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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Examining the Media and News Coverage

Aired August 3, 2008 - 10:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Bimbo eruption. The campaign goes tabloid as John McCain likens Barack Obama to Paris and Britney? Is this what it's come to?

And McCain accuses Obama of playing the race card for mentioning the fact that he's black. Is the press buying this questionable charge?

Veepstakes fever. The media going into overdrive over who the running mates will be. Is the speculation out of control?

Olympic showdown. How China is cracking down on western journalists covering the game.

Plus, Bill O'Reilly, Scott McClellan and me, how a story about White House talking points got really, really loud.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: When it comes to tabloid journalism, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are a gift from the gods, whether they're partying all night, flaunting their lack of underwear for the paparazzi, going to jail amid a media frenzy, as in Paris' case, losing custody of kids for bad behavior, as in Britney's case, or generally just being famous for being famous, they are relentlessly hyped and ridiculed by the glossy magazines and the entertainment shows. And this week they achieved an even loftier status, as fodder in a presidential campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: He's the biggest celebrity in the world.

CROWD: Obama! Obama! Obama!

NARRATOR: But is he ready to lead?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Yes, television keeps replaying the new John McCain ad that portrays Barack Obama as being in the same league as a pair of slightly disreputable party girls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

A.J. HAMMER, CO-HOST, "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT": Are you kidding me? Tonight, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are caught smack in the middle of the presidential race.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC ANALYST: Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Where was Lindsay Lohan, for heaven's sakes?

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: The fact is that he is really comparing a very serious presidential candidate to a couple of airheads, and that's not gentlemanly behavior.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining me now to talk about all of this, Roger Simons, chief political columnist for Politico.com; Matthew Felling, media commentator and contributor to "American Journalism Review"; and A.B. Stoddard, associated editor and columnist for the newspaper "The Hill."

All right, Roger, if McCain's goal was to draw attention with this silly comparison to Britney and Paris, well, we all fell for it, didn't we?

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF COLUMNIST, POLITICO.COM: I don't think it was even that coherent. This is one of the most visually incoherent ads I have ever seen.

You know, pictures of Paris and Britney alone, and then pictures of a giant crowd for Barack Obama. It looks like he's standing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's actually Germany. Then this upright Washington monument. It's a very Freudian ad. And then it ends with this beatific picture of John McCain

If this were selling a product -- and it's supposed to be -- what is the product? This is a grumpy old man commercial. This is John McCain saying, I don't get to hang around with Britney and Paris. Why is that?

KURTZ: How is it, Matthew Felling, that the media coverage of the serious presidential campaign -- I mean, soaring gas prices, two wars, a collapsing housing market -- is suddenly about America's two biggest bubbleheads?

MATTHEW FELLING, CONTRIBUTOR, "AMERICAN JOURNALISM REVIEW": Well, I think -- I don't know who played the race card per se this week, but I know who played the insipid and insulting commercial card this week, and it was John McCain. I mean, I don't understand.

Three weeks ago, he was complaining about the media coverage of Barack and, well, he does no wrong. And two weeks ago it was, he goes to Germany, I'll go to a German restaurant. That didn't go over so well.

So this week he just gave control of this campaign over to these two spotlight magnets, and he actually got to control the debate for a week. He actually got to bring more attention to him and take a little bit from Barack, and put Barack on the defensive, and we just gave it more airtime right now.

KURTZ: And that's the point, by giving this so much media attention, aren't journalists buying into the Republican narrative that Obama is glib and famous and not a real leader?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE HILL": Yes, because those are the ads that the media is playing. What John McCain figured out -- the ad obviously, as Roger points out, it's over the top, it's tacky, it's not even really smart. It's about comparing him to airheads.

He's "Harvard Law Review," was a professor of law at the University of Chicago. We all know this is a joke. But what he does now is he buys an ad, runs it 12 times somewhere for nothing, and then the media pounds it thousands of times over and over and he gets what he needs, and it is effective. The Gallup Poll is now tied, and it wasn't on Monday.

KURTZ: And I do have to scold all of organized journalism for failing to get comment from Britney and Paris about how they feel like this. I'm like, whatever, OK.

But let me ask you this question. Obama does get an enormous amount of what you might call celebrity coverage. He's on the cover of "People," he's on the cover of "US Weekly," cover of "Rolling Stone." Does that interview with his wife and kids for Access Hollywood.

So, in some sense, does he then have to pay the price for that kind of coverage? Maybe it's not a completely unfair thing for the McCain folks to raise.

FELLING: Well, there is a little bit of star worshipping, and it's not just among the American media. We saw in Germany that the European press are not immune from falling for this new face, and I think that he is a magnet for positive attention. But I also think that the more McCain pounds at him we're going to -- that spotlight is going to turn dimmer and dimmer and dimmer, and a little bit more harsh.

And I don't know that all this attention is going to keep being so -- adulational (ph)? You know, positive.

KURTZ: Adulatory.

FELLING: Adulatory. But I think that what he's doing right now -- and he's just been coasting for the longest time, and nobody -- even the comics on late night didn't know how to make fun of him until just recently.

KURTZ: Right. I knew sooner or later they would figure something out.

And by the way, Roger, "The Wall Street Journal" investigation revealed yet a new liability for Barack Obama. It's not just that he's too elitist or eats too much arugula, or he's too famous or he gives too good a speech, apparently he's too skinny to be elected president.

They actually interviewed voters. And one said, "He needs to put some meat on his bones." Another one wrote on a message board, "I won't vote for any beanpole guy." What is...

(LAUGHTER)

Would you please translate this to me? Why is this important?

SIMON: I think it's late summer. You know, it used to be during the silly season the media would report on UFO sightings, but now that we have actual candidates for presidents who believe in UFOs, we have to go one step further, into silliness. We have to go on their body mass.

I think his body mass is just fine, by the way. And as to whether, you know, he's over the top in terms of personal arrogance and all the rest, I think Obama will wake up to the fact that a little false humility goes a long way with the American people.

I think he's going to get that soon. And in fact, the other McCain ad comparing him to Moses was actually a funny ad. It wasn't a real ad, it was an Internet production.

KURTZ: I was about to say, I'm not going to play it because it's just a thing that they threw up on the Web.

SIMON: Right.

KURTZ: And we all fall into this trap of, oh, this is great video, let's give them free publicity.

SIMON: Right.

KURTZ: But let me turn to another quadrennial obsession of the media. It happens every four years. The truth is, it's a compulsion, an addiction, maybe a full-blown medical condition.

Presidential candidates start looking for running mates and we start blabbing. Never mind how long we've been in the past.

Remember Bill Kristol saying eight years ago that George Bush would pick John McCain? Remember "The New York Post" declaring four years ago that John Kerry had picked Richard Gephardt?

Never has so much hot air been emitted by so many who know so little about a process controlled by so few. It's called the veepstakes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Yes, we Kaine? All eyes are on the Virginia governor as a possible VP pick.

CHUCK TODD, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, MSNBC: Jack Reed fits the Tim Kaine mold.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We're hearing the name of Joe Biden, Senator Biden.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Maybe he's considering people like Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think there's a strong case to be made for Evan Bayh.

KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Mitt Romney on the Republican side. We had a buzz last week for Pawlenty.

BILL KRISTOL, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: McCain personally, I'm told, would love to pick Tom Ridge.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Well, he's more or less decided it's got to be Romney.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does it amaze you -- you mentioned chattering class -- that anyone would pay attention to anything that any of us say?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: What is this -- what is this compulsion that drives you and your colleagues into what really is a sort of glorified guessing game?

STODDARD: Well, I think there's always hope on part of the media that they will have this James Bond moment and they will break into the back yard of John Kerry as he sneaks into the other Georgetown home of Madeleine Albright through the alleyway to meet with John Edwards and expose the big story, which obviously never happened. But it comes in a lull in the campaign, June and July.

You know, the primary is over. It tends to get a little dull. Usually the negative ads, including Britney Spears, haven't appeared yet. And so it's sort of a perfect time to begin the guessing game. It is the first presidential decision, and I think after the Dick Cheney story, which obviously was the most fun veepstakes surprise ever, but his just inexorably altering the role of vice president permanently, I think in the years to come we're going to see even more focus on it.

KURTZ: Now, there's been some legitimate reporting on this. Politico, for example, and "The Washington Post" reported that Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia, was being seriously vetted by the Obama team. But basically, isn't it true that the sources who really know what's going on in this secretive little process aren't talking?

SIMON: They aren't, and we don't know even know if the candidates have really decided. I suspect they haven't really decided.

Some of the names we're hearing now, I mean, aside from the fact you learn really good stuff, like that Tim Kaine plays the harmonica, you wouldn't know that kind of stuff without our reporting. I think some of the names that are being floated now are the candidates being nice to people who have no chance, but floating their names helps them with their local constituents. Some of them are congressmen who have to get re-elected. And they can always say on their political resumes, he was on the short list for vice president in such and such a year.

It helps.

KURTZ: You saw those clips. We could have played another two minutes.

(CROSSTALK)

FELLING: Oh yes. I was waiting for Governor Palin from Alaska, because she is the dark horse on Fox News Channel.

KURTZ: Isn't this almost on a level of self-indulgent entertainment?

FELLING: Oh, it is everything that is great about cable news in terms of strong opinion and forceful TV. And everything that's horrible about cable news: complete cluelessness, complete conjecture, and no accountability.

I mean, when you watch these things, it's great -- it's a great barroom argument where it's like -- it sounds like March Madness. It sounds like, you know, well Baylor's got a strong front court, and I think that Duke could get -- everybody has their pet theories, and everybody has a pet theory for, well, Biden has the foreign relations experience, and this guy has -- Indiana -- Evan Bayh has Indiana in his pocket and we might need that.

It's perfect filler time for the cable networks to move on. I wish that we would see some accountability, where if somebody gets it right, you know, they get a little bit more airtime in the fall, but if somebody gets it wrong, they are grounded.

KURTZ: Yes, dream on. And it's not just cable, but cable is the prime offender.

FELLING: Yes.

KURTZ: But network news does it and newspapers certainly do it.

Do we overstate the importance of this pick given that no running mate has really made a difference since JFK picked Lyndon Johnson in 1960?

SIMON: Sure. We're asking the question, are these people qualified for a do-nothing job? I mean, they do almost nothing during the campaign. Poll after poll shows they have almost no affect on the outcome.

They have one debate. That's all they have to go through.

KURTZ: They kind of play an attack dog role.

SIMON: Yes, they do play a little attack dog role if the top of the ticket doesn't want to be an attack dog. And this year we're seeing maybe the top of one ticket does want to be an attack dog. But that is about it. You know, someone has got to fill the chair.

FELLING: But at the same time, I mean, the vice presidency has gained relevance over the last eight years. And the person who sits -- who takes over that seat might be a little bit more powerful than a Quayle here or there.

STODDARD: Especially for McCain.

KURTZ: It's a real -- because of his age.

STODDARD: Yes.

KURTZ: It's a really important job. And once that running mate is selected, I think we should be all over looking at whether this is a potential president. But what I'm talking about here is figuring out who the pick is going to be.

What about the terms that the media use: "Romney's got the buzz." "Obama has a short list."

Who really knows?

STODDARD: Nobody knows, and I think particularly someone like Barack Obama, who is such a controlling politician and works so hard to make sure everything is leak-proof, I imagine he probably has led us completely astray and might have a really explosive surprise in store, because that's the way that he wants to be.

John McCain, now he's vetting Eric Cantor, a congressman from Virginia in the leadership of the House. That just popped up kind of late in the game, where he's been teasing us with Tim Pawlenty.

I think, as Roger points out, it's a way of dangling flirtations to make people feel good. This goes back as far as Dukakis, really playing with Jesse Jackson.

KURTZ: Yes. But then we go along with the game (ph).

SIMON: There's one other thing that the campaigns are doing. They are using us, the media, to vet their possible choices.

STODDARD: Yes.

SIMON: If there's anything in some guy's closet, some local reporter, probably, not us, some local reporter who has covered this person for 8 or 12 or 16 years might know about it and might get it out before the candidate has committed to an embarrassing choice.

FELLING: And if not vetting, then also the trial balloon idea, which is where they toss out a name...

KURTZ: Yes.

FELLING: ... and see how the public responds via polls. And I think not even Charlie Rose could resist the charm of the veepstakes this week.

He had Tim Kaine on the other night, the Virginia governor. And he was supposed to have a guest on after. I believe it was Lance Armstrong -- no Pete Sampras. And he blocked -- he kicked Pete Sampras off the air and gave the entire hour to Tim Kaine, because I guess he thought that he was going to be doing the vetting that night.

KURTZ: And, of course, if Tim Kaine doesn't get picked, the most national voice that he will ever get. Almost nobody until the very end knew that Dick Cheney was going to be the guy in 2000.

And of course there's a rumor out that Barack Obama may announce his selection tomorrow or Tuesday. I have no idea whether it's true, but we'll probably speculate about it some more.

When we come back, read his lips, but read the fine print. Has John McCain gotten into a sound bite flip-flop over new taxes?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It seems like a straightforward question for journalists: Where does John McCain stand on raising taxes? He has ruled it out throughout his campaign, but last week he had this to say during a discussion of Social Security with ABC's George Stephanopoulos...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am a supporter of sitting down together and putting everything on the table and coming up with an answer. So there is nothing I would take off the table.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: So that means payroll tax increases are on the table as well?

MCCAIN: There is nothing that's off the table.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: But then McCain's own spokesman seemed to contradict the boss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS: Might the Social Security tax go up? Is that on the table?

TUCKER BOUNDS, MCCAIN'S SR. ADVISER: No, Megyn, there is no imaginable circumstance where John McCain would raise payroll taxes. It's absolutely out of the question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The media take is that McCain changed his position. Fair or unfair?

SIMON: Well, when you say nothing, you can get accused of saying anything. The fact is, McCain has said he's not going to raise taxes, and then he goes on the same show and says everything is on the table.

The only two real solutions for Social Security are raising taxes or cutting benefits. So, you know, this double speak, this non-speak, is really one of the reasons people hate politics. Politicians go out and say what they think is the least risky thing, and it's just mush. They don't take any positions.

FELLING: He didn't say a whole lost of anything on last week's ABC interview. I mean, they also asked him about gay marriage, and he just kept reciting the same talking point. And George Stephanopoulos tried to take him off it for about three or four minutes.

KURTZ: All right. Let me stick with this point...

FELLING: Yes.

KURTZ: On this tax issues, are journalists parsing his words to carefully, or is he over the net (ph)?

STODDARD: No. He is doing a straddle. He's on the fence, and when he goes to the new side, it will be a flip-flop.

What he's trying to do is say two things at the same time. He's trying to say, oh, I will never raise taxes. Everyone knows I have opposed all tax increases, he always says. But everything will be on the table in these discussions, and he said it eight times in four questions in the George Stephanopoulos interview.

He's trying to say both things at the same time.

KURTZ: Well, I was out with the McCain campaign this week, so I heard him tell reporters that his position was the following: He does not want any new taxes, but he understands that negotiating with Congress sometimes involves compromise. You don't always get what you want. So, he's going to go into these negotiations firmly opposed to new taxes.

So, on some level, do we zap politicians for telling the truth?

FELLING: Yes. I mean, his viewpoint that he expressed is very realistic. Look at the economy and look at what he said before. You have to be a little bit more flexible when it comes to this.

And I think I would be less concerned, and I think that flip-flops are sexy and they're great for bumper stickers and commercials. I would be more interested in finding out, how did you get from there to here? Because I would like to hear somebody reason.

I'd like to hear McCain reason his stance, just like I would have liked to hear what "I was for the war before I was against it" meant back four years ago. I would like to hear the rationale.

KURTZ: Of course, what he's trying to do is avoid the Bush 41 "Read my lips, no new taxes" albatross.

FELLING: Yes.

KURTZ: But, you know, Barack Obama, I guess it was just yesterday he came out and said he was willing to consider offshore oil drilling. He previously had been against it. And again, he said, well, you might have to negotiate these things in Congress.

FELLING: Right.

SIMON: Yes. Our most finely-tuned meter is the hypocrisy meter. You can't do shadings of an opinion. You can't change your mind.

But in McCain's case, he had the opportunity. It's not just going back to what he said, it's going back and then forward, and then back, and you don't know what he said by the end of the day, which is exactly what they want.

STODDARD: And I would argue that it's more dangerous, more perilous for John McCain with the "no new taxes" pledge than it is for Barack Obama to compromise on offshore drilling. I think it's harder with his base, who he needs to turn out to get them worried, like the Club for Growth, as they flipped out after this interview about taxes.

KURTZ: We'll try to keep score, and it's increasingly difficult.

A.B. Stoddard, Matthew Felling, Roger Simon, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Up next, a discouraging diagnosis for a controversial columnist. Plus, NBC taps a college graduate with a familiar name for convention reporting. And why Katie Couric invoked sex, or at least "Sex and the City," in dealing with her critics.

The "Media Minute" straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): Sad news this week about Robert Novak. The 77- year-old commentator was diagnosed with a brain tumor. People had wondered about Novak's health last week after his Corvette struck a homeless pedestrian in downtown Washington and he said he didn't even realize he had hit the man.

Novak has checked into a Boston hospital and taken a leave for the first time in the 45 years he's been writing a column, originally launched with the late Rowland Evans. Novak is clearly controversial, especially in the wake of his role in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame.

But we wish him a speedy recovery and many deadlines to come.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: A family tradition continues at NBC. The network has tapped 22-year-old Luke Russert as a correspondent beginning at the conventions. Luke willingly stepped into the media spotlight when his dad Tim Russert died of a heart attack a few weeks ago.

By the way no, one can fully replace Tim Russert, but NBC has tapped a successor for one of his jobs. Mark Whitaker was named this week as the network's Washington bureau chief. Whitaker is the former editor of "Newsweek," and the first African-American to hold that job, and joined NBC last year as a senior vice president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): Katie Couric let's her hair down occasionally, especially with other gals around, and she can be pretty blunt. Here's the CBS anchor talking about her own coverage on "The View."

KATEI COURIC, CBS NEWS: I think there's sexism in the coverage of me because, for example, my first night, I thought the newscast was strong and smart, but pretty much, most people wrote that I had a white jacket on after Labor Day. And those rules are so five minutes ago, by the way, and it was winter white and, p.s. Armani.

Remember what Samantha said in "Sex and the City?" "If I listened to what every bitch in New York City said about me, I'd never leave the house."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Katie sure doesn't talk that way on the "CBS Evening News."

Well, coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, the McCain camp accuses Barack Obama of playing the race card with his remarks about not looking like other presidents. Did the media take the bait?

Plus, banned in Beijing. Is an Internet crackdown just the start of problems for journalists covering the summer games?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Race has remained just below the surface in this campaign, with both journalists and political operatives wary of making too much of the groundbreaking nature of Barack Obama's candidacy. But every once in a while, it erupts, as happened this week when the McCain campaign went on the offensive after this remark by Obama...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: John McCain and the Republicans, they don't have any new ideas. That's why they're spending all their time talking about me.

They're going to try to say that I'm a risky guy. They're going to try to say, well, you know, he's got a funny name and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the $5 bills.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The McCain camp quickly pounced, with campaign manager Rick Davis accusing the Democratic candidate of shamefully playing the race card. But McCain didn't want to talk about it much when CNN's John King raised the subject at the end of an unrelated interview. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Is that fair criticism, for Rick Davis to say the Obama campaign is playing the race card?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is. I'm sorry to say that it is, it's legitimate. And we don't -- there's no place in this campaign for that. There's no place for it, and they shouldn't be doing it.

KING: They say that's not the case.

MCCAIN: OK, John.

KING: OK, Senator. I appreciate it.

MCCAIN: I'll let the American people judge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now media outlets had a new controversy to kick around, and look at how differently the NBC and ABC newscasts framed the issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS (voice over): In fact, Obama uses similar lines. Aides say it has nothing to do with race. The risk for McCain, some say, it could hurt his good guy image.

JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: But Obama may have gone too far when in Missouri, yesterday, he seemed to say McCain and Republicans were making an issue of his exotic name and skin color.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about how the media are and aren't holding the candidates accountable, in New York Deroy Murdock, syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Serve and a contributing editor for "National Review Online." And here in Washington, Ana Marie Cox, Washington editor and blogger for TIME.com.

Ana Marie, would journalists have suggested, hinted or otherwise reported that Obama was injecting race into this campaign with those remarks if the McCain campaign hadn't made that charge?

ANA MARIE COX, WASHINGTON EDITOR, BLOGGER, TIME.COM: I'm not sure if they would. I think that you were correct in your introduction that journalists are especially ware of bringing up race directly in this campaign.

It has to be -- if Obama does, that's fine. And he has said something like those remarks several times in the campaign. In Berlin he said that, you know, he doesn't look like the normal politicians that they have seen from America before.

So -- but we have to admit that there is something different about Obama bringing it up and another campaign bringing it up. I don't think you can say they are equal.

KURTZ: Well, here's the answer. On Thursday morning, after Obama made the remarks and before the McCain campaign made the charge, here is "The Washington Post" coverage of this, an item in a column, which is more than "The New York Times" ran. "The New York Times" ran nothing; the "L.A. Times" ran a paragraph; "The Chicago Tribune," "USA Today" ran nothing.

So, Deroy Murdock, should McCain's charge have been treated as big a deal as it was?

DEROY MURDOCK, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: I think so. I think, unfortunately, when Obama said that McCain and Bush are going around and they are going to accuse me of looking -- not being worthy because I don't look like other people who have been on the dollar bill, that essentially is accusing McCain of running a racist campaign. And I don't think you should throw those sorts of charges around lightly.

I think in this society, these days in 2008, the worst thing you can be is a murderer. Probably the second worst is a rapist. And the third worst is a racist. And I don't think you should go around making accusations of racism unless you can back them up. And I don't think the Obama campaign or anyone has been able to point to anything John McCain or his campaign have said or done that in any way has tried to try exploit or trivialize Obama based on his race.

I don't think those things ought to be thrown around lightly. I think it was totally appropriate for McCain to defend himself against these sorts of charges.

COX: I totally agree. And I also think it's really ironic that I don't think the McCain campaign has been racist at all, or any more than we are racist in our day-to-day lives. But I do think he has been saying things that aren't true about Obama.

Like, he's been -- you know, he had an ad where he misquotes Obama in the one that you don't want to run, the messiah ad. He has been saying -- consistently been saying that Obama will raise taxes on people with incomes under $32,000.

KURTZ: But that's the normal back-and-forth of political discourse. And obviously exaggerations get made.

Let me just...

COX: Well, I was just going to say, like, he gets called out -- we spent three days talking about whether or not he's racist, but there are probably -- and there are a lot of voters who have been thinking and talking about that, but we don't spend that amount of time talking about the truth and not truth in their charges.

KURTZ: Well, we'll talk more about this whole question of accountability in a second.

But let me come back to you, Deroy Murdock, on this question, because McCain aides tell me that he actually -- the candidate was actually upset because he himself, they feel, has been the victim of a racial smear back in the 2000 campaign...

MURDOCK: Sure.

KURTZ: ... about fathering a black child. Of course, it was the daughter he adopted from Bangladesh.

Do journalists secretly love to talk and white about these racial controversies as long as somebody else raises it?

MURDOCK: I think everyone is trying to be very, very gingerly here. Obviously, this is the first time we have a black candidate with -- who will be nominated in a few weeks and may have a good chance of becoming our next president. So I think people are being very, very cautious about this, which is appropriate. But I think the caution has to be -- has to go in many ways, and one is that candidates shouldn't throw this around lightly.

And if people say, oh, so and so is a racist, or so and so is running a racist campaign, people should be called on the carpet to present the evidence. And if people are racist, let's bring that out and they out to be denounced for it. And if they're not, people should be -- should be basically denounced for throwing those charges around without any basis or evidence behind it. I don't think this thing ought to be introduced promiscuously as it sometimes it.

KURTZ: Now, some journalists have raised race in different contexts. Earlier in the show we played the soon-to-be very famous McCain ad invoking Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and Bill Press, the radio commentator and columnist, had this to say. And we can maybe put up some picture of that ad.

Let's put up what Press said.

"The McCain campaign is simply trying to plant the old racist seed of black man hitting on young white woman. Not directly, but subliminally and disgracefully."

Is that a fair charge for even a liberal commentator to make?

COX: I think it's an inaccurate charge. I mean, I think that there's definitely -- you can build an argument for that, looking at the ad. And there is -- we don't do anything that's race-neutral in this country.

I mean, the fact that they're white, the fact that he is black is going to be -- is simply -- plays into whatever narrative people already have in their heads. But I do think it wasn't intentionally racist. I don't think there was a lot of planning that went into this ad. I'm not sure if the McCain campaign is together enough to do something that's subtle. They're not a very subtle campaign, I think you've noticed.

KURTZ: But Deroy, some are likening it to the ad two years ago against Congressman Harold Ford, where the "Playboy" bunny was saying, "Harold, call me," because he had gone to a "Playboy" party. I mean, nobody suggested that Barack Obama hangs out with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton.

MURDOCK: No, not at all. The Harold Ford ad was tied into the fact that, at least at the time, he was a single man. The question was, was he chasing these women around or something like that?

This ad with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, if you think about those two, you don't think of them as white women, first of all. You think airhead. You think vacuous celebrity. That's why they were used, not in any strange way to try to link Obama with being involved with white women or something like this.

I think that's a total stretch. And people like Bill Press know better and shouldn't engage in that sort of thing. This is exactly the kind of -- what I'm talking about, trying to create racist charges when they don't exist, and that's completely shameful and inappropriate.

KURTZ: All right.

Well, now there also was a bit of a flap over a rap song released by Ludacris, the rapper. And Bill O'Reilly, among others, said the media -- the mainstream media weren't giving this enough coverage. It did give some coverage.

Let's play a little bit of it, and we'll warn you that we're going to bleep one word in which he says a very unkind thing about Hillary Clinton.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

LUDACRIS, RAPPER (singing): Hillary hated on you, so that (EXPLETIVE DELETED) is irrelevant. Pain the White House black and I'm sure that's got 'em terrified."

"McCain don't belong in any chair unless he's paralyzed. Yeah, I said 'cause Bush is mentally handicapped."

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, Obama said Ludacris should be ashamed of those lyrics.

So what exactly is the story?

COX: During this entire controversy, I kept on wondering what decade we're in that we're arguing about rap lyrics. I thought we kind of had gotten over that with the 2 Live Crew thing 20 years ago.

I think that it's a legitimate thing to bring up. I mean, he has -- you know, Ludacris has performed at Obama benefits.

KURTZ: Good point.

COX: And he's actually praised Ludacris as being a very talented young man -- or man. And so that's all fine, to point out they have had associations. But also, Obama has been particularly outspoken about the need for better role models in the black community and also about the legacy of sort of sexism in rap.

I mean, he's talked about he doesn't want his daughters to grow up with these kinds of images. So I don't think we can really, like, blame Obama, or we can -- or he's somehow responsible for these lyrics. We can just point out the association.

KURTZ: Brief comment from you, Deroy?

MURDOCK: Well, yes, I'm not surprised at what this -- yet another rap masterpiece that Obama would want to separate himself and distance himself from this sort of thing, not raising any legitimate criticisms, using a sexist term against Hillary Clinton and then fantasizing about John McCain being in a wheelchair. Completely wrong, not the kind of thing that ought to be part of American political discourse. It was right for Obama to run away from Ludacris.

KURTZ: We all agree that it was completely wrong. Whether there was more (ph) coverage or not is not the question.

All right. One more thing I want to get to, and that is the ad -- another ad that John McCain played this week. He's obviously been on the offensive. This has to do with Obama's visit to Germany and his decision to cancel what had been a possible visit to American troops stationed there.

Let's roll the ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: He made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. It seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras. John McCain is always there for our troops.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, several news organizations, including "The Washington Post," on the front page, said that that ad is slightly inaccurate.

COX: I think it's terribly misleading. I don't think we're ever going to know the real reason why Obama cancelled his visit to the wounded troops. I imagine that the Obama camp realized it was a lose- lose situation for them.

That if they went, they'd be blamed for politicizing the troops. And if they didn't go, they'd be blamed for neglecting the troops. I mean, they may have just flipped a coin and decided which they could -- you know, to see which they were going to live with. But in any case, I don't think it was an intentional snub, and that's definitely how McCain's trying to play it.

KURTZ: Right.

Deroy Murdock, I mean, is it the role of the press to police these ads and to say if journalists are convinced that this is not in accordance with the facts as they actually happened?

MURDOCK: Absolutely. That's what we're supposed to do. That the whole sort of truth squad activity of the press is essential to what we're supposed to do in this society.

And apparently in this ad it seems as if there was some confusion as to whether Obama was going to go with the media or not. Apparently, he didn't plan to do that, and the whole dispute was whether or not he'd bring a military advisor on the campaign, and would that make this a political or politicized event.

And as Ana Marie said, it's sort of a lose-lose situation. He would have been blamed if he had been there for trying to use the troops as props. And if he didn't go, of course, there's the criticism that he's just sort of dissing them. So, tough spot in which he found himself.

KURTZ: It was successful in this sense: This has dominated particularly cable news coverage for days. This ad was aired as a paid commercial nine times, and yet it got zillions of dollars in free publicity from cable.

COX: As you pointed out in your last segment, I mean, that's the way that things work now. I mean, I think it's interesting you refused to play the Internet-only ad, because that's actually I think an even popular way to get things -- free media, as they call it.

The one ad -- was it one of the most viewed things on YouTube last week? It was, like, in the top 10, I think. So I don't know if it's fair or not. I mean, I think that it is true that we have to contextualize it whenever we talk about it.

KURTZ: Well, maybe we'll play it next week. But I just think we have to be careful about being used when they put out these video press releases and suddenly it gets all of this free air time.

We've got to go.

Deroy Murdock, Ana Marie Cox, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

After the break, the world press is descending on Beijing for the Olympics, but Chinese officials seem to control what they see. Can journalists get the full story, or will they be muzzled?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: When the Summer Olympics kick off this week, the media spotlight will fall squarely on Beijing, which has been eagerly planning for its moment on the world stage. But China is also a country with a state-controlled press that is accustomed to restricting what can be published and broadcast. And this week, Chinese authorities abruptly cut off access to certain Web sites for western journalists covering the games.

Is this the first sign of a coming crackdown? Joining me now in Beijing, Melinda Liu, Beijing bureau chief for "Newsweek" magazine. And here in Washington, Jill Dougherty, U.S. affairs editor for CNN international.

Melinda, what message did it send when suddenly you and your colleagues could no longer access certain Web sites, including, at least for a while, Amnesty International and any site having to do with Tibet?

MELINDA LIU, BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF, "NEWSWEEK": Well, actually, we -- those of us who live and work here, we've been dealing with this sort of, you know, on-and-off Web site interference for years. Basically, most of us who live here use Internet tools like proxy servers or VPNs, which actually allow you to sort of more or less get around this sort of interference.

So we -- we're not affected that much. And we may not even be aware of what's going on day by day in the Internet, the sort of naked Internet. You know, the Internet where you're not using such tools. But...

KURTZ: But doesn't this flatly contradict a promise -- doesn't this flatly contradict the promise that China made to allow complete Internet access, at least during the games?

LIU: Sure. There were a few explicit promises that China made, and a lot more great expectations that the world has. And free Internet access was one of those promises made to the IOC very explicitly.

And so for years, actually, and especially in recent months, we've been hearing free access to the Internet, you know, all that sort of stuff. And I was frankly very surprised that, you know, at the Olympic Media Center, where foreign media were coming to cover the games would be based, that you would have this sort of interference.

I mean, I assumed that in the outer -- you know, outside of those venues, maybe the sort of interference would go on, but it was a very disappointing signal. And then a few days ago it started to change again in a very sort of abrupt reversal. A number of these sites became accessible again. For how long, who knows?

KURTZ: All right.

Let me turn to Jill Dougherty.

LIU: I wouldn't hold my breath.

KURTZ: You lived and worked for years in Hong Kong. Is there a cultural clash between Western press freedom and the Chinese government that routinely suppresses information?

JILL DOUGHERTY, U.S. AFFAIRS EDITOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL: Well, cultural -- yes, I mean, if you want to use that word. But I think, you know, looking at this situation, put on your lawyer's hat for a second, because all of the agreements that the Chinese signed on to with the IOC were always predicated on conforming to Chinese law. And if you look at the contract, that's the out. That is the definition that can be used by the Chinese to say, listen, you know, we're all for open access and freedom, et cetera. However, we have our laws, and things that are threats should be shut down or closed.

KURTZ: But those legalities aside -- because China can ultimately do whatever it wants -- how do you invite the world's press into the Olympic games, which clearly is a matter of great pride for the Chinese people, and then start stiffing journalists like this?

DOUGHERTY: Well, I think would you have to ask the Chinese people. Those are the people who I think are most affected, because Melinda was pointing out, the Western media can get around it, and on a level like that, that's -- that can be taken care of, but it's the access for the Chinese people.

And when you look at journalists who are really being affected, the Chinese journalists themselves are the ones who are being affected. They are the people who are ending up in jail for some reasons.

KURTZ: Now, it's not just the Internet access, the Chinese authorities blocked a live broadcast of some Olympic trials. They of course banned any coverage at Tiananmen Square or any demonstrations at Tiananmen Square.

So Melinda Liu, are the Chinese officials worried at all about bad PR resulting from all of this, or is that less important to them than just keeping a lid on the flow of potentially derogatory information?

LIU: I think you hit the question on the head. You know, if your choice is bad PR versus total control, they still want total control. You know, this is -- this is a nation of -- this is a government of control freaks, and they are trying to control everything.

And, you know, the only reason they sort of backed down a bit on this Internet issue is because it became such a bruising controversy with, you know, clearly some internal, I don't know what, inside the IOC that may take a while to play itself out. You know, that sort of very public, very embarrassing thing, OK, has prodded them in a certain direction for a certain period of time, but basically, as Jill said, their main concern is keeping a lid on domestic Chinese citizens, controlling the information to them, and just making sure that everything stays calm, the so-called harmonious society that Chinese officials always talk about.

KURTZ: And just briefly, Melinda, are you concerned that there will be further restrictions such as your ability to cover demonstrations?

LIU: I'm sure if there are serious demonstrations breaking out, there will be attempts to curb coverage of that on many levels.

KURTZ: Now, Jill Dougherty, China is already rounding up dissidents and agitators, and going to try to cut a sideline (ph) during these Olympic games. So given all of this, how much of a picture of the real China are we going to get, even with all the hundreds or perhaps thousands of journalists who are going to be in that country for the Olympics?

DOUGHERTY: You know, I'm not there. I'm not with Melinda right now. But I'll tell you, I think that you have to put this in context, that actually there is much more access in China and around the world to what's happening in China than there ever has been.

And you're constantly going to get this back-and-forth, open-close, open-close, because as Melinda pointed out, they are worried about social unrest. And that is one thing they that they are really petrified about and they want to control. So I think it's going to kind of yin-yang for quite a while, and where this leads, ultimately, probably, to more opening in that society.

KURTZ: Well, we have about half a minute.

I mean, obviously, China, like any country, wants to present its best possible face to the world during all this attention of the Olympic games, but at the same time, if demonstrators are being sidelined, if Internet access is being curtailed, we may end up getting a very different picture.

DOUGHERTY: That's true. It might boomerang, and that's the problem for the Chinese, that they want to separate politics from the Olympics. And can they do it?

KURTZ: And, of course, journalists don't want to be used, and they want to report on the real story, whether it comes to the athletics or the culture of China, which is this a rare chance, really, inside that often closed country.

Jill Dougherty, Melinda Liu in Beijing, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Still to come, picking a fight. Bill O'Reilly plays rough with Scott McClellan and takes a few shots at me.

We'll set the record straight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: A former White House spokesman started playing hardball with Bill O'Reilly and wound up whiffing big time. And somehow I got beaned in the process.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): On last week's program, I noted that former presidential spokesman Scott McClellan had gone on Chris Matthews' MSNBC show and tossed this stink bomb: "The White House," said McClellan, "regularly sent talking points to Fox News commentators as a way of getting its message out."

Now, I didn't treat this as some big scandal, and neither, by the way, did my guests, one liberal and one conservative. Here's what I said.

(on camera): I mean, reporters talk to the White House all the time. I talk to the White House. I talk to the Obama campaign. I talk to the McCain campaign. They give you their spin, and you decide whether you use it.

Do you think that more liberal-leaning hosts don't get, if not talking points, at least of-the-record guidance from people on the left side of the spectrum?

(voice over): And on "THE SITUATION ROOM" the next day, I reported that Fox executives were calling McClellan's charge ludicrous and played Bill O'Reilly's response on his radio show.

BILL O'REILLY, "THE RADIO FACTOR": I never got a talking point in my life from anybody, McClellan is lying.

OK, Scott? I'm calling you a liar. Got it? And lost all respect for you.

KURTZ: So what happened that night's "O'Reilly Factor?" O'Reilly castigated me for even talking about the McClellan charge.

Here's what he said, as voiced by his nemesis, Keith Olbermann.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: "I know Matthews and Howard Kurtz, they know I would never take a talking point from anybody."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: O'Reilly also made a disparaging comment about this show. He called it "dopey."

Hey, Bill, come on. We're trying to be fair and balanced here. That's what you want, isn't it?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice over): McClellan called into CNN, told Wolf Blitzer he stood by his account, and accused O'Reilly of name-calling. But the next day on O'Reilly's "Radio Factor" it was a different story.

O'REILLY: Do you owe me an apology?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The truth is I messed up. I should have not have let that happen.

O'REILLY: I think you do owe me an apology.

MCCLELLAN: I think I did by saying I messed up.

O'REILLY: My professional reputation is not going to be besmirched by you or MSNBC or CNN or anybody else.

He played you! You should be mad at him!

MCCLELLAN: So you don't owe me an apology for calling me a liar or calling...

O'REILLY: You are a liar!

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: "We'll do it live!" "We'll do it..."

Oh, sorry.

Here's the bottom line. McClellan shouldn't have slimed O'Reilly if he wasn't prepared to back it up. I never bought the talking points line because people like O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, even if they often side with the administration, say what they think. And O'Reilly would rather have another chance to beat up on the mainstream media and recognize that this time we weren't even criticizing him.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz.

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

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