't or said something bad about him, he remembered. He never got mad. Even though he was a Jesuit, he sometimes got even.
KURTZ: Tim Russert didn't like everything I wrote about him either, but he -- I wonder if a lot of this had to do with the fact that he came to stand for old-fashioned journalistic values that are increasingly hard to find in today's loud-mouth culture. So there was some of that in these tributes as well.
Now, I felt it was unseemly, you know, a day after his death, two days after the death, to do what some newspapers did, write these speculative pieces about who was going to get his job and so forth. But now that it's been a week, this morning, earlier this morning on "Meet the Press," we had the first fill-in host, a guy by the name of Brian Williams.
Let's take a brief look at how he opened the show.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: But first -- and welcome this Sunday morning -- our intention is to do the very same broadcast that we had planned before Tim Russert passed away. Tim was excited about doing this broadcast, as usual. He had done all the preparation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Debra Saunders, at least for the rest of the election year, would Brian Williams or Tom Brokaw be a smart choice for NBC to get through the next few months?
SAUNDERS: I would like to see them going back to having a press panel where it really is "Meet the Press." People with, like, Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, maybe throw in some people outside the network, Peggy Noonan or Gwen Ifill. Make it more the panel that it used to be.
KURTZ: Why is that an advantage?
SAUNDERS: Because I think those are big shoes to fill.
KURTZ: So several people are needed to fill them?
You know, that was the format of "Meet the Press" for decades, but all of a sudden the show seemed to move away from that.
Steve Friedman, I wanted to ask you about a piece that ran in Rupert Murdoch's "New York Post" on the gossipy Page 6, which loves taking shots at MSNBC, about Keith Olbermann supposedly wanting this job. What Olbermann did is he went on the air the night before the item was published and did this preemptive strike.
Let's play it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: As for myself, not only have I never threatened to quit if I don't get Tim Russert's job, not only have I not vied for it, not only has the subject not even come up between me and anybody who will be involved in this sad task, not only did The Post make this up, not only is the very subject of Tim Russert's job not appropriate now, as anyone with a shadow of a heart would understand, but I don't even consider myself qualified for it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Steve, what did you make of that? I mean, some cable hosts may well be too opinionated for that kind of job.
FRIEDMAN: Well, I don't think anybody at NBC really has focused in on how they are going to replace Tim. And I agree with Keith. I think they are stunned. I mean, the people that I grew up with and met with on Wednesday, they haven't even come to grips with the fact that Tim is gone.
They will ultimately replace him. I think between now and the election they will alternate a bunch of people and then they will figure it out.
NBC will miss Tim more off the air than on the air. They will find somebody to do "Meet the Press," they'll find somebody to talk about politics. But Tim was a spiritual guidance in Washington.
He ran that bureau as a family enterprise. And the stature that Tim had, he could get away with almost anything he wanted to do. And that's where they will miss him. But I don't believe that Keith or anybody else went to NBC and said, "Put me on Meet the Press.'"
SHISTER: Howie, the night of the funeral I spoke to NBC News president Steve Capus, who said to me that they -- he is going to hire "numerous people" -- that's a direct quote -- to replace Tim Russert because he did too many jobs. He started to list all the things that he did, and when he got to about 12, I told him I got the point.
KURTZ: I don't think there's any question that Russert had multiple responsibilities there and that NBC, while not grappling with it right now, eventually are going to have to probably bring more than one person in. And, of course, "Meet the Press" being the crown jewel of Sunday morning. We'll be watching that carefully.
Gail Shister, Steve Friedman, Debra Saunders, thanks very much for joining our discussion this morning.
After the break, same-sex couples line up to tie the knot in California. Are journalists getting caught up in the wedded bliss?
KURTZ: Pictures of happy newlywed couples were just about everywhere this week as same-sex marriage became legal in California. The media coverage of the state Supreme Court ruling that took effect can only be described as upbeat. "The New York Times" headline: "A Landmark Day in California as Same-Sex Marriages Begin to Take Hold." And while the news reports all mentioned that the ruling could be overturned by an initiative in November, that didn't mar the story line.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Tonight, from San Diego to San Francisco, there's been a huge surge of same-sex couples getting licenses to wed and exchanging their vows.
CHRIS JANSING, NBC NEWS: It's being called the new summer of love in California, while debating some old taboos about who can say "I do."
LAURA MARQUEZ, ABC NEWS: Dave Greenbaum (ph) and Mike Silverman (ph) never thought this day would arrive.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When we cross that threshold, the next time we cross it...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we'll be married.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... we'll be married.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, are journalists giving short shrift to the fact that a majority of the country remains opposed to gay marriage?
Joining us now in Los Angeles, Dennis Prager, syndicated radio talk show host, columnist and author. And here in Washington, John Aravosis, founder of AmericaBlog.com.
John Aravosis, when this ruling came down there were all these predictions in the press about this was going to become a big issue in the presidential campaign. Clearly, it hasn't.
JOHN ARAVOSIS, AMERICABLOG.COM: No.
KURTZ: Is that because media are just more sympathetic to this idea than, say, four years ago, when Howard Dean's support of civil unions was deemed controversial?
ARAVOSIS: Well, it's not a big issue in the presidential campaign because neither candidate wants to embrace it. I mean, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain want to be the candidate of either pro-gay marriage or anti-gay marriage.
I think to some degree, from my perspective, I think you're seeing the media coverage reflect the public in that, A, people are more worried about gas prices than they are gay marriage. But, B, you're not seeing a lot of religious right social conservative issues going on in this campaign on the McCain or the Obama side.
KURTZ: Dennis Prager, looking at the last week, do you think that the mainstream media openly tilt in favor of gay marriage? I mean, the news stories always quote at least one opponent, but mostly what we're seeing are these happy couples.
DENNIS PRAGER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Look, the fact is there's a certain herd instinct in the mainstream media, and I think you would have sort of a ratio among media people with regard to same-sex marriage as you do Republicans versus Democrats.
At the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado, I think it's 40-1 Democrat to Republican. And in the media you have this overwhelming sense that this is the next civil rights issue, that to oppose this is to be a racist, or the moral equivalent of a racist. And so this dominance in the media prevails.
It prevails on a lot of issues. It prevailed on the coverage of the Jena Six or Jena Seven, I don't remember the number. This was the new civil rights issue and the whole media went along with it.
KURTZ: All right. Let's stick with same-sex marriage.
PRAGER: And then it turned out that we -- all right. That's fine. I'm just using...
KURTZ: Let me get John in.
ARAVOSIS: But the problem is, in terms of making this an issue for the media, Howie, where is the Republican Party? Where's John McCain?
You know, you don't see the Republican Party leadership saying, my god, look what they have done to our country. We've got to stop this with our next president. The political leaders on neither side are really jumping on this issue. So they're not making it an issue for the media.
KURTZ: And in your state, Dennis Prager, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not supporting a November initiative to overturn the state's...
PRAGER: That's right.
ARAVOSIS: Yes. The politicians aren't making it a story, either side.
PRAGER: Well, even if -- that's true, but you don't rely on politicians to make it a story if we acknowledge that in every poll.
ARAVOSIS: Well, what does make it news, though... PRAGER: Well, let me just finish for a second.
ARAVOSIS: Yes, go ahead.
PRAGER: But that's true. That makes it news.
But you yourself said none of the politicians are very big on it either. So it's not being made news by politicians in either direction. It's being made news by the news media that love the idea of same-sex marriage.
ARAVOSIS: But again, what we're arguing about is nobody is really ticked off about this except the far right -- and that's fine. But the general news...
PRAGER: How do you say that when the majority...
ARAVOSIS: The general news...
PRAGER: Wait, wait, wait.
ARAVOSIS: Let me finish, Dennis, please. The general newsmakers in this country who tend to be the politicians on political issues aren't jumping into this issue and aren't screaming.
The other point, I'm sorry, really quick is...
KURTZ: Let's let Dennis respond to your last point.
ARAVOSIS: Go ahead.
KURTZ: Go ahead, Dennis.
ARAVOSIS: But the newsmakers aren't making it news.
PRAGER: Well, this notion that only the far right believes that marriage should not be redefined is...
ARAVOSIS: No, no. It's freaking out.
PRAGER: You even (ph) say freaking out.
ARAVOSIS: No, my parents are divided on gay marriage, but they are not like in the streets worrying, writing articles about it. People don't really care right now. They care about gas prices.
PRAGER: Well, I don't know if people don't care. We'll find out in my state of California when -- if the judges don't block the proposition that the ACLU and others are bringing this to the courts. Whether or not we can even have an amendment to the Constitution and revise the Constitution.
But if it's allowed and it wins, then the press will wonder, gee, why didn't we cover the majority of Americans actually feel? ARAVOSIS: No, what they'll do is the press will cover what's happening. Right now you've got pictures of all these adorable couples getting married, and big surprise, the press in California, at least, is doing lots of articles showing adorable couples getting married.
If this gets overturned in the fall, the press is going to be doing a lot of articles about this being overturned. This has been going on -- but Howie, this has been going on for four years, too. That's part of the problem.
We had San Francisco first in 2004. Then we had Massachusetts in 2004. And even with Massachusetts, when gay marriage was legalized, the press didn't cover it as much because it was kind of like, how many times can you show a couple in tuxedos getting married? It's just not -- it's the same story again.
KURTZ: It certainly seems less abstract...
KURTZ: ... because you have the actual pictures and stories about people doing it.
ARAVOSIS: Less news.
PRAGER: You know what's interesting? I'll tell you what's interesting too, though.
Whatever side you're on, it's fascinating to say -- and John may be right, that there are many Americans who are more concerned about gas prices than the definition of marriage. If so, our culture has declined. The single most important institution in life is not the gas pump, it's marriage. And if that's redefined and people worry more about what they pay at the gas pump, we're in trouble.
KURTZ: Let me jump in here, Dennis Prager. I want to play a piece of tape for you. It was a report this week by CNN's Don Lemon that raised a question that I want to get to. Let's roll that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: For many gay couples in California, marriage might have seemed like -- I had to do this -- a final frontier. "Star Trek" actor George Takei and his partner Brad Altman have been waiting two decades for this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So when you have celebrities like Mr. Sulu and Ellen DeGeneres saying they are going to get married, does that make the public and the media coverage of this make the public more comfortable with the concept, Dennis?
PRAGER: Yes, of course it does. And the media would like that to happen. That was my opening comment. The media have an agenda. Part of -- you just spoke of Tim Russert. Part of the adoration of Tim was that you didn't sense that he had an agenda. And he was exceedingly rare.
ARAVOSIS: We just got done -- Dennis just got done saying that even the public sees people like the "Star Trek," character, you know, George Takei, getting married and thinks, oh, that's sweet. You know, people are getting married. I'm sorry, but if there were locusts, if there was -- you know, if Hurricane Katrina came because of gay marriage, then the news would be like, oh my god, look at the gays, they really did bring locusts. But this story has happened so many times over the last four years.
ARAVOSIS: And you know what? And I've got to say, too, really quick, Howie, if Dennis wants to make this election between gay marriage and the economy, people care about the economy.
KURTZ: I've got to call a timeout here because of the (INAUDIBLE) television.
Dennis Prager, John Aravosis, thanks for joining us.
We've got a bit of breaking news going back to our segment about Tim Russert. NBC announcing just moments ago that Tom Brokaw will moderate "Meet the Press" through the rest of the election. Starting next week, Tom Brokaw, longtime actor for more than two decades, filling in once again, a familiar face for NBC viewers, He will take over part of the Russert legacy at "Meet the Press."
Still to come on this program, sportswriters don't usually think much of losers. But even if you don't like golf, you've got to love Rocco.
KURTZ: On television at least, golf isn't the world's most exciting spectator sport. No homeruns or slam-dunks. But I found myself glued to the set this week, not just because of Tiger, but because of Rocco.
KURTZ (voice over): Tiger Woods, as everyone knows, is rich, famous and on plenty of magazine covers. Rocco Mediate is not. In fact, he's a 45-year-old also-ran who has never won a major tournament. So the media took notice when Rocco found himself battling Tiger at the U.S. Open.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: Finally tonight, why everyone in our office, and I suspect in tens of thousands of other offices, had a little difficulty focusing today. If you follow professional golf, you know what we're talking about.
KIRAN CHETRY, CNN: The 157th ranked player in the world will try to stop Tiger from winning his 14th major.
KURTZ: Rocco was every man -- a funny, self-effacing guy in an era of spoiled, steroid-shooting multimillionaire brats. He loved talking to reporters, as he did with NBC on the 18th hole Sunday, holding a one-stroke lead as Tiger went for the tie.
ROCCO MEDIATE, PROFESSIONAL GOLFER: That's all I've got. And I left it all out -- I'm all over the golf course out there. It was the most fun could you could ever -- I ever have dreamed it would have been, and I held myself together somehow.
KURTZ: Woods, bothered by a surgically-repaired knee, sank a tough putt to send the tournament into a playoff. Rocco must have been mad, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not in your personality to root for a guy to miss a putt. Is that correct?
MEDIATE: No, no, no. Absolutely no. I did what I could, and you can't root against somebody. It just doesn't make sense.
KURTZ: What? He didn't root against the other guy with the U.S. Open on the line? I sure would have. But it turns out Rocco and Tiger are friends.
KURTZ (voice over): On Monday, another 18 holes, another chance to win. Another Tiger putt on the last green to tie it up. Then came sudden death, and Tiger finally pulled it out on the first hole.
Rocco should have been crushed, but he wasn't. "It wasn't like I got my butt handed to me," he said.
KURTZ: In the end, Tiger got the headlines and the money and the glory and the injuries that will sideline him for the rest of the year, while Rocco may one day be a trivia quiz. But for one brief, glorious moment, Rocco was the story. As "The Chicago Tribune" put it, "Rocco Mediate won over the gallery and probably the heart of every person who has hooked one off the tee."
Maybe Rocco should be on the cover of "Sports Illustrated."
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us next Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern for another critical look at the media.